Friday, February 18, 2011

Revision of Prompt 2

While the definitions of democracy for Butler and Marcuse may differ slightly, it seems that both have a negative view of the state of our current democracy. As we discussed in class, Marcuse sees America’s political system, which would certainly be described as democratic by many, as being nothing more than a starved shadow of true democracy. In his text Marcuse describes a study done about the election of 1952 in which the authors set up an operational definition of democracy. The general idea of this definition is that democracy can be defined as a system in which two parties or candidates compete for public positions by trying to win over the opinions of the electorate. The election must be fair in that both parties must honestly try to win, or at least to better their chances in this election as well as future elections. Marcuse’s question, however, is whether or not true democracy can be defined simply by the party lines of two competing candidates. This establishes a trend which mandates that the electorate must decide between what is put in front of them and must disregard any thoughts of their own about what they would value in a public official if these thoughts do not fit neatly into one of the two party’s thoughts. As Marcuse states, this means, “The established parties themselves, their policies, and their machinations are not questioned as far as the vital issues are concerned…” (118)

Marcuse, however, would describe democracy in a way that “defines the historical intent of democracy.” (117) In a democracy it should be “the electorate which imposes its directives on the representatives.” (117) It should also be the case that the electorate is made up of “individuals liberated from all propaganda, indoctrination, and manipulation, capable of knowing and comprehending the facts and of evaluating the alternatives.” (252) Certainly an electorate that is forced to pick from two parties whose policies do not consistently reflect the opinions and desires of the majority of Americans cannot be said to be a free electorate. Marcuse notes that the historical definition of democracy cannot be realistically applied to a modern “democracy”; I do not believe, however, that this changes his opinion of the definition of true democracy. This simply means that Marcuse does not view modern democracies as true democracies and sees the word democracy as misapplied.

As well as stating his definition of democracy, Marcuse also provides a few general ideas on how modern democracies can become true democracies. He states that society “can become democratic only through the abolition of mass democracy, i.e., if society has succeeded in restoring the prerogatives of privacy by granting them to all and protecting them for each.” (244) Marcuse believes that as society has grown, it has taken away the individual’s ability to isolate himself and form independent thoughts. I believe this is a comment particularly directed at modern advertising, as Marcuse also states that when individuals do produce speech or writing, they “also speak the language of their masters, benefactors, advertisers.” (193) In order for our democracy to truly change, individuals need to become “the ferment of social change” as opposed to “the ferment of social cohesion.” (256) This change can only be accomplished by abolishing our current systems of advertising and government, which manipulate individuals into working for and protecting the status quo. These statements also serve to reinforce Marcuse’s argument that a true democracy is one in which individuals are free from indoctrination.

I believe Butler would accept a democracy that looks much more like our current system, but one that maintains the importance of a free electorate and minimizes corporate power and greed. In Parable of the Sower Butler describes the death of American politics more than she describes what the political system would ideally look like, but I believe that to Butler it would be extremely important that the voices of the electorate are heard and that the general well-being of the population is looked after. Although the characters in the novel idealize “the order, wealth, and glory of the twentieth century,” I think that Butler is using a dystopian future to comment on the path our current democracy is taking. (20) Mr. Olamina may feel that the 90s were a time of prosperity and success, but I think that Butler really believes that society’s success during that time was only masking a flawed system of democracy that will eventually lead to a country in chaos and run by large corporations.

In Butler’s California of the 2020’s politicians are nothing more than “a symbol of the past for [citizens] to hold on to as [they’re] pushed into the future.” (56) Again, she is describing a system where government has essentially lost all of its power to defend its citizens. Americans have becomes literal slaves to corporations, and due to a deterioration of the environment, have also become slaves to the extreme scarcity and high prices of necessary resources such as water. As we discussed in class, Butler was also probably influenced by the Rodney King Riots of the early 1990’s, and the ineffectiveness of the police is a major flaw in Lauren’s California. Her father states that the police “may be able to avenge you, but they can’t protect you.” (39) Because of this fact, American citizens are forced to protect themselves from the expanding number of thieves, murderers, and arsonists, leading only to more chaos and even less respect for the government.

When looked at as a whole, the government Butler is describing could come about from a dangerous downward spiral that could start with a democracy just like the one we have today. The more power government gives to corporations, the more the economy and thus the entire country becomes ruled by a desire to promote the interests of a few corporate executives and less by a desire to do what is best for the general population. The best example of this in Parable of the Sower is the company KFS which has taken over the town of Olivar. Although its seems to many that this corporation will help the seaside community, it is clear to Lauren and her father that KFS will turn its employees into slaves in a country where “Labor laws, state and federal, are not what they once were.” (121) Corporate greed can also have detrimental effects on the environment, as companies do not always consider how their decisions will affect the environment as long as the decision leads to a profit. Without a strong government to regulate corporate decisions, the negative effects that plants and factories can have on the environment can translate into fewer natural resources for the general population. Citizens are then vulnerable to whichever body owns and distributes these resources. If this body is a corporation as opposed to the government, citizens become even further dependent on corporations. Government organizations, such as police departments and fire departments, will also lose power, and could theoretically become the police and fire departments of Lauren’s world: organizations hardly better than gangs that charge citizens exorbitant fees for services that should be paid for through taxes.

Based on this description of the path that could lead from our democracy to Lauren Olamina’s “democracy,” I believe that Butler’s ideal democracy would be set up like our current democracy, but would enforce stricter regulation on corporations and on environmental issues. I also think that Butler would be in favor of keeping more power in the hands of elected officials so that people who have a responsibility to the electorate are making decisions.

When looked at through the eyes of these two authors, our democracy seems inadequate and headed down a dangerous path. It is clear that Marcuse believes that the two-party system leads to an anemic version of true democracy, and while we may call our political system a world model for a modern democracy, a closer analysis shows that we can be as easily manipulated by our system as citizens of an authoritarian system can be by their dictator. Marcuse provides a general solution to the problem of the two-party system, although he does clearly state that the ideal democracy is an impractical system for a society such as the modern Western society. This makes his ideal less applicable to our society than Butler’s, as he himself states that it would be extremely difficult for our society to reach the ideal.

Butler’s ideal democracy seems more attainable based on the standards she sets in the novel. The fact that Butler describes her ideal democracy as a democracy that resembles our present political system certainly makes it more applicable to our society. I can easily see the importance of a free electorate when I look at the electorate of 2027 and see that it has lost its freedom to literal slavery, and then look at our own political system and can already see how politicians often value the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals. I can also see the importance of a democracy that looks after the general well being of its citizens when I look at Lauren’s world, which is riddled with drug addicts and homeless dying of starvation and infection, and then look at our society, which still does not support all of its citizens through an affordable health care system.

Although Marcuse’s definition seems philosophically sound, and it is somewhat frightening to imagine our current democracy developing into the “democracy” that is represented in Parable of the Sower, I believe that the definition of democracy that Butler provides in her novel is extremely important because it provides a cautious look at the world that could prevent us from creating a similar type of “democracy” for ourselves.


  1. I'm going to try to keep my comments short, because the only critique I have to offer is structural/conceptual in nature.

    From beginning to end, your reading of Marcuse and Butler is rigorous, thoughtful, and productive. You know both authors well, and read them fluidly, in their complexity, without any attempt to simplify either one. If I had written the prompt: "Describe Marcuse and Butler's critique of contemporary democracy in five pages or less", I can't imagine a better response.

    As in the first draft, though, you seem to have a degree of reluctance when it comes to articulating your own position. At the end of the day, you are arguing that Butler's critique is better, or perhaps more practical, than Marcuse's - but are you adopting her critique as your own? You imply it, but never really say it. Why? Do you see a problem in her position? If so, why aren't you exploring it?

    Obviously, establishing a firm position when you're conflicted is difficult. When way to do so is by broadening the sphere of your research - which was required, but which you didn't do. Research into what? Into democracy, operationalism, utopian thought, *Butler's* utopian thought, *Marcuse's* utopian thought, environmental/corporate law - any of a hundred things could have helped you clarify your own position.

    Short version: a truly outstanding reading of Marcuse and Butler (I think I learned some things from your reading of Marcuse), which doesn't have a clear enough direction (although your direction/purpose is by no means absent, either), which is flawed by the lack of research.

  2. I thought this was written very well and you obviously know the material. I also like how you organized it by stating Marcuse's view, then Butler's, then your opinion, and then went back to Marcuse to show your awareness of the possible counterargument. Although, for some reason, I find the 4th to last paragraph awkward. It may be just me, but I feel as though it hurts the flow of the writing.

    My only thing is that it seems you did not find an outside source. Maybe you could find an article from someone who has their opinion on today's political system or where it may go from here in the future and could be compared to Butler.