“It was wrong to underestimate the ignorance of the ruling class.” —Graham Greene, The Confidential Agent
The old libel that the masses are too ignorant and irrational for democracy is having a moment. Elections of populist demagogues in the US, Brazil, India, and other countries, together with the failures of many democratically elected governments to respond adequately to crises such as climate change and COVID-19, seem to have vindicated the case against self-rule.
Democracy is in crisis, but not because of the fundamental stupidity of the masses, as the libel would have it. It is in crisis because of the evisceration, over the past 40 years, of any real democratic alternative to the status quo. Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative!” has turned out to be all too true. But if there is no alternative, then nobody can make good choices (or any meaningful choice at all). Democracy is not doomed because of some inherent flaw, or because of some inherent vice of the masses, it is undermined by contingent historical conditions that can be reversed, and must be if democracy (and anti-authoritarian politics of any kind) is going to survive.
There has always been a strong current of anti-democratic thinking in western culture. From Plato on, political thinkers have often offered their own contempt for the people as an objection to majoritarian rule. The position is essentially authoritarian; it is based on the notion that the majority—that we—cannot make our own decisions, and are better off if someone else chooses for us. And yet, terrible democratic decisions—the election of Trump, for example—in recent years have led many commentators across the political spectrum, and even some on the Left, to dredge up the stale idea that “democracy simply doesn’t work.” The idea can even be made to seem edgy today, because decades of abusing democratic ideals as a causus belli, and degrading it in domestic politics, has taught us to be cynical about it. Read more »
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. —Gramsci
Does a crisis show us what we are ‘really like’? Whether it does or not, it has already been instructive to experience this one, in which our institutions are being stress tested, perhaps to destruction. As many have noted, COVID-19 is a political and economic crisis as well as a medical one. Its size and complexity can leave us groping around for the right interpretive and predictive tools. There are a number of models that we can turn to to help us understand how we react, or might react, and these often rest on assumptions about ‘human nature’. The problem is that they don’t agree on some basics, and thus can’t all be right. So which is the best one to turn to in a crisis?
Two Views of Human Nature
The view of humans and their social arrangements associated with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is a bleak one: the human animal in the ‘state of nature’ – that is, without government or law – is in a state of constant war, or preparation for war, since no one can be sure of their own security. In the state of nature, life is ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, chapter XIII, 1651).Only a strong sovereign power can ensure peace by imposing it through force, or the threat of force. If the civil and political bonds of such a peace are broken, we can expect people to revert to type as self interested individuals, with “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes ): a return to the state of nature triggered by the breakdown of the central authority, driven by fear of the other and only restored by force or the threat of force. Read more »
If it hadn't been for the disaster that was George W. Bush, the worst president of our time would be that arch-neoliberal serial philanderer Bill Clinton.
Clinton was almost as crappy an a-hole as W.
George W killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi women and children in a monstrous war crime. Bill Clinton merely made the lives of millions of Americans utterly miserable.
1. How Bad Was Bill Clinton?
Breath in the stench from the pile of crap that Slick Willy stuffed up our nostrils.
He destroyed thousands of good American jobs by exporting them with NAFTA.
He created the 2008 Wall Street crash and the Great Recession when he signed the two laws that repealed Glass-Steagall and removed financial derivatives from all oversight — the two worst laws signed by any president ever.
Internationally, he refused to intervene in Rwanda, and allowed 800,000 Tutsis to be brutally genocided.
He exploded the size of our Black and Latino prison population with his harsh 1994 crime bill and the building of many privatized prisons.
He doubled the number of our poor with his welfare reforms (today 47 million Americans live in poverty, and over 20% of our kids are poor, a higher rate than any other developed nation).
Clinton's presidency left Americans jailed, poorer, and brutally screwed in every sensitive orifice. He forced many of us to eat an eternal shit sandwich, a record of destruction topped by George W. only because W committed the satanic war crime of the Iraq War.