The paradox of democracy

The recent Australian federal election result reveals the paradox of democracy in a world of economic decline and social inequality.

Almost all Queenslanders voted for the Coalition government because they were promised continuation of the coal mine industry that would provide jobs – labelled as pursuit of aspiration albeit seen through the veil of economy. This was posited against the threat of the Labor Party’s stripping away the coal industry and thus a future of no jobs. This so-called choice that Queenslanders took up have been said as reasonable because they were voting for economic survival.

But here is the problem, under capitalism, the burden of survival is put upon the people whose autonomy and agency are hailed through their capacity for employment. Yet this capacity is based purely on their past experience and past or existing conditions. In order for them to continue to make good of such capacity, these conditions have to continue to exist. In other words, economic survival is about being dependent on the conditions in which those past experiences were enabled which, for the Queenslanders, is the coal industry. Thus, the Coalition’s claim of ensuring a continuation of coal industry created that perceived opportunity structure for survival – a survival that necessitates the maintenance of exiting conditions.

At the same time, those at the higher end of socioeconomic percentile – those who own capital like property – also rely on past or existing conditions in order to maintain their status, which are tax breaks through negative gearing or franking credits. These people also voted for the Coalition in order to ensure such conditions continue to exist so as to maintain their economic position, also termed as aspirational people.

Both groups, whether at the lower or higher end of the socioeconomic ladder, are caught in the structures that created the conditions that put them in their respective positions in the first place. In fact, we are all caught in these structures, but in a declining economy, those at opposing ends of socioeconomic groups perceive the needs to maintain their status quo much more than others and any claim to maintain existing conditions that address these groups would be most effective. That is why the Coalition campaign was so effective because they struck at the perceived needs of these groups.

Herein lies the paradox of democracy. Rather than creating a platform where people can address their real concerns with the government, democracy has effectively let people to “unconsciously” maintain their respective socioeconomic position without knowing that they are “subjects” of the structures that put them there and construct their choice in ways that make them think they have a choice.

It is not that democracy is not worthwhile, but democracy only works to produce its desired effect of common good when all people are on even ground to make “real” choice. The paradox of democracy is that in conditions of heighted inequality, it can be used as a tool for the State to create false perception of its regime – as Foucault terms “a regime of truth” – thereby creating conditions in which the State can maintain their political legitimacy. The creation of false perceptions is what the Australian media calls Morrison’s effective campaigning. Or it is just simply that sowing fear is easy because existing structures have conditioned people into accepting what they see as choice. In fact, this is how authoritarian states operate, for example in Singapore, China or Vietnam where economic prosperity is the conditions too appealing to forego in exchange for real democracy.

This is where Marx is wrong in proposing that capitalism is unsustainable because at some point economic inequality would lead to people’s revolt. He was basing his thoughts on the morality principle of common good whereas the reality of capitalism has seen entrenched individualism in ways that makes it incredibly difficult for any political Party to prosecute a vision of common good as opposed to individual good.

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