Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dictatorships and Democracy

I have wanted to touch on recent events in the Middle East/North Africa for some time now, but I almost don't know where to start. Certainly there is a lot of history related to global capitalism and imperialism that contextualizes these events. However, I think I would prefer to start at a more theoretical level and extend my earlier discussion of state power toward a discussion of democracy and dictatorships.

If you don't care to read my earlier posts, here are some key points:

1. There is only one "form of government": oligarchy. If one is referring to control over the means of legitimate state violence and the ability to create and enforce the law, this always (and can only) lie in the hands of a select few. Even in a system of representation, ultimate decision-making abilities are always monopolized by a handful of people.

2. Power is a property of relationships, which extend beyond the state. The state is not a locus or source of power.

3. The state is merely a tool of various (sometimes conflicting) capitalist interests that control the state apparatus.

It follows that there is no fundamental difference between a "democracy" (like the U.S.) and a dictatorship. Clearly, however, there is some difference. Yet, contrary to common perception, it is a difference in degree and not in kind.

In effect, "democracy" is a strategy for managing dissent that is available to nations enjoying a certain amount of wealth and infrastructural (both physical and ideological) development. By allowing people to feel as though their voices are heard and their actions have influence, "democracy" quells frustration with the system at the same time as it channels energy and actions into practices that ultimately support the system, all while creating a smokescreen to cover up the power relations that are really at play.  When people are allowed to participate in "fair" elections, lobby their congressional representatives, speak their minds on the radio or in blogs, and criticize the government without fear of retribution, people are less likely to see need for full-scale change in the current social order, even as they are being exploited. They are more likely to believe that things just need to be "tweaked" and reformed; they are more likely to believe that they live in circumstances that, while not perfect, are probably the best they can hope for; they are more likely to believe that the state exists to uphold the common good.

Thus, "democracy" is an excellent means of maintaining the status quo. If everyone could use this tactic, they probably would. Yet, there are significant barriers to the accessibility of this option.

Democracy is expensive. Many underdeveloped nations simply cannot afford to set up polling stations, invest in voting equipment, hire election officials, and take all the necessary steps to prevent fraud. Furthermore, the elections that occur in the U.S. (not sure how this compares to other countries) require a HUGE amount of wealth and resources from those who are campaigning and their associated political parties. Additionally, wealth is a requisite for development of the infrastructure that supports "democracy":

Physical infrastructure
This includes what is normally placed under the heading of infrastructure: roads, transportation, communications, public works, etc. It also includes social welfare programs and non-profit organizations (a small investment, far less than what is gained via exploitation, to ensure that people believe democracy is "working for them" and supporting their goals), and most importantly, it includes bureaucracy. There are many ways in which bureaucracies contribute to the illusion of democracy, most notably the fact that if people are able to gain employment through the state or interact on a daily basis with other "ordinary" people who represent the state in this way, the state is more likely to appear "of the people" - more anonymous and diffuse. Bureaucracies also allow agendas to be carried out in more indirect and covert ways. (For example, if certain FDA regulations are designed to support and subsidize particular agricultural industries, it is easy to employ the research of a number of public health officials and scientists to create a faux rationale for the regulation that addresses the "public good": and most of the people involved in the decision and its execution would honestly believe that is the case. Cogs in the wheel don't always know in what direction the wheel is spinning!) Finally, just as wealth supports physical infrastructure, physical infrastructure supports ideological infrastructure.

Ideological infrastructure
Partially, the ideological infrastructure consists of hegemonic ("natural" or "obvious" to the point of being unquestionable) ideas. This may include the concept of "founding principles" of the nation (usually involving freedom/liberty.... essentially meaningless terms if one looks at reality); notions of "nationhood," national unity, land rights, patriotism, loyalty, and citizenship; other ideas derived from social contract ideology - that power is located completely in the government, which, in turn, represents the will of the people; and components of neoliberal ideology - that "government" and "business" are distinct entities, that "capitalist" societies possess free markets, and that anyone can make it if they work hard enough and play by the rules of the system. These hegemonic ideas are cultivated primarily by the educational system (an important piece of physical infrastructure), political rhetoric, and the media, all mutually reinforcing one another. So, for example, to mobilize people to engage in warfare in defense of capitalist interests (which are ultimately antithetical to their own), all one needs to do is invoke discourses of patriotism, nationhood, and liberty. Interesting how every war seems to be about "defending our liberties," right?

Ideological infrastructure also involves "organized disagreement." What better way to create the illusion of "democracy" than to populate all sectors of society with diverging points of view? Thus, in the U.S. we have Republicans and Democrats; we have Fox News and MSNBC; the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post; the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; anti-war protests and Tea Party rallies; the Open Society Institute and the Heritage Foundation. And people feel like they have options, that their choice of political leadership will shape the direction of the country, and that they participate in a "free marketplace of ideas." Yet these seemingly diametrically opposed points of view are grounded in the same fundamental assumptions (some of which are the hegemonic ideas described above) that work to uphold the social order. Any points of view which could seriously undermine the status quo are militantly squelched (and that is why Marxism is derided as "radical," "subversive," and "obviously wrong"... it is not as acceptable to be a Marxist in the U.S. as it is to be a Democrat or Republican, and it was not even legal to be a communist at certain points in our history.) People like to think it makes a differences whether they elect a Democrat or a Republican, but in reality there have been more significant changes in policy within presidential administrations than between them. For example, Reagonomics was implemented at the end of Carter's term, and Reagan himself, several years into his own tenure, took up a military Keynesianism which has continued to the present, through both Democratic and Republican adminstrations.

Therefore, in neither dictatorships nor democracies do people have the power. All states take actions to curtail civil liberties when they face some sort of "threat" to their legitimacy. The big difference is that states with more robust infrastucture do not feel as threatened as often and consequently are able to limit these actions compared to the classic dictatorship. And since infrastructure requires wealth, it is no coincidence that dictatorships are most common in the poorest countries in the world (in addition to the fact that starving people are less likely to be pacified by appeals to "liberty" and "patriotism").  Certainly, it is more comfortable to live under a "democracy" than a dictatorship, even if one has no real power, but that is just one of the many advantages of living in conditions of great wealth.

What, then, of this notion of a "power vacuum"? In truth, it is an infrastructural vacuum. Dictatorships are most likely to emerge out of infrastructural ruins: for example, that which is caused by war. (No coicidence, then, that Hitler appeared in the ravages caused by WW1....).

And what does this mean for the MENA unrest? Subject of my next post.

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