Friday, February 11, 2011

Sounding It Out

I feel about democracy the way that people felt about monarchy a hundred years ago: it has a certain quaint charm, but its chances of surviving in the modern world are minimal. I watch people express delight about the Egyptian unrest with incredulity. Have they never read a history book, or even a newspaper? It ain't over, buckos, till the fat army colonel sings.

The rifle, the saying was, made all men tall. It was the musket and rifle that ushered in the age of revolution. Cutting edge military technology in 1776 was a cheap weapon that could be wielded by a single person with minimal training. How many people do you know who keep an Apache attack helicopter parked in their back yard, ready at a minute's notice take off and defend their freedom? I see people pour into the streets, as at Tiananmen, as in Egypt, and I think of stock gathering at a slaughterhouse.

The communications, that so delight a certain kind of optimist -- the twitter-revolt in Iran, say, which, as you may have noticed, led immediately to everyone feeling free to exercise complete freedom of speech and assembly in Iran -- actually serve the purposes of counter-insurgency far, far better. Have you noticed that not a single major terrorist event has happened in the US since 9/11? And it is not, believe me, for lack of animus, planning, or funds. The fact is that the technology now in the hands of counter-insurgents is far better than it's ever been. Their job is easy now. If Thomas Hutchinson had had information technology like this, the American Revolution would have ended at the Tea Party. Even without helicopters.

The odd historical quirk we have lived through, of military power being subordinated to civil authority, is nearly over. No doubt the forms of democracy will persist for a while. Britain, after all, still purports to be a monarchy. But the conditions that made democracy possible, and even probable, have disappeared. Military and information technology is now much as it was in medieval times -- way beyond the means of an ordinary citizen, requiring years of training and specialization to master. We can expect political reality to catch slowly up to to the changed material conditions.

That's the writing on the wall, as I sound it out. I could be wrong; I often am. And I want to be wrong. I'm an old, old fashioned Bobbie Burns style democrat: I don't in believe all this meritocracy and plutocracy claptrap. A man's a man for a' that, a woman's a woman for a' that, and as far as God and I are concerned one is worth as much as another, whatever marketable skills they may have and whatever they've got in the bank.

Still, I would be unhappier about my prediction if I felt that revolution and democracy had always yielded great results. But revolution gave us not just George Washington, but also Robespierre, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Democracy gave us Lincoln, sure, but it also gave us Hitler and Mussolini. And Hosni Mubarak, for that matter. The record is decidedly mixed. It's not the end of the world, nor the end of human dignity, nor the end of lives worth living, if revolution and democracy disappear.

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