On Democracy, Technocrats and Temporary Autocrats

This is why I like the London Review of Books. This piece, about the debt crisis in Europe, is one of the most cogent defenses of democracy as a form of government that I have ever read. Runciman says it’s best attribute is that it is more flexible than non-democratic forms of government, and that in times of crises, democrats can experiment in with temporary autocracy in ways that autocrats can never experiment with temporary democracy. And I’ll buy that. He also writes:

What no one can know is what happens when relatively wealthy democracies suddenly and permanently become a great deal poorer, even if they don’t fall below the threshold of doom. There are simply not enough examples of this happening to be confident of the outcome. In those circumstances, do temporary autocrats give their power back? Well, you might say, we’re going to find out. But that’s another puzzle about the current European crisis: power hasn’t actually been handed over to temporary autocrats. It’s been given to technocrats, which is different. The assumption is that experts’ superior knowledge gives them the right to take decisions, and ensures that people will abide by those decisions.  

Yet we live in an age which is deeply suspicious of experts, particularly of the kind currently trying to sort out the mess in Greece and Italy: economic experts, drawn from the world of banking. The past few years have not been a good advertisement for their particular brand of superior knowledge. Moreover, in democracies, the problem does not tend to be a lack of knowledge. These bankers were not having their views suppressed by the regimes they have replaced; they were simply not being listened to in the way they would have liked. The problem for democracies in a crisis is not that no one knows what to do, it’s that no one knows how to get other people to do what they are told.

Runciman also writes about what he calls Western fatalism — “the belief that we can know how things will turn out, because the scientific order of the world follows regular patterns.” The battle in the West over how to deal with the financial crisis is between optimists, who think things will be okay in the end, and pessimists, who believe we are finally getting our comeuppance. But as Runciman notes, almost no one (at least no one legitimate, and certainly not me; I may not like democratic governance much, but I accept there are no viable alternatives in modernity) is advocating for another kind of political or economic system to deal with what he calls the first major democratic crisis of the post-cold war world. And it likely won’t be solved:

We want the system we’ve got, because we know it’s the least bad one on offer. In the past, democracies in crisis have always had to fear being swept away by some plausible ideological alternative. The current argument between the optimists and the pessimists has all the hallmarks of an ideological dispute but without any of the content. We don’t have an alternative. The fear is that the political system we’ve relied on in the past might not be up to the task at hand, but it’s the only one we’ve got. You’d think that would make it easier for us to fix it. My fear is that it’s going to make it harder. It makes it more likely that we will drift along with our fate, and into the unknown.

Me? I don’t know if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. Probably a little bit of both, mostly because muddling along into the unknown is what people do. It is what we have always done.

The Limits of Democracy

I read Front Porch Republic on a regular basis. I find the idea of localism attractive, but as both a regular reader and a rootless cosmpolitan, I will also be the first to note that the local is not an idea, it is a place. And Jennifer and I have not yet found the place where we are willing to call our home.

Mostly I love the site for its suspicion of the big, whether that be the big state or the big corporation. But I also like its intellectual suspicion of ideology, especially democracy, and John Medaille (in an otherwise somewhat silly posting on Egypt) says something better than I have been able, so far, to say:

We in the West have a mythical belief in the power of democracy to cure kleptocracy and to bring peace. These myths are held in the face of the facts. Far from being peaceful, the 20th century, the bloodiest in history, was characterized by a series of wars to make the world safe for democracy. Which we did, but we made democracy unsafe for the world. And it is true that we have very little criminal corruption in this country for the simple reason that we have legalized it. The backward politicians of the Middle East take bribes; our enlightened politicians take campaign contributions and plush jobs on retirement. Getting caught with your hand in the till is a sign of low imagination, since there are plenty of legal ways to accomplish the same thing.

Democracy legitimates the ruling class in a way that no other form of government can. But it is not necessarily “democratic” in the sense of expressing the “will of the people,” assuming they have a unified will.

Medaille hints at, but fails to really say, that both world wars were the product of “popular” governments — that is, mass government done in the name of “the people governed.” Dictatorship in the 19th and 20th century is always done in the name of “the people,” and has always justified itself that way. (Americans, because of our heritage, confuse monarchy and dictatorship.) The First World War especially was a conflict of relatively democratic societies (Germany was as much a democratic state as Britain, as much a monarchy, and in the contingency of war, as much a dictatorship), a war of democracies against each other (with the exception of Russia). He also notes that the economic problems prompting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are simply insoluble through political means. I’ve long noted that the promise made by social democracy that the economy would be politically accountable is a false promise, one of many made by social democracy that is so beguiling that reality itself cannot even begin to scratch at the promise itself. Much less dent it.

(His jibe at “legalized” corruption, however, skirts the matter — if it’s legal, is it corruption?)

But there are days when it is good to know that I am not alone in my deep and abiding suspicion of democratic governance.

What Does it Mean to Be Faithful?

What does it mean to be church? In the latest issue of the American Conservative, Richard Gamble reviews a book I might have been tempted to read, James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Thankfully, because of Gamble’s review, I don’t have to read the book and be disappointed (whew!). Gamble concludes:

Christians who have a higher allegiance to the church than to American society will not take encouragement from Hunter’s recommendations for “faithful presence.” Social benefits from such a reconfigured orientation to the world may be real, but Christians ought to have their eyes open to the costs involved. A church that trades less effective techniques for more might lose its integrity, the very essence of what defines it as an institution unlike any other, and the unique message it brings to the world. Anyone who spends much time with young Christians these days knows that a generation has been raised by spiritually nomadic church-hopping parents—or even by radically de-institutionalized “home church” families—who have not bothered to initiate their sons and daughters into the life of the church. They have sent their children to the right schools and to worldview boot camp, but they have left them unbaptized, uncatechized, unaccountable, and unhabituated to regular public worship. This trend is becoming increasingly noticeable even among the offspring of conservative homes. A higher and more urgent calling than engaging the world might just be engaging the church.

Hunter agrees that the church in America is unhealthy. Indeed, it is the premise of his book. But for him the evidence of good health is a church that “exercises itself in all realms of life, not just a few.” Hunter’s call to that comprehensive outworking of the gospel offers both diagnosis and prescription for the “post-political,” “post-Constantinian” church as it faces an increasingly alien “post-Christian” culture. His book will perhaps redirect the strategy, funding, and vocabulary of transformationalists aspiring to be among the cultural elite, but it will not challenge their most cherished presupposition, that the church’s faithfulness ought to be measured by the degree to which it changes the world.

The liberal church — and by that, I mean the church of just about any political and social stripe in the social democratic or liberal democratic nation-state — since the 19th century has decided that faithfulness is a matter of, to borrow from Marx, changing the world. But in doing so, the church becomes just another actor in the liberal democratic state, another bit of “civil society” debating terms set solely by modernity and playing solely by the liberal state’s rules. The end result of all this is influencing the actions of the state. That’s what it means to be effective, and its how the various flavors of the liberal church measure themselves.

A lot of this is the engagement with modernity, an engagement the church somehow has to pull-off (Rome tried not to engage modernity for many decades and looked silly doing so) and yet also emphatically state that the question the church deals with — the salvation of humanity and humanity’s encounter with God — pre-dates modernity and will long outlive modernity. Liberal Christianity has surrendered to modernity. Neither refutation nor surrender works well.

But the church needs to be much more emphatic about what the sanctified community really is. Liberal Christians confuse that community with the nation-state (I think this is what Gamble means when he writes of a “mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America,” Israel in this instance being the called people of God, and not the nation-state of Israel) and thus act as if the promises made to the church and to the world through the church are made to the nation-state and through the nation-state. (This is an especially American problem, one Jim Wallis is just as guilty of as Pat Robertson.)

This is why I espouse a theology of exile. The church is not really at home in the world. We are in that moment before the eschaton where the promise, while real and manifest in times and places in the world (there are fleeting moments when I know I am living in that promise), is not the ruling reality of human existence. We are — and should always remember that we are — a wandering people who, outside of our communion of Christ, do not yet have earthly homes.

On Revolution and Bad Food

I have some problems with the politics and promises of The Enlightenment and modernity, but I also realize they are very attractive and that there is no going back. Abbas Milani notes this about Iran for The National Interest, but he could be saying it about any state or society struggling with the promises of modernity and Enlightenment:

While the leftist, centrist and clerical opposition to the shah “overdetermined” politics to the detriment of cultural freedoms, the ruler, for his part, failed to understand what increasingly became the clear iron law of culture: men (and women) do not live by bread alone, and when a society is introduced into the ethos of modernity—from the rule of reason and women’s suffrage to the idea of natural rights of citizens and the notion of a community joined together by social contract and legitimized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popular will—then it will invariably demand its democratic rights. That society will not tolerate the authoritarian rule of even a modernizing monarch capable of delivering impressive economic development. The shah tried to treat the people of Iran as “subjects” and expected their gratitude for the cultural freedoms and economic advancement he had “given” them. But he, and his father (and before them, the participants in the Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century), had helped develop a new cultural disposition by creating a parliament and a system of law wherein the people considered themselves citizens and thought of these liberties as their right—not as gifts benevolently bestowed upon them.

The promises of modernity and Enlightenment in so far as government are concerned are very beguiling. They may be outright lies, or they may be completely unachievable ideals — I’m not quite sure which yet. But they are the only game in town. I am not one of the people who believe old and tired adage that democracy is the worst of all possible governments except for all the rest. I am an anarchist with monarchist sympathies, and my ideal government is a pre-nation-state monarchy. But we don’t live in that time. The bureaucratic nation-state is how moderns govern themselves. There are no real alternatives. What most concerns me is the exercise of state power, and the reality that it is no more moral when exercised on behalf of the people than when it is on behalf of God or some embodied sovereign person. In fact, I think power is actually less moral when exercised in the name of the people, but for now, that is neither here nor there.

To an extent, this is what we are witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, what we see occasionally in Burma, what wiped out the Nepalese monarchy some years ago, what unseated Soviet Socialism in 1989, and what may rock the West at some point in time when it becomes clear that “democracy” is actually unresponsive oligarchy (though I’m not holding my breath; revolution may be impossible in consumer societies). I sympathize with all the folks who rebel — rebellion is my inclination as well — and I wish them luck, but I suspect many will be truly disappointed when, after their democratic revolutions, they discover they haven’t really solved anything.

However, I also know this — you do not tell hungry people that the food is bad.

Accountability is Worse, Apparently

Jason Dietz over at Antiwar.com is reporting the following this morning:

In a filing related to the detention of whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling, the Justice Department argued that being a whistleblower and leaking information to the media was a “greater threat to society” than when a spy sells that information to a single foreign country.

The exact details of what Sterling was being charged with leaking were never made public, but there is speculation that it was related to James Risen’s book State of War. The Justice Department filing however insisted that the stance was a general one, and not case-specific.

This might explain why recent officials have shown so little interest in going after actual spies yet are forever riled up by the notion that the American public might have access to similar embarrassing information.

So let me get this straight: the desire to hold one’s own government accountable by giving classified information to the media — and thus to the people that government allegedly represents — is worse than giving the same classified information to a foreign state, even an adversary.


The idea that government can be held accountable through mere democratic process is folly. Just as the excesses of government are often times kept in check by the possibility of revolt if the leaders of a state go to far (witness Tunisia, about which I hope to blog more later), those who rule can only truly be held accountable when the possibility that informal means will expose, and hopefully constrain, their actions. So what we are witnessing here, in the Bush/Obama regimes, is a state that wants nothing but the formal, constitutional forms of “accountability” which have, themselves, proven utterly incapable of restraining the actions of the state. Particularly the executive.


Because, I think, constitutional means were never really designed to. There is no process or system that can truly restrain the state if the leaders of the state do not wish to or not believe they should be restrained. The idea of the U.S. Constitution was to balance not just three branches of the federal government against each other, but also the feds against the states. But what if the states have been beaten into submission by the feds and all three branches work together toward the same end? Democratic government promises accountability, a kind of accountability to the people it governs that, supposedly, undemocratic governments cannot deliver. But I’ve become convinced the very promise of accountability is a lie. Not that democratic states fall short of the promise, but that the very promise itself of the accountability of democratic states is a lie, and has been a lie from the beginning. It only works when there are people committed to holding the state accountable (for whatever reason, whether they want the state to work better or, like me, they oppose the very state itself for moral reasons) and when they have the tools and courage — or are willing to fight for those things. 


But if the state, which holds the monopoly of violence and the high ground when it comes to imposing meaning on a society, deprives individuals of the ability to hold the state and its agents accountable, then there is nothing restraining the state.

Corruption? Really?

Yves Smith wrote on the Naked Capitalism website yesterday:

Marshall Auerback explains how misguided attempts to reduce the deficit kill jobs, squeeze the working and middle classes, and inflate crude oil prices. And a corrupt political system doesn’t help.

A corrupt political system. I hear and read that a lot, from the right (it’s one of the things Alex Jones claims to do, “waging war on corruption”) to the left. But what exactly is this “corruption” that gets talked about? How is the American political system “corrupt”? Are we talking actual bribe taking–corruption in the classical sense, or possibly the Nigerian sense–or are we talking about the sense that politics is not, somehow, really responsible to the “will of the people?”
Those who speak of “corruption” generally also tend to speak of politicians and government as responsible to “special interests,” as opposed to “the people” or some sort of general interest or common good. But what if there is no general interest or common good, and only special interests?
I’ve longed believed that there is no such thing as “the will of the people,” that it cannot possibly articulate itself in any meaningful way. And any attempt to do so takes the polity in the direction of the dictatorship. (Dictatorship in the 19th and 20th centuries is largely founded in the will of the people.) Actors in a democratic polity will then be responsive (and responsible to) all of the myriad smaller actors in the polity, especially those who can mobilize the financial resources. This may seem unfair to some who believe that the narrow interests of others are being served (as opposed to their own interests, which are very likely just as narrow), but how is it corrupt? Especially as virtually every actor–even finance capital–in a democratic polity will claim their means and ends serve the alleged common good?