Beginning in the early 1920s, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin propelled the Soviet Union into a centrally-planned industrial economy, ordering the construction of dozens of power plants and the electrification of industry. After the Wehrmacht invaded in 1941, the planned economy was ready to be re-purposed for war production, without essentially changing its character. After the German surrender, the Soviet Union rose to become the world’s second superpower, but the planners were losing their grip. By the time Ronald Reagan entered office, the planned economy, choking with its own unmanageable complexity, stifling all individual initiative, and falling behind, was crumbling badly.
In a world of increasingly complex technology and increasingly complex interrelationships, where effective private action was becoming increasingly important, the Soviets were committed to a trajectory of failure.
The genius of the capitalist system, such as it is, is to permit thousand of economic actors to ferret out and exploit areas of need, want, and desire, through profit-making business ventures organized to supply products and services as the opportunities arise.
Of course, even capitalists are can be reined in or called to account. Avenues of profitable exploitation, from drugs and prostitution to the convenient disposal of industrial waste in rivers and streams, are cut off by central authorities. And only a few think we would be better off were this not so.
Democracy might be thought of as a system where thousands of political actors are permitted to ferret out and exploit areas of grievance, greed, and zealotry, through office-seeking careers that promise to deliver a voice and recognition, as opportunities arise.
Unlike capitalists, activists and politicians are hardly restrained at all. From the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, to the Students for Democratic Action and the Weathermen, to Richard Mellon Scaife and Karl Rove, political actors very often bring more heat than light, as the saying goes.
But the genius of democracy is in no small part its ability to give every faction, no matter how wrong it is, a voice of some kind, so long as it is a large enough faction to be an electoral factor. And any faction that does not meet that threshold is in any case too small to endanger national stability if ignored.
Absent an existential crisis, democracy as we understand it is a battle of private agendas flying flags of public ideals, the institutions of government the battleground. But multifarious private agendas do not necessarily lead to effective public action.
In a world of competing nation-states, volatile finance, and environmental danger, where effective public action is increasingly important and increasingly difficult, it is right and prudent to think hard about what trajectory the world’s established democracies are on, and whether democracy as we now understand it can, and should, survive.