what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What hope for democracy?

The castration of democracy by corporate power has been a recurring theme in my blogs – and I did on one occasion even suggest that the lack of fundamental policy differences between parties made us little different from Communist China
And this time 2 years ago I gave a link to a book, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by David Shearman, without appreciating that its critique of liberal democracy and its apparent inability to challenge corporate interests has the authors arguing in considerable detail for a more authoritarian system of government. Naturally the book has been useful to those denying climate change – allowing them to claim that climate change is a plot by fascist big government.   
M Greer ( as a "peak oil" writer) seems to have been one of the few to subject the book’s argument to a more serious analysis
It’s worth glancing back over the last decade or so to get a sense of the way this book fits into the broader process by which climate change activism ran off the rails. In 2001, despite fierce opposition from business interests and right-wing parties generally, it was very much in the ascendant, and some form of regulation of carbon emissions looked like a done deal. Opposition from the White House and well-funded think tanks notwithstanding, the movement to limit CO2 emissions could have become the sort of juggernaut that extracted the Endangered Species Act and a flurry of other environmental legislation from another conservative Republican administration thirty years earlier. That it did not was, I think, the result primarily of three factors.
The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change movement. Most of the leading figures in the climate change movement are used to the very different culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their values.
This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought and sold for a price that these days isn’t always discreetly disguised as grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists goes out the window.
The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit.
 I’ve come to think that a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism.
I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people in one or another corner of the activist scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go, carrying with you a can of tuna and a can opener. The moment the cats smell the fragrance of the tuna, they’ll come at a run, and you’ll have your herd exactly where you want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that you’re willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.
That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a lifestyle that the movement’s own leaders have shown no willingness to adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the benefit of others. That’s left the movement wide open to accusations that it means its policies to apply only to other people – accusations that have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don’t have to spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman’s cheerleading for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people’s carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others’.
For a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship of democracy to climate change see here.
And Stephen Holmes - the political scientists who focuses on post-communism - has written a very thoughtful piece on the reasons for the current disillusionment with democracy. It is quite remarkable to find an American writing in these terms -

To understand why citizens today, throughout the world, cannot easily control politicians by democratic means, we need to look at the way in which various extra-electoral forms of dependency of politicians on citizens have recently been eroded. To oversimplify, we can say that the citizen-voter has leverage over ruling groups only when he or she is also a citizen-soldier, a citizen-worker, and a citizen-consumer. The few are willing to share power and wealth with the many only when the many voluntarily cooperate with the few in their war-making and profit-making. When volunteer armies with high-tech weapons replace citizen levies, one of the main motives for elite interest in public welfare is substantially weakened. The flooding of the labour market by a low-cost Chinese workforce has also reduced the interest of the American and European capitalist class in the health and education of American and European workers. Taken together, the disappearance of the citizen-soldier and the diminished status and clout of the citizen-worker have considerably reduced the leverage which the citizen-voter can bring to bear on society's top decision-makers. This erosion has become a total destruction in the case of Russia, where the hydrocarbon bonanza (sold to foreigners) has liberated the ruling elite from citizen-consumers as well. 


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