Degenerations of Democracy

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

If you are like me and a little mystified about how we got to where we are today with increasing numbers actually deploring our traditional democratic systems, with more or our fellow citizens seemingly ignorant of how our system of government works, even of how society functions, and are just a wee bit concerned about where we are headed, you might find some clarifying explanation in Degenerations of Democracy by Craig Calhoun, Dilip Parameshwar Gaokar and Charles Taylor.

How did we get from the great hopes of the 1960s to here? Australian history, pre-World War I especially, was a dramatic social pioneering scene partly by the way obstacles were overcome. But I think future hopes held on and were reinvigorated with a new boost in the 60s and early 70s. But today I read the views of the elderly and of historians who say that today we face a social cynicism that was not even paralleled in the 1930s. I would like to think the new Australian government is doing something to restore a little hope with its consensus approach, but if so, it’s not going to change social attitudes overnight nor by itself. And we are just one corner of the world anyway.

I’ve begun reading Degenerations of Democracy (Introduction, Chapter 1 and part of the final “What is to be done” chapter) and it makes a lot of sense.

In chapter one Charles Taylor traces how and why there has been a decline in our (“us citizens'”) sense of power to change things by working or acting together to influence governments. The rot set in from the mid 1970s.

But that is only the first part of what has gone wrong. What stems from that sense of powerlessness, at least among large sectors of the population, is the age-old tendency to seek scape-goats, to identify those who need to be excluded because they are “not really part of us”. The immigrants, the indigenous populations, the elites. (Certain elites do share a good part of the blame, of course, especially those who own the media and those who run the global enterprises. But what is needed here is not the sending of those elites to the guillotine but a restructuring of “the system” and redistributing the wealth.) The point is, the sense of community is breaking down, or at least being redefined to exclude certain groups. That’s breaking up the very foundation on which a democracy survives. I liked Taylor’s explanation of the difference between Bernie Sanders’ populism and Donald Trump populism:

Now, a word about the term “populism.” There is more than one kind, with different political implications. Even in the 2016 election in the United States, the word was used to apply to two movements, represented by Bernie Sanders and by Donald Trump, respectively. One obvious meaning of the term applies when the “people,” in the sense of the demos or nonelites, are mobilized to erupt into a system that has been run without considering them; they are breaking down the walls, breaking down the doors, disturbing business as usual, demanding redress of grievance. But there is a very big difference between the Bernie and the Donald version: the Bernie version is truly inclusive; it’s not excluding anyone. One may not agree with the particular policies put forward; one may or may not be happy about this populist eruption. But Bernie Sanders’s program does not embrace the notion that precedence gives some citizens greater rights than others. This exclusionary feature is basic and, I think, absolutely fatal to the populist appeals of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders. It is both deeply divisive and in programmatic terms a dead-end.

Excerpt From: Craig Calhoun. “Degenerations of Democracy.” Apple Books.

And from the “decline of citizen efficacy” through “waves of exclusion” we arrive at the final killer: polarization. When we insist on democracy meaning “the rule of a majority” without any care for the community as a whole we run into a serious and dire situation. When “majorities” take on definitions that exclude any interest in the welfare of others; when members of self-defined “majorities” say “you” would join them too when you “wake up” and “see” what they see; and when “majorities” insist that they have a need to rule in perpetuity in order to safeguard “civilization”, “white culture”, . . .  being blind to the fact that in a large society the needs of different groups change and realignments and new priorities are always going to be part of a democracy’s life.

It’s a long read. I’ll be dabbling in it on and off over some time. But I’ve already been thinking a lot about what I have read so far and trying to see if I can make better sense of what has happened “to us” and why the world has not turned out the way we had expected some decades ago. I’ve already jumped to the “What Is To Be Done” chapter at the end.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “Degenerations of Democracy”

  1. It sounds like Charles Taylor’s book gives some good insights from the bottom, how populations become susceptible to demagogues and anti-democratic authoritarian leaders. I’ve recently read a good book by the Polish psychologist Andrew M. Lobaczewski called Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes (Otto, Nocturnal Council: Red Pill Press, 2022) that gives the view from the top, detailing how psychopathic individuals hijack existing political movements to create what Lobaczewski calls a pathocracy, a term that encompasses all totalitarian regimes regardless of superficial political ideology. He saw the rise of both Stalinism and Naziism firsthand.

    I rather enjoyed Łobaczewski once he started to discuss the psychopathic personality (the essential psychopath), around page 111. His theories were eerily prophetic of our current constitutional crisis in America. The mutual recognition and fraternal association of psychopaths (Trump and Epstein, Trump and any totalitarian leader); the psychological motivations for psychopaths to gain power and reorder society in their lawless, ruthless image (very keen analysis); the creation of a psychopathic core team for invading and taking over a host ideology (Trump and Bannon, Stone, Flynn, Miller, etc.); the purging of “normal” leadership once the violence and psychopathy of the movement is under full public display (e.g. post-January 6), with shocked supporters either responding with “vertical” psychological disintegration and positive affirmation of higher values (I’m especially impressed by the participants in the January 6 Committee Hearings) or fully regressing after a brief and superficial “horizontal” psychological disintegration (most of the Republican leadership) if at all (most ordinary Republicans, but especially MAGA Republicans). I’ve been tracking Trump’s sociopathy+malignant narcissism since the 1990s, and Łobaczewski’s observations on pathocracy unfortunately fits in all too well and do not bode well for the future.

  2. Re “But that is only the first part of what has gone wrong. What stems from that sense of powerlessness, at least among large sectors of the population, is the age-old tendency to seek scape-goats, to identify those who need to be excluded because they are “not really part of us”.” The “bad guys” are right in front of us: corporation executives, hedge fund managers, and the ultra-rich, etc. But like a cat chasing the dot from a laser pointer, we allow the fat cats to have us chase after everybody but them. Pathetic.

    1. Those outside forces also brought vice into the Cross in Sydney. Made a pretty penny doing so. Caused a lot of havoc. It’s not often talked about.

  3. With the rising tide of irrational behavior and mental health (are they the same?), a good read is This is Your Brain on Parasites (Kathleen McAuliffe). Are we increasingly infected by some cerebral invader spreading across the population like Covid 19? Or are we just exhibiting the results of the stop-n-start of evolution? Mainline psychology seems to have arrived at a wall where many drugs have too many side-effects to persist. Benign drug courses fail to do more than put the lid on psychoses. Treatment based on the belief in childhood dramas seems to failed to help with the majority of cases. Time to think of another approach.

  4. I’m not reading the book (yet). But: Can we look for a moment at the 1914-1933 period, please.

    A really stupid war. No reason for it. And the generals ran it to (it seems) maximize deaths and horrible injuries to the lower classes.
    — followed by a really stupid peace.

    Prohibition in US — an entire nation freaking out.
    — leading to all kinds of Mafia (Italian, Irish, Jewish + other) in the U.S.

    Mussolini in Italy.
    The market crash, leading to the Great Depression.
    Hitler in Germany . . . comes to power via a democratic process.

    Is now really worse?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading