Monthly Archives: February 2008

On the strangeness of formal democracy: Elections as overrated (Part I)

Preliminary Considerations 

In the Western liberal conviction, the best litmus test for the presence of democracy—that is, for whether people are empowered—is elections; often enough the two are just equated. This abstraction of the voting exercise from other social and political factors is unfortunate and, at bottom, puzzling: For it should be obvious that, (a) in the absence of certain conditions, elections do not mean very much: Even slaves could elect their masters, or the illiterate “select” by random punching of buttons. More plausibly, it is possible that an electorate is so busy, or preoccupied, or ignorant, that it cannot appreciate it’s options, or what is at stake between them—or to have such poor options that nothing much is at stake. In representative democracy, there may be lacking a real and clear mechanism for translating a candidate’s pre-election positions into action in office.

Further, it is almost true to say that (b) to the extent that the conditions which lend meaning to an election are met, the elections themselves become superfluous. That is, an electorate must already be substantially empowered for elections to be (further) empowering. In the case of electing political representatives—which all but exhaust elections in Western democracies—the point is especially clear: Because actually making decisions, practicing real self-determination, is needed to understand how anyone else could do it on your behalf, much less who could do it best. Conversely, if the electorate is not already substantially empowered politically, the ballot is unlikely to make it so: Intuitively, a system will not permit serious changes to itself by electoral means unless some extra-electoral force compels this. Slaves will never be able to vote for their freedom unless they are powerful enough to force such a thing through—in which case they are well on their way to freedom with or without the vote. There is no reason why the same relationship (between the vote and extraneous factors) should not hold for less extreme cases.

Why “Free Choice” Cannot be the Mark of An Empowered Society

The strangeness of the electoral standard goes deeper. Consider: An electing body by definition has choices, but does not “choose its choices” ad infinitum; that is, at some point it is forced to choose from among a set of choices which itself it has not chosen. This set is, as it were, imposed upon it. But, recalling the liberal ethos, if it would be dreadful to have any one of the choices in the set simply imposed “undemocratically” upon an electorate, it should be almost as dreadful, it seems, that the whole set be imposed in the first place. In this way, every choice swims about in a sea of impositions; impositions are precisely what make the choice possible. And most other phenomena is much further removed from any human choice: On a consistent liberal view, clearly “bad” things like earthquakes and fatigue become all the worse for being unchosen; and even clearly “good” things like sunshine become regrettable for being unchosen—just as liberals lament an even very good and benign, but unelected, national leader. If “choosing” is to remain the touchstone of an empowered society, not only do elections become self-defeating but life in its inescapable, irremediable “givenness,” fraught with new regrets at every turn.

To answer that the only impositions which count are those that come from people, versus bare circumstances, is not only arbitrary—like saying you can only be wet when someone throws water on you—but also overlooks the degree to which people also “make” the political system which facilitates or frustrates certain electoral options from emerging to table, and could change it if they wished. The confusion is removed (only) if we assess the degree to which a populace is empowered in the same way we really assess “givens” like sunshine and earthquakes: We ask whether the choices it faces, and makes, are in fact empowering ones—apart from the fact they are chosen—and whether the impositions it (inevitably) undergoes are in fact empowering, apart from the fact they are not chosen.

[Part II to follow.]

Troop surge revisited

I wrote about the Iraq troop surge just as its proponents were starting to allege its “success.” My analysis remains, I think, intact: The surge “success” is either (a) overblown, especially when net gains for the country as a whole are considered; and where violence has decreased locally, the gains are (b) unsustainable or (c) have nothing to do with anything the U.S. military has done. I could add to this that the surge (d) has not met its own purported goals and (e) is probably counterproductive to them, and to the security situation overall, in the longer term.

In view of Bush’s triumphal State of the Union address, it pays to revisit the issue. This, as the “success” view has come to dominate mainstream discussion of the war (even if implicitly, in the absolute decline of media focus on Iraq).

Conceptual Issues

So what makes the campaign “success[ful]”? Going by sheer numbers—or at least, by official accounts of sheer numbers, which have up to now been consistent underestimates—it does little to simply say that violence is down from previous levels. For the initial baseline was very, very high to begin with. Indeed, any amount of violence is low relative to some conceivable baseline. Citing relative progress is only to say “things could be worse”; and indeed, things could always be worse, even when they are horrible. So we have to talk about how Iraq is, not just how it is not. And it is at least as violent as it was in 2005, when nobody anywhere was talking about “success” there. Baghdad remains, by the numbers, the most violent city in the world. Nor are the numbers “getting better”—violence is actually increasing with the new year. (If a downturn in the violence means success, ergo, the upturn must mean failure.)

Factual Issues

In qualitative terms, the surge fares no better. Certainly, its express goal—to permit a parliamentary reconciliation among the sects—remains starkly unmet, the political situation being probably worse than before. (Surge proponents don’t deny this, they just don’t talk about the initial surge goals, much as proponents of the original invasion have long given up talking about its premises.)

Context remains all-important in assessing such numbers as we have: Any decrease in violence in the capital represents a completion, more or less, of the process of ethnic cleansing begun before the surge. 100,000 refugees have fled Baghdad during each surge month (that’s one in four residents), turning a mostly Sunni city with mixed neighborhoods into a mostly Shiite one with small Sunni enclaves carved off from the rest with concrete blast walls topped with razor wire and patrolled by militias. Ethnic violence in these neighborhoods has decreased to the extent that that there is simply nobody left in them to kill. Also, predictably, much of the “decreased” violence has simply been displaced to the provinces.

80,000 Iraqi militiamen who formerly fought the Americans are now “allies” against al-Quaeda—meaning they do everything they did before the surge except, ostensibly, kill U.S. troops—precisely because the Americans pay them to be. Their leaders promise “allegiance” as long as the money keeps coming, or as long as they feel like it. Since these militias now represent every ethnic sect and include both violently pro- and anti-government groups, rendering them more efficient only complicates the security and political situations. Also, the largest and most serious American enemy in Iraq—the armed wing of Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army—has been under a military stand-down since last August while the leadership roots out infiltrators. Of course their removal from the equation has ensured a relative peace. (The Pentagon has called them “the most dangerous accelerant” of sectarian violence in Iraq, worse than al-Quaeda.) The stand-down is set to expire in February, which could, at the least, change everything.

To the extent, then, that this “success” depends on continued U.S. military presence and funding, it is either unsustainable or could hardly be, as claimed, any step toward American withdrawal. (By the same calculus, extending the alleged gains of the increased American presence to the rest of Iraq would require a surge 25 times size of the present one.) But in the final analysis, Iraq is a country in shambles, insofar as it can be said to remain a country at all, and its major problems are not afforded solutions of a military type.