Is the Praxis of Democracy Plutocracy?
I just finished reading an article about a centurion scholar from China and it brought to mind a previous conversation I had about communism and democracy. The conversation had a lot to do with opinionated scholars in the countries of China, Sweden and the U.S. It focused particularly on differences in culture, group cognition, social psychology and political theory. The conversation quickly came to an impasse as we both felt extremely limited in how we might be able to speak on behalf of others, whose experiences we do not know.
Who am I, born and raised under the blanket of a western democracy, to critique that which I do not know or have not experienced? My perception and point of view has been shaped by that which surrounds me, as well as my own dialectic reflexivity – nature and nurture. I am, admittedly, biased by the environment that has helped to mold and chisel my current cognition and this cognition lacks any experience of Communist China. Sure, my opinion could be well read, but I am limited to what I’ve read or learned through others – not from my own experience or perspective. Put differently, without an experiential ‘nurture’ under Communism, my opinion would appear to be a one sided ethnology based on political theory rather than an informed, experiential ethnographic understanding that strives to portray different views in practice. Even then, I’m STILL biased by my first 29 years of living under Western Democracy.
Of course, what we know and what we don’t know will drastically shape our opinions. I would particularly like to place focus on the psychological cognition of what we know and don’t know. For example, if I know that my government is censoring information from me about something, this “known unknown” will shape my opinion in how I feel about my government (with or without the information that is censored).
Instead of critiquing that which I know that I don’t know (i.e. Chinese Communism in practice), I find it more fitting to look at the praxis of western democracy. How is democracy, from theory to practice, actualized or not? Many of us in the west are so quick to judge other political systems without questioning our own from the point of comparison. Democratic theory posits that “all people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives” (Diamond & Plattner 2006).
Theories, like war plans, never turn out the way that they are proposed to once set in practice (See Tolstoy’s, War and Peace). The realities of future uncertainties and ‘surprise’ always prevail over theory. Otherwise, we would be able to predict the future – something many positivist, “objective” scientist seem to be striving to do by controlling all the variables in a study (a discussion I’ll leave for another post).
We currently live in a globalized world where the decisions that are made nationally have international consequences (arguably, they always have – only more obviously so, nowadays). As a Swedish friend of mine told me, “Swedes should also be able to vote in American elections because the decisions that are made in the U.S. will affect Swedes as well.” I could not disagree. Though, I pointed out that even those of us who can vote in the U.S. are limited to a select few, a social elite who, as candidates, must be able to afford to participate in the electorate.
Already, those of us who may be able to vote are not given the option of an ‘equal say’ if the options available 1) cannot fully represent our opinions in “decisions that affect our lives” because 2) they are limited (or corralled) into having to appease those who possess an economic wealth that is essential in order to reinforce their own participation in an electorate. Under this premise alone, the praxis of democracy functions as a plutocracy, ruled by a wealthy elite. To give a contextual example, how is it that 75% of the people in the U.S. currently believe that the rich (those who make over 1 million dollars a year) should be more heavily taxed, yet congress is not willing to pass any form of taxation? Representation of the people? or the plutocrat? If anything, this says something about a “known unknown” shaping our own opinions (definitely those who are occupying wallstreet) regarding our so-called democracy.
How can we have a ‘true’ democracy? Is it even possible? I suggest we begin looking into what it is we actually value and begin questioning the ontological foundation of how we value it. A good reflexive example for this question is Midas’s touch (everything he touched turned to gold but this became a problem when he tried to eat. Have you tried to eat money?).
A great interview by Sheldon Wolin discusses our current non-democracy (starting around 3:45). He calls it “inverted totalitarianism” because we’re not being ruled by a dictator. Power is being expressed and abused through a corporate capitalism.