Monday, December 07, 2009

Your voice, their choice

David Graeber, Direct Action:

Democracy, one constantly hears, means that people get to make choices. They choose between different parties or candidates. They might even choose to vote yes or no on a referendum. Almost always, though, they themselves have played little or no part in shaping the things between which this choice is made. It's this ideology of choice...which makes it possible to see democracy and the market as equivalents: consumer choice, as well, means selecting from a range of options designed by somebody else.

...[T]he conception of "opinion" -- personal opinions, public opinion -- also follows from the absence of any real experience in participatory decision-making. In American schools, children are always being asked to express their opinions. ... The problem is that these opinions generally have no effect. ... This continues throughout life. This is, I think, what tends to give so many "personal opinions" one hears voiced in America their oddly free-floating quality, their frequent tone of arbitrariness, self-enclosure, intolerance -- the very qualities that make many assume that participatory democracy would not really be possible. The phrase "everyone's entitled to their opinion" is generally used as a brush-off. They are entitled to their opinions because opinions don't matter. Those in power do not have opinions. They make policy.

In the first case, what I like to tell people on the subject of national politics is that Wall Street chooses the candidates, and the public elects the winners. Policy just follows the dollars. This dispenses with arguments about parties and platforms, and seems to resonate with people whatever their personal leanings. (As for "democracy at the point of consumption," see Stump Lane.)

It would be hard to overstate the significance of the second point as it relates to the United States (a country where speech is free, unless paid for). Divorced from any creative application, rational thought yields no particular benefit. And if opinions make no particular difference in one's life, then it makes no particular difference what those opinions are, as there is no disincentive for being wrong, only for departing from the social norm. To my mind, such concerns are to a large extent what animates the skepticism of analysts as perceptive as IOZ toward any social project; but it nevertheless strikes me as problem that can be resolved, whether or not it will.


Montag said...

it depends on what kind of social project you're considering.

taking on the national government through the alienated mechanisms of the electoral process, is a lost cause at this point.

and the economic system, that controls government and the electoral process, is too big to take on widely. how do you organize, say, a general strike when so many people are desperate to make end meet and don't feel as though they can afford the lost pay?

volunteering or donating to a local food pantry, on the other hand, seems to be a worthy and effective social project.

fighting the system seems futile, while helping folks cope with the system, even in small ways, might actually have an effect.

JRB said...

It can seem futile, but we still put one foot in front of the other. The important questions are: What direction are we heading, and who should we become?

There are many important questions peripheral to these, but we can't answer them alone. We can only choose the next step for ourselves.