Back in 2010 Newt Gingrich explained that US president Barack Obama lies “outside our comprehension” unless we use his “Kenyan, anti-colonial” ideological orientation as a reference point for understanding his bizarre actions. Obama has been amazingly successful at concealing his deep-seated hatred of colonialism — to the point of praising Europe, in a speech last week, for giving the world human rights and democracy:
… it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle … that a particular set of ideals began to emerge: The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed …
David Graeber, an anthropologist and anarchist thinker closely associated with Occupy Wall Street since its earliest days, has a lot to say about the idea that self-governance is such an advanced abstraction that the human race suffered in ignorance waiting for some smart guys in Athens, Paris or Philadelphia to think it up for them.
Self-governance, Graeber argues in “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology,” is something practised virtually everywhere by face-to-face groups of ordinary people because, when nobody has cops or an army to beat everyone else into submission, listening to what other people have to say and establishing a consensus on the best way of going about things is just the common sense thing to do. That kind of consensus decision-making has been practiced by village councils throughout the world and throughout history, as well as by the popular institutions for governing common pool resources that Elinor Ostrom has studied. And such popular institutions for local self-governance persisted long after the state was superimposed on society — in village institutions like the Russian Mir, and working class friendly societies and mutuals, for example. As for the idea that people should have an equal say in things that affect them, that’s pretty much intuitive to everyone.
But Western scholars of the history of political thought don’t normally view things like “a Sulawezi or Tallensi village council” as “quite on the same level as Pericles.” Maybe, Graeber says, majority decisions and voting “are not really such incredibly sophisticated ideas that they never would have occurred to anyone until some ancient genius ‘invented’ them …” Maybe the Western model of majoritarian democracy wasn’t widely used in egalitarian societies because, without concentrated coercive machinery to force majority decisions on an unwilling minority, it was more sensible to make decisions by consensus and avoid polarizing the community into factions.
Majoritarian democracy has emerged only when two conditions were present: 1) Most people feel it’s right that they have a say in decisions that affect them, and 2) there is “a coercive apparatus capable of enforcing those decisions.” It’s actually unusual to have both at the same time, because in societies with widespread egalitarian values the existence of systematic coercion itself is also considered wrong. And wherever it has existed, systematic coercion had its origins with people who were deliberately using force to pursue their own interests at the expense of those affected by their decisions. The state originally came about as a means for enforcing privilege on behalf of the classes that controlled it, and extracting rents from the majority of people ruled by it.
Democracy, as a modern ideology, arose in societies already ruled by coercive states enforcing the interests of a ruling class. And democratic, egalitarian sentiments have generally been coopted by dissident factions within ruling classes, or by would-be ruling classes, to enlist the help of the lower classes in displacing the existing regime — after which the new ruling class proclaims a sham “democracy” with itself as guardian and begins ruling the majority in its own interests.
It’s just this kind of “democracy” that Obama lionizes. Noam Chomsky calls it “spectator democracy”: Choosing between candidates representing contending wings of the same ruling class, chosen by that class from among its own numbers, and sitting down and shutting up after the election is over and the newly elected leadership proceeds to take orders from the World Bank and IMF and sign the latest “Free Trade” treaty drafted by transnational corporations (just like the previous elected leadership did). If by some disaster a country’s government does reflect some degree of genuine democracy, threatening the economic interests of transnational capital, Washington declares it a “terror state” or “failed state” and sends in functionaries from the CIA, National Endowment for Democracy and Soros Foundation to undermine it, or encourages military officers with American ties to overthrow it.
Real democracy existed long before states ever arose, since human beings first existed in communities. And it will exist long after government is gone.
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