Academic journal article Humanitas

From Democracy to Hyperdemocracy

Academic journal article Humanitas

From Democracy to Hyperdemocracy

Article excerpt

Some years ago I began to notice that, during question periods following public speeches, otherwise rational human beings who were clearly arguing for opposing points of view were increasingly inclined to cite "democracy" in defence of their positions. This was disturbing because it was obvious that this venerable word was only being introduced to shut off debate prematurely. The clear intention was to make it impossible for opponents to reject a claim without also rejecting democracy--a grievous heresy nowadays.

So there it was. Before my very eyes "democracy" was becoming a word of ill-repute--a term picked up and used vigorously for the advantages of the moment, then dropped without further consideration. I soon began to wonder how this cheapening of the word might be linked to the cheapening of the underlying concept, and how this in turn might be connected to another question--namely, why do we Westerners, who have historically celebrated a self-reliant individualism within our local communities and just as defiantly deplored state collectivism, now celebrate both of these things in a new and paradoxical form of democracy that someone has aptly described as "libertarian socialism"? This is a very recent conception of democracy, barely a half century old, under which individuals have come to believe that they have all the rights and states have all the duties.

What has struck this writer is that, despite its inherent contradictions, this arguably anti-democratic form has not only become widely accepted as normal, but the radicals who have worked so hard to bring this acceptance about did so in something best described as the "language of democracy." This language has four key terms: "freedom," "equality," "rights," and "choice"--which become insidious whenever they are emptied of all traditional content and limitation. (1) Once pried loose from their history, so to speak, these four words easily become serviceable for political radicals who use them to form a kind of camouflage or code that must be deciphered carefully before we have any hope of under-standing what is being attempted, as distinct from what is being expressed.

The contradictions inherent in the term "libertarian socialism" alone tell us that we are living vulnerably in an intellectually confused time, for a people undisturbed by the manifest incoherence of its own political philosophy is obviously ripe for manipulation. For example, it no longer makes sense to use the terms "democracy" and "freedom" interchangeably, as we have always done. When people felt strong in their communities, were more fiercely independent, and even longed to be free of overbearing government, the two words seemed the same because people thought it natural to use the former to acquire and defend the latter. But the words are used quite differently now. Although ostensibly a free people, we tend to use the word "democracy" for the opposite reason: to demand increased government services, security, and regulation as a right. But this ultimately turns democracy against freedom because every tax, service, and regulation constitutes some kind of limit on our personal action and responsibility. For this reason it is time to separate the terms and determine their true nature.

Once we do this, what becomes immediately apparent is that democratic instruments turn into value-neutral tools used to decide the distribution of policy and power. Just as a shovel can be used to dig a foundation for a house, or to beat someone to death, the tools, and especially the language, of democracy can be used to create a virtuous, free, and good society or an oppressive and very bad one. In quiet moments I worry that we North Americans have been flirting with the latter category for some time, and that the refinement and vigour of any society have little to do with democracy, or with the act of digging, and everything to do with the underlying moral and political culture, or what is dug. …

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