John Buell

Recasting Democracy

With its overarching confidence in itself, democracies often produce dubious outcomes in emergency situations. Often these emergencies are consequences of policies pursued by elites and then subsequently inflated in the mainstream corporate media. Or they are manufactured by elites in support of the reigning ideology. Think the Bay of Pigs

Steven Johnston, author of American Dionysia provides a powerful reminder of democracy’s systematic faults, but he is no anti-democrat. His goal is to articulate and defend a tragic sensibility that might enable a more sustainable and mature democracy, one that would inflict less harm on its own citizens as well as the world. Democratic life involves taking on the burdens of success. Success mandates the continuation of politics because victory is made possible by those who suffer defeat, loss, injury and death. Injury is inevitable and unavoidable. It does not necessarily result from evil intentions. It “flows from the incompatibility of equally worthy goals … from the injustice that justice often entails, the unpredictable character of action in concert, and the stubborn nature of things.”

Such a sensibility engenders and is engendered by a view of the nature of the cosmos. The world is a difficult, forbidding, uncertain, volatile, resistant, dangerous, and lethal” place. He adds: “A world so composed must be navigated with care and concern.”

Tragedy properly understood does not foster resignation but rather new bursts of creative energy. We act knowing that success and failure await us, but failure itself creates new options and possibilities.

Democracy must be forced to reflect on itself, which can be done though both through new memorials and rituals. Several imaginative examples, inspired by both classical tragedy and contemporary culture are presented. Thus, following from some of Rousseau’s institutional suggestions, Johnston advocates an annual reparations assembly mandated by law. This assembly would be duty- bound to hear the grievances of citizens who have been harmed by politics. Though such as assembly might well become an occasion for wealthy landowners, real estate developers, and financial tycoons to trumpet the harms of redistribution, even the most thoughtful reforms can be carried out with needless cruelty and have unintended consequences. In any case such an assembly today is hardly likely to strengthen resistance to egalitarian redistribution, and since many income disparities today are the result of state action rather than pure free markets it will give the voices of egalitarianism more opportunities.

Reparations assemblies might have changed some of our troubled history. I am led to ponder the fate of those who once engaged in what are now almost universally recognized as evil pursuits. Reparations assemblies might have served as a kind of truth and reconciliation commission. Following the Civil War, Union soldiers received pensions. Those who fought for the Confederacy received no such benefits, and their taxes helped fund these pensions. This benefit of course was denied to slaveholders, but most of the Confederate soldiers were not slave owners and often suffered in competition with slave labor. What might our history have been like if at some point such an assembly had awarded generous pension to former slaves and at least modest amounts, to poor and working class veterans of the Confederacy. Would these citizens been so easily recruited for Kevin Phillips southern strategy?

Democracies need to curb their foreign abuses as well. Democracies must make the effort to see themselves though the eyes of the enemy. He suggests placing a commemorative plague including the names of the perpetrators at the site of 9/11. When Americans look up at the site of the rubble they may have more of a sense of what others see when they think of us.

In what is likely to be at least as controversial, Johnston argues for a reassessment of the relation between violence and democracy. Violence and democracy are usually seen as antithetical. Yet contemporary democracy practices violence on a daily basis. Equally our democracy, which purports to be the world’s example, was founded in violence against both property and people. What were the original Tea Partyers but precursors of today’s much- reviled “looters” and “takers?” Though nonviolence is often portrayed as the key to the success of the Civil Rights movement, the threat of violence helped create an incentive to deal with these protests, just as the threat of violence encouraged Roman patricians to accept the institution of the Tribunate. Johnston is not advocating any shoot out with highly militarized police, but there may be situations in which strategic violence, violence that would not spiral out of control, could avert even far greater death.

I would add two points. Even nonviolence is not as pure as it purports. Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out in Moral Man and Immoral Society that even such nonviolent actions as blocking a train could deny needed food to those at the end of the line. He also added that the success of nonviolence depended on the moral ideals of those on the receiving end.

I can imagine a situation in today’s crisis of foreclosures, student debt, and national bankruptcy where attempts to evict, with all the harm and anger they inflict in escalating rental markets, might lead to citizens patrols that would prevent forced evictions. Violence might flow from such encounters, but the public attitude would not necessarily treat these patrols as disreputable lawbreakers. And how would local governments react? One who has imbibed a tragic view of politics realizes there is no certain answer. We can thank Steven Johnston for making these questions clearer and more pressing.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include “Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age” (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2015

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