The bonfire of democracy

One curiosity of the current historical era is that democracy has identified itself with the liberal market.  Democracy will henceforth claim victory – the victory of the successful over the unsuccessful.  And there is nothing wrong with winning – everyone has his chance.  But these triumphs differ from the triumphs of, for example, Pericles, because today’s society is not reaping any benefits from this victory of the strong.  The primary focus of a Periclean or Jeffersonian democracy was the greater society, not just an individual showing in the race.  Today, society functions as nothing more than an arena for the liberal market, and – in a best-case scenario – the public are cast into the role of spectators, although more often they serve as merely an impediment to the competition.

The ideal of democracy includes human-rights safeguards that prevent the strong from vanquishing the weak.  But the “democracy – liberal market” hybrid of recent years sanctions the perennial vanquishing of the weak by creating a caste of “global elite” – the strongest players who are citizens of the world market rather than citizens of a specific society.  Success in the market automatically entails influence in politics.  The presidents of banks, heads of corporations, and owners of mineral wealth do not represent any society, or even their own capital, but rather a new entity, a democratic nomenklatura.

But their ideology is not fundamentally right-wing, and democracy’s newest political class represents the interests of the right in only a nominal sense.  It is crucial to understand that many viewpoints that are considered leftist also have their place in this new nomenklatura, alongside the right, and left-wing terminology has been included in the new ideology in an ornamental capacity.  In reality, Hannah Arendt does not contradict Ayn Rand, but augments her – the two women are equally passionate apologists for the new ideology.  The new ideology’s system of values is also well served by avant-garde art, creative works that lack subjects, and left-leaning curators, while the nominally leftist Slavoj Žižek does as much for the new ideology as the nominally right-wing Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld: they are all the handmaidens of this new thinking.  The new democratic nomenklatura is a new type of class created by a democratic market that loves freedom and embraces the ideals of personal freedom for everyone, but its neo-feudal oppression of others is purely inevitable.  This ideology of the democratic nomenklatura is seen as the most progressive school of contemporary thought.  The public is convinced that the existence of rich feudal overlords is symbolic of their own freedom – many people believe this and thousands of journalists chronicle this situation every day.  And the feudal overlords themselves believe that what they are doing is good.

American painter, film-maker and one of the leaders of the Pop Art movement Andrey Vargola, aka Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987). Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard taken in 1980.
American painter, film-maker and one of the leaders of the Pop Art movement Andrey Vargola, aka Andy Warhol (1928 – 1987). Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard taken in 1980.

Churchill’s mantra of “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms,” Karl Popper’s teachings about “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Hannah Arendt’s essay on totalitarianism, the ontology of guilt described by Heidegger and the ontology of labor described by Ayn Rand, the philosophy of Andy Warhol, and the concept of the contemporary art market have all merged into a unified, dogmatic school of thought.  Try to extract and criticize one of the tenets from the overall framework – perhaps question the greatness of Andy Warhol – and through the lens of Hannah Arendt you will be shown how he symbolizes freedom.  Try to question Arendt’s definition of totalitarianism and Popper will be used to explain to you that the kernels of oppression are easy to recognize in a closed society.

Everyone will henceforth be well prepared when sparring with dictatorships: an ordinary street dispute is actually a clash between dictatorship and democracy, and the public is assured that they are faced with an inescapable choice between totalitarianism and democracy – no third option is available.  The challenge is posed immediately – would you rather live in North Korea?  Choose democracy – it’s the best there is.  And then comes the quote from Popper: it turns out that even long ago Plato claimed that the public bore ironclad obligations to one another – and you can see how that all led to concentration camps.  And then Hannah Arendt’s quote about the banality of evil – you see how easy it is for totalitarianism to take root.  And then Ayn Rand’s formulas: don’t think about the equality of those who are second-rate, but about personal initiative and success.  Everything is clear and logical.

And today, faced with this new frame of reference, citizens frantically search their textbooks but find no other answer: is there really nothing better than democracy?  Constitutional monarchy?  Anarchy?  Communism?  Take a good look – there’s nothing better than democracy.  And the market – the development of progress; it all comes together.  Now it’s clear why George Soros has an estate in Southampton Village and the barbarians are being bombed.

Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, XVI century
Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, XVI century

It never occurs to any of the polemicists that this debate rests simultaneously on two systems of logic: the question about North Korea can be raised using the system of values of the new ideology, but posing such a question would be supremely ludicrous using traditional, historical logic.  Historically, no choice exists between totalitarianism and democracy; it only appears in the works of Karl Popper and Hannah Arendt.  Historically, the actual choice is much more complicated.  Even such egregious phenomena such as Nazi Germany were not entirely consistent, not to mention less odious cases.  To the question, “Would you like to live in North Korea?” one could answer, “No, I would prefer Florence during the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici, but no later.  The golden age of Florence was brief, but that is precisely the type of government I want.

When contemporary social scientists made the suggestion that in the future we will see only a single civilization, evolving from barbarism to progress, and that the common values of democracy will apply to all – at that moment a permanent war was declared.

And the idea of democracy became the first victim of this simplicity.  It was initially conceived as a way to regulate a specific society, but any democracy today that is allied with a dimensionless free market has actually been stripped of its original features.  We live in a strange time – a time when the beautiful word “democracy” has a frightening sound to many people.  It is not possible to reduce a hundred cultures to a single common denominator, but arranging a global conflagration is something feasible.  Everyone was afraid of a global conflagration that would serve the ends of malicious communism, and no one noticed that it was the very concept of a global market democracy that was leading to that global conflagration.

ruinsThe history of any country is a deeply individual and dramatic phenomenon that merges art, geography, climate, national character, traditions and customs, and handicrafts and religion – but today one is struck by the fact that unique countries are no longer needed.  And on this point modern ideology offers a simple, yet effective, logical deception: a country’s citizens are led to believe that if they are so sovereign, so personally unique – what need do they have of a government if each of them is an individual personality?  Why should you have a home when everyone can have a bank account?  The “state” corporation loses its meaning when juxtaposed against more successful corporations.

The collapse of countries into tribes, and those tribes into warring clans, corresponds to the process of the globalization of a liberal economy.  No one will resurrect what has been destroyed.  To resurrect a country from ruins, you need a plan of action to restore it as a whole, you need some semblance of a consensus with the public.  But consensus and planning are the biggest enemies in the modern world.  And most important, countries that are distinct from other countries are unnecessary.  And they became unnecessary, not through the will of that evil George Bush, and not because Obama was held hostage by the military-industrial complex, but for the same reason that the avant-garde of all countries are indistinguishable.  Before us lies the homogeneous, gray world market – do not try to withstand its logic – you will be trampled underfoot.

When assessing operations in Iraq or Afghanistan, the claim is made that the war has not achieved its ends – the war is ongoing and is seen as a failure.  But the desired ends have indeed been achieved – which are that of a permanent state of civil strife, instability, and unrest.  If there were no war at present in Syria it would need to emerge elsewhere.  Wars can move from one country to another as easily as capital.  Executing a war is as easy as making a bank transfer – but tracing who is profiting from it is impossible.

To end war, we need to rid ourselves of this new ideology. We must not only reject economic bubbles, but we must pop the biggest and most terrible bubble of all – the ideological one. And until the West can grasp that Andy Warhol is intrinsically worse than Rembrandt, there will be no peace.
To end war, we need to rid ourselves of this new ideology. We must not only reject economic bubbles, but we must pop the biggest and most terrible bubble of all – the ideological one. And until the West can grasp that Andy Warhol is intrinsically worse than Rembrandt, there will be no peace.

While watching world leaders meet during a crisis, the naive observer is struck by the realization that world is in trouble and a plan to save it is needed, but there is no plan.  World leaders acknowledge that they have no plan – they would like to deprive bankers of their bonuses, but the bankers will not agree.  Planning is fundamentally alien to the modern world, no one even attempts to compare the budget of the oligarchy to the amount of money needed to feed the hungry.  It is precisely a lack of strategy that defines the current strategy, including the strategy of war.  The strategy is to create chaos.  Local chaos can hide behind global chaos.  Civilized countries are proud of the fact that they do not wage war, but only release bombs from a distance – let the local population then figure out the rest.  This is only a facade of irresponsibility.  Surgical strikes on specific targets do in fact accomplish the essential task – which is that the bombing plunge the country into an unmanageable state.  It must be destroyed in its entirety.  Then chaos will reign.

The reign of chaos has become the salvation of democracy.  Chaos will spawn justice – this ideological incantation has made us forget that chaos inevitably spawns Titans.  That which is described by mythology is also a truism of the historical process.  And Titans know nothing of justice.  The liberal market has chosen global civil war as a system by which to govern the world.  People have been convinced that their primary right is the right to civil war, to the idea that “each takes as much freedom as he can” – this grotesque slogan rules the world.  The crowds chant that they want change, but no protester ever reveals exactly which changes he wants – in fact, people have been led to believe that the world requires perpetual rotation; and the world is driven to a state of permanent excitement, like an addict in need of his daily fix.  More, more, more – shake the foundations of the state, rock the boat.  No interest in shaking up the state?  Does that mean you’re in favor of tyranny, a guardian of the regime?  Some things are more important than stagnation and peace!  Henceforth, war is the only way, the only desirable state of affairs for the democratic nomenklatura.

Do you know what kind of world you want to build after the war?  No, that is something no one knows.  This question is equally absurd as asking a modern avant-garde artist, “Do you know how to draw?”  Why does one need to draw if it is no longer required – nowadays everyone agrees that drawing is beside the point in graphic arts.  No one needs that type of world.

Orwell predicted that the new order would introduce the slogan, “War is peace.”

And so it happened.

One of the most prominent Rembrandt's paintings Danaë resides in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
One of the most prominent Rembrandt’s paintings Danaë resides in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

At issue is an endless civil war, in which no one is to blame.  War occurs because of the natural order of things, and an opposing vote in the UN is not enough to stop it – it is senseless to cast the US in the role of the world’s policeman, and even more stupid to accuse the West of self-interest.  The West became the first victim of its own democratic idea, a noble idea for which the greatest figures in Western history gave their lives and which is now being corrupted before our very eyes.  To end war, we need to rid ourselves of this new ideology, of the ideology of Ayn Rand, of the deceptions of the “second avant-garde,” and of our belief in progress and the market.  We must not only reject economic bubbles, but we must pop the biggest and most terrible bubble of all – the ideological one.  And until the West can grasp that Andy Warhol is intrinsically worse than Rembrandt, there will be no peace.

Maxim Kantor is a Moscow-based artist and essayist.

Source in Russian: Expert

Translated by ORIENTAL REVIEW with abridgements. Reposts are welcomed with reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.

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    1. Samil Daniel Castillo

      The neoliberal democratic system does not work. You have to remove it. Disassembling it with slow steps and meeting the needs of the present with constant transition and projection into the future.
      There have been many reforms in the name of democracy and neoliberalism, but unfortunately they not served for the common good. Only served to specific interests of a select group.
      The swarm of options right, left, center right, liberals and others have proposed radical changes have only managed to give direct benefits to a privileged few, and others do not let them complete their proposals and projects because affect economic, political and ideological.
      We see in all this a conflict of EGO and interest. Where every time you build an idea immediately appear certain interests that carry out attacks intolerance to an immediate demolition.
      Of course, for many groups (left and right), it’s not in their intentions to govern for the common good, but perform a quick and immediate reform, first exhaust the resources of the state and does not solve the real problems and increasing social emergency national budget deficit, and second, only benefits a small group, not all of society benefits and no social and economic balance that allows tapering the gap between social classes.
      Capitalism is in its worst crises in its history. To survive has depended on our weaknesses and conducting military agendas worldwide to oppress and submit to their demands!
      Neoliberalism has squeezed with world economic order based on economic prescriptions governed by the logic: “Give the maximum economic benefit to a minority at least cost, to the detriment of millions of human beings”
      Democracy is a system of government that should allow freedom of expression, free education, food, energy, drinking water, decent work … However, labor is manifested eviction, hunger, labor slavery, wars.
      The “democratic” governments and international representatives (UN, NATO) have concentrated on bringing misery and crime against humanity in the last 3 decades to our people suffering the miseries of hell, and other countries. But we show it as a preview of humanity in strength of international law, human rights protection and economic growth.
      You just have to open your eyes to see the reality.
      Big mobilization and struggles of resistance have been conducted as a form of opposition to these systems that have been established for the expense of human beings demanding more freedoms and human rights and respect for individual rights.
      In these demonstrations starring international left, which target the working people and oppressed for profit within the established system. They carry out their revolutionary marketing strategies, and hatred of the apparatus of power, discredit itself.
      And it is the left that talks about democracy and freedom, has become all annihilation machine pluralism that prevents its members to think for themselves and form their own opinion, as they exclude and discriminate against their own members if not fit their ideological considerations and requirements.
      It is this international left, which speaks of unity, go divided and scattered thinking to solve the problems of all human beings every man for himself.

    2. Pascal Savage

      Liberal democracy is a system of government, or, more accurately, a view of society, that claims that social life, of itself, has no substantial existence. This is to say that the only real entity in a society is the individual, defined usually as a self-interested bundle of desires motored by something called the will. Therefore, politics becomes a matter of those self-interested and self-willed units forming groups that represent their specific desires, and the governing structure weighing the public support of each group of desiring individuals, that is, to what extent those desires are shared by larger elements in the population. Public policy, then, in the pure form of this view, is the result of the larger group predominating, having more influence or succeeding in convincing the state that their desires are most worthy of favor.

      The American republic (we might call it a “conservative democracy”) was something different. There were few “liberal democrats” at the Constitutional convention, the acceptance of that ideology among the American ruling class was a much latter development. Conservative republicanism (as opposed to democracy) of the American variety was based on a notion of “ordered liberty,” wherein the specific responsibilities of landholders and professionals within the community were just as important as “rights” if not more so. Knowledge and virtue are more important in American classical republicanism than the self-interested individual demanding satisfaction of his desires.

      Liberal democracy is not a society or a government at all. It is merely a state of anarchy among various pressure groups. Society does not exist-except as any group of self-interested individuals whose only relationship to one another is based also on this self-interest–and thus human desire is the sine qua non of politics and ethics. Of course, such a view of the person and society simply means that, over time, the wealthiest and most powerful will soon rule. Their ability to implement their desires is greater than that of the average man, and thus they will be the ones who will get heard; and then they are the ones represented in the halls of government. Assuming a standpoint of the liberal democrat, there is utterly no ethical standpoint by which such a system can be criticized.

      Monarchy is based on the idea that society has rights as well as duties and that the central unit of that society is the family (that is, a duty-bound rather than a rights-bound social organism), rather than the individual. Given that society has a purpose, identity and function to play in the world and manifest to its members, and this identity is an objective reality, then democratic elections make little sense. The puropse and function of society is not amenable to democratic vote. A belief in natural law, itself a powerful component of monarchy, also is not open to democratic discussion. Men discover it and conform themselves to it; they do not create it and certainly do not vote on it.

      The purpose of a monarchy is to represent that identity and function domestically as well as to the outside world. The monarchy is primarily an insitiution of representation, due to the fact that its ultimate job is to continually synthesize and symbolize the national character, history, language, religion and vision of public virtue. The monarch continually reminds the population that all members of society have their place, differing in function but equal in value; that is, that individual desire is not the sine qua non of ethics and politics. The monarch is the very principle of national unity personified. This is the reason why monarchy has been continuously popular for centuries (particularly among the lower middle class and the poor) and fascinates the world to this day.

      Democratic and republican rule fails for several reasons: First, both systems are open to oligarchic domination, whether from economic and financial elites, or even the undue control and manipulation of the society through privately owened media empires or other entities not amenable to collective control. Second, the bureaucratization of the state , a specifically onerous phenomenon in the 20th century, nullifies the notion of representation in democratic states. Third, if individual desire becomes the primary focus of politics (as the Enlightenment enshrined), then no constitution is stable or safe, for there is no way to know when self-interest will seek its overthrow. This is something well known to American Constitutionalists and patriots and makes a rather invidious criticism of even the most healthy republics.

      Forth, with no substantial moral idea of a broader society to be found in liberal democracies, the individual atrophies. He becomes a rootless and alienated cog in the economic machine, believing more in the power of commodity consumption and political sloganeering than in building lasting social institutions.

      Many well-meaning populists need to more closely examine the assumptions of liberal democracy, if for no other reason than that it is the official ideology of the American ruling classes, having taken over from an ill-fated Constitutional republic many generations ago.

      Professor Tamas argues that liberal democracy was unravelling as early as the 1980s but that things have become very evident after the recession, and it’s become particularly severe today. One of the central arguments he makes is that an increasing percentage of the global population falls completely outside of our dominant social order. Technology has made labour redundant for many in the world, and so they exist outside of the typical capital-labour relationship.

      It seems to me that nowadays we are not only failing to fulfill the moral and theoretical conditions of what would constitute a liberal democracy, but even our faith in the fundamental principles is dwindling as a result of some changes. These changes consist mostly of technological and economic developments that partly through globalization (i.e. the flight of capital to lower wage regions of the world; therefore, the demolition of traditional North American and European manufacturing industries and other economic assets have been stripped and just exported to where there is technology on the one hand, and on the other hand, cheap labour). But most importantly, these technological developments make it so that every human activity is so mechanized – to use the old expression – digitalized, and miniaturized, and robotized, and automated and so on, that the old dispensation according to which most people worked in manufacturing or in services and commerce, it’s not true of today. There won’t be again full employment. Most people will be outside of productive work – productive meaning producing commodities that can be sold on the market. And that means that the previous modals of social organization, which were mostly work, will be lacking. They will be characteristic of only a minority of the populations, and the rest of us will be dependent upon the community itself to survive.

      JL: So basically you’re saying that elections don’t guarantee democracy.

      AA: It does not guarantee democracy and in many cases it is used as a pretext to completely wipe out any struggle by the people at the base to take political power in their own hands and develop their own type of system.

    3. Pingback: Culture wars and the non-West | Oriental Review

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