Democracy and the Sixth Great Extinction

Is the fate of the planet—that is, of our fate on it—tied to the fate of democracy? I think there are grounds for suggesting it.

You could make a negative case for the proposition. Democracy, an experiment in the ancient world in the Roman Republic and the city-state of Athens, revived in modern times with the United States, which adopted the Roman model of republican government but tied it to a democratic ethos through the principle of popular sovereignty. It faced much resistance, but gradually appeared to overcome its competitors and challengers, including communism and fascism, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed to its supporters to have decisively defeated them.

The appeal of democracy rested partly on ideological grounds, but also on its hospitality to the free market system called capitalism that proved an unprecedented vehicle of economic growth and technological expansion. Much ink has been spilled over the question of the relationship between democracy and capitalism, and the question remains open to what degree or even whether they are compatible in the long run. What appears indisputable to most commentators is that, to this point, they have seemingly advanced together.

Which brings us to the paradox of the present moment. Capitalism has triumphed as a global system, though hardly in the form of free and open markets. It has also, through the hitherto unchecked burning of fossil fuels that powered the Industrial Revolution and the ravaging of land and ocean environments for “development,” brought us to a crisis of climate change and species destruction popularly called the Sixth Extinction—an accelerating loss of biomass and diversity that scientists believe could create the greatest extermination of life in 65 million years, possibly including our own.

At the same time, capitalism’s supposed handmaiden, democracy, seems to many observers on the brink of an extinction itself. Any number of recent books have charted and sought to explain its alarming decline in the Americas (the United States, Venezuela, Brazil), Europe (Italy, Poland, Estonia, Hungary), and Asia from Turkey to the Philippines. Even where pseudo-populist or quasi-fascist regimes have not come to power, political insurgencies have weakened established democracies in many places where it seemed secure, including Britain, France, and Germany. Authoritarian regimes have correspondingly increased their power and control.

There is a common feature in all these stories, and around the world in general. That is the growth of radical inequality in wealth between economic elites and the mass of populations, and a corresponding decline in state policies that, beginning in the late nineteenth century, had sought to mitigate the tendency to produce such a result—the tendency, across the board, of monopoly capital itself. Variously called welfarism or social democracy, these policies had produced unemployment and health insurance, guaranteed pensions, free public education, progressive taxation, and environmental controls. What they relied upon was governmental intervention to, if not level the playing field, at least keep it from tilting too dangerously.

The problem was that government itself was in elite hands, and that the party system tended to inhibit true structural reforms. Authoritarian regimes could in some cases mitigate inequality better than democracies. Soviet Russia replaced private with state capitalism, but the state, with its monopoly of both economic and political power, could and did place a floor of basic social services under the general population on which its legitimacy ultimately depended. When the USSR fell, these services collapsed or were in some cases privatized, with appalling results. The quasi-fascist regime of Juan Perón in Argentina maintained price stability through public subsidies, a policy continued for decades by his successors; the austerity introduced by the present incumbent has cut living standards catastrophically.

The point is that wherever unregulated or inadequately regulated capitalism prevails, socially destabilizing inequality results. Modern democracy has, in the long run, failed to deal with this. My conclusion is that, whatever the factors that historically joined it to capitalism, it must now decouple itself from it if it is to meaningfully function.

Why, though, is this critical to the crisis of climate change? Homo sapiens has survived extreme climate change before; civilized humanity has not, and humans as such have never faced a worldwide ecological crisis caused by themselves and which they alone can hope to address. To do this will require a global effort such as never envisioned before. That, in turn, will need a perception of humanity as a fundamentally collaborative enterprise in which the fate of one is the fate of all, and the value of each is also the value of all. Great religions have provided this sense, but religion itself is divided now, and political mechanisms are needed to translate values and commitments into action. Our modern sense of human rights and global community evolved from democratic principle. Without adherence to it now, we can have little hope of forging the consensus we will need to make some of the most difficult choices we have ever faced. And democracy, with all its inherent flaws, is the only political system that, working through transnational institutions, is capable of undertaking such a task. Autocracy, which by definition reflects the will of self-interested elites or even single individuals, cannot.

Donald Trump is a case in point. His overriding slogan is “America First,” and he has consistently denigrated the idea of international cooperation, most notably in his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. The Paris Accords are a mere promissory note, binding on no one. It is easy to deride them as toothless. But they were the first global recognition of the climate crisis, and as such a model of the collective action it will require. Trump’s withdrawal from them was, accordingly, the most backward step any world leader could take. It is also a prime example of what autocrats do. America First means Me First. And that, in this crisis, is a recipe for disaster.

Democracy alone, of course, won’t save us. Nor does it seem likely to become a universal model of governance in the foreseeable future, as some assured us only a generation ago. But it seems to me an indispensable tool. With it, nothing is guaranteed. Without it, though, our prospects are significantly bleaker.

About Robert Zaller 75 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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