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The Failure of Democracy

The Paradox of Democracy

“The first question of government is a question of trust. As Confucius told his disciple Tsze-Leung, three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hang on to all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand”. Onora O’Neill

“Our democracy and its media will rise and fall together” Joseph Pulitzer 

"When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.  Thomas Jefferson

Democracy is merely rule by the electable aristocracy.  Rousseau

A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always rely on the support of Paul.  George Bernard Shaw 

Democracy must be more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.  James Bovard  1996 

There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour. Benjamin Disraeli

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.    Plato, ancient Greek Philosopher

Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man and our politicians take advantage of this by pretending to be even more stupid than God made them.  Bertrand Russell, 1951

“No man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the legislature is in session”.   Mark Twain  1866. 

These are strange, heady days. As the American wit Will Rogers said long before the advent of Donald Trump:

            “people are now treating their comedians seriously and their politicians as a joke”.  John Ivison – National Post

According to Victor Ehrenberg, Democracy’s seminal origins may have germinated from 7thC Sparta’s Warrior Assembly against the resistance of kings and elders.   When the citizen soldiers loyal military might, saved the city state from invaders, they began to demand equal rights with the nobles.  “Tyretaeus used the words of Rhetra as the foundation of this ideal of eunomia, of good order, a satisfactory distribution of power and a loyal consensual attitude on the part of its citizens.” Sparta was never ruled by Tyrants.  

Early Mediterranean History demonstrates that the rise and fall of city states is determined by the degree of equality enjoyed by the general public.  Prosperity is tied to equality in areas of politics, economics, social standing and education. As soon as disparity becomes evident, faith, confidence and trust begin to erode and the city state begins its decline. 

The Athenians were the first to sort out their differences by way of rhetoric rather than by sword and shield. But the Greek city-state’s radical experiment of devolving kratos (or power) to the demos (the people) was better than the alternative; arbitrary rule by strongmen, or warlords, or eventually by kings who were no more than the strongest warlord left standing when the last throat had been cut. 

But the democracy, dating back to sixth century B.C. Athens, due to the genius of Solon, is not the same as the one we enjoy today.  It was direct participatory decision making rather than the representative one favoured by Western Civilisation.

Western democracy originates from the English Civil War from 1640 – 1660 where thousands of citizens died in a struggle between a monarch and his people over the divine right of kings.  

According to Professor Emeritus, John Klassen, Western democracy owes much to the ideas of the Englishman, John Locke, who formulated the basic ideas of modern democracy almost entirely in humanistic terms.  Humans established political society to protect all citizens equally.  He influenced proclamations such as the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Bill of Rights in 1791, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789. These texts articulate that humans elect an assembly of men to represent them and its laws are the will of the people. God exists, but government makes and enforces laws entirely for the public good without interest in religion. The insightful minds of the 17th and 18th centuries articulated principles that help hold a political community or nation together. Public officials from head of state to minor clerks undertook to uphold the political community’s basic principles and the will of its people as expressed in lawThese texts contain magnificent words written to describe what it means to be human. 

But after 200 years do we have a true democracy of the people, by the people and for the people?

The establishment is still cosy, and the vested interests are still active. A handful of powerful people still direct a lot of the traffic, and there is still far too much information suppressed by people who regard democracy as a rhetorical flourish.  Marni Cordell,  editor of Crikey.com

The critical issue in all forms of government is its commitment to public good.  A benevolent dictator is better than a democratically elected government that rules in the interests of a select few who put it into power.  Singapore is often held up as an example of an autocratic state that succeeds because it appears to put the interests of it citizens at a high level.

David Van Reybrouck believes the rise of Donald Trump, and Brexit indicate we are facing a major crisis of democracy - a democratic fatigue syndrome due to a fundamental disconnect between representative democracy and the people.  The symptoms he cites are low voter turn out, declining party membership and government paralysis.  

It is my contention that our representatives have lost control of how we are governed.  It has been usurped by vested interests beyond the reach of elected representatives. Barack Obama, despite good intentions has found it virtually impossible to change things.  Donald Trump claims he can fix the problem.

The Bush administration, Canada, Australia and England tend to elect governments who owe favours to powerful vested interests.  Murdoch, through his vast media empire, claims he decides which government is elected.  This debauches the will of the people.

As Mark Triffitt demonstrates below, one of the interesting facets of China’s political system today is that beneath the rock of China’s one-party state is a fascinating experiment in political innovation. In essence, the Chinese Communist Party (to avoid another Tiananmen Square) has been quietly instituting a major program of public participation and grassroots decision-making through town meetings, community-based assemblies and what we would recognise in the West as large-scale focus groups. 

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis points out the deficiencies of our present day political systems:

There is no doubt that most politicians are well intentioned but the way our system currently works means that their focus is too often on winning and retaining office: the electioneering imperative.  Democracy is not elections, even though every manual on the subject tells us otherwise. Campaigning and electioneering now are so synonymous with democracy, we can't imagine anything else. We've lost sight of how democracy was originally conceived.

The American Founding fathers may have broken the shackles of monarchy, but they entrenched divisionary politics. They rejected 'democracy' - the Greek model of non-elected government - preferring a 'natural aristocracy' of elite, landed gentry, voted into office.

Increasingly the subject of rising doubt underlined by growing citizen distrust with elected representatives and governments across the majority of Western democracies.

“What I fear, Kevin Rudd said to Lateline’s Tony Jones, “not just in this country but other democracies, is that we slowly start to chip away at the credibility of the democratic process itself.”

Over the past two decades, citizens have been exiting en masse from political parties and participation. Perceptions of malaise and gridlock increase as our political system fails to grapple with the big public policy challenges of our time.

You can't fight for equality on the basis of one innate characteristic without signing up to the precept that we're all born equal.  One equals one.

"Australia has always had a powerful, if vaguely defined, belief that it was one of the most democratic countries in the world. There is sadness as well as irony in the fact that we were so convinced of our natural superiority in this respect that we needed the Queen's representative (in 1975) to show us how wrong we were," distinguished law professor Colin Howard QC  wrote.

"In the Victorian branch approx half of the membership is stacked, i.e the memberships are purely nominal and completely controlled by a faction or sub-faction. The situation in other states is not much better. The leadership ballot will be conducted by postal vote and the factional bosses will hoover up all the ballots from the stacks and fill them out.

 Like everything in the modern Labor party, this exercise in democracy will just be an illusion. The party itself is now little more than an illusion. There is not much there any more."   Tips and Rumours – Crikey  23/09/13

The hallmark of a true democracy is a government that acts in accordance with the will of the people, not a government whose preoccupation is to con its citizenry, whilst looking after its mates.

Part of the problem was that the extremely "narrow catchment of people going into Parliament had eliminated almost everyone who worked for a living": "This government does not belong to us."  To be elected, one needs tremendous resources, so only the wealthy get to represent us.

Assange on NSA

Julian Assange rejected the idea that the NSA/Snowden leaks put the public at threat, saying:

 Every time the press embarrasses the security establishment, shows they have been acting unlawfully, against what they have said to Congress or to the media, they trot out this old canard, that some speculative harm sometime in the future might happen, when we’re discussing harm that is happening right now, as a result of these abusive programmes.

The west in general is “getting pretty close in the practical elements” of a totalitarian regime.

It’s a threat to US democracy and to democracy more broadly in the west to have a surveillance apparatus on every single person that would have been the dream of East Germany.

What type of place is western democracy going to be? Is it going to be a place with a collapsing rule of law, with mass surveillance of entire populations? The west is becoming a place where the best and the brightest, who keep the government, hold the government to account, are ending up in asylum or in exile in other countries. We’ve seen that before with dictatorships in Latin America, with the Soviet Union, and it’s time it stops.

Leadership

We no longer practise capital punishment in prisons; we do it in politics.

Leaders are in short supply; they are either led by the nose, the polls, or followers - intent on obliging corporate sponsors, dodgy donors or rabid ideologues.

Much of this makes news; none of it is new.  Politics  is as old a profession as prostitution, but nowhere near as ethical.  Phillip Adams

Harold Evans, The Guardian, 21 October 2013:  

The media has a duty to scrutinise the use of power. No editor wants to give aid to murderous enemies, but abuses of power must be revealed.

Protecting the lives of its citizens is a first, sacred duty of government.

Reporting often exposes an ill that government has not recognised or been willing to acknowledge. The state is not omniscient or omnipotent. Nor is it unknown for government to conceal its own mistakes. I have not been impressed by the blather about "freedom of the press" surrounding the narcissistic Edward Snowden, but one point he made on 17 October bears examination: he had to do what he did, he argues, because the National Security Agency hierarchy required him to "report wrongdoing for those most responsible for it". True or false?  

But there is danger, too, when the respect due to "national security" is diluted by accusations that prove unsubstantiated. From the Pentagon Papers on, there is a whole history of authority crying wolf.

MARK TRIFFITT, Former political adviser and University of Melbourne academic.

Over the past two decades, citizens have been exiting en masse from political parties and participation. Perceptions of malaise and gridlock increase as our political system fails to grapple with the big public policy challenges of our time.

Better, more strategic leadership is seen as the solution to making what most believe to still be the optimal political system for the 21st century live up to its potential. But let's keep three things in mind here.

First, Western-style political systems and institutions -- derived as they are from 19th-century ideas about how politics should be organised -- are no longer optimal, nor even functional in the 21st century. Nor can they be rescued by the panacea of better leadership. This is because, over the last 20 years, these systems have become increasingly isolated from the world around them. As a result, they are increasingly unfit for their purpose for the 21st century.

Second, this isolation is the result of fundamental and irreversible changes to the configurations of political and economic activity that have occurred worldwide from the early 1990s onwards. The changes have particularly focused around the rapid global rollout and take-up of interconnected communications, notably the internet, combined with the rapid spread of liberal market systems on a global scale, otherwise known as globalisation.

The combined effects of globalisation and the massive take-up of virtual interconnectedness have super-sped, super-scaled and made super-complex the dynamics of political and economic activity. In effect, these fundamental changes have profoundly undercut the functionality of Western democracy.

Western democracy, otherwise known as liberal democracy, assumes the world around it will and always move in a comparatively slow, sequential way. This allows political leaders and elected representatives sufficient time to decide on policy and legislate for it in a deliberative fashion.

It also assumes the political party system will always be the best way to aggregate and adequately represent and respond to the political voices and concerns of its citizens. It assumes elected representatives and parliaments are the prime decision-makers and policymakers because they are best able to understand, anticipate and shape the world around them.

But in the context of globalisation and an exponential increase in connectedness, none of these organising principles apply with any consistency or coherency any longer. It has become nearly impossible for elected politicians and parliaments to know or anticipate what is going on in the super-fast and super-complex world that now surrounds them. It is also becoming more and more difficult for parliaments to create timely or coherent public policy or legislative frameworks to anticipate and manage major change, or command consensus around it.

Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult for political parties, organised as they are around 19th-century social and economic cleavages of class, geography and ideology, to relate to, let alone effectively represent, the rapidly changing, fragmenting political voices and endlessly reconfiguring political identities of a social media-driven citizenry.

Our democratic system is profoundly struggling to maintain functionality and legitimacy in the West.  A lot of people died as a result of the failure of European democracy in the 1930s. Democracy’s looking pretty ragged again these days, so we should be concerned about history repeating itself.

One of the interesting facets of China’s political system is that beneath the rock of China’s one-party state is a fascinating experiment in political innovation. In essence, the Chinese Communist Party has been quietly instituting a major program of public participation and grassroots decision-making through town meetings, community-based assemblies and what we would recognise in the West as large-scale focus groups.

This may not be democracy as the West knows it. But in a 21st century world that is increasingly bypassing parliaments and political parties, it may point to a future where political systems are judged more on direct public participation than adherence to 19th-century institutions and processes.

Now, when that argument has become the preserve of dissidents within this system, the foreign policy establishment has swung round to a near-gnostic view of intel, with more than a whiff of old Soviet-era logic. Not only are we not allowed to know what they know, we are not allowed to know what we don't know about what they know. Democracy and freedom must be preserved by their abnegation at a higher level -- entrusted to a series of guardians who will ensure its spirit only by traducing it at every opportunity. The contradictions of this have now become obvious to millions of people, which is why the defenders of the system have been reduced to spitting absurdity.

 How do we restore faith, confidence and trust in our democratic institutions?

We do need to provide resuscitation by breathing new life into our democracies.  

Perhaps the words of Albert Camus can console us:

"Although there is no reason to hope, that is no reason for despair."

The After Party

Founded by a number of Occupy activists, including  Occupy.com's lead investigative reporter Carl Gibson (@uncutcg), the After Party is seeking to breathe fresh life into American democracy itself.

"Last century's tactics have played themselves out," Gibson told Crikey . "It's one thing to point fingers and call people out. That's important, but we've been doing it for a while now, and nobody is taking us seriously. When they ask, 'So what are you doing about it?' we never have an answer."

More importantly, though, the system has become increasingly immune to marches, occupations and other tried but tired methods. "Loud and constant protests led to the US establishing child labour laws, a woman's right to vote and basic civil rights for black Americans," Gibson said. "They provided Americans with the eight-hour workday, paid overtime and the weekend. The thing is, though, all of these protests happened in a time when the government was still somewhat sensitive to the needs of their constituents."

But this, Gibson said, is no longer the case.

"Never before have we had a government so completely subservient to corporate power and so beholden to the rich," he said. He cited a recent Princeton University study that declared the US an oligarchy, rather than a democracy. "And in a complete absence of democracy," he said, "our protests have fallen on deaf ears.

"The reason we started the After Party is because we feel that the political realm has been unfairly monopolised by precisely such corporate special interests and big money. We aim to change that over time, starting at the local level."

"But I think we need revolutionaries and reformers equally," he said. "The revolutionaries provide the inspirational vision of what we want our ideal society to look like and the reformers achieve the small wins that add up to revolutionary success in the long-term."   Carl Gibson in Crikey.com 23/05/14

HL Mencken, declared, In a presidential election: 

‘all the odds were on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre’. It was the logic of democracy, he said, that the people would one day get their heart’s desire and put a ‘downright moron’ in the White House. 

While understandable, the widespread belief that George W Bush fulfilled Mencken’s prophecy has proved premature.”   The Shortlest Daily

Democracy is not threatened by the actions of a few, but the inactions of the many.






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