Part III: More of Those More General Musings
If monarchy is the hammer which crushes the People, democracy is the axe which divides it; the one and the other equally conclude in the death of liberty.
[P-J Proudhon: Solution du problème social, 1849]
xxTheories of democracy, like those of free-market capitalism are predicated on (and supposed to result in) a well-informed and considerate populace. But in practice they are built on and run under constant attempts to distort the truth, that is on a controlled ignorance. Of course the argument should be that other forces will oppose this, but it rarely seems to work like that, as the powers that be and the media have the major influence on what gets presented. In answer to criticisms of the lying £350million bus message, I argued that the onus was on the opposition to refute this, rather than to play its own distorted message of fear and threat; but to be fair, even if they had their own bus tailing the original and emblazoned with the phrase, that’s bollocks!, the pro Brexit media would not have included it in their pictures, let alone presented the arguments. Maybe there is no substitute for doorstepping with the message.
xxThere is a fetishistic attitude to democracy in people’s arguments. ‘Undemocratic’ is for us what ‘unconstitutional’ is for an American, shutting down any opportunity to question what democracy is and what might be bad (or even good) about it. Known for his influence on US politics, Thomas Paine nonetheless warned that a written constitution, slavishly followed, is the tyranny of the dead, just as Proudhon reminded us that democracy is the tyranny of the many. This is not to say that either should be written off, but both should be constantly reviewed. That gun control can be constantly stymied by an appeal to the rules made 200+ years ago to suit those times (and their weaponry) strikes me as daft as saying that a two percent majority can be spoken of as ‘we voted to leave Europe’. I can see some arguments for collective responsibility but only up to a point.
xxOn direct democracy. Switzerland has had a direct aspect to its democracy for centuries. On gathering the requisite number of signatures, any citizen may bring a proposal before the public, at town, canton or state level. This level of participation seems to me to lead to a more knowledgeable and responsible attitude to the politics (probably also encouraging a form of education geared to nurturing these attitudes). Although many of their decisions are of a small ‘c’ conservative nature, they have resisted all-out privatisation of public utilities, and the idea that they would vote for capital punishment (which the UK would almost certainly bring in were the public given the decision tomorrow) is almost unthinkable.
xxAnd it seems unlikely that they would have tolerated campaigns like those we’ve seen from unionists, Brexiters or fearmongering Remainers, let alone psychopaths like Donald Trump. I feel that most would demand to hear the true facts and the reasoned arguments behind the rhetoric.
xxBut can a culture without this history suddenly be changed in that direction? Of course not. Centuries of relying on a ‘representative’ democracy have resulted in a susceptibility to unsubstantiated tub-thumping from those who pretend to be on their side in this, to return ‘control’ and make their countries independent and ‘great’ (again?).
xxOn the other hand, the world’s second-largest direct democracy is the State of California. And there people, or more normally businesses, have been known to buy the signatures they need to get things to a plebiscite, an idea which horrifies most Swiss, despite their fondness for their corporations. As one Swiss commentator said, ‘here we use the democracy to resolve our differences; Californians use it to exercise theirs’. So it is indeed a mix of the system and the history and the resulting culture that is key.
xxMany in the current UK administration believe strongly that services like healthcare and education should not be the job of the state but put into private hands. This is not only because their friends who run such companies will get rich and make them rich out of gratitude, not only because they think the deserving poor and the rich are the ones who ought to benefit. No, some of them, as well as a number of high-ranking economic and political theorists, genuinely think that the market is the only thing that can be trusted to deliver the best results for the whole of society (and when you see the cock-ups centralised administrations often make of these things, you can see how seductive that idea can be — if you don’t think it through).
They are talking shite of course, but what rankles most is that they don’t attempt to argue this for the benefit of the voters, but tell blatant lies about ‘the safety of the NHS in their hands’. We have a health secretary (J Hunt Esq) who contributed to a book (ironically titled Direct Democracy) which argued that a state-run health system was a bad thing, and discussed means of dismantling it and handing it over to private firms and private insurers (not that the Blair government hadn’t already started this by outsourcing as much as it could).
xxAs Michael Portillo said after the 2010 election, [The Tories] did not believe they could win an election if they told you what they were going to do, because people are so wedded to the NHS.
xxAnd yet, one can quote these two facts until one is blue in the face and people, even journalists, still say things like, how stupid the health secretary is: can’t he see this risks destroying the NHS?!!! Can’t they see that’s what he wants to do?!
Methods of representation and election:
xxPetitions come and go, demanding Proportional Representation. The LibDem’s obsession with the idea allowed the Tories to fob them off with a halfway house vote they were never going to win, in return for opposing fewer of their nasty legislative and constitutional changes (if it’s bad to change a constitution on a narrow plebiscite vote, how much worse for a party to do so in parliament after failing even to win a majority!).
xxWhatever system one chooses, the problem will always lie in the transition away from a firm-wired approach and its attitudes. As Mike Harding once wrote, “I agree with Proudhon that all property is theft, but I have no bloody idea what to do about it.”
xxAs John Oliver said, some Brits seemed shocked that putting an X against ‘leave’ as a protest actually resulted in a Brexit! Not that surprising when they are used to seeing anything other than a general election as a chance for a protest vote — and the Brexit campaign was keen to encourage that.
I say again, democratic = the result I wanted, undemocratic = the one I didn’t.