Sunday, April 27, 2008

The myth of democracy?

Eric has nodded me towards this one:

6. The myth of democracy

Politicians preaching democracy as a value forget the two things wrong with democracy: the "demos" bit and the "cracy" bit or, in other words, the people and the system whereby they are supposed to govern themselves. By and large, even in systems with advanced educational resources, the people cannot do better than take their news and opinions from the likes of Rupert Murdoch (and according to Nick Davies's Flat Earth News, the British Government employs some 1,500 press officers whose job it is to manipulate the people). This is when things are going well. When they are not going well people naturally suppose that disagreement deserves death. It is tempting to think that the only solution is the Hobbesian sovereign with his monopoly of power, but as John Locke said: "This is to think that men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what mischiefs may be done them by polecats or foxes, but are content, nay, think it safety, to be devoured by lions."

For Icelanders, Scandinavians and Europeans, with our long parliamentary traditions, democracy may be the least bad system of government, but it is a long way from being any use elsewhere.

I'm rushing to get to this before Norm does. He's going through Simon Blackburn's list of myths and commenting on them. Things aren't looking bright for Blackburn so far (look at Normblog entries for today - the final tally is still being completed). But - as I type - Norm hasn't got to democracy yet.

Blackburn seems to be making three fairly fundamental errors here:
  1. In his first sentence, he's assuming that democracy = direct democracy. It's interesting that he presents democracy as some myth that is preached by politicians here. A fairly basic understanding of the distinction between direct and representative would dissuade him from writing that sentence.
  2. His highlighting of Rupert Murdoch's influence, and the claims - interesting as they are - of Nick Davies in Flat Earth News - would suggest that media distortions make any effective democracy impossible. He doesn't recognise here that this is a continuing dialectic in which things are getting better. People are more sceptical of the accuracy of news reporting than they ever have been. The barriers to entry are lower than they ever have been, and the kind of real monopolies that the Citizen Kanes of this world can enjoy are very much a thing of the past. Just to clarify this, I'm saying monopoly in business terms. There is no question that commercial monopolies are as strong - and getting stronger - than ever before in this sector. But there is a level of pluralism in the media (and you're looking at a small limb of it here) - the real issue here - that could only have been dreamed of a fifteen years ago. This should not quieten any demands for lower levels of media concentration, or for more public service standards in the media. But things are getting better, not worse.
  3. The final para is probably the most annoying though. In 1974, Portugal, Spain and Greece were all military dictatorships of one kind or another. Today, we Brits look at some elements of their democratic settlement with envy. Eastern Europe was not a democracy in any recognisable sense of the word, and even at the most basic - visible - level for us Britishers - this country was a great deal less democratic than it is now. Institutions have had to respond to inexorable demands for accountability, and for the application of basic liberal standards. And I've not mentioned anywhere beyond the boundaries of Europe yet.
Like many of other claims Blackburn has made in this article, his take on democracy is a very odd one. I hope he hasn't got a teaching job anywhere...?


John Meredith said...

"I hope he hasn't got a teaching job anywhere...?"

Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, I think.

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