All Articles All Articles

Democracy For Whom?

Democracy For Whom?

By Andrew Hanson (Winter 2012)

Editor's Note: This is an undergraduate's paper in a course on Classical Social Theory, written for the Winter 2012 quarter. We post it with the author's permission as another example of a student's understanding and interpretation of the issues surrounding political power and "democracy" in particular.

The idea of democracy in the modern world is greatly misunderstood. As a world power, America tends to be the main example for modern democracy, yet its system is anything but perfect. How could a society where less than half of the voting population participates to elect from a set of two predetermined parties be the best example of democracy? More importantly, do they even understand the meaning of democracy? Unfortunately many do not. They believe that the meaning of a democratic society is simply being able to vote. This theory would imply that democracy is an end in itself, that it is the final destination on a long journey. In order to achieve a properly functioning society, the world must first recognize that democracy is a means to an end, an end which has yet to be fully realized in any society.

Democracy, when thought of as an end in itself, is defined by a society that has reached a democratic way of making public policy decisions through majority rule, usually through a system of voting. In essence, a society that votes is a democratic one. This theory fails to realize the fact that modern democracy tends to be held and manipulated by the corporations, political action committees, bureaucracies, and unscrupulous politicians resulting in a system that never lives up to its potential while failing its citizens. The philosophy of agnosticism, or the inability to know the objective truth in anything, supports the view of democracy as an end in itself. Following this logic, it becomes clear that change cannot happen within the system without first dismantling the entire framework upon which that government is built, and even if this occurs, it cannot be known whether that society will be any better than the last. This thought of everything being unknowable fuels people to accept the status quo. The ideas of sociologists and philosophers like Durkheim and Weber support the mindset of a people who believe democracy is an end in itself. Their elitist views support and justify the actions of leaders in a so-called democratic society. Durkheim has said that it is better not to expose the working class to vast horizons and broad generalizations, for it will only upset them further, making them feel as if they are in an anomic state of labor. This stance exposes his true standing toward the lower classes and implies that they must forever be ruled by the more privileged elites of society. Durkheim’s view of elites fails to realize the inequalities that are not natural that creates such disparity between the two classes from birth. The nepotism inherent in elite communities is ignored, as is the structural inequality of the system that fosters such a large gap between the elites and the common people. Surely, it goes against all reason to say that only the elites can produce capable citizens in leadership positions even though they are drastically outnumbered by non-elites.

The way that elites perpetuate themselves is evident in the appointment of the Bush Administration not once, but twice, even when faced with public opposition. The political fiasco that was the Bush Administration is the perfect example of elites using the nepotism, secrecy, and outright disdain for the common people inherent in modern societies that see democracy as an end in itself. The Bush administration’s actions were long in the making, going back twenty years earlier to the Reagan administration, whose meddling in the affairs of the Nicaraguan government set the precedent for the Bush administration’s activity in Iraq. Regarding the scripting of a public memo addressing torture, “a concerned observer from the State Department opined, ‘They were arguing for a new interpretation of the Constitution [that] negates Article One, Section Eight, that lays out all the powers of Congress. In other words, they were asserting the right to establish a presidency with unchecked power” (Loo, Phillips 2006).

Max Weber holds a similar disinterest in the welfare of non-elites in his description of modern bureaucracies and the role they play in society. Weber points out that “the fate of the masses depends on the correct and proper functioning of the increasingly bureaucratic organizations of private capitalism. The idea of eliminating these organizations becomes more and more utopian” (McIntosh 1997). The importance he places on bureaucracies in a democratic society, aided by his failure to view things from any perspective other than that of the elites—of which he is a part—ignores the power of mass action in society. Weber admits that elites and bureaucracies are linked, and he even poses a possible solution in the emergence of a charismatic leader to temporarily save the people, yet he dismisses the power of the citizenry. His one-sided perspective limits his ability to see the potential of a people who are fed up with the bureaucratic ineptitude in societal affairs.

Democracy, as a means to an end, would provide a clearer and more balanced type of society. Philosophically, democracy as a means to an end follows the guidelines set forth by empiricism which states that there is an objective reality that is knowable and able to be studied. Under this premise, the world can be bettered by analysis and concerted effort, resulting in a more equal society. As a means to an end, democracy’s failures as well as those of prior governments, are exposed and resolved to form a better functioning society. In this final society, importance would be placed on the proper governing of people, and the accumulation of objective knowledge. Empiricism negates agnosticism by asking society to think critically while allowing for the admission of multiple viewpoints and the subsequent selection of the best options. In a society where democracy is a means to an end, it is not simply about everyone having their own opinion—since that would essentially be an end in itself—it is about making the best decisions based on the wants and needs of society as a whole. The leadership that arises must have the interest of the people at its core, lest it be reduced to the elite-serving models of the past where people were allowed to vote—usually in an outrageously uninformed state—thus fulfilling their quasi-democratic duty, and then the government that is sworn to protect the people makes decisions that are self-serving to the point of being unlawful, even genocidal.

Following the nature of their radical socio-philosophical disciplines, Marx and Lenin adhere to the empirical nature of the world and see democracy as a means to an end. That end, according to Marxists, exists in the form an uprising of the people against the pseudo-democracy that is in place, rebelling against capitalism and all its wares. This revolution of the proletariat, born from the oppression of wage labor and capital, would result in a classless society devoid of inequalities. This communist society would stem directly from the years of exploitation of laborers at the hands of capitalist elites, resulting in a complete dismantling of the status quo. Marx, in his letter to Weydemeyer, explains his contribution to sociological history and explains the basic steps necessary to move toward a classless society. “My own contribution was to 1. show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society” (McIntosh 1997). Just as democracy is a means to an end, the subjugation of the proletariat is a means to an end of the capitalist rulers and policy makers; for it is the pressures of bourgeois capitalism that forge the unity of the working class and give it the fuel to revolt.

Like Karl Marx, Lenin has a similar proclivity for the success of the working class. Leninist theory links the struggle of the worker to the two theories of economism and imperialism. Economism and imperialism are a set of theories so different from Lenin’s social democrat standing that he refers to them as being two completely “different tongues” (Christman 1987). Economism, a theory that closely resembles Durkheim’s “broad horizons” stance, holds that workers need to only know the basics, and they should not be educated beyond the range of what they already understand. In this way, the capitalists can keep them under control all the while reminding them what their economic demands are. In contrast, he views imperialism as the proverbial straw that breaks the back of the workers. Lenin reveals imperialism to be the “final, stagnant, ‘parasitic,’ revolutionary stage of capitalism [where] financiers would divert their capital to the foreign locales where it would produce the highest returns and refrain from aiding industry in their own countries” (Christman 1987). This scenario would result in the further division of the productive forces from the owners of production, leading the productive workers to revolt. Thus, imperialism is the era of social revolution, according to Lenin.

Bureaucracies play a major role in much of the failure of the democratic system because they are by their very nature undemocratic entities. They simply exist, apart from the common people, looming over society, telling the people what is best while never actually considering what is in their best interest. Weber warns that democratic societies are doomed to be run by bureaucracies, because they are so large and inorganic. He says: “the ruled, for their part, cannot dispense with or replace the bureaucratic authority once it exists. For this bureaucracy rests upon expert training, a functional specialization of work, and an attitude set for habitual and virtuoso-like mastery of single yet methodically integrated functions” (McIntosh 1997). Because of the inherent rationality that accompanies progress, society will become ever more drawn to the order and structure of bureaucracies. They are an obstacle to authentic popular rule due to their hierarchical, top-down, secretive nature, yet society can hardly function without them. Further, the bureaucratic problem exists in modern societies in the form of a monopoly over information. This occurs when bureaucracies rationally get in bed together, forming a coalition of sorts in order to boost productivity, which can result in the stifling of information. “If the existing authorities embark on a radical turn in policy but mask the magnitude of their actions with persuasive rhetoric, and if the mass media go along, then how can we reasonably expect society’s mainstream to break with the leading authorities?” (Loo 2011) This excerpt explains the crisis facing America today, but it can be parlayed to apply to any society run by bureaucracies and monopolies to show just how easy it is to control information and how it is even easier to keep society from taking that step away from the status quo.

Democracy simply holds a place near the end of a long line of governments that have been utilized and run into the ground in order to form the best society possible. The emergence of genuine leaders, those who hold the best interests of society in highest regard, will propel the world into a new era. This way, “overall knowledge and ability can thereby be advanced. The experience of any good teacher, social movement leader, good coach, or mentor bears this truth out: leaders who raise the consciousness, knowledge, performance, and ability of those they lead are reducing the gap between the leaders and the led in the sense that the led are becoming better leaders themselves” (Loo 2011).  It is here in the bleak area after revolution that the societies have a chance to develop a true democracy, one devoid of bureaucracies and political action committees, and one where the people work together for the greater good of society, not for the greater profit of the capitalists.

Works Cited

Loo, Dennis and Peter Phillips, eds. 2006. Impeach the President: The Case Against Bush and Cheney. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.

Loo, Dennis D.  2011.  Globalization and the Demolition of Society.

            Glendale, CA: Larkmead Press

McIntosh, Ian 1997.   Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader.

New York, NY: New York University Press