Sunday, April 20, 2014

Perverted Democracy

Paul Wilson's review of Machael Ignatieff's aptly-titled memoir Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, in the April 24 issue of The New York Review, plays up the failure side of the story with his own title, "The Road to Rejection." His conclusion, however, has less to do with the specifics of Ignatieff's failure as leader of Canada's Liberal party and more with the prevailing environment that thwarts such leadership:
Of all political systems, democracy is the easiest to pervert, because it depends far less on rules than on mutual respect among the players. When that breaks down, as we have seen in the United States, good governance itself breaks down, and no amount of reform measures can easily bring it back. George Orwell, in holding up "common decency" as a bulwark against "smelly little orthodoxies," understood that.
Nevertheless, it is unclear that Orwell appreciated the full impact of such "smelly little orthodoxies." Our own Founding Fathers recognized that such groups would exists but felt that they could be held in check by the structure of government. Sadly, they neglected to consider that possibility that even the smallest of narrowly special interests can rise to significance with a sufficient amount of money behind it. Wilson is right that governance has broken down in the United States; but he does not follow through on the role that market-based thinking has played in the breakdown or, for that matter, the role that the Internet now plays to reinforce those wishing to implement such thinking.

Power is now simply a matter of who can move around large sums of money with maximal impact. When you can buy the opinions of others, the practice of politics no longer requires persuasive skills. When such an economy of opinion is not only enabled but also facilitated by a communications technology as powerful as the Internet, we may as well acknowledge that we now live in an age of brutality far beyond Thomas Hobbes' darkest expectations.