Saturday, September 9, 2017

Quotes: On why societies and groups trend away from democracy

Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet:

Nor did men any longer dare to divide humanity into two races, the one fated to rule, the other to obey, the one to deceive, the other to be deceived. They had to recognize that all men have an equal right to be informed on all that concerns them, and that none of the authorities established by men over themselves has the right to hide from them one single truth.”

Benjamin Franklin:

"It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”

Wendy Brown:

"Democracy requires that citizens be modestly oriented toward self-rule, not simply value enhancement, and that we understand our freedom as resting in such self-rule, not simply in market conduct. When this dimension of being human [homo politicus] is extinguished [in favor of homo economicus], it takes with it the necessary energies, practices, and culture of democracy, as well as its very intelligibility.

* * *

Democracy is always incomplete, always short of its promise, but the conditions for cultivating it can be better or worse. My point was that democracy is really reduced to a whisper in the Euro-Atlantic nations today. Even Alan Greenspan says that elections don’t much matter much because, “thanks to globalization . . . the world is governed by market forces,” not elected representatives. Voting has been declining for decades everywhere in the Western world; politicians are generally mistrusted if not reviled (except for Varoufakis, of course!); and everything to do with political life or government is widely considered either captured by capital, corrupt or burdensome—this hostility to the political itself is generated by neoliberal reason. Thus, today, the meaning of democracy is pretty much reduced to personal liberty. Such liberty is not nothing, but could not be further from the idea of rule by and for the people.”

Virginia Woolf had a character say in her first novel in 1915:

"...we'd better talk about life for a change. Questions that really matter to people's lives, the White Slave Traffic, Women Suffrage, the Insurance Bill, and so on. And when we've made up our mind what we want to do we could form ourselves into a society for doing it..."

* * *

...she professed herself certain that if once twenty people — no, ten would be enough if they were keen — set about doing things instead of talking about doing them, they could abolish almost every evil that exists. It was brains that were needed. If only people with brains — of course they would want a room, a nice room, in Bloomsbury preferably, where they could meet once a week...

Tom Carson:

“If you wonder who made [liberal] hauteur respectable, try Adlai Stevenson. The most celebrated exchange of his two campaigns against Dwight D. Eisenhower went like this: ‘Governor, every thinking person will be voting for you,’ cried a woman at a rally. Ever humorous, the Democratic nominee twinkled. ‘Madam, that’s not enough,’ he said. ‘I need a majority.’ That quip was one of the most appalling things ever said in public by anyone running for president, because either you believe in democracy or you don’t.”

Yuval Noah Harari:

"In the economic sphere too the ability to hold a hammer or press a button is becoming less valuable than before, which endangers the critical alliance between liberalism and capitalism. In the twentieth century liberals explained that we don’t have to choose between ethics and economics. Protecting human rights and liberties was both a moral imperative and the key to economic growth. Britain, France and the United States allegedly prospered because they liberalized their economies and societies, and if Turkey, Brazil or China wanted to become equally prosperous, they had to do the same. In many if not most cases it was the economic rather than the moral argument that convinced tyrants and juntas to liberalise.

In the twenty-first century liberalism will have a much harder time selling itself. As the masses lose their economic importance, will the moral argument alone be enough to protect human rights and liberties? Will elites and governments go on valuing every human being even when it pays no economic dividends?"

Richard Flanagan:

"In the end, politics is not about focus groups and numbers; it is about the power of stories to galvanize and forge the thinking of societies."

Jeff Schmidt argues that people who have studied and who adhere to standards in this-or-that field, those who consider themselves or are considered "professionals" in the field and who adjust their worldviews and live their lives accordingly, may tend toward authoritarianism when it is related to upholding the standards or the overall vision of their field since the masses cannot be expected or trusted to uphold it.

"...although professionals may be liberal on this or that question of the day, they tend to be very conservative on a long-standing issue of much greater importance to society: democracy. Discuss politics with a liberal professional and you will not hear a word in favor of a more democratic distribution of power in society, perhaps because in the professional’s view ignorant nonprofessionals make up the large majority of the population. Even the most liberal professionals tend toward authoritarianism in their social visions.

* * *

And the liberal doctor who offers a cocktail party opinion against authoritarian police practices? Go to that doctor’s office with a medical problem and see her lean toward the traditional authoritarian doctor-patient relationship. Professionals are liberal on distant social issues, issues over which they have no authority at work and no influence outside of work."

To allow for willing participation in democracy, we have to find the facts and principles that we can agree upon and use those as a starting point for a connection that allows us to work together.

Quoting Ned Resnikoff — "When political actors can’t agree on basic facts and procedures, compromise and rule-bound argumentation are basically impossible; politics reverts back to its natural state as a raw power struggle in which the weak are dominated by the strong,” — Brooke Gladstone commented:

"Even if each of our realities is unique, our common cultures and environments ensure that we share some fundamental principles. That is what enables consensus, and that is what is under attack. By degrading the very notion of shared reality, Trump has disabled the engine of democracy."


Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (1794) Translated by June Barraclough. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, Inc. 1955. p 129-130.

Benjamin Franklin, quoted in the Montreal Gazette. The Week, Oct. 11, 2013, p. 19.

Booked #3: "What Exactly is Neoliberalism?" Wendy Brown, interviewed by Timothy Shenk. April 2, 2015.

Virginia Woolf. The Voyage Out (1915).

Tom Carson in The American Prospect, quoted in The Week, Dec. 23, 2011. p. 14.

Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. New York: Harper, 2017. p. 313.

Richard Flanagan. The Sunday Age (Australia) September 2, 2001. Quoted in Clive James. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. (2007) New York: Norton, 2008. p. 463.

Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000) Kindle Edition.

Brooke Gladstone. The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time. New York: Workman Publishing, 2017.

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