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

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Slater on the Efficiency of Democracy

Philip Slater has an interesting column up at the Huffington Post today, entitled "The Neo-con Misunderstanding of Democracy and Why It Will Undo Them."

“The Bush administration talks a lot about democracy,” he writes, “but it doesn't seem to have a clue what it's really about[.]” Truer words have rarely been spoken, of course, but what I want to focus my attention on for the moment is what Slater proposes democracy is all about for those who “have a clue”: “it's more efficient in today's world.” Now, it is not my intention in the least to deny that democracy is a more efficient way to organize public enterprises than authoritarianism is, nor to deny that such considerations are relevant to the discussion of the benefits of democracy in the world. I wouldn’t even want to deny the force of the point he makes a moment later, namely, that “democracy hasn't been spreading throughout the world because some woolly idealists thought it would be a sweet thing to do.” But I am not at all sure I accept the conjuration of “democracy… spreading throughout the world” as a description of the actual world we actually live on in the first place, not sure that I am willing to settle for a “democracy” construed foremost as a vehicle for efficiency (especially without specifying the ends for which all this efficiency is presumably being mobilized), nor am I sure that democracy so construed will do the analytic work Slater is asking of it in this argument of his.

“The neo-cons don't see democracy as a system of de-centralized organization. For the neo-cons it's just a way of selecting a dictator by plebescite.” Of course, these are scarcely the only two options for those who would announce a public commitment to democracy. Slater suggests that the neo-cons get democracy wrong, however much they claim to act in its name whenever they want to drop bombs and loot countries abroad or dismantle and loot vital domestic programs, and it is easy to agree with him about that. But it is harder to agree with what he seems to have in mind when he claims to get democracy "right."

Democracy in its most general sense -- the sense that is so widely shared that few sensible people find it objectionable at all however difficult they may find it to live up to -- simply names the idea that people should have a real say in the public decisions that affect them. The truth is that “democracy” in this widest and most widely affirmed sense is a rather thin abstraction indeed, one that is presumably implemented in any number of possible social arrangements, discerned in any number of ongoing developments, endorsed by partisans of any number of constituencies and viewpoints.

How do we choose among these variations? How do we discern which of these broadly democratizing developments are the most promising ones, the most emancipatory ones? How do we know when an apparent champion of democracy is struggling to give people as much of a real say in the public decisions that affect them as possible and how do we know when an apparent champion of democracy is just manufacturing consent to prop up elites, managing the inevitable stresses of unfairness, exploitation, and stigma as efficiently and economically as possible for their primary beneficiaries?

I will admit that I am little reassured by the case Slater makes here. After rightly decrying the authoritarian ambitions stealthed obscenely beneath the banner of “democracy” in the Bush Administration, and then discerning a “contrary” tide of democratization driven by “practical” considerations rather than idealism (which he derides as “get[ting] religion” where democracy is concerned), Slater starts to fill in some of the details in this picture he has been sketching.

“[C]orporations been busy decentralizing power and flattening their hierarchies -- especially in the electronics industry…. What they've all come to realize is that in today's world of chronic, rapid, technological and social change, authoritarianism is maladaptive.” He continues on in this vein: “Decentralization is a way of speeding up adaptation to changing conditions. Authoritarian systems are too slow, rigid, and clumsy. People in the field need to be able to make decisions quickly without referring everything up the line to people who know less than they do about what's going on.” Again, I am the last person in the world to deny that democracy is incomparably better suited than authoritarianism and conservatism are to cope with a “world of chronic, rapid technological and social change,” but one need only contemplate the pernicious concentration of wealth that accompanied the emergence of the high-tech corporations Slater is lionizing here, or contemplate the fact that few people go to work in even the most pleasant corporations because that is where they feel most free before one begins to wonder just what Slater himself may be peddling himself in the name of “democracy” here.

More examples follow, and in each one the contours seem to me all-too familiar from arguments with facile market libertarian triumphalists starry-eyed with faith in the “spontaneous orders” that will surely effloresce the moment we dislodge the gunk (too often, I fear, simply a matter of ignoring the demands of fellow citizen stakeholders whom the triumphalists happen to disdain or with whom they simply disagree) that restrains the free flow of “innovation,” “openness,” “out-of-the-box” thinking and such and so on we have come to expect from the winners of “free enterprise” in its present construal, or from those who identify with the winners however little likely they are number among them in reality.

I am not claiming, of course, that Slater is a market libertarian triumphalist himself -- it is pretty obvious in fact that he is not -- but I am claiming that much of the life and plausibility that may appear to attach to his ideas in this particular formulation partakes in a broader rhetoric of market naturalist triumphalism that has played havoc in an era of corporate-militarist globalization, and, further, that market fundamentalist ideologues (whether neoconservative or neoliberal) are all well consoled by formulations such as his, however much they might disapprove his specific motivation or desired outcomes.

Democracy’s efficiency, Slater proposes, “[i]s why -- as Dan Baum reported from Iraq -- junior officers there created their own web site to exchange knowledge and ideas, since by the time their questions had gone up through the army hierarchy and the advice or information had come back down again, what they got back was usually dated, ignorant, and irrelevant.” Further, “[t]he inefficiency of authoritarian systems is the reason the Soviet Union collapsed -- Warren Bennis and I predicted that collapse in 1964, in an article in the Harvard Business Review called ‘Democracy Is Inevitable.’” Again, I have no quarrel with these points, except to point out that they are not the end of the story and hardly constitute even the beginning of the story. And would it be mean for me to call our attention for a moment to the countless millions upon millions of people who have struggled and continue to struggle and die in variously authoritarian regimes (some of them democracies at least in their own minds, some of them market orders at least in certain textbook construals of the form) in the years since 1964 (a year before I was even born) when the triumph of “democracy” was declared “inevitable” and to wonder in what sense “inevitability” offers any kind of intelligible relevance or consolation in such a case -– especially when the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, whatever good it did, hardly constitutes the happiest narrative of emancipatory democratization on offer, surely?

“Much of the private sector got the message. So did many nations around the world,” Slater somewhat smugly declaims. The further I make my own way through his argument, however, I fear “the message” may be lost on me. “[T]he Bush administration has responded to every crisis by creating mammoth, topheavy, centralized bureaucracies headed by a ‘czar.’ (To be fair, they didn't invent this particular piece of stupidity -- it's been standard Washington practice for decades.) And the response to each crisis has been characteristically dated, ignorant, and irrelevant.” You will forgive me if I suggest that blanket government bashing is not exactly the most useful argumentative tack to take at a moment when lawless thugs are dismantling democracy in the name of a “government is the problem” ideology. “Smash the state” rhetoric won’t clean up Washington, it will only invite a new crew of brown shirts to the tea party and a new crowd of pigs to the trough.

I mean, I quite get it that there is a delicious irony in pointing out the fact that “small government” types are the ones who inevitably preside over swelling governments, “the business of America is business” types are the ones who inevitably preside over trade and budget deficits and fraud and cronyism, the “liberty” types are the ones who inevitably preside over the policing of difference, the “patriots” are the ones who inevitably disenfranchise their own citizens and dismantle the attainments of their own culture.

I get it, but I also know it isn’t enough to get it. One must get as well that it is because the conservatives disdain legitimate governance that they debauch it, that it is because they disdain fair trade that they cheat and loot, that it is because they fear difference that they define liberty as comfortable conformity, that it is because they dread freedom that they cheer for the freedom to obey. One must defend legitimate governance, fairness, diversity, and critical autonomy before it makes any sense to relish the ironies of facile conservative pieties. And, not to put too fine a point on it, “efficiency” is a wan, sad, and rather shabby hook to hang your hat on if what you want is to defend and extend democracy in the world.

In his conclusion, Slater may seem to register an awareness of this himself. “[I]nefficiency,” he admits, “isn't the worst defect of authoritarian systems. The truly fatal flaw is their tendency to insulate their leaders from negative feedback.” He continues on: “Yes-men are rewarded, and anyone who suggests that the ship of state's current course is on target for an iceberg is considered ‘disloyal.’ When Liu Shaoki told Chairman Mao that the Great Leap Forward was leaping backward he was regarded as an enemy. And anyone who -- like Chief White House Economic Adviser Lawrence Lindsey or Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki -- suggested to Bush that invading and rebuilding Iraq might not be a slam dunk was fired or marginalized. Bush created, as Ron Suskind observed, ‘an echo chamber of his own making.’” Once again, I take these points and am apt to make them myself as a part of the case to be made for democracy in this historical moment, and furthermore, I am hardly immune to the special joys that attend the making of an argument that so forcefully analogizes George W. Bush to Chairman Mao. And yet it bears notice that this is an argument that confines the value of free expression and free thought through the figure of “negative feedback” absolutely insistently to the monologic of an efficiency without specified ends (I have to assume that something like GDP or average life expectancy or possibly, one hopes, the Happiness Index is fluttering in the background of all these self-confident breezes).

“[E]cho chambers are lethal,” Slater concludes, I am certainly inclined to agree with him, even if I worry that there are other lethalities afoot for champions of democracy to derail, not all of which will be addressed through a focus on “efficiency.” Nevertheless, in such echo chambers, Slater goes on to warn, and rightly enough, “[i]deology trumps facts, facing problems becomes disloyalty, dissent becomes treason. Since there's no way to correct mistakes, the system spins out of control, and eventually crashes.” A bracing breathless diorama ensues: “Mao initiates the Cultural revolution, Hitler invades Russia, Nixon authorizes a break-in, Bush invades Iraq.” For me, a compelling narrative stitching such blood-soaked follies together would want more than “the efficiency of markets, er, democracy, er ‘openness’” as its punchline, but I guess that’s just me.

Come what may: “The 'inner circle' becomes narrower and narrower and more and more homogeneous until its members suddenly wake up one day to discover -- as Nixon did -- that everyone who matters is outside it.” And, one more time, I agree with Slater, if one more time I long for a less impoverished response to the anti-democratic energies with which we are contending. If I may dilate in a loosely Kantian vein for a moment, it seems to me that we can approve the case that can easily be made for the efficiency of more democratic organizations of social intercourse in the attainment of shared ends, while admitting the more forceful case for democracy will be the one that reminds us that it is in democracies that we best do justice to the ways in which human beings, whatever their various ends may be, are all of us ends in ourselves.


n8o said...

"...not sure that I am willing to settle for a “democracy” construed foremost as a vehicle for efficiency..."

Sounds like Richard Stallman's description of [Free Software vs Open Source][]. Open Source says that Free Software is first and foremost a superior method to produce better quality software, regardless of the freedoms involved; whereas Free Software Philosophy prioritizes the freedom to use, modify, and share software above quality ( or "efficiency") considerations.

Similarly, democratic equality should be considered an end, rather than a means.

JANNIS said...

Striking comments, impressive CV!Its easy to export technology, but can you really just export democracy? I have to doubt about that. I liked to read this blog; unfortunately here in Europe, blogging about global ideas is not popular yet. And what can I do about this? At the moment not much more than starting my own Weblog "globalize ideas !" Perhaps you would like to have a look and send some comments from time to time ? After all "progressive thinking" from Berkeley is famous all over the world !

Dale Carrico said...

Howdy, Nato -- it will come as no surprise to you that Richard Stallman is a personal hero! Welcome JANNIS, I agree of course that one cannot "export" democracy, and part of the reason is because neither can we "export" technology in the sense many seem to mean by the phrase. It is important to think of technology less as a toypile of "stuff" that accumulates and gets circulated around, but as *social practices* of prosthetic invention, use, and meaning-making. Technodevelopmental social struggle and democratic experimentalism seem to me to be deeply imbricated within one another. I'll be sure to check out your work -- thanks for your comments.