Thursday, February 27, 2014

US in new crusade war on democracy: Analyst


US troops are breaking into a house in Iraq. (File photo)
US troops are breaking into a house in Iraq. (File photo)
Wed Feb 26, 2014 1:8PM GMT
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The United States has embarked on a “new crusade” war on democracy across the globe, an analyst writes in a column for the Press TV website.
“On the eve of the 100th anniversary of World War I, the US has embarked on a new crusade – to make the world unsafe for democracy,” Kevin Barrett wrote on Wednesday.
He said the US is determined to “destroy democracy in Iran, Russia, and Latin America”, due to the failure of the “international bankers” running the US government to “buy enough votes to impose their will on every country.”
“So democracy is fine – as long as voters elect the New World Order candidate. But if they vote for a candidate who doesn't suit the oligarchs, get ready for a coup!” wrote Barrett.
He said the US slaughtered 3.5 million Vietnamese and nearly one million Cambodians under cover of defending democracy in Southeast Asia.
Barrett added that the US democratic plots – wars and sanctions – in the Middle East have left millions of Iraqis dead.
He said the “banksters” will unseat “any government that stands up to them – even in the USA”, citing the assassination of former President John F. Kennedy before the end of his term in 1963.
“The New World Order banksters seek to overthrow democratically-elected governments all over the world precisely because they do care who makes and enforces the laws,” Barrett wrote.
He said the “smiling Mickey Mouse mask” of the New World Order has fallen away and that “the bloodthirsty grin of satanic banksters bent on establishing an Orwellian one-world dictatorship” has been revealed.

Is there a suicide contagion on Wall Street?

from cnn

February 27, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

A series of untimely deaths at J.P. Morgan Chase and other banks has left observers wondering if there are more to come.

By Jen Wieczner


FORTUNE -- A few days ago, a Wall Street executive was debating whether he could get away from the office long enough to see his shrink uptown. In the midst of a busy workday, it was looking unlikely. Then he stumbled across an article in the New York Post with the disquieting news that a J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM) employee had jumped to his death from the bank's offices in Hong Kong, just three weeks after a fellow banker at the firm had committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the bank's London headquarters. "JPMorgan suicide is 3rd mysterious death in weeks," read the Post headline.
The executive went to his appointment. "He said, 'That's what drove me into your office today, I want to make sure that I'm all right,'" says Alden Cass, the psychologist who treats the executive, as well as a bunch of clients who are portfolio managers, investment bankers, and traders of all types.
The rash of suicides has sent a shudder through Wall Street and beyond. The third death referenced by the Post—that of a J.P. Morgan executive director who died inside his Connecticut home in January—did not appear to be intentional. (A report is still pending.) Yet the J.P. Morgan incidents are only the most recent in a string of at least a half-dozen suicides in the financial world since late August. Those include executives at Zurich Insurance Group (ZURVY), Deutsche Bank (DB), and Russell Investments, among other firms.
Banker suicides aren't a new phenomenon. Clusters of them in quick succession occurred during the Great Depression and during the recent Great Recession. Indeed, research has shown that suicides can be contagious, so to speak. That is particularly true when graphic and sensational reports of the fatalities lead to copycats, according to the American Association of Suicidology. So the recent untimely deaths have sparked concerns that there could be more on the way. J.P. Morgan spokesman Joe Evangelisti says the company has sent notices reminding employees that 24/7 mental health-related support resources are available at the bank, and that its hearts go out to the families of the deceased.
But with each new wave of suicides come questions about whether the deaths signify a disturbing trend: Is finance a potentially deadly occupation? That is, do bankers kill themselves more often than other people?
To find out, Fortune asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to pull the latest suicide statistics from its National Occupational Mortality Surveillance database. During 1999, 2003, 2004, and 2007—the most recent years during which research was funded and for which data is available—there were 329 suicides among financial specialists, more than in any other occupation tracked by the CDC except for the broad grouping of "engineers and scientists," a cohort that lost 502 to suicide.
Finance, however, is a vast profession, and while the total number of finance professionals who commit suicide may be larger than for some other professions, they are actually less likely to do so than, say, lawyers or firefighters.
Take J.P. Morgan as an example: At a bank with more than 260,000 employees around the globe, a pair of suicides may seem shocking and random but the figure is, in fact, well within the range of statistical probability. Two might even be a low number. "You would expect that when people work these long hours," says Alexandra Michel, a former Goldman Sachs (GS) investment banker turned management professor at the University of Pennsylvania who for 12 years has been tracking the performance and health of a group of Wall Street recruits at two banks (she can't say which) in an ongoing study. "You would think that it would happen much more often."
A close examination of the CDC data does reveal a worrisome connection between certain types of financial jobs and an elevated risk of suicide. The CDC organizes its mortality numbers by census categories, which can be pretty broad. The Wall Street-oriented classification is "sales representatives for financial and business services"—a category that includes a variety of banking positions, ranging from investment advisers to brokers to traders to investment bankers. People in that group are 39% more likely to kill themselves than the workforce as a whole. (Members of some other white-collar professions are at even greater risk: Lawyers are 54% more likely than average to commit suicide, and physicians are 97% more likely.)
Within finance, observers say that investment bankers are often under the most acute mental stress. "Out of all the sections of finance, no position do I know of that's more extreme in terms of the emotional endurance one has to have than investment banking," says Cass, the psychologist who is also the co-author of Bullish Thinking: The Advisor's Guide to Surviving and Thriving on Wall Street.
It's a syndrome Michel has also observed while shadowing investment bankers over the years. After her subjects had worked at a bank for four years on average, she began observing signs of sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression: "I could see how people came in chatting happily on the phone with friends, how that became less and less," she says. "People became completely absorbed in the office, in work. Some are feeling trapped."
J.P. Morgan says the two employees who committed suicide weren't investment bankers, per se. According to their LinkedIn (LNKD) profiles, Gabriel Magee was a vice president overseeing technology for fixed-income securities in the London office, and Dennis Li was an associate in the billing department supporting the investment bank.
But the high-stakes world of Wall Street has become a more stressful work environment across the board. The 2008 economic crisis and subsequent recession have exacerbated the problem, says Cass, especially now that the new reality of smaller bonus checks, regular layoffs, and heightened regulation has sunk in. While those factors have impacted many professions, Cass says, "In investment banking, it becomes a weed-out process—who can take it and who can't?"
Cass has noticed the scrutiny weighing on his clients. The anxiety has trickled down from bosses and pervaded the culture, he says, with bankers kept in a "fear position," worrying constantly about keeping their jobs—or worse, facing criminal charges.
A CDC analysis of suicides by occupation for 2008 and beyond won't be ready until 2015. But the government agency recently reported an alarming increase in suicides between 1999 and 2010 among Americans old enough to be at the peak of their careers or well-established in the C-suite. Suicides among 35- to 64-year-olds rose 28%, with even larger increases among white people (40%) and those over 50 (more than 48%).
While it's not fair, warns Cass, to point blame at any one firm or the industry itself, he sees the increased pressure to avoid mistakes as taking its toll on bankers. "Obviously it's good for the collective health of our financial security in the long run," he says. For the near term, his clients are keeping their appointments.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

On gold – the banks they are a’changing


We are beginning to see cracks in the overall bearish sentiments towards gold expressed by most bank analysts earlier this year, but some still remain unmoved by the recent positive gold price performance.

Author: Lawrence Williams
Posted: Wednesday , 26 Feb 2014 

We have stated a number of times here that the bank analysts are effectively totally reactive in their analyses and forecasting of precious metals prices – indeed they tend to follow the herd and with gold performing rather better than they had anticipated so far this year (up 11.5% since the December 31st London fixing) some are already beginning to increase their predictions sharply, although admittedly others have stuck to their bearish forecasts so far.  However how long they continue to do so if gold maintains its recovery remains to be seen.
Whether there is a real recovery in the U.S. economy in particular or not – a recovery suggesting that investors will continue to support the general equity market rather than gold (which is perhaps the view most quoted by bearish analysts like Jeff Currie at Goldman Sachs) – there are other drivers out there which should remain positive for gold and suggest that the recent gold price recovery could perhaps be sustainable.
As we have stated here before, a turnaround in the draining of gold from the big gold ETFs is a perhaps underestimated driver in this respect.  Even if the gold price falls and sales out of the ETFs resume there’s no way they are likely to be anything like on the scale seen last year with over 800 tonnes of gold coming onto the markets from this source creating a huge imbalance in the supply/demand metric.  Thomson Reuters GFMS suggests that this outflow was perhaps the key element behind last year’s gold price falls, so any reduction in sales from this source should be positive for gold.  Indeed if current gold price levels are sustained then the indications are that last year’s ETF outflows could be replaced with inflows and say a 200 tonne inflow would effectively make a 1,000 tonne difference in supply/demand figures which would be very positive for the gold price.  Indeed were this to occur it could be more than self-sustaining with rising gold prices pushing more and more investment back into the big gold ETFs.
And, despite a Bloomberg headline suggesting the contrary, Chinese gold demand looks like it could be continuing at last year’s high levels where estimates of imports range from around 1,500 tonnes to over 2,000 tonnes depending on whose statistics one believes. 
Add to this what we see as the likelihood of India relaxing its unpopular gold import curbs and continuing global uncertainty around flashpoints like the Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela etc. – and wherever next appears on the serious political unrest front - plus the possibility that China could announce a big increase in its gold reserves given it is 5 years since it last did this (admittedly perhaps the most speculative of the above potential drivers) and we could well be set for a good year for the gold price.
So some of the bank analysts now seem to be coming round to the possibility that gold prices could just perhaps rise this year, as against the almost unanimous consensus back in January that they were more likely to fall.  For example, UBS analyst Edel Tully has sharply revised upwards her short term and medium term gold price predictions in the light of the latest moves.  She is now looking to $1280 as her one month average forecast – up from $1180 which has already been comfortably surpassed – and $1350 in three months, up from $1100, while a removal, or easing,  of India’s import controls could push gold to $1400.  But she still doesn’t see the gold price as deserving of a tag north of $1400 – but also recognises a fall to below $1200 is similarly undeserved.  Now with gold this morning at around the $1340 level, Tully’s forecasts, although substantially higher, could still be seen as overly conservative by some observers.
Likewise RBCCM’s Toronto-based analytical team have revised their long term gold and silver price assumptions to $1,400 and $23.50 respectively, from $1,300 and $22 previously, commenting that the price of gold seems to have taken U.S. Fed tapering in its stride, ETF outflows as having ‘slowed’ and with physical demand remaining strong.  They feel the price risk with respect to gold is now to the upside.
In truth, the longer gold can sustain its recent gains, the more sentiment towards it as an investment in its own right, or as a safe haven, will return.  But a sharp crash in price could reverse all this gradual change in perception very quickly, and as we saw last year gold can be prone to some very sharp and rapid price falls for whatever reason.  One can’t rule this out from happening again.
Thus analysts like Goldman Sachs’ Jeffrey Currie, Soc Gen’s Robin Bhar and Credit Suisse’s Tom Kendall are all still predicting $1,050 gold this year – or even lower.  Kendall commented recently that he wouldn’t be surprised if gold were to trade at $1,300 (which of course it has already exceeded, but that the momentum thus achieved would be quickly exhausted and he anticipated gold falling back to $1,000 towards the end of the year.
But the very fact that some, if not yet the majority, of bank analysts are breaking ranks and looking to even small increases in the gold price does suggest sentiment is changing towards gold.  They will always be conservative in their forecasts – that’s the nature of bankers, but the unanimous bearish consensus may be beginning to shift.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mt.Gox site disappears, Bitcoin future in doubt

from cnn

mt gox karpeles
Mt.Gox CEO Mark Karpeles has resigned from the Bitcoin Foundation, the currency's top advocacy group.


What was once the world's largest trading platform for bitcoins is now a blank page.

The Bitcoin-trading website Mt.Gox was taken offline late Monday, putting at risk millions of dollars put there by investors who gambled on the digital currency. The exchange alsodeleted all of its tweets, and Mt.Gox CEO Mark Karpeles resigned from the Bitcoin Foundation's board of directors on Sunday.
The news frightened Bitcoin investors elsewhere, knocking the price down about 3% to $490 -- its lowest level since November.
For now, there's no telling what's behind the shutdown. Mt.Gox did not respond to requests for comment.
However, an unverified document called "Crisis Strategy Draft" that is being circulated online claims Mt.Gox has lost 744,408 of its users' bitcoins, worth nearly $367 million. It also claims Mt.Gox is planning to rebrand itself as Gox.
Mt.Gox has been mired in problems ever since Feb. 7, when it halted withdrawals from its trading accounts. The company's computer programmers hadn't accounted for a quirk in the way Bitcoin works, allowing cyber attackers to dupe Mt.Gox with a scheme resembling receipt fraud. When Mt.Gox discovered it was under attack, it stopped any investors from pulling their money out of their trading platform -- but it has yet to allow them access to their money.
By the time trading at Mt.Gox was halted entirely late Monday, the price of a Bitcoin there had dropped significantly, to $130. Meanwhile it was trading for more than four times that on other exchanges.
Late on Monday, several other Bitcoin exchanges sought to reassure investors and took a harder line with Mt. Gox.
"This tragic violation of the trust of users of Mt.Gox was the result of one company's abhorrent actions and does not reflect the resilience or value of Bitcoin and the digital currency industry," the groups said in a statement.
The executives who signed the joint statement cast Mt.Gox's downfall as the typical industry evolution that weeds out bad actors.
Trading bitcoins the old-fashioned way
Although Mt.Gox's shutdown was unexpected, its piling troubles were no surprise.
Evan Rose, president of Bitcoin ATM company Genesis, said that the kinds of problems seen at Mt.Gox and other exchanges show that Bitcoin is in flux.
"The people running the systems right now are not necessarily business men," Rose said. "For the most part, they're people who came into this digital project without grasping the value or risk of it. The ecosystem is maturing, but it's a little scary for everyone involved."
-- Charles Riley contributed reporting from Hong Kong. To top of page
Did you have money on Mt.Gox? What about on other exchanges? Have you lost faith in Bitcoin -- or are you sticking with it? We want to hear about your experience.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Can the Internet Democratize Capitalism?

Technological fixes to time-honoured problems are all the rage these days.
Has the Internet helped democratize capitalism?
Bitcoin is meant to fix money, social media are seen as an antidote to Rupert Murdoch and assorted tyrants, networked robots are to help countries like Japan deal with demographic declines etc. Perhaps the largest claim is that the Internet has helped (or is about to help) democratize capitalism. Ten years ago that claim struck me as both fascinating and dubious. So, I sat down and wrote an article about it (circa 2004). Its gist: The Internet is a wonderful leveller.
But democracy requires a great deal more than mere ‘levelling.’ Primarily, it requires political institutions that enable the economically weak to have a decisive say on policy against the interests of the rich and powerful. Ten years later, I am re-visiting this question, under the shadow of a global crisis that made it even harder to convert an e’Demos into genuinee’Democracy. What follows is an updated version of the original paper.
The Internet’s toughest assignment: To put Demos back into Democracy
As soon as computers were linked to form a mass communication medium, the notion of e’democracy was bound to surface. Hobbling at least a decade behind e’maile’porn and e’trade, the idea of putting Internet-based technologies in the service of democratic institutions finally emerged. “And not one moment too soon,” add those who see it as one of democracy’s last lines of defense.
We live in an era of heightened fears that democracy is an empty shell. The young feel the democratic game is not worth the candle. Older generations despair, rightly, that the 0.1% have cornered the ‘democracy market’ while the banksters’ bailouts have all but destroyed the legitimacy of our democracy’s institutions. More generally, we live in a world where consumer sovereignty trumps democratic ideals and where the fear of the ‘other’ overrules the pleasures of tolerance. It would not be far fetched to claim that too large a segment of the population would happily sell their right ever to vote again (or to stand in an election) for a depressingly small sum. Is it any wonder that voter participation is in free fall across all ages and social classes everywhere?
Younger people, reliant as they are on the Internet and in a permanent state of optimism regarding the possibilities offered by technology, tend to think that the solution lies in finding suitable…apps. They harbour the hope that the failures of our representative democracies can be compensated for by new participatory decision making processes that we can refer to, generally, as E’democracy. What can E’democracy do to help empower a networked Demos (nb. Demos is the Greek word for ‘the people’)? One (widespread) answer is: Present people with the opportunity to be part of a deliberative process which will turn them into active participants in the debates unfolding within the existing chambers of power. Once there (even virtually), they will (hopefully) become ‘hooked’ on democracy, realizing what they have been missing, and, through their presence, reinvigorate our stale democracies.
E’democracy’s indisputable appeal is not in the least dented by the realization that no one seems to know quite what e’democracy entails. In fact its indeterminate meaning gives novices the opportunity to participate in defining it. In so doing it might give them cause to re-think democracy, and thus reinvigorate it. Judging by the large retinue of definitions in the emergent literature on E’democracy, the safest route to defining it is through the successive elimination of that which we do not want it to be: According to Coleman and Gotze (2003), it ought to be irreducible toe’government (as it is possible to imagine a dictatorship deploying highly efficient e’government systems); to pose no threat to representative democracy (i.e. it need not be a Trojan Horse for direct or plebiscitary democratic alternatives); to have little to do with technology as such and a great deal to do with re-conceptualizing the ‘space’ between the ‘people’ and their ‘political rulers’…Though this elimination does not home in on a definition of Aristotelian precision, it does give us enough to go by and inspire the thought that e’democracy has significant potential for reversing democracy’s decline.
Optimism is a fine and useful sentiment as long as it is built on a solid analysis of the problem at hand. The ambition described in the previous paragraphs implies that democracy’s current troubles, although systemic, are the result of a steady degeneration which can be reversed through greater engagement and participation (facilitated by the Internet and related Information and Computer Technologies (ICTs)). I hope this turns out to be so. But I fear that, as things stand, E’democracy is unprepared for the larger than life enemy at which it is asked to tilt.
If we look closely at the world around us, we shall note disturbing evidence that democracy’s predicament gets worse in countries where it has already succeeded in establishing mechanisms for effective citizenship participation and fostering affluence (see The Norwegian Study of Power and Democracy, discussed in Stein Ringen’s Wealth and Decay). If this is right, and liberal democracies somehow fall prey to their own ‘success,’ how can their degeneration be checked?
The hunch underpinning of this paper is that, behind voter apathy and the low participation in politics, lays a powerful social force, buried deeply in the institutions of our liberal democracies and working inexorably toward undermining democratic politics. If this hunch is right, it will take a great deal more to revitalize democracy than a brilliant Internet-based network linking legislators, executive and voters. Of course this is not an argument against Internet applications for the purposes of deliberation or promoting citizen participation. It is, rather, an argument for examining carefully the history and present state of our democratic life before designing technology’s contribution to it or, crucially, before developing too many hopes that will then be crushed by a merciless reality.
An empowered Demos: The Athenians’ audacious experiment
Democracy, as we all know, was born in Athens. Are there lessons fore’democrats to be learnt from that relatively short-lived experiment? The most profound one is that an empowered Demos does not get easily bored with politics. Through good times and ill, Athenians never missed a chance to partake of assemblies; to argue away briskly, disagree furiously, reluctantly (and, on the odd occasion, enthusiastically) converge on commonly agreed courses of action. Those who stayed at home or concentrated on making money were famously labelled…‘idiots.’
It is, however, easy to dismiss Athenian democracy on two grounds: Its hypocrisy and its irrelevance for the modern world. Regarding the former, one might argue plausibly that, since the Athenian economy (public, private and domestic) engaged slave labour, and women along with resident aliens (the metics) enjoyed no citizenship, their democracy was a sham. And as for the charge of irrelevance, there is the obvious fact that modern industrial societies are too large and complex to be run by means of direct democracy. Be that as it may, classical Athens must be the first port of call for aspiring e’democrats. The reason is that Athens allows us an intriguing glimpse of democracy’s major inter-temporal contradiction; the same contradiction which e’democracy is being called upon to deal with today. The best place to start looking for that glimpse is the charge of hypocrisy.
The Athenians invented neither slavery nor sexism. What they did invent, however, was the notion of a citizen who enjoys not only free speech but also isigoria (equal say in the final formulation of policy) independently of whether he was rich, comfortably off, or indeed a pauper eking a modest existence out of manual labour. In this reading, the key figure was not Pericles, or orators of stunning talent like Demosthenes, but, rather, the anonymous landless peasant who, despite his propertylessness, had a voice in the Assembly of equal weight to that of the great and the good. This was the remarkable novelty of Athenian society which has probably never been replicated since.
If e’democracy is to give voice to the voiceless, it is interesting to ask: What was it that endowed the labouring Athenian citizen with isigoria? Is there room for re-introducing whatever that was into contemporary democracies? Can e’democracy bring it about?
Today we tend erroneously to think that Athenian citizens lazed about in the Agora while the slaves did all the work. Though true for some Athenians (rich kids and their philosophising teachers), the labouring citizen was present in all realms of production (peasants, artisans, manual labourers) – see Moses I. Finley’s Ancient Slavery & Modern Ideology and Geoffrey E. Maurice Ste. Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. Free men worked side by side with slaves and sometimes it was the slaves that enjoyed higher status in their ‘profession.’ In this context, Athenian citizenship was inextricably intertwined with the unfreedom of slaves (as well as of women and the metics). More concisely, freedom and unfreedom fed of each other in ancient Athens; they were, in a sense, each other’s accomplices.
Aristotle’s definition of democracy is telling in this regard: A constitution in which “the free-born and the poor control the government; being at the same time a majority” (emphasis added). Meanwhile, in his Rhetoric(1367a) he defines a free man (eleutheros) as a masterless person who needs obey no one because he does not depend on having to produce or sell anything. Plato takes things further in the Statesman saying that one is fit for public office to the extent that he is not supplying indispensable goods or services.
Of course, neither of these two great philosophers was known for their democratic credentials. In fact, especially for Plato, quite the opposite is true. Nonetheless, what is of interest to us thousands of years later is that both Aristotle and Plato should see freedom not as the opposite of slavery but as the antithesis of dependent labour! In a sense, one’s genuine freedom depended on the extent to which one was free from both physical masters but, interestingly, free from the market as well.
As anti-democrats, Plato and his followers argued that political reasoning could not be entrusted to those who had to work for others – irrespectively of whether they were free labourers or slaves. In this sense, the Great Debate in ancient Athens (between democrats and their critics) had a clear frontline: Democrats invoked the Demos in a bid to assert the rights of the poor to isigoria. Not merely to have a voice but, more importantly, to have a voice of equal weight.
That democracy survived for so long in classical Athens is an historical miracle. Never before (and possibly never since) had so large a percentage of poor labourers enjoyed such unprecedented direct decision making powers in matters of State. This influence kept Athenian democracy vibrant till the end. On the one hand the poor citizens, and their gentile supporters (such as Protagoras and Pericles), fought for its preservation. On the other, Aristocrats, who never accepted that their voice should have no more gravitas than that of a cobbler, fought for its diminution. It all made for animated Assembly meetings and fascinating debates in the Agora.
The question is: How did it come about? The brief answer is: Cleisthenis’ reforms extended citizenship to the Attica countryside, breached the State-community and fashioned a civic identity which was made quite independent from ‘birth rights’ (social class, that is). In short, the Demos was born. How did it differ from that which angloceltic liberals refer to as The People? In contemporary liberal circles The People are imagined as an abstract, disaggregated collection of private individuals; individuals defined by: (A) preferences, passions, instrumental rationality, and (B) rights designed to protect them from the arbitrary rule of the State.
In sharp contrast, Cleisthenis’ Demos was imagined as the State itself; as an active community of citizens in which the political sphere, the economy, the State and civil society all co-existed within the Assembly: Democracy was about the Demos getting (physically) together and engaging in a contest of opinions about what ought to be done. The point of the exercise was not to stage a process whereby the rulers consult the people but one in which the people rule.
We often forget that Athenian democrats saw no reason for constitutional rights whose purpose would be to shield civil society from State interference. In their eyes, the two were indistinguishable. It is this coincidence of the political sphere with economic life, but also culture, military affairs etc. that made it possible for the Demos to exercise real power in shaping everyday life.
Candour demands that even the most enthusiastic apologists of contemporary Western democracies admit that the latter come much closer to Aristotle’s definition of oligarchy than to his depiction of democracy. There simply is not, at least according to Aristotle, enough Demos in our Democracy today. Put differently, even though Socrates would not have been poisoned by the British or French Parliaments for smuggling subversive ideas into the mind of the young (protected, thankfully, by an impressive panoply of juridical authority), our electorates (‘We, the People’ in the language of the American Constitution) exercise no power over daily life which might be comparable to that of Athenian citizens. Moreover, there is a deep sense in which the power actually exercised (by both citizens and their elected representatives) has been declining steadily with every twist and turn of our recent political history.
Is it any great wonder that we are increasingly unwilling to put our energies into the political process? Is it surprising that a democratic process less redolent of a ruling Demos than of unaccountable oligarchy is ripe for neglect in the icy hands of apathy?
Do we want the Demos to rule?
Even if the reader agrees that Athenian democracy is not to be scoffed at (as an historical juncture of momentous political importance), the natural rejoinder is: So what? Surely, industrial societies are too complex to be run by an Assembly of all citizens. Additionally it is perhaps a good thing that it is so, as Socrates’ fate testifies. Should e’democracy advocates take the direct democracy route, suggesting that ICTs are used to supplant representative government with an e’Assembly that will perform in cyberspace the functions of ancient Pnyka, they shall be laughed out of court.
Although the legitimacy of e’democracy would undoubtedly suffer if it were co-opted by supporters of direct democracy, it is useful to establish the precise reasons for this. Why is direct democracy feared? Most people would agree (as noted in the previous paragraph) that there is nothing wrong with it in principle; that, ideally, it would be best; but that in large and complex societies, it is simply unworkable. I think this is quite right. But it is not the whole story as to why direct democracy is dismissed so readily.
Put bluntly, many qualms about direct people-rule are due to a deep-seeded mistrust of ‘common folk.’ The ‘democratic elites’ are not keen to see the Demos rule the land. At best, their reluctance takes the form of concern for the minorities’ protection from the tyranny of the majority. At worst, it extends to pure scorn for the capacity of the multitude to know what is good and proper for them. In effect, some of the ancient arguments in favour of oligarchy (e.g. those of Plato) are embedded in the defense of today’s representative democracies. If this is right, the ‘distance’ between decision makers and the people is not an undesirable feature that crept up on our societies imperceptibly but, rather, a feature designed into our system of government in order to keep the plebs in their place. But is this right?
I believe that a fair reading of liberal democracy’s history confirms that this is so: That the devaluation of citizenship is an integral component of a ‘successful’ modern democracy; not a failure to be corrected by technical means (including the best ICT has to offer). If I am right, e’democracy has its work cut out for it! Effectively, e’democrats will be facing the task not simply of involving more people in deliberations regarding policy making but, more ambitiously, of deploying new technology as a part of a broader political intervention whose purpose is to re-invent the political sphere.
The previous paragraph contains a large claim (in italics), without which the verdict concerning e’democracy’s ambitious task is ill-supported. What is its basis in fact? The next section shall attempt to argue that liberal democracy has its roots, not in ancient Athens, but in feudal Europe, the Protestant/Puritan ethic, and the tumultuous rise of the merchant as the pivotal figure around whom the economic sphere gained autonomy and dominance over political society. The culmination of this ‘story’ is that the Demos’ low participation in the democratic process was an inevitable end-state of this particular historical trajectory. None of this is particularly novel. However, e’democrats must be kept in touch with these historical facts because they speak directly to some potential features of the apathy causing the crisis of contemporary liberal democracy.
Apathy as a design feature of Liberal democracy
Students of political science are taught that modern democratic constitutions aim at correcting the arithmetical simplicities of an undifferentiated popular will; that the constitution of a genuinely liberal democracy ought to require virtue in neither the ruled nor the rulers. Notice how ‘un-Athenian’ this line of thought is. Athenians thought that virtue is indispensable. Whether of an oligarchic political persuasion, or fanatical democrats, they agreed that no system of government could flourish without virtuous decision makers. Their differences simply centred on whether it is reasonable to expect the labouring multitude, the banausoi (as Aristotle called them), to be capable of the virtues needed by those who rule; whether political virtues can be learnt or not (recall the debate between Socrates and Protagoras in Plato’s Protagoras).
In our day and age, we tend to think of good laws (and constitutions) as the ones designed for wicked people (and unscrupulous politicians). Prudence is high on the agenda (for good reason, no doubt). However, there is more to our current stance than a prudential philosophical pessimism: Contemporary liberal democracies rely on a particular kind of pessimism regarding human nature; the kind that harks back to the Protestant Reformation.
The liberal democracies that e’democracy is meant to rescue from apathy have their roots not in ancient Athens but in constitutions of a Protestant (and, in the case of the USA, Puritan) pedigree. A constitution is good, in this vein, if it exploits efficiently the ‘fallen nature of man’ (his selfishness and his propensity to put self-interest before the Common Will) in order to promote the broader social objectives of liberty, stability and prosperity. You can almost smell the polished pews, hear the thundering voice of the Protestant preacher. And if you are a student of political economy, the image will come to you of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, working supra-intentionally behind the self-interested merchants’ backs, pushing prices down, quantities through the roof, and thus procuring the Common Good against the mean merchants’ private Will.
This is of more than just philosophical interest. For here is an important lesson for those who fret over the decline of participation in political processes: For if the good constitution is the one meant to run as if on automatic pilot, just like a market is meant to organize economic decisions spontaneously, there is clearly no reason why The People should be involved in politics. And, therefore, there is no reason why we should worry about apathy and falling voter turnout. In fact, it might be better if none of us got involved in politics lest we mess up the well-crafted workings of an automated system of government! Borrowing a line from Adam Smith, theCommon Good stands a much better chance of being served if no one is actively trying to serve it!
The above, some might argue, is of no more than academic interest. Perhaps. But it is still interesting to note that the political philosophy preceding the establishment of democratic constitutions not only had few qualms with a politically passive multitude but, in fact, positively favoured passivity, even apathy. Did things change as liberalism began to embrace the notion of representative democracy? Did the new spirit of accountability to the citizen infuse a great urgency for active citizenship? Not really.
Americans are right in thinking that representative democracy is an American invention. English protests (to the effect that the House of Commons is the mother of all modern parliaments) are thwarted by the fact that the victory of Parliament, though important for many other reasons, was not a victory for representative democracy. Even the English Whigs saw Parliament’s victory as a welcome defeat of democracy. The American Revolution had stirred up too great a popular demand for universal franchise (at least for white men!) to be ignored by the new constitution. The latter signified a profound break with what had gone on before it and its opening line “We, the People…” captured the radical idea that legitimacy comes from a single source: free citizens (as opposed to loyal subjects).
Nonetheless, it is not at all clear that the invocation of the People was intended to empower them. Edmund S. Morgan’s Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, for instance, argues that the Founding Fathers invented the idea of the American People, and of their ‘sovereignty,’ as a means of imposing upon them a stable government over which the People would have no direct control. Though representatives were to be elected, the Federalists were particularly wary of a ruling Demos. Indeed some of their texts could have been written by Plato (or some of his anti-democratic disciples). The multitude was to stay out of political deliberation and be contented that they are represented in Congress by their social superiors. Who were these to be? Unlike Plato who thought that the ideal Republic ought to be run by the philosophers, the Federalists had another category in mind: The merchants.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic even the most progressive Whigs, including those who were profoundly influenced by the democratic gains in America, were sceptical about democracy. J.S. Mill, for instance, thought that the gentiles should have more votes than the cobblers and the masons, and that they should run the state on the latter’s behalf. The liberal spirit was therefore constitutionally at odds with the dangerous idea of Demos-rule. Apathy was fine, as long as the authority of socially superior representatives was consented to by their ‘inferiors.’ Impressed by a Newtonian view of the social universe, as one guided through the providential hand of market forces and Common Law, 18th and 19th century liberals celebrated the creation of a social order in which a passive people enjoy citizenship rights (and protections) and legitimized, through their consent, a form of enlightened oligarchy.
Seen from this perspective, is it not the case that voter-apathy was designed into our liberal democracies at their inception?
Freedom from what?
When designing policies (including e’democracy projects) to combat apathy, it may help to know what we are up against. For if democracy’s woes are repercussions of systemic features, the remedies will be effective only to the extent that they reach deeply into the roots of the systemic problem. So, what is the problem? It is, I wish to claim here, that our system of government is fundamentally oligarchic in nature, with add-on provisions for legitimising the oligarch’s authority through periodic endorsements by a passive electorate. Against this background, e’democracy is now being called upon to turn the latter into an active Demos. Can it do this without changing quite radically the character of liberal democracy in the process? Without clashing with well-entrenched vested interests?
Magna Carta, the defining document to which the West turns when in search of its political and legislative ancestry, was not about fashioning an Athenian-style masterless Demos: It was about entrenching the rights of masters vis-à-vis the Monarch. Its purpose was to give them, the lords and masters, the freedom to do as they pleased with their property, their servants and their slaves. Echoes of Magna Carta could be heard even in post-revolutionary America and they may resolve the puzzle of how, in the US, the loudest voices for liberty came from slave-owners.
The divide between lords and their subjects was essential in defining the lords’ freedom from the Crown. Note the difference and the similarity with ancient Athens: Just as the Athenian labourer’s citizenship (a great source of empowerment for him) was defined in juxtaposition to the slaves’ (and the women’s) unfreedom, similarly the medieval lords’ freedom was defined in terms of their ‘ownership’ of their servants (and their servants’ output). This is the similarity. The difference was that, whereas in Athens genuine freedom was extended (to Plato’s consternation) to a large class of poor, propertyless labourers, the freedom procured by the Magna Carta, and later (1688) by the Glorious Revolution, was reserved for the masters exclusively.
Later on, and as the dawn of the Enlightenment was approaching, republicanism beefed up demands for a more widespread form of freedom. Classical republicanism (e.g. Algemon Sidney, Henry Neville, James Harrington) imagined a new society in which active citizens would work toward the Common Good. But even these radical visionaries had no plans for Demo-cracy; for they made it abundantly clear that their active citizen would be no labourer. Indeed that he would be a man who does not have to work for others.
By the time the American Colonies rebelled against the English Crown, and the notion of a sovereign American People became the touchstone of the Republic, commercial society had already won many victories against the idle aristocracy. The protestant ethic had entrenched the glorification of work in general and of trading for the common good in particular. The man who does not have to work for others (see previous paragraph) gave his place on the Republican Pantheon to the merchant. In this light, the fledgling republic was to be built up through the hard work of the multitude, legitimized by their consent, and ruled by the merchants (that is, by those whose social location allowed them to sell more than just their own labour).
In ancient Athens, many working citizens (e.g. free peasants) were free not only in the sense that they were not slaves but also in that they were not obliged to enter specific labour markets (i.e. free from having to work for someone else, courtesy of their small plots of land which provided them with the basics of life). Even those who did work for others had an equal say in matters of State in the Assembly. This ‘say’ (their citizenship) equipped them with a powerful shield with which they could protect themselves from the rich and powerful (and which was the object of much aristocratic consternation).
In contrast, in the loci of early liberal societies (e.g. the US and Britain) the working multitude had no alternative but to work for others unprotected by direct access to decision-making. The Enclosures denied British peasants access to any means of reproducing their lives unless they went through some merchant (who also enjoyed privileged access to Parliament). In the US, the labouring classes found themselves attached to a rapidly shifting set of property rules which led to increasing concentration of land and capital in the hands of a specific social class comprising inspired merchants and, famously, the so-called Robber Barons. The modern era was arguably marked by this great transformation: Labourers became formally free to choose whom they worked for, free from all access to arable land, but unfree not to work for someone. Simultaneously merchants became free from labourers (e.g. they did not have to house them, as feudal lords had to do in the past) and could simply rent out their labour.
In this new context, it became suddenly possible to extend citizenship rights (including the franchise) to the many without changing anything. The fact that the peasants no longer had conventional rights to land-access meant that there was no longer a socio-economic need to maintain a sharp juridical and political division between rulers and peasants. It became possible (and therefore inevitable, in view of the great legitimising effect of such a change) to extend citizenship rights to them all (at least to all white men). Had such an extension to juridical rights occurred under feudalism, the feudal lords would lose all their power over the peasantry. The key to understanding how liberal democracies surfaced is to see that, while citizenship was no longer restricted (to the few), the scope of citizenship rights (and democratic power) was severely circumscribed. On the one hand, the economic sphere steadily gained effective independence from political power. And on the other hand, whatever political power was left over economic life, it was practised by office holders who rose through the merchant and professional classes.
The historical tone of the above may strike the modern reader as an irrelevance regarding the problems facing representative democracy (ande’democrats) today. This would be, I submit, a mistake. Take for instance modern South Africa. After the glorious defeat of Apartheid, the hopes that the black majority had invested in the democratic process (for greater prosperity for the vast majority who were, courtesy of Apartheid, caught in the clutches of poverty and disease) began to fizzle out. Blacks fought tooth and nail against Apartheid, hoping that full citizenship would empower them not only politically but also economically. They are currently finding out (in a cruel manner) that citizenship, for all its undeniable moral and psychological worth, means little in a socio-economic system where asymmetrical economic power has replaced political and juridical privileges.
The South African experience is quite vivid because the extension of citizenship rights to all is so recent. However the underlying argument is pertinent all over the globe. Singaporean workers have no real political freedoms (e.g. no free press). Their citizenship is curtailed by an oppressive regime which promotes energetically a buzzing commercial society, while at the same time denying its citizens political rights. Compared to India, where liberal democratic rights abound, it is unclear whether the average Singaporean has less control over matters of State (affecting daily life) than the average Indian.
In conclusion, the ‘free world,’ a term we often use interchangeably with ‘Western Liberal Democracies,’ is free only in a limited sense: Citizenship (including formal liberties) is distributed liberally to all citizens but its reach is confined to a small political sphere; a sphere which is increasingly losing out to a separate economic sphere where all the capacities to change people’s lives (for better or for worse) congregate but where citizenship is irrelevant.
If the above is not wrong, the reason for growing apathy has been rationalized: Labouring citizens are coming to the conclusion, in ever greater numbers, that, A) political institutions were designed for and by employers (i.e. merchants who did not have to labour for someone else); and, B) wrestling political institutions from employers’ hands is a Pyrhic victory, and thus not worth the trouble, since power has shifted elsewhere. The repercussion for e’democracy is clear: So far the debate is focussing on (A); that is, on how political institutions can be opened up to the multitude. This is, naturally, a legitimate objective for e’democratswhich can be met fairly easily through the deployment of appropriate technologies. The preceding analysis adds two wrinkles to received wisdom:
First, the exclusion of the multitude from political debates and institutions may be more than a failure; it may well be a design feature of our system of government (in which case resistance to e’democracy’s attempts to bring the masses into these debates and institutions will be much fiercer than expected). Secondly, e’democracy ought to aim at much more than simply to enable citizens to enter the political sphere: It should aim at helping the political sphere to wrestle importance and power away from the economic sphere. And this is the rub. For what I am suggesting here is thate’democracy’s work will have been done only if (and when) it succeeds at elevating the status of the labouring citizen for the first time to a level comparable with the free-labourers of ancient Athens. In short,e’democracy cannot do without a framework for producing goods and services along the lines of participatory, self-managed enterprises.
Conclusion: The prospects of Demos-rule in our post-2008 world
David Hume was intrigued by the ease with which a small minority manage to control the majority. He attributed that feat to ‘opinion.’ Extensive citizenship and the notion of popular sovereignty was the ‘opinion’ which legitimized liberal democracies and sustained the right of elites to monopolise decision making in the context of a parliamentary oligarchy. However, as the economic sphere (the social relations of production of goods and services) became increasingly autonomous from politics (and the latter exercised decreasing power over the former), political goods (including the worth of the right to vote) were devalued. A crisis of legitimacy ensued of which low voter turnouts are mere symptoms.
In large, complex societies where citizenship rights are widespread, representative democracy (inter-mediated by Internet-based means) is inevitable. But for people-rule to make a comeback, we need to subvert ‘opinions’ which maintain the rule of the few and cultivate, instead, opinion-forming systems which permit the rule-of-the-many. With economic power largely residing outside the sphere of politics, and immune to the democratic process, this was always a tall order for liberal democracies. Since 2008, when the financial collapse triggered a sequence of political interventions in the name of The People but for the benefit of the financiers whose behaviour had triggered the collapse, economic power shifted further away from the realm of political decision-making. In this sense, our post-2008 world is typified by a stark contradiction: Never before has democracy been needed more to stabilise financialised capitalism while, simultaneouly, being less possible given the success of the masters’ of the economic sphere to keep it outside the realm of political control.
In this context, the notion that the democratic deficit can be dealt with by some technological fix (i.e. some variant of e’democracy) is absurd. The Internet has granted the weaker and poorer their personal Speaker’s Corner within cyberspace but has not created an e’Assembly in which they can over-rule the powerful minority who control the economic sphere. Ane’Mob has been created, even an e’Demos. But it has not been admitted into anything resembling a genuine e’Democracy. Granted that e’Democracy is impossible now, could it become possible in the future? And if so, under what conditions? To materialize, e’democracy must help breach the two-century old divide between political and economic power by introducing direct political control of the production and distribution processes at the micro level; at the level of the enterprise. Is something like this possible? No and yes.
• No, because it is hard to imagine that the Internet can break down the monopoly of capital’s power over labour in societies where labour is chronically under-employed due to the structural failures of existing ologopolistic capitalism.
• Yes, because the Internet (and related technologies) can, potentially, break down the foundation of existing oligopolistic capitalism, precisely as the steam-engine spelled the end of feudal production and distribution processes.
In conclusion, this paper argued that the Internet’s democratising potential is understood best through an historical re-evaluation of democracy’s inner contradictions. Ancient Athens was characterized by such a delicious contradiction: the slaves’ unfreedom was pivotal in making citizenship particularly valuable for the free laborers. Their actual freedom depended on other people’s slavery. In modern times, citizenship and formal freedom are widespread but highly devalued. This devaluation partly explains why citizenship was spread so liberally around and, at once, foreshadowed voter apathy and the diminution of the political sphere. The burning question is: Can citizenship be simultaneously widespread and valuable?
The good news is that it can. The bad news is that for citizenship to be simultaneouly widespread and valuable, the political sphere must claw back much of the authority that it has lost to the economic sphere; first at the time of the Enclosures and, more recently, after the 2008 debacle. None of that ‘clawing back’ will result automatically from our splendid connectivity through Twitter, Facebook and various other Apps and Internet resources. They may give us voice but they will not grant us isegoria. To create isegoria, and thus to empower citizens broadly, our ‘connected’ social economy must not only allow rulers and citizens to communicate but should also feature multiple networks enabling consumers, labourers and innovators to form units of production which create and distribute value in a participatory manner; in a manner such that no one employs anyone and everyone contributes labour and ideas while being rewarded according to contribution but also need.
Of course this requires nothing short of a revolution in the foundations of capitalist production. It will not happen through idle chatter in the social media. If it happens, it will occur as the Internet undermines the currently dominant corporate model which relies on the segregation between non-labouring shareholders and labouring non-owners. Only when the capitalist type of firm loses its ‘evolutionary fitness,’ due to technological Internet-based innovations, and gives its place to a new type of participatory production model, will the political and the economic sphere become integrated again in a manner consistent with democratic principles. Thene’democracy may be born as our e’Demos reclaims control of the economic sphere.