What’s the matter with the United States Congress? Too much democracy? ? “Premature democracy”? If the 99% are dissatisfied with the status quo and it only benefits the 1%, why don’t they change it? What explains the Tea Party’s positions and its power? Need it be dealt with? How?
To put it another way: Why do we have serious problems of poverty, inequality, discrimination, poor education, unemployment, unaffordable housing, unaffordable health care, social aggressiveness and exclusion, insecurities of all sorts, all in a country that has the resources and claims the values to remedy them. Why then do they exist, why is not the government addressing them actively and effectively? Is the problem with our democracy?
Blog #29 suggests three answers; Blog #30 gives examples..
1) Political procedures and material development. Congress’s rules are quite democratic (small d). They are not so different, for instance, from those governing Occupy Wall Street’s General Assemblies, although they do need significant change. Nor is the material level of development that is sometimes held a prerequisite for democracy missing, although also needing significant change. Specifically, inequality in wealth permits undue influence to be exerted in the electoral and political processes, over and above procedural rules and practices.
2) Consciousness: Cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns. What keeps the 99% from acting in its own interests is the gross disparity in power between the 99% and the 1%, both in political governance and private wealth. It is power both reflected in and buttressed by a set of cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns, a consciousness, which results in substantial support for the 1% even among the 99%, a support represented by the tea party movement in the United States.
3) The need for radical/utopian critical challenges. Those patterns, and the material economic relations on which they are based, need to be addressed directly and frontally at the ideological level as well as the political and economic if fundamental change is to take place. Liberal reforms are needed. But they must ultimately challenge the underlying structural aspect of power which keeps the 1% where they are, even at the expense of being called utopian. The ideology and consciousness that must be challenged is represented, symbolically, by the tea parties and their elected representatives in political office. The challenge must be addressed front on.
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1) Political procedures and material development.
“Premature democracy” is a phrase Slavoj Žižek refers to in a provocative discussion of current criticisms of democracy. It suggests that you can’t expect democracy if the ground is not prepared for it.
There are many in the mainstream who so hold. They may allude to “failures of democracy” in countries recently moving from real existing socialism towards capitalism as in Eastern Europe and China, or in countries with deep ideological or religious cleavages, as in the Near East, or countries with deep ethnic or tribal divisions, as in parts of Africa. Perhaps some level of economic development is necessary before democracy can work, they argue. A significantly high level of nationalism supporting a unifying national identity may be necessary, others hold. Or a sufficiently sturdy set of institutions. Or a consensus on the very idea that democracy is desirable. Or simply time, experience with democracy in practice.
But the material developmental conditions for democracy in the United States seem to be sufficient. The evidence is overwhelming that the country has ample resources and productive capacity to feed, clothe, and decently house its entire population, and provide it with the material conditions of life adequate for the full and free development of all members of society. Living conditions that would have been considered utopian in any previous era, and that to many may still seem so today in comparison to what they experience, are in fact well within reach today. Lack of material actual productive capacity is not the problem.
Nor are the formal rules of political participation necessary in a democracy fundamentally lacking. A focus on the actual procedural rules being followed, both for voting in and for Congress, are a part, but only a part, of the problem. Pointing at the procedures Congress follows as undemocratic and requiring reform isn’t enough. Occupy Wall Street struggled to put into practice as thoroughly democratic a process as is to be found in public use today. It allowed for anyone wishing to speak at a meeting on an issue to speak, in the order requesting permission, it provided for voting by show of hands almost by request any time (and informally by hand gestures after any speaker), for super- majorities to carry a vote, and even then Occupy permitted anyone with deeply felt objections to block the result. Anyone displaying an interest was entitled to vote. Some objected that it was not a very efficient way of making decisions, but it was considered an affordable price to pay for a vibrant democracy, which indeed it was.
Surprisingly, Congress actually follows the rules Occupy uses pretty closely in practice. It isn’t that Congress’ formal procedures are non-democratic. Those that are, like gerrymandering or interference with the ability to vote, could all be changed by Congress if it wanted, even within existing procedures, to do so. It could regulate campaign expenditures more than it does, even given current Supreme Court rulings, and the impact of those expenditures depends on many factors other than their quantity.
The problem Congress faces goes beyond procedure. What Republicans do now that is called undemocratic, like the filibuster, Democrats might wish to be able to do if party strengths were reversed, and it is a form of protecting rights of small minorities. Arguably even removing the road-blocks to fairness in existing procedures would only make a marginal difference in the results, and going whole hog to the Occupy model might have even worse results. Apparently even the massive money sloshing around and used in the last election did not make a major difference. Private lobbying, given members of integrity, is not per se undemocratic.
Blaming “Congress” for the current impasse on budget expenditures and taxes, and arguing that a change of rules would solve the problem, is in any case fallacious. It is the position of the Republicans, and only some fraction of them, that is immediately to blame. Wherever the difficult line between the protection of minority rights and the implementation of majority desires might be drawn, few would argue on principled procedural grounds that it has been crossed. The filibuster rules in the Senate are perhaps the one exception, but even those can be changed under the Senate’s own rules as they now exist.
So it is not that Congress is fundamentally an undemocratic institution, but that it substantively reflects the fact that a significant part of the electorate disagrees significantly with the majority, a large enough part so that according them minority rights does not violate fundamental democratic precepts.
But does Congress really reflect the electorate? the hope for democracy in the United States premature?
That depends on how democratic the election process is, and thus on what the rules for electing members of Congress are. There are certainly large questions about how democratic those rules are. But the election of right-wing Republicans is not solely dependent on the bias in those rules. Conservatives benefit disproportionately from those rules, but their successes are only in part due to them. Certainly there are problems with registration procedures, with gerrymandering, with the Electoral College, big problems with access to the media and the role of money in elections. And certainly those rules can and should be made very much more democratic. The end result would be much more reflective of what one person – one vote would produce if all the ideal formal rules of democratic procedures were followed to the letter.
Yet one would have to admit that, if Obama squeaked through the 2012 election with a mere 52% of the votes on a moderately liberal platform, whether the percentage of votes going to a more challenging platform have been greater, or lesser, is an open question, even under procedurally better conditions.
So all of the necessary conditions for success by any of these standards exist in the United States, and none of the conditions predicting failure.
But the conditions need examination. Both the effectiveness of the procedural rules of democracy, and the benefits of the existing productive capacity, are dependent on the distribution of power that lies underneath them, and that in turn is determined by something other than sheer numbers involved in voting or in production.
2) Consciousness: Cultural, ideological, and behavioral patterns.
If all rules achieved perfect democracy, there would be, in today’s United States, a substantial minority that would support the position of the right wing Republicans, say of the Tea Party. It is substantial even if only 8% of voters consider themselves Tea Party members (already a significant number, since membership implies active support, not simply voting), but according to polls 30% look favorably on it, and only 49% do not. It is a large enough minority to be entitled to a substantial role in the deliberations of any democratic body, even with discounts for all the undemocratic elements contributing to its electoral strength. If there is substance, even if not mathematical accuracy, behind Occupy’s slogan: “we are the 99%, they are the 1%” why do 48% of the electorate vote with the 1%? Are their votes “freely” cast?
The argument is strong that voters are not free to decide for whom to vote, in any but a limited formal procedural sense. The votes of a substantial number today do not reflect their actual material interests, or the results would be much closer to the 99%/1% split of Occupy. As Arundhati Roy frequently says, “We are many, and they are few.” Material interests are important, and material inequality stands in the way of a full actual realization of material equality, a realization sharp enough to determine a vote. Voters are in fact very unequal and those at the losing end of inequality are not free in their voting.
To be fully free, voters would have to be in a position to have access to and interpret the necessary information free of manipulation by others. They would have to be free of material pressures forcing a vote against long-term interests, requiring a suppression of actual preferences in favor of satisfaction of immediate needs. That would require a higher level of material equality than we have today, one at least guaranteeing for all some minimum threshold, of income, education, health, personal security, the effective ability to exercise political, social, and economic rights. Material burdens get in the way, in a vicious circle, of the ability to comprehend the cause of those burdens. Even for Tea Party members not immediately subject to direct want, the worry about the future, interpreted for them by others in so many ways, has the same effect as if it were actually fully present today, whether or not its danger is in fact real, as it is for some.
These material burdens could, theoretically, be changed immediately by the strong concerted action of the 99% that would benefit from change. Yet the strength of the labor movement, which might be taken as one indicator of the power of that 99%, is weaker today than it was at any time since the New Deal, and the militancy of social movements today is demonstrably less than it was then. But even a return to New Deal levels of political and social action seems remote today.
The problem has a deeper dimension. Even, say, a return to the social provisions of the New Deal, or even of the most social welfare oriented countries of Europe today, would likely make a limited difference. Such provisions might deal with one dimension of the problem, but a deeper dimension would remain: the ideological/psychological. It is the blocked dimension of the consciousness of alternatives. The blockages keep individuals from realizing, from visualizing, what the alternatives might be to the problematic situations they face now. Other dimensions deal with what the relations among people would be in a truly equal society, what alternatives for the organization of society might exist, what other motivations besides profit might drive the economic engine – and what individual values might provide satisfaction with one’s life.
The realization of these alternate dimensions is blocked by characteristics imposed subtly but pervasively on individuals in our present society: the felt need to consume ever more goods, live in ever bigger houses, compete forever for greater incomes and wealth and power. Culture is a weak name for the pattern. Ideology, the explicit formulation of the rationale behind the system as it is, is another contributor to the blockages. Ideologies are of course directly connected to material relations, but not automatically, and are part cause as well as consequence of the material, and retain an independent and growing role in the nature of the order of society. As long as these characteristics of the present social and economic relations persist, political relations will be subject to their influence, and the steps from 52% voting majorities to close to 99% voting majorities will be blocked.
3) The blockage of radical/utopian critical challenges.
The first task to achieve real democracy is to remove the rules and procedures that prevent us from having a truer democracy, and the second is to reduce the power of those who create and benefit from the inequality of others. But undertaking those tasks needs to keep in mind the third task, opening awareness to the further dimension that is possible, the alternative dimension, perhaps seen as utopian today, but yet completely possible given the productive capacity our society has achieved. Immediate gains need to be linked firmly to a vision of the full potentials of a democratic society.
The problem of the tea party—of a response to the problems with which the existing system seems incapable of dealing—is one embodiment of what needs to be dealt with. The tea party is made up of many diverse types, and supported financially by some in different positions but having a vested interest in its success. For an apparent majority, the liberal side, the apparent slight majority within the 99%, the system produces enough to prevent reactions of desperation for material change, and provides enough immediate benefits to suppress troubling consciousness of underlying problems mentioned at the beginning. More, its benefits block visualization of how change could fundamentally create the better society necessary to deal with those problems.
The tea party reacts to those deep-seated problems from the right, as the discussion here reacts from the left. Lacking a vision of a different future, it looks to the past it believes it had, realistically or not. It embeds the concerns it does have in a framework that past, one which includes belief in what it considers free markets, competitiveness, individual responsibility, the value of consumption, small government, nationalism verging on imperialism. That ideological frame needs to be criticized, explicitly and directly. But for most in the tea party, that frame is probably best not criticized at the beginning, but rather starting from a base of agreement on the problems and some immediate steps towards solution on which agreement can be reached, then linking those steps to a critique of a frame in which they ought to be embedded, showing how logically the immediate leads to more and more radical and even utopian visions of what in the long run needs to be done.
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Conclusion: The first task to achieve real democracy is to remove the rules and procedures that prevent us from having a truer democracy. That will help with the second task, but is not sufficient for it: to reduce the power of those who create and benefit from the inequality of others. Undertaking those tasks needs to keep in mind the third task, which again will help with the first two: opening awareness to the further dimension that is possible, the alternative dimension, radical and perhaps seen as utopian today, but yet completely possible given the productive capacity our society has achieved. Immediate gains need to be linked firmly to transformative proposals based on a vision of the full potentials of a democratic society.
That is the third task that needs to be undertaken. Blog #30 addresses how this third task might be addressed, with some examples intended as provocations rather than full-fledged proposals.
 I have elsewhere written of this, following the reasoning of Herbert Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation, as the need for the “liberation of consciousness.” See my article in Andrew Lamas, Ed, Occupy Consciousness: Reading the 1960s and Occupy Wall Street with Herbert Marcuse, in Radical Philosophy Review, Volume 16, 2013, forthcoming.