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Enlightenment Now? – Democracy

Democracy has vastly improved people’s lives and continues to spread around the world. But how much is it under threat by the very process that enabled its rise?

The Rise of Democracy

Here’s the good news. Today, about two thirds of the world’s population live in free or relatively free societies. If this seems like too few, in 1950 it was less than two fifths of the world’s population. In 1900, it was only a fifth. In 1850, only 7% of the world’s population lived under democratic rule. In 1816, that figure was only 1%. Over the past 200 years, democracy has risen from almost nothing to the leading form of state governance across the globe.

This progress is not to be underestimated. Democracies are less prone to the reigns of terror that governments have inflicted on their citizens throughout history, including atrocities such as slavery, summary executions, and the torture and mutilation of dissidents. Democratic nations also tend to have higher rates of economic growth, fewer wars and genocides, healthier and better-educated citizens, and virtually no famines. Although far from perfect, democratic forms of government are clearly better than their feudalistic and autocratic predecessors.

Now, there are all sorts of problems with democracy as a system of governance. Are people informed enough to vote rationally? Are democracies truly representative? Is it fair for the will of the majority to rule over minorities? I’m not going to go into these issues here. I’m going to assume that most forms of democracy are superior to autocracies and ask the following questions instead: How much is democracy under threat by the very process that enabled its rise?

The Fall of Democracy?

Over the past decade, the presidency of Donald Trump, Brexit and populist movements in a number of European nations, has put the stability of democracy in doubt. David Runciman, in his book How Democracy Ends, argues that democracies fail due to problems of their own making. A number of influential books since, such as Lawrence Lessig’s Republic, Lost, Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, and Peter Geoghegan’s Democracy for Sale have shown that modern democracies suffer from three major problems which we don’t yet know can be solved.

The first of these problems is the increasing influence of money on democratic politics – massive corporate and private interests manipulating political decision-making through sponsorship, lobbying, think tanks and outright corruption. The second problem is the rise of media corporations that continuously misinform the public through biased information. The third problem is social media, which can also be manipulated by powerful interests to further control and divide public opinion. All of these problems stem from the huge concentrations of corporate and private wealth in Western nations that has been on the increase from the 1980s onwards.

These are all issues of power and its distribution. It is the threat of nations being ruled by a relatively small amount of corporate and private interests rather than the majority of their citizens. As George Monbiot argues, the combination of economic growth and increasing income inequality, that has been happening within Western nations since the 1980s, means our democracies are now looking more and more like oligarchies.

The Power Game

This seems like pretty scary stuff. But how problematic is it, really? Peter Geoghegan argues that many of these problems are fixable with new laws and better-resourced regulators. This is music to Pinker’s ears. In Pinker’s chapter on Democracy, he doesn’t discussion any of these problems, presumably because he thinks they can be readily solved. As we’ve seen before, Pinker accepts that progress often creates new problems, but these problems are worth it given the amount of progress that’s been made. Sure, solving problems often creates more problems. But we can solve those too!

The question, however, is not whether we can solve these problems threatening our democracies, but whether there will ever be the political will to do so. As Geoghegan goes on to note: “The [Brexit] referendum and its aftermath have revealed… a broken political system that is ripe for exploitation again. And again. And again.” The existential threat to democracy comes from the fact that those who’ve successfully exploited some inadequacies of the current regulatory system – from prominent politicians to massive media corporations – have very little incentive to fix the system. The people who have the power to solves these problems are the ones who are causing them.

Pinker rarely deals with these political issues. He generally assumes that, with enough knowledge, we can fix any problem if it’s important. The problem with this assumption is who the “we” is. What happens when those who have the power to fix a problem – and who have the power inform the majority of citizens about it – have little interest in fixing it? How long will it remain unsolved?

A More Stable Form of Progress

Unlike Pinker, I don’t have faith that we will inevitably solve the major problems currently facing liberal democracies. Likewise, people on the political right – turning to populist and nationalist movements – and people on the political left – turning to socialism and more radical forms of social justice – aren’t exactly fill of hope that we’ll restore our governmental systems. More recently, widespread conspiracy theories have become a prominent feature of this political landscape – another symptom of mass inequality, powerful forces and the scope for sharing misinformation.

A more stable form of progress would be one in which the benefits of continuous economic growth were not captured by wealthy corporations and oligarchs. Now, admittedly, there us little incentive for people in power to make such changes – or at least, as much of an incentive as there is for them to regulate political donations, media corporations or social media. But, such changes are still possible, and would tackle the route of the major problems facing modern democracies.

The problem is Pinker doesn’t want to go there. He trusts that, eventually, human ingenuity will save the day – as long as we let it i.e. not mess with the system too much. Who knows, maybe he’ll turn out to be right on this one? But he might not. And I’m not sure it’s worth taking the risk. Personally I don’t want to live in a political system where a small group of people dictate how things are for the rest. That sounds more like an autocracy than a democracy to me. But, unless we do something to curb the influence that powerful corporations and private wealth currently has on the political process, that’s where we will end up. That is, if we’re not there already.

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