Legitimate democracies ensure collaboration on the big projects of society. That legacy issues of racism are problematic is not a reason to question their fundamental existence.
– Summary of one recent opposing point of view on Facebook
If political legitimacy “involves the capacity of a political system to engender and maintain the belief that existing political institutions are the most appropriate and proper ones for the society [Lipset, 1922-2006], then modern democracy has until recently, done its job. Certainly many of us white folk with privilege believed that democracy was the only ideal necessary for our times and to question it is almost regarded as heretical. But if legitimacy also “derives from popular explicit and implicit consent of the governed” [Locke, 1632-1704] then what we know of democracy cannot be legitimate. Or even democratic. Why?
A democracy is a democracy because it contains four key elements [Diamond b.1956],
- A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections;
- The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life;
- Protection of the human rights of all citizens, and
- A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
I can come up with many instances of when these key elements don’t pass muster in both the U.S. and the U.K. and one meta-narrative and the focus of today’s discussion, of why they don’t: Privilege.
Modern (as opposed to pre-modern) institutions like democracy are based on the notion of ‘reason’; which leads to the idea that every individual has their own rational capacity to make the choices which benefit them and to choose away those which don’t. Putting aside the flawed logic that rational capacity exists in a vacuum free from passion, in modern times this idea of supporting freedom of choice has been implemented through one-person-one-vote-democracy as a contrast to feudalism–the legacy of which is still present in the class systems of both countries.
Yet modern democracy was implemented by white males–the only human who was considered rational enough to vote–and it took a lot longer for these ideas to even theoretically include women, people of colour and other minorities. At the same time individualism led to the birth of capitalism in the form for example of the American dream, where one’s career path started to be a matter of individual choice–at least in principle–rather than dictated to them by class. Again, the rollout has been staggered along the lines of privilege.
Whilst not always a reliable predictor of economic success, timing matters. Because the power accrued over centuries generally limits ability of those without power to achieve equality, split predictably along the lines of privilege. Power imbalance is reinforced through information assymmetry (where one party has more or better information than the other) because better access to information, as well as resources and education–which is also skewed by privilege.
So racism as demonstrated by layers of privilege is not a legacy issue, it is a very current one. Indeed although the face of racism may have changed, it thrives both overtly and subversively. In many ways just as strong or even stronger than it ever it was, in part because it is inculcated subversively, by individuals but through faceless institutions which allow plausible deniability.
The truth is that some voices are backed by heritage and/or money. By privilege. They are more powerful than others. Thus a racist, classist and hierarchical society which favours the few over the masses cannot be truly democratic because power is unequally distributed among and through many channels. And where there is a power differential, this compromises the ability of the marginalized groups to consent.
Consent hinges on free and informed choice. As a British citizen, I do not recognise the right of Theresa May to govern; she has no electoral mandate and that in itself is problematic. But had the people been able to elect a new prime minister after David Cameron’s resignation, I have no idea who I would have chosen in her place. The choices are equally bad based on the information I have. In the U.S. there are questions of voter fraud, election rigging, Russian hacking, publicity spin, not to mention the largely intersectional disenfranchized. For those who could vote there, many felt that the choice between Clinton and Trump was also a devil’s alternative… at least based on what they knew. Most voters are not adequately informed. Indeed when faced with the complexities of our system, it is nigh impossible to be adequately informed.
It is also not a free choice. If people only have a choice between evils–be it republicans or democrats, leave or remain, tories, labour lib-dems etc. –then those who don’t want any of them are coerced into making a choice they don’t want, it violates the principles of consent at a very basic level. Consent must be free of coercion by definition, otherwise it is not consent. And when the costs of not picking a side that you don’t want are too high, the voter relationship with the government becomes non-consensual.
Superficially validated by non-consensual democracy, capitalist nations produce great inequalities of income along the division of privilege, which means that the possibility that an elected government works well to represent all people in these societies is very slim. Especially because both systems in America and Britain were designed with the very purpose to exploit the less privileged. Democracy cannot by definition be democratic in nations whose capitalism thrives because of privilege. And capitalism–at least in the U.K. and the U.S.–functions only because the countries were built on the back of colonialist profit.
Britain is capitalist nation. It is purposely designed to function by exchanging goods and services for a price greater than cost, i.e. for profit. Profit is generated through the exploitation of workers, land and resources and has been for centuries through the colonies, the poor houses, the working class etc. and also through the art of gaslighting, brand image, associated status through celebrity marketing, or nowadays through isolation in the form of product clustering.
Capitalist countries like Britain have as a primary goal to provide a legal framework and infrastructural framework that is conducive to business enterprise. Conducive to profit. Which by inference means conducive to the things which promote profit. Conducive to exploitation. Our so-called special relationship with the U.S. exists because we are both countries which laud oppression of the marginalized in various forms and as a matter of course.
Trump thinks he was clever not to pay his taxes. Clever not to pay his contractors. What we are seeing in him, is simply an overt illustration of what goes on around us every day, what has existed for centuries and these techniques are easily effected within our capitalist legal framework when you have the privilege to do so. Avoidance and evasion. Elitism and superiority. False narrative and exploitation. In personal relationships this type of behaviour is unacceptable. And in our society?
Finally, since collaboration depends on reciprocity or the notion of fair exchange, I would argue that the capitalist states themselves actively work against collaboration as we understand it. Indeed, a lot of money is spent on spinning narratives which persuade us that a fair exchange has happened when it hasn’t. Or will happen (when it won’t).
We enter into a bilateral agreement with the faith that what we give or take will be returned to us or by us in equal measure and in doing so, we empower one another for our mutual gain. Reciprocity underlies the ethos of democracy and is considered to be in our best interests so that we can work together toward the achievement of common goals. It is essential for collaboration. We would not enter into agreements if they unduly diminished us. We should not and would not agree to it–if indeed we were aware of it–because it is contrary how we can best survive and thrive. Under the narrative of reciprocity we’re asked to vote for the party who will govern and take care of the larger projects, and in return we work and pay taxes. When we are sick, and unable to work, the state will support us as we have supported it. After many years working and paying, we will get a pension because we’ve given our most fruitful and active years to support our society.
But this is clearly no longer true, even if it was once for white folk. Theoretically we do have the power to change the rules through democracy. Yet time here is once more a factor and the wheels of democracy for the little people turn slowly, for the most part those in power can sign bills and executive orders and get them enforced all too quickly. Whether even you have access to democracy is also plays a part. For example, a de facto school-to-prison pipeline exists for many intersectional folk in the US. It’s just one of the many ways that this society redistributes power towards the privileged. For those charged with a felony in the U.S., even when you’ve served your time, you are still ineligible to vote and therefore have no democratic vote or voice.
In my own case and as a European citizen from the UK having left before voting age, I am unable to register as an overseas voter in the UK and likewise I am ineligible to vote in the national elections in Sweden where I live. The power of democracy is not mine and I am by no means the only one disenfranchised by this mechanism. 5.5 million British voters live outside the U.K. the electoral commissions estimates that only 20,000 are registered to vote. I’m willing to bet that many of these British voters, would not have been in favour of Britain leaving the E.U.–just as many of the disenfranchized intersectional folk, may not have voted for Trump. Alas, we don’t–by law–have a say.
Our choices are thus limited by class, gender, ability, sexuality, and by other legislation which discriminates against those deemed unfit for a particular reward or benefit. Unilateral decisions on who is eligible to be part of the system, on what should be exchanged and how it should be done redistributes the power even further. The party who makes the terms has the power. We only have the power to decide whether to play by the rules or not. Given that our other choice is to subsist–or be outcast as a scrounger living on benefits if we can even get them–the most viable option for us all is to play by the rules, even when the rules discriminate against us.
White folk are in general given the opportunity to play within the system. But the choice given to us is in our society is the freedom to be complicit, either by exploiting or being exploited or the choice to live on the breadline, starve and die. And such a system wouldn’t get my vote even if I still had one.