Friday, June 25, 2010

Democracy can be evil

Unlimited democracy, like unlimited anything, is bad.

I recently had some students insist that democracy is superior to other forms of government. I actually agreed with them - at least on the Churchill-ian perspective of it being “the worst system of government except for any other system” – but I wanted them to give me actual reasons. Unfortunately the idea that they would need to justify the trite statements they have rote learned had obviously never been presented to them at school before. They struggled to find a reason beyond “everyone knows…”

Let’s get this straight. The line ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ applies to all versions of government. Including absolute democracy.

Absolute Monarchy is never a good thing over the long term. (The exception is in the most dire circumstances where many quite sensible groups like the Athenian democrats or Roman Republicans ‘elected’ short term ‘dictators’ to deal with a crisis. Unfortunately some – like Julius Caesar tried to stay beyond a short term, with the appropriate solution of a knife in the back… but that is another story.)

Theocracy is not a good system either, as both the Papacy - in the grip of yet more storms about a worldwide cover up of Priests shagging children - and North Korea, can vouch. (North Korea has a ‘perpetual’ President – who is dead – which classifies it as a theocracy, even without the fact that anyone who continues to be a Marxist in the modern world is clearly operating on prayer alone.)

Oligarchies sometimes have increased flexibility in the long term. (Certainly the Serene Republic of Venice ran a good oligarchy based on about 130 families for a long time.) But most Oligarchies – whatever their theoretical basis - have inevitable problems when technological change undermines the power base of the hereditary class structure. The United States found this when their original ‘democratic’ oligarchy of well-off white slave owners caused a civil war. But Oligarchies by their nature are about negotiated solutions, so they do not really count as absolutes.

Democracy by contrast is often absolutist, and often suffers from the weaknesses of absolutism. In fact I have posted several times about the incredibly high percentage of supposedly ‘democratic’ Republics set up in the last century that dissolved into painful dictatorships, with all the trappings of repression, civil war, and ethnic cleansing: within about twenty years. (Amusingly the only form of ‘Republic’ that lifts the average survival rates of republics any where near 40 years is the ‘People’s Republics’… otherwise known as Communist dictatorships.)

Democracy is a funny thing anyway. It is attempted in so many ways, and fails to be actually democratic in just about all of them.

Consider the ‘First Past the Post’ version which has seen the British Labour Party hold government for decades on about 20% of the total number of voters? (If only 60% vote, and the seats are biased to city centres so you only need half or a third the number of voters in cities, and those seats are safe Labour so only a fraction of the voters in those seats turn out, you quickly get to the situation where a Labour pollie needs only about 24,000 votes compared to 46,000 for a Conservative and 92,000 for a Lib-Dem.) In fact it is hard to see that First Past the Post is any more democratic than the older Rotten Boroughs they replace.

New Zealand’s half assed system where some pollies are elected directly and some come proportionally from a pool are even more suspect, because parties can ‘appoint’ - through the pool - people who no voter would ever elect.

Proportional representation may be a bit better, except that it means that the minor parties that do deals to swing their preferences to get the major parties elected can demand a disproportionate influence on policy in exchange for those preferences. So in Australia for instance, the Green Party – on an average of 8% of the vote or less, can use the threat of preference swaps to ensure that the ALP will not consider nuclear power, even though the majority of voters (and many in the ALP) are now clearly in favour of it.

There is also the problem with party based democracy, which leads to what Robrt Michels calls the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The current idea of replacing the appointed House of Lords with an elected one seems an ideal way to reduce representative democracy. Instead of appointments from all the best and most noble of proven performers in all areas of human culture – arts, sciences, religion, charity, business, unions, etc - the idea is to have another group of faceless nobodies selected in back rooms by the party machines. How appealing?

Yet the British, American, Australian and New Zealand systems at least have some safeguards built in to prevent absolute democracy from running wild. Pity those poor ‘republics’ set up since the world wars which have been abandoned to absolute democracy without safeguards. You know the ones, they are all those states in the world now suffering dictatorship, civil war, repression, genocide and ethnic cleansing. They were based on the Utilitarian ideal that 50.001% of the population should be allowed to legislate away the rights of the rest, and some smart-ass politician (Mussolini, Hitler, Mugabe, Chavez) quickly convinced the dumber voters to fall for this concept.

Democracy of course is not supposed to be a stable system. It is a safety valve component to good government, not a replacement for good government. (The most important part of the machine is rarely the bit that makes the most noise!) The Ancients knew this, and never even considered anything as stupid as absolute democracy. They only ever used democracy as a component of a more complex system. (The possible exception is when the ancient Athenians went through their most ‘democratic’ phase… the period of imperial expansion, massacres of city populations who refused to sign up, and the popularly approved murder of figures like Socrates who dared to say the mob was wrong.)

The first absolute democracy in modern history was France in the 1790’s, where race and sex didn’t matter to your vote. Of course this was a bloody dictatorship within mere months, collapsing into one of the most aggressive imperial dictatorships ever seen within a few years, but surely that was an aberration. Unless you compare it to what happened in Russia/Soviet Union, or Wiemar Republic/Nazi Germany, or China/Red China, or any Middle Eastern state called a Republic (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria – not that votes for women have ever been taken seriously through most of the Middle East), or almost all African and South American states called republics…

The United States likes to pretend that it was a democracy where “all men are created equal”, but even if we leave women out, there were still the issues of Yellow, Red or Black skinned ‘citizens’, or indeed indentured new immigrants, property franchises, etc. The United States was an extended franchise oligarchy for most of its history, and one with incredible complex safeguards against absolute democracy destroying the system or the rights of the people (or of the oligarchs at least).

The United States seems to have chosen a lot of its structure from the Serene Republic of Venice, which had lasted so incredibly long. Of course the reason it had lasted incredibly long was that the voting franchise was restricted to the small number of oligarchical families who had a vested interest in continuing the power structure. Of course there were also plentiful inputs from the Roman system, after all the United States needed a constitution that specifically justified the principles of slavery.
Unfortunately the founding father’s failed to note that the Roman Republic was based more on the Spartan system that lasted several hundred years, than on the Athenian ‘Republic’ that lasted - in bits and starts - for less than a century.

Sparta had a system of ‘democracy’ based on a free adult population of voters, including both male and female property holders. You can see why the American oligarchs were against that. The Athenian and Roman systems that treated women with contempt were clearly more attractive to Americans. Sparta also had ‘helots’ (closer to ‘serfs’) rather than slaves, so again American’s would clearly prefer Athenian slavery.

Sparta balanced the democratic component, already restricted to an oligarchy with a joint vested interest, with a pair of hereditary kings. This produced one of the most balanced and stable constitutions ever devised. (Pity that Spartan eugenics were a fatal cultural dead end.) Unfortunately, when copying the Spartan system, the Romans replaced the pair of hereditary kings with a pair of elected consuls with terms of only a year. The whole idea of a long-term perspective through a hereditary component was replaced with short-term infighting for power. Frankly, it is astonishing that the Roman Republic lasted for even a couple of hundred years before collapsing and becoming and Empire instead. (American’s take note – one little civil war should be considered an astonishingly light price to pay for such an unstable system… And that was way before anything resembling an almost universal franchise. The chance of remaining a democratic republic for more than a century or so seems slight. How many residents are already ‘illegals’ and a non-voting caste?)

American racism is particularly astonishing. I am always amused by the supposed liberality of the film ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’. The black hero was supposed to be big in the UN, so why wouldn’t he and his white partner go and live in a civilized country like Belgium or Switzerland instead of a politically backward racist hellhole like the United States? It is STILL not allowed for blacks to be partnered with whites on American TV – whites or blacks with Asians or Hispanics yes, but with each other? (Actually I would be interested if anyone can give feedback samples of black and white pairing in main characters in any American show? British TV has no problem with it, and Europe is not far behind, but US?)

The fantasy that either the French universal franchise, or the American oligarchic one, achieved stability or desirable government respectively, is disastrous. Certainly the effect of trying to impose such systems on the illiterate peasant castes of the ‘freed’ European or American colonies and dependencies (whether African, Asian or Middle Eastern) is appalling, and simply invites a speedy and bloody dictatorship.

Absolute democracy simply means bread and circuses. In fact absolute democracy usually means eventual dictatorship, repression, ethnic cleansing or civil war. Only with appropriate safeguards can democracy be included in a stable government system. Otherwise democracy is simply one of the most dangerous and evil of all human inventions.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Christianity and the origins of science

I attended a film society debate recently over the film “Collision - is Christianity good for the world”. It was a debate between Christopher Hitchins (failed dedicated Trotskyite now failing to make a convincing argument as a dedicated Atheist), and an American Pastor Douglas Wilson (with a background in Philosophy teaching). By the end of the film I thought of them as the fundamentalist hillbilly versus the fundamentalist rationalist: and, as usual, found any version of fundamentalism spurious, frightening, and completely unconvincing.

The film wasn’t very good, largely because it was presented as a glorified book tour rather than a rational debate. The title question was – eventually - summarized in a single throw away line by each protagonist near the end, leaving the main debate to be about religion in general rather than Christianity. The discussion of religion devolved into a simple debate about whether it was possible to have a moral code that was not based on religion.

Now all three questions could have been interesting if well handled. They weren’t. No evidence at all was presented about the effects of Christianity. No good debate was had on religion in general. (Possibly because Hitchins seemed to assume that all religion is approached with the blind fundamentalism of your average suicide bomber, and the pastor always diverted that to the issue of morality.) No good debate was held on morality, simply because Hitchins never answered any of the questions put to him.

Actually Hitchins was riding to a fall here. The Pastor could look him in the eye and say that he was arguing from faith, because faith was the premises of his position, and therefore he was being consistent. He constantly requested Hitchins give a rationalist or ‘scientific’ basis for morality consistent with Hitchens basing his approach on rationalism. He didn’t. (I would argue that he couldn’t, but I am open to being proved wrong here. Pity Hitchins didn’t even try.)

The debate after the film was lively, and several people made the point that Hitchins could have made some good arguments if he wasn’t blinded by his ‘faith’ in the obviousness of his position. Instead his responses were criticisms of Old Testament examples of cruelty and capriciousness that are perfectly justifiable criticisms: but presented in a way that sounded like a seven year old being outraged… “and besides, you’ve got a big nose”.

Possibly the best point that Hitchens made, was that the early Christian Fathers seriously debated whether they should start their new religion completely from scratch, rather than adopting all the package of Judaism and the old Testament God. Hitchens casual aside on the difficulties of making such an inconsistency acceptable, could have been the foundation for an excellent debate. Certainly the pastor he was debating seemed to have a struggle to avoid actually agreeing with him.

Yet here again, and there is an inherent inconsistency in Hitchens approach to world. He is an absolute believer in Darwinian evolution, and yet completely unwilling to accept human theological evolution.

My own presentations to school children on the development of religions for ancient cultures leans heavily on the concept of evolution of understanding. Because all religions start as an attempt to explain the natural world and its effect on human cultures, all religions tend to evolve around consistent patterns. Animism is the starting point for any culture which faces the most simple of issues, such as whether there will be enough rain and sun to allow the fertility amongst plants and animals which will allow the culture to survive and prosper. Animism automatically develops into Polytheism as the culture becomes more complex, develops new technologies, engages in trade, discovers exchange methods such as coinage, and comes into contact with other dangerous and aggressive tribes. Polytheism itself automatically develops into Monotheism when it becomes apparent that a group of capricious gods that must be negotiated with is not an adequate worldview to cope with yet more complex social interactions.

Interestingly many cultures have been very happy with Polytheism until their world faces radical upheaval. For the ancient Jews who invented the concept of Monotheism, it was disaster in Judea and slavery in Egypt which moved them forward. For the ancient Romans, it was the collapse of imperial power and the incursion of ever-increasing waves of barbarian raiders. For the myriad tribes who eventually became the Moslems, it was possibly inevitable result of centuries of repression and infighting. In each case, it was not a matter of finding a new god, but simply a reinterpretation of the old. Each tribal group began with Animism, moved on through Polytheism as their society developed more complexity, and finished with the last god standing amongst the polytheistic hierarchy becoming the new Monotheistic god. This process appears to be more of a reinterpretation of a people’s understanding of their god, rather than the adoption of a new religion. I would call it evolution of interpretation.

In practical terms though, we think of each stage in their development is being the adoption of a new form of religion. So I disagree completely with those who suggest that it is not possible that the early Christian Fathers could ignore the religion that Jesus of Nazareth came from in defining a new religion. Here I would suspect that Hitchens is correct in thinking that the adoption of Old Testament Judaism within the new Christian tradition was a short-term political mechanism that may well have proved more problematical in the long-term.

The interesting thing about the debate afterwards, was the repeated assertion by 'rationalists' that any form of religion could not have a rationalistic base. And given that they had already failed in any attempt to argue that the human species can develop a moral basis without religion, this is a highly suspect argument. In fact it is easier to argue, that rationalism could not have happened without monotheism, than it used to argue that morality could not have happened without religion.

The world of the Aniministic or Polytheistic religions, is the world of capricious and uncaring gods, who have no real reason to help the ‘monkey boys’ apart from some form of bribery or deal-making. Only with the arrival of a Monotheistic God do we achieve the concept of rational and consistent rules within the universe. In particular, the Christian God, who overthrew the fundamental flaws of Greek science, namely the principle that multiple gods means that there are no immutable laws, and that in fact “shit happens”. In fact it is clear that all the marvels of Greek observational science are in fact the main hindrance to development of modern science. For centuries reference to the mistaken perspectives of the ‘divine’ Galen and Platonic Realism concepts of astrology, held back the development of rational observation science. Contrary to popular belief, it was the scholarly establishments fixation with the Polytheistically limited worldview is of the Greek and Roman forebears, that prevented Bacon and Galileo from moving observational science forward faster. The Roman Catholic Church was always on the side of the concept that the revealed world in the Bible should be interpreted by the observed world around us. Those that argue that the Renaissance was brought on by the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman texts (which had never in fact been entirely lost), need to rethink their position on just how much of modern science is based on the overthrowing of those hidebound and limiting texts.

I came out of the debate convinced of two things. The first is that nobody has yet outlined a reasonable explanation of how the human species could have evolved a moral code with-out having gone through a process of religious conviction. Morality seems fundamentally based on a prospective which acknowledges some higher purpose, or an outside value that is greater than the individual. Humanity clearly evolved more effectively than other creatures largely on the basis of specializing in co-operative behaviour and teamwork. I would suggest that this was only possible because humanity had the capacity to envisage a greater good. I would therefore argue that the concept of religion was intrinsic to the concept of communication, co-operation, teamwork and out evolving other species. (I am currently seeking a good argument opposing this perspective. If anyone can suggest sources that can be more convincing than Kant, I would appreciate it.)

The second thing that became apparent from both the film and the discussion afterwards, is that supposedly rationalistic ‘scientists’ are operating almost entirely on faith when it comes to making arguments against things they do not like or do not understand. Personally I do not believe that it is possible to scientifically prove such concepts as a ‘good’, ‘truth’, ’just’, ‘moral’, or even ‘blue’ (though I have seen some interesting metaphysical arguments attempting to do so). I am well enough aware of the limitations of human understanding that I am happy to say that I have 'faith' that there can be such a thing as truth or justice. Metaphysical concepts are no more open to scientific proof than is the theory of the Big Bang. (Though if anybody would like to demonstrate some repeatable experiments on the Big Bang theory to me, I would be delighted to see their attempt. Then I would be greatly amused to point out that the process that they are proving is the one detailed in the book of Genesis.)

I was not actually particularly impressed with most of the points made by the pastor in the film, but I had to agree with him on the basic principle. He effectively said ‘my worldview is based on faith, which you have to disprove; but your world view is based on proof, and to suggest that you want me to take that on faith is inadequate’. The convener of the film group, a dedicated atheist, complained that Hitchens simply did not offer an alternative foundation of morality on which to base his claims. He felt that this was unacceptable, though obviously he hoped such a thing was possible. In the film Hitchens more or less conceded that he could not think of a way to do it given human history, but he actually suggested that we take it on faith that it might be possible. (An argument of despair familiar to all who have read the Marxist apologists – like Hitchins - in the last 50 years.)

As an historian, what amuses me most is the parallel with the previous times religions have gone through a renaissance. Reading the works of the Rationalists, Marxists, Dada-ists, and Deconstructionists, simply reminds me of the writings of those bemoaning the collapse of Roman civilization in their own time. I see parallels in the trials of Socrates for blasphemy. I hope that our understanding of religion is moving past the appalling mediaeval concepts of hierarchical church structures enforced by in fallible humans. In fact I look forward to the next stage of the human interaction with the great unknowable. I do not a moment believe that abandoning the idea that there is order and reason and great purpose, is anything but a dead end. Unrealistic though it seems, Hitchens and Dawkins and the other atheists may have as much effect on human history as their rationalistic Greek forebears, but their self-righteous arrogance seems unlikely to halt human evolution for long. I am not sure where the next stage of our understanding will take us, and but I am sure that this is not it.