The current Arab democratic revolutions are deeply stirring. Among the many trajectories for consideration is the relation of individual psychology to social processes. Both are wholly complex. Observers close to both, like Tolstoy or American journalist I.F. Stone (who spanned 1939-1970), move back and forth, convey the unpredictability of historical processes and outcomes but also the possibilities of individual observation, rational understanding, responsible choices, and realistic wrath.
It is possible that these particular individual psychological capacities are now especially salient because of apparent totalitarian tendencies in liberal democracies, well-described by a number of popular writers like Chris Hedges, Naomi Klein, John Pilger, Naomi Wolf. What is increasingly clear is that democracy can break down even when there are well-established institutions, checks and balances, laws. Just in the last 150 years, liberal democracies have undermined innumerable democratic processes and have caused tens of millions of deaths through military and economic conquests.
Democratic and authoritarian institutions do not in themselves inevitably protect or harm peoples. Democratic institutions ostensibly aim to facilitate responsible and rational choices. I.F. Stone decried how both Americans and Russians “pollute the skies, the seas and the earth with radioactivity, or chew up huge quantities of basic metals on vast military and spatial toys while millions of fellow creatures are lucky to have a wooden plow…How free are men who can be blown off the map at any moment without their permission?” The authoritarian leaders of Hungary (Horthy) and Bulgaria, while promulgating harshly discriminatory laws, effectively refused to deport Jews during the Holocaust while many democracies complied with Hitler. In authoritarian Egypt and Tunisia, individual people who were not empowered by any state or civil institutions organized themselves and took on cooperative, egalitarian social responsibility. In as many as ten prisons in the U.S. state of Georgia, Blacks, Muslims, Mexicans, Latinos, Hispanics, Whites, Christians, Rastafarians – secretly organized with each other a non-violent strike against cruel and inhumane treatment. The relation between institutional set-up and individual capacity for democracy is complex.
In the news as I write this letter, President Obama of democratic U.S. has ordered the military to be prepared to act in Libya, a judge has ordered protesters to the anti-union budget bill to leave the Wisconsin state capitol and Bradley Manning is subject to cruel and unusual punishment in a military prison.
What I’m describing is one psychological aspect of “democratic” personhood that is found in all kinds of societies. It does not make sense to describe whole peoples as democratic or undemocratic or as unready for democracy. Amartya Sen, in his recent book The Idea of Justice, writes that “there is no chance of resting the matter [of democracy] in the ‘safe’ hands of purely institutional virtuosity but requires basic human abilities – “to understand, to sympathize, to argue – to communicate, respond and altercate.” This too is centrally the role of intellectuals, a role threatened by corporate-funded education. John Valleau and Paul Hamel write of the importance of discussion and questioning, “the most rigorous technical and intellectual examination without fear of disdain or reprisal.” Edward Said similarly writes of the need for intellectuals “to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them) to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”
Contrasting with democratic personhood is “corporate personhood”, a legal entity allowing corporations more rights than citizens: impunity for stealing and squandering the human, monetary, and resource wealth of all nations, impunity for using paramilitaries to protect corporate holdings and for the creation of the for-profit privatized military complex, impunity from laws regarding war and occupation, impunity for destroying entire communities and ecosystems and for driving the entire Earth living system towards extinction. The recent US Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission allows unlimited corporate spending on election campaigns (including foreign corporations), prompting the state of Vermont to introduce a bill for a constitutional amendment declaring “corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States.”
2011 marks the 30th anniversary of Science for Peace (discussed in the article below). This is obviously a time for understanding, rationality, objectivity, and challenge, and as Pericles stated in the Funeral Oration (431 BC to Athenians after the Peloponnesian War), for “the proper formulation or at least the proper review of policy, thinking that what cripples action is not talk, but rather the failure to talk through the policy before proceeding to the required action.” We can together celebrate what Science for Peace has accomplished and gird up for all the hard work ahead.