Managing Democracy in an Iron Cage

Forty years ago, the gullible citizens of the U.S. sat quiescent as the Washington power elite and an infamous faction of academic economists inspired, protected, and applauded the massacre of Chilean democracy. Back then, in the heyday of the post-New Deal U.S. revolution not just of rising expectations but also achievements, the good quiescent U.S. citizens would never dreamed that the neo-liberal ravaging of Latin democracies on behalf of corporate bottom lines was a chicken that could ever come home to roost. Today, the distant story of Pinochet and, perhaps more pregnant with meaning for the U.S., the all but unknown (in the U.S.) difficulty Chileans had coming to terms after his departure with not just Pinochet’s barbarism but his “management” of their democracy is beginning to appear more and more like a dress rehearsal. Call them neo-lib or neo-con, the elite attack on the irritating trend toward popular democratic action that went overboard in the Chilean dress rehearsal with the physical slaughter of democratic activists has appeared far more sophisticated in its current U.S. version.

At Princeton, U.S. political scientist Sheldon Wolin has been laying out for us the theory for a decade in terms that go far to reveal both what happened in Chile and what subsequently became more and more visible in the U.S.:

One shouldn’t expect empire to promote liberty, participation, or equality other than as versions of economic opportunity. The object of its managed democracy is not to persuade the citizens but, depending on the objective, to neutralize or incite them. Managed democracy is not the creature of a tyrannical majority—as the Founders feared. On the contrary. Managed democracy thrives not on active suppression but on an electorate so evenly divided as to prevent the formation of a strong majority will. While an evenly divided electorate stymies the formation of effective majorities, it enhances the power of corporate lobbies, that is, of determined, single-minded, lavishly financed minority wills that operate independently of electoral results. Near deadlock diminishes the legislature’s ability to exercise vigorous oversight of the executive and opens the way for an unprecedented assertion of executive power,especially if a legislature is riddled with corruption. [Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, 250 as quoted in]

Note that Wolin wrote before the defeats of the Madison worker rights protest movement or the defeat of the Occupy Movement or Citizens United’s base commercialization of elections or the smooth continuation of billionaire domination of U.S. financial governance despite Obama’s election and Obama’s re-election.

As for the Chilean dress rehearsal, while all educated people surely have at least a vague sense that Pinochet was a brutal dictator with the deaths of thousands on his hands, the story of the continuing hold his cold-hearted technocratic governing system that placed economics before people is one to which all U.S. citizens who have lost their jobs or had their homes stolen via robosigning since 2008 should pay careful attention.

Chilean political scientist Tomas Moulian described the Chilean version of Wolin’s “managed democracy” as democracy in an “iron cage” [jaula de hierro].

Nuestra ‘democracia moderna’ se fundamenta a traves de esta serie concatenada de proposiciones: a) en el principio era el caos del Estado demo-populista, b) ese caos fue la consecuencia de la politica ‘decisionista’, …c) por ello es menester que las decisiones sobre los intercambios economicos sean adoptadas a traves de un mecanismo automatico, el del mercado y, por lo mismo, es menester que la politica este subordinada a la economia, qu la ‘soberania’…sea transferida al mercado….

El objetivo…es preservar al neocapitalismo de los avatares e incertidumbres de la democracia….la ‘democracia protegida’….

La minoria, no solamente es protegida contra los abusos de la mayoria, es transformada en lo que no es, en fuerza mayoritaria. [Tomas Moulian, “La democracia actual como ‘jaula de hierro’,” 45-46 in Chile Actual: Anatomia de un mito, Arcis University 1998.].

“Managed democracy” means “protected democracy,” which really means “elite rule protected from democracy.” Leadership of the army is protected from democratic interference by the will of the people; a very useful and profitable war on terror is protected; a generation-long transfer of wealth from a rising middle class being impoverished to further enrich the already super-rich is protected.

When the elite prevents the formation of a “strong majority will,” whether by waving the bloody flag of war, scaring the populace with tales of evil aliens, or preoccupying gullible masses with fake political debate and trite scandals, it opens the door to long-lasting restructuring of the avenues of power. Legislators get bought, laws get redesigned in committee, regulators get kidnapped, corporate leaders run back and forth through the revolving door, scapegoats get punished to protect the guilty leaders, and–amid fervent calls for reform–underlying principles are quietly pushed under the rug. Rulers who order or wink at mass murder, war crimes, grand theft bailout, or the undermining of Constitutional guarantees are treated with courtesy, then ignored. All that is “in the past,” don’t be a troublemaker; it’s time to move forward. And the door of the iron cage stays firmly shut until the lock rusts and the key no longer turns.


One comment on “Managing Democracy in an Iron Cage

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