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Teratocracy Rises

FrankOne of the fundamental jobs of a futurist is to keep an eye out for the tentative signs of emerging changes -- sometimes referred to as "early indicators" or as "weak signals" (or, in my preferred phrase, no doubt shaped by my study of international politics, "distant early warnings"). Sometimes, those tentative signs are subtle, easily misinterpreted, and opaque; sometimes, they hit so hard they leave you dizzy. Consider this the latter.

I've been following indications for awhile that democracy as practiced in the post-industrial world is increasingly under threat; in February of this year, I wrote a piece ("Fear of Teratocracy") that explored the increasing attacks not just on the policies of leaders, but the on very legitimacy of leaders. In this world, it's not enough to say that your opponent is wrong, you have to say that your opponent simply has no right to lead. As democracy depends on the losers stepping aside gracefully as much as the winners ruling fairly, I tried to be clear in saying that attacks on the legitimacy of opponents were implicit attacks on democracy itself.

Apparently, I just needed to be patient; what was implicit has become explicit.

Over the last week, I have encountered three separate (and seemingly unrelated) attacks on democracy, written by residents of the US and Europe from highly-visible spots in the political-economic media system.

The first of these was by far the most blunt. At the conservative website "American Thinker," Matthew Vadum argued on September 1 that "registering the poor to vote is Un-American:"

Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals. It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country -- which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.

On September 4, libertarian news site "The Daily Bell" published an interview with influential investment advisor Doug Casey. The interview provides a wide-ranging discussion of coming social and economic apocalypse (and how you can invest now!), and in the midst of it we get the following:

Daily Bell: Is democracy a good thing?

Doug Casey: No. Democracy is just mob rule, dressed up in a coat and tie. It's too bad people conflate democracy, which is mob rule, with liberty and freedom. Democracy in most of the world is everybody voting for the person that promises him or her the most stolen goods from other people. Democracy is a political system, and all political systems rest on institutionalized coercion. I don't care whether it's a king, a president, a congress, or a mob of chimpanzees that tell me I have to pay 50% of my income over to them so they can fund wars, welfare programs, the police state, oligarchic corporations, or whatever. That's what democracy is today.

Finally, on September 5, Rich Miller and Simon Kennedy at Bloomberg.com opened a piece entitled "Economies in Peril Proving Voters Aren't Careful About What Is Wished For" with the line "The world economy is paying a price for democracy." Perhaps not as aggressive as the others, but certainly in the same vein.

If the first thing that you notice is that these are all conservative outlets, you're missing the bigger picture. All three are offering views of the institutional mainstream: Bloomberg is about as conventional-wisdom as you get; American Thinker is a regular player in the Conservative web/Republican Party network; and while the Daily Bell appears to be an outlier, Doug Casey himself is said to be quite influential. For any one of them to be adopting this position would be a (weak signal) blip; for all three -- and undoubtedly more that I just didn't encounter -- to take this position is, for me, a sign of something much larger, especially when coupled with existing attacks on the legitimacy of leadership (and the legitimacy of government itself). Getting this kind of argument from the institutional mainstream tells me that it's not going away any time soon, and is likely to become more pervasive.

Winston Churchill famously said "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." There is no reason to pretend that democracy, especially as structured today (19th century voting model immersed in a 21st century media environment), is even close to perfect. But the hallmark of a free society is transparency, and the ultimate expression of transparency is to have a voice in shaping society's future.

Those who attack democracy may claim to do so for a variety of reasons (in this instance, for economic efficiency and/or growth), but make no mistake: attacks on democracy arise when voters express opinions that don't agree with the attackers'.

Sometimes, attacks come from those who feel that the world isn't paying attention to their wisdom, that their voices aren't being heard (such as the numerous times I've heard climate activists lament the short-sightedness of the average voter). In this case, however, the attacks are coming from those who already have a major stake in the system, whose voices already receive (arguably disproportionate levels of) attention.

It's the business of the future to be dangerous, as Alfred North Whitehead said, and you don't get much more dangerous than attacks on the legitimacy of democracy. By no means is it guaranteed that this movement will win; in fact, I think it's more likely than not that they prove unable to get rid of democracy, although they are more likely to weaken it considerably, at least for a time. But that they are willing to attack the fundamental philosophy of the modern state in such blunt language, and have the resources to do more than just write noisy blog posts, suggests that this fight will be neither brief nor insubstantial.

In Fear of Teratocracy, I said this, and it remains true:

The question, then, is (as always) what is to be done? My answer is (also as always) more transparency, but that isn't enough. We also need to see a shift in the larger culture away from spectacle and attention-grabbing stimulation, and towards illumination and empathy-building consideration. But that shift doesn't seem like it will happen any time soon.

It's the business of the future to be dangerous; apparently, it's the business of the futurist to be depressed.

[Teratocracy: Rule by Monsters]


Vadum's rant was posted on a discussion board for a game company we've both worked with, and a disturbing number of responses are supportive.

This makes me truly disgusted.

I suspect that the spectacular economic growth in China over the past couple of decades holds a powerful allure for the economic elite in the U.S. It tantalizingly suggests that they too could have total political control without loss of economic performance.

Two indicators to look for: 1. the methods used to disperse the OWS protesters here in the US, 2. the public reaction in China to stalled economic growth (once their growth machine hits a speed bump too large to be papered over with fudged accounting).

The official US doctrine of Friedmanite Economic Determinism -- the belief that economic freedom *causes* political freedom -- looks likely to meet some very interesting test cases in the next few decades.

“"In this possible terminal phase of human existence Democracy and Freedom are more than 'values to be treasured' - they may well be essential to survival."

- Noam Chomsky.”

Damn right.

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