Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Is democracy receding?

A perfect storm is brewing for democracy: globalisation, immigration, populism, wealth inequality the 2008 economic recession, the Iraq War’s legacy and a rising China. Yet everyone seems comfortable with this transition.

People say "left" and "right" are defunct, to be replaced by the binary of nationalism and globalism. But this is simply the trick of the civil service to whom society has outgrown politics and requires something more mature. Yet headless civil service government has no institutional pressure for efficiency and its interests are not ours. Everyone seems comfortable with this, too.

Ultimately, words mean whatever we want them to. But if the phrase “representative democracy” is interpreted to mean a political system in which power is held by representatives of the people chosen in democratic elections, the US is a representative democracy in the same way the Roman Empire was a republic, the United Kingdom is a kingdom and the Chinese Communist Party is communist.

In this new format, democracy can never lose if it is defined as "democracy that works." So when it doesn't work, it isn't democracy. Democracy that does work always seems to have quite a large element of the rule of law making it look remarkably like an aristocracy. The trouble is that the democratic forms are still there. And everyone still believes in them. Niccolò Machiavelli said it best:

"He who desires or attempts to reform the government of a state, and wishes to have it accepted and capable of maintaining itself to the satisfaction of everybody, must at least retain the semblance of the old forms; so that it may seem to the people that there has been no change in the institutions, even though in fact they are entirely different from the old ones. For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often even more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are."

Consider what many people think of the words political, partisan, politician and so on. Politics is never healthy. Donald Trump has “politicised” the Justice Department, which is a brutal indictment. If people hated black people the way they hate politics, they might say Trump negroised the Justice Department. The phrase would carry the same payload of contempt.

Progressives worry Trump poses not just a threat to democracy, but some sort of regime change. I must say, it is quite ballsy of progressives, who believe in an ideology that destroyed all the old regimes in the world through more or less violent revolution, to suddenly declare regime change as fundamentally evil and impossible.

By 19th century standards, all Westerners today support one party: the party of the permanent civil service. If you count journalists as civil servants, regardless of the nominally private status of their employers (is there much difference between working for CNN, TVNZ or the BBC?), it’s obvious how pervasive and successful this party is. There are fewer major policy disagreements between left-wing and right-wing parties today than within any pre-1932 party. So something certainly has changed.

Nowadays, young ambitious people don’t choose government jobs. Maybe the foreign ministries still attract a few. But all the real action is in the NGO world (especially if you count journalism as operating in the NGO space, which I do).

Representative democracy has become a meaningless abstraction in the same general category as the Holy Roman Empire. It is quite sensible to believe it has entered the last stage before its disappearance. While it’s here, we’re used to it. Once it goes, everyone will wonder how it lasted so long. People are already asking that very question.

I’m starting to think the reason some societies are called “developed” is because representative democracy in those places is considered a sort of vestigial reptile brain in this new era of scientific government. The message is clear: developed societies should be ruled by civil servants who are not responsible in any way, shape, or form to the electorate. If their policies worked, that would be fine. But they don’t seem to…

What fresh hell awaits us? I can’t even imagine. I am not a fan of revolutions, so I hope this transition runs smoothly. But the state isn’t going anywhere because – to those who run it – it is worth far too much to give up, and as it is the concentrated instantiation of sovereignty in society, nobody can make it do anything. I just don’t think we should call this a “democracy” any longer.

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