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

Monday, January 10, 2011

Democracy and Nonviolence

Believe it or not, this post is from the cutting room floor, paragraphs I snipped from a longer post I am still working on but decided were too digressive from the subject even for meandering me, but which seemed to me still worthy, maybe, of attention in their own right.

Although we speak of democracy as a political practice and doctrine, it would be better to say that democracy is an ethical practice and domain, a particular ethical vantage on the political.

Politics, when and to the extent that it is reasonable, is a set of beliefs and practices through which is facilitated the ongoing acceptable adjudication of the interminable and ineradicable disputes arising among the diversity of stakeholders with whom we share the world. Unless one's politics were absolutely opportunistic -- which I suspect is actually impossible to anyone who is not a sociopath -- they will make recourse to ethical beliefs.

Democratic politics is a matter of the nonviolent adjudication of stakeholder disputes in accordance with what are in fact ethical considerations, the aspiration to universal assent via contingent universalization inhering in assertions of universal human rights, of valuing a country of laws and not men, of decent respect to the opinions of mankind, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for a common defense, promote general welfare, secure liberty for ourselves and our posterity, and so on.

Democracy at its heart is simply the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and free speech and free association and the notion that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed all speak to the connection between what it means for a democrat to have a say and what it means to abhor violence in a democratic society. From courts of law to peaceful transfers of power in elections democracies seek to create and maintain alternatives to the violent adjudication of disputes.

Despite my assertion that democratic politics is nonviolent, I do not mean to imply by this that all democratic practices and institutions are properly subsumed under radical nonviolent politics as proposed and practiced by Gandhi or King, say (although I do think all radical nonviolence is indeed subsumed under democracy, and I also do think the best democracy should aspire to nonviolence in the radical sense). This is so, because violence can of course inhere deeply in the status quo, in the norms of society, in the law, and what might pass for nonviolence can easily depend on and even consolidate such structural violences.

Of course, modern technoscientific societies, whether notionally democratic or not, to the extent that their governance includes some measure of social administration in the service of general welfare and public investment in indispensable but unprofitable infrastructure will make recourse not only to ethical but also to scientific vocabularies.

Science and ethics are crucially different from one another. Facticity and normativity, however interdependent they may be, are never reducible to one another, nor is either one always only properly designated as prior to the other: No amount of knowledge about what is possible will tell you what among many possibilities is worthwhile or important; no amount of fervency as to what is wanted will provide confidence as to what among many desirable outcomes is possible.

However, both the scientific and ethical as modes of warranted belief-ascription do generate truths of a kind that confers legitimacy arising out of the collaborative work of contingent universalization. In this they differ together from other domains of truth which, no less indispensable in their proper precincts, confer parochial values: for example, greater profitability for some among many competitors, or a sense of belonging to a moral community purchased through the exclusion of outsiders and the policing of deviance among insiders.

To the familiar concerns (of Arendt and Foucault to name two I profoundly respect) that regular recourse of the political to the scientific threatens to reduce the political to social or disciplinary logics that undermine freedom the better to facilitate instrumentalizing or homogenizing ends, my own proposal is that a suite of welfare entitlements -- from basic guaranteed income, to public education and healthcare and housing, to the generous subsidization of scientific research and art for the public domain -- are all best justified as rendering the scene of consent on which democracy most crucially depends reliably informed and nonduressed and that this justification constrains within the bounds of ethical legitimacy nonetheless the pragmatic considerations of administration that answer to scientific rather than ethical warrants.

In response to familiar concerns (of conservatives and market libertarians to name two I have very little respect for at all) that such welfare entitlements and public investments require exploitation of worthy elites for the sake of the unworthy poor or ignorant masses, I would add that this support of the scene of reliably informed actually nonduressed consent through the provision of general welfare seems to me required by any contractarian (or capitalist) order that would claim to be anything more than a rationalization for abusive exploitation just as, at the same time, as it happens, for those keeping score at home, it provides for the permanent and universally available strike fund and freedom of association required by any socialist order that would claim to be anything more than a rationalization for tyrannical control.

Again, what is important here is to grasp the connection between democratization and anti-violence, a connection that neither the settled terms of capitalist nor communist discourses are quite equal to, at least as they circulate in mainstream parlance (although still marginal Green and democratic socialist discourses often do emphasize this connection).

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