Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room

Introduction: The Specter of Government

“What in me is dark,
Illumine; what is low, raise and support. ”

Mention the word “government” in a conversation with a friend and you will probably get a roll of the eyes, perhaps a heavy-lidded look of contempt. Most likely your friend has never given much thought to the issue and has no wish to. “Government?” he might say, “war and taxes.” He might have taken a course on government and found it incomprehensible or boring. If he were to try to focus on the concept he would have a sense of something big, overpowering, distant, potentially menacing. And there the conversation would end. It is my goal to create a different kind of conversation, one in which government as a concept, as a fundamental factor in everyone’s existence, becomes alive with possibilities.

New Eyes

We go away on vacation. We return home rested, with “new eyes.” We look at a favorite painting that has been hanging on the wall for years, so long that it had become wallpaper. Now it stands out with the freshness and immediacy that initially drew us to it. It is my hope that Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy will provide the reader with a new perspective, that it will serve as a catalyst and will supply the energy necessary for a reexamination of what we have, for too long, taken for granted about our government.

The new insight we seek is not to be found in the daily news. We need something akin to a philosophical understanding, a level of abstraction that permits us to escape the effect of day-to-day occurrences. Once we have come to understand the purpose and function of government in general, we will be equipped to study a particular government and to measure its accomplishments against our understanding of what it is that government in general should be expected to achieve.

Government is a means for organizing ourselves into a cohesive unit with an identity. In the past the unit was the tribe. Presently it is the nation-state. But the functions have not changed. We expect our government to protect us, to provide for justice, and to make it easier for us to take care of the basic necessities in life, such as food, shelter, and some kind of useful work. Government also has another function, too frequently overlooked—that of providing us with the opportunity for participation, for an expansion of our intellect and sense of self as we partake in the process of making choices that affect our collective destiny.

Our current form of government is so much an ingrained part of our lives that we often forget there are alternatives. “The government we have is the government we should have, obviously.” I think most people feel that way about their government, regardless of where they live. Yet it is instructive to look elsewhere and to see how similar problems are being solved under different forms of government. Maybe there are different answers, better answers.

Reading history serves the same purpose. We can look into the past and see that not all government is the same and that different societies choose different solutions to the same problems. Ancient Athens and the Roman Republic were contemporary societies faced with similar problems: grain supply, land use, indebtedness. Yet they chose significantly different solutions. The Italian city-states developed as small-scale separate and independent societies with an experimental approach to governance while simultaneously, to the north, large-scale autocratic empires were in the making.

I believe all history is selective. This book is no exception. I have certain biases, and they will be reflected in the selection of materials and the way in which they are presented. I will be choosing examples that illustrate my point.

So, what are some of my biases? I am in favor of political democracy. I am opposed to war. I believe that democracy as a form of government is a powerful integrating force that respects individual differences and encourages individual self-development while winning the allegiance of all to the common good. It creates unity in diversity. I believe that war is destructive of human and natural resources, and that it disrespects the ecosystem upon which we all depend. I believe that one can have war or one can have democracy, but one cannot have both.

I am going to present democracy in a positive light. I will be searching for hints of it anywhere I can find them, for my purpose is to make democracy comprehensible as a form of government. I will be arguing that, broadly speaking, government shapes character, that different governments produce different kinds of citizens, and that democracy produces a more enlightened citizenry than other forms of government.

The narrative will unfold in four stages. Part I—“Paradise Lost: Democracy in Historical Context”—is a chronological investigation of democracy, starting in Athens and ending with the democratic experiments in the Italian city-states. Ancient Athens, by its example, provides us with the true meaning of the word “democracy”—government by the governed. The Italian city-states offer an unusual opportunity to study government in evolution. Though none of them were political democracies by inclusion, some of them came close. Especially instructive is the variety of formulas used to establish fairness and honesty in the selection of those who would govern. It is uplifting to see how government can have a positive effect on its citizenry and act responsibly in its attempt to provide for their needs.

In Part II—“Democracy in America: Opportunity Missed”—we will take a look at the critical years between 1776 (the signing of the Declaration of Independence) and 1788 (ratification of the Constitution). We will examine in some detail the evolution and ultimate demise of the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776. In the course of our quest for the true meaning of the word “democracy,” we will learn that this meaning has been perverted over the centuries and that what most of us consider to be democracy is in fact oligarchy. Some of the most interesting and original thinking on the subject of democracy can be found in the writings of the Anti-Federalists, those who were opposed to the signing of the Constitution. They understood the true meaning of democracy, and they recognized the risk involved in trusting government to those who lust for power.

In Part III—“The Quest for Unbridled Power: Democracy Crushed”—we will explore the contradiction between war and democracy by visiting periods of history when violent forces have crushed emergent self-governance. Warriors such as Alexander of Macedon, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon—iconic figures in world history—each trampled upon democratic movements in their march to power.

In addition to the highly visible actions of the warriors, we will scrutinize the machinations of invisible oligarchs operating behind the scenes to gain control of government in the service of special interests and in opposition to the needs of the broader populace. Special attention will be directed at bankers and speculators who, as a group, need a strong central, anti-democratic government as a means of gaining control of the flow of money and establishing financial policy favorable to their interests. These forces have been operating against the interests of democratic government for the past five hundred years, going all the way back to the reigns of Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain, and perhaps even farther.

Too often we see history as some distant, impersonal force that shapes events in a way that seems mysterious and beyond human control. However, one can argue just the opposite, that the unfolding of history is the work of particular individuals who lust for power. Who are they? What is their emotional makeup? Are they like us, those who seek power and abuse it, or do they form a class apart? What about us, history’s bystanders—does it matter if we are in the mix or out? We think our own choice as to whether or not we participate in government is a matter of indifference to our personal well-being. We might be mistaken.

Part IV—“Paradise Regained: Democracy in the Modern Age”—addresses government in its contemporary context, including consideration of the concept of change itself. I will offer some practical thoughts on how governmental institutions can be modified to make them more democratic. We will be visiting countries in Europe, Latin America, and Asia to examine some experiments in government in contemporary society. We will linger awhile in India. Though India is a constitutional oligarchy, there are democratic elements to be found in the structure and processes of its government, especially when compared with Western governments.

Our study of democracy concludes  with a consideration of what it might be like to live in a true democracy. Economically, politically, ecologically, and sociologically, world society is in a state of transformation. Governments currently in place are not designed to meet emerging needs. Devising a form of government that is less highly centralized and that is more responsive to the common good is becoming imperative. If such a government is to achieve its desired ends, it will, in its formation, include all of us.

Ancient Athens and Modern India

Ancient Athens is the fullest realization of democracy known to Western civilization. We call it a democracy for two reasons. One, all elements in society from the poorest and most humble to the wealthiest and most exalted participated in the affairs of government on equal footing. Two, Athenians governed on their own behalf. They didn’t choose others to speak for them. They spoke for themselves. Between 30,000 and 60,000 Athenian citizens charted their own course. On a given day, as many as 6,000 people would attend a meeting of the assembly. If one wants to get a sense of a how democracy functions, ancient Athens provides an excellent example.
As a collective, did Athenians always act rationally and with concern for human welfare? Not always, but most of the time. In ancient Athens there were slaves with no political rights. Women were denied access to the political process. Obviously, these institutionalized prejudices were exclusionary and undemocratic. Yet Athens was a democracy nonetheless. It would have been a more perfect democracy had slaves and women been included.

India is ripe for democracy for two fundamental reasons: its religion and its social structure. Democracy thrives on diversity and strong local communities. Hinduism as a religion is democratic in its lack of a strong centralizing, controlling force and in its emphasis on individual forms of belief and worship. Until relatively recently, the backbone of Indian society was the small local village, a self-contained economic and social entity. Such diversity and localization are ideal conditions for the growth of democracy. Homogenization and centralization lead to totalitarianism.

Although we will be studying government in its historical context, my primary goal is to shed light on current, existing forms of government and to provide a framework for a critical analysis of their effectiveness. It is my assumption that there are many who are not completely happy with the government they have but firmly believe that any alternative is both inconceivable and undesirable. Like many a bad marriage, the relationship between the citizen and his government endures not out of love, or necessarily even respect, but out of habit. The energy necessary to envision an alternative, to believe in it, and to work toward it has been dissipated in exchange for the security and familiarity of a long-standing relationship.

The first step in changing a relationship requires examining it from a new angle, looking below the surface. This may be the hardest part of all, to see things differently, perhaps more accurately. The effects of habit—the erosion of hope and energy—undermine our intellect and independence of judgment. We learn to believe that which serves to justify our continued allegiance to a relationship that has gradually lost its meaning and legitimacy. Things have changed progressively, by accretion. But we are so accustomed to what we “see” that we don’t recognize the change. We see what used to be.

Inverted Totalitarianism

Most Americans assume that they live in a democracy. They might see some disturbing trends they consider to be anti-democratic in nature, but they regard them as temporary, as surface phenomena that do not alter the form of government at its core. In Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), Sheldon S. Wolin offers a radically different perspective. He invokes the legacies of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. These were men who used their personality and intellect to shape and dominate their countries. No aspect of life—civic, artistic, intellectual, religious, familial, or political—escaped their control. That control was total and crushing. Absolute, unquestioning submission was expected. Masses were organized and activated in support of the government. None of this is the case in the United States, of course, and yet …

Wolin coined the term “inverted totalitarianism” to describe a form of government that in many ways achieves the goals of totalitarianism but by different, gentler means. Inverted totalitarianism is “driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule.” The leader is not the architect of the system. He is its product. He fulfills a pre-assigned role.

The system succeeds not by activating the masses but by doing just the opposite, “encouraging political disengagement.” “Democracy” is encouraged, touted, domestically and overseas. To use Wolin’s terminology, it is “managed democracy,” “a political form in which governments are legitimated by elections that they have learned to control,” a form of government that attempts to keep alive the appearance of democracy while simultaneously defeating democracy’s primary purpose, self-government.

In managed democracy “free politics” are encouraged. Thus the populace is placated and pacified. Believing that in fact they have the government they want, people are lulled into a state of passivity and acquiescence, leaving the controlling powers to operate as they see to fit to advance their particular interests. Democratic myths persist in the absence of true democratic practice.

Therefore, rather than dismantling the preexisting political system, as the twentieth-century totalitarians did, their modern-day brothers actually defend and support the system. Their “genius lies in wielding total power without appearing to.” What was once a citizenry has become an “electorate,” the populace divided against itself in groups of competing interests whose opinions on circumscribed issues are constructed and manipulated to produce a desired outcome that is fed back into the hopper, resulting in the necessary pronouncements at election time.

Fear of violence is, for the most part (depending on race and ethnicity), absent in America’s inverted totalitarianism. Yet fear is nonetheless employed as a means of control. It is a more subtle kind of fear, more insidious and more intractable. It is a fear that lingers indefinitely, though it is never fully identified as fear itself. Currently fear has two sources, one obvious, one less so.

We are safe at home, we are told, but only if we succeed in protecting ourselves from the terrorists who want to take away our form of government, our lifestyle, even our lives. Terrorists are everywhere and nowhere, all the time. Because they are hidden, lacking in scruples, and tricky, we can never feel safe. We must depend on our government to protect us. We must surrender all control, even rights guaranteed by the Constitution, in the hope that our leaders will keep us safe.
In addition, there is a more deep-seated fear, a nagging fear, that is harder to combat—the fear generated by economic uncertainty—which constantly reminds us that our livelihood and everything we own could be taken from us and we could be left sleeping in tents, as many are in the state of California. Trillions of dollars were handed over to Wall Street speculators. Jobs are being outsourced to China. Unemployment is unchecked. Budgets are being cut at the Federal and local levels. What feels like a recession, perhaps even a depression, persists, and government seems to be doing very little to remedy the situation, largely because the uncertainty it creates generates the compliance the government seeks. “Unlike the Nazis,” says Wolin, “the [George W. Bush] administration has done little to allay the recession’s effects and much that exploits the accompanying insecurities.”

One could argue that the sidelining of the citizenry and the assumption of power by an all-powerful central government, unaccountable to its electorate, represents a radical departure from precedent and from the intentions of the founders. A closer look, however, reveals something quite different. Prior to ratification of the U.S. Constitution, there was open debate about its meaning, its benefits, and its liabilities. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton took up the cause of the Constitution. There was intense opposition to its adoption, and it never would have been ratified had it not been forced through by means of intimidation and deception.

Madison had made explicit his rejection of democracy and his wish to create a strong central government that marginalizes the citizenry. He would limit representation, create large electoral districts, and locate the government away from the local constituency. Hamilton had openly advocated monarchy and hoped to mount a standing army, with himself at its head. He planned to march through the South and then on to establish American control in Latin America. The word “empire” was invoked no fewer than three times in the Federalist Papers.

Civic Education

Americans have long looked upon their Constitution and their founders with pride and admiration. To discover that much of this is myth, to discover an alternate reality at odds with the one we have grown to accept as given, is a most disturbing experience. Yet if we are willing to take the journey we will end up on solid ground once again. We will feel empowered and optimistic about our future.
What is required is a massive reorientation of our society concerning governance. We are operating under a cloud of ambiguity, confusion, and lethargy. There is a general lack of appreciation of the degree to which government impinges upon our lives. We miss opportunities for self-governance because we don’t know they exist.
We need to be reeducated and revived. This seems a daunting task. Yet several examples from the recent past demonstrate that such a large-scale reorientation is possible.

Not so long ago it was routine to go to a bar, drink too much, and drive home intoxicated, too frequently causing an accident, sometimes with loss of life. But the educational and lobbying efforts of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) have changed the attitude toward drinking and driving. There are legal consequences for driving while under the influence. Most of us now understand that driving while intoxicated is a bad idea. We have been educated.

The same applies to smoking. Smoking was once an integral part of social life for the vast majority of the population. No one ever thought that enjoying a cigarette could be harmful to himself or the person standing next to him. In recent years, however, the attitude toward smoking has changed radically. There are still many smokers, though their numbers are considerably reduced. Those of us who don’t smoke are no longer at risk from the harmful effects of the next person’s cigarette smoke. As a society we have been enlightened.

A similar process is under way concerning the food we eat. We are being educated as to the harmful effects of feeding cows corn instead of grass. We are growing worried about the effects of chemical fertilizers and chemical additives. We read labels with greater awareness and concern for the content of what we eat. There is a large-scale movement to eat food that is healthful and locally grown.
We are in the midst of addressing the most critical issue any society has yet had to face: global warming. Glaciers are melting. Temperatures are rising. Weather is becoming more severe and unpredictable. Rising sea levels could cause certain island societies to disappear altogether. Climate change will have widespread detrimental effects on animal and plant life. The entire ecosystem is in jeopardy. As recently as ten years ago, the general public knew little if anything about any of this. Now just about everyone is conversant on the subject to a greater or lesser degree.
It is now more important than ever to become educated on the subject of government, for only government can organize and direct the collective action necessary for addressing the issues that threaten our planet.

To orient ourselves with regard to government we need to ask some very simple questions, such as the following: What kind of government do we live under—a monarchy, an oligarchy, or a democracy? Is that government designed to serve the common good (e.g., the ecosystem)? Are there structural changes that could be made in the current government that would make it better able to fulfill its fundamental purpose? What are the different kinds of solutions to the problems of government that have been arrived at in the past and in other parts of the world?
These and other questions will be addressed as this book unfolds. If, by the end of our journey together, you find yourself thinking more critically and imaginatively about the nature of government and its purpose—perhaps even coming up with a few ideas of your own about what could be tried to create a government that better serves the common good—then I will have achieved my goal in writing Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy.