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

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Idiocy of Elitism

Atrios puts the point with characteristic concision:
One of [my] personal pet peeves, something which comes up at panel type things, is when people blame "the masses" for their ignorance, or something similar. The masses hate George Bush and hate this war and don't really think the appearance of the word "fuck" in a college newspaper deserves endless media attention. They've arrived at these views largely all by themselves, despite the bizarro reality conveyed by our elite press.

It is well known that majorities have long supported progressive positions on health care, the environment, drug liberalization, and many other things as well. It's true that for much of my life majorities weren't too supportive of queers like me, but I've always trusted them to show sense in the face of mass exposure to the non-threatening and usually dull as dishwater realities of queerness -- just as I've always assumed it would be among timid media "elites" and Washingtonian muckety-mucks that the dumb-dumb atrocity of the closet and all it represents would linger endlessly on. I was right to think so.

When I contemplate the very basic atrocities that seem to me to need redress -- curtailing the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, implementing universal healthcare, installing steeply progressive taxes, ending war profiteering and shuffling surreally skewed militarist budgetary priorities, demolishing the legal fiction of corporate personhood, constraining intellectual property and widening access to information, providing ample free easily-accessed clean water to everybody on earth, drug legalization, ending capital punishment, making informed consensual acts like prostitution and suicide legal, supporting a world court war-criminals, environmental poisoners, human-traffickers and the like actually fear, implementing a planetary non-mean-tested basic income guarantee -- I despair of the possibility of nudging the vapid "elite" press or the "credentialed" experts or the nervous "professional" handlers or the rich ruthless fucks of our "aristocracy of merit" a single inch in the direction of any change for the better, even should change emancipate the world and failure to change reduce the world to a septic sewer. But when I contemplate the so-called "masses" whose ignorance, stupidity, superficiality, and emotionalism I should presumably fear as an official member of the overeducated effete elite pinko commie queer secular humanities set… well, I must admit, I feel quite sure I can count on their sense incomparably more, that I can trust their integrity, imagination, collective intelligence, good humor, capacity for tolerance, and tolerance for change incomparably more than that of our incumbent and especially our moneyed elites.

It is among my deepest, most fervent hopes that emerging peer-to-peer forms of creative expressivity, networked media, journalism, collaboration, research and publication, fund-raising, political organizing will give permanent voice to the actual plurality of stakeholders in the world, unleash the unprecedented intelligence and imagination of collaboration, and smash utterly the dumbass slaughterhouse of elitism and incumbency. It is on p2p democracy, more than anything else, that I am pinning my hopes for a world on the brink of perishing from the smug-self-certainty of military "elites" and the blind blanketing destructive greed of corporate "elites."


Anonymous said...

Some areas to be uncomfortable with the public on: broad support for torture of 'terrorists' (who have not yet been verified to be such), bans on abortion except in cases of rape/incest/to save the mother's life, immigration restriction, prayer in schools and other compulsory religiosity, farm subsidies, cutting foreign aid (although this is a complex topic because they imagine it is higher than it actually is in their animus against foreigners), harassing Muslims, eliminating affirmative action in hiring and admissions (see the multiple state initiatives and innumerable polls), reckless deficit spending, massive military spending, bans on compensated organ donations (even compensated by altruistic 3rd parties or nonprofits), etc, etc.

Also, think about many of the areas where the public is now in agreement with you, and where they were a few years ago. The public dislikes Bush now, and weren't fond of him in early 2001, but became madly enamored with him because thousands were murdered on his watch. The public supported the Iraq war, and while you can say that this was because the media elites and opinion-shapers bamboozled them, if elites can bend the popular will like a pretzel, then 'democracy' seems to be something of a facade: the supposed legitimation of a contest of elites (hopefully won by progressive thinkers rather than disastrously corrupt or mistaken ones) that ultimately determines the outcome.

Dale Carrico said...

The legitimation of torture is coming from the Killer Clowns of our Unitary Executive and its base "The Haves and Have Mores" -- the "elite" not the people. Bush stole two elections in my view, conspicuously so the first time around (as Kennedy likely did against Nixon back in the day -- this is not a claim arising from partisan sour grapes), he steadily lost his already thin popular support, and despite the unity he commanded and abused in the moment of collective shock in the aftermath of 9/11/01, the opposition to the Iraq war was unprecedented BEFORE it began although this was never covered or discussed by our elite media which fully took up the Republican drumbeat for war. The people have not been so much bamboozled by the media in my view as consistently ignored by them.

Needless to say, my point is not to suggest that popular opinion nor collective behavior is exemplary or consistently rational -- but I still say it is more reliable than that of incumbent interests that fancy themselves elite. Even where popular sentiments are reactionary, parochial, misguided in my view, I still think that the more democratic the society the more open the people will be to sensible and progressive arguments.

The manufacture of consent through corporate-mediated propaganda and militarist secrecy is not properly described as democracy, but as notionally democratic oligarchy -- as you say "a facade" -- and I agree that this demands further democratization. A breaking up of corporate media consolidation, public financing of elections, reinstatement of steeply progressive taxation of income and interest, and ultimately the subsidization of p2p formations via basic income guarantee would likely do the trick to overcome the current "legitimation of a contest of elites."

Anonymous said...

"Needless to say, my point is not to suggest that popular opinion nor collective behavior is exemplary or consistently rational -- but I still say it is more reliable than that of incumbent interests that fancy themselves elite."
This depends on how you draw boundaries around elites, e.g. graduate degree holders vs current national politicians and corporate executives. The former group is clearly more progressive across almost all of the issues discussed above. But even the second group is often much more progressive than its constituents, e.g. the recent immigration bill which enjoyed bipartisan Congressional and presidential support, but failed due to popular anger. Or take the death penalty, which is almost invariably abolished against popular opposition, with the people remaining opposed for decades later, because the intellectual elite is firmly opposed to it.
Private support for legal abortion, equal marriage, and stem cell research is widespread in both parties in DC, but politicians are constrained by their constituents.

The European Union is another elite creation, one which has created remarkable peace and prosperity in Europe, with especially great positive effects on the recent entrants (creating incentives to create prosperity and democracy, then allowing free movement of people to take advantage of rich country labor markets, leading to massive wealth transfers to the citizens of poorer member states). Yet the fate of the EU Constitution whenever it was put to a vote, and popular Euroskepticism, strongly suggest that with more responsive democracies the EU project could not have achieved such success.

It seems to me that we should be data-driven in assessing the decision-making reliability of responsive democracy and other less responsive structures, and that many of the latter have proved superior in their domains to responsive democracy: an independent judiciary, a professional civil service, independent central banks, the WTO, the scientific grant-making agencies, and the EU.

jollyspaniard said...

"Yet the fate of the EU Constitution whenever it was put to a vote, and popular Euroskepticism, strongly suggest that with more responsive democracies the EU project could not have achieved such success."

I live in the UK which is probably the most Euroskeptical country in the EU and you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who wants the EU scrapped. You don't hear Europeans praising the benefits of the EU because they simply take them for granted.

Anonymous said...


People favor the status quo generally, ceteribus paribus, as with the gradual movement against the death penalty or in favor of equal marriage after it becomes a fait accompli. My claim is that many of the steps along the way would have foundered or been greatly delayed if put to referenda.