Hierarchic Democracy

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Professor Ted Honderich
Professor Ted Honderich (1933 – )
Professor Robin Blackburn
Professor Robin Blackburn (1940 – )
Conway Memorial Lecture
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.

and the Necessity of Mass Civil Disobedience

Delivered at Conway Hall 8 December 1994. Chaired by Professor Robin Blackburn and presented by Professor Ted Honderich.

Contrary to the so-called Ordinary Conception of liberal democracy, government policy often diverges from that initially promised by the government’s chosen representatives. Also, the choosing of those representatives is done, not by individuals but by interest-groups.

The Pluralist Conception of liberal democracy overlaps with the Ordinary Conception, placing a special emphasis on a general notion of equality. However, income levels in liberal democracies are extremely unequal, with the top tenth of the population having at least 30 times the economic power of the bottom tenth. Economic power correlates with political power: people in the one sphere join forces with people in the other. Hence there are huge gaps in the degree of political power exerted by different economic groups.

These considerations lead to the more realistic Hierarchic Conception of liberal democracy. On the domestic front, hierarchic factors produce widespread frustration of basic human needs and hopes. As regards foreign policy, governments seek to establish hierarchic forms of democracy in other countries when this suits them, but otherwise support dictatorship and oligarchy.

To counter-act these tendencies, what is needed is a Principle of Equality, a principle which is not to be identified with the Communist system of so-called people’s democracies. Further, constructive and effective opposition to hierarchic democracy should take the form of mass civil disobedience and non-co-operation. Past examples of this include the civil rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s and the recent demonstrations in Eastern Europe which helped bring down theCommunist regimes. Civil disobedience puts definite pressure on governments, and openly asserts a moral position. It should include refusing to pay taxes, striking and marching illegally, and not buying the products of the big corporations, whose power undermines representative democracy.

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