"Can Democracy Work?" is James Miller's sequel to his book of thirty years ago, "Democracy Is in the Streets." In the intervening years he seems to have become less certain of the answer.
I have been re-reading James Miller's 1987 "Democracy is in the Streets" since he was in Oakland a month ago. The book provides a richly detailed account of the short life of the "Students for a Democratic Society" (SDS) from their beginnings at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1962 through their being a major driving force behind the protests against the Vietnam war to their collapse in 1969.
That was about the last thing I heard as I was leaving the city. Said by the taxi driver who was taking me to Kowloon Station on the way to the airport.
August 16, 2018
The World Congress of Philosophy is continuing; but today, Thursday, it is mostly student presentations in Chinese. I take time off and get on the subway to do some sightseeing. What I discover is an abyss in the human heart.
August 11, 2018
It is Saturday morning and I am about to meet up with Joshua Wong at the Bricklane Café right across from Hong Kong’s Legislature where Wong’s political party has its office. It turns out that Wong has already been at work that weekend morning and I am not the only visitor he will see that day. I am curious to hear from him about the current state of Hong Kong politics.
August 10, 2018
I travel to Hong Kong and plan to talk to Joshua Wong about the future of the city.
"Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we'd be asking? … We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession. But now we turn to our own country."
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die
Trump must be a puzzle to our political realists. He certainly shares their scorn for seeing politics in moral terms. Unlike George W. Bush, he doesn’t speak of an axis of evil in the world; and unlike Obama and the Democrats, he is little concerned with the issue of human rights. As an amoral capitalist he believes in self-interest and the exercise of power, in the use and pursuit of money in politics.
But he is also not much interested in the actual political realities. He sticks to a simple picture of what the world is like, despises experts, and ignores advice. In his factual claims he is often quite unrealistic.
Donald Trump has already made a number of serious mistakes in his political career. I am not talking here of decisions over which the political parties might disagree. I am talking rather of mistakes due to his incompetent handling of political matters. Politics is also a craft which can be employed in the service of different policies. Trump is proving that he is not a master of this kind of skill.
We are living today in an age of surveillance which is still expanding its reach. For all that we are still not paying enough attention to this development and its implications for human life.
Donald Trump has exposed the extraordinary weakness of the Europeans. In the current game of global politics they are forced to play a very minor role. How did it come to this and what can the Europeans do about it?
Illustration: Max Ernst, Europe after the rain II
Technology has transformed and deformed our long-evolved political order and it is likely to do more of that. A technologically enabled economic and financial system has certainly diminished the regulatory power of the state. Goods, services, and people can now move easily across continents, not always under the control of governments. Pictures, words, ideas, and information are massively channeled within and between political systems, often defying the power of states but also often abetting it. At the same time, the state’s tools of surveillance and repression have become definitely more effective. Its military strength has vastly increased and can be projected over wider distances. We notice, thus, a diminution of state power in some respects, but also an increase in others.
The current American administration appears set on all out conflict with Iran. In this endeavor it has allied itself unconditionally with Saudi Arabia. Is this a clear-sighted policy? In an uncompromising speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Mike Pompeo, the new American Foreign Secretary, today, May 21, 2018, threatened that "Iran will continue to feel the 'sting of sanctions' if its doesn’t change the 'unacceptable and unproductive path it has chosen. These will be the strongest sanctions in history by the time we are complete'.” Bloomberg News adds in its report on the speech: "The former CIA director essentially demanded Iran’s total submission without offering anything in return aside from the hazy prospect of sanctions relief at some future date." There is no doubt that the Iranian authorities will find this offer as unacceptable as it is meant to be. Thus, the stage is set for more confrontation.
Here is an exceptionally insightful critique of this course of policy from May 2017 by an Israeli analyst.
Our politicians do not like to speak about overpopulation out of fear for the pious who believe that human beings ought to multiply. Left-wing ideologues argue that there is no such thing and that every apparent problem can be solved through a more equal distribution of resources. Enlightened progressivists are confident that there will be a technological fix. Economists tell us that we need continuous growth and hence more consumers. And the statisticians are confident that the growth of the human population will eventually slow down. We are, in reality, already bursting at the seams; numerous ecological problems are due to the fact that there are already so many of us. We need to think harder about the problem, something we find hard to do. We need to consider what the size of the human population should ideally be? And if we are already overloaded, we must also ask how we can reduce the size of the population in a humane way. We need to ask what obligations we have to coming generations.
Ever since the attempted coup two years ago, on July 15, 2016, Turkey has been in a state of emergency. But for the eyes of the casual visitor this is in no ways visible. In Istanbul and Ankara life proceeds, so it seems, as usual.
Here is an easily understood series of graphics on the state of the American economy. Put together by the Wall Street Journal, it shows that the wealth distribution in America has changed dramatically from 2004 to 2016. The top 1% now own 5% more of wealth and the bottom 90% now own 6% less. Look at the rest of the graphics and you get some idea of why this has happened.
Globalization is out and nation states are in, if you believe the agitators. The reality is, however, quite different. The nation state was never a happy construct and technological change has undermined it once and for all. But what comes next? Justified anxieties about where we are going and what globalization will bring us have cast the idea of the nation state in a new, unexpectedly rosy light. It's, however, a false and deceptive light. Rana Dasgupta has written a terrific article in The Guardian explaining the demise of the nation state, why it is unlikely to come back, and what to do about it. Don't miss it.
Conformism is a danger to any society, including democratic ones. The Americans, who pride themselves on their individualism, are, in fact, often quite conformist in their behavior. Look at the American cities or how people dress and what they eat, and you discover a great deal of conformity. Strangely enough, that conformism can go hand-in-hand with the belief that you are free, independent, and your own individual person.
Conformism is also a political problem and a political danger. Read this article, watch the embedded video, and decide for yourself. https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/how-americas-largest-local-tv-owner-turned-its-news-anc-1824233490