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

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Democracy, Consent, and Enterprise (and Their Contraries, Aristocracy, Duress, and Exploitation)

Contrary to the abstract assurances of their ideologues, the systems we denominate as "capitalist" are not in fact direct emanations from eternal, natural, tidal forces of "supply" and "demand," but are instituted through historically specific and contingent treaties, laws, protocols, expectations, norms that articulate these flows of desire and exchange, such as they are. What counts as "free trade" and what registers as a legible "market outcome" has often been radically otherwise than it is today at the level of concrete specificity, could be different in indefinitely many ways here and now, and most assuredly will be endlessly different in epochs to come. These differences will have relative beneficiaries and losers as will the vicissitudes that articulate their many historical changes over time. And so, much of what I decry as cronyism in what currently passes for capitalism is not an aberration from some more "unknown ideal" capitalist eidos, but is ineradicable to it, very much built in from the get-go.

By the way, democratic governance is no less beholden to such parochialisms, of course. Democracy, too, is better understood as an ongoing institutional experimentation rather than some kind of blueprint to which "democrats" are committed in advance and in the abstract.

Democracy really is better thought of as an ongoing process of democratization through which ever more people are enabled to have ever more of a say in the public decisions that affect them. And democrats seek to implement ongoing and resilient alternatives to the violent adjudication of disputes among the stakeholders with whom we share the world, peer to peer. Democratization works to accomplish this result through the experimental institutionalization of a scene of ever-better-informed ever-less-duressed consent (the say peers have to register the stakes peers have in public decisions). The institutionalization of responsiveness of the government to the governed and the ongoing creation of nonviolent alternatives for the adjudication of disputes are deeply inter-implicated projects of democracy as the experimental institutionalization of the scene of consent.

Those services will seem the least dispensable -- and so the least properly beholden to the risks of failure in market competition -- that substantiate the scene of consent and protect it from duress. The market is, after all, finally unable to distinguish an outcome duressed by the threat of force, penury, catastrophic risk, or abject humiliation from a genuinely consensual outcome. It is the business of democratic governance precisely to adjudicate such distinctions, checked in its inertial tendency to corruption and prejudice in this task by the periodic election of those who administer government and by the threat of their impeachment and ensured more deeply still by the constitutive impasse instituted into all democratic governance that those whose taxes render government practicable are through taxation guaranteed representation and so a say in the workings of that governance. Needless to say, all of this is fraught with vulnerabilities to abuse and corruption, but there it is.

Whatever its pathologies and frailties we can still generate a fairly forceful principle connecting democratic theory and democratizing practice here, and in a way that relates it to the "market" alternatives of neoliberal ideologues who would either claim to reduce democracy to "market exchanges" or, more honestly, recommend we substitute such commerce for democratization wholesale: Precisely to the extent that government is democratic through the real responsiveness of its institutions to the consent of the governed and to the material substantiation of that very capacity for consent by securing those who consent from misinformation and duress -- and only to the extent that government manages to be more democratic through these means -- can one then go on to say that market competition in matters that do not threaten either this responsiveness of government to the governed nor the capacity of all to engage in informed nonduressed consent yields the efficient outcomes for which markets are celebrated, or that market outcomes are free as their champions declare. Where governance is nonresponsive to the governed it responds instead mostly to parochial elites with which that government is identified at the expense of the governed more generally, and where governance fails to secure the scene of consent it will defend exploitation in the name of liberty and order but truly in the service of parochial beneficiaries at the expense of the exploited more generally. Under such circumstances, any talk of "market efficiencies" and "voluntary contracts" and "free trade" is a straightforward, palpable falsehood and deliberate fraud, and should be treated as such.

I advocate a substantiation of the scene of consent on which a proper peer-to-peer democracy depends that includes, among other less controversial measures, a universal non-means-tested guaranteed basic income, universal single-payer healthcare, unfettered access to the common heritage and collaborative creation of planetary multiculture as well as to reliable consensus scientific information on questions of urgent practical import. You can be sure that my advocacy of these measures would be decried not only by market fundamentalist ideologues but by many common or garden variety conservatives and even self-appointed rightward-skewing "Centrists" as an advocacy of "socialism," "totalitarianism," or who knows what else. (And I haven't even mentioned my championing of binding international regulatory bodies where matters of human rights, arms proliferation, labor standards, global ecosystemic impacts, and so on are concerned or for a democratically-elected planetary assembly!)

But the simple truth of the matter is that it seems to me all the great libertarian and pragmatic competitive advantages free marketeers endlessly promise us while the rubble pile of neoliberal catastrophe rises higher and higher before the eyes of anybody not lucky enough to roost at its summit are actually most likely to find their real fruition precisely when and only when this competition occurs among those who are secure enough in their persons and situations that they can truly consent to its terms.

Else, the competition of the market is a matter of the insulting misattribution of liberty to the injury of exploitation, the individualism of the market a matter of isolation, abandonment, and criminal neglect, the responsibility of the market a matter of austerity for the vulnerable and unearned reward for the privileged, the efficiency of the market a matter of the concentration of wealth as it is seen from the perspective of the beneficiaries of that concentration.

Again, none of this is enterprise properly so-called, and certainly not enterprise as advertised by its champions, but simply the same old brutal ineffectual and presumptuous aristocracy that has been the bane of progressive democratization throughout its long and too-slow world-building course in history.

I think I am a champion of free enterprise, as it can be with its proper support and confined to its proper orbit. I cannot help it if the ideologues who have appropriated the term would mistake me for an apologist of tyranny. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that petulant Royalists would decry as socialism or tyranny the effort of patriotic democrats to save free enterprise from itself.

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