Is democracy essentially utopian?

In arguing with Mike Petrilli on Bridging Differences on the centrality of democracy as the function of Public Education (and ideally of independent and private schools too) I’m perhaps presenting a marginal viewpoint. Yes, there is a time and place, for preparing oneself for a articular vocation. But most of the habits of work and mind (and heart) that democracy rests on will go along way to making people good at their jobs too. So I’m not worrying abut that.

The idea upon which modern democracy rests–that we’re all members of the ruling class–is a shaky idea. It needs to be explored in many ways, and the governance of schooling is itself one place for exploring it. Ditto for every subject we teach. Math is important–but if we worry just about it’s employment repercussions we are ignoring its central function — to get us through daily life and to prepare us to contemplate the big issues that as citizens we need to be knowledgeable about. So we’re not so dumb when it comes to millions vs billions vs trillions, for example.

But–how iffy is it that we can persuade our fellow citizens about democracy. We’ve somehow confused it with being citizenly–picking up garbage on the sidewalk, going to the polls every few years, etc. It’s, as Winston Churchill said, an absurd idea, that only looks if you consider the alternatives. It’s not “natural”, we’re not born democrats. Furthermore, I believe that it’s every bit as counter-intuitive as modern science.

But it also, maybe, takes certain moral presumptions. That’s what I wonder about, and which sometimes makes me think that, indeed, I am a utopian. For example, I’m horrified when I read about what the really rich earn per hour, and how much of the wealth (aside from income) of the world they possess. Is the idea of approximate equality–sharing the pie more or less equally–a necessary part of democracy?  I think the answer is probably “yes”.  If not, what do we have to strengthen so that money doesn’t trump all other forms of power?

Until then, as Mike Klonsky (see commentsays, we’re all free to sleep under the bridge.

8 Responses

  1. I am noticing lately that a lot of people who believe most fervently in that Shining City on the Hill in the Magical Fairyland of the Invisible Hand like to mock pragmatic progressive democratic egalitarian types for being what they call “Utopian”

    • Yes, we are all “”members of the ruling class”. To paraphrase an old saw: We all get to decide which billionaires among us will run the world and send us off to war and which millions among us will fill the prisons and sleep on the streets tonight.

  2. The reality of democracy in action is always some form of compromise. You only have to see that when a family decide what takeaway to order. But the compromise here in the UK is far too heavily weighted towards those in power. They literally pay lip service to the public voice, and only accede to public requests if failure to do so might jeopardise their chance of re-election.

    It need not be this way, but to construct meaningful means of collecting and handling the public opinion beyond the current e-petition mechanism would need a lot of work. And what politician would want to embark on that? Who, in power, would want to lose some of that power?

  3. Deb, consider the essential fallacy–paradox, really–of our current “mandatory education” — this is of course an effort to create compliance and to school the freedom out of people–to advance compliance with state and federal government standards — to remove our sense of play and our connection with the out of doors in the name of civility. How do you figure this ever passed as an expression of “democracy?????” The last thing anyone would ever call any mandatory public school is “democratic.”
    I think people are not aware that independent education is the oldest, most long standing form of education in the nation. Despite the political inconvenience of it, independent education is also our purest expression of freedom in the nation.
    I am open to learning if any of the above points are flawed, because they seem both obvious and disregarded.

    • Stuart,

      There are plenty of avenues for independent education for those who can accommodate the risks — financial. personal. and social — of taking them. I personally got most of my independent educational experiences in the summers, in my free time, and at my local library — all of which the corporate hackers of public education are hell-bent on eliminating for the sake of conforming compliant corporate drones to their treadmills.

      The flaw in the ointment comes when all those people who scream most loudly that Taxes Evil Are, skip a beat in their scream of un-consciousness and scream again for public funds to support their pet projects of independent, for-profit, private, religious, and otherwise unaccountable ventures. Independent of reason is about the only thing such people are really independent of.

  4. Finally! Every time I read your blog I am always struck by your unquestioning acceptance of democratic religion. You are finally asking the right questions. Democracy I believe in. But with an extremely small d that you would need a microscope to see.

    The only function of democracy is to introduce competition into political leadership and to allow us to throw the bums out. The idea that we are all members of the ruling class is ridiculous and dangerous. The masses are dangerous, blood-thirsty, parochial and irrational. Pogroms, witch trials, lynchings … that is all part of your glorious democracy too! Whenever I think of the common man, all I think of is Russian mobs cutting up Jewish men and ripping the babies out of pregnant women and then having a feast. The elites were the ones trying to stop them…often unsuccessfully.

    The elites are elite for a reason. They are simply better. If they weren’t smarter and better how the hell did they become elites and maintain their position?! This becomes very obvious when you read Howard Zinn’s history of the United States. How else to explain the fact that according to Zinn the elites have been outwitting progressive movements for 200 years!

  5. We have made progress, but it has been slow and uneven, and as a nation we’re hardly out of the woods. We incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other country, and felony disenfranchisement laws continue to deny the vote to millions of mostly black men. We have not yet found a way to solve the problem of money in politics; as wealth inequalities grow, we increasingly inhabit a democracy in which some are distinctly more equal than others. Here, ironically, our own free-expression doctrines have come back to bite us; in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that limits on corporate campaign spending amount to infringements on the free-expression rights of corporations.

  6. One woman’s beliefs are another’s idealism, another’s faith… and another’s absolutism, which may be a synonym for utopianism. It is easy to see, Lenin (or all ‘Three Who Made a Revolution’), for example, in this light. And from here — because Lenin did something (as opposed to only saying something in, say, a Great Book)–it gets very messy.

    Because extreme change was created in the real corroded world, the Red revolutionaries and then the Soviet Union became the embodiment of all the hopes and “idealism” of many for many years. That’s not a history lecture. It must tell us something, if what’s best in us can lead to both personal and organized identification with organized (State) horror.

    What does it tell us in the present context? Well.. I don’t think that long-term heroic strugglers (yeah I’m lumping Meier in there with MLK and similar folk — modesty be damned) could carry on without some kind of faith, here identified by one commenter as “democratic religion”.

    And it’s super-germane in discussion which links cognitive potential, some sort of moral core, and social engagement (i.e. the kind of education this blog honors and reflects. But “social engagement” is a devil of a context. I mean, most good teachers know that much of the “outside world” comes streaming in the classroom door. But not only in the form of anger or SES. Your kids may quote their caretakers rules for fighting (“I was taught to gfive as good as I get”) and/or reflect “ideals’ of consumerism, selfishness and ass-kissing (oh, sorry, I meant to say “propitiation”.

    Now again we are in the territory where “utopians” with powerful intellects might become Trotsky or L. Ron Hubbard.. or might be Noam Chomsky ( who began by studyting language) or Chris Hedges (who began by studying religion).

    Noam Sane? See where I’m going with this? An example of a likely destination would be Kevin Zeese/Margaret Flowers (PopularResistance.org) alongside our Donald Graveses and Tom Sobols.

    Next up (if anyone is so inclined): Burnout and complex perversion. Maybe ole Vladimir Ilitch would have been a beacon of humanity if circumstances had been a bit different. But we’re not interested in Red Rehab, or even rescuing the Weathermen. If you are, say Kevin and Margaret the risks of depletion and distortion are greater than if you have tenure and bracing landscapes in New Hampshire.

    So while being free to sleep under the bridge (sometimes!), we still have enough of a democracy to include UNH and a limited-run Occupy… but not Bradley Manning.

    Mais ou sont les Snowdens of tomorrow?

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