Posts Tagged ‘democratic deficit’

On democracy…

November 5, 2020

Warning: politics ahead.

It has been an interesting time for democracy lately…

Let’s get the old saw out of the way: it’s the least worst form of government, or the worst, bar all the others, allegedly. If you live in a democracy and you don’t like the government, in theory you can vote it out. On the other hand, “if voting made any difference, they’d have abolished it ages ago” – you would appear to be being offered a choice on election day, but does it make any real change possible? If you live in an autocracy or a dictatorship, things are rather different, as the good citizens of Belarus are currently discovering, and as the Egyptians found out to their cost a few years back.

It’s easy to see that in a democracy we enjoy more freedoms. We look back at some of the things that happened in the former Soviet Union, or what China has done in Tibet and is apparently doing to the Uighur minority in Xinjiang with shock and/or horror. Although the issue of freedom from versus freedom to is a thorny one, as Margaret Atwood and other writers have pointed out.

The Cold War, which some of my older readers will remember, allowed the West – which claims it ‘won’ said war – to sit on its high horse in defence of freedom and democracy, and because it wrote the narrative here, most of us believed it. But, as was evident at the time and still is, the West was no shining example to anywhere in the world, with the US war in Vietnam and south-east Asia, or its coup in Chile, to name just a couple of examples. Big, powerful nations use force to make other countries do what they want, whether they call themselves a democracy or not.

We may have the chance to vote in elections in a democracy, but how democratic is the electoral system in the UK? Or in the US, as recently demonstrated. The system can be, and is, rigged in many different ways. Both the US president and the UK prime minister have demonstrated a very cavalier approach to law and international treaties and agreements. Apparently we need ‘strong government’, which is guaranteed by the ‘first past the post’ system, which obtains in the UK and the US in different ways. But China has ‘strong government’, as also has Putin’s Russia.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that a very economically and politically successful nation in many ways, the Federal Republic of Germany, has a Basic Law and an electoral system that was largely designed by the victorious Western Allies after the Second World War, a system deemed good enough for the German people but not for British or US citizens. What makes for a stronger democracy? It may well be that a system which encourages co-operation between parties through the need to form coalition governments is stronger and more effective, as well as giving voters a greater feeling of being able to make a real choice and a real difference at the ballot box.

Disillusionment with the slanging match politics of Tory versus Labour, or Republican versus Democrat, leaves many people feeling utterly fed up with the system and plays into the hands of the so-called populists, whom many feel are on the slippery slope to fascism… And I am struck that this issue appears more of a problem in Anglo-Saxon (ie English-speaking) countries. What happens in the US can so easily infect us over here because we speak similar languages; other European nations are safer from the pollution, at least for a few years.

Another issue which is overlooked, I feel, is short-termism: democratically-elected governments rarely look beyond their four or five-year term, as their primary endeavour is to please electors and then be re-elected. So don’t rock any boats too much, especially towards the end of your mandate. And yet, it’s patent that most of the grievous problems facing our world at the moment need long-term vision and long-term plans to address them: pollution, climate change, limiting growth, poverty…

In an autocracy, there are no voters who need to be pleased or to be courted; a government can look ahead and make plans as far in the future as it likes. And it can make things happen very quickly, by directing people. I have no torch to carry for the Chinese government, but when it decided that the air pollution issue in Beijing was out of control, it took urgent and drastic action and made a real difference very rapidly. Then, it has recently decreed new measures to address pollution by 2050, which, unless the PRC disappears in the interim, it can make happen. And it has, after its initial cock-ups and concealment, wrestled far more effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic than any of the Western democracies. Just saying… How do you make long-term changes in a democracy?

Another problem for democracy is that it’s a very effective mask for capitalism to hide behind: we all get involved in choices, discussion, debate and elections, while behind the scenes the same old cabal of the rich and powerful pull all the strings and continue filling their pockets with money… you only have to read about the obscenity of the annual meetings of plutocrats at Davos every year. Money decides everything, and control of the mass media in the West is crucial. The overall narrative is as much under control in London and Washington as it is in Beijing or Moscow. Our media in the UK is largely owned by rich foreigners and tax-exiles, a situation unparalleled anywhere else. In the US, Facebook increasingly monopolises what passes for discussion and debate, and its clear preference for Trump, who will allow its tentacles to spread unrestricted, is pretty evident if one cares to look.

When I look at all of that, I feel the picture is pretty grim, really, and I don’t see how we get out of the mess. It may be too late to impose any meaningful controls or restrictions on social media. Monopolies in press, radio and TV could be broken up by a sufficiently determined government. Political parties in the US and the UK could set out with determination to address and rectify the current broken electoral system, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m a paid-up supporter of the Electoral Reform Society. In the end, to expect capitalism to have any real sense of social responsibility about what it’s doing to the planet is just a ridiculous contradiction in terms. And the UN is hardly in a position to start being a world government that the Chinese, Russian and American behemoths will obey.

A final question: just what, exactly, is the difference between what Trump is currently trying to do in the USA and what Lukashenka attempted recently in Belarus?

On frustration

March 13, 2019

Warning: politics ahead!

No-one now living in Britain can avoid the utter chaos surrounding the Brexit negotiations and manoeuvrings; it really does feel as if the lunatics are running the asylum at the moment. I’ve been clear enough in a number of posts about what I think of the whole business, and what I really want to happen. And, as someone who thinks a lot about politics and the state of the world, I’ve tried to make sense of what is really going on…

It is evident that millions were persuaded to vote to ‘take back control’; it is evident that millions wanted to give politicians of all hues a good kicking. And the desires of those millions appear to have been hijacked by cynical populists. It is worth looking at what lies behind the wish to ‘take back control’. It is clear that larger organisations: multi-national businesses, and also the European Union, exert rather more control over our lives than the national and local governments which we elect. Multi-national businesses find it relatively easy to hide behind a smokescreen, as well as producing the shiny-shiny stuff that they then make us covet through advertising; the nasty bureaucrats of Brussels are a much easier and more visible target who have given us what? – a court of human rights, better working conditions, environmental protection and I don’t know what else. But they have also facilitated – no, wholeheartedly embraced – neo-liberalism and globalism, and helped multinationals trample on us in all sorts of other ways… even if the European project survives, surely it has to change in response to the concerns of so many.

‘Taking back control’ is a nice, and meaningless form of words: ordinary people don’t have and never have had any power other than through withdrawing their labour, and those politicians urging us to take back control have been at the forefront of limiting ordinary people’s right to strike.

Giving politicians a good kicking seems to me a laudable aim at the moment: in my time I have gradually seen the notion of public service demeaned and denigrated, insulted and diminished, and not just by those of a Thatcherite persuasion, but by many who should know better. Too many politicians are now mere venal careerists with their snouts in the trough – and I’m not just referring to my own country although that is the one I know best. And yet, the opportunities for giving those politicians a meaningful kicking are non-existent, particularly in our antediluvian electoral system. Cue the populists and faragists and other mischief-makers who exploit popular frustrations, but have no solutions to offer and are merely edging their snouts nearer the trough…

The right wing are making hay at the moment, unsurprisingly, because it’s always easier to shout abuse, find scapegoats and cause trouble than it is to come up with clear and feasible ideas that might make a real difference. The left has undergone a crisis over the last twenty or thirty years, as a result of the deliberate unleashing and encouraging of selfishness during the Thatcherite era; it cannot counter the waves of shiny-shiny stuff everyone is supposed to be able to buy now that they pay far less in tax and are therefore so much more in control of ‘their’ money. The left does not seem to be able to find an analysis that will allow it to propose a society that takes care of all of its members, nor to convince people that if they want good quality public services, pensions, social care and the like then it does have to be paid for, and that it is worth paying for. Meanwhile some died-in-the-wool dreamers of a new Jerusalem want everything to get far worse so that they can then make it better?

The final elephant in the room behind our Brexit chaos is of course immigration, and refugees, and it’s here that the real nastiness comes out of the woodwork. We could go a very long way towards diminishing the numbers of refugees and their desire to come to the West by not creating the conditions that make them leave their homelands in the first place – by not attacking their countries, fighting our wars in their countries, selling weapons to them and other countries who fight wars in their countries. Immigration is a rather more difficult issue. It’s easy enough to demonstrate factually the economic benefits of immigration. But when people in small towns feel as if there are too many non-natives around, what can we say? There is surely added pressure on jobs, schools and health services: here, neo-liberalism, austerity and the long-cultivated unwillingness to pay taxes are largely to blame. It ought to be possible to encourage greater integration of immigrants, but we are a small island, a much smaller country than Germany or France. And would we not have a better chance of addressing such issues working together with our European neighbours? It is also clear – although not widely known – that current European legislation would allow us here in Britain to do much that we have been told we need to ‘take back control’ in order to do.

Where I’ve got to is my usual paralysed understanding of the issues and what is going on, coupled with the inability to do anything, or to see a way out of the mess.

Robert & Edward Skidelsky: How Much Is Enough?

February 1, 2014

9780241953891A serious read, here, on a topic which exercises my mind a lot: how do we try and make a more sensible and fairer world? Though I have to admit, it feels largely academic now, as I’m hardly likely to get to live an a better, fairer world now, whereas I felt rather more radical and even revolutionary in my younger years.

The Skidelskys’ detailed review of economists and economic history leads to a summary of how we are all now stuck and embedded in a capitalist society from which there seems to be no escape. Adam Smith once described capitalism as “wrapping up selfishness in impartiality“, which I think is an excellent summary. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘stationary state’, which I’d not come across before, the idea being that development and wealth reaches a point at which we decide to stop, rather than go further, and instead focus on different things, and the Skidelskys explore what thinkers through the ages have meant by a ‘good life’. As public life has been moved out of the sphere of morality, there is no longer any distinction between needs and wants, between necessities and luxuries, no clear idea of what constitutes ‘enough’, leading to the disappearance of the idea of avarice, which was the subject of much moral stricture in the past. The key period seems to have been the Thatcher/Reagan years, when the restraints on individual greed were cast aside.

When I was much younger, economists wrote about how the working week was going to be reduced drastically as technology increasingly made our lives easier, and we would have so much more time for leisure; this hasn’t happened, and people seem to have to work harder than ever before. Meanwhile, leisure activities are made increasingly expensive as we are persuaded we need so many expensive gadgets and so much kit in order to pursue even the simplest activity, such as walking in the countryside. Thus, profit can be made from those at leisure, just as much as from those working…

The key word in the book, as it has been for me for a long while, is ‘enough’. Modern capitalism convinces us that there never can be enough: this is a twentieth century development. Our material wants, apparently, “know no natural bounds”, and the concept ‘enough’ has no application to money, if you think about it, as opposed to actual goods.

For me, the central point is that currently everything is totally focused on individual choice and individual freedom, forgetting that we are by nature a social species: individual autonomy should be merely one good among all the others, rather than the sole determinant.

There is a very interesting and thought-provoking chapter on environmentalism, which has me questioning some long-held beliefs, but when the authors come to discussing the issue of happiness, I think they are chasing the wrong hare, and really believe that we need to examine the question of contentment instead; I don’t think the difference is merely semantic.

When it comes to suggestions for what should actually be done, the book is at its thinnest: there are some ideas, including the notion of taxing consumption rather than income, which bears scrutiny. What needs to be done as a matter of urgency, it seems to me, is to address the question of democratic deficit: the idea that people have given up on politics and politicians because these are seen as having no power to effect change, given that business and corporations rule the world and dictate to governments.

In the end, the book is a provocative and stimulating read, which will probably be sidelined and ignored.

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