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By Steven Beller
Hodder & Stoughton
Paperback, 160 pages
February 12, 2014

Steven Beller’s Democracy Matters is a concise, powerful punch of a book. The author both analyzes and defends democracy at a time when the forces of plutocracy have grown in the West to a level of strength not seen since before the Great Depression. Democracy always needs defenders, and Beller steps forth ably to answer the call. The book traces the history of democratic thought and practice, then defines democracy, in particular the kind of democracy he believes works best, as well as the challenges democracy faces in today’s environment.

Without the space constraints that limit a printed review, I’ll let Beller speak for himself as much as possible. He explores the tension between the notion of liberty/limited government often associated with John Locke, and the concept of equality/the common good deriving from the thought of Rousseau as follows (bear in mind he uses "liberal" in the broader, European sense, not as a synonym for left of center on the American political spectrum):

“What we now call democracy is a compromise between liberal ‘freedom’ and democratic ‘equality’ in the management and control of power…Neither freedom nor equality can ever be the universal principle of a society without the other — democracy lies in the field of tension between the two. The problem is…if personal freedom results in some having more political or social power than others, or in some having more economic power (money and capital) than others in the free marketplace then the political or economic inequality that results might also endanger the rights and power of those on the losing end of the equation. This is the danger to modern democracy of oligarchy (the rule of the few) and plutocracy (the rule of money).”
Beller suggests that our current systems of government in the West, largely defined by the principles of "liberal democracy," will need to “transform into something closer to a ‘social democracy’ on the one hand and a ‘pluralist democracy’ on the other, combined.” Through compromise, he believes we will achieve this “transformation,” and that doing so will be “for the good of all, for ‘democracy’ remains our best hope of achieving that common good.”

For more on Beller's discussion of democracy, including the text of my dialogue with the author, please follow me beyond the fold.

The purpose of democracy, according to Beller, is “to use the articulated power of all citizens together to promote the ‘common good’." The power of concentrated wealth is an existential threat to democracy, he argues. “Democracies need to reassert control over money and capital. [...] Financial and fiscal discipline should be enforced for long-term benefit, but with consideration of social justice and equity. The public good ultimately comes before the rights of creditors.” Beller adds: “Capitalism [...] is a necessary component of modern democracy, but it has to be kept in balance with the other aspects, individual rights, equality, and popular self-government, which the market cannot itself provide.” This represents a powerful rendition of contemporary left-of-center, progressive, social democratic (as Beller himself calls it) political thought.

One of the other key elements of Beller's thinking here (and throughout his other books and essays), is his clarion call for democratic pluralism, for an understanding of identity that embraces a multi-layered approach. He emphasizes the need for a both/and conception of identity that allows people to embrace their membership in different kinds of communities (ethnic/religious/cultural/sexual orientation/gender AND civic national, as well as human), rather than the more exclusionary either/or model that demands a person be only one thing and nothing else, whether only ethno-racial as in the model of harder forms of multiculturalism or racist nationalism, or, on the opposite extreme, only "national" in the assimilationist/conformist model of France or of Anglo-conformism in the 20th century "melting pot" in this country. He calls for a kind of civic nationalism alongside a pluralist conception of democracy:

“Liberty and equality are the main drivers of the democratic experience, but what holds it together is fra-ternity — the power between individuals that ties them together (regardless of gender), not as members of an ethnic group, or a nation, but as individual human beings in a political community.”
Beller goes on to say that that: “community as “solidarity or ‘fraternity’, the sense of shared interests and values, of a moral connection with other citizens is what keeps democracies together. Diversity, as the recognition and respect for difference, is vital for allowing co-operation in those areas where we do share the same interests. The problem with both aspects arise when they get out of hand and take over from democracy.”

Democracy, paraphrasing Churchill, remains the worst form of government known to humanity, except for all the alternatives. Beller comes back to this sentiment a number of times, and does so to make the point that democracy often fails to deliver on what it promises. It's too easy to say that democracy never fails, it is only failed, and Beller doesn't go down that road. He knows democracy is hard, but calls on us to recognize that, despite these failings, we've got to keep fighting to improve it and to defend it.

In a sort of epilogue, the book ends with a section called "100 Ideas About Democracy," which Beller offers in lieu of the "usual reading list." It begins with a list of places, including Runnymede (where the Magna Carta was sealed), Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Versailles Tennis Court (where the members of Third Estate swore their oath, starting the French Revolution), Wenceslas Square (where the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Prague began), and Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela lived during the majority of his 27 years in prison). Not a bad bucket list in terms of places to visit. There are lists of books of course ("introductions," "classics," and "more texts"), but also one of films, which includes Mel Brooks’ 1974 classic Blazing Saddles. That alone speaks very well of the author.

The list of TV series includes both The West Wing and Star Trek (as a future projection of how U.S. liberals thought democracy would develop). There are documentaries, musicals (including Hairspray), musical pieces, songs ("This Land is Your Land"), novels, quotations (Lincoln, Franklin, Gandhi and MLK are the source of four of the five), websites (including the one you're at right now, and Beller specifically cites a 2011 post by Mark Sumner, describing it as “one of the best explanations I have seen of the pernicious effect on political democracy of gross economic inequality”), actions you can take, concepts of liberty and democracy, the four freedoms of FDR, and a call to vote. From 1 to 100, a neat collection.

I found this relatively short book on democracy to be highly informative, well-argued, and, yes, inspiring. It's a great introduction to the topic, and has much to offer even to the grizzled, veteran political activist. Beller is a lively writer who will keep your attention. This is not an academic study by any means, but it is aimed at a well-read general audience. I highly recommend it.

And, for those who'd like to hear more, what follows is a dialogue between myself and Steven Beller on a couple of topics relating to democracy that I hoped you might find interesting. Enjoy!


REIFOWITZ: Of the many aspects of democracy you explore in Democracy: All That Matters, one that I latched onto was the matter of the common good, and the connection between a government that pursues it and the nature in a society of what you called a "community as 'solidarity' or 'fraternity', the sense of shared interests and values, of a moral connection with other citizens." On that matter, I wanted to point you toward a recent post by Robert Reich, in which he wrote:

The pronouns “we” and “they” are the most important of all political words. They demarcate who’s within the sphere of mutual responsibility, and who’s not. Someone within that sphere who’s needy is one of “us” — an extension of our family, friends, community, tribe – and deserving of help. But needy people outside that sphere are “them,” presumed undeserving unless proved otherwise.

The central political question faced by any nation or group is where the borders of this sphere of mutual responsibility are drawn.

Why in recent years have so many middle-class and wealthy Americans pulled the borders in closer?

(snip) The first step in widening the sphere of “we” is to break down the barriers — not just of race, but also, increasingly, of class, and of geographical segregation by income — that are pushing “we Americans” further and further apart.

REIFOWITZ: To me, this is the fundamental conundrum for progressives: we rightly fear the destructive power of nationalism, as well as the potential of certain kinds of nationalism to work against a healthy respect for diversity and pluralism, yet we also stand opposed to the hyper-individualism of the Ayn Rand-inspired right wing. We understand the need for what Reich is calling for, a stronger sense of "we" in order to build support for the progressive vision of governance we believe best serves the common good, but we don't want that stronger sense of "we" to lead to jingoism. So, how does a society strike the proper balance? Can there be a "progressive nationalism"? What would it look like?

BELLER: You have hit upon one of the key questions—and crises—of modern democracy. There is nothing wrong with a sense of group solidarity—a society cannot exist without some sense of commonality, for without this commonality there is no “common good.” We must have a sense of shared values, for that is the only way we will build the bonds between us that leads to fra-ternity, and no society can survive without that sort of cement (which is why Randians are so gormlessly unrealistic). The problem is that the “nation” and “nationalism” are severely compromised concepts. They have been so abused and prostituted  by “nationalists” that it is completely understandable why progressives should be leery of adopting, or re-adopting any form of nationalism—because nationalism has almost invariably aimed at exclusion and rallying the nation against an enemy, inciting "us" versus "them"—and this, whether used domestically or abroad, is, as Reich points out, almost always severely detrimental  (with some exceptions, such as the Second World War). And yet we need the glue to keep society together, and we need a sense of community and commonality so that the exclusivist tendency that Reich correctly perceives is reversed. How to do this?

I think one way of doing it is to avoid the nationalist trap set by the grammar of “us” and “them or “we” and “they,” and to go back to the grammar of democracy, and the rhetoric of great democrats like Woody Guthrie. When he asserted that “this land is your land. This land is my land. This land belongs to you and me,” there is only a “you” a “me” and an “it” in this concept, there is no “they” no “them”—because there is no chasm between “us” and “them” in this world view—there is basically only you and me, only us. The person who summed up this idea best in recent years was another great democrat, when he said, there are no blue states of America, no red states of America, there are only the United States of America. It might seem corny and facile, but the best way of avoiding the trap of “us” versus ”them,” of the rich and the poor, the Anglos and the people of color, the “compact majority” and the “minorities” (tell me again how women are a minority?), is to remind all Americans that there are not "us real Americans" and “them”—there are only “we Americans,” and that this country was built not on exclusion but on inclusion, on welcoming others as new members of our America, people who became part of “us.” If this requires shaming racists and nationalists for not being true to our American selves, so be it.

This has domestic and foreign implications, with the question of "new citizens" somewhere in between. What is wrong with immigration policy today is that it has a far too tight definition and qualification for who is and who is not an American—what was once a fairly fluid and permeable distinction has become a hard barrier, which is economically unwise and culturally and ideologically un-American.

What we need to do is revive a sense of American comity in the optimism of creating new unities and new forms, a positive model of joint achievement and joint purpose, which is not supposed to be cut off from the rest of the world, but is supposed to reach out to and be a model for the rest of the world. We must, so that the rest of the world, which we see also as the same as us, fundamentally, can join in, as members of our own group, which is ultimately not “Americans” but rather global humanity. As soon as we start realizing that we should not only recognize that we need to be a “village” on the domestic level (as Hillary Clinton pointed out) but that we humans are also a “village” on a global level, with fundamental shared values and interests, no matter our cherished differences (which we of course should still cherish)—as soon as we realize there is ultimately no “them,” there is only “us”—then the better for all of us—whether Americans or not.

REIFOWITZ: Thank you. I especially appreciate your deployment of the word "gormlessly." But seriously, I agree wholeheartedly. Another question: To follow up on the relationship between democracy, fraternity, and nationalism, let's talk about Ukraine. Despite what's going on in Crimea, we see that a decent majority of that country's population, in particular those who feel a strong sense of Ukrainian national identity, want to align their future with "Europe," indicating that even in light of the dire economic situation in Greece, Europe in general and the European Union specifically is still attractive to those on the outside of its borders. You wrote quite a bit in the book about the European Union, but I'd like to ask you here to comment on what Europe means to those in Ukraine who find it attractive. How much of it is "democracy," and what do you think that means to them?

BELLER: The cynic in me might respond that if one’s choice was between being part of Putin’s Eurasian-Union-cum-neo-tsarist-Russian-Empire and a partnership with the European Union, then even ultra-nationalist fascists might become fanatical Europhiles. Anything to get out of the clutches of a none too friendly Russian bear, even if it means abiding by things like the rule of law and human rights. But I am not quite that cynical. I do think the attraction of Europe—the European Union--has something to do with it.

I am not a Ukrainian specialist and cannot see into people’s minds, so any answer would be really only guess work. I am not sure that puts me at a vast disadvantage to others discussing the Russo-Ukrainian standoff though—accredited Russian specialists have not seemed to be able to look into Putin’s mind either, and several commentators whom I used to respect highly have spouted complete nonsense about the crisis (I suspect they read the Russian and not Ukrainian press). On Ukrainian fascism, for instance, there clearly are extreme right-wing elements in the Ukrainian political  class, but their influence has been wildly exaggerated. For real fascism one needs to look elsewhere. From what I can see, Russian actions have a close analogy to what Hitler did in the Sudetenland and in Austria in 1938 and 1939—if there is a really dangerous fascist in all this it is the quasi-tsarist leader of Russia, not the harried makeshift interim president or premier of Ukraine.

But I digress. My impression is that the reason for the Ukrainian revolution that happened a few weeks ago was, as you say, that a majority of Ukrainians wanted to have a future with Europe and not with Putin’s Russia. Had it been a democratic Russia on its borders, I think the story would have been quite different in Ukraine, because I do not think Ukrainians want a complete break with their closely related Russian cousins. But contemporary Russia is not democratic, or anywhere near, whereas I do think that the European Union, with all its faults and all its scleroses, is built on fundamentally democratic principles.

The first of these is the rule of law. No credible, decent political system can survive without  the trust generated by the certainty of legal rights and freedoms, and this is what the European Union is based on. Even a trade agreement with the Union now comes with a raft of legal rules and rights which parties must agree on, and which limits the sovereignty and power of the signing governments—and this is what is attractive to many Ukrainians today.  The second principle is the willingness of all parties to compromise for the common good, for mutual benefit—and the history of the Union since its foundation as the Common Market has been one long negotiation with the aim of mutual benefit. For all the crises and problems of the Union in recent years, its economies remain among the richest and most advanced in the world today, and I think that many Ukrainians want to give up the national and ideological battles of yesteryear and reach a bearable level of personal well-being that they do not yet have, but which they see, increasingly, in their former Soviet bloc neighbors, such as Poland. Because political arrangements based on the democratic bargaining for mutual benefit and a market-oriented economy based on reasonable legislation, property rights, and, yes, the rule of law, work so much better for the common man and woman than a kleptocratic/autocratic politics aiming at geopolitical national glory—which is the alternative open to Ukrainians (see above).

It is odd, I agree, to see ultranationalists leading the charge to get closer to a supra-national institution like the European Union, but there you are—sometimes people do learn that a system that tries to respond to the wishes and interests of its members rather than concerning itself with their national destiny, that lets them get on with their lives as they see fit as much as possible, regardless of their gender, their race,  their beliefs or indeed  their national “soul”, is probably better for those members  in the long run, and even ultimately better for the national “soul”, if truth be told. This often takes time. It took Serbia about a century to reach this conclusion. Having provoked the First World War through nationalist violence, against a supranational, dynastic power, the Habsburg Monarchy, Serbia is now in the process of joining another supranational, democratic, polity, the European Union, because that is the way to a reasonable, prosperous, secure, free and decent life for its citizens. Progress is possible—and this is what Ukrainians want too, I believe.

The Union and its constituent member states stand for the system—what we call “democracy”—that still answers the two key questions of political life best: “How best are we to govern ourselves?” and “Can’t we all get along?” On one level these questions seem so modest as to be innocuous even fatuous—but they are not. What you are seeing in Ukraine at the moment shows how critical and powerful these questions are, so powerful that it makes their enemies respond with the weapons and tactics of fascists and thugs. Those Ukrainians looking for a better future with Europe are the ones on the right track for a reasonable answer to this question. Let us hope they are enabled to find their way to it.

REIFOWITZ: Let us hope indeed. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with our community here at Daily Kos.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 30, 2014 at 04:30 PM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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