This is an appetizer.
I asked the individuals I profiled and referenced during my first year as a blog columnist to answer this question: What would you like to become more visible in 2011?
Fifty-five responded. One of those is Mark Kingwell. Mark is a philosopher, author, columnist and magazine writer who doesn’t hesitate to share his wisdom and perspective through popular as well as academic channels. Just recently he was awarded a twelve month Faculty Research Fellowship from the Jackman Humanities Institute. While the final document containing all contributions is being prepared, here is a taste of what is to come – Mark’s answer to Becoming Visible.
Mark Kingwell: What needs to be more visible in the new year is the same thing that needs to be more visible every year: real democracy. The Great Recession of 2008 has exposed, like nothing else in recent memory, just how much the process of First-World government has been colonized by moneyed interests.
The business community—which is not a community at all, but a fleet of rival brigands with no commitment other than to themselves—now holds sway in almost every aspect of state decision-making, even as thin-skinned Wall Streeters go on bemoaning their status as victims. The five largest American investment banks—which are not banks at all, but houses of runaway speculation—now controls assets worth 67 percent of the U.S. GDP. Just fifteen years ago, the same figure was 15 percent. The financial sector, together with insurance and real estate (aptly known as FIRE for short) demands, and receives, government bailouts even as it bolts on new superchargers to the derivative-fuelled engine of economic collapse.
We are told that this sector must be protected in order to ‘stimulate the economy’, to ‘remain competitive’, or because parts of it are ‘too big to fail’. These are the slogans of democratic enfeeblement, with the background irony that those who cry foul at ‘socialist’ medical insurance and tout the free market come, eager hands open, for taxpayer bailout. Socialized debt equal private profits, with all risk in the unchecked speculation deflected onto hapless citizens.
Don’t ask how the Troubled Asset Relief Fund creates jobs: it just does. Don’t ask why an economy that stagnates workers’ wages even as it multiplies toxic assets is competitive: it just is. Don’t ask what happens to those people who bought the complex lie of self-improvement known as the American Dream via predatory lending, or why tax cuts for the wealthiest and tiniest minority of citizens are in everyone’s interest. Don’t ask why dissent now takes the bizarre form of free-market anger at government when government is merely the tool of business and that very same actually unfree market. Oh, those ‘troubled’ assets, wayward teenage sons of the republic! Here, take the car keys and go for joy ride. No, really, you need the diversion.
Democracy can become dislocated in all sorts of ways. Citizens may lose interest in voting, or may vote against self-interest, or be swayed with bad arguments delivered by plausible charlatans. But the worst and most eviscerating failure of democracy is when citizens no longer have any purchase on decision and choose to ignore it. The long purchase of government by finance, the final moves in a decades-long campaign of regulatory capture, are underway right now in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Canada and a dozen other alleged democracies living on borrowed time and spending the in-hock scrip known as money. When political challenges come, or when they might, it can seem merely convenient to close the doors of parliament or deflect the protests of ‘civil society’—that superficially respectful but actually condescending name for anyone uncomfortable with the depredations of the current arrangement—into a designated protest zone behind a citizen-funded wall guarded by citizen-funded police who are presumptively beyond prosecution of any kind. The main effect of these zones is only to demonstrate that the polity as a whole is a democracy-free zone.
Meanwhile, the incidental losses for workers and unmoneyed citizens of these countries are massive, structural, and possibly irreversible. But possibly also means possibly not. There is room for hope — that much-abused democratic virtue — because even the most narcoticized and self-interested consumer can eventually recognize when his or her desires no longer get so easily satisfied, when the social order of shopping and infotainment is disrupted by unemployment, foreclosures, and stalls on upward mobility. The first step to changing anything is to cast off basic delusions about democratic legitimacy in what are, in fact, oligarchic plutocracies—or, if you are somewhat more cynical, kleptocracies.
A Don DeLillo narrator says this:
“The world changes first in the man who decides to change the world.”
That first change is actually easy. Do it now. You’re not alone.
Mark Kingwell is Professor of Philosophy at University of Toronto