Guarantees in politics

One question I had in the wake of Jodi Dean’s lecture on communism was why people thought that communism was uniquely dangerous, that it carried unique risks. We know, for instance, that liberal democracy can easily give way to dictatorship, even with the constitution being formally in force. We know that liberal democracy is compatible with chattel slavery and racial discrimination — and indeed that the first modern democratic republic ever established, the United States, spent over half a century with a significant enslaved population and a further century with a disenfranchised population subject to mob violence. Liberal democracy is compatible with the equivalent of secret police, with extra-legal assassinations, with undeclared wars of aggression, with vast and increasing economic inequality, with mass unemployment and homelessness, with child poverty and hunger, with a huge prison population resulting from a racist approach to law enforcement, with essential public functions being handed over to private individuals for private gain, etc., etc., etc.

Yet essentially no one says, “No, we can’t afford to try liberal democracy because it will lead straight to chattel slavery!” or “I admire the high ideals of democracy, but it always ends up with able-bodied adults begging on the street!”

10 thoughts on “Guarantees in politics

  1. I take your point, Adam, and I’m with you as far as it goes, except that it seems to me you do the very same thing whenever something that could be called “localism” comes up.

  2. I think the point is that liberal democracy has in the past been very successful in forming stable legal institutions and upholding both personal rights and principles like the division of power, freedom of the press, government control of the military, etc. And communists have often portrayed those things as just a front for class domination. Especially if you talk about things like revolution and a temporary suspension of the law – what one has to do, in order to reclaim the label communist, is to work out how communist politics do not have to do away with certain benefits of a liberal system. I think you could argue that precisely because a liberal system is so rigid and unresponsive to popular demands it is able to secure certain “fixed” rights as well as it does.
    If people think that communism is dangerous, that’s because its the only persuasive critique of a state of affairs, which, say what you want, is at least able to guarantee a certain degree of personal freedom and security – at least if you live in a liberal state that still functions well (not the USA perhaps, he he). Maybe its because I’m german, but the idea that liberal democracy, even though it is not working well, boring, unjust, etc. in certain aspects is a safeguard against violent excesses just makes perfect sense to me.

    And the problem with localism is, I always thought, that it is just completely inadequate to the problems people face in modern times – dangerous only because it offers itself as a easy way out of confronting global capitalism which just does not exist.

  3. I never say that “localism” leads straight to genocide or anything of the sort — I just say it’s right-wing. It’s a more “harmless” right-wing, obviously, but my complaint is that it doesn’t address the problem at the right level.

  4. I am not familiar with the way that communism (understood as political theory) resolves the question of private property. As an American outside the academy, I cannot learn about what may be discussed these days as communism without getting lost in what seem to me to be partisan contentions.

    We now have a global issue, climate and ecology, against which political theory can be measured. So far as I am aware, whatever name a system goes by, all fail against that measure.

  5. As to the point about the Arab Spring, I would only say that Westerners actually do express fears about liberal democracy insofar as it appears as a path to power for ‘Islamic fundamentalists.’ Only when they serve an exocticized purpose do the dangers of liberal democracy and its potential to ‘transform’ into its authoritarian opposite become apparent to people. It’s only imaginable in that case because the element of Otherness, viz. Islam, is at center of such imagined authoritarianism, disjointedly presenting itself as a possibility that is unthinkable in our own ‘neutral’ or ‘non-ideological’ liberal-democracy.

  6. Here’s my understanding; thanks to it’s internationalism, and thanks to the particular history of the cold war, communism basically only has one monolithic example. Smaller unaffiliated communist states were crushed by the US, more allied communist states were swallowed by the problems of russia, except for china, which had it’s own similar problems.

    In other words, we have two examples of communism, unless you start subdividing various sections of the 20th century, which doesn’t bode well for the institutional stability of that description, which inherently needs generations to validate itself.

    This forms a very small explored state space, and although a vast space of options may exist, unlike with liberal democracy, there is basically very little of the work done in exploring it’s possibilities. This gives a false image of determinism.

    This is a general sociological problem that I think will only get worse; as the interconnection of the world expands, it’s just harder to experiment, because smaller states are constantly defined by their relationships to larger states whose sphere of influence they lie within. There are no control groups.

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