Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Democracy of Desperation

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."
Henry David Thoreau
I think I was in high school when I first became acquainted with the concept of "quiet desperation." It is one of those terms that despite its ubiquity, actually appears to lack a single, commonly accepted definition. I've been wrestling with how to write about it for a while, mainly because I could never settle on what I thought that it was. But recently, it came to me, and I had a context in which to think about the issue.

There has been a lot of consternation on the American political Right recently about the specter of "Socialism." (I still submit that anyone who thinks that most Democratic politicians are Socialists is either deeply cynical or has never actually met a living, breathing, Socialist, but that's beside the point.) It's worth pointing out that if you take a tour through the governments of antiquity, you don't find much, if anything, that closely resembles modern Socialism, either the real thing or the hobgoblin that the Right has created. Socialism, as it was envisioned in the 19th and 20th centuries was a reaction to what had come before it, in much the same way as the Bill of Rights can be directly traced back to complaints with the way 18th century England operated. While there is current concern with the idea that Socialism might take over the United States, what's not talked about is the fact that just as before, it's a reaction.

People use representative democracy to "vote themselves a share of other people's stuff" because they feel it's the best way for them to get what they are after. Those people who feel that the majority should refrain from voting to redistribute wealth are effectively advocating that those people who feel themselves on the short end of the stick lead lives of quiet desperation - either through resigning themselves to working in a system that they understand doesn't return the desired, if any, benefits for them (or, at worst, is actively designed to expropriate what wealth they have for the benefit of those with more money than they) or by having the decency to starve somewhere out of sight and out of mind.

But this idea, that people have an obligation to look out for the interests of their "betters" rather than their own simply to avoid stepping on tradition, directly flies in the face of the very ideals that this nation was founded on. There is nothing in the Declaration of Independence or Constitution that enshrines Capitalism, for better or worse, as the economic system of the Republic. Majority rule WAS enshrined, specifically to avoid not just the tyranny of government, which so many people decry (often for seemingly trivial reasons), but also to avoid the tyranny of an entrenched ruling minority, that, having set up the machinery of the state to serve its own interests, was then hostile to reforms that would allow more people to share in the wealth. Americans have a difficult time grasping the idea that any historical events or circumstances that they weren't around to witness has any relevance, just as they have difficulty with the idea that they aren't objectively, if not the Best People on Earth, always counted among the Good Guys and always on the side of right. Both of these conspire to create a nation of people who, while they extol the men who founded it, can't understand that they run the risk of becoming the very people that the Founding Fathers declared themselves in rebellion against.

The way you avoid reducing the mass of men to leading lives of quiet desperation is through granting them the right to participate in their own governance. This forces the Powers That Be to ensure that the system they put in place works for enough people that they'll want it to stay in place. If we witness the demise of American Capitalism, it will be because those people that champion it forgot that they are not the only ones for whom it needs to have tangible and attainable benefits.

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