TWO CHEERS FOR DEMOCRACY
A friend from abroad
writes that democracy is inadequate to the task of protecting the
global environment. What is required, says my correspondent, is an
authoritarian regime of "ecologist kings." Here is my
While I sympathize with your critique of "democracy," I keep
asking myself, "so what is better?" And I am reminded of that
oft-quoted remark of Winston Churchill: "democracy is the worst form
of government -- except for all the others." Then there is another
quotation, of forgotten source, "the remedy for the faults of
democracy is better democracy." And finally, your solution,
reminiscent of Plato, to put the governance of the planet in the
hands of a committee of "ecologist-kings," raises that oldest of
political dilemmas, "quis custodiet ipsos custodiens," --
"in whose custody shall be the custodians?" Even Plato foresaw the
downfall of the rule of the Philosopher-Kings.
The best available remedies (if less than optimal) of the
shortcomings of democracy, it seems to me, are familiar: first,
confine the excesses of democracy, not by the edicts of an elite, but
through the rule of law, based upon general principles acceptable to
and accepted by the majority -- e.g., through a Constitution and a
Bill of Rights which enunciate the political/ethical ideals of the
polity. Second, establish and secure institutions that will ensure an
access to information and a level of general education essential to
sound democratic government. In the US, the first condition was
admirably established in the founding documents -- the Constitution
and the Declaration of Independence. The second condition has been
substantially corrupted by private interests, and by the greed both
of corporations and of individuals, that is endemic in our consumer
The founding fathers of the American democracy recognized full
well, that the particular folkways and passions of regional
majorities can result in a tyranny of the majority. So they
enunciated in calm reflection, and the democratic legislatures
subsequently validated, some general principles, a Bill of Rights
that would have precedent, even over the sentiments of momentary and
local majorities. These Amendments proclaimed that the "Kantian"
rights and dignity of the person, are inviolable even in the face of
majoritarian clamor. Are these Kantian principles, and the manifesto
documents that enunciate them, "anti-democratic"? Arguably so, in the
context of particular places and moments. But they are fundamentally
democratic: first, in the sense that they codify the basic
presupposition of democracy -- namely, the equal dignity and rights
of the individual; and second, that they enunciate general principles
that are democratically adopted and ratified.
Accordingly, it just may be the case that democracy remains more
the solution than the obstacle to ecological renewal and
If I am wrong, then show me the evidence from history or from
contemporary political experience, that there is a better political
response to the environmental crisis than that of a representative
democracy, with an informed and educated citizenry with open access
to ideas and free expression, under the rule of law based upon such
principles of justice as you have enumerated and defended. Certainly
not any military regime of my acquaintance, nor of any pre-communist
socialistic regime, such as the Soviet Union (that most ecologically
devastated of lands!). Where did "the environmental movement"
originate, and where does the "green movement" now flourish? In the
western democracies! Where are the most enlightened (if imperfect)
environmental policies to be found today? In such "social
democracies" as Scandinavia! And what nourishes and sustains such
movements, but an open access by the public to information concerning
the condition of our planet?
If that "green movement" has turned brown at the edges here in
North America, it is due, not to a failure of democracy-in-action,
but rather to the betrayal and erosion of democracy
due to the corporate and economic forces. Corporate "moneyoracy" has
subverted democracy by flooding the media with mindless
"entertainment," by strangling access to responsible dissent, and by
starving relevant citizenship education. To attack democracy seems,
in a strange way, to be "piling on" the victim, in an unholy alliance
with the culprits, "international corporatism."
But aren't multi-national corporations to blame for much of the
"disintegration" of the global environment? Arguably so.
But what does all this have to do with democracy? "Mega-corporatism"
is not "democracy unconstrained and amok," it is "democracy
betrayed," whereby the "legal-fictitious" corporate persons
supplant the actual "Kantian persons" (i.e., moral agents) in the
governance of the lives of those actual persons. But the remedy for
such abuse and betrayal is to revitalize democracy, not to replace it
with -- we know not what! (Most likely: unconstrained global
So isn't it past time for an "Environmental Bill of Rights," which
will codify, under rule of law, constraints upon our "uses" of the
Earth? "No way that it would be adopted," I hear you say. So would
you impose it by authoritarian fiat? Are you willing to accept the
moral cost of such a regime? What rights of the citizens (Kantian
"agents" all) might have to be sacrificed in defense of this regime?
What authority is to select, or if necessary confine or even depose,
I have another proposal. Restore democracy! First, end
the tyranny of corporatism. Put corporate activity, national and
international, under the rule of law. Abolish "one dollar, one vote"
(cf. the US campaign laws and the infamous Buckley Decision) and
restore "one person, one vote." Restore the flow of ideas and
revitalize education. Even the scientifically ill-informed and
media-saturated US public supports environmental regulation and
reform, as Newt's Congress was to learn. Get the
ecological/scientific word out to the public, and we will move ever
closer to a ratification of that environmental Bill of Rights, not
imposed from without, but adopted from within the body politic.
As for the international anarchy of "multinational corporatism,"
what other remedy is there but the extension of the rule of law -- a law of nations? Anti-democratic?
Not necessarily, and for reasons detailed above. Surely the
alternative to international law in such cases can not be described
as "democracy" -- rather, it is an anarchic "state of nature" among
amoral "profit maximizers," accountable only to the stockholders. It
is no mere coincidence that political surrogates of corporate power
such as Reagan in the US, Thatcher in the UK, and Mulroney in Canada,
have attacked "The Government" as the "The Enemy," whereas
representative government is in fact the best, and often the only,
defense against corporate "liberty" to "externalize" costs into the
air, the streams, and eventually the lungs and cells and genome of
the rest of us.
How strange it is that these "conservatives" have managed to
persuade so many citizens that their government is some sort of
occupying foreign power, rather than their protector from the
"freedom" of private interests to exploit and pollute. And how have
they accomplished this? By manipulation and control of the public
media, which is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. ("Freedom of
the Press is the right of every citizen who can afford to publish a
newspaper." A. J. Liebling).
So I suggest that your account should devote more attention to the
problem of mass culture, the media, and the condition of public
education. The media, owned and controlled by mega-corporations, have
shaped the public mind, while the remedy, critical liberal education
put to use in vigorous public debate -- all this has been starved
from lack of nourishment. And, as Jefferson and so many others
observed, "that public which desires to be both ignorant and free,
desires what never was and never can be."
Or are you willing (and will it suffice) that only your
"ecologist-kings" are to be ecologically informed and critically
If so, then when it comes time to set up your "Republic," please
include me out.
Copyright, 1996, by Ernest Partridge