Democracy, Capitalism, and Conceptual Traps


We in the West, especially in the U.S., are caught in a conceptual trap that prevents us from seeing our democratic, capitalist system with open eyes. This in turn weakens our ability to protect what we like and repair that which is broken. The conceptual trap is of our own making, but it is the most powerful weapon in our enemies’ arsenal.

In a discussion of the century of misclassification of Burgess shale fossils, Gould refers to being “trapped in the concept” that “old” implies “primitive” (and less diverse) [Wonderful Life 120]. When concepts become so accepted as being “obvious” that they are no longer evaluated because they are considered true by definition, then one has equated an arbitrary human mental structure with reality. That equation transforms the concept from a brilliant cognitive tool into a trap. The assumption that the tree of life sports branches of increasing variation and sophistication over evolutionary time has an analogy in political science that exactly matches in part and, in another part, is the reverse: over “civilizational” time, the tree of governing forms gets more sophisticated [e.g., tribal to feudal to democratic] but less diverse [eventually, we will all be democratic, if not citizens of a global capitalist superpower].

It is perfectly reasonable for anyone to make the argument that the world is heading toward global capitalist democracy; it is definitely not reasonable to assume this to be the case. Any number of alternatives are also supported by a large body of empirical evidence, including the possibility that the world is headed for corporate fascist dictatorship, just to name one. We do not know where we are headed, and we owe it to ourselves to examine the various possibilities to lay the foundation for doing what we can to influence the outcome. Only two alternatives are unacceptable: dismissing the whole issue and assuming that we know the answer. Both choices, for those who care about where human society is headed, would be irrational.

Yet the ruling elite in the U.S. and much if not all of the West assumes democracy–the brand-new shiny Western choice–to be the highest branch on the evolutionary tree of governance. And the ruling elite, certainly in the U.S. and arguably in most of the rest of the West, further assumes capitalism to be the most sophisticated form of economic management, despite the huge body of evidence pointing to nearly unbearable flaws in both capitalist theory and practice. The fact that the thinking public–even in the West–broadly disagrees with the ruling elite over the relative merits of capitalism vs. democratic socialism and the further fact that significant portions of the thinking public outside of the West further questions the merits of Western-style representative democracy should suffice to induce us to question the facile Western elite assumptions that the evolution of governance, both political and economic, is proceeding on a straight track from primitive to sophisticated and (the inverse of the old assumption of paleontologists way back in the period from Darwin to the 1970s) from a diversity of governing forms toward a single form. If one examines the evidence more deeply, the theoretical foundations of Western assumptions of superiority prove even more cracked and chipped. To cite just one example no doubt overlooked by most Western leaders, Iranian Shi’i thinking on issues of local governance (e.g., the moral foundations of contract law) are quite sophisticated.

This conceptual trap of our leaders has very real consequences. To the degree that our leaders assume, without question, that our current governing structure is the wave of the future, all other candidate structures are automatically dismissed as unworthy and (almost in the same breath) as meriting destruction. These assumptions imply justification of a degree of antagonism that is both expensive and quite possibly self-defeating. No matter how bad one deems Stalinism to have been, and I follow the lead of Solzhenitsyn in making that evaluation, the fact remains that the idea of providing social services is not bad just because it was implemented by Stalin. Might one also find some redeeming features in current Islamic thought about governance? Might Islamic thinking have some useful insights concerning, for example, an area of governance currently being exposed as obviously unsophisticated, indeed “primitive,” i.e., the relationship between government regulators and Big Finance [see Senator Warren’s statement of concern about the possibility that certain corporations are being viewed as “too big for trial”?

We do not know the answer. We cannot…as long as we remain caught in a conceptual trap of our own making.

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