The Treasure

by digby

I somehow missed this classic post from Tbogg from two years ago. I wish I hadn't. It would have gotten me through some very annoying moments in recent times.

For the less pithily inclined, I must recommend this wonderful piece by Chris Hayes, which I will discuss in greater depth over the next few days. I will just excerpt this little bit right now for those of you who are inclined to spend hours in my comment section throwing around snotty remarks drenched in puerile cynicism about how it is silly to even bother, when everything and everyone is hopelessly corrupt:

[T]he corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social illness that I noted above, a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the oligarchs that it is in their interest--and increasingly, that's the only kind of change we can get.

In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties. He was motivated by a simple question: why were parties of the left, those most ideologically committed to democracy and participation, as oligarchical in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right?

Michels's answer was what he called "The Iron Law of Oligarchy." In order for any kind of party or, indeed, any institution with a democratic base to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. As this bureaucratic structure develops, it invests a small group of people with enough power that they can then subvert the very mechanisms by which they can be held to account: the party press, party conventions and delegate votes. "It is organization which gives birth to the domination of the elected over the electors," he wrote, "of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy."

Michels recognized the challenge his work presented to his comrades on the left and viewed the task of democratic socialists as a kind of noble, endless, Sisyphean endeavor, which he described by invoking a German fable. In it, a dying peasant tells his sons that he has buried a treasure in their fields. "After the old man's death the sons dig everywhere in order to discover the treasure. They do not find it. But their indefatigable labor improves the soil and secures for them a comparative well-being."

"The treasure in the fable may well symbolize democracy," Michels wrote. "Democracy is a treasure which no one will ever discover by deliberate search. But in continuing our search, in laboring indefatigably to discover the undiscoverable, we shall perform a work which will have fertile results in the democratic sense."

It's indisputably true that the political system is run by wealthy plutocrats and much of what passes for democracy is kabuki. Same as it ever was, I'm afraid. But that's not exactly the point. It's still worth participating, doing what you can, containing the damage, stopping the bleeding, fighting the fight --- for its own sake. After all, history shows that humans have managed, somehow, to actually make progress over time. You just can't know what will make the difference.

If you don't think that's worth anything, however, you do have a choice. The obvious alternative, as PinNC wrote in TBOGG's comments, is this:
If you really think that the political system is broken beyond repair, you have a blueprint from the 1770s to help you out.

Pick up your muskets, kids, or STFU.