Is Democracy Hitting the Fossil Fuels too Hard?

Fossil fuels have allowed for a modernity that places a stronger inclination on the various guises of narcissism than on genuine civic participation

Over the past few weeks the notion of democracy has been getting its fair share of attention in the media, and quite rightfully so; Greece had a referendum on whether or not it was going to accept new terms for another round of bailout funds in exchange for the prolongment of austerity measures and the continuation of its debt peonage.

That this was a welcome occurrence is thanks to the short shrift that the term "democracy" has been getting the past few years, and I'm not just talking about neoliberals claiming to bring "democracy" to Middle East countries and such. What I'm talking about is how the term "democratization" has been continually added willy-nilly to just about every new technology that comes along: there's been the democratization of cell phones, of high-speed Internet access, of automobiles, and much more. So rather than "democratization" implying the beneficence of freedom upon a people, it now generally means the accessibility and wide adoption of the latest consumer gimmick by the masses.

Democracy, however, did not start out as a device for unfettered consumption, but rather implied a government assembled by the people through freely elected representatives. So it was therefore a welcome relief to hear Greece's prime minister stating the other day after the recent referendum that "Today we celebrate the victory of democracy. We proved even in the most difficult circumstances that democracy won't be blackmailed," for that was in fact an exercise in democracy.

Nonetheless, with some commentators going so far as to claim that we are seeing an "epic battle for the future of European democracy," one could be forgiven for thinking that the Greek crisis has spurred on what might be called "democracy at the crossroads." For in a somewhat similar manner, an article entitled "Europe Doesn't Have a Debt Crisis – it has a Debt Crisis" goes on to examine a piece by author Wolfgang Merkel: "Is Capitalism Compatible with Democracy?" In it, Merkel makes the claim that "the crisis of capitalism threatens to turn into a crisis of democracy." What does that mean? From what Merkel explains, "an interventionist tax and welfare state was able to belay the tensions between capitalism and democracy," but which has since resulted in "the financialization of capitalism [which] since the 1980s [has been breaking] the precarious capitalist-democratic compromise." True enough. For as Merkel also explains, "deregulated globalized markets have seriously inhibited the ability of democratic governments to govern." This can be seen in many ways, be it Structural Adjustment Programs forced upon 3rd World countries, or free trade agreements (of which are oftentimes orchestrated behind closed doors) foisted upon the better-off nations.

That all being said, there is the notion out there that democracy itself poses a problem. As William Ophuls puts it in his short, yet very insightful book Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail,

In the end, mastering the historical process would require human beings to master themselves, something they are far from achieving. (This is why democracy, considered by some to be an asset in the struggle against the forces that challenge industrial civilization, is in fact a liability.)

As Ophuls describes it, a democracy is a particular liability in this time of collapsing industrial civilization due to a lack of mastery we have over ourselves. This "mastery" can take the guise of many forms (and is fodder for books of its own), but I think that a quick stroll down most any street and an observance of all the advertising around is enough to validate the notion that we certainly haven't mastered ourselves. Nonetheless, I do wonder if it's fair to say that democracy is the problem, and if it might then be more appropriate to instead combine Merkel's and Ophuls' statements so that together they read: "the crisis of industrial civilization threatens to turn into a crisis of democracy."

First off, that neatly rids us of the distraction of squabbling over right wing vs. left wing, free-market capitalism vs. state capitalism (aka communism), and rightfully lumps both sides of that argument under industrialism. Secondly, by insinuating that the supposed crisis of democracy is due to a crisis of industrial civilization, then we are able to ponder about what, if anything, might a crisis of industrial civilization be. And the answer to that, fortunately, is easy enough. The crisis that industrial civilization is facing is one that gets to its very core – a shortage of fossil fuels.

Since fossil fuels – and specifically oil – are currently peaking, this means that there will be less and less of the "lifeblood" that makes industrial civilization "go." As an early example of this we can take a look at Greece which, for various reasons, is lacking an adequate supply of fossil fuels to make its modern industrial civilization run at mid- to late-20th century levels. This is no small issue. With seemingly very few people aware of the underlying issues affecting Greece, and with much denial going on as well, an immense amount of confusion, dissatisfaction, frustration, and worse, will likely occur and escalate as the crisis in Greece makes its inevitable jaunt across the globe. This is where the crisis of democracy enters.

First off, democracy has been around for much longer than the copious use of fossil fuels, dating all the way back to ancient Greece. Secondly, democracy entails a citizenry with enough surplus energy so that it may have the time and opportunity to govern itself. Although ancient Athens didn't have fossil fuels, what it did have was the energy of slaves.

While slavery has been a vital component and institution of human societies throughout history, those with a penchant for optimism are quick to point out that slavery was eliminated some 200 years or so ago in developed parts of the world. But putting aside that there are actually more slaves today than at any other time in history (although there's also a larger population today than at any time in history), this generally accepted notion of enlightened progress overlooks one crucial point: the energy of slaves was replaced with the energy of fossil fuels.

Thanks to the improvements upon the steam engine by James Watt in the late 1700s, the conferred ability to pump water out of coal mines allowed for greater extraction (and use) of coal, and thus triggered the Industrial Revolution. In short, the "cheap" energy extracted from deep mines thus enabled a machine enabled to do more work than a human via manual labour. In strict monetary terms, to a large degree this made slavery uneconomic. Meanwhile, congruent to their powering of the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuel usage also led to and allowed for various social and political changes, such as demands for greater equality and, no less, democracy.

As the 19th and 20th centuries progressed, increasing fossil fuels in the form of coal, then oil, then natural gas also allowed for the reduction, if not elimination, of such things as child labour, poor working conditions, and low living standards. This rising prosperity allowed for the emergence of what is called "the middle class," and led to political campaigns for strong labour unions and ever-expanding public projects – in the form of hospitals, schools, highways, and more.

But with oil supplies now hitting their peak, the fossil fuels that have allowed for our current experience of democracy will be putting the very foundation of our modern way of life into question – and for some people it already is.

(photo by Aleksandr Zykov)

To a certain extent, it might be said then that Greece, the birthplace of democracy, is turning out to be a bit of a litmus test in regards to how the crisis of industrial civilization will play out and effect our modern variant of democracy. Are we to realize the fundamental factors behind crises such as that currently besetting Greece, or are we to stick to our outdated and ultimately distracting notions of right wing vs. left wing, 1% vs. 99%, etc.?

As stated by Greece's defence minister and head of Independent Greeks (the coalition member of Syriza), "I want to state clearly, I am not afraid of Grexit [but] I am afraid of one thing: national division and civil war." In other words, there are already those in office publicly recognizing possible unfortunate outcomes of industrial civilization's crisis. But are those such as Greece's defence minister aware of what the crisis is truly about? I'm not so sure about that, and it appears that although circumstances such as those described by Greece's defence minister have once again been averted (what with Greece's third loan package just agreed to the other day), one might wonder if they've just been delayed to another day when loans and subsidies and bailouts and bailins are no longer possible and so make unwanted crises inevitable.

Nonetheless, the possibility still exists that a lower energy future will see significant amounts of political power move back from the centres to the peripheries as lower energy supplies stifle the grip on power by central governments. If so, then there's a chance that we can re-establish an inclination for local governance and not only maintain some of our political structures, but the social progress we've made while on those fossil fuels.

But seeing how alternatives to democracy – such as the heavy hand of an autocratic ruler and/or state – certainly don't guarantee a merry ride through the collapse of industrial civilization, it's probably a bit of a stretch to single out democracy as a liability.

Do our chances with democracy look good at the moment? I'll leave it to you to answer that for yourself, but I'd nonetheless say that it's fair to point out that fossil fuels have allowed for a lackadaisy modern way of life that places an overwhelmingly stronger inclination on the various guises of narcissism than on genuine civic participation.

That being said, I know that I'd certainly prefer to face our civilizational collapse with at least a chance at a fair share of freedom, as opposed to what the alternatives might imply. And if living, for now, in our modern-day, fossil-fuelled democracy means having to live amongst "the culture of narcissism," then at least I can choose to not own a remote control or a season's pass.

A former filmmaker, now jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion and the renewal of culture. .