Democracy is a political system of competition for power. Functional democracy is a form of democracy that functions in the interest of the people. In a democracy the people are sovereign – they are the highest form of political authority. Democracy requires the participation of citizens in public life. Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to watch carefully how their political leaders and representatives use their powers, and to express their own opinions and interests. Voting in elections is another civic duty of all citizens. In a democracy every citizen has certain basic rights that the state cannot take away from them. People should question the decisions of the government, but not reject government authority. The measure of a successful society is the happiness of its people. Once the voters understand the extent of economic inequality in today’s system, they will possess the knowledge to recognize the need for change.
Cleisthenes of Athens, (born c. 570 bce – died c. 508), was a statesman regarded as the founder of Athenian democracy who introduced important changes into the Athenian constitution. He worked to make Athens a full democracy by balancing the power of the rich and poor. His changes allowed all citizens to submit laws for debate and passage. Cleisthenes refined the basic institutions of the Athenian democracy, and he redefined fundamentally how the people of Athens saw themselves in relation to each other and to the state. He tried to break up the power of the clans. Through reforms to the Athenian constitution, he sought to create another notion, the notion of belonging to your polis and not to the aristocratic family of your neighbor. Cleisthenes’ idea was to break up the established centers of power, the ones that coalesced around wealth.
The Enlightenment writers were concerned about the inequality of the existing system and introduced questioning and critical thinking to replace the dead weight of tradition, and challenge the blind faith in institutions. The philosophers wanted to understand the rationale behind inequality, were particularly interested if there were natural reasons for it, or if inequality came wholly from social conventions. Voltaire criticized the class system of the time – a rigid class system based on inherited positions of nobility and wealth – as being a system exclusively dominated by elite who possess all the financial, political and social power. For the Renaissance thinkers, the goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom and happiness. The Internet was acclaimed as leading to a new age of ‘enlightenment’ through easy communication and universal access to information. Instead, observers see the emergence of an increasingly polluted information environment of many echo chambers, where groups amplify each other’s biases.
Globalization is driven by the desire of corporations to pursue economic liberalization. In this system countries primarily compete for the world’s investment capital. This means capital moves to locations where it will find the best conditions for return. This activity increases the opportunities for commercialization or introduction of a commodity into the free market for mass consumption. The process of corporate expansion across borders creates rapid change in many communities with subsequent negative consequences for workers. The fact that there is little international regulation has dire consequences for the safety of the people and the environment. Multinational corporations are responsible for the removal of traditional government accountability to a fixed population for much of politics. This creates a lack of ability of those affected by decisions to protect their legitimate rights and interests. The new corporate values of globalization normalize through a doublespeak, selling commercialization and free market choices as democracy.
Neoliberal capitalism applies to all sectors of society. Their system claims the common good depends entirely on the uncontrolled egoism of the individual, and especially on the prosperity of the corporation, hence freedom for corporations consists of freedom from responsibility and commitment to society. The maximization of profit must occur in the shortest time to ensure shareholder value. The primacy of politics over economics has been lost. Corporations, the largest institution of the 21st century, now dictate policies. Nation states have reverted to virtual feudalism. Neoliberal reform is decided above the heads of citizens and implemented behind their backs, appears as irrevocable reality. Once citizens become aware of consequences, those responsible for the changes are long gone and there is no way to rectify anything – protest and resistance are too late on the scene.
A common complaint against twenty-first century democracy is that it has lost control of corporate power. Big companies hoard wealth and influence. They fuel inequality. They despoil the planet. They don’t pay their taxes. In a 1900 article Alfredo Pareto commented on the radical movements at the turn of the century, warned that rather than restoring democracy and promoting social welfare, they were just seeking to replace one elite with another elite, the privileges and structures of power remaining intact. From Pareto’s point of view – socialism, libertarianism – all ideologies are smoke screens foisted by ‘leaders’ who really only aspire to enjoy the privilege and power of governing. He suggested class struggle is eternal, and recognized the predictions of economics fail to correspond to reality. However, democracy remains the best human weapon so far invented for guarding against the ‘illusion of certainty’ and breaking up truth-camouflaged monopolies of power, and create a successful society.
Facebook and Google’s personalization tools drive us to become ever more partisan by showing us only the news and information with which we already agreed. The algorithms feed each of us information that supports views we already have, and creates the conditions for us to be more susceptible to falsehoods. The Internet is not a tool for transparency, it actually combines your biases with data manipulation, and you get the opposite result of the new enlightenment that was supposed to come with the digital age. Ideas on the web tend to be about problem solving, while opinions on the web are mostly theatre, in which emotions drive decision-making. The advent of the information age has created individuals who feel they know more than ever before – when their reliance on the Internet means they may know ever less about the world around them. Public opinion is now manipulative, and, more rarely, still critical.
John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) strived to change the very texture of the national conversation about power and its nature in the modern world by explaining how the planning of giant corporations superseded market mechanisms. Neoliberalism casts inequality as virtuous – as everyone gets what he or she deserves. It is up to us to make ourselves better, we are told, and the system simply supplies us with the appropriate tools to use – tasks to undertake and ladders to climb so that we may realize our potential. Precarious workers in this era of insecurity go from job to job, depending on the availability and demand. With no job security and few benefits, the precarious worker now views his development and subsequent success or failure as his own responsibility. The existing neoliberal globalization creates an increasing economic gap between the wealthy and the rest of society, as well as a shrinking middle class.
Being born in rich countries like Canada and the US with increasing GDP growth and prosperity doesn’t bring happiness if it comes with more risk and uncertainty. The etiology of stress is increasing income inequality and wage stagnation for the working class as well as the long-term deterioration in employment opportunities that have led to intergenerational decline in economic security. Under neoliberal subjectivity of human capital, happiness has become a prior condition to pursue the fulfillment of those social and economic needs that are no longer guaranteed, as well as increasing the odds of achieving valuable outcomes in the labor sphere. With the widening income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society, income matters to happiness as it affects the ability of how to live one’s life. Individuals, as creative beings, must reject the concept of human capital that limits their goals of freedom and happiness.
By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the neoliberals protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash. Neoliberal capitalism has nothing to do with democracy as justice is now linked to a market logic that divorces itself from social cost. However, Galbraith remained optimistic about the ability of government to improve the lot of the less fortunate. “Let there be a coalition of the concerned,” he urged. “The affluent would still be affluent, the comfortable still comfortable, but the poor would be part of the political system.”1 We need a new model of democratic governance to address the violence of neoliberalism and the happiness gap. It is necessary to challenge the monolithic power of corporations supported by an ideology serving the interest of financial capital and globalized elites in order to create a successful society. It is necessary to return to laws based on equality of persons rather than laws of the market.
1 Holcomb B. Noble and Douglas Martin (1 May 2006) John Kenneth Galbraith, Iconoclastic Economist and Diplomat, Dies at 97. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/01/obituaries/us/john-kenneth-galbraith-iconoclastic-economist-and-diplomat.html