July 8, 2013
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” — Emma Goldman.
One of the more important inquiries into the nature of collective thinking and behavior was Charles Mackay’s 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds. Focusing on such phenomena as the South Sea Bubble, Alchemy, the Crusades, and the preoccupation with witches, Mackay provided great insight into the nature and energies associated with the herd mindset. Were he around today, Mackay could do an empirically-based treatise on the illusory character of democracy.
As much of the world watches the Egyptian military forcibly oust from office a democratically-elected President Morsi — who received 51.7% of the vote in last year’s election — even a few editorial writers are beginning to suspect that the concept of “democracy” can no more bestow legitimacy on political rule than does “divine will.” The idea of governments arising through individual desires spontaneously coalescing into a collective structure appeals more to magical thinking than to historic evidence. Were it ever to be shown that all human behavior is genetically-determined — not just influenced but directed — you can be assured that those who want to control others will concoct a “DNA-imperative” for political rule.
Political systems are invariably grounded in the ambitions of elitist men and women who regard their interests as superior to “ordinary” people — ones they arrogantly dismiss as the “masses” or “Joe Six-Pack.” It is not enough that these elitists endeavor to secure the cooperation of others — an undertaking that is the sine qua non of a market-based social system based on trade –; they insist upon using legalized force to overcome whatever resistance others might have to their schemes. Because the state is defined as a system enjoying a monopoly on the lawful use of violence, those who regard their purposes as superior to those of their neighbors, must concoct a rationale that their victims will accept as a justification for their subject condition.
It is not enough that those who would rule others have weapons of force to back up their demands: street muggers use guns or knives with which to threaten their intended victims, but enjoy no lingering support following the crime. To create a system that can continue to be used to coerce others into obedience to the elitist demands requires the sanction of the victims; their belief that being forced to obey the dictates of others is justified by some transcendent principle. In religiously-based societies, the legitimacy of the state was explained in terms of “divine will.” During the Scientific Age, so-called “natural law” principles were invoked; while the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on relations based on contracts, made it easier for people to accept a “social contract” theory of political systems.
Marx’s “dialectical materialism,” Bentham’s and Mill’s cases for “utilitarianism,” or other rationales for governments, illustrate the need for the politically-minded to justify their rule by principles that go beyond the simple-minded notion “I want what I want when I want it.” Those to be ruled must become convinced that the system to which they will be subject serves — or is justified by — some principle that transcends that of the common mugger.
That none of these theories of the state do, in fact, serve their expressed purpose is of no consequence, as long as the ruled believe that they do. What God could be so perverse as to sanction tyrannical, butcherous regimes that paraded under the banner “divine will?” To those who argue that governments violate “natural law” principles, my response has been: how can anything that exists — particularly as temporally and spatially ubiquitous as state systems — be considered unnatural? Nor will I ever forget my jurisprudence professor, Karl Llewellyn, answering a fellow-student’s argument “what about the greatest good for the greatest number?”, with the question “what about the greatest good for the greatest guy?”
It always comes down to this: ideas are abstractions and, as such, are always subject to interpretation. The interpretations are, themselves, expressed in additional abstractions (words) that also require interpretation. This is the underlying cause of the failure of written constitutions to limit the exercise of power, and why those who argue “we must get back to the Constitution” fail to recognize that we never left it; the same words are still there! What words could more beg being interpreted than “general welfare,” “common defense,” “justice,” “reasonable” and “unreasonable,” “due process of law,” “excessive,” etc.? When constitutional cases inform us that “slaves” and “Indians” are not “persons” entitled to protection, but “corporations” are, it is evident that the underlying problem, here, has to do with interpreting the meanings of such words. The state not only enjoys a monopoly on the use of violence, it is also allowed — through powers of judicial review that are nowhere provided for in the Constitution — to interpret both the range of its powers, and the limitations thereon. It should come as no surprise to anyone paying close attention, that the state has provided itself with an ever-expanding definition of its powers, and an ever-diminishing realm of individual liberties.
This political racket has been made possible through decades of conditioning by government schools, the media, and other institutional interests, a belief in the proposition that “we” are the government; that politicians and government officials are our agents, with ourselves as principals. I suggest to people a simple way to test this notion: call up the Post Office and tell them to start making Sunday deliveries. You will quickly discover just who “the people” are who comprise “we the people,” and also learn that you are not included in the group running the machinery of the state.
“Democracy is a system in which four wolves and a sheep decide what to have for dinner.” This provides as vivid a picture as any of what underlies this rationale for collective force. But it is not a collective mindset that creates the democratic urge. The relatively small group of elitists who desire to have coercive control over the rest of mankind have employed the concept of democracy as a way of mobilizing “dark side” forces; to get people to lose their sense of individual purpose, direction, and responsibility in a collective identity (e.g., nation-state) which the elitists — using primarily schools and the media — then manipulate to serve their interests, not those of humanity in general. The common mistake most of us make is assuming that a collective impulse from ordinary people generates a demand for the creation of a democratic political system. The distinction between the drafting of The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution is instructive: the former was, in the words of Frank Chodorov, “not at all the charter of a new nation. It is a rationalization of rebellion.” The latter — produced eleven years later — was the creation of a power structure that exploited the sentiments for liberty in order to serve the interests of those with ambitions of authority over others.
As long as people embrace the illusion of democracy, they will be inclined to obey the dictates of those who control the machinery of the state. They are inclined to regard their obedience to a given mandate as only a short-term problem that can be overcome by “working within the system” to effect change. But such an attitude ignores the mechanisms in place that prevent any popular change that is contrary to the interests of the elitists. The early case of Marbury v. Madison allowed for a usurpation of authority for the Supreme Court to pass on the constitutionality of the actions of other branches of government, a power that is nowhere spelled out — or even hinted at — in the Constitution. It would probably have been fatal to ratification efforts if the Constitution had expressly provided the judicial branch with such powers.
Such an arrogation of authority has provided a barrier to efforts by ordinary people to direct the political system to ends they might value, purposes that would be contrary to elitist interests. Thus, if a majority of voters in a given state vote in favor of a referendum measure (e.g., to allow for medical use of marijuana), the courts have no difficulty in striking down such legislation as “unconstitutional.” The interests of the elitist owners of the system must prevail over the preferences of the majority!
The Egyptian people are now experiencing the fallacy of a democratically controlled political system. A man who, just one year ago, was elected president of that country by a majority of the voters, has been removed from office and held prisoner by military force. And, to make clear that any “social contract” illusions about the legitimacy of the state do not prevail in Egypt, the military has also suspended the constitution, embracing the same sentiments as former president George W. Bush who declared the U.S. Constitution to be “just a goddamned piece of paper!”
The belief that what C. Wright Mills called “the power elite” would ever be so careless or witless as to allow tens of millions of subject people to have any real control over the machinery or purposes of the state, is refuted in what passes for daily news. The treatment accorded Ron Paul in his popularly-supported efforts to make fundamental reforms in the American political system, demonstrates how desperately the elitists — along with their well-trained political and media lapdogs and toadies — insist on keeping political power where it belongs: in their hands.
The 1999 film, Election, centered on a high-school campaign for student body president, illustrates the fallacy of voter-based elections determining outcomes. In the midst of the campaign for votes between the campus butterfly and the football hero, another student — a nonconformist who sees the meaningless of what is transpiring — enters herself as a candidate. Her campaign speech at a school assembly follows that of the other two. The honesty of her words so resonates with the entire student body, that school administrators hurriedly gather and remove her name from the ballots!
Emma Goldman got it right!
Butler Shaffer teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.