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View Full Version : The structural illusions of democrats



k-punk
03-02-2005, 11:08 PM
There are two hidden, superficially contradictory, premises in the arguments of those who defend democracy.

The first is that democracy is the best that we can expect. This, in turn, depends on further unstated premises: that human beings are basically venal and self-centred, so that any attempt to build a system based on justice and equity will inevitably fail. This is further based upon the view that there is a fixed and invariant human nature, a view for which there is no evidence, scientific or othwerwise.

The second is that democracy is the endpoint of a history that is progressive. John Gray has showed that, for all its protestations of secular commonsense, the west treats this an article of faith, even though it is no better supported than the most 'irrational' religious beliefs. The racial, if not to say, racist, underpinnings of the belief that non-western societies will inevitably progress to 'become like us' ought to be obvious.

But how can these two beliefs - the one suggesting that nothing can develop, the other arguing that development is inevitable - be held simultaneously?

To answer that, we have to get to grips with the structural delusion at the heart of the Progressive view. The Progress that is pointed to has not already achieved, but always ABOUT TO BE achieved. Yes, things are 'imperfect' now - i.e. deeply corrupt, unrepresentative, dominated by vested interests and the superwealthy - but they will, at some unspecified time in the future, improve. This thought legitimates any amount of violence, since such violence, whilst ostensibly deplorable, is part of the current state of 'imperfection', and will fade away once the Progress it helps to bring about is achieved.

So, the apparent optimism of the Progressive view offsets the bleak nihilism of the view that human nature is fixed and final. It functions psychologically, not logically. The current mess and inequity can be tolerated because it is only temporary. But of course this 'temporary' period lasts indefinitely.

And if there is any direction to the development of democratic cultures, it is not 'Progressive'. The pious moralising about 'apathetic Britons' not voting whilst 'brave Iraqis' go the polls shows the real tendency in democracy, which is towards popular disengagement. Needless to say, there are very good reasons why many Brtions won't vote in the upcoming election. They know perfectly well that voting makes no difference. As Robin Cook wrote in the Standard on Monday - in a few honest paragraphs before returning to party political chaunvinism - most people are NOT apathetic. They just recognize that capitalist parliamentarianism has little to do with politics in any meaningful sense.

henrymiller
04-02-2005, 08:39 AM
Obviously the 'belief' of Blair and Bush that elections in Iraq justify everything and that 'democracy' within its obvious limits is the best we can expect for a social system (in fact it's just a means of legitimation) is rubbish.

But beyond this, I'm not sure who is arguing


that democracy is the endpoint of a history that is progressive. John Gray has showed that, for all its protestations of secular commonsense, the west treats this an article of faith, even though it is no better supported than the most 'irrational' religious beliefs. The racial, if not to say, racist, underpinnings of the belief that non-western societies will inevitably progress to 'become like us' ought to be obvious.

And I'm also unsure about this throwing around of the term racist. As a communist, if 'the West' had tried to spread communism to the rest of the world, would that be racist or white supermacist? After all, communism was an internationalist creed based on universalist values. It's important to be careful in dividing 'West' from 'rest' of course, but this is precisely what you have done here in assuming that non-Western societies have no laws of motion of their own, that their own 'progress' is all a matter of white-west interventionism.

It may be tacky, but are you really prepared to write off *everything* that democracy has achieved in the West?

jaybob
04-02-2005, 08:55 AM
People are very happy to throw around the convenient and eminently quotable parts of John Gray's arguments - namely, that modern Western culture's belief in progress is no more than judaeo-Christian eschatology stripped of the belief in original sin. However, his alternative to his much derided version of liberal, post-humanist capitalism is a vicious, centralised Hobbesian state in which individual liberty is always subsumed to the need for that state to remain strong. Gray has attempted to dismantle the whole concept of human rights. He sees objections to, for example, imprisonment without trial or trial without juries as frivolous.

bat020
04-02-2005, 09:25 AM
They just recognize that capitalist parliamentarianism has little to do with politics in any meaningful sense.

One could add that it has little to do with democracy in any meaningful sense.

johneffay
04-02-2005, 09:30 AM
People are very happy to throw around the convenient and eminently quotable parts of John Gray's arguments
I'd like to know where John Gray's arguments actually are. Straw Dogs is just a set of assertions, the majority of which are neither new nor particularly interesting. Is it a popularised version of more in-depth work, or is he really all just piss and wind?

henrymiller
04-02-2005, 09:34 AM
to stoop to psychologism, gray is trying to make amends for the none-more-progress minded views he held as an arch-thatcherite free-marketeer in the '80s.

jaybob
04-02-2005, 11:06 AM
'Heresies' and 'the Two Faces of Liberalism' are a fair approximiation of his political thought.

luka
04-02-2005, 11:12 AM
'This, in turn, depends on further unstated premises: that human beings are basically venal and self-centred, so that any attempt to build a system based on justice and equity will inevitably fail. This is further based upon the view that there is a fixed and invariant human nature, a view for which there is no evidence, scientific or othwerwise.'

this is the bit i find the most weird. it just doesn't follow. maybe i don't read enough philosophy.
i mean, regardless of what i believe, couldn't a democrat say, for example, while there is no fixed and invariant human nature, humans do embody a set of potentialites, included in which is a capacity for greed and self-interest. when you have a population of billions you will almost certianly have millions acting and thinking in ways which are 'basically venal and self centered' at any one time, just as you'll have people acting in ways which are selfless and well meaning.
that's not the same as saying everybody in the world is exactly the same and will be that way forever is it?

i dunno, maybe i'm missing something.

henrymiller
04-02-2005, 11:17 AM
actually, the mistake is that k-punk is not being structuralist. the problem with bashing utopian political projects with the stick that humans are self-centred and venal is not so much that this posits an unchanging human nature (what a terrible assumption! perhaps if proven we should all not breed, um), more that said view of the world is anthropocentric, that human character is the ultimate source of history.

luka
04-02-2005, 11:33 AM
oh, ok then.

owen
04-02-2005, 03:18 PM
humans do embody a set of potentialites, included in which is a capacity for greed and self-interest. when you have a population of billions you will almost certianly have millions acting and thinking in ways which are 'basically venal and self centered' at any one time, just as you'll have people acting in ways which are selfless and well meaning.

maybe so, but surely an economic system based on self-interest leads to, er, lots of self-interest. conditions determining consciousness and all that

K-punk is mostly pretty spot on about the inadequacies and illusions of represenatative democracy, but there's a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, if you'll excuse the expression

I know its an area where his knowledge isn't exactly tip-top, but these bits of this essay are still kindof pertinent-

http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch05.htm
http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/ch04.htm

luka
04-02-2005, 03:41 PM
er, i don't understand. you lot talk amongst youreslves, i'll find something else to do

owen
04-02-2005, 03:53 PM
oi luka i thought my first point was pretty blunt.

the links were just from rosa luxemburg on the bolsheviks and democracy, which was partly a petty dig at k-p for his comments a couple of days ago, and partly cos i thought it was interesting on what is worth salvaging in 'democracy'.

i didn't mean to be obscure...

k-punk
05-02-2005, 06:01 AM
One could add that it has little to do with democracy in any meaningful sense.

But I think this presupposes that there is a 'real' 'radical' democracy beneath and beyond the actual corrupt and compromised democracy we always experience. Isn't that, precisely, one of the structural illusions of democrats?

As for Gray, yes, his own alternative to democracy is none too appealing. But his analysis of the cult of Progressivism is highly important.

k-punk
05-02-2005, 06:11 AM
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I know its an area where his knowledge isn't exactly tip-top,


On the basis of that Tsar thing? :D But that alleged 'mistake' has been utterly refuted.

As for baby and bathwater: some form of representative democracy may be necessary but is far from being sufficient.