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A Smaller World

Icelandic town of Akureyri dating back to the 9th century.

Historically democracy has often been combined with capitalism. Perhaps in the eighteenth century a combination of that sort seemed reasonable, but it has become far less so. Capitalism, by its very essence, means that each corporation is dedicated to its own success, no matter what the consequences may be for anyone else. Free enterprise is “healthy competition,” yes, but only to a certain point.

The problem is that the big fish keep eating the smaller fish. When there is only one fish left, there is no more competition, healthy or otherwise. What is now in place, globally, is not free enterprise but thinly disguised monopolies or oligopolies. If there are only five or six corporations controlling an entire industry, and if those corporations indulge in frequent joint ventures, then it is absurd to be talking of free enterprise. And when monopoly casts its shadow over the land, the worker loses both economic and political freedom.

All political systems fall somewhere on the spectrum between absolute dictatorship and absolute democracy, i.e., between rule by one person and rule by all persons. Yet neither extreme has ever been met. No dictator has ever gone far without “legitimacy,” without support from a fair number of his fellow citizens. Conversely, there has never been a perfect democracy, since Nature herself imposes too many inequalities for any system of justice to countervail.

Democracy certainly has its problems. From dawn to dusk, humans are obsessed with power, and such an obsession tends to preclude a system of “one person, one vote.” In reality, it is “one dollar, one vote.” Democracy also has a dozen other nemeses. For example, democracy (rule of the majority) frequently conflicts with another ideal, one with which it is inappropriately paired in idle rhetoric: individual liberty. My freedom to drive a car at top speed may conflict with society’s wish that no one drive so quickly and thereby put people in danger.

At this stage in history, the biggest logistic problem with democracy is that most of the important issues are now beyond the understanding of the average person. In fact, the truly important economic events do not entail the production and distribution of goods, or even the production of services, but rather the movement of pure money, raw money. It is the daily shifting of large amounts of money, plain finance capital, that determines whether an individual person has a job tomorrow, and whether that same person can buy what he needs tomorrow.

To the old bromide that “democracy may not be the best form of government, but it’s the best we have,” I am inclined to reply, “Well, I’ll wait for something better.” Schoolchildren are told that ancient Greece was the founder of democracy, but neither Plato nor Aristotle had anything good to say about democratic government, even if those two differed on almost every other issue. When people lie in bed at night, they may dream of various social matters – peace, freedom, justice – but they do not dream of “democracy.” The shift from one incumbent party to another makes little difference to the machinery of the civil service, and even less difference to the average person trying to pay for groceries and shelter. From one regime to the next is merely a matter of a few dollars more, a few dollars less, a little more lip service, a little less. People who put on their raincoats to “do their civic duty” by voting are, to a large extent, people who enjoy making fools of themselves.

The general corruption and dishonesty among politicians in modern democracies are so common that the topic can rarely even sell newspapers anymore. (But there is no reason to fear the loss of freedom of the press, since the press’s few attempts at truth are largely ignored anyway.) The small voter turnout in any election is a sign of the anger and hopelessness that most people feel toward modern “democratic” government. What is wanted is a new life, a new birth, not the silliness of a false democracy.

The dangers of such a fraudulent political system are obvious. When the Nazis rose to power in the 1920s and 30s, it was not by ignoring “the will of the people” (to use Jefferson’s words). On the contrary, Hitler’s rise was sanctioned by both the government and the populace. Hitler preyed on the nation’s sense of frustration, disappointment, and despair (Hoffer, 1989). Leni Riefenstahl’s film documentary of Nazism was aptly entitled Triumph of the Will.

What is any government really but a parasitic growth, a group of old men who have set themselves up as a tax-collecting machine and who spend their time finding ways to run other people’s lives? What if I choose not to accept them as my rulers? Is there any rational argument that can be brought to bear against my decision? Ultimately I might decide that submitting to a government is better than living without one, but there is nevertheless something slightly insulting in being told what to do by a group of people with whom I have never even signed a contract. When the economy is running smoothly, our politicians are quick to take the credit. When it is not running smoothly, they are quick to tell us that it is not their affair.

A major problem is that modern countries are often too large for effective democratic government. Yet neither military power nor economic well-being is necessarily correlated with the size of the political unit. Switzerland, for example, can hardly be considered either weak or impoverished. Schumacher (1989) claims that the relationship between the size of a nation and its well-being is actually an inverse one.

The so-called democratic nations of modern times face a self-contradiction: the word democracy means “government by the people,” yet the average person has virtually no influence on the legislative, judicial, or administrative processes of the country. The concept of ascending levels of government, of representative government, sounds fine as a general idea, but in practice the average American’s affect on Washington must be measured in parts per trillion.

In any case, governments, in the usual sense of the word, can hardly be said to govern anymore. It would be more accurate to say that it is corporations that rule the world, aided by clandestine plutocracies such as the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. The members of those corporations or plutocracies do not obtain their positions by means of a public election.

The tribe is generally more efficient than the empire. Any political party that was at all honest in its dealings would state quite plainly that the human population must drop from 8 billion to several million. What is needed is less Marx and Friedman, and more Schumacher – neither communism nor capitalism has done the world much good, and it is time to borrow something from the German author of Small Is Beautiful. Schumacher’s solutions are couched in patronizing monosyllables about moral reawakening, but he is on the right track. Schumacher’s dreams complement those of Peter Kropotkin (1968), a nineteenth-century Russian advocate of syndicalism, anarchism, and non-violent revolution. They both envision a world without a corrupt and inefficient government, a world not covered with concrete and asphalt, a world that leaves room for trees and birds.”

China, with a population of well over a billion, is hoping to develop an automobile industry as big as that of the United States (Greider, 1997). All over the world, in fact, the have-nots are planning to join the haves. The dilemma is that if all other humans live like rich Americans, the Earth’s problems of pollution and resource-consumption will be several times greater than they are already. It is hard to imagine the environmental effects of doubling the present number of automobiles. There is no resolution to the paradox, because it is a matter of mathematics: there is no way for the Earth to support more than a small fraction of the present number of people adequately. The present 8 billion is already so great that terrible famines get little coverage in a newspaper. Without severe population reduction, all talk of sustainable development is just fashionable chit-chat. Perhaps the reduction in population will never occur without a visit from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

To the extent that empires have formed vast cycles of expansion and decline, one can compare the present-day US to a world of many centuries ago. In the year 731, the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, describing the world of the Heptarchy, the Seven Kingdoms of Kent, Wessex, Essex, Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Sussex. Bede was a monk in the monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria, and his History is dedicated to Ceolwulf, the king of that land. In his final chapter (“Chronological Recapitulation”), he tells us “in the year 409 [actually 410] Rome was brought down of the Goths; from which time the Romans ceased to rule in Britain” (Bede, 1968).

The fall of the Roman Empire has been ascribed to many things – poor leadership, general laziness, immorality, and so on. The impoverishment of the soil, and the consequent lack of food, may have played a part, as Lucretius suggests in Book 2 of De Rerum Natura (cf. chap. 9 of Carter and Dale, 1974). J. M. Roberts (1992) says that it was largely a military problem: the Roman Empire had grown enormous, and there just wasn’t enough gold to pay for all those soldiers. Whatever the reason, in 410 the Goths managed to sack Rome.

Yet the end of a world can be the start of something better. When Bede was writing, the Roman Empire was still slowly turning to rubble and dust, but England’s “Dark Ages” were filled with light, as the monks scratched away in their scriptoria. Although there were internal problems, Northumbria had had no major battles with the Picts, the Irish, or the Britons for decades, since King Ecgfrith had suffered a serious defeat by the Picts at the Battle of Dun Nechtain in 685, and apparently it was the Picts who killed King Osred in 716. In his penultimate chapter, Bede tells us that in that year 731 there was “the pleasantness of peace and quiet times.” On a planet so primitive that even such basic problems as war, overpopulation, and government have not been solved, like Bede we can keep alive the miracle of reading and writing.

References

Bede. (1962). Historical Works. Trans. J. E. King. 2 vols. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Carter, V. G., & Dale, T. (1974). Topsoil and civilization. Rev. ed. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Greider, W. (1998). One world, ready or not: The manic logic of global capitalism. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Hoffer, E. (1989). The true believer: Thoughts on the nature of mass movements. New York: HarperPerennial.

Kropotkin, P. (1968). Memoirs of a revolutionist. New York: Horizon.

Roberts, J. M. (1992). History of the world. Rev. ed. Oxford: Helicon.

Schumacher, E. F. (1989). Small is beautiful: Economics as if people mattered. New York: Harper & Row.

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