“All institutions attain a certain momentum towards the self-preservation of their vested interests.” Terence McKenna
Myth in modern parlance is typically used to refer to a falsehood or fiction. However, derived from the ancient Greek word “mythos”, a myth was originally defined as an image of the world, i.e. a narrative inspired by our apprehension of the transcendent. Myths (e.g. the biblical account of Genesis) are the grand narratives that all civilisations thrive upon.
Following the gradual decline of archaic religious authority and primitive superstitions, slowly overshadowed as they were by advances in the domains of the humanities and the natural sciences, the image of the world and our place in it was redefined. No longer were we to be mere playthings for the gods, or the “subjects” of pietistic monarchs. Inspired by a heightened sense of autonomy, we assumed a greater say in our fate and the pursuit of our own destinies. This, in essence, is the modern vision/myth of democracy.
However, as many intellects and visionaries (Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Marshall McLuhan, etc.) have attempted to enunciate, we are still subject to certain constraints and the designs of unseen masters. For example, so-called “consensual crimes”, such as self-intoxication and certain expressions of sexuality, are off-limits because they somehow offend the sensibilites of “polite society”. In addition, the acquisition of powerful technologies has resulted in the profligate exploitation of natural resources, the displacement of rainforest cultures from their habitats, and the virtual extinction of a number of animal species.
People the world over continue to voice their objections to a host of offences, from minor infractions to crimes against humanity. This is all very fine, but even collectives rarely succeed in bringing certain individuals and groups to justice. By what scales, then, are we to measure the value and weight of democracy?
The roots of democracy arose in antiquity. In 507 B.C., in response to a revolt by the Athenian people who had suffered centuries of aristocratic oppression, the Athenian ruler, Cleisthenes, ushered in a system of political reforms. Termed as “demokratia”, or “rule by the people”, these reforms were more complex in their overall details. But the basis of Cleisthenes’ vision was realised with a simple stroke: any male citizen, regardless of their status, could vote for or against on any issue from the building of dams, tax proposals, a call to war, etc.
In accordance with the prejudices of the times, women were not permitted to participate in the proceedings. Women were also forbidden other rights, since they were perceived to be demonic, and hard evidence also suggests that the first full-face-veil emerged here. Indeed, the general view of women was coined in a single statement by Sophocles (497/6–406/5 BC), one of Greece’s foremost playwrights: “Silence is the greatest ornament of the woman.”
For all its “grandeur”, Athens was riddled with hypocrisies. Besides the glaring disparity between the sexes, one-in-three citizens were typically enslaved in a market designed to maintain a heirarchy.
“The Athenian people felt their freedom all the more keenly, as the owners of people who had lost theirs.” Bettany Hughes
These are just a few of the reasons why the legitimacy of Athenian democracy has come in for criticism by various scholars. However, in the realm of political affairs progress is invariably slow, and although these early pioneers failed to reconcile certain contradictions they nonetheless left an enduring legacy: the sovereignty of the individual, not just as an idea but a reality. It is well to note, also, that the Athenian system of voting was cleverly designed to safeguard against corruption. Therefore, it was not entirely without merit.
Following internal conflicts and an eventual suppression by the Macedonians in 322 BC, democracy in Greece was short-lived and it petered out after a mere two centuries. All the same, the imprints survived, and the virtues of liberty, equality and freedom of speech are hailed in almost every region of the modern world.
For various, complex reasons, democracy has failed to catch on in certain countries. Some states, including individuals and radical groups alike, actually decry democracy. One argument — namely, “democracy leads to demagoguery” — can be traced back to Socrates (470–399 BC). Socrates contended that citizens who had not been sufficiently educated, and whose decisions were based not on reason but emotion, was tantamamount to “ … putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm.” To vindicate his argument, Socrates cited the example of Alcibiades, a contemporary, charismatic statesman who had charmed an army of Athenians and led them to disaster.
A close, modern-day comparison can be seen in the contrivances of former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and his complicity with ex-President, George Bush Junior. Following the attacks on The World Trade Centre, on September 11th, 2000, they whipped up a furore, did their utmost to convince the people that Sadam Hussein was harbouring weapons of mass destruction, then waged war on Iraq. The fact that no such weapons ever materialised, not to mention the resultant distemper, demonstrates clearly the dangers that Socrates warned of.
Albeit the proposal of war was never put to the vote, the majority of people in the United Kingdom were not persuaded and they voiced their protests in mass demonstrations; but to all intents and purposes the decision had already been made. Which brings to light a statement made by Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965): “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Churchill raises an interesting point: the citizen’s vote goes only so far, he/she is not able to scrutinise sensitive information (e.g. state secrets), nor exert any real influence on issues such as foreign policy; so where is the democracy in that? Moreover, by virtue of his position in the cabinet, Churchill was well-versed in the intrigues of organised politics and knew full-well the limits of democracy.
Even the process of political elections is not democratic in the truest sense, since the citizenry has very little, if any, say in the representatives initially chosen. Candidates running for office are typically selected from places like Eton, Oxford and Cambridge; and, by and large, the ruling class finance them in the understanding that the status quo will not be disturbed. (For example, Tony Blair’s chief financier was J. P. Morgan.) Such complicity was blatantly obvious to anyone who witnessed the financial crisis of 2008, in which the bankers responsible were not only exonerated; they received massive bailouts from their political allies.
Given a wider choice in elections, we may be quite certain that the citizenry’s search would extend way beyond the hallowed chambers of establishmentarianism. And, for the elite, that simply would not do. In effect, we are thus still subject to the coercions of aristocracy, a status game that we have been playing since the wellsprings of early civilisation.
In times past, these coercions were enforced by very real threats upon one’s life and liberty. In modern times, however, where open abuses of power are no longer tolerated, the means to dominate have been achieved instead by the bedfellows of organised politics and mass propaganda, a.k.a “the media”. One of the most compelling cases against these institutions can be heard in the documentary, Manufacturing Consent, by Noam Chomsky:
“There is a standard view about democratic societies and the role of the media within them. It’s expressed, for example, by Supreme Court Justice, Powell, when he spoke of the crucial role of the media in effecting the societal purpose of The First Amendment — namely, enabling the public to exert meaningful control over the political process. That kind of formulation expresses the understanding that democracy requires free access to information, ideas and opinion. The same conceptions hold not only with regard to the media but with regard to educational institutions, publishing and the intellectual community generally.”
The motion here is that no government activity should escape the scrutiny of the press/public. But, as Chomsky goes on to illustrate, there has long been a contrary view held by the elite that dates back to the early seventeenth century, when civil war erupted in England. As far as the Royalists were concerned, democracy was a game for the elites, not the ignorant masses who have to be marginalised and controlled for their own good. In 1660, a historian and critic of the radical democrats wrote:
“They have made the people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.”
The same view was maintained in the American colonies and The Founding Fathers who were of the mind that: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.” (John Jay, 1745 —1829). Echoed again, and elaborated, by the writings of Walter Lippmann (1889–1974): “ … the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialised class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.” (Public Opinion, Harcourt publications, 1922)
Some politicians are quick to argue that some information is, as explicitly implied, far too sensitive to be exposed to the public eye. Given that betrayals and espionage are realities that we must admit, this reservation is understandable; the consequences of complete transparency would be impossible to predict, and the safety of a nation would be all the more difficult to ensure. But any veracity this tenet may have once held has been severely undermined following the recent scandals exposed by Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks.
The parliamentary expenses scandal that aroused widespread anger in the United Kingdom in 2009 will not be soon forgotten either.
“Once we have surrendered our senses to the private manipulation of those who would benefit from taking a lease on our ears, our eyes and our nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.” Marshall McLuhan
So much for democracy!
If we can’t reach a consensus on what constitutes a good souffle, how in the world are we supposed to find a government fully representative of the electorate and the virtues peculiar to all? Of course, it can’t be done.
To be fair, we in the west enjoy far more freedoms than previous generations, not to mention certain cultures elsewhere in the world today. And, personally, I am inclined to agree with Dr. Jordan Peterson’s conclusions concerning hierarchies of competence: clearly, some people are more fit to govern than others; and presumably we wouldn’t place a lunatic in charge of an asylum.
From the vantage point of one’s sofa, the comforts of modern technology and Haagan Dazs, it’s easy to create excremental smear campaigns. Well, democracy may not be perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than enslavement to a dictatorship. And, for now, it appears it’s the best we can do.
Understanding Media: Marshall McLuhan
Public Opinion: Walter Lippmann
Who Rules The World?: Noam Chomsky