Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In Which I Champion Inefficient Unprofitable Messy "Massarchy," Whatever That's Supposed to Be

Upgraded and edited from Comments

It probably goes without saying that I cannot agree with the conclusion of my interlocutor "peco" from our conversation in MundiMoot yesterday, that what he is calling "massarchy" (and which he later admits is roughly a neologism, for whatever reason, for "democracy") is in any sense worse than oligarchy.

As a secular democrat I believe strongly that all people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them.

He (yes, I'm assuming that the pseudonymous "peco" is a "he") seems to disagree with that. I honestly cannot grasp how one squares any sense of basic human dignity or autonomy worth having with an indifference to all people having a say in public decisions that affect them.

I can only assume that anyone holding such a view either hasn't thought very clearly about their own vulnerability to abuse wherever such indifference prevails (despite the obviousness of this vulnerability exhibited in the world we actually are living in right here and right now wherever and precisely to the extent that democratic ideals are denigrated or diluted). Perhaps they simply assume this because of the accidents of their personal wealth, position, or privileges that they will always be, as they are now, one of the relatively lucky ones who will always have a say in a world in which not everybody has one.

"peco" worries that democracy as a guiding notion makes governance too beholden to "opinion." As it happens "opinion" is foundational in literally every form of government, inasmuch as governance is always governance of human plurality, and the ineradicable diversity of opinion is an expression of that plurality. This isn't a consideration relevant to just one notion of politics. Rather, grasping the fact of plurality and the diversity of opinion constitutes the point of departure for political thinking as such (as opposed to thinking in other modes like science, morals, aesthetics, ethics, and so on).

Politics is, recall, the ongoing reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders with whom one shares the world. This worldly sharing is a thin and fraught matter, the "inter-esse" or being in the inter-subjective in-between in the midst of subjects, objects, and abjects that yields intelligible shared interests (think of the "interested" inter-implication of people by way of their shared dependence on the perishable environment, their shared vulnerability to criminal, military, and politice violence, their shared imbrication in global developmental circuits of production and trade, their shared susceptibility to interpretation via personal information accessible in online networks, their shared imbrication in history and diaspora), an interested inclusion thinner by far than the thick but indispensably more exclusive sharings on which moral identification or aesthetic sympathy depend for their substance.

This thin worldly share of the political inter-esse, arising out of our shared internment in a plurality of interested peers is the substance of all political forms, not just democratic ones. Even baldly authoritarian forms of governance organized by the opinions of particular elite minorities over all others still have to take into account the plurality of interests and opinions, if only to police their expression and control the organization and resistances that arise from that plurality.

This seems an especially relevant point in addressing "peco's" concerns inasmuch as his preference for "profitable" governance that, above all else, "works" (a strong preference that seems rather curiously to refrain from indicating what counts as "working," apart from an insistence that whatever "working" means it certainly has nothing to do with pesky notions like "legitimacy" that bedevil my own political thinking), seems to connect with his worries about the messy opinionated masses of democratic "massarchies" as well as with his desire for more "efficient" modes of governance. Needless to say, whenever one calls up the unmoored non-contextualized value of "efficiency" in a moment like this it is necessary to remind ourselves that "efficiency" is always efficiency -- in the service of which ends among others? efficiency -- in the service of whose ends among others?

For example, if democratically minded people like me insist that all people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them and if we go on to describe as an "optimal" political outcome any one that nonviolently reconciles the diversity of expressed ends of the stakeholders to a developmental question by their own lights, then something that is likely to look quite "inefficient" from the perspective of, say, profit-minded people looking to make some people more profit in this developmental situation, might instead look enormously "efficient" in fact to the more democratically-minded folks, that is, I'll venture to say, to the actual majority who would prefer a say over the minority who would prefer a personal profit.

I have to say that the valorized attitudes toward "profit" and "efficiency" together with vilified attitudes toward "opinion" and "legitimacy" and "masses" in "peco's" account give me the queasy feeling that fairly straightforward rightwing reactionary bullshit is circling down the discursive drain here.

I think it is disastrous to say the least to try to organize governance with an eye to parochial profit making rather than to the legitimacy of democratic process and informed, nonduressed consent. And I mean that word in the literal sense in which anti-democratic profit-hungry governance authored or at any rate incomparably exacerbated the disastrous occupation of Iraq, the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, and so on.

To put the point more nicely, what passes for "profit" is simply a catastrophically impoverished indicator of the fraught and complex demands of the public good on a planetary scale and over generational timescales; just as what passes for a "market exchange" tends to be a catastrophically impoverished indicator of whether an act of consent is truly an informed and nonduressed one.

An outright fetishization of so-called spontaneous orders and market machineries and profit-taking processes regarded as political panacaea seems to me to have been the principal intellectual (in stricto senso anti-intellectual) blight of the last 25 years or so. I believe that this market fundamentalist neoliberal tide is turning at last, and by way of conclusion I will offer "peco" and others of like mind the friendly advice that they will do well to attend carefully to the significance of these shifts as they continue to try to get away with whatever it is they are trying to get away with.

1 comment:

peco said...

Will you read the full blog post? It's long and hard to explain.

Yes, profit is not the best indicator, but it is the best objective indicator available.

Massarchy is not necessarily democracy. (The blog post explains it better than I could.) A democracy has elections, but a massarchy is ultimately controlled by public opinion. A democracy could have symbolic elections, and it wouldn't be a massarchy.

Yes, I am a "he."

Why should you care about having a say in the world?

Public opinion (basically politics)...

Politics is, recall, the ongoing reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders with whom one shares the world. This worldly sharing is a thin and fraught matter, the "inter-esse" or being in the inter-subjective in-between in the midst of subjects, objects, and abjects that yields intelligible shared interests (think of the "interested" inter-implication of people by way of their shared dependence on the perishable environment, their shared vulnerability to criminal, military, and politice violence, their shared imbrication in global developmental circuits of production and trade, their shared susceptibility to interpretation via personal information accessible in online networks, their shared imbrication in history and diaspora), an interested inclusion thinner by far than the thick but indispensably more exclusive sharings on which moral identification or aesthetic sympathy depend for their substance.

Yes. It also has some bad effects that are mentioned in the blog post (mainly, politically convenient beliefs spread, even if they are wrong).

This seems an especially relevant point in addressing "peco's" concerns inasmuch as his preference for "profitable" governance that, above all else, "works" (a strong preference that seems rather curiously to refrain from indicating what counts as "working," apart from an insistence that whatever "working" means it certainly has nothing to do with pesky notions like "legitimacy" that bedevil my own political thinking), seems to connect with his worries about the messy opinionated masses of democratic "massarchies" as well as with his desire for more "efficient" modes of governance. Needless to say, whenever one calls up the unmoored non-contextualized value of "efficiency" in a moment like this it is necessary to remind ourselves that "efficiency" is always efficiency -- in the service of which ends among others? efficiency -- in the service of whose ends among others?

You can define "works" however you want, as long as it does not include "legitimacy" (it can include anything else). Efficiency in the service of the shareholders, and probably others if it helps the shareholders.

I have to say that the valorized attitudes toward "profit" and "efficiency" together with vilified attitudes toward "opinion" and "legitimacy" and "masses" in "peco's" account give me the queasy feeling that fairly straightforward rightwing reactionary bullshit is circling down the discursive drain here.

Rightwing reactionary non-bullshit...

I think it is disastrous to say the least to try to organize governance with an eye to parochial profit making rather than to the legitimacy of democratic process and informed, nonduressed consent. And I mean that word in the literal sense in which anti-democratic profit-hungry governance authored or at any rate incomparably exacerbated the disastrous occupation of Iraq, the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, and so on.

A democratic government would have the right goals but be inefficient in carrying them out. A for-profit corporate government would have an acceptable goal and be much more efficient. The blog post will explain it better...

An outright fetishization of so-called spontaneous orders and market machineries and profit-taking processes regarded as political panacaea seems to me to have been the principal intellectual (in stricto senso anti-intellectual) blight of the last 25 years or so. I believe that this market fundamentalist neoliberal tide is turning at last, and by way of conclusion I will offer "peco" and others of like mind the friendly advice that they will do well to attend carefully to the significance of these shifts as they continue to try to get away with whatever it is they are trying to get away with.

If I had to choose two forms of government, I would choose MM's idea and yours. I think I would prefer MM's idea, though.