Democracy - The Art of Re-making Society

David Graeber’s excellent insider account of the occupation of Wall Street [1] offers us an insight into what form the politics of resistance needs to take. It will be dual purpose, having to both build resistance and also build anew. It will be about renewal, hope and learning. Crucially, how you build resistance will inform and shape what is to follow. It will entail democracy being built from ground zero.
During Occupy wall street there was a electric hum that came from that community. People were actively engaged on a social level, face to face discussions everywhere attempting to make it an active space for direct democracy. In that electricity of building community, ideas flourished, principles were applied, democracy was direct and actions flowed from the place where decisions were reached, collectively. In short, politics has to became about the remaking of society.[2] What is society if it is not about people? It can only be rebuilt by people; people meeting, planning, discussing, deciding and acting together.
Politics has disintegrated to little more than a spectator sport for many. The most recent iteration of that has brought about the Trump presidency. He is now a living daily reminder of the failures of that system to deliver for people. He is the sad clown, the punchline to the joke that is called democracy in the USA. The Democracy Project is a book which can greatly help us to understand what is unravelling in the white house in the most powerful empire on earth. This has to be a turning point. Trump has to be punctuation point to a dismal history of how democracy became about the control and manipulation of people, rather than delivering change for them.
A George Bush Junior aide speaking to a New York Times reporter shortly after Iraq had been invaded by US Troops had this to say:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community”, which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality.” ... That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” [Ron Suskind “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, New York Times Magazine, October 17 2004.]
In one way the quote, over ten years later does much to explain the trajectory the world now finds itself on. Trump is a man who has the knowledge of how to make ‘make-believe’ real. He was schooled through the medium of reality TV. Now he has managed to shape his ambition to become President, into our present day reality. Many people are now reflecting on how we managed to find ourselves living in times when our discernible reality is, frankly, hard to believe.
The truth in that quote is that those aides to power, can affect our everyday reality, because they advise the powerful. The powerful, can will and do regularly shape our reality. George Bush and Tony Blair did start a war without any discernible reason, and that affected the reality of the world.
The aide counterposes the creation of reality with a flip side being the ‘judicious study of discernible reality’. We both like to think, and are encouraged to believe, that the world works on the basis of solutions emerging from study of the facts. The implication is that this is how our system works. That is the fallacy at the heart of this spectator democracy. Solutions to the problems faced by people do not emerge via the so-called democratic process in the USA, or anywhere else for that matter. Four years on from this statement, in 2008 the first black president surfs in the white house on waves of hope. There are the millions who fervently believe in change because they wish it into their futures as they struggle to survive in the present.
Judge him not by his poetic hope but by his prosaic actions. Eight years of continuing the status quo, at a time when that was an achievement in itself. He had to use billions of public tax dollars to bail out Wall Street. The very financial vampires who created this monstrous market failure were saved by public dollars. The wars raged on for war is another good servant to economy. People lost their homes, but the banks and insurance companies were saved. The US militarised police state continued to shoot, kill and jail black and brown and poor people. Incarceration is another vital spinning cog in the big market machine. The security industrial complex based on the incarceration of more than 2.3 million people[3].
Eight years of the black president and what the hope believers were rewarded with for getting their man in the White House [4] did not appear to stack up to much. What we witnessed was how ineffectual all those waves of hope were when they smashed into the rocks of economic change. People continued to survive, but hopes were that they would thrive. Solutions to the problems faced by the people who put Obama in the white house, definitively did not emerge.
When hopes die what follows them? You have to give people are reason to participate in this whole circus. You have to give them a reason to support one candidate over another. Given the inability to deliver change, this is not an easy task. That is where the propaganda units come in, from where the spin doctors and political advisers emerge [5]. They will supply you with a reason to get behind their candidate. These manipulators work to convince you of the realities that they build, to channel you into certain direction. Following the Obama presidency they had to work at convincing people to vote, to give them a reason participate, to back someone. In 2016, over 90 million people choose not to vote.
A batch of right wing power brokers, in the shape of Breitbart[6], got behind a man who knows how to manipulate, knows how to appeal to the irrational. He used not message of hope, but stirring up the heady cocktail of hate, spite, xenophobia, racism, selfishness, and promised to deliver on that. Ineffectual on economics, potentially, but he was appealing to those who have been systematically failed, and forgotten about. If you know how television works, what greater reality TV show is there than the US general election. Trump and his gallery of goons of the far right got to work “creating” their own reality. Steve Bannon, who goes on to be Trumps chief strategist, creates a website that he called a” killing machine’; a harvester of hate, which generates massive support for Trump. This age of social media gave Bannon the tool to carve out a pathway towards being a kingmaker. He is a man who went onto see himself as Thomas Cromwell [7] in the court of Tudors. Inventing emotive enemies within, and without, and trading in the currency of hate. He surrounded himself with the best pedlars of this bile, like Milo Yiannopoulous. They painted targets on all the symptoms of neoliberalism. They shaped a ‘narrative’ and appealed. You shape the parameters of what the ‘election’ is about.
Trump may not fix the economy, but by God he was going to keep the illegals out, kick out the ones who’d snuck in, get jobs back, build walls, or whatever other bullyboy tactic that appealed to the disenfranchised. People get disenfranchised because they saw their hopes not being realised, they continue to be stuck in their own lives. The likelihood is that you are poor and poor you shall remain. The theory of social mobility[8] in the United States is a dinosaur, it existed at one time, but now appears so dead as to be near mythical.
The other great trick that Bannon pulled was when he called out Hillary Clinton as member of the established political classes who were aligned with the idea that the president and government was there to enact ‘solutions emerge from judicious study of discernible reality’.
This has been the liberal lie of how democracy works. The clever trick of branding Trump as outside of this political establishment was the greatest deceit. Now he could not be blamed for the abysmal failure of the political classes to bring about any policy solutions faced by the people. Trump could lambast Clinton as being part of the administration that had just been through eight years of power, and delivered nothing. Trump, managed to portray himself as the great anti-establishment politician. People were encouraged to think that Clinton presidency would look a lot like the last eight years of their lives under Obama, and they saw history repeating. They were going to stay stuck.
The fallacy is that the powerful, the elected, are there to bring about solutions faced by the general population. This belief does not survive, as soon as you take it out of the shinny shrink wrap of campaign speak and expose it to the air of street. It decomposes quickly. The experience of people’s everyday lives bluntly informs them of whether or not a solutions have been found. You are sick, can you afford the medicine and do you get well? You are out of work, and poor. You get a job, but you remain poor because that’s the only work you can find. Your old job went away. They promised that they were going to replace it. But they never did. Who did this to you? The established political class answered the Trump campaign. Bannon was able to convince some that a vote for Trump was a vote against this established lying political class.
People are misinformed all the time. This system does not deliver solutions to the problems they face. Expert panels are convened, investigations are held, reports written, solutions proclaimed that could be implemented on the back of recommendations, but that is where it ends. Policy does not come from here. “The world economy is the most efficient expression of organised crime.” [9] That is what policy concerns itself with, the global economy. Problems people face, remain a problem, for the people and governments bear no responsibility for addressing them.
In fact the people’s role in democracy is a problem for politicians. The voter has to be carefully massaged through the process of selecting someone who can then go on to deliver for powerful. Keep the wheels on whilst capitalism continues to deliver for those at the top. This is democracy, so we have to involve the people, at least the idea of one person, one vote. The job of the political advisers now, is to convince someone to actually vote for someone, given the abysmal failure of the system to deliver change.
Democracy might have delivered a black President in 2008, but he went on to serve, protect and save wall street through their years of crisis. Democracy - as practised and as it has been carefully cultivated to be - is the status quo delivered. In this democracy people might vote, but they sure as hell DO NOT COUNT. People are there to be sold a ‘version’ of reality. That’s where the arch-manipulators, political advisers enter stage right and ‘create’ the reality. The ones who constantly talk of controlling the ‘narrative’. These are the political practitioners of the dark arts who work to process the voting populace through the mincer to deliver enough weight behind their candidate. This is spectator democracy, and it works very well for the powerful. Meanwhile, people know that their America is not great, it is broken.
From the origins of democracy in the United States, there has always been the fear that majority rule, would lead to chaos. Majority rule, and the idea of progress for the greater good, the idea that solutions are sought for the problems facing the people can easily fit onto the idea of democracy. It makes sense and for that reason has been one of the great marketing success stories. But from its origins in the United States, as elsewhere, there was a fear that this majority rule would not suit the rulers. John Adams feared the ‘vote of the majority’ would bring “Debts would be abolished first; taxes laid heavy on the rich, and not at all on others, and at last a downright equal division of everything be demanded and voted.” [10] Some people call these demands social justice, but Adams feared that it would all end in ‘anarchy and tyranny’. Another Virginia Governor spoke of the his fears of and the need for safeguards against “government exercised by the people.” Democracy became popular with people for this precise reason, the idea that people were in charge of who was to govern, and also how they were to govern, and in whose interests. But by 1820’s - when we get to Andrew Jackson, campaigning to be President, a political scientist, Dupuis-Déri says that “democracy was akin to what today would be called political marketing.”
People are smart enough to work out that voting is not going to deliver change their lives, and I believe that this lesson has been learned everywhere, from North America to the UK, from Spain to Greece. Everything is sub-ordinate to the economy, and this has led to people remaining stuck or continuing to sink. All over the world people are getting crushed and mangled in austerity, as all life is sub-ordinated to appeasing the economy. So therefore in that context what purpose do politicians serve? Well, they can seek to address old grievances that bubble below the surface, and appeal to you on an emotional level.
The Trump advisors created a reality where the consequences of this iteration of capitalism, neoliberalism, were presented and packaged as targets that could be hit. Trump may not fix the economy but by god he was going to get some payback. So illegals - would be punished for ‘stealing jobs’ and would be kicked out. The jobs that were long gone, thanks to neoliberalism, would come back and would be given to the ‘right people’. Trump might even bully corporations like he did contestants on his game show. Trump would let no-one stand in his way, and walls would be built. Through his sheer force of will, he was going to make the Mexicans pay for everything they had done, and he was going to make them pay for that wall that he was going to be forced to build. All this emotional talk from the bully, trying to make a connection with the voter.
The Brexit vote illustrated the insidious ability of these demons to market the TO LEAVE vote as a mark against neoliberalism and its failure to deliver a decent living to people. More trading on the currency of hate, and the harkening back to a time when people were better off and counted in some way in society. A nostalgic time when voters had to in some way be accounted to. Campaigning is now done to address old grievances, as it carries a certain emotional appeal. The politicians stating that they will address these in some way, and that they are the same as you.
Meanwhile in the background the business of passing polices and laws that actively work against the interests of the majority of people, the general population, continues apace.
Noam Chomsky in a recent interview about Trump theatrics said this:
“It’s enough that attention is diverted from what is happening in the background. There, out of the spotlight, the most savage fringe of the Republican Party is carefully advancing policies designed to enrich their true constituency: the Constituency of private power and wealth, “the masters of mankind,” to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase.”
[An excerpt from Global Discontents: Conversations on the rising threats to Democracy, Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian]
When we see Trump elected to the White House, you can see that as a failure of democracy, or you can see it as the inevitable end result of nearly 200 years of carefully cultivating a system which is sold as being democratic, but is in fact the opposite: anti-democratic. Democracy was great marketing, but it was never about decisions being made in the interest of the many and not of the few. That idea was disembowelled early. It posed to much of a threat to the slave masters, the propertied, the wealthy. So it was cut out, but the political marketing of the democratic idea remained important to them. That in some way the people were making a choice, this was important in that it was a mechanism to appease, the many. The whole apparatus was important for the status quo to continue. It shows how we have reached the end of the line, and the end of the lie about this ‘democracy’. Trump is the punchline, the punctuation point to this anti-democracy. For so many reasons, not least people and the planet, the status quo cannot be allowed to continue. Anti-democracy maintains our present course, and we already know how this ends badly for all of us.
Occupy, Tahrir Square, Gezi Park, Rojava, are examples of people reaching the conclusion that we need to re-build our society within the corrosive ruins of this one. The spectacle of the present day anti-democratic circus of western democracy will not deliver any solutions. Catalonia’s recent referendum for independence shows how a European ‘democratic’ state can and will intervene violently when the voters dare to make democracy about something other than the maintenance of the status quo.
We know we have a world that needs rebuilding. People are not yet ready to dispense with the idea of democracy. Like ideas of freedom, fraternity, and justice, democracy has survived the many mis-interpretations. It has survived precisely because we can easily imagine a world where people come together, meet, discuss, plan and implement a way of living based on the needs of the many. What would that look like? At its heart it would be truly democratic. We owe it to ourselves to try it.
[1] The Democracy Project,
[2] That cannot happen in digital space. No matter how many times Zuckerberg, Google or some silicon valley Svengali says so. No matter how many times people hit a button with a picture of an upturned thumb, or click on a frown to represent our misfortune, the remedy lies off screen. It will not be clicked into existence. It cannot be ‘liked’ into being. This digital path will lead to the 2020 presidential race being one between Zuckerberg and The Rock!
[4] Ta-Nehisi Coates writes eloquently about this.
[5] See Irish Government’s Strategic Communications Unit, a newspeak term for propaganda unit, Cost €5m to public purse.
[7] Bannon to the Hollywood Report in Nov 2016 -
[9] Upside Down - Eduardo Galeano, p.6.
[10] pp. 165, D. Graeber, The Democracy Project