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Why Democracies Aren’t Democratic – Part 3 of the Making a Radical Rupture with Conventional Thinking series

Why Democracies Aren’t Democratic – Part 3 of the Making a Radical Rupture with Conventional Thinking series

By Dennis Loo (10/21/13)

Democracy is what most people in this day and age say they want. A close examination of democracy’s precepts, however, reveals that democracies, even in their highest and best expression, cannot ever really be democratic. The problem is not that it’s a great theory and everything would be wonderful if the theory were fully implemented. Fatal flaws reside at the heart of democratic theory itself. The widespread undemocratic practices that seem to plague putative democracies are really a product of assumptions integral to democratic theory.

There are two major components to this.

The first has to do with the purposes of democracy. Is democracy an end in itself or a means to an end?

Very few people have ever had this question posed to them - whether democracy should be treated as an end in itself or as a means to an end - because democracy is invariably understood to be an end in itself. It’s taken-for-granted that as long as people have the right to vote, then whatever the outcome of their voting, democracy has been fulfilled by the fact of their voting.

This is encapsulated in a phrase that you often hear around the time of elections in the U.S.: “It doesn’t matter who you vote for as long as you vote.”

When I first heard that dictum I said to myself: “If it doesn’t matter how I vote then what’s the point of voting?”

The answer, from those who invoke this so often-repeated dictum, is that voting is a good in and of itself because voting is the essence of democracy.

Complaints about democracy, based on this notion, are thus almost always confined to:

Are the votes being counted fairly?”

“Are any barriers being placed in the way of all adults having the right to vote?”

“Should there be more scope for third parties to be given an equal chance to get votes in the face of a two-party dominated system?”

Those who ask these questions would say that if these problems are ironed out, then whatever the election results, the voting results are by definition democratic and should be honored.

What if the election results, however, are contrary to good sense? What if, for example, a majority thinks that global warming is a hoax? What if a majority voted for creationism to replace the theory of evolution? What if most of those who are voting are poorly or badly misinformed or racists and thus the results of their voting are no good?

To further illustrate this point, I ask my students in class whether we should vote for what time it is. If the class were boring, and a majority decided to vote that the class time was say 2:50 pm instead of 2:15 pm and therefore class was over, does that make their vote true?

These questions are not just academic. Since public policy determines how finite social resources are allocated, everyone’s fate in society relates to public policy. What is being contested in the public arena, in other words, is deeply consequential and not just a matter of whether or not a particular college class will get out early or not. Even if democracy is being carried out in the sense that votes are being fairly counted and honored, if you treat democracy as an end in itself, then you are treating the most consequential matters possible as unimportant because you are saying it does not matter what the majority voted for since we have to honor that majority because they are the majority. This approach opens up the elections process to endless forms of manipulation by those in a position to present their slanted perspective before the most people. Since most people do not have the skills or training to see beneath the surface of slickly presented half-truths and outright lies, the “democracy’s an end in itself” approach is vulnerable to small groups engineering the results they desire against the public interest.

If you recognize that treating democracy as an end in itself and voting cannot by itself lead you to a good society, then what do we mean when we say that democracy should be understood as a means to an end? This brings up the second element.

To answer this question brings up something extremely profound about the human condition. While the different dimensions to this cannot be fully explored in a single article – I devote an entire book to this subject in Globalization and the Demolition of Society – it is possible to sketch out some key points.

As I indicated in this series’ first installment, politics is not an arena that most people really understand. The fact that most people do not understand it is covered over by thick layers of obfuscation that consist of hosannas to the virtues of the “popular will,” “democracy,” “the People,” etc. that all claim that everyone already knows everything that they need to know and that everyone of age already has the power to make the most critical decisions – the power of their vote.

That this is utter nonsense is not considered fit for entertaining even among scholars of democratic theory among whom you would expect to find the most searching and comprehensive discussion. If you look at their writings, you will find none of them bringing up the question of whether democracy should be understood as an end in itself or a means to an end. They all treat democracy as an end in itself. (I owe this distinction between understanding democracy as an end itself versus as a means to an end to Bob Avakian in his book, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That?)

Democracy Defined

Here is how prominent democratic theorist Karl Popper describes democracy:

[D]emocracy, the right of the people to judge and to dismiss their government, is the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power; it is the control of the rulers by the ruled.

On first glance Popper’s description sounds very sensible and familiar. It’s familiar because it’s the common manner in which democracy is defined and distinguished: it’s the “control of the rulers by the ruled.” But doesn’t something seem wrong here in this definition that he speaks of “rulers” and the “ruled,” yet describes the “ruled” as having control over the “rulers”? If your only real power as part of the “ruled” is to replace those who are your rulers for another set of rulers who you hope are less oppressive than the other ones, how much actual power do the “ruled” really have?

Here is where this very limited view of democracy stands out: according to democratic theorists like Popper, democracy is a barrier against tyranny. Nowhere in his discussion, either in this definition or in the rest of his work, do you find him discussing how authentic popular rule can occur in which the people can do more than beat back attempts to oppress them. The people actually governing themselves and making the key decisions in society is ruled off the table entirely from the beginning and what is left is only the shadow of authentic popular rule: the ruled’s ability, should they choose to use it, to “throw the rascals out.” As Marx put it: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them."

You see an example of this right now with sizable numbers of people in the U.S. telling pollsters that they’d like to “throw out the whole lot” of those now in Congress.

What good would that do? The system that those now in Congress are part of would remain intact, with new faces taking their places. All you have done through throwing out the lot of them is ensuring that new nameplates will be created for the new occupants of those same exact roles.

Millions thought they were putting the disaster of Bush and Cheney behind them when they voted for the “hope” and “change” president. Yet this new ruler Barack Obama proceeded to carry forward the Bush Doctrine under the cover of a larger vocabulary and more complex sentence construction, designed precisely to fool people about what Obama’s actually doing.

Popper’s distinction between rulers and ruled actually reflects something real, but his view and that of democratic theory more generally is incapable of handling this contradiction properly. Democratic theorists either simplemindedly believe that the real ruler is the ruled (the people are in charge through their votes) or they (as does Popper) don’t offer any path by which the ruled can actually overcome and transform this situation of ruler and ruled. Thus democracy is turned into a device to resist being overly repressed: democracy isn’t self-governance but a shield against the worst kind of oppression. Given the fact that, as sociologist Max Weber pointed out, ruling groups choose the slate of acceptable nominees for prominent leadership posts, the public’s right to choose from among those deemed acceptable by the PTB gives the public no actual political power.

The contradiction between ruler and ruled can be better described as the contradiction between leaders and led. Leaders and led are better terms than ruler and ruled because given a certain kind of leadership, the role of leader is not as a ruler oppressing those they rule over but someone who is raising the level of those s/he leads. Rulers and ruled is an antagonistic contradiction: ruled are to remain as the ruled and the rulers are to remain as rulers over the ruled. A certain kind of revolutionary leadership, by contrast, is aimed at raising the understanding, ability, capacity, and confidence of the led so that the led can become themselves leaders of others. That is why it’s a non-antagonistic contradiction. But it remains a contradiction because social life cannot exist without leadership.

Because we are a) social beings and b) there is such a thing as truth, there will always be a need for leaders.

As to A): No social group can exist without leadership. Even groups as small as two people involve leadership. When two friends differ on what they want to do together, somebody’s idea must take precedence if they want to stay together as a pair. The role of leader might fluctuate between the two of them over time but the fact that someone’s ideas have to take the lead over the other’s ideas when they disagree does not change.

As to B): Put simply, if the real world exists –i.e., there is a real world outside of our heads – then how successful we are at accomplishing what we are trying to accomplish in that world depends upon how accurately our theory about how the world works reflects that world. If our understanding of how the world works is way off, then our actions based on our understanding will run up against the real world and we will be consistently frustrated. If our understanding is good about how aerodynamics work, for example, then we can fly airplanes. Without that knowledge of aerodynamics, flinging ourselves off a cliff because we believe that we can fly will result in our death.

Contrary to those who adhere to the postmodernist or faith-based perspectives where truth is whatever you choose it to be or whatever the holy book says it is, truth is something that exists independently of subjectivity. In other words, there is a real world outside of our heads and our consciousness doesn’t bring that world into being. If I were to drop dead from a stroke after you read this article, this article still exists independent of my physical existence. Postmodernists say that there is no objective truth, but when they have to find their parked car in the parking lot, they act in their everyday life as if an objective reality exists. They have to, or else the objective world would collide with their subjective views in distressing and intolerable ways.

If objective reality exists and if we can agree therefore that it matters whether we are operating off of a more correct versus a less correct version of that reality in our plans, our actions, and our policies, then democracy as an end in itself is a very bad way of running society. If objective reality exists and there are better or worse understandings of that, then simply putting the decision in the hands of everyone with an equal vote to decide matters of great consequence cannot possibly be a good way to make society’s crucial decisions. If you have a brain tumor, do you want the hospital that is treating you to take a poll of the hospital employees as a whole to decide what treatment you should receive to save your life? Or do you want those who are most expert, knowledgeable, and experienced in brain tumors to make that decision? How are decisions made about the whole society any less important than who decides what treatment is most likely to be successful for a single brain tumor patient?

So if we can agree that expertise, insight, and experience matter, then we are on our way to recognizing and acting upon the fact that political rule is a more complex matter that cannot be understood using the assumptions inherent in democratic theory. Democratic theory acts in fact as a barrier to people actually coming to grips with the real contradictions that confront humanity. It covers over the fact that the real political power is in the hands of an oligarchy/plutocracy/ruling class and elections and related events are merely showcases designed to feign the public’s importance and to surreptitiously instruct the people on how they should see things so that those who really rule can proceed as they plan without divulging to the people the real reasons why they are carrying out their policies.

Democratic theory also misleads people who genuinely want to find an alternative to the way this system works into thinking that all they have to do is get the right people into office and have “clean” elections and these problems will be taken care of. To even get clean elections usually requires that people, especially in Third World countries, lay down their lives, but despite these ultimate sacrifices, the same modes of oppression and repression re-emerge (e.g., see Egypt) except now carried out by different people and groups. Genuine change requires something far more profound than elections. It requires a revolutionary movement that is guided by a revolutionary theory and a revolutionary party that is guided by that theory that is leading that revolution both organizationally and ideologically. You cannot simply lay hold of the existing state apparatus and think that you can turn it to your desired purposes to free the people from oppression. You have to smash the state and all of its existing bureaucratic apparatus and replace that former state with organs of radically different bodies, with actual power based among the people and led by revolutionary leaders.

The Matter of Expertise

Putting all the major decisions into the hands of experts and having them make these decisions alone is also a bad practice. How do you know that the experts – even when they agree with each other - are acting in the public’s interests? And how do the people become increasingly more masters of their own fates if they are not intimately involved in the processes by which good decisions are made? This would include and would have to include the public being exposed to and trained to examine and increasingly take up and utilize the special knowledge and skills that experts possess. In the formerly socialist China under Mao’s leadership, this contradiction was described as the tension between being Red and being Expert. If experts are the only ones who count then the masses of people will forever be left in the dark, consigned to either rubberstamping what the experts are doing, or to being distracted by spectacles in which they are no more than a crowd.

This is in fact how our “democracy” operates in the U.S. today: the masses of people are expected to rubberstamp what those who really run things put in front of us and the rest of the time we’re supposed to be happy consumers, sucking on the teat of corporate America’s latest offerings and singing the Star Spangled Banner in honor of our military which is directed to maraud around the world.

If we treat democracy as a means to an end then we can recognize that democratic processes such as discussion, consultation, debate, and group decision-making are both desirable for their own sake because the people ought to have a say in their lives and it is desirable because it is through such democratic processes that people come to understand how society and all of the various arenas within society (politics, art, music, economics, sports, science, etc.) actually work.

Everyone being fully engaged in every aspect of the society is therefore both a necessity for authentic popular rule to be approached and also the main path by which the people become aware about and able to make sound decisions about all of these arenas of social life. The means and the goals are in correspondence in that way: democratic means and the goal of authentic popular rule cannot be treated as separate from each other. Democracy defined and understood as merely voting. with the masses of people, other than their voting, disengaged from political life and all of the other political decisions that must be and are made constantly about every other arena of social life – science, education, art, music, sports, economics, et al – is not democratic but merely the pretense of democratic rule.

On my university campus there is an event called “Pizza with the Presidents” in which the university president and the student body president hold an open air meeting with anyone who wants to come and ask questions on an open mike. Or at least it used to be an open mike. At one of these events in 2010 the university president announced that he was cutting badly needed and popular programs because of the budget crisis. Students came to protest holding signs and banners. I got on the open mike in the spur of the moment and challenged the president for his failure to support a California Assembly bill (AB 656) that would have imposed an oil extraction tax on the oil companies and direct those tax dollars directly to the California State University system. The expected revenue generated by this tax would have amounted to about $2 billion and would have solved the budget crisis in California’s public higher education system entirely.

This is a tax that Alaska and Texas impose and that provides tremendous funding for their respective university systems. Our university president provided various excuses for why he would not support this California Assembly bill, each of which I refuted. Finally, to my surprise he relented and said that he would change his position and support the bill. Immediately after this event he instructed his press person to tell the campus newspaper that his support for the bill was his alone and not that of his administration. What’s that again?

Since that all too democratic encounter, all subsequent “Pizza with the Presidents” affairs have required people to submit their questions on index cards rather than the previous practice of an open mike. Here we have an example of how events supposedly designed to allow a free exchange of ideas and discussion and debate is squelched when someone actually raises uncomfortable questions and turned it from a phony simulation of a real democratic exchange to something that could have been a real exchange.

If my university campus were really run in a democratic fashion, not only would the open mike be retained but the campus’ governing structure would be very different. The top leadership position would not be a single president appointed by the system’s chancellor and beholden only to him but perhaps a body of three people, one faculty representative, one student representative, and one administrator. Their major decisions would be done in open consultation with the whole campus and major decisions would be put up for votes to the whole campus.

Treating democracy as a means to an end also means that we are interested not only in democratic engagement of absolutely everyone in not just voting but the even more important processes that should precede votes, full discussion based upon the truth being made available to the whole society, and in the full use of those with more insight, expertise, and experience. Sometimes what is true is understood by as few as one person. Frequently what is true is not understood by a majority of people. If the truth matters, then sheer popularity cannot be the sole criterion for decisions. The battle for truth is just that, a struggle. It will always be so.

The Relation Between Leaders and Led

In democracies public officials tell the public that they, the public officials, are the servants of the people. These officials say that the real power is the People and that public servants are acting on behalf of and at the behest of the People. As Lincoln famously put it: by, for, and of the People. This is not how it works, however, not only in practice but also even in theory. If all of the corruption, nepotism, influence peddling, and gerrymandering chicanery were removed from the scene and democracy operated according to the highest ideals of democratic theory, it would still not be and could not be “by, for, and of the People.”

Why is that?

The short answer to this question is that society is made up of different groups with differing relationships to society’s key resources and this differential relationship to resources makes for differing levels of actual economic, political, and social power. If you do not explicitly account for these differences and consciously fashion public policy around it in order to bridge these gaps and move towards progressively eliminating them, then you will end up with those differences expanding into greater degrees of inequity, no matter what words you use to dress up what is going on and what procedures you enact to treat everyone as if they were equal. Everyone is not equal, that is the simple fact. What you do with that simple fact is what divides up people into different political and ideological camps.

Conservatives applaud inequality and their policies are designed to exacerbate those inequities. Their policies have been the dominant ones in the world since the early 1980s.1

Liberals decry too much inequality and their policies are supposed to lead to a more equal playing field. But their desires for change extend to “equal opportunity” within the confines of capitalism’s class structures and not (more) equal outcomes in a non-capitalist economy. Note how many of those who participated in anti-war demonstrations while Bush was president stopped demonstrating against those same wars when Obama became president. Apparently what was wrong in their minds wasn’t the wars but who was prosecuting them. People are all too easily misled to make judgments based on what color hat someone is wearing. This is something that must change and can change if the kind of society you have is one in which the goal is to inform and train people to see beneath the surface appearance of things rather than a society in which those in charge are expressly interested in keeping the vast majority of people in the dark.

Anarchists and libertarians want to expunge the idea that there is such a thing as leaders. They want to act as if we have no need for leaders and that everyone can lead and everyone can decide. The Occupy Movement saw/sees itself as a “leaderless movement.” Yet the Occupy Movement itself was/is a leader in relation to the rest of the society: calling upon others to join them to challenge the intolerable status quo. The effort to operate as if there are no leaders did not advance the movement, however, but made it in fact harder for the movement to overcome the inequalities that are very real and to protect itself against disrupters, either those in the secret pay of the state, or those who are unpaid disrupters, who managed to turn the General Assemblies into shouting matches and turn people away who genuinely valued and dearly wanted this democratic consultative process to work.2

Revolutionaries of the Left treat democracy as a means to an end. I should hasten to add that this is a very small (at this point) subset of the Left as most of the Left still thinks that democracy is an end in itself.

In team sports the best teams also have the best coaches. Why? Only the very best coaches can provide the necessary leadership to get the best out of their teams. Leadership, in other words, is indispensable. What the best coaches and mentors do is raise the ability, understanding, and performance of those that they lead. What excellent leadership does is help those they lead become leaders themselves.

As Lenin argued for in What is to Be Done? the working class cannot take up its historic mission to transform itself and all of society if their political consciousness remains at the level of just fighting against their bosses (aka trade union consciousness). Lenin forcefully argued for the seemingly contradictory, but very true fact that the more leaders play their role in bringing forth the best and raising up the masses’ level of understanding, the more the masses can play their fullest role. In fact, then, what is needed is more leadership, not less, but leadership of a specific kind.

The people do not spontaneously understand society and political life, any more than any other arena in life can be spontaneously understood through only personal experience. In any area, including political and economic life, to really understand how things work you have to study history and study theory.

Theory is not something that exists as some kind of game that academics play that bears no relation to the real world. Theory is something everyone uses, whether they know it or not, to make sense of the world. Theory is a model for how things work and it has developed over the course of human history through the cumulative, tested, and distilled experience of humankind. To use a sports analogy once again: to succeed in a game like football, the coaches have to operate off of a theory, which is the basis for their strategy. In recent years the strategy being used in the NFL is called the “West Coast Offense” that relies heavily upon a passing attack and if implemented well, results in very high scoring games. This is in contrast to the grind it out on the ground and establish a ground game in order to occasionally pass strategy that marked the years dominated by Vince Lombardi. Any team today that abandoned the “West Coast Offense” for the Lombardi brand of football would likely get crushed.

As I have written previously, politics and economics are arenas in which those in charge purposely and consistently try to mislead the public about what is going on. How can the public possibly act in ways that reflect the public interest if they take those deliberate attempts to mislead them - that are presented in such sophisticated and slick ways - at face value and as the sum total of all they need to know? How can the public actually begin to approach authentic popular rule (democracy can only be a means, not an end in itself) if it doesn’t have as its leaders people who are committed to the revolutionary transformation of society and the ending of all forms of deception, exploitation, and oppression?

A sure sign that someone is a misleader of the people is if they say “Trust us, we know what we’re doing. We’re doing this in your best interest but we have to hide what’s really going on and what we’re really doing because the enemy will take advantage of our sharing what we’re doing with everyone.” A real leader of the people is committed first and foremost to involving people in everything and sharing the truth and experience with the people. They don’t offer the people bread and circuses. They offer people the hard and real truths and help to train people in handling these real issues for resolution. Yes, if you want to have authentic popular rule, then the work that must be done is difficult. You have to study history and study theory. You have to learn how to see beneath the surface appearance of things and recognize the class interests in play.

It is in connection with this that I want to urge people to study carefully especially the work of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and that of Bob Avakian, the foremost revolutionary thinker in the world today. You should read and study everybody across the political spectrum because everybody has something you can learn from, even if it’s by negative example in some instances, but reading these leading revolutionaries provides the key theoretical framework without which you cannot find your way in the welter of complexities that confront those who want to change the world. I have learned some indispensable things from BA’s work – as he has learned from studying incessantly and critically assimilating the experience of prior revolutions - in identifying the true nature of democratic theory, the relationship between leaders and led, and the fundamental nature of the revolutionary process both before a revolution, during a revolution, and the contradictions, challenges, and opportunities that confront a successful revolution. If you consider yourself someone who fights for justice, whether or not you see yourself as a revolutionary, you owe it to yourself and to the world to engage his work. Agree or disagree, his work is of utmost significance in the times we are in and the times we are entering.

The world needs revolution. Every day events underscore that. Millions in the world have risen up in the last two years alone to demand revolutionary change, but without the needed presence and leading influence of the science of revolution, that struggle for liberation will not succeed. We cannot afford not to win: the planet’s very survival as an unbelievably precious, viable living space is in great peril.

Part 1 of this series is here. Part 2 can be found here.


1 Conservatives, or more properly put in the U.S. context, the neoconservatives (neocons) have been the cutting edge of neoliberal policies. Neolilberal policies are also known as free market fundamentalism and have been adopted by both the GOP and the Democratic Party leadership. The GOP's core leadership has become in recent years increasingly openly fascist, so the term neocon or conservative seems too tame to accurately describe this core group.

2 It should be pointed out here that the main reason why Occupy has been driven from their base areas, however, and are largely invisible to the rest of the country now is because of violent state repression via police raids of their encampments.


0 # Flow14 2014-03-15 04:03
RE: "Pizza with the Presidents"
Wow!!! Unbelievable, yet at the same time very believable and expected of the school system. I am so glad you expressed your thoughts on that, and I thank you for sharing it here. AMAZING!
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