Manuel suggested I read Norberto Bobbio, an Italian socialist writer on democracy. So I picked up his “Which Socialism?” In it, Bobbio argues that there’s no necessary connection between democracy and socialism. Contrary to what socialists would like to believe, democracy doesn’t automatically happen in a socialist economy. And also, democracies don’t automatically evolve towards socialism. He thinks that socialists should pay as much attention to democratic theory and practice as liberals. He thinks the socialist dismissal of liberal democratic theory as simply ‘bourgeois’ is too summary. And worst of all, it can lead to a certain contempt of democracy on the part of socialists. And why hasn’t socialist theory included more theorizing about the state and democratic arrangements? Probably because in socialist theory, the state is supposed to wither away, so why spend a lot of effort figuring out how something is supposed to work when it’s supposed to wither away anyway?
“Which Socialism?” had a few other interesting ideas, especially Bobbio’s 4 paradoxes of democracy. These are 1) that direct democracy is difficult in small organizations, but almost impossible in large ones. Pg.69 has this very interesting quote:
“Direct, or ‘Athenian’, democracy, which was revived by the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s, has almost always been deceptive: it consists, on the one hand, of an assembly whose function is limited, limited more severely in some respects than that of the worst parliaments, to ratifying (often by acclamation) the decisions of the executive as expressed in motions; on the other hand, of an executive, the basis of whose power is charismatic (in the technical sense of the word according to which ‘charismatic is contrasted with ‘democratic’), and whose power is far more immovable and irresistible than that of any executive of a representative body.”
The second paradox 2) is that a more comprehensive democracy requires a more comprehensive administration. “To extend democracy means extending bureaucracy” (pg. 70-71).
The third paradox 3) is the conflict between a technological society where decision-making power is based on expert knowledge and a democracy. This one has been troubling me a lot recently. Pg. 71: “Technocracy is the government of experts, i.e. government by people who are only competent in one area, but know this area well, or at least are supposed to. Democracy is government by everyone, i.e. by people who are meant to make decisions, not on the basis of technical expertise, but in the light of their own experience. The protagonist of industrial society is the scientist, the specialist. The protagonist of democratic society is the ordinary citizen, the man or woman in the street.”
I thought about this problem a lot as I read a book by a business writer named Douglas Hubbard called “How to Measure Anything”. In it, Hubbard argues that everything should be measured. He proposes that if it matters, it’s observable, if observable, it can be measured. Hubbard argues that decisions need to be made based on quantitative information – based on measurements. To those who have the objection to measurement that measurement is arbitrary and can be used to prove anything, Hubbard replies “what they really mean is numbers can be used to confuse people, especially the gullible ones lacking basic skills with numbers” (pg. 35). Answering Stephen Jay Gould (the famous biologist who wrote an amazing book about IQ testing called “The Mismeasure of Man”), Hubbard argues that IQ is measurable, and that since mercury poisoning reduces IQ, that its measurement, and public health decisions based on it, are important. Hubbard’s book is the ultimate example of Bobbio’s third paradox of democracy. If decisions are to be made based on solid numbers and measurements, where is the room for democracy? What decisions should not be made based on numbers and measurements, especially if everything that matters can be measured? No answer for now – I move to Bobbio’s 4th paradox.
The fourth paradox of democracy is 4) that mass society and democracy are in conflict. Pg 72: “The indoctrination characteristic of mass societies tends to repress and suppress the individual’s sense of personal responsibility which is the corner-stone of a democratic society. A highly efficient media machine aims to reduce to a minimum the area reserved for personal and rational choices, for convictions which do not rely on instant emotional reactions or the passive imitation of others.”
Bobbio asserts that any socialist society would have to deal with these paradoxes just like the liberal ones do, and possibly other paradoxes too.
I had a fun diversion reading Slavoj Zizek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce”. I find Zizek a lot of fun, especially to watch in talks and debates. His argument in this little book, from what I can tell, is that it would be better if there was a left, and it’s too bad that there isn’t one. I agree. It kind of puts Bobbio’s ideas in perspective to remember that.
Speaking of which, I also read Chris Hedges’s “Death of the Liberal Class”. It’s laid out in a very similar way to “Empire of Illusion” which I also read (and liked). “Death” is pretty pessimistic, but also makes the point that things would be better if there was a left. Hedges takes it way back to the 1930s and before, arguing that the liberal class did its best work when there was an actual left. Then the liberal class made a deal with the corporate state to destroy the left, which kind of made it superfluous as well. He cited a couple of interesting books that I looked up: Russell Jacoby’s “The End of Utopia” and Ellen Schrecker’s “Many are the Crimes”. Schrecker’s book is about the destruction of the US left, specifically by McCarthyism, and the shambles that it left behind. Jacoby’s book is a real motivation for the kind of ParEcon ideas that you can find on ZNet – he argues that the left has given up on the idea that a better world is possible. Interestingly, he argues that multiculturalism is a sign of this giving up – the celebration of diversity is at least in part a failure to be prescriptive, as in ‘we don’t have any ideas in particular, so we celebrate all of them’. Meanwhile, I think of Bobbio’s book as motivation for the ParPolity project done by Stephen Shalom, Brian Dominick, and others – who have spent lots of time trying to think of political arrangements for a good society.
Since everything dirty and clean that goes on in the world happens in the name of democracy, it’s worth thinking about what it means and why it’s so hard to really do.
I will leave with a random thought: Bobbio’s thoughts about direct democracy reminded me that I had a dream of some kind of ParEcon game, where you could see what kinds of proposals came back from people by putting in your own. Direct democracy games where people formulated and voted on anything and everything in a game world would also be interesting practice (these kinds of things were what appealed to me about Daniel Suarez’s fiction books Daemon and FreedomTM). It seems like doing one of these in Second Life or through Facebook or a custom platform would be technologically feasible, possibly fun, and very interesting to study, if a lot of people were to get interested in them.