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Tag: democracy

This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

The Elites and the Random Schmucks

In the 1940s, while England was being terrorized by Nazis, George Orwell wrote this:

“An army of unemployed led by millionaires quoting the Sermon on the Mount — that is our danger. But it cannot arise when we have once introduced a reasonable degree of social justice. The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes.”

The message hasn’t expired. Orwell’s lengthy essay (which he actually refers to as a book) is particularly relevant in light of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump.

After conducting a broad ethnography of the different demographic factions, Orwell excoriates capitalism and entreats Britain to adopt democratic socialism. With hindsight, we can see that he is extremely wrong about a couple of things — particularly the supposed “efficiency” of nationalized economies (see also). Orwell repeatedly asserts that England is incapable of defeating Hitler without a revolution, which… no.

However, I have a lot of sympathy for Orwell’s overall position. He condemns the status quo government of his day because it does not represent the regular citizens, nor does its design promote their wellbeing. Sound familiar?

"The Maunsell Sea Forts, part of London's World War II anti-aircraft defences." Photo by Steve Cadman.

“The Maunsell Sea Forts, part of London’s World War II anti-aircraft defences.” Photo by Steve Cadman.

Considering that I live in a democratic republic, and most of my readers live in democratic republics, it seems appropriate to ask — isn’t it weird that “populism” is a dirty word? Aren’t related phrases like “the common people” supposed to be the mainstays of representative governments?

Veteran financial journalist Felix Salmon wrote in response to Brexit:

“If you move from a democracy of the elites to a pure democracy of the will of the people, you will pay a very, very heavy price. Governing is a complicated and difficult job — it’s not something which can helpfully be outsourced to the masses, especially when the people often base their opinions on outright lies.”

That’s a pretty compelling argument. People are idiots with no awareness of history (myself included, often).

The problem with true, unfettered democracy is that it erodes the ground on which we build our Schelling fences. The will of the people, en masse, is not compatible with the Bill of Rights. Quinn Norton tweetstormed on this topic:

“Human rights are not democratic. Rather, they are limits placed on democracy. […] If you all get together and vote to have me for dinner, my right to not be eaten is meant to trump your democratic will. […] So when people exclaim human rights democracy blah blah blah, please remember, our rights are there to beat democracy back with a stick.”

My tentative conclusion is that successful governments figure out a balance of power not just between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, but also between the elites and the random schmucks. Of course, that heavily depends on who gets to define “successful”…

Ag-Gag Laws & Political Maneuvering

Illustration by Hobvias Sudoneighm.

Illustration by Hobvias Sudoneighm.

Agriculture is not a sexy topic. Even modern high-yield factory farming is pretty mundane. Monsanto suing small farmers? Not the futurists’ concern — leave it to anti-GMO hippies. I’m not convinced that buying organic produce will stop the world from going to hell in a handbasket. But the way the industry has succeeded in litigating the spread of information — that piques my curiosity and raises my hackles.

Are you familiar with the ag-gag laws? They’ve been around for a while, but here’s a refresher, focusing on Iowa:

“HF 589 […] criminalizes investigative journalists and animal protection advocates who take entry-level jobs at factory farms in order to document the rampant food safety and animal welfare abuses within. […] The original version of the law would have made it a crime to take, possess, or share pictures of factory farms that were taken without the owner’s consent, but the Iowa Attorney General rejected this measure out of First Amendment concerns. As amended, however, the law achieves the same result by making it a crime to give a false statement on an ‘agricultural production’ job application. This lets factory farms and slaughterhouses screen out potential whistleblowers simply by asking on job applications, ‘Are you affiliated with a news organization, labor union, or animal protection group?'” — Cody Carlson, a former Humane Society investigator

It’s a clever loophole. Lobbyists for Big Food achieved their desired result by coming at the issue sideways. The New York Times’ editorial board said, “These laws, on the books in seven states, purport to be about the protection of private property, but they are nothing more than government-sanctioned censorship of a matter of public interest.” Any sane person would find this a little disturbing — the obviousness of how a government can and will serve large-scale corporate interests, rather than prioritizing the needs of the regular citizenry.

“I have always said that there are two types of politics — what people see and what really makes things happen.” — Andrés Sepúlveda, who purportedly helped rig South American elections

This is the argument for political participation. I waffled about whether I was going to vote this year — after abstaining in 2014 — but I decided that I’d rather choose between imperfect choices than opt out of having a say. It’s probably impossible for a modern electoral race to involve candidates with true integrity, but maybe I can settle for “less blatantly corrupt than old-school Russian bureaucrats”. Of course, there’s a significant chance that voting makes no difference whatsoever.

All opposition is controlled opposition.

My friend Gerald Leung left some astute comments on Facebook, so I want to clarify my point: Is it okay to lie on a job application? No, and before any ag-gag laws were passed, you could already get fired for deceiving your employer. Is that behavior worth criminalizing? Debatable.

What bothers me is that this suite of laws was passed because of the industrialized agriculture industry’s desires. Iowa’s HF 589 specifically addresses agricultural production. It’s not like the Corn State was plagued by an independent surge of people lying on their job applications.

We Can All Agree, Right?

“The Internet can move almost any financial instrument as easily as it moves texts and emails. We just need consensus on how this should happen.” — Cade Metz, “The Plan to Unite Bitcoin With All Other Online Currencies”

Of course, needing consensus is a huge obstacle. Arguably, needing consensus is civilization’s defining problem. Complete agreement isn’t necessary, but you need enough to stave off revolution. A sufficiently powerful autocrat can obviate the need for consensus, but only for a limited amount of time — decades, perhaps, but not even a half-century. True cultural shifts depend on majority opinion, and they inch forward like glaciers: slow but unstoppable. The United States wouldn’t have women’s suffrage or civil rights without something approaching mass consensus.

The other day I chatted with Samio Quijote​ about internalized capitalism. For example: if I’m not “productive”, I feel worthless. Economic systems reinforce particular values, which is not bad — it just is. A type of societal consensus emerges from capitalism, or at least it’s an effect of the market. Without a sort of consensus surrounding supply-demand dynamics, there are no prices and commerce must cease. Seeking decentralized consensus, not dependent on explicit agreement but on behavior incentivized by a certain system, is easy. You just set up conditions and see how people react.

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