The Limits of Democracy and Populism
I have to admit, Occupy Wall Street has been irking me lately.
Whatever legitimate gripe sparked the movement, the occupations began devolving into a frothy mixture of crime and partying within the last few weeks and along with them whatever hopes the movement had of netting a broader portion of the public. Whether this means that a truly voluntary society built along anarchistic lines is impossible, or whether it means that such a society cannot be built simply in opposition to something else is hard to say. Was Hobbes right? I don’t think the failures of OWS will prove that one way or another.
What is apparent is that if you want to organize you have to be organized; if you want to exist as a cultural or political movement you have to be more than just a protest. Occupy Wall Street never took it to the next level – never grew up, as Ethan-the-libertarian said below. Nor am I certain that they ever will. And it’s hard to have a serious discussion of economic inequality when the movement itself sabotages its own success. Protesters are vowing to retake Zuccotti Park, as though the park were the point.
I hate to be so pessimistic, but the events in Greece and the breakdown of OWS have me feeling deeply cynical about the ability of populism to respond effectively to complicated issues. I empathize with Shawn’s reading of events in Greece, but I have very little sympathy for the Greek people themselves. Cronyism, corruption, and a system of lavish pensions and state benefits led to unsustainable outlays that never matched up with revenues. The technocrats are there now because Greece is asking for help and because a lot of people are losing a lot of money.
Democracy is a fine thing but not so much unfettered democracy or majority rule. Look at the California state budget for Exhibit C.
In our recent discussions of democracy, I fear I never framed the question properly. My real focus was not on the merits of democracy but on the necessity of some form of coercion in whatever system we choose. We will have some mixture of majority rule coercion and constitutional coercion in order to protect the interests and rights of as many people as possible. I suppose I am sympathetic to both neoliberalism and democratic-liberalism simply because I can see the strengths in both approaches, and because I believe that some sort of balance between the two is important, that the evidence of events makes this apparent.
Certainly the flaws of pure or direct democracy are too many to count. So technocrats may not be perfect, but they have their role to play, as do democratically elected officials, members of civil society, and the rest.