Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Of Governments and Mobs

As the Europeans dither over which sanctions they could apply to Russia that would not hurt them more, a two-pronged question: In an age of growing mass literacy and electronic communica-tion, what kinds of governments stand the best chance of being effective - and hence, durable - and is the expression ‘mob rule’ justified?
The Western press has had a field day since the Sochi Olympics, depicting the Russian President as a megalo-maniac jock whose word is law, while complaining in the same breath that the American President cannot get anything done. Given the unprecedented dangers the world has concocted for itself, it would seem that any sane, rational person would be more interested in how the presidents of nuclear armed nations use their power, than in how much power they have.  

Americans are told that leaders must be ‘democratically elected’, with ‘checks and balances’ on their power.  Yet given the myriad ways big business has to make Presi-dents do its bidding, checks and balances is now but a pious invocation: real power lies not with elected officials, but with their financiers.  

How else to explain that President Obama admits to ordering the assassination of American citizens, while allowing purveyors of consumer goods to learn our most intimate wants and needs?  Or the fact that though he’s a professor of constitutional law, he disregards the laws that bar him from supporting rulers who gain power by force - as in Egypt or Ukraine.

And yet I’m sure there are days when Obama envies Putin his legislators’ obedience: 

“I need a vote on the possible use of force in Ukraine.” 


Personally, I prefer a president who easily gets an authori-zation to use force because his legislators are well-edu-cated and know what’s happening in the larger world, but only uses that authorization as a real last resort, to one who uses force first and justifies it to a largely ignorant Congress later - or not.  I’d rather have a president who offers to negotiate with the European Union and the U.S. over the Ukraine (as Putin did early on), than one who sends his minions to deliver cookies and CIA arms to achieve what is commonly referred to as ‘mob rule’ - except when they are ‘our’ mob.

The term ‘mob rule’ has been in wide use, I believe, since shortly after the Constitution was adopted, inspired by the storming of the Bastille during the contemporaneous French Revolution, and reinforced a century and a half later by newsreels of the storming of the Winter Palace during the 1917 Russian Revolution. The American system of ‘checks and balances’ has been so successfully contrasted to the idea of wild-eyed club-wielding men destroying fine furniture that the press freely associates demonstrations with ‘mob rule’, invariably opposing them to the ‘democratic’ way of achieving change through the ballot box. It mindlessly parrots the vocabulary used by the political class, especially the derogatory expressions with which it designates those over whom power weighs most heavily. 

This leads to the two issues, which in fact is really one: the relationship of power to the people - or the other way around.  The most significant element in any discussion of  power today is the exponentially growing number of people on the planet, which makes it almost impossible for any regime to govern satisfactorily. Populations now have to be ‘managed’; and the more they resist being managed, the tighter the controlling screws are turned, via high-tech bureaucracies, militarily-armed police and spying on a scale never seen before. This could be called the Rousseau aspect of governance, that of bringing man from a ‘state of nature’ to ‘civilization’, and it is sometimes accused of leading to totalitarianism.

The other kind of relationship between power and the people could be referred to as the idealistic one that began with Locke, which privileges the individual and has led to the ‘me’ culture and ‘shop til you drop’. Starting in the seventeenth century, the West gave itself increasingly representative governments, until the twin phenomena of exponential population growth and full enfranchisement threatened their efficacy.  The population of the United States was two and a half million when the first Congress convened, and is three hundred and seventeen million today, while the number of representatives went from fewer than one hundred to four hundred and thirty-five. With proportional representation, population growth inevitably leads to unwieldy debating institutions increa-singly exposed to influence peddling.  Payments ranging from stuffed envelops to the creation of PACS, combined with an obedient press adjust mass voter attitudes accor-dingly.

It’s no surprise, that over two hundred plus years, the liberal democracy in which the will of the people is carried out by its representatives gradually withered away. Not, as Marx hoped, because government is superfluous, but under the assault of complexity and money. But at last, thanks to electronic media, ‘the people’, ever more informed about what their rulers are doing, increasingly resist the combination of brutality and spying that has kept them in line. 

In a world whose bloated population makes governance almost impossible, events such as the ouster of Egyptian Pre-sident Mohammed Morsi, Brazil’s general strike, Greece’s debacle, the Gezi Park sit-in or drone attacks, have blurred frontiers and led to a growing rejection of a consumer society that increasingly imposes austerity for the many. Realizing that representative democracy need not be the only game in town, people in many parts of the world, both developed and not, increasingly come to the realization that they can and must take their destinies into their own hands, inventing other ways of life based on a cooperation that begins in the streets and squares where peaceful protests are organized. 

Some groups are libertarians that reject government regulation in the name of absolute individual freedom, while others are closer to philosophical anarchism, whose basic principle is responsibility for one’s self as well as the community. In the current repressive context, both groups are forced to rely on mass events to get their message across, but very few of these feature ‘mobs’. The Ukrainian coup made clear what ‘mobs’ look like - and how quickly they can turn against those who would use them for their own ends, as Right Sector demands weapons and threatens to blow up pipelines.

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