“Of course, a decent hierarchical society has never had the concept of one person, one vote, which is associated with a liberal democratic tradition of thought that is foreign to it, and perhaps would think (as Hegel did), that such an idea mistakenly expresses an individualistic idea that each person, as an atomistic unit, has the basic right to participate equally in politicial deliberation.” J. Rawls, The law of peoples, Harvard University Press (1999).
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dated 22-06-2008. Kind of an appropriate time to bring this up again because – even if this post is, as so often here, densely confused – the thinking of Rawls reads like a hand book of what happens at the present moment, under the pressure of people worldwide gaining information on what liberal democracy brings.]
The ways of the world are not simple, quite regardless of how frustrated we get with its complexity. We mostly look back to find things which were better, or at least which in our perception were better. We mostly look forward in an attempt to predict first the next turn for the worst. Fear and dismay are best of friends when we contemplate our individual situation. We attach ourselves to particulars, specifically to particulars that tie into our particular situation. The assessment is simple then: “The world is about to get much worse.” is the Achilles’ heel of the liberal democratic tradition.
The threat that faces us is, then, not the individualism that leads to complexities from which nationalists and others are trying to save us. The threat is precisely that traditionalist craving for a more simple society where a previous decent consultation hierarchy is restored. The error is the lack of cultural optimisms. A lack that leads to the desire to go back to an evolutionarily prior (and therefore simpler) state because of the feeling of being lost in modern day complexities that can only lead to alienation. As if a tribal state is somehow closer to true humanity than that of state-less individualism where people group based on what they want instead of based on what their forefathers wanted.
[added a lot of stuff in the previous para, so maybe there may be a disconnect in what follows]
In such a more primitive society governed by a decent consultation hierarchy it are the groups, not individuals, who matter. In some form or shape it are groups’ representatives that vote. Most current democracies with universal single vote per citizen are still determined by that stage, whether in the form of a party-cracy or ‘the candidate for X’. We are not out of the woods yet, in an almost evolutionary literal sense, because even if current democracies are far better at anything than societies explicitly based on decent consultation; these current democracies revert, once the votes are in, to some kind of decent consultation where, more often than not, electoral winners start to speak on behalf of all the voters’ perennial wishes instead of on some voters’ temporary preferences. This is aggravated by the fact that winners have been pre-selected (hence my word: the selectorate) before any elections within a race where it is not citizens’ but elitist priorities are the most important ones.
[again, lots of stuff added so, again, there may be even more disconnect as the usual dose …]
Okay, this little rant does not clarify anything with respect to the Rawls quote. My sincerest apologies for that. The situation is this: the general trend is a trend for the better. There are less and less societies treating a big part of their citizens as second rate slaves. There are more and more societies that, at least, pay lip service to equal opportunities for all their citizens regardless of ethnic or economic affiliation of their parents (and the payment of lip service is not the smallest payment that can be offered, not at all).
[I have to note at this point that the general playing down by traditionalists of ‘liberal rhetoric’ is nothing else than the intuitive understanding that it the liberal rhetoric is superior and cannot be defeated. As we see when I re-post this, the liberal rhetoric is stronger than armies and stronger than state terror. If and when dictators and tyrants are driven to a point where they need to pay lip service to liberal democratic values, they have reached a point of no return. Once the word is free, it is only a matter of time before those that speak it will become free.]
But the evolution from this former state to the latter state is relatively recent, far from well established.
The worst of an, even realistic, utopia is forcing all to comply black and white, from one day to the other. Decent consultation hierarchies, like China for the most part, are not ideal but they should also not be our main worry. They are after all, pretty decent, whilst our own liberal democracies are still far from an ideal, if only because we do not yet have that ideal very clear (Rawls’ attempt at realistic ideal is to be applauded but far from ideal). The idea that we have at all costs to avoid people acting as atomistic units is pervasively present in modern liberal democracies. On the left it often takes a form of ‘grass roots democracy’, on the right one of ‘community tradition first’. The former is not very different of tribal proceedings whilst the latter is, under the guise of ‘secularism is part of the western tradition’ the biggest insult one can imagine to liberalism and secularism.
Right or left, the words ‘community’ as good and ‘individualism’ as bad are used ad nauseam. The solution here lies in philosophy. Here, as elsewhere, philosophy matters; more than merely matter it clinches the way we need to look at it. Individuals are individuals by virtue of their interaction with other individuals. The original version of this interaction, the version of cave (wo)men up to religious society is that of interaction within a well defined, but coincidental, community. This is the version in which the elders, or the priests, or the rich, or the meritorious and so on spoke on behalf of the rest. The universal (or liberal, or secular) version is that in which the rest speaks on behalf of itself. This fact does not preclude that individuals are individuals by virtue of their interaction with others – quite the reverse: because of what individuals are, the only way of organizing is the way in which everybody speaks for himself. Every other organization is one in which some traditional or otherwise coincidental relation of individuals takes precedence over the universal and basic relation between individuals. De facto, every other organization is one in which the few decide the fate of the many.
Too long, but in my defence: I need to think this through.
Finding the relation between political philosophy, morality down to basic philosophy is important, but tried to seldomly. Anyway, the imperfections of democracy are no reason to wage war or become militant in an organized way. In a democracy there’s ultimately room for just one political organization: the democracy itself. We’re not to mistake Rawls’ correct nuancing with accepting glaring imperfections in our ideal situation. Militant organizations can be necessary when we indeed relapse into a more medieval politicial organization. For now, it should suffice to count on a trend of centuries of stable evolution towards the ideal.
[And I have to say: the worst thing that can happen with success of Western style democracy would be that it becomes complacent (and in fact, that is what you will find on the ‘enlightened’ right genre Geert Wilders) where it states that we have come to the end result of a superior tradition. Western democracies are flawed and their origin does not lie in the common Western cultural roots but lies in the common superiority of democracies based on liberal individual liberty to which progressive insight carries us. The West just happens to be co-incidentally best evolved at this present stage of human cultural development.]
[Whilst writing this I was listening to Jimi Hendrix, In Concert, Starlife.]