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Reflecting on Democracy

Societies tend to suffer from unconscionably calculated meddling by their leaders or benefit, every so often in the most surprising ways, from their wisdom. It is customary to suppose that undue intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens stems solely from despots and their regimes. The Stasi secret intelligence service in the old East Germany and Hitler's feared Gestapo spring immediately to mind.

But it is not quite that simple. There are a number of hybrids where both modes fuse to bring about change - though not always to the advancement of the state. Lee Kuan Yew's relatively benign one-party rule in Singapore amply illustrates this mix. Others might make reference to Fidel Castro's Cuba where the expansion of health care and education went hand in hand with state control of the media and the suppression of internal dissent.

In a society like the US - where it is legitimate to openly disparage the President and almost a civic duty to put tough questions to an administration fixated on patching up the present and patrolling the world - the erosion of personal freedoms that started after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre and is still gathering pace; corrupt alliances between big business, cashed-up lobbyists, and individual Senators; the stark naivety of left-right political ideologies; and a surge in the meddling of the state in matters best left to the judgement of individuals or local communities, all presage the undermining of democratic principles.

The great fear is that this decline - coupled with a perfect storm of global economic, social and environmental emergencies, could precipitate a period of extreme authoritarianism in a nation once held to be the paramour of democratic virtues. Dangerously imperious attitudes could so easily spread from the US to other Western nations - emboldening regimes like that of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Putin in Russia - with barely a nudge and a wink. If anyone doubts this could happen they should examine the present near-oligarchical state of governance in the US and the angry, deceitful, poisonous rhetoric and histrionics from Donald Trump in his bid to become the nominal "leader" of the so-called "free" world. Then compare current conditions with those prevalent in Italy at the time Mussolini rose to power. The times might have changed, thus making any literal comparison impractical. But there are distinct similarities that should give us cause for grave concern.

Obviously the type of government under which people live has fundamental implications for their liberty, health and daily well-being. Like so many of my generation I have spent years observing the imperfections evident in different political systems - some trivial, others extremely damaging. I have also written a great deal on the common traits in each of the flaws and trends I identified. This has usually been with a view to proposing remedies for the worst of them - or just pointing out what citizens everywhere are passively tolerating from their overlords.

One trend in particular - exceedingly brittle and shortsighted strategically speaking - bothers me, in large measure because of its probable consequences. It is an example of how democracy is failing us - although in truth the circumstances can be applied to other political genres. I refer to the increasing surveillance and intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens - by governments of all persuasions. Invariably tighter security is justified by the quest to ensure public safety. But basic freedoms, hard-won over many decades, are now at risk as our paranoia concerning religious and nationalistic fundamentalism feeds on itself.

The obsession with domestic terrorism and its links to public security might not be so much of an issue if alternate ways of expressing and shaping a more secure future for all of humanity was being pursued at the same time. It is not. Almost without exception the current cadre of national leaders do not know which way to turn in that regard. Many of them grasp this and are feeling trapped and frustrated. With little appetite for real cooperation, and lacking an appreciation of dynamically complex systems, which might lead them to try less legislation rather than more, they are nevertheless culpable in pursuing the current agenda with such intensity. The result is a loss of liberty, greater focus on the things that divide rather than unite us, suspicion and blame cast by one group on others, and the reinforcing of state borders designed to keep unwanted others - as in refugees, asylum seekers, unskilled labourers and in some cases even tourists - out. All of this is occurring at a time when statistically one is far less likely to be killed from an act of terrorism than by lightning, fireworks, falling out of bed (I kid you not), or being knocked down by the proverbial bus.

In practical terms I had always assumed, probably gullibly, that democracy was the best possible political system we could come up with. In 1945, the year of my birth, it definitely appeared that way. Fascism in Europe had been defeated while communism, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, seemed destined to fail at the first hurdle given its essential nature of governing by fear.

What horrified me more were the various totalitarian regimes that sprung up once their colonial rulers stepped away from their moral responsibilities. The repressive nature of petty tyrants like Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin for example, as they secured their vice-like grip on power through regulation, persecution and control, was abhorrent at the time. Yet the world watched thousands suffer and did absolutely nothing.

The hypocrisy that allows this to occur is even more baffling. For any nation to use sovereignty as the sole justification as to why others should not pry into their domestic affairs - especially when the agony of an entire populace is so highly visible - is intolerable.

This is a conspiracy of silence and we are all complicit. The world's most affluent nations seem quite ready to bomb villages in Syria or Afghanistan, turning a blind eye to their crimes against humanity, when they perceive it to be in their economic interests. Yet they swiftly gang up to disparage, condemn and bully even the poorest of nations, applying malicious sanctions, or worse, when it is not.

Although there can be no excuse for such brutal regimes as Mugabe's - or those of Assad or Kim Jong-un for that matter - there is an awkward avoidance of this issue in the corridors of power and an absence of collective leadership from any international body as a consequence. These vile despots are allowed to get away with the most brutal persecution of their people. Meanwhile the clutch of self-righteous hardliners we elect to office as part of our own democratic process, who then proceed to wage warfare on our behalf, also seem to do pretty much as they please so as to protect the flow of resources to our shores.

As an interesting side note, British and European colonies have enjoyed greater political stability after colonial rule than their counterparts under US or Soviet control. Historically this was partly due to an old-fashioned sense of duty by those that governed, as well as structural benefits - like education, health care, and administrative systems, for example - they left behind. Certainly the Americans never planned to stay and rebuild. Prolonged occupation is never a consideration. To conquer is and always has been the end game. In recent wars, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, the need for massive reconstruction and renewal, after the much-vaunted removal of Saddam Hussein was achieved, had never seriously entered the heads of those in the Pentagon. The US went to war on false pretexts and for purely political reasons. They were set on assuring the continuing supply of resources like oil and sustaining the military-industrial complex.

Another sign that democracy could be in a death spiral is the flirtation of authoritarian states with notions of democracy to create lookalikes. In these cases propaganda gives the impression of openness and selective freedoms where none really exist. The impulse for this particular game of Blind Man's Buff is aimed at suppressing dissent while profiting from international trade deals, ensuring the continuing supply of foreign direct investment, and avoiding sanctions that could be handed out to an errant nation by the UN.

Thailand is a case in point. What was until recently a constitutional monarchy toying with "Thai-style" democracy has been hijacked by the military-installed junta of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. But this coup was unlike others. Freedom of speech is outlawed and people can be sent to prison simply for deviating from "acceptable" practices. The official line is that the country is preparing for new elections in 2017, with a fresh Constitution, and the promise of law-abiding officials. The reality is likely to be very different. Democracy has wilted in Thailand, at least for the time being. It is unlikely to be restored until the current monarch dies, and his courtiers held to account, or a people's uprising seizes the day.

In truth I have never been a fan of monarchies. The thought of power and great wealth residing in a single family that rules from one generation to the next seems highly anachronistic. It is totally at odds with my egalitarian instincts. I can only assume it is the fascination with ceremony along with the accumulated history, both fiercely safeguarded by those who benefit personally from royal patronage, that beguiles otherwise sane people into a state of elation at the mere thought of seeing royalty in the distance.

So given the chasm between the unacceptable and the unachievable what kind of political system would be ideal in today's environment? What form of governance would best cater for the needs of the human family as a whole, given our sheer numbers and complex differences?

Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are inherently unstable because their political leaders do not enjoy legitimate authority - instead ruling through fear. One would hardly choose a system such as this voluntarily. But even if we could wind the clock back a few centuries and start all over again I am not at all sure that democracy would have my vote today.

Starting from first principles I would be confident in voting down representative democracy. Once the most luminous star in the political universe it has lost its luster. Apart from failing to resolve the critically important issues of our time there are other reasons for this fall from grace.

The greatest benefit invariably cited by most political scientists is that the highest levels of skills, talent and erudition are brought into play via representative democracy. The logic behind this reasoning assumes that the common people are relatively ill-informed and disinterested in running society themselves. Creating a system in which those who actually govern are the most qualified to perform that task therefore makes perfect sense.

Except it is no longer the case that the most appropriate people are elected for the job. Evidence suggests that the most talented, intelligent and well-informed candidates do not put themselves forward in the first place. The gene pool from which career politicians are drawn is actually very small, continues to shrink, and is not at all representative of most contemporary communities. The party political system, too, is biased to admit those with prior factional affiliations in preference to outsiders.

Those that are eventually elected find themselves trapped in a clutter of conventions that no longer serve the purpose of the electorate, while simultaneously needing to cope with a level of dynamic complexity in national and global affairs that is unprecedented.

The case that citizens are disinterested in politics is a myth and simply incorrect. The advent of mass media, together with the transparency this allows, has been a two-edged sword for elected officials. While social media in particular exposes politicians for who they are - ordinary men and women with (usually) the best of intentions - it has also well and truly shaken any convictions the general public might have harboured regarding the efficacy of government.

Thus the disengagement of citizens from the democratic process is not based upon apathy or ignorance but rather their diminishing trust in the propriety of politics as it is practised and, by implication, the integrity of elected representatives. This situation, together with the extent of direct activism targeted against irrelevant policies and entrenched ideological positions, implies citizens are very concerned about the inadequacies of the current democratic process and are yearning for something more viable and less degraded through practise.

It is far too easy to marginalise those whose beliefs do not accord with our own by claiming they must therefore be illiterate and ill-informed. But this runs counter to democratic ideals. Power must dwell with the people to be considered a democracy. If the public is indeed uneducated then it is incumbent upon someone in the political system to rectify these circumstances. The task of elected officials in this process is not to grab exclusive control of the political process in the false assumption that the general public is disinterested, but to ensure that all citizens are sufficiently well-informed and can contribute intelligently to policy discussions as well as providing specific input into decisions that affect them prior to decisions being made. In other words the task of the democratic system in action is to inform, listen intently, and enact the community's wishes.

This has become even more feasible with the genesis of mobile telephony. Indeed representative democracy is no longer more practical than direct democracy because of smartphone technology. By 2019 it is projected that 2.5 billion people will own smartphones and be able to use them for voting on any policy issue on any day of the week. By 2020 smartphones will account for 80 per cent of all mobile data traffic and by the year 2021 approximately 70 per cent of the population will own a smartphone. At that point all forms of governance will migrate onto digital platforms. But will it be enough to quell the doubts I have regarding the current system?

Without promoting outright anarchy, but in order to avoid damaging authoritarian practices, I need to pose the following question: why should we believe democracy to be any better from a moral point of view, or capable of delivering more to citizens than, say, a benign autocracy?

As previously mentioned, Singapore was able to achieve extraordinary results for its citizens in a little over 50 years with very little acknowledged social pain. Both as a visitor and as a resident everything works efficiently. The city is clean. Average salaries are high. Most people have jobs and somewhere decent to live.

While it is true that a few freedoms have been sacrificed, and new problems are arising from recent levels of immigration, the average wealth per capita is extraordinary for a city state that has no natural resources. In terms of GDP per capita, Singapore is the third richest country in the world. In terms of life expectancy, Singapore is ranked 4th in the world by the World Health Organisation. And in terms of corruption, Singapore remains 5th least corrupt country in the Corruption Perceptions Index released by Transparency International.

In spite of this material success, many Singaporeans admit that community relationships are far from perfect, people generally find it difficult to express their feelings, and levels of creativity are low in comparison with most other countries in the region. Widening income inequality further estranges the harmony and solidarity amongst its citizens.

And so Singapore’s future challenge is not how to sustain economic growth, but how to create a city-state of contented citizens where individuals can enjoy an enhanced quality of life while also caring for others. For Singapore’s government, that means taking better care of needy and less fortunate residents, while fostering a social culture of empathy. Those goals will undoubtedly determine the best way forward for Singapore. I expect to see a style of government that is less autocratic, that uses smartphone technology to communicate with citizens in real-time, and that listens more intently to the voice of the people. If I am correct, Singapore could be a role model for how democracy can evolve without too much pain.

For me the best possible governance model for today must reflect contemporary realities, deal with the design flaws within our current political systems that so often lead to corruption, abuse and other failures, and find ways to alleviate the worst impacts of the human condition in concert with others.

I described this preferred model to a friend a few years ago who was amused. It sounds like a modern democracy with authoritarian overtones, he chuckled. Very likely, I replied.

For if I were to design such a model I would lean towards a new type of commonwealth. One not based upon a loose alliance of nations, whose members have historical or cultural links, as in the British Commonwealth, but connected more intimately by a shared place and purpose, as well as a cooperative moral agenda. A model where political parties are superfluous as digital technology and social media are used to engage citizens and to enable the voices of the disadvantaged to be heard. One in which elected Custodians, whose authority is based upon wisdom rather than power, influence, wealth or political affiliation, and whose role is to simply ensure that legislation accords with the will and needs of the majority of citizens, serve only two terms before returning to their private lives. One where wisdom is rewarded and corruption is rooted out. One where foresight and imagination combine to generate meaning, health and well-being for everyone, rather than merely reflecting the jaded dualities of deeply entrenched ideologies.

 

Author: Dr Richard Hames - MiVote Founder

 

This brief piece was written as a personal tribute to my friend and erstwhile mentor Richard Neville who passed away on Sunday 4th September 2016 at the age of 74 thoroughly worn out - as he would surely have wished. Ever the amiable, unassuming, most urbane and gentlest of men, Richard possessed an enthusiasm for life which he used to critique our epoch with great gusto and even greater precision. The last time we met was in Bangkok. He and Julie were returning to their home in the Blue Mountains after a visit to Cuba. I will always remember the boyish delight shining through those glistening eyes as he regaled me with stories of an exotic, heady, crumbling culture - stories conveyed with such clarity I could almost smell the decay and hear the echoes of lazily played salsas through air made syrupy from cigar smoke and rum. Possibly because of his charm and his knack of telling a good yarn Richard was often branded a "pop" futurist. This is a great pity albeit a partial truth. For under the surface of his scintillating writing and speaking there danced a deeply humanitarian soul and an intellect unmatched by any of his contemporaries.

 

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