Tag Archives: autocracy

Is Democracy The Best Way To Ensure Basic Rights?

20141029when-democracy-fails-600x0

When it comes to ensuring the happiness, advancement, and general prosperity of humanity, it’s not unreasonable to say that basic human rights are a core ingredient. Most know the basics of these rights as life, liberty, and property. Some even throw in the pursuit of happiness, which denotes all kinds of freedom, including the sexy kinds.

Beyond just sounding great on paper, human rights are a major guiding force. History has shown, time and again, that societies that value these rights tend to prosper more that only exist to glorify a despot. The contrast between the two Koreas is proof enough of that.

However, the preservation and promotion of basic human rights is no easy task. The world is full of corrupt, cruel, and power-hungry people who would scoff at the very concept the same way they would anyone who claims trees have souls. The fact that some of them manage to get elected in countries with democratic institutions says a lot about just how hard it can be to protect human rights.

It’s that vulnerability in one the most cherished modern institutions, which some claim took a major hit in 2016, that leads me to ask a question that I’m sure is going to draw me some level of ire. However, in wake of recent news and a particular Hollywood movie that indirectly touches on this concept, I think it’s worth asking.

Is democracy the best way of preserving basic human rights in a society?

I ask that question as someone who loves and celebrates the freedoms that being an American has given me. I feel lucky and honored to live in a country where I get to participate in the democratic process. I make it a point to vote in every election, be it mid-term or a presidential election.

That said, I’m not among those hyper-patriot, Ron Swanson wannabes who willfully ignores the flaws of the democratic systems around me. Between the limited choices offered by a two-party system, the non-democratic nature of the electoral college, and misguided ballot initiatives, I see these flaws as much as anyone else with an internet connection.

To some extent, I recognize that not all of these flaws are fixable within a democracy. The essence of democracy is people electing their government. Unfortunately, people aren’t always rational and anyone who has read headlines from Florida knows that. People can also be whipped up into a hateful, mob-like frenzy. It’s one of the side-effects of being such a social species. We’ll often go with the crowd before we go with reason.

In a perfect democracy, every voter would be completely independent, completely informed, and only vote to elect the person they believe will best preserve basic human rights. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect democracy any more than there’s such a thing as a perfect autocracy, there are bound to be flaws in the system.

Some of those flaws can be mitigated with things like voter education. Others involve mixing democratic systems with that of a republic. That’s primarily what the founding fathers attempted to establish with the United States, a republic being the fixed body of laws to preserve our rights and using democratic systems to protect those rights.

Other western democracies utilize various methods to address these issues, but so long as people are involved, there will be human flaws in any system. The key is making sure that those flaws don’t end up undermining human rights. The results haven’t been perfect. Ask any number of minority communities for proof of that.

With these flaws in mind, I believe it’s worth thinking beyond democracy to imagine other ways of preserving and promoting human rights. Some of those concepts manifest in movies, comics, and TV shows. The “Black Panther” movie presented an enticing, albeit fanciful, idea of an all-around good king who believes in basic human rights and does what he can to promote it, at least for his own people.

I’ve also cited Dr. Doom in a previous article who, despite being the ultimate villain in the Marvel universe, is pretty much the perfect ruler for any system of government. Sure, people in his government fear his wrath, but that’s the only thing they fear. You could argue that such fear is inconsistent with basic human rights, but in terms of actually securing people, property, and what not, Doom has no equals.

Outside the world of superheroes, though, there are also instances where a great leader who deeply values human rights gets thrust into power. That’s the entire premise of “Designated Survivor,” a show where Kiefer Sutherland does more than just shoot and torture terrorists. The best possible leader for a government isn’t elected. They essentially find themselves in that position.

In a sense, that embodies the disconnect between the fictional world and the real world. The idea that a king with ultimate power in a secretive country or some low-level government appointee would turn out to be a perfect president assumes a lot of things that don’t play out in the real world. It essentially vindicates what Winston Churchill once said about democracy.

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Those bolded parts are my doing because those are the parts that most people recall. Considering the context in which Churchill said those words, having just fought a massive war against two leaders who had been democratically elected, it’s hard to blame him.

Even today, extremists who do not hold certain human rights in high regard do get elected to positions of power. It’s not a matter of people just throwing the concept away. People are still very tribal, last I checked. They’re going to vote or protest in accord with their own interests, even if it means undermining the interests of others.

That situation leaves basic human rights vulnerable. There are, as I write this, people living in functioning democracies whose basic rights are being undermined. While we have made a great deal of progress over the past century as democracies have spread, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Going back to the original question I asked about democracy’s ability to preserve human rights, I don’t think there’s an easy answer. For now, I’m inclined to side with the wisdom of Winston Churchill. Democracy has it’s flaws, but it’s the best we’ve got thus far. We can definitely stand to do better and should work towards doing so.

Some of that may involve getting money out of politics to mitigate corruption. Some involve doing the opposite of what China just did and setting term limits for politicians. Some are taking an even more radical approach by integrating emerging technology into the democratic process.

These are all bold ideas, which are certainly worth pursuing in the future. Until we have a real life T’Challa to be king or a super-intelligent AI capable of running a government with perfect efficiency, democracy is our best bet for preserving human rights. We shouldn’t stop trying to improve, but we should still celebrate it’s merit.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current Events, human nature, Thought Experiment

George Orwell, 1984, And The Perfect Totalitarian State

There were a lot of reasons I hated high school. I’ve listed more than a few of them on this blog. Somewhere on that list, but nowhere near the top, involved the books I had to read. To say they weren’t very sexy would be like saying a baseball bat to the head isn’t a very good massage.

However, every now and then, my English and social studies teachers managed to assign a book that didn’t make me want to make me stick my head in a deep fryer. One of my favorite non-sexy books of all time, which also happened to be a homework assignment, is George Orwell’s “1984.” It’s a book that always seems relevant and insightful, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

When I read Orwell’s depiction of the ultimate dystopian future, I see it as the ultimate thought experiment, of sorts. Orwell wrote this book in the 1940s, a time when there were actual, dystopian totalitarian regimes operating in the world. Sadly, one of them was a chief ally during World War II.

He had a lot to reference in his time, much more so than we have today. Other than North Korea, most people today aren’t as familiar with rigid, totalitarian governments. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there’s an entire generation of people whose idea of a totalitarian regime is relegated to detention at a high school. They can’t even begin to fathom the kind of world that “1984” described.

That’s a good thing in some respects. In a sense, those governments are almost impossible these days. The rise of the internet, modern technology, and complex geopolitics makes it next to impossible for a regime to be as totalitarian as “1984.” North Korea comes close, but even that regime is wholly inept compared to Big Brother.

However, I believe there’s a unique value, of sorts, when it comes to understanding what makes a totalitarian regime work. I also think there’s value in knowing the tenets behind it, the ways in which it operates, and why it takes hold in the first place. Even in an age of people protesting the removal of the McRib from McDonald’s menu, we’re not immune from the threat of a totalitarian regime.

With that in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into Orwell’s extreme thought experiment that played out in “1984.” If you haven’t read the book or had even worse English teachers than I did, you might not be familiar with Big Brother, how it operates, what what it represents. You might have heard the term, but you might not be familiar with what it is.

For the sake of providing context, here’s a quick video from the Alternate History Hub channel on YouTube. It’s a channel that focuses primarily on alternate history scenarios, which I’ve touched on before, but it also provides remarkable insight onto other subjects. Given how many totalitarian regimes are involved in alternate history, it makes sense to explore the ultimate extreme, as it played out in “1984.”

It’s hard for most people in the industrialized world to imagine a system like this. The idea that facts, history, and the very thoughts we think are all controlled by this all-encompassing, all-powerful government seems insane. It’s hard to imagine living in a world like that. It almost seems impossible. In a sense, it is.

No government in history has ever come close to wielding the kind of power that Big Brother does in “1984.” Some have tried. There’s the first emperor of China, the sun king in France, and our old frenemy, Joseph Stalin. They only ever succeeded in part and often failed in the long run.

That’s because, as we’re seeing with the ongoing health care debate in America, human beings are impossibly chaotic creatures. We all have so many different needs and wants. We’re all petty about different things and apathetic towards others. No two people are completely wired the same. We all think different thoughts for different reasons, sometimes with downright kinky undertones.

It’s because of all that chaos/diversity within the human condition that no government can hope to achieve what Big Brother achieved in “1984.” It would require so much power, so much micromanaging, and so much information that it just wouldn’t be practical for any one human or party of humans.

Again, that won’t stop some from trying and that’s where Orwell’s thought experiment becomes relevant. In looking at the structure of Big Brother, we can observe the nuts and bolts of the perfect totalitarian regime. We can see what the ultimate fascist is seeking when they want to create an all-power, completely centralized government.

Impossible or not, the features of this government reveal some common themes that have a basis in the real world. Those are themes worth understanding because they help us know when someone is trying too hard to emulate Big Brother. Without getting too deep into the book, here are the key features of a perfect totalitarian regime.

  • There’s a single, unambiguous ruling party and no opposition of any kind

  • The ruling party makes up a small percentage of the population, never more than one or two percent

  • The members of the ruling party rarely, if ever, interact with the public directly

  • The public consists of two classes, a professional middle class that never makes up more than a quarter of the population and a working lower class that usually makes up over two-thirds of the population

  • The middle class is educated to some degree, but wholly controlled by the ruling party and is completely dependent on them for their livelihood

  • The lower class is uneducated, under-informed, and easily manipulated

  • All economic activity is controlled or guided by the party, ensuring the middle class has just enough to do their job and the lower class has just enough to propagate

  • The ideals for family structure and social structure are imposed by the party with any variations being deemed deviant

  • The lower classes are allowed to be more deviant and decadent in order to keep them content with their state

  • The middle class is held to a higher standard of conduct to ensure their loyalty and submission to the party

  • The flow of information, the accepted knowledge of the world, and the entire history of the state is dictated by the party and accepted by the masses

There are probably more features I could list, but these are the core elements of Big Brother and the society we see in “1984.” Now, some people will attempt to apply these features to whatever state, country, or office environment they’re in at the moment. Some might actually apply, but never to the same degree as Orwell depicted.

The biggest takeaway from these traits, as well as the themes in “1984,” is how a society structures itself in the face of such overwhelming control. At the top, there’s always a ruling class. That class has only one primary purpose, which is to preserve its power. From the Galactic Empire in “Star Wars” to the battle for the iron throne in “Game of Thrones,” preservation is always the top concern of a totalitarian regime.

Part of preserving that power means relying on a professional middle class, of sorts, to deal with the bureaucracy and administration of the state. It’s in this area where totalitarian regimes tend to be most vulnerable. History has shown that authoritarian states like Nazi Germany were anything but efficient, which in turn undermined the ruling party’s primary goal.

It seems like a paradox, but it’s more a matter of pragmatism. A state needs people to run these massive, complex machinations to maintain so much control. To not impose such control would mean granting people freedom and that’s dangerous to any ruling party that wants to preserve control.

This is why those in these middle class professions are subject to such greater scrutiny. A poor, unemployed man taking a piss on a street corner creates no controversy. However, if a highly educated professional did that, it would be a major scandal. We often see this in how major corporate scandals play out.

In a sense, the lower classes have more freedom in this system than the professional middle class. That’s because the ruling party doesn’t really care about them. They don’t have to because they’re not a threat.

Uneducated, lower class people are too stupid and gullible to really pose a threat. So long as they work and breed, the ruling party has no reason to micromanage them. They don’t care if they have orgies in the streets, drink paint thinner for breakfast, or wear horse masks to work. Their only purpose is to work and breed. If they do that, then the ruling party couldn’t care less.

In a sense, the ruling party will always be at odds with a certain segment of the population. In order to exercise control in an authoritarian regime, there needs to be a sizable number of loyal, competent underlings to carry out the functions of the state. Finding people who can act as such underlings with perfect loyalty is difficult, if not impossible.

It’s hard to say whether Orwell knew this on some level. Keep in mind, he was heavily influenced by what he saw around him, a massive world war and the rise of communist states. Perhaps he had studied how powerful, repressive governments had operated in the ancient past and saw parallels in the present. Perhaps he saw that as an inevitable recourse for humanity.

I choose to have a more optimistic, albeit cynical view of human affairs. I don’t believe a system like Big Brother could ever take hold in a world where people can’t even agree on pizza toppings, let alone a singular vision for human civilization. I also don’t believe any government is equipped to exercise the kind of control that Big Brother did in “1984.”

However, that still won’t stop some from trying and the very process of trying can be very dangerous. Seeking order within the chaos is a very human trait, but one that can easily get derailed by pettiness and corruption. That’s why Orwell’s lessons in “1984” are more relevant than ever and may always be relevant to some extent.

5 Comments

Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights

On Fascism (And Why It Fails)

Brace yourself and temper your outrage because I’m about to talk about fascism. No, I’m not talking about the kind of fascism that teenagers whine about whenever they have a strict teacher in high school. I’m not even talking about the kind of fascism that that certain people attribute to college professors, LGBT rights, Hollywood, the NRA, the Catholic Church, and Negan from “The Walking Dead.”

Today, I’m going to talk about actual, real-world fascism and how it functions. I’m also going to talk about why it tends to fail in the long run and why it’s become such an empty term. Now, I know that means putting a big target on my ass and daring the more vocal parts of the internet to take a shot. I like think my ass is harder and more durable than most so I’m prepared to take that chance.

I know people like to throw the word fascism around like middle fingers in mid-day traffic, but it does have a definition. That definition has been twisted and amended many times over the past half-century, so much so that the word evokes so many different connotations.

For the sake of this post, I’ll be using the definition from Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. It offers a fairly concise assessment of what it entails.

A political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

Under this definition, America and most developed countries are not fascist. No matter what some kale-eating hippie or Jerry Falwell wannabe theocrat may claim, the systems and laws in place are antithetical to fascism.

Western countries have codified laws and traditions that value individual rights, protect minorities, and restrain central government power. Now, that’s not to say it’s perfect in practice. There are plenty of examples, historical and contemporary, that of inequality and oppression by the government.

However, those examples are more a product of misguided groups of people and inherent systemic corruption. To call an entire system fascist because of those instances would be like calling an entire swimming pool dirty because a few people spit in it. With fascism, the entire pool is spit so there’s no need for cherry picking.

Thanks to the cruel mistress that is history, we have a few well-known examples of true fascism that even vegan hippies can agree on. By most objective measures, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany are the alpha and omega of all things fascist. If fascism were music, these two would be Elvis and the Beatles.

These governments were repressive, authoritarian, corrupt, and powerful. They could do whatever it wanted to its citizens and act however it wanted on a national stage, not giving a damn about public support of any kind. There was no hesitation to lie, cheat, and mislead the people. In these governments, people are either pawns or cogs in a machine. The very notion of freedom might as well be as fanciful as a unicorn fart.

There’s no question that these fascist governments did a lot of damage and caused a lot of suffering. There’s also no question that their actions scared and traumatized an entire world. They revealed to a modern world that wars between despots and industrial powers was truly horrific. Most human beings tend to avoid such horrors. A massive world war was enough to make everyone hyper-vigilant of all things fascist.

It’s in this heightened mentality where I think it’s worth having some perspective about fascism. We hear pundits, politicians, and protesters throw that word around, as though it’s the rhetorical equivalent of an “avoid critical thinking” card. It’s an easy label to throw around, but it rarely sticks because actual fascism is actually pretty frail.

In a modern context, fascism is different from the kings and despots of the ancient world. In those times, corrupt and blood-thirsty kings could only get away with so much. A kingdom and a nation state, complete with modern infrastructure, are two very different things.

A king needs to only hold a kingdom together and fight off the occasional invader. A nation state has to deal with bureaucracy, social welfare, and legal issues. No matter how big a king’s castle is, there’s just no way to manage all that in a modern context. There needs to be some sort of system in place.

A fascist government tries to centralize that system and organize it in a simple, stable way that definitively benefits certain persons or groups. Nazis sought to benefit a favored race. Italian Fascist sought to benefit a favored class. The argument could be made that Stalinist Russia and the current regime in North Korea are fascist in nature. I would tend to agree with those claims.

The goal is almost always the same. A fascist government directly and overtly attempts to control and centralize power for a select group of elites. It’s for this very reason that fascism tends to fail in the long run or never succeed in the first place.

Now, don’t go cheering and waving American flags just yet. That’s not to say that fascism inevitably falls under the glowing light of freedom, democracy, and bald eagles. That’s a romantic idea that makes for great war movies and comic book characters. It’s not necessarily reflective of real-world machinations.

The biggest flaw in fascism is its attempt to control and manage an entire state. That’s not just difficult. It’s impossible for any ordinary human or groups of humans. Our caveman brains can barely control when we get horny. How can we expect to control an entire government, let alone one meant to benefit a specific group of people?

The short answer is we can’t. The long answer is that such centralization and power requires a lot of bullying, corruption, subversion, and back-stabbing. That’s why you have Nazi Storm Troopers and Stalinist purges. It isn’t just because powerful people get a thrill out of ordering rampant death. They need to scare, bully, and intimidate everybody into going along with their agenda and being completely loyal.

That’s a huge problem though because, as I’ve pointed out before, it’s impossible to know how truthful someone is. You can never know who is truly loyal and who is plotting against you. That’s why men like Joseph Stalin were obscenely paranoid, which guaranteed that allies and enemies alike would die by his hand. Without those allies, any system is inherently weaker.

On top of that problem, there’s also the issue of the terrified masses who live under a fascist thumb. Say what you will about whiny protesters complaining about weed, but at least they’re willing to tell the government what they don’t want to hear. In a fascist system, the impoverished masses will likely keep their mouth shut.

That may help a paranoid fascist get through the day, but it limits their ability to make it through the year. That’s because in a complex world, having incomplete facts tends to be a huge detriment. If nobody is willing to tell a fascist ruler that their rusty old trucks with canons are no match for drone strikes, then that’s going to be a problem.

That’s why, contrary to what the History Channel and video games may claim, fascist regimes like Nazi Germany were never close to winning the war. Between major blunders and micromanaging, there was never a scenario that didn’t involve time travel or aliens that would’ve allowed them to win.

That’s because a fascist regime can’t trust anyone, be it military generals or the public. At some point, the political ties break down and the system just can’t handle it. They can delay the collapse, but they usually can’t stop it. It’s remarkable that Nazi Germany lasted as long as it did, given all the assassination attempts.

It’s the dirty, but unavoidable secret of almost every fascist governments. They function only to live another day, rather than build a future. Some are better at it than others. Castro’s Cuba has managed to survive for over a half-century, albeit with significant support from other neighboring countries.

The same goes for North Korea. The only reason that country still exists is because China doesn’t want a failed state on its border. At this point, North Korea can only endure, but not build. As the old dynastic cycle in China often proved, a system concerned only with survival tends to collapse in the long run.

I say this not as a way to undermine the horrors that fascism has and could potentially unleash on this world. It is a real danger in a world that’s full of crazy dictators and obscene corruption. However, it’s a danger with an inherent weakness and an expiration date. It’s one instance where you can depend on caveman logic to win out in the end.

It may not inspire the kind of ravenous patriotism that Americans tend to enjoy. However, it does show that, despite protests the contrary, there’s a lot to appreciate about our current system. It’s not perfect, but it’s building towards a better, sexier future more so than any fascist government ever will.

2 Comments

Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights