It’s said often that democracy requires shared public virtues such as respect for others, belief in free and fair elections, the ability of citizens to live with differences, their capacity for open compromise and passion for ‘equality in freedom’ (Alexis de Tocqueville). Consideration of these core values is sometimes put in such sugary terms that it’s forgotten that democracy depends as well on the ethic of humility defended by people sometimes dubbed troublemakers: prickly types, curmudgeons, courageous individuals willing to refuse orthodoxies, contrarians who take no shit, certainly not from technicians of top-down power.
Lou Reed, who died last month, was for me a special champion of the ornery against the ordinary. The point hit home during my first and only close-range encounter with the man in a tiny cavernous club in San Francisco. The year was probably 1975. Such were the smoke-filled times that things were rather hazy that night. I do remember that we the audience – no more than about 50 fans - gradually grew belligerent at being made to wait. Reed eventually tumbled onto stage, nearly two hours late, to loud jeers.
Dressed in black, and visibly in a bad temper, he played reluctantly, out of tune. That earned him yet more jeering. After no more than about 10 minutes, he suddenly cut loose, pulled plugs, spat abuse in our direction (go make love to yourselves, or words to that effect). Then he slipped back stage, never to return. In a trice, feeling cheated, we retaliated. The joint was rudely disordered. Knowing that flashing lights would soon arrive, we fled our cavern, scampering in all directions, as fast as our wobbly legs could carry us.
Throughout his career, feeling gripped by cramping conventions, both musical and social, Reed specialised in dishing out trouble. Irritating audiences by making them wait was part of his persona. He liked to push things to the edge, and he did so with verve. In the mid-1960s, teaming up with the Welsh musician John Cale, a classically trained violist, he formed a band called the Primitives, later the Warlocks. This soon morphed into the Velvet Underground, the group which caught the eye of Andy Warhol and later lent its name to the 1989 ‘velvet revolutions’ in central-eastern Europe.
For a young university student of my generation, the Velvet Underground was unorthodox edge. It gave musical shape to the new politics of the personal. Even its name felt like a swipe at the world. Its lyrics were direct, no-nonsense allusions to such taboo topics as drugs, oral sex, gender ambiguity and sado-masochism. Its sound was a mix of pounding percussion, deliberate distortion and grinding noise, carefully composed. Sweet Jane was among my favourites from this period. Here’s a 2006 version, softer but still defiant, from Julian Schnabel’s film, Berlin: Live At St. Ann’s Warehouse:
With albums like Berlin (1973), Metal Machine Music (1975) and Take No Prisoners (1978), Reed went on to defy musical expectations, and audience presumptions, at every turn. No sluggard, he was impossible to keep up with, or to pin down. He paved the way for glam rock, punk and other alternative musical styles. He once likened his defiant experimentalism to works of literature. ‘They’re all in chronological order’, he told Rolling Stone magazine, summarising his songs, with more than just a touch of self-deprecating irony. ‘You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.’ He was good at putting things in prosaic, street-gutter terms. ‘My bullshit’, he once said, when speaking of his refusal of dominant conventions, ‘is worth more than other people’s diamonds’.
Vibrant democracies need sharp-angled and unceremonious characters like Lou Reed. His open identification with civil rights, justice and environmental issues was the consequence of his embrace of agonism, and not the other way around. Reed struggled constantly to slam opposites into the same corner. Musical perfectionism and high standards captured low-life themes on de-tuned guitars. Both generous and unforgiving, he embodied detached cool and passionate anger. His mean face often softened with wry humour. Reed’s one-chord lyrics melded pain with beauty, softness with cruelty. He was the ultra-sensitive male romantic skilled at self-destructive surliness. He sang of dirt, all the while insisting that life is love, a feeling so important that anyone with a heart wouldn’t ever turn around and break the heart of others.
Blunt and brutal, he could be gentle, playful and self-deprecating. None of these qualities added up, but that was the democratic point, often made forcefully to know-all, know-nothing journalists, whom he once dubbed the ‘lowest form of life’ Check out this deadpan performance, cleverly delivered in August 1974, shortly after arriving at Sydney airport for his first tour down under:
Here the rock ‘n roll champion of the ornery against the ordinary was in deadly form, reminding everybody that democracy is much more than the obvious ‘one person, one vote’, or simple-minded preoccupation with faddish public likes and dislikes, among them celebrity fame, journalism and drugs. Another great American, Walt Whitman, reminded his audiences that democracy was about equality, that it was therefore not ‘only for elections’ because its ‘flower and fruits’ were found in the manners of ‘public and private life’. A century later, during a period of bitter public dispute about war on Vietnam, youth rebellion and political reaction, Lou Reed repeated the point. He called on his listeners not to give up, to see that life is not simply a dive. He stood up for the dignity of ‘little people’, for their higher right and duty to be different. For Reed, it was to be expected (say) that men would choose to dress in corsets and women in vests. He questioned compulsory sameness. He was against what later came to be called political correctness. His take was defiant. ‘Give me an issue’, he once sang in a 1978 live version of Sweet Jane, ‘and I’ll give you a tissue. I’ll wipe my arse with it’. Lou Reed composed and sang against imperiousness. He was sure villains could be made to blink. He detested snobbery. He championed rock n’ roll democracy.
Oh, yes, those were different times. Our years are darker, less equal, governed by second-rate politicians, greedy bankers and bigots, and by mean-spirited champions of conformity through surveillance. They’re reasons why Lou Reed deserves everywhere to be remembered, and not just by ageing democrats.
An earlier version of this obituary appeared on ABC’s The Drum.
The following words on the subject of secrets and politics were spoken at a recent Sydney public symposium, organised by my colleague Benedetta Brevini, Beyond Wikileaks (8th October 2013).
There are three sensitive secrets I’d like to reveal about the topical subject of secrets. The first is surely the most obvious, and shouldn’t really be secret: we live in the age of monitory democracy in which muckraking, the public exposure of secrets kept by the powerful, is the new norm. Public struggles to tame arbitrary power are chronic. Individuals and groups using mobile phones, bulletin boards, news groups, wikis and blogs, sometimes manage, against great odds, to heap embarrassing publicity on their powerful opponents. Corporations are given stick by well-organised, media-savvy groups such as Adbusters. Power-monitoring bodies like Human Rights Watch, Avaaz.org, Global Witness and Amnesty International regularly do the same, usually with help from networks of supporters spread around the globe. There are initiatives such as the World Wide Web Consortium (known as W3C) that promote universal open access to digital networks. There are even bodies (like the Democratic Audit network, the Global Accountability Project and Transparency International) that specialise in providing public assessments of existing power-scrutinising mechanisms and the degree to which they fairly represent citizens’ interests. Politicians, parties and parliaments are roughed up by dot.org muckrakers like California Watch and Mediapart (a Paris-based watchdog staffed by a number of veteran French newspaper and news agency journalists). And, at all levels, governments are grilled on a wide range of matters, from their expenses claims and human rights records to their energy production plans and the quality of the drinking water of their cities.
Even the military strategies and arms procurement policies of states - notoriously shrouded in strict secrecy - run into trouble, thanks to media-savvy citizens’ initiatives guided by the spirit, and sometimes the letter, of the principle that under democratic conditions there should be no secrets in matters military. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 -70), William Blackstone famously wrote: ‘There is and must be in every state a supreme, irresistible, absolute, and uncontrolled authority, in which the right of sovereignty resides.’ In the age of monitory democracy, this early modern principle of sovereignty becomes questionable, and is vigorously questioned. States certainly carry on keeping secrets, and justifying them, for instance on the ground that talk of transparency is all ‘la-di-dah, airy-fairy’ (David Cameron), or that revealing all causes ‘harm’ to citizens by offering the enemies of state a ‘gift they need to evade us and strike at will’ (the recent solemn words of MI5 director-general Andrew Parker).
Such reasoning is refused by those who know that secrecy is the refuge of scoundrels, greedy for power over others. Justice Potter Stewart, in the United States Supreme Court’s famous opinion in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), the so-called Pentagon Papers case, summed up the point: ‘In the absence of governmental checks and balances', he wrote, ‘the only effective restraint upon executive policy and power in the area of national defense and international affairs may lie in an enlightened citizenry – in an informed and critical public opinion which alone can here protect the values of democratic government’.
Second secret: from the time of its formation in 2006, WikiLeaks challenged the decadent political principle that in geo-military affairs ‘secrecy lies at the very core of power’ (Elias Canetti). WikiLeaks set out to be a public sentinel. It wasn’t alone in its brave rejection of sovereign secrecy. These are times in which terrifying state violence directed at citizens is witnessed and, against tremendous odds, bravely confronted by citizen-uploaded videos, digital sit-ins, online ‘hacktivist’ collectives and media-savvy monitory organisations, such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Anonymous and Burma Watch International. There are small citizen groups, such as the Space Hijackers, which manage to win big publicity by acts of daring, for instance driving a second-hand UN tank to Europe’s largest arms fair in London’s Docklands, ostensibly to test its ‘roadworthiness’, then to auction it to the highest market bidder, in the process offering prosthetic limbs for sale to arms dealers.
Then there are global headline-making initiatives that lunge non-violently at the heart of highly secretive, sovereign power. Until recently (it has now been overtaken by Edward Snowden’s revelations), WikiLeaks was the most talked-about experiment in the arts of publicly probing secretive military power. Pundits at first described it as the novel defining story of our times. That missed the point that its spirit and methods belonged firmly and squarely to the age of monitory democracy. WikiLeaks engaged in a radical form of muckraking motivated by conscience and supported by a shadowy band of technically sophisticated activists led by a charismatic public figure, Julian Assange. It took full advantage of easy-access multi-media integration and low-cost copying of information whizzed around the world through digital networks. Posing as a lumpen outsider in the world of information, aiming to become a watchdog with a global brief, WikiLeaks first sprang to fame by releasing video footage of an American helicopter gunship cursing and firing on unarmed civilians and journalists. Then it managed to send shock waves throughout the civil societies and governments of many countries by releasing sprawls, hundreds of thousands of top-secret documents linked to the diplomatic and military strategies of the United States and its allies and enemies.
With the help of mainstream media, WikiLeaks produced pungent effects, in no small measure because of its mastery of the clever arts of ‘cryptographic anonymity’, military-grade camouflage designed to protect both its sources and itself as a global publisher. For the first time on a global scale, WikiLeaks created a viable custom-made mailbox that enabled disgruntled muckrakers within any organisation to release classified data on a confidential basis, initially for storage in a camouflaged cloud of servers. WikiLeaks then pushed that bullet-proofed information into public circulation, as an act of radical transparency and ‘truth’.
WikiLeaks was guided by a theory of hypocrisy and democracy. Its aim was to construct an ‘intelligence agency of the people’ (Julian Assange). He supposed that individual employees within any organisation would be willing to act as whistleblowers, not just because their identities would be protected by encryption, but above all because they would spot intolerably wide gaps between the publicly professed aims and private filthy secrets of their organisation. For Assange, hypocrisy would function as the night soil of muckrakers. Its rakes in the Augean stables of secretive government and business would have a double effect: multiply the amount of muck circulated under the noses of shocked citizens, whose own sense of living amidst the muck of secrecy would make them angry, and move them to action.
Muckraking in the style of the WikiLeaks platform had yet another source, which helps explain why its attempted criminalisation and forcible shut-down is already spawning many similar offspring, such as ICIJ revelations from the arcane world of the mega-rich, and Publeaks, a newly-launched Dutch website designed to protect whistleblowers, shed light on wrongdoings and to encourage investigative journalism. Put simply, WikiLeaks fed upon a contradiction deeply structured within the digital information systems of all large-scale complex organisations. States, corporations and other large organisations take advantage of the communications revolution of our time by going digital and staying digital. They do so to enhance their internal efficiency and external effectiveness, to improve their capacity for handling complex, difficult or unexpected situations, swiftly and flexibly. Contrary to the famous thesis of Max Weber, the data banks and data processing systems of these organisations are antithetical to red tape, stringent security rules and compartmentalised data sets, all of which have the effect of making these organisations slow and clumsy. So they opt for dynamic and time-sensitive data sharing across the boundaries of departments and whole organisations. Vast streams of classified material flow freely - which serves to boost the chances that leaks of secrets into the courts of public opinion will happen. Without knowing it, WikiLeaks in effect followed the wisdom of the old rhyming French proverb: ‘Secret de deux, secret de Dieu; Secret de trois, secret de tous’ (secrets between two are God’s; among three, they become secrets known by everybody).
WikiLeaks ventured further. It reasoned that if organisations respond to leaks by tightening internal controls on their own information flows, a move that Julian Assange once described as the imposition of a ‘secrecy tax’, the chances are that these same organisations will trigger more than their own ‘cognitive decline’, their reduced capacity to handle complex situations swiftly and effectively. They would also increase the likelihood of resistance to the secrecy tax by motivated employees repulsed by the hypocrisy and injustice of their organisations. Little wonder, thanks to WikiLeaks, that figures like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald have become symbols, unelected but legitimate public representatives, of such virtues as courage, staying power, decency, dislike of dirty secrets, openness and truth in public life. Little wonder, too, that in the name of state secrets the United States government in particular wants to hunt them down, using dirty tricks, just like the highwaymen denounced by Abraham Lincoln as a threat to democracy: ‘A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”’.
There’s a third, less well-known secret, to do with WikiLeaks and parliamentary politics. When spending time (eight months ago) with Julian Assange in his embassy prison, discussions about forming a political party were only in their infancy. Events since that time suggest that WikiLeaks and its star dissident leader were unprepared for entering the democratic fray as a democratic party. It was not just that they failed to grasp the basic difference between dissident publishing of secrets using technical genius and the mechanics of running for public office. Their election campaign revealed a dirtier secret. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks fell short of the principles of monitory democracy: political humility, public openness and accountability, the willingness to admit mistakes, even to say sorry. For this transgression they were punished, initially by becoming embroiled in a disastrous public scandal of their own making.
Let’s return to a thought of Elias Canetti. ‘Adults find pleasure in deceiving a child. They consider it necessary, but they also enjoy it’, he wrote. ‘The children very quickly figure it out and then practise deception themselves.’ The children, it should be added, are in turn found out, as we would expect in the age of monitory democracy. The point is relevant for what has been going on in and around WikiLeaks. Here was a fledgling political party competing in the recent Australian elections, committed to ‘accountability and oversight’, a party potentially poised to attract substantial numbers of disaffected voters, Beppe Grillo style. Political victory, even just one seat in the Senate, might have helped free Julian Assange from his Knightsbridge prison cell, backed by a global public willing to stand up for transparency and justice.
The WikiLeaks Party instead crashed and burned. Mid-way through the campaign, over a third of its governing National Council protested against the lack of internal democracy and resigned, among them one of its leading candidates (Leslie Cannold) and one of Julian Assange’s oldest and most trusted political friends, Dan Mathews. The WikiLeaks Party ended up receiving less than 1% of the national vote (opinion polls throughout 2012 showed by contrast that Assange had enjoyed substantial levels of public support, especially among Labor and Green voters).
Worse: we now know that Julian Assange virtually attended only one of the first thirteen meetings of the National Council (that could be excused because he was busy supporting Edward Snowden). He also attempted to grant himself veto rights and to reduce the National Council to a rubber stamp, whenever he didn’t like its leanings. He insisted that since he had ‘founded the party’, he was entitled to appoint himself its president.
Then came the weird preference deals, in defiance of the wishes of the National Council. The Wikileaks Party, like all others, was forced by law to submit a preference flow based on deals struck with other political parties. Public statements and leaked emails show how intensely the National Council was divided about collaborating with a shadowy preference fixer Glenn Druery, a man who knows a thing or two about secrets, an operator who advises a motley crew known as the Minor Party Alliance on how to leverage the preference system. While discussions within the National Council were lengthy and difficult, they did produce directives, but these weren’t followed in either New South Wales or Western Australia.
These deals, with such odd parties as the Motoring Enthusiasts, the Sex Party and Shooters and Fishers, were more than mere ‘administrative errors’, as Julian Assange later claimed. Poison was spat in the direction of the Greens - the closest allies of Assange and the WikiLeaks Party. In Victoria, where there were 40 parties, the Greens ranked WikiLeaks second and the WikiLeaks Party responded by ranking the Greens 24th. In New South Wales, where there were 45 parties, the Greens placed their allies third (after themselves and the Pirates) and were rewarded with a ranking of 28th by the WikiLeaks Party, behind the Shooters and Fishers and the xenophobic Australia First Party. Most absurd, and most consequential, was the scrapping of the straight preference swap agreed in Western Australia between the Greens and the Wikileaks Party National Campaign Manager Greg Barns, who went on to appoint a journalist and disaffected former Greens member, Gerry Georgatis, as the WikiLeaks Party candidate. While the Greens ranked him as their first preference, he took revenge on his old party by ranking them 6th, after the WA Nationals. This was said to be a mere ‘gesture’, but it had much to do with both spite and the popularity of the WA Nationals, their 12 WA parliamentarians and record vote at the March 2013 state election in Western Australia. While some WikiLeaks Party preferences did eventually flow to Senator Scott Ludlum, the closest political ally of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the so-called gesture cost both parties time and the row became the focus of media attention. Ludlam lost on the first count, but he was granted a Senate recount (only the second in Australian history), which is still underway.
Faced with a public outcry about the byzantine preference deals, the WikiLeaks Party announced that there would be an ‘immediate independent review’ to ‘ascertain why National Council directives were not achieved’. That was over two months ago. It seems that the ‘independent review’ will probably never happen. John Shipton, the father of Julian Assange and CEO of the party, attacked the National Council (and threatened legal action) as a ‘bunch of raving fucking lunatics. On Twitter (over 20 times), Assange’s mother has meanwhile denounced the WikiLeaks Party and in effect declared that she no longer politically supports her son. Julian Assange himself has lashed out digitally, in all directions. He has cursed those who resigned from the National Council and insisted (see the video interview below) that all criticisms of his actions are ’simply false‘.
When I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Julian Assange in the Ecuador embassy in London, I was impressed by his daring technical skill, his bold courage, his raw resilience, his resourcefulness under intense political pressure. I still am, just as I continue to feel deep upset about the great injustice of his confinement and the organised smear campaigns against WikiLeaks as a publishing organisation; there are even days when I fear for his life. Back then, I was struck as well by the way he lived the principle that there’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. Nowadays, performing on a global public stage and trapped in a wretched prison, Julian Assange acts as if it is outrageous the way people go about saying things and revealing secrets behind his back, despite the fact that they’re often painfully true. What a rotten twist of fate. So lamentable, so disappointing, so tragic…so politically unnecessary.
It’s difficult from afar to grasp the depressing scale and depth of European disintegration, so let me try from close range to convey something of what’s going on by using a simple method: extracting snippets of randomly-chosen local political news published in a handful of printed and online European sources on just one rather ordinary day, September 18th 2013.
In the Netherlands, newly-inaugurated King Willem-Alexander makes his first annual appearance before parliament with a speech announcing the end of the welfare state. ‘Due to social developments such as globalisation and an ageing population,’ says the king, ‘our labour market and public services are no longer suited to the demands of the times.’ He adds: ‘The classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a “participatory society”’. It sounds promising: citizens will be expected hereon to take care of themselves, or create civil society solutions to such problems as care for the elderly, unemployment and housing shortages. Decoded, the king said: due to EU budget rules, state social policy is fated to shrink. There is no alternative. The egalitarian policies dating from the 1960s are finished. Austerity is not a temporary belt-tightening exercise. From this day forwards, in the ‘participatory society’, each individual must follow the rule, sauve qui peut.
From Germany comes the news that in the five months since its launch, the populist anti-euro party, Alternative für Deutschland, looks to be the only group seriously challenging Angela Merkel’s ruling CDU and the flagging opposition Social Democrats. Just days before the general election, at a public rally in front of the Brandenburg gate, party supporters vent their spleens. ‘Who is this Barroso?’, asks one, referring to José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president. ‘Who gave the banks more say than the citizens?’ Says another party supporter: ‘We’re liable for billions for the Greek economy, which is bankrupt, full of cronies and corrupt. They would be better off with their own currency. Merkel is silent on all these problems.’ Meanwhile, pollsters report that the Green Party’s programme of social justice funded by tax increases for top income brackets seems to be costing them potential votes (support is hovering around 10%). The party is embroiled in a media-driven scandal sparked by its support for a 1980s campaign for the de-criminalisation of paedophilia. Its proposal for public canteens and ‘vegetarian days’ once a week has fallen on deaf ears. These days, Germans are for stability, jobs, rising income, turning their backs on the rest of Europe. They don’t mind ‘Mutti’ Merkel; more than a few German citizens adore her.
Across the Channel, to the south-west, the news is mostly good, if you’re an optimist. The Cameron government launched the re-privatisation of Lloyd’s Banking Group with the sale of £3.3 billion of shares in the bank. It’s the second largest recorded share placement in British history, and ministers waste no time in trumpeting the sale as proof of the UK’s return to economic health. Advanced Business Park, a huge Chinese property developer, meanwhile announces that its new global headquarters will be located in London, with plans to turn the Royal Albert Docks into a £1 billion ‘Asian business port’. Official figures meanwhile show that roaring demand for London housing has pushed property prices beyond their peak at the height of the country’s economic boom. Britain has a major housing supply problem. Yet little new housing is being built; in spite of pay freezes for most citizens, rents are rocketing; and there are reported fears of an impending property bubble.
From the far north of Europe come reports that Arctic ice will be no more after 2050, if not sooner. At summer’s end, unexpectedly, the ice shelf appeared to swell. Satellite data in fact shows that during the previous winter the thickness of ice was a record low, further evidence that the long-term trend is still steadily downward. There’s less gloomy news from the south-east corner of the continent. In Serbia, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, still facing charges over alleged links to organised prostitution, and recently described as a ‘pig’ in a roman à clef written by a former lover, has just landed a job. His new duties include helping to restructure the country’s large foreign debt, attracting foreign investment and helping Serbia manage relations with the International Monetary Fund. Vesna Pesić, a respected Belgrade sociologist, and (it so happens) an acquaintance of mine, questions the appointment. She highlights the strange irony that a country in need of rebranding as it begins negotiations to enter the European Union has hired a disgraced figure, who himself seems to be seeking international rehabilitation. ‘It is propaganda and marketing’, she says. ‘But people here are so exhausted by the recession, and they don’t care.’
That story brings me to poor, picked-upon Greece, a crumbling country racked by the spread of fascism, and news of a brutal political murder. In the port town of Piraeus, outside a café in the early morning hours, 34-year-old hip hopper Pavlos Fyssas is attacked by a group of men dressed in black sweatshirts and combat trousers. Stabbed repeatedly in the chest, he later died in hospital. Protests spread. The blind-eyed police are for once forced to arrest a suspect, who turns out to be a member of Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi party with 18 members in the 300-seat parliament.
Crocodile tears are shed by the Greek political establishment. State President Karolos Papoulias said that institutional vigilance, social awareness and political determination are needed to combat what he called a ‘repulsive phenomenon’. Tears were shed as well by government spokesman Simos Kedikoglou. ‘Justice will perform its duty immediately and totally’, he said, before calling on all the political powers to ‘erect a barricade against the vicious circle of tension and violence’. He didn’t say how this could happen, which was unsurprising, considering just how many mainstream politicians and journalists have for months been touting Golden Dawn as a possible future coalition partner for the forces of austerity.
Does democracy have anything to do with the worsening humanitarian catastrophe in Syria? In recent days, in editorials and columns around the world, many observers have suggested it does. They cite the unusual refusal of Westminster to sanction air strikes against Syria. They point to the French parliament’s grilling of President Hollande for trying to side-step the United Nations. These same observers spotlight Obama’s surprise decision to consult Congress, and to win public support for military action through a specially-staged televised explanation of why America’s ‘constitutional democracy’ cannot tolerate violations of ‘the laws of war’.
Aren’t these developments proof positive that the spirit and substance of democracy are alive, and kicking, these observers ask? Don’t be fooled. The answer should be plain. On (almost) every front, ranging from the diplomatic posturing of the United States, Russia and China to the rampant lawlessness, massive violence and pain and suffering of millions of civilians, this conflict in Syria has nothing to do with democracy. It is its nemesis.
En route from Dubai to Beirut a few days ago, the point was unexpectedly hammered home. Ten thousand metres above Sinai, my flight was suddenly re-routed. The flight path screen showed we were doing a zig-zag above the desert. The captain made no announcement, so I asked a crew member what was going on. ‘There’s a short delay', she said. ‘Something’s happening at Beirut airport.’
After landing, I discover that the ‘something’ was in fact a bit more serious: nothing less than a joint military exercise by Israel and the United States. As my flight approached the Mediterranean, upgraded Ankor ballistic missiles had been fired towards the Israel coast, to test the country’s vaunted missile defence system known as Iron Dome. I’m still pondering the significance of the incident. It occurs to me that the case of two so-named democracies playing war games in others’ backyards, in the powder keg of the eastern Mediterranean, serves as a 21st-century reminder of a fundamental contradiction built into the ideals and practices of parliamentary democracy in territorial state form.
Let’s put things a bit more abstractly: if democracy minimally means that people considered as equals have a say in how their lives are run, and if bossing and bullying by others are therefore illegitimate methods of governing, then there’s clearly something self-contradictory and potentially self-paralysing about nation-state democracy. In an age of growing interdependence of states and peoples, citizens and their state representatives ‘at home’ can and do decide things that shape and often damage peoples ‘abroad’, without redress or compensation. As millions of Syrians have now discovered, democracy for some produces injustices for others. The victims are left to swallow or suffer decisions, or non-decisions, over which they have no control.
So here I am, for lectures and meetings, in a city I love, and have many times visited, watching the United States prepare for war, amidst tough talk, silken reassurances, feverish diplomacy and military manoeuvres. Locals are understandably nervous. In their guts, from their own first-hand experience of uncivil war, all Lebanese, including supporters of Hezbollah, know the cruel pity of contemporary war. I’m not surprised there’s widespread opposition, right across the political spectrum, to American-led air strikes. People point out that the American administration is manoeuvring to launch yet another attack on the Arab world with no clear goals or end game in sight. People worry about the unintended consequences of so-called ‘surgical’ air strikes. Syria is not Libya, they say. So when Obama boasts that the United States ‘military doesn’t do pinpricks’, they fear tremendous bloodshed and much worse chaos will be the end result, perhaps spreading throughout the wider region.
Beirut citizens are also unusually sensitive to democratic double standards; they have a sharp nose for the hypocrisy of democrats. More than once have I heard people point out that if the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorisation, then regardless of its motives it would flout the most fundamental rule of all: the prohibition of the use of military force, except for self-defence. ‘It’s a principle that goes back to the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the 1945 United Nations Charter’, a former Lebanese diplomat tells me. A prominent and respected local Palestinian journalist, Rami G. Khouri, meanwhile explains that the recent use of chemical weapons and imminent American strikes are ‘just the latest escalations that hasten the destruction of Syrian state and society, without resolving any of the underlying causes of the conflict.’ He goes on to remind me, as many here in Beirut do, that the United States and the rest of the ‘international community’ are heavily responsible for allowing the savage Syrian conflict to become a human catastrophe, on a scale without precedent in the region. From the outset, they point out, democracies such as France and Britain did nothing to deal with the fundamental challenge, which is scarcely to end the use of terrifying chemical weapons. The real task, people here say, is to terminate the trend: 120,000 people dead, another 200,000 wounded, at least one-quarter of the population of 22.5 million displaced inside the country, or forced into exile.
As for poor Lebanon, now home to a million Syrian refugees, the fate of its ramshackle parliamentary democracy depends ultimately on the macabre twists and turns of events in neighbouring Syria, and the wider region. For the past six months, Lebanon has been without a government. The day after my arrival, I witnessed a general strike of Beirut’s vibrant civil society (trade unions, citizens' groups, universities, businesses large and small). The protest was directed at the whole political class. It called on them to govern, to act as representatives of a society that is restless, disappointed and fed up.
More than a few Lebanese citizens have drawn the conclusion that not until the terrible violence in Syria is ended will the shape of their next government and the composition of its ministers and their policies be known. The city of Beirut is meanwhile gripped by deep nervousness, but its people are battle-hardened, stoic and prepared for surprises. Their canny sense of the ludicrous is second-to-none. Hence the biting jokes doing the rounds, this one featuring two prominent politicians: the grand local master and victim of opportunism, the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and President Barack Obama.
Burning the midnight oil, seated alone at his Oval Room desk, the ‘I was elected to end wars’ President decides to calculate his options by drawing up a ‘then and now’ check list of the most important public statements of his presidency. He scribbles. THEN: ‘America alone cannot secure the peace' (from his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, December 2009). NOW: ‘I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralysed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable’ (remarks in the White House Rose Garden, August 31, 2013). THEN: ‘History has shown us time and again…that military action is most successful when it is authorised and supported by the legislative branch’ (response to a candidate questionnaire from the Boston Globe, December 2007). NOW: ‘As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security’ (news conference in Stockholm, September 4, 2013). With the list of contradictory statements growing ever longer, discomfort descends on Obama. Suddenly, he looks aghast. ‘Oh my God’, says the President, struck down by self-revelation, ‘I’m suffering the same disease as that jerk Jumblatt’.
Perhaps the only bright democratic light in this dark crisis is the unexpected growth of public opposition to air strikes. Polls show that publics in France, Britain and the United States are on balance strongly opposed to military intervention in Syria. It’s important to see, I think, that much more than domestic resistance to brazen military power is happening. There’s a wider, more interesting and novel pattern at work – a trend that even the autocrat Vladimir Putin has grasped in his recent New York Times op-ed piece. What we’re witnessing is the growth of a cross-border public, that is, large-scale and ultimately global spaces in which millions of citizens are witnessing, arguing about and denouncing the follies and horrors of war. Yes, for the moment, this cross-border public opinion is homeless. It is without institutional protection, let alone means of effective representation. Its chances of survival would be greatly boosted by imaginative political leadership, for instance by convening a special United Nations General Assembly, to call on all member state representatives to condemn unreservedly chemical weapons, and global inaction in the face of the worsening Syrian tragedy.
A global grand jury of this kind is admittedly nowhere on the political horizon; seen from the standpoint of war-weary Beirut, things look pretty hopeless. Widespread public refusals of American unilateralism and ‘coalitions of the willing’ are nonetheless significant, or so I think. Not only do these refusals throw into question the outdated ‘territorial mentality’ of democratic politics and theories of democracy. In spite of everything, this resistance might also be breathing life into the old utopia of restraining arbitrary power by the ‘force of popular currents and tides’ (David Hume). These public refusals appear to be part of a bigger historical shift, a contribution to a larger historical trend that includes the rebirth of international humanitarian law prohibiting genocide and the strengthening belief that civilians have obligations to other civilians living beyond their borders simply because they are civilians. I’m not sure about any of this, but the questions are worth asking: does this public resistance to air strikes and chemical weapons resemble a butterfly of cross-border democracy hatching in the crumbling chrysalis of the old order? Might this global public space be our best hope of keeping alive the spirit and substance of democracy in a regional disaster that is otherwise its nemesis?
‘No bourgeois, no democracy’ is the racy formulation penned half a century ago by the American historian Barrington Moore Jr. It’s a well-known political maxim, one that’s often used in support of the view that to be middle class is to be solidly, instinctively on the side of parliamentary democracy. But what happens if a middle class shrinks in size, loses its bearings, or suffers outright social disintegration? Do such developments naturally spell trouble for the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy?
Francis Fukuyama thinks they do. During a recent visit to Sydney, he explained to me during a radio dialogue and public debate that ‘globalized capitalism’ is today eroding the middle-class social base on which ‘liberal democracy’ rests. Whereas the unpredicted rise of a vibrant middle class spelled an end to Marxism, along with socialism and other inherited Left alternatives, we’re now witnessing the unpredicted end of middle class politics, the middle-of-the-road kind we’ve known during the past generation.
The gloomy fate of the United States is very much on Fukuyama’s troubled mind. We’re moving, he said, back into societies where extremes of wealth and poverty are fuelling ‘oligarchic domination’ and nasty forms of populism. So the global triumph of liberal democracy, the process he famously dubbed the ‘end of history’, contains a strange, unexpected and bitter-sweet twist: it turns out that the victory of liberal democratic ideals is threatened by the declining power of its prime social agent, the middle class. In a recent Foreign Affairs essay, Fukuyama summed up the thesis with a gloomy prediction: ‘some very troubling economic and social trends, if they continue, will both threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democracies and dethrone democratic ideology as it is now understood’.
Fukuyama’s generally right about the trends, at least for the Atlantic region. In settings otherwise as different as Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, Romania, Croatia and the United States, the middle class, however it is measured, is shrinking in size. Middle class earnings are declining, despite longer working hours and rocketing numbers of two-income households. Middle class optimism has waned. Few of its members now believe the old precept that rising tides raise all boats. Saving for a rainy day belongs to a past gilded age. The middle class owes more than its disposable income. Its retirement plans are often in disarray. The long-term solvency deficiency of some pension plans and the disappearance of pension schemes provided by private employers make matters worse. Only a minority of middle class people believes any longer that their children will live as well as them; they find, in fact, that for financial reasons their adult children move back home. The middle classes feel priced out of housing markets. They have trouble finding easy credit; and with median family income flat-lining through time, they feel squeezed from above by the growth of super-rich moneyed elites. Dinner parties at which nothing can be discussed except mortgages, education and children are a dying ritual, or so it is said.
Pressured by such trends, Fukuyama calls for a new middle class politics that rescues ‘liberal democracy’ from extinction. I find his overall thesis and proposed remedy unconvincing, as I’ll explain at greater length in a future post on the changing relationship between the middle classes and democracy. For the moment, readers might find interesting our differences of opinion on Late Night Live.
In the midst of a two-party dominated and heavily-scripted federal election campaign, I spoke with the widely-respected and independently-minded Senator Scott Ludlam (Greens, Western Australia) about his life-long interest in urban thinking and city life as a laboratory of new forms of democracy.
In the stormy history of democracy, cities have played a pivotal role as sites of public assembly, sanctuaries for the persecuted, shapers of political language and objects of wonder. Think of the way Babylon, Byblos, Athens and other city states of the ancient world gave birth to the ideal of self-governing citizens gathered as equals in assemblies. Then spare a moment’s thought for the towns of medieval and early modern Europe, hemmed in from all sides, embattled places that hatched ideals and practices that still stand by our sides: civility, civil societies, citizenship and self-government through elected representatives. Press freedom was born of urban struggles, in towns like Bruges, Nuremberg and Amsterdam. So was republican resistance to absolute monarchy and popish government. And just over a century ago, many cities in many settings experimented with ‘gas-and-water socialism’: the establishment of public baths, museums, libraries, music halls, parks and publicly-funded services, including horse-drawn trams, filtered water, sewerage disposal and (as Henry George famously summarised the vision in Progress and Poverty) lighting systems for roads ‘lined with fruit trees’.
Might cities today be functioning in similar ways, as drivers of bold new political ideals and practices uniquely suited to the 21st century? Do cities hold the key to our democratic future? Scott Ludlum is convinced they do. A definite cut above most other politicians down under, Ludlum has city life and urban thinking hard-wired into his political genes. He’s highly knowledgeable on the subject. Politically wise for his young age (he’s 43) and now campaigning for re-election, he tells me during our recent breakfast in Sydney that cities are becoming political laboratories. ‘Much has been said and written about sustainable cities in recent times’, he says. ‘There’s a wild flowering of creative theory and practice going on.’ We’re now on the cusp of an urban tipping point. ‘The future is here’, he adds, borrowing words from William Gibson. ‘It’s just not widely distributed yet.’
Scott Ludlum’s no utopian; he’s better described as an imaginative realist. That senatorial quality radiates across the table as we talk through the upsides and downsides of present-day city living. We begin with the grim. Cities often mean empty pockets and daily exhaustion amidst (as in London) ‘jungles of surveillance cameras’. Homelessness is an urban scandal. Cities should be human nests, says Ludlum, not prisons that consign people who live on the margins to misery and shame, or forcible removal. He objects to popular stereotypes of the homeless as lazy, smelly modern-day untouchables who’ve nobody but themselves to blame. ‘On any given night in Australia’, he points out, ‘more than 105,000 people find themselves homeless. That’s 1 in every 200 people. Over a quarter are children under the age of 18. Most are victims of domestic violence.’
Whole cities are meanwhile falling apart. ‘Detroit stands as a dark symbol of what happens when an industrial city is captured by the wealthy. Its fabric’s been torn. Inequality is now gnawing at its heart. Slums, desperation, collapsing public infrastructure amidst concentrated private wealth are the result.’ Though not shy of market solutions, the business-led privatisation of city life clearly bothers Ludlum. Money is a medium of city life, but it shouldn’t lord over the inhabitants of cities. Just as the citizens of Istanbul recently rose up against their government and developer friends to defend Gezi Park, he says, so it’s important for citizens everywhere to resist the blind privatisation of public places.
Bread and jam and tea on the table, Ludlum turns to everybody’s favourite subject: cars. I discover he’s not one for talk of ‘autogedden’ (Will Self). The automobile is good for long-distance personal trips. And he admits that among green-minded citizens and Green activists there’s plenty of support for a wholesale planned shift towards electric cars. Yet the trouble with private automobiles, he explains, is their weird spatial effects. They do more than clog cities. They produce living vacuums, what Ludlum calls nowhere places. ‘Look at what happened after 1945. Cheap anywhere-to-anywhere transport spawned an unstoppable proliferation of places that feel like nowhere, a soulless topography of suburban sprawl-mart development.’ I press him about exceptions, but he stands firm. ‘Across the United States, the broad pattern was that tram and bus transit alternatives made suddenly quaint by saturation automobile advertising were purchased then shut down by oil companies. In Australia, the culprit was calculated neglect everywhere except Melbourne, which thankfully has the largest tram network in the world.’
Scott Ludlum is sure that knocking automobiles off the top perch of the planning hierarchy would ‘reduce obesity and improve public health, because for most people public transport trips start with a cycle, or a walk.’ It would help as well the growth of ‘urban village archipelagos’. He has in mind networked cities comprising ‘medium and high density human-scale settlements linked together by fast and frequent public transport.’ A similar case for reintegrating suburbs into cities is made by David Rusk’s Cities without Suburbs. But don’t vested interests and path-dependent bureaucracies stand in the way of this vision, I reply? ‘But that doesn’t make them right’, he answers. ‘The alternative is a kind of auto-mobility that stretches cities into unsustainable shapes.’ Cars make for pseudo-cities. Perth is an example, he says. ‘It’s one of the largest cities in the world by land size. It’s the fastest-growing city in Australia, and by 2050, on current projections, it will be a coast-hugging city over 200 kilometres long.’ In the absence of alternatives, Ludlum fears it may well become what some geographers (Edward Soja is the most famous) dub an ‘exopolis’, a city without centres, a geometrically fragmented, discontinuous, car-dependent simulacrum of city life.
Sprawl, privatisation, soulless nowhere places, empty pockets, homelessness: such dark sides of the urban moon are downplayed in the much-discussed recent book by Leo Hollis, Cities are Good for You. Still the Senator broadly agrees with its brave attempt to reclaim the city from the gripes and grumbles of sceptics, naysayers and doomsday merchants. Here Ludlum shows a bottom of good sense. He’s a smart and lucid urbanist with a deft feel for the way city life can be empowering. Things done closer to home tend to be more meaningful, he tells me. Cities like Sydney and New York are vital crucibles of pluralism, cultivators of people’s acceptance of differences, their common sense of being in it together with others, their need for give-and-take civility. When they function well, they’re ‘diverse, organic, problem-solving’ places (he quotes the famous words of Jane Jacobs). Impressed by the southern Spanish city of Seville (‘a fine-grained, pedestrian-friendly, solar-powered city’), he’s particularly enamoured of Tokyo. It’s the centrepiece of a recent short film he shot and directed. ‘Tokyo’s fun, packed with energy that comes from deliberate compaction. Its public transport system resembles a ballet; it’s the best I’ve ever used. It’s a city with many pockets of deep memory, some of them living reminders of human triumph over firebombing, nuclear weapons and nuclear melt-downs.’
The experience of people rubbing shoulders with others in urban settings is important for another reason. The professor quotes Hannah Arendt on the vital importance of public space in citizens’ lives. He’s doesn’t flinch. ‘The public experience of face-to-face mixing and mingling of people reminds them of their diversity and commonality, as equals.’ Shared public space of course requires people to nurture their sense of history. City folk need to feel anchored, with their toes firmly on the ground. Heritage matters. Cities must be custodians of collective memory. ‘Given my particular roots, London does that for me as a city’, he tells me. ‘I know no other city where I can feel and appreciate the multiple deep layers of the past.’
Don’t cities require great buildings, wonderful physical places, I ask. ‘Yes, cities thrive on spaces of aesthetic beauty.’ He lays into Le Corbusier then lists his favourite designs. His father was a draftsman, and Ludlum himself was trained as a graphic designer, so he knows what he’s talking about. He lists three favourite urban icons: London’s Natural History Museum; Parliament House in Canberra (‘cleverly designed, functional, full of light and natural materials’); and the 50-storey ‘graceful woven basket’ Cocoon building in Tokyo.
The clock’s ticking, a federal election campaign is on our heads, so in the remaining time we turn to tackling the toughest, most stretching question of all: how are cities best governed? 21st-century cities are simultaneously blighted and blessed with opportunities, so how can their potential be activated? Are they optimally run by ‘smart power’ urban planners, or through outsourced decisions to private stakeholders, or perhaps by efforts to recapture the spirit of Greek assembly democracy, I ask?
The political question prods Ludlum, as if with a sharp-pointed stick. He says he’s unimpressed with plans by the New South Wales government to consolidate Sydney’s local governments into Auckland-style mega-councils. He tells me he supported the move to put recognition and direct funding of local government to a constitutional referendum, but that now seems a lost cause. When I press Ludlum to explain who would pay for the re-design of cities he has very interesting things to say about the need to ‘bring the taxed back into tax decisions’, so that in between elections citizens and their representatives are more directly involved in participatory budgeting, in choices between ‘nuclear submarines and affordable housing’.
Yet despite his fondness for ‘deliberative democracy’ and decentralisation, for ‘citizens’ juries, participatory budgeting, free Wi-Fi hotspots, public chessboards and ping-pong tables for kids’, Ludlum says he’s no nostalgic for going back to the Greeks. 21st-century cities are different. They’re highly complex entities sitting within fragile ecosystems, and that’s why high-quality, citizen-based planning and design really matter. Too often, so-called urban administration is what he calls, with a wry smile, ‘planned intelligence abatement’. It overlooks the elementary point that ‘too much planning kills cities’. Good planning enables people to find their own use for public spaces. I quote Daniel Libeskind: ‘Just as the test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities, the test of the future city will be how it cherishes well-being and imagination.’
The most absorbing moment of our breakfast conversation is about to come. Ludlum targets the growing inter-dependence of cities, on a regional and global scale. Planet Earth is becoming a vast urban matrix, he points out. Studies show that by 2025 there will be around 37 cities with at least 10 million residents; and by 2050, says a United Nations report, 75 percent of the world’s population will live in interconnected cities. ‘Perth is now a global city, the command and control centre of an export-led economy. Decisions in Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo one day affect what happens in Perth the next.’
The remark prompts me to ask Ludlum whether prevailing views of city ‘autonomy’ and ‘self-government’ need overhauling. Doesn’t the expanding connectivity of cities push us towards a new understanding of democracy? Look at the Climate Leadership Group (C40) initiative, a network of the world’s megacities committed to a post-carbon energy regime. Or consider the European alliance called the Aalborg Charter, which speaks of the need for citizens and representatives in any given city to think sustainably about ‘people in other parts of the world’, and ‘of future generations’. Aren’t these in effect new practical visions of enfranchising a new constituency (the unborn) and new long-distance methods of deciding things collectively? Might they resemble a chrysalis capable of hatching the butterfly of larger-scale, future tense democracy – despite the fact that we’ve no good account of what this 21st-century type of democracy mindful of the future might mean in practice? Ludlum thinks so. ‘The United Nations Agenda 21 was an example of a global initiative to open up democratic spaces for local innovation. Another example is the amalgamation and self-organisation of local governments to handle such matters as garbage collection and recycling. Such new forms of bio-regional governance are examples of ‘fractal complexity’ in action, the recognition of self-similarity across scale. They point to a democratic world beyond Washminster politics.’
The young Senator prepares to dash, to face the television studio cameras, so in our last few minutes together I ask him to reflect on whether his vision of intelligent democratic cities spells doom for the old Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson nationalist imagery of Australia as a highly urbanised society set apart from its mountain ranges and sweeping plains, marsupials thumping through wattles, bare-bellied ewes and old shearers with beers in bony hands. Hasn’t Australia, always among the most urbanised countries, long been dominated by back-‘o-Bourke rural fantasies? Isn’t it still so?
Ludlum’s answer catches me by surprise. ‘That imaginary separation of city and country has become unsustainable. Today’s cities perch people far off the ground. They block sight of the stars. So we’re faced with a completely different task: re-embedding our cities into our biosphere through such innovations as climate smart precincts, bicycle lanes, farmers’ markets, zero-carbon affordable housing, solar farms and neighbourhood centres linked together by efficient transport infrastructure and networks of parks and bio-diversity areas. We need to bring the bush back into city life, not romanticise it’, he adds. ‘The whole point is to turn our cities into closed-loop communities mindful of their own delicate metabolism.’
And with those imaginative words, Senator Ludlum politely shakes hands, smiles and says a quiet goodbye, to return to the real and pressing political business of winning an election.
The most telling tale in Charles Moore’s winsome biography of Margaret Thatcher spotlights the moment of her greatest political triumph: the military defeat of Argentina in mid-June 1982, after a 74-day war that cost nearly a thousand lives on windswept islands in the south Atlantic. With Union Jacks fluttering high in the skies of Britain, Prime Minister Thatcher flung herself into the detailed planning of the glorious victory celebrations. When the Dean of St Paul’s wanted to include a Spanish version of the Lord’s Prayer in the thanksgiving service, Thatcher’s eyes reportedly ‘widened in absolute horror’. At the clergy’s suggestion that the service be one of ‘reconciliation’, Thatcher ‘struck the table a tremendous blow’, snarled the words ‘A service of reconciliation!’, then threatened to go public, to denounce the wishy-washy lassitude of the clergy. Some hours later, instead of the Queen, she took the salute at a victory march-past in the City of London. At a victory dinner at No. 10, she praised ‘the spirit of Britain’ and quoted the Duke of Wellington: ‘There is no such thing as a little war for a great nation.’ Her dinner guests were hugely impressed. ‘She spoke like Queen Elizabeth I’, recalled the senior diplomat Sir David Goodall. ‘She looked like Queen Elizabeth I!’
Prone to xenophobia, consistently hard-line, indulgent of state power, a political fighter blinded by hubris, on occasion a table-thumper: all these qualities land a hard blow against the more tender-hearted Margaret Thatcher that Charles Moore tries to project in the first instalment of his two-part ‘authorised’ biography. Moore rightly observes that his subject is ‘someone about whom it is almost impossible to be neutral’, but thanks to his prodding and probing of previously inaccessible letters, diaries and interviews with her colleagues, friends and family, we learn that the Iron Lady indeed had a private life – an ascetic life ‘with no space for self-examination’.
When plumbing the depths of her private life, Moore reveals that quite early in her political career she developed a taste for mixing in Tory circles dominated by ‘the well-off, the ex-military and the landed Etonians’. Moore is particularly attracted to her role as a woman within these circles. Instead of tackling the all-important question of how democracies can create spaces for dignified tough women who bring a different style to high politics, he wraps her in gendered imagery, domesticates her, especially in the opening sections of the biography. ‘Her handbag became the sceptre of her rule’, he says. Every decision she takes, every move she makes comes dressed in heels, brown tops, black hats, half-yards of peach curtain material, nightdresses and perms. When Margaret Thatcher moves to No. 10, she insists on paying for a new ironing board out of her own pocket. When Maggie cleans, she does so with ‘characteristic domestic enthusiasm’. Moore also notes that a significant factor in Mrs Thatcher’s political success was her ‘female conscientiousness’.
What kind of ‘female conscientiousness’ drove Margaret Thatcher? Was it her definition of breakfast: black coffee and vitamin C tablets while listening to the BBC World Service and Radio 4? Or perhaps her early support for the legalisation of abortion, the de-criminalisation of homosexuality, the return of birching and the withdrawal of free milk in schools? Or that the milk snatcher sometimes sent flowers, with hand-written notes offering ‘the scent of flowers from an English country garden for you’. Or (to speak in her language) that she typically played the role of a man’s woman, a figure of power whose perfume, bold lipstick and taste for whisky intoxicated more than a few men, including junior minister Alan Clark (he confessed to Moore he didn’t want ‘actual penetration – just a massive snog’) and French President François Mitterand, who famously described her as a leader blessed with the eyes of the Roman emperor Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe.
The oddly unconvincing feature of Moore’s effort to rescue Mrs Thatcher from obloquy by invoking her ‘femininity’ is her unequivocal personal rejection of any such talk. The mother of twins was always so profoundly irritated by questions about being a woman that her press officers had to warn foreign journalists off the subject. In both word and deed, Thatcher expressed hostility towards feminism, which explains why Britain’s first female head of government insisted on being known as the first British prime minister with a science degree. ‘Who are you?’, she asked Dr John Ashworth, the Chief Scientist, as he entered No. 10 for the first time. ‘I am your Chief Scientist’, Ashworth replied. ‘Oh,’ said Thatcher, sharply, ‘do I want one of those?’ Ashworth explained he was preparing a report in the new subject area of climate change. Thatcher hurled a fierce stare. “Are you standing there and seriously telling me that my government should worry about the weather?’ She then announced to the Chief Scientist that her government had no room for a minister for science. ‘I’m a scientist’, she said. ‘I shall be my own Minister for Science.’
The chief flaw in this biography is that in spite of a marvellous myriad of such details it has no articulated thesis, no parables, no memorable conclusions. Perhaps Moore’s planned second volume will offer good reasons for remembering Margaret Thatcher. That is after all the point of biography: to lift individuals out of time and to confer upon them a form of immortality. Trapped within the biographical method of persuasion through induction – one damned ‘fact’ after another – this biography instead leads readers nowhere. Some part of the problem surely stems from its ‘authorised’ status. Charles Moore, editor of the conservative TheDaily Telegraph from 1995-2003, was handpicked by Thatcher as her official biographer, on the condition that the finished work be published posthumously. Thatcher’s choice paid off. Charles Moore thinks like a Tory, writes like a Tory, for an imaginary heartland Tory audience. He supposes that the remarkable ‘facts’ of Thatcher’s life will automatically win over his readers, that the stories he tells speak for themselves, proving even to faint hearts that she will forever remain ‘a national archetype’, a figure as great as ‘Henry VIII, or Elizabeth I, or Nelson, or Winston Churchill’.
Is Margaret Thatcher to be remembered in this way? A valiant fighter for Britain against waverers and weaklings in Europe and elsewhere? She certainly thought so. Immediately after her enforced resignation (in 1990), she was asked what had changed during her eleven-year leadership of the country. She answered with a single word: ‘Everything’. The pity of this biography is both its failure to confront the hubris buried in that utterance and its strange complacency about the massive political questions Mrs Thatcher bequeathed to Britain, and to the wider world. Are military adventures fuelled by pompous talk of ‘the people’ damaging to democracies? Did Thatcher’s policy commitment to ‘sweeping Britain clean of socialism’ through de-regulation and privatisation and hostility to ‘Europe’ pave the way to the present banking crisis and its terrible aftermath? Why did she leave a legacy of hatred in parts of Northern Ireland, so staunch (one of her favourite words) that some communities celebrated her recent passing by burning her effigy, and by plastering walls with the bitter words, ‘Iron Lady Rust in Peace’? And when historians look back on her thumping flag-waving reign, will they be inclined to see that by promoting the vices of ‘greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees’ (Glenda Jackson) she destroyed the conditions of fair-mindedness and universal citizenship? A Britain where life for many millions of people has come to resemble Hobbes’s state of nature: more solitary, poorer, nastier, brutish and short? Scribble on, Charles Moore, but don’t dare dodge these tough but consequential questions.
In our age of monitory democracy, as Rupert Murdoch is once again learning to his cost, rascals and rogues are finding it hard to conceal from public attention their private wheeler-dealing.
The latest ‘we will hit back’ revelations published by the pay-walled investigative British website Exaronews show with spectacular clarity that we live in times when publicity rains down hard on all things private and personal. The realm that used to be called ‘private’ becomes publicly contested. Privacy battles are constantly fought, lost and won. Awash in vast oceans of circulating information that is portable and easily reproduced and distributed, anxiety about privacy becomes commonplace. Not even the powerful, whose preferred drug is secrecy, are any longer safe behind closed doors.
Whatever is thought of the whole process, the rough riding or ‘outing’ of private life ensures not only that the public-private boundary is the source of constant legal, political and ethical disputes. Controversies about the private arguably have a long-term positive effect: they teach citizens that the personal is political, that the realm of the private, once hidden away from the eyes and ears of others but still said by many to be necessary for getting risky and dodgy things done in life, is embedded in fields of power in which villains take refuge and injustices result.
One thing is certain: gone are the days when privacy could be regarded as ‘natural’, as a given bedrock or sub-stratum of taken-for-granted experiences and meanings. More than a generation ago, the Moravian philosopher Edmund Husserl thought in that way about the ‘world of everyday life’ (Lebenswelt). He proposed that daily interactions among people are typically habitual. Everyday life has a definite ‘a priori’ quality, he said. It is social interaction guided by acts of empathy among people who believe and expect others to behave more or less like themselves. This inter-subjectivity is structured by unquestioned presumptions of mutual familiarity. Actors suppose a ‘natural attitude’ to themselves and to the world about them; they interact on a bedrock of taken-for-granted beliefs that their own ways of seeing and doing things is ‘naturally’ shared by others.
This way of thinking about the everyday world is now obsolete. Those who still think in terms of everyday life as a barrier against the outside world, perhaps even as a safe and secluded haven of freedom in a world dominated by large-scale, powerful institutions, are out of touch. The reality is that everyday life is no longer a substratum of taken for granted things and people. In the age of monitory democracy, for instance, users of the Internet find their personal data is the engine fuel of a booming web-based market economy; traditional methods of matching advertising to the content of people’s interests is rapidly giving way to a world structured by digital ‘cookies’, small pieces of software installed on personal computers. This software functions as unique identifiers of what users are looking at. It stores the tracked information, so building up a picture of the demographics and interests of users that are of high market value to companies such as Facebook and Google, and to their advertising clients. The ‘de-siloing’ (as those companies say) of personal data allows advertisers to track users with precision. A class-action lawsuit settled out of court by Facebook revealed that even the ‘likes’ posted by its users can be deployed as ‘sponsored stories’ (advertisements) for marketing purposes.
Such tactics are part of a deepening trend in which no private matter or intimate topic is left unmediated, that is, cordoned off from media coverage. The more ‘private’ experiences are, the more ‘publicity’ they seem to get, especially when what’s at stake are matters of taste and consumption, sex and violence, birth and death, personal hopes, fears, skulduggery and tragedy.
In today’s media-saturated societies, private life is losing its privacy. Government agencies install ‘black box’ surveillance devices within Internet traffic. Digital identities of individuals are mined and tracked by companies. Personal data is big business. Techniques of ‘data capture’ develop traction. We live in a surveillance economy, in which companies known as data brokers, also called information re-sellers, gather and then market to other companies, including advertisers, hundreds or thousands of details about the consumption patterns, racial or ethnic identity, health concerns, social networks and financial arrangements of most individuals who go online.
Cheap and user-friendly methods of reproduction and access to portable networked tools of communication meanwhile ensure that we live in the age of hyper-coverage. Everything that happens in the fields of power stretching from the bedroom and bathroom to the boardroom to the battlefield seems to be up for media grabs. With the flick of a switch or the click of a camera button, the world of the private is suddenly public. Unmediated privacy has become a thing of the past.
These are times in which the private lives of celebrities - their romances, parties, health, quarrels, and divorces - are the interest and fantasy objects of millions of people. There is, thanks to genres such as Twitter, television talk shows and talk-back radio, an endless procession of ‘ordinary people’ talking publicly about what privately turns them on, or off. We live in times when millions of people feel free to talk publicly about their private fears, fantasies, hopes and expectations, and to act as if they are celebrities by displaying details of their intimate selves on Facebook.
We live in an age when things done in ‘private’ are big public stories. It is the era (say) in which so-called reality-TV cuts from a scheduled afternoon programme to an armed and angry man; holding a hostage, he turns his shotgun on himself, or fires at the police, live, courtesy of a news helicopter, or outside broadcasting unit. There are moments when citizens themselves take things into their own hands, as when a woman spits racist comments at other passengers on a packed London tram, the incident is filmed and posted online, then after sparking a Twitter trend goes viral, attracting ten million viewers within a week. These are times in which things that were once kept quiet, for instance the abuse of children by priests of the Roman Catholic Church, are publicly exposed by newspapers and other media, with the help of the abused, who manage to unearth details of their molesters, sometimes quite by accident, thanks to the new tools of communication. And we live in an age when video footage proves that soldiers in war zones robbed innocent civilians of their lives, tortured prisoners, raped women and traumatised children.
The de-privatisation and democratisation of daily life is of course a heavily contested process. In the era of monitory democracy, political objections to the destruction of privacy flourish. Some observers argue, extending and upending an eighteenth-century simile, that media coverage robs citizens of their identities, that it resembles not a goddess of liberty, but a succubus, a female demon supposed to rape sleeping men and collect and pass on their sperm to other women. Switching similes, some critics denounce the mounting pressures to expose the secrets of the private as ‘totalitarian’. ‘For me,’ wrote the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, ‘the demand that everything be paraded in the public square and that there be no internal forum is a glaring sign of the totalitarianization of democracy’.
Still other critics denounce the killer instincts of high-pressure media coverage of the private. Famously spelled out by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), the accusation of media murder is sometimes literally the leitmotif of media events, as when intense publicity tracked the death of Princess Diana following a high-speed car chase by journalists dubbed paparazzi. Still other critics, sensing that a private life is vital for cultivating a sound sense of self, deliberately refuse to send tweets, to purchase a smart phone, or to use e-mail.
Running in the same direction are calls for journalists to respect others’ privacy, to raise their ethical standards and to exercise moral self-restraint as defined by established codes of conduct. There are challenges to spam and other types of invasive messages; data vault schemes (offered by companies such as Reputation.com) that allow individuals, for a price, to store and manage their private data. And there are legal cases that aim to prevent journalists from unlimited digging and fishing expeditions, as in the controversies surrounding the unfinished Murdoch press ‘hacking’ scandal and the major (but unsuccessful) appeal brought before the European Court of Human Rights by Max Mosley, against the British newspaper News of the World for its headline story that he had engaged in a ‘sick Nazi orgy with five hookers’.
The court’s judgement makes for interesting reading. It recognised the fundamental importance of situations where ‘information at stake is of a private and intimate nature and there is no public interest in its dissemination’. It noted as well that ‘the private lives of those in the public eye have become a highly lucrative commodity for certain sectors of the media’. The court nevertheless warned of the ‘chilling effect’ of pre-notification requirements and reaffirmed the principle, which it applied to this particular case, that the ‘publication of news’ about persons holding public office ‘contributes to the variety of information available to the public’. It concluded with a reminder of the ‘limited scope’ for applying ‘restrictions on the freedom of the press to publish material which contributes to debate on matters of general public interest’.
Some critics of de-privatisation meanwhile call publicly for the legal right of citizens to delete all present-day traces of their past ‘private’ communications with others. According to Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and others, digital communications technologies are double-edged sharp swords: while individuals find themselves taking full advantage of communicative abundance, their lives, it is said, are potentially harmed by digitisation, cheap storage, easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software. Together, these forces conspire to increase the dangers of everlasting digital memory of our private lives, for instance outdated information taken out of context, or compromising photos or messages accessed by employers, or political foes.
According to these champions of privacy, whereas the invention of writing enabled humans to remember across generations and vast swathes of time, media saturation does something altogether different. It potentially threatens our individual and collective capacity to forget things that need to be forgotten. The past becomes ever present, ready to be recalled at the flick of a switch, or the click of a mouse. The trouble with digital systems, runs this line of criticism, is not only that they remember things that are sometimes better forgotten. It is that they hinder our ability to make sound decisions unencumbered by the past.
Meanwhile, acting on that point, a new generation of technically savvy privacy activists associated with networked bodies like Privacy International and the Open Rights Group has launched various public campaigns. They champion the stricter application of expiration dates and the development of privacy-enhancing technologies (so-called PETs). They agitate against publicly available geospatial information about private dwellings, government initiatives to regulate access to strong cryptography, the corporate abuse of consumer databases and unregulated wiretapping and hacking powers of media organisations.
What are we to make of all these developments centred on the ‘right to privacy’? Most obviously, they underscore the contingency and deep ambiguity of the private-public distinction. Think of the way this old distinction was defended, philosophically speaking, as a sacrosanct First Principle by nineteenth-century liberal thinkers such as the English political writer and parliamentarian John Stuart Mill and Germany’s greatest philosopher of liberty, Wilhelm von Humboldt.
Their insistence that there are clear distinctions to be drawn between ‘the private’ (conceived as the sphere of self-regarding actions) and ‘the public’ (the sphere of other-affecting actions) no longer rings true. In the age of communicative abundance, privacy, defined as the ability of individuals to control how much of themselves they reveal to others, their ‘right to be let alone’, is seen as a complicated and publicly contestable right. Citizens are encouraged to think more flexibly and contextually about the public and the private.
Disputes about privacy and its ‘invasion’ have another long-term political significance. They underscore not only growing public awareness of the contingent and reversible character of the public-private distinction, which is to say that the distinction is no longer readily seen, as it was seen by many 19th and 20th century European liberals, as either a binary opposite set in stone or as having a divine, mysterious validity. Thanks to monitory democracy and the communications revolution of our time, the private-public distinction is regarded as a precious but ambiguous legacy from former times.
Citizens come to see that some things are definitely worth keeping private. They learn there are times when privacy - ensuring that certain matters are nobody else’s business, that individuals and groups should not freely witness or comment upon their actions - is a precious inheritance. That is why they favour keeping certain areas of social and political life ‘private’, for instance through efforts by journalists to protect the identity of their sources, or through campaigns against governments’ use of closed-circuit TV cameras and other forms of surveillance.
The sphere of ‘the private’ is seen not only as a fragile ‘temporary resting place’ (Richard Rorty) that usefully serves as a citizens' refuge from interference by others. There is growing awareness that the private also functions as a refuge for scoundrels. Citizens learn to accept that there are times when embarrassing publicity given to ‘private’ wrongdoings is entirely justified. Outing the powerful is necessary, especially when citizens are confronted by mendacious politicians, or by would-be rulers (like Berlusconi) desperate to confirm that they are men, or by dangerous media barons whose concocted innocence in public is contradicted by leaked evidence that behind closed doors they display not a drop of contrition for the injustice they’ve dumped on others.
My first moments with His Holiness last week were not quite what I’d expected. In pulled the police-escorted motorcade, sirens wailing, blue lights flashing, bang on time, according to plan. As the motorcade drew to a halt, the small welcoming party hushed. The winter sunshine air tingled. Our distinguished guest, now frail with age, eased himself from one of the lead vehicles. Re-wrapping his red and gold robes, he adjusted his spectacles, stood erect, then extended clasped hands in my direction. ‘Tashi delek’, I said nervously, using most of the Tibetan words I know. ‘Welcome to Australia, to the University of Sydney, and to the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. We’re honoured to be hosting your visit.’
As if determined to upstage the solemn greeting of a Nobel Laureate extraordinaire, scores of cockatoos and parrots suddenly screeched from a tree directly above. ‘What’s all the noise?’, asked the Dalai Lama, frowning. ‘Our native birds are raucous, known for their full throats. It’s a local speciality’, I smiled, clutching for unrehearsed words. ‘Oh’, said His Holiness, ‘what time do they usually get up?’ ‘Probably before dawn, around 5 o'clock this morning’, I replied. ‘Oh’, said our honoured guest, now looking cheeky, ‘almost as early as me. I suppose I’ve some competition for the students’ attention this morning.'
With that little self-deprecating joke, the 14th Dalai Lama appeared in our midst, direct from the international airport, his first engagement in Australia, to speak to students and staff at the University’s Seymour Centre. The chosen theme of the lecture was ‘Education Matters’. His Holiness proposed that the ultimate purpose of education is to create meaningful lives guided not just by technical knowledge but by recognition of the vital importance of morality based on human emotions. Our minds and bodies are capable of love, tenderness, compassion, he said. These are moral virtues. By contrast, he continued, emotions such as anger, jealousy and fear are not merely negative vices. They seduce us into believing in a world of appearances. They bias our minds against what he called ‘reality’. The true purpose of education, he concluded, is to encourage young people to spot the difference between appearances and reality, to narrow the gap between them, to see that our world is in the grip of a crisis of moral emotions. If change is to happen, he said, young people must try to live more realistically. They must think and act in twenty-first century terms, strive for a happier world for all the planet’s living creatures, in opposition to the terrible violence and misery of the past century, marked as it was by such events as the cruel Sino-Japanese conflict, the wreckage and terror produced by World War Two and the sorrows of Hiroshima, the Korean War and the Cold War.
Measured in terms of audience excitement, learning and entertainment, this was a public lecture at its best. His Holiness was in excellent form. The crowd (a full house of nearly 800 students and staff) seemed to enjoy every moment. The blinding glare of stage lights meant (from the chair) I couldn’t see most of them (the Dalai Lama commented at one point he’d wished he’d worn his sun visor), but later I was told that some of the audience wept. It was obvious from the intense concentration that those present knew this to be a rare event in their lives, an occasion that managed to combine intellectual rigour with a felt sense of fun fed by the infectious chuckle of His Holiness. It was by any standards an unforgettable morning - a fitting climax to a long struggle to undo the University’s efforts to shut down the event, a public triumph for the principle that universities ought to be public spaces where diverse opinions and unrestricted debate are sacrosanct.
During the course of his short forty-five minute lecture, the Dalai Lama pounced on reported descriptions of him as ‘a living Buddha’. I’d in fact used this phrase in my introductory welcome, which recalled how in preparation for the event I’d asked a Sydney friend to tell me the first things that sprang to mind at the mention of His Holiness. Quick as a flash, the friend said: ‘The Dalai Lama’s a living Buddha. I don’t think of him as an ordinary human being. He lives beyond this world. He is for me someone I have to figure out, someone who has 'presence’, who can enlarge my mind, who does not live his life according to human greed, or sorrow, or power.'
His Holiness wasn’t convinced. ‘Me? Living Buddha?’, he chortled at one point. ‘No, I’m only a human being. Don’t expect me to know everything. I don’t. Who does?’ More chortles prompted cackles from the audience. His Holiness grew serious, reaffirming his belief that the next Dalai Lama may be a woman, even that the role of Dalai Lama may be abolished. ‘So I urge you to question received opinions’, he said. ‘Doubt is the key to education. Do not straightforwardly believe what your teachers tell you. Doubt your professors as well.’ More mirth, this time pointing in my direction. ‘Scepticism is a precious virtue,’ said His Holiness, ‘doubt, questioning, awareness of contradictions are indispensable for life.’
At the downtown press conference that immediately followed his address at the University, the Dalai Lama returned to the theme of doubt, religious belief and the need for people from different walks of life to respect the different opinions of others. What he had to say about the acceptance of difference was of wider interest. It ended with words that shocked many journalists in the room.
‘The concept of One Religion, One Truth clashes with the idea of several religions, several truths’, said His Holiness. He pointed out that whereas for individuals the truth of a religion is often a given, an unquestioned and unquestionable Truth, the notion of several religions is highly relevant for whole political communities. He urged his listeners to speak not of religion, but of religions; and he went on to discuss India’s democratic experiment with secularism, a word which it took from the West in order fundamentally to transform its meaning. ‘Modern India is relevant. Beside its home-grown religions, all the world’s main religions are deeply rooted there. India’s constitution is based on the principle of multiple religions. It maintains that a multi-religious nation must accept all religions equally. Secularism means respect for all religions, and for non-believers as well.’
The Dalai Lama then moved to discuss the problem of animosity wrapped in religion. ‘Some books talk of a clash between religions, for instance between Islam and Western civilisation, but such views are negative, and based on fear. They miss the key point that Islam is a religion of compassion for all God’s creatures. There are of course mischievous Muslims, terrorists for instance. There are also mischievous Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Jews, but all their views are absolutely unrealistic.’
Back to realism. The term went undefined, but towards the end of the press conference His Holiness called on believers in other-worldly principles to be mindful of worldly concerns, worldly dynamics. ‘The Buddha was very realistic’, he said. Then came the surprise, the killer conclusion that made everybody in the room sit up, and think. ‘The Buddha never spoke in terms of only one religion. That’s why he said that all his followers, monks and scholars, should not accept his teachings out of faith, or devotion, but rather out of investigation and experiment. He thought it was necessary to raise questions, to find contradictions,’ said His Holiness. ‘The same applies to all religious people. They need to be realistic. Even God should be realistic.’
Whatever is thought of the spiritual reasoning and moral teachings of His Holiness, the remark showed once again just how brave, and bold, is his unswerving commitment to the democratic virtue of humility.
Readers interested in some of the big political ideas and trends of our time may like to listen to a recent talk on the greening of democratic politics. Hosted in Sydney by the newly-founded Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, it aimed to provoke discussion about the long-term, ‘deep’ effects of green politics on the language and institutions and ‘imaginary’ of democracy.
Listeners are reminded that in half a generation, green-minded intellectuals, movements and political parties have helped ensure that such matters as chemical pollutants, nuclear power, carbon emissions, climate change and species destruction are ‘in the air’ and firmly on the policy agenda of democratic politics. Public awareness that humans are the only biological species ever to have occupied the entire planet, with potentially catastrophic consequences, is growing. Green politics has helped popularise precautionary attitudes towards ‘progress’ and its blind embrace. It has also tabled vital tactical questions: for instance, should priority be given to civic initiatives and social movements or to the formation of political parties and alliances with mainstream parties? How can green parties best be kept ‘democratic’? Does their political success require broadening green politics to include themes such as immigration and gender discrimination?
Despite these notable achievements, or so runs the argument, the profoundly radical implications of green politics for the way people imagine and live democracy remain poorly understood. Levels of support for democratic principles certainly run high within green circles, as confirmed by the widespread uproar triggered by James Lovelock’s suggestion that it ‘may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while’. Yet why people with green sympathies should embrace democracy for more than tactical reasons, whether democratic principles themselves can be ‘greened’ and what that might imply for the way people imagine to be the essence or ‘spirit’ of democracy are matters that remain obscure within green circles and beyond – or so this talk on green politics and the future of democracy suggests.
The following draft reflection on the subject of banks and democracy has been prepared for presentation at a forthcoming OECD meeting in Paris, in late-May 2013. The text is obviously much too long for any ‘normal’ column. It’s stretching the definition of a field note on present-day democracy. I trust readers will be forgiving, if only because it tries to analyse urgent matters that are sadly neglected by contemporary theorists and analysts of democracy. Comments are most welcome.
The Unfinished European Crisis
Five long years into its worst economic slump since the 1930s, the European region now resembles a boiling pot of contradictory political trends, most of them traceable to the past misconduct of banks and bitter fights over their future. From a distance, it’s hard to grasp the scale and intensity of this worsening crisis, or the deep public disaffection now directed against banking and credit institutions and their government protectors.
The shock, disgruntlement and anger among citizens is palpable, for instance in Cyprus, whose offshore banking system has effectively been terminated by an EU bailout deal, for which not one member of the local parliament voted.
In Greece, criminal charges have been brought against Andreas Georgiou and other officials responsible for overstating the country’s debt, so contributing to the implosion of local markets and compounding the public misery caused by enforced austerity. Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest bank, is subject to a new investigation of claims that it falsely valued credit derivatives so as to avoid a government bailout by concealing losses as large as $12 billion. In Spain, the cajas savings banks have all but disappeared and their consortium replacement, known as Bankia, has crashed, leaving behind a trail of wreckage. In Britain, uproar has greeted revelations that nearly 100 top executives of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 83% owned by taxpayers, were last year awarded pay rises of a million pounds, despite the fact that its quality of service is poor and (I know from experience as a customer) its internal computer systems suffered prolonged collapse. Public disaffection with the state-owned bank has been compounded by its conviction (by the British state!) for fiddling the bank inter-lending rate (LIBOR), and by the sizeable fine it has been forced to pay, at taxpayers’ expense.
Given such obscenities, for that’s what they are, it comes as no surprise that the quaint old reputation of bankers as uncorrupted local men prone to dapper eccentricity, but fair-minded in their disbursement of money, has been blown apart. In more than a few European countries, the neologism ‘bankster’ is now a popular term of abuse. It was probably first used in Italy, where the oldest bank in the world (Monte dei Paschi di Siena) has been bailed out with state funds (4 billion euros) paid for by taxpayers. ‘Once there used to be gangsters’, joked Beppe Grillo, well before the onset of the present banking crisis, and his recent stunning electoral success. ‘Today, we have banksters’. Since then (1998) he’s regularly hurled cruel jokes at thieving bankers, often comparing them to dogs, who at least can be trained to return things honestly.
In one of their wilder moments, Germany’s Der Spiegel has dubbed Beppe Grillo the new Mussolini, ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’, but the plain fact is that his hyperbole resonates with millions of Europeans, who know in their guts that the banking and credit sector remains both dysfunctional and deeply hurtful of the lives of citizens. Scandals centred on interest-rate fixing and mis-selling continue to erupt. Bank tycoons are still paid handsome bonuses. Politicians defend them. Two months ago, on the day I left London for Sydney, efforts by Brussels to apply stricter caps on bankers’ bonuses were slammed by London’s Mayor Boris Johnson as a ‘transparently self-defeating’ assault on ‘banking talent’.
In many countries, banks have meanwhile stopped doing what they’re supposedly chartered to do: to lend money to individuals, businesses and organisations at affordable rates of interest. In Britain, whose 30-year boom was hitched to the power of the City, bank lending to small and medium-sized businesses continues to drop, despite cut-price loans from the government’s Funding for Lending Scheme. To make matters worse, the Bank of England has recently warned that in 2014 more than a few companies are vulnerable because before the crash they were saddled with huge debts by private equity firms that bought them out with money borrowed from banks. Meanwhile, whole banks continue to drop. Two months ago, the fourth largest bank in the Netherlands, SNS Reaal, was taken into state hands. The €10 billion bailout was designed to prevent the banking and insurance group’s collapse from property loan losses and to shore up confidence after a private investor-led rescue had failed. Part of the crippling cost will be borne by Dutch taxpayers.
The sad news for citizens is that the deep political crisis triggered by the collapse of risk-infused, profit-hungry banks is by no means over. There are public reminders that ‘the demons haven’t been banished; they are merely sleeping’ (Jean-Claude Juncker). For the first time in the history of European integration, there are stern warnings that Europe, comprising around 7% of the world’s population and now less than 20% of global economic output, may in political economy terms be irreversibly in decline. Others point out that in the history of modern capitalism there have been eleven large-scale financial bubbles whose bursting caused widespread social damage. Seven of these have occurred since the early 1970s.
That’s a spooky fact, which is why nobody, certainly not the political elites of Europe, knows what is going to happen next. For many millions of European citizens, especially for those with eyes and ears, the deepening uncertainty is sobering. They are learning about the deep structural dependence of parliamentary democracy on the financial sector. They’ve figured out that during the past three decades, banks fuelled booms, especially in the housing and construction sectors. They drove what the political sociologist Colin Crouch has called ‘privatised Keynesianism’: instead of governments raising taxes, or borrowing money to fund equal access to such goods as housing, work skills and education, individual citizens themselves were encouraged, at their own risk, to take advantage of easy access to loans, to pay for the services that governments once provided.
Meanwhile, thanks to upswings in the loans business, house prices climbed. Millions of citizens felt richer. Employment levels in the banking and credit and real estate sectors blossomed. Young graduates found high-paying jobs; banks became a source of national pride, and they attracted bright and talented young things. Top executives raked in small fortunes from salaries, bonuses and equities. New bank ‘products’ centred on reckless risk-taking and hedging were produced and marketed successfully, sometimes on the sly. (Full disclosure: from direct personal experience as a long-time customer of the Royal Bank of Scotland, I can confirm that the bank operated bizarre off-shore deals lubricated by written and verbal assurances that deposited funds were ‘safe’, and not subject to mainland taxation rules.) In the end, the recklessness of the finance sector came a cropper. It brought whole economies to the edge of a political abyss. The resulting bubbles began to burst all over the place, depressing markets and dragging down whole governments. Then a most astonishing thing happened: at taxpayers' expense, the banks that had recklessly fuelled the boom and bust rebounded by setting the austerity agenda that is now hurting the lives of millions of people and crippling the parliamentary democracies they once cherished.
The Rise of the Banking State
The extraordinary bounce-back reveals the most disturbing, but least obvious, largely invisible, feature of the unfinished European crisis: the transformation of democratic taxation states into post-democratic banking states.
What is meant by this mouthful? The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter long ago pointed out how modern European states (at first they were monarchies, later most became republics) fed upon taxes extracted from their subject populations. The point is still emphasised by government and politics textbooks. Usually this is done by noting that under democratic conditions elected governments are expected to satisfy the needs and respond to the demands of citizens by providing various goods and services paid for through taxation granted by their consent. Behind this observation stands the presumption that the creation and circulation of money is the prerogative of the state. ‘Money is a creature of the legal order’, wrote Georg Friedrich Knapp in his classic State Theory of Money (1905).
Critics of this view long ago sensibly pointed out that the public ‘validity’ of money also stems from its quantity and purchasing power, but what’s missing from both the criticism and today’s textbooks is acknowledgement of a deep-seated counter-trend, an epochal shift that’s barely been noticed by thinkers of democracy: the emergence of banking states that are structurally dependent on financial markets.
Slowly but surely, in most European democracies, the power to create and regulate money has effectively been privatised. Without much public commentary or public resistance, governments of recent decades have surrendered their control over a vital resource, with the result that commercial banks and credit institutions now have much more ‘spending power’ than elected governments. In a most interesting new book, the acclaimed historian Harold James has described how this out-flanking of European states by banks and credit institutions was reinforced at the supra-national level, disastrously it turns out, by the formation of the independent European Central Bank. From the moment of its foundation, the wholly unregulated operations of the ECB supposed that money could and should be divorced from the fiscal activities of the member states. The ECB was designed by the Delors Committee, a body stacked with central bankers, who seriously imagined they could insulate themselves from democratic political pressures. They dared look fortune in the face. Preoccupied with keeping inflation rates low, the ECB supposed from the outset that a simultaneous failure of markets and governments was inconceivable.
It turned out that the ECB, the Maastricht Treaty and the single currency functioned as the composite framework within which cross-border banking flourished, partly for reasons of size, but also because the euro-zone offered banks hungry for acquisitions easy access to less regulated zones (German banks had a preference for Irish and Luxembourg subsidiaries, for instance). The disastrous consequence is summarised by Harold James: ‘Europe-wide banking produced self-sustaining and self-propelling credit booms and bubbles, without any built-in corrective mechanisms.’
The recent history of these various trends reveals something shocking for democrats. It shows just how misleading is the commonplace perception that banking and credit institutions are just intermediaries linking savers and borrowers. These institutions are in fact political agenda setters - institutions with tremendous power to make decisions behind the backs of elected governments, to veto their policies, or to ransack their structures.
Take the central case of Britain, where the City strikingly overshadows Westminster. An estimated 97% of the country’s money supply is in the hands of banks and credit institutions (the remaining 3% is government-created coins and notes carried around in citizens’ pockets and purses). In effect, these institutions rent out ‘digital’ money to the rest of the economy and political order. This gives the credit and banking sector vast powers over all other institutions, and of course over citizens as a whole. The sector determines whether people can rent or buy a dwelling, and whether or not ventures as different as small businesses, wind and solar energy farms and commercial real estate receive funding. Proof of the clout of the sector is everywhere. The financial sector in Britain pays limited taxes (in 2012, only 6% of overall tax revenues came from the banking sector). It’s not required to disclose how it uses its customers’ funds. The sector is dominated by oligopolies (in the UK, just 5 banks control 85% of the money supply). They are run by board members blessed with enormous power to shape the economy and government policy, for instance through political donations to parties, or by direct access to policy makers by means of ‘backstage passes’ and ‘revolving doors’. The banking and credit sector naturally provides a comfortable home for retired politicians. Tony Blair now earns 12 times his Prime Minister’s salary as a ‘senior adviser’ to JPMorgan Chase; he reportedly earns another £1 million a year ‘advising’ Zurich Financial Services.
It is painfully obvious that when the financial sector breeds bubbles, and when these bubbles pop, as happened during the past five years, banking states and their citizens are at the whim and mercy of banks and credit institutions. Citizens are held hostage. It is no accident, and certainly no fleeting policy whim, that ‘too big to fail’ banks have been bailed out and propped up at taxpayers’ expense. The rescue patterns established during the past five years simply reflect the structural power that the financial sector wields over governments, whatever their composition. What has happened, to put things brutally, is that the elected parliamentary government component of monitory democracies has been overwhelmed, transformed into a slavish sub-sector of financial markets. These markets were protected by independent central banks and self-regulatory bodies run by the financial sector. When those self-regulated markets failed, the democratic principle of one citizen, one vote was cast aside. Electoral democracy was reduced to being the servant of high-profile banks and shadowy credit and finance institutions, powerful bodies such as private equity firms, asset management companies and money market funds that collect money from investors, such as pension funds, insurance companies and ordinary savers, then for very short periods – weeks or months at most – lend funds to banks, governments and business firms. The extreme example of the trend, which implies the temporary suspension or outright abolition of elections and parliamentary government, has been unfolding in Cyprus. There, a collapsing banking system is being rescued through the imposition of capital controls (for the first time in history depositors within a euro-zone country have been blocked from taking their money out of financial institutions in large amounts and moving it elsewhere) and by literally robbing citizens (whose accounts contain more than 100,000 euros) of their savings overnight – two precedents that are highly dangerous, if only because as soon as the crisis intensifies in another euro-zone country, as it surely will, depositors may well move to withdraw their money in a flash, so intensifying the crisis.
The deepening European crisis exposes the depth of dependence of elected governments on finance capital, and it therefore comes as no surprise that opinion polls show that large majorities of citizens in many European countries are appalled by these trends. They no longer bank on democracy; they sense that democracy is now at the whim and mercy of banks. It’s true that there’s some public awareness of the political dangers of simplifying complexities by demonising or meting out rough treatment to individual bankers (as happened to the man formerly known as Sir Fred Goodwin, boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, who was stripped of his knighthood and whose house was attacked by a shadowy group called ‘Bank Bosses Are Criminals’). There’s also some public recognition granted to ‘good’ bankers, those who keep their dignity by telling the truth, admitting their crimes and mistakes, and offering wise advice about what next needs to happen. The assembly democracy of Athens in the 4th century BCE had Pasion, a much talked-about former slave who quickly rose through the ranks to become a citizen-owner of a money-changing table and provider of military equipment to the armed forces of Athens. Nineteenth century representative democracy featured figures such as George Grote, a banker who championed the secret ballot and democratic parliamentary reform and wrote a twelve-volume history of classical Greece. Our age of monitory democracy has George Soros, whose intelligent diagnoses of the present crisis have earned him global public respect.
The plain fact nevertheless is that figures of the calibre of Pasion, Grote and Soros are today exceptional. The world of high finance has attracted risk addicts, pathological gamblers and amoral rogues. The German political scientist Claus Offe provocatively calls them ‘freebooters’. The term captures the mood among millions of European citizens who are victims of ‘austerity’, and who are understandably disgusted by what is going on. If justice is fairness in the distribution of life chances, then (so they reason) present trends reek of piracy, lawlessness, criminal injustice.
Citizens and Banks
What can be done in this European crisis to breathe life back into the least bad way of publicly handling power called democracy? Can anything be done? Learning from the past, looking backwards in order to envision a new future, is mandatory, if only because loud cries to have bankers’ guts for garters are a well-rehearsed theme in the history of democracy. Much can be learned from why past democrats felt discomfort with banks and why this disaffection triggered innovations that surely are still relevant to our times.
The principle of no taxation without representation was one of the most important of these innovations. Born of deep tensions between citizen creditors and monarchs in the prosperous Low Countries, it proved to be revolutionary. In late 16th-century cities such as Amsterdam and Bruges, influential men with money to invest demanded, as citizens, that they should only agree to lend money to governments, and to pay their taxes, if in return they were granted the power to decide who governs them. The principle was first formulated in the name of democracy (democratie) in a remarkable Dutch-language pamphlet called The Discourse (it’s analysed in detail in The Life and Death of Democracy. Its author is unknown. Published in 1583, its 24-page reasoning elaborated a new equation responsible for kick-starting a revolution in the arts of statecraft, especially in matters of public finance: since governments had to be paid for, for instance by lending them money or paying them taxes, incumbent governments are obliged to treat those who grant them money as citizens. If their money was to be entrusted to governments, then governments had to prove that they could be trusted with their creditors’ money. Financial trust implied political trust. Trust needed constantly to be renewed and that could only happen, so the reasoning ran, when subjects kept their eyes and ears open, doubted what their governments said and did, and demanded of them openness and propriety. Democracy is a form of government in which ‘the most competent and able inhabitants and citizens are elected to the government by their fellow citizens on certain conditions and for a specified period of office.’ Democracy means the readiness ‘to put out of office again those who have been found to be inefficient in government, or who have conducted themselves in a way unbecoming to office; and to refill them as they should be.’
The dynamic reasoning was peculiarly modern. In the ancient democracy of Athens, Pierre Vidal-Nacquet and other scholars have pointed out, banks were small-scale and mainly money-changers and pawn brokers. Most of the moneyed wealth in the assembly democracy of Athens never came the way of citizens (it was usually hoarded by the rich). Banks were not credit institutions geared to speculative or productive investment, for instance investing the money of their clients in maritime loans. As the case of Pasion shows, banks were not agents of greed, champions of unlimited wealth, what Aristotle called chrematistike.
Early modern banks, by contrast, were capitalist institutions. Their aim was to make money within secure political settings. This required political power to be regarded as a trust exercised for defining and protecting its citizens. Elected representatives were to be held permanently accountable to the (moneyed and tax-paying) people from whom it ultimately springs. The argument worked in favour of men of wealth, obviously, but the day came when it backfired on their heads. In the history of modern representative democracy, the principle of political trust fed a second democratic trend: political efforts to break up big banks that abused their powers and violated the trust invested by the people in their elected governments.
Champions of this second principle of ‘bank busting’ recognised that banks could become too big for their boots, and that periodically, for the sake of democracy and its principle of equality, elected governments had to bring them back to earth. The first such attempt to rein back banks in the name of democracy happened during the 1830s, in the young republic of the United States.
The move against money power was led by President Andrew Jackson (1767 – 1845) and his supporters. He was a strange democrat whose aggressive toughness earned him the nickname ‘Old Hickory’. Jackson was a wealthy slave holder who disliked ‘aristocracy’ and over-bearing government. In the name of ‘the people’, he took on the Bank of the United States – and managed to win, by rescinding its charter.
Jackson’s veto message (July 1832) explained why. Large banks make the rich richer, he said. By concentrating so much financial power, they threaten states’ rights, render legislatures vulnerable to their designs and expose citizens to the unaccountable power of foreign interests. The solution was to deal with the ‘hydra of corruption’ by breaking up the most powerful banks, to enable smaller local banks to flourish. ‘The Bank is trying to kill me,’ he declared, ‘but I will kill it.’
That is exactly what Jackson did. Calling for government to ‘confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor’, he ordered the withdrawal of funds from the Bank of America. They were redirected to a variety of smaller ‘pet’ banks, which fuelled investment in land, canal construction, cotton production and manufacturing – until the demand for gold and silver coins (called ‘specie’) went through the roof, to the point where many banks fell victim to a burst bubble and collapsed. A great panic ensued (in 1837), followed by a deep stagnation from which the American economy took years to recover. The collapse was compounded by a simultaneous crisis in Britain, where banks issuing paper receipts and lending excessive quantities of money pushed up prices and destabilised the economy, until the Conservative government led by Sir Robert Peel passed the 1844 Bank Charter Act, which enabled the government to regain control over the creation of bank notes.
All this is history, of course, but history is repeating itself, this time as a disastrous farce. In the European democracies, their substance and spirit under siege, millions of citizens are now convinced that banks are abusing their vast powers and whole governments are violating the hard-won principle that they’re only ever legitimate when they rest on the consent of most people. The principle and practice of government in charge of banks by consent of its citizens have been side-lined. A deep stalemate is developing. The consequences, which include deepening social injustice, political resistance to austerity (most recently, in the Italian elections) and, possibly, more Greek-style social explosions, are for the moment incalculable. So far, there’s only one country in the region – volcanic Iceland - where corrupt banks and greedy bankers have received their due punishment, using swift, decisive and radical measures.
Five years ago, the citizens of one of the richest countries of the world watched aghast as their three main banks (Landbanki, Kapthing and Glitnir) went bust, and were nationalised. Government debt rocketed. The kroner fell sharply in value against the euro. Market capitalisation of the stock exchange dropped over 90%. At the end of 2008, Iceland declared bankruptcy. Public protests erupted when two successive governments tried to impose austerity measures. Demonstrators beat pots and pans in the streets and lit bonfires before the parliament. In March 2010, a national referendum was held in which 93% voted against any laws that would have made Iceland’s citizens responsible for paying more than the minimum of its bankers’ debts. A 9-volume Special Investigation Commission report meanwhile slammed the criminal wrongdoings of banks, some politicians, auditing firms, government officials and administrators. Backed by citizens who were both indignant and furious, the government issued arrest warrants for the bankers responsible for the crash. A parliamentary court (the first in the history of the country) found a prime minister guilty of violating the constitution and laws of ministerial responsibility. A new draft constitution was prepared by a publicly elected Constitutional Council. Including clauses specifying the right of all citizens to have access to natural resources and the Internet, it awaits ratification through a parliamentary vote and a national referendum. Its fate now depends on the outcome of the general election, to be held this coming weekend.
Will the courageous methods of Icelanders to save their democracy by politically reining in banks and bankers be adopted by others elsewhere in Europe? It’s too early to tell, unfortunately. Iceland’s circumstances are in any case special, yet a clear implication of its recent experience is that the present crisis-ridden drift towards banking states can only be resolved by pursuing radical political reforms. Scapegoating of individuals, the demonisation of banks and caps on bonuses are not enough. Toothy political innovation that comes from ‘above’ is badly needed, yet so far in this European crisis, predictably, there’s nothing that remotely measures up to efforts during the 1930s, such as the Glass-Steagall Act in the United States, to ring fence vanilla-flavoured mainstream savings and loans businesses from much riskier ‘casino’ investment banking, for instance by creating ‘custodial accounts’ that remain the legal property of customers, whose funds cannot be used by investment banks for risky speculations and profit-driven lending.
Few members of the political elites of Europe think in terms of ring-fencing democratic institutions against the reckless greed of banks. No democratic means has yet been found for shutting down failed banks without burdening taxpayers or endangering the financial system. Yes, on the way is European legislation in support of tougher rules governing how much capital banks must hold in reserve. There’s plenty of talk of the need to bring ‘ethics’ back into banking. There’s growing political interest in the so-called German Sparkassen, a network of local banks that have a civic duty to lend within a region and to promote local growth. There are pop-up makeover men, like Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays, who’ve taken to wearing modest dark blue suits, ‘trust me’ shirts and plain ties. They talk in management speak, using such acronyms as TRANSFORM (‘Turnaround’; ‘Return Acceptable NumberS’ and ‘’FORward Momentum’). Calls by politicians for bonus caps are growing louder. In a recent referendum in business-friendly Switzerland, voters approved the principle that shareholders must have a binding say on the overall pay packages for company executives and directors. The representatives of European Union governments and the European Parliament have meanwhile just agreed that maximum annual bonuses given to bankers, starting next year, would be equal to their salaries.
Annual doubling of the salaries of powerful people heavily responsible for this deep crisis hardly seems fair. Sure, these political proposals and reforms are better than nothing, but if my short history of banks and democracy is plausible then it suggests that a much tougher and more innovative program of democratisation is needed. If the aim is to ‘throw as many wrenches as possible into the works of haute finance’ (Wolfgang Streeck), then organised pressures from below, from both voters and civil society networks, will be vital.
A pertinent example is Spain’s Platform of Mortgage Victims, a militant social network geared to the protection of citizens suffering property repossessions and unaffordable mortgages. The platform is a new type of citizens’ initiative. It has managed to wrong-foot the Rajoy government by collecting nearly 1.5 million signatures in support of a petition calling on parliament to change the laws covering mortgages and to eliminate penalties for citizens who fall behind in payments. Its prominent spokeswoman Ada Colau has gone further. During a recent parliamentary briefing, she caused a sensation by calling to his face a senior member of the Spanish banking association a ‘criminal’ who ‘should be treated like one’. She’s since publicly demanded a moratorium on house evictions and proposed that nationalised lenders should be converting empty flats into affordable social housing. She puts the underlying principle that’s at stake forcefully, in plain speech: ‘It cannot be that the most vulnerable people are made to live with the consequences of their actions until their death, while the big companies take no responsibility and are bailed out with public money.’
Given the scale of the developing catastrophe, surely Ada Colau, an unflinching democrat, is right about that?
The following remarks on truth and democracy were presented at the opening of a brainstorming session entitled Does Truth Really Matter in Australian Politics? Political Accountability in an Era of Agitated Media. The lively, all-day gathering of journalists, academics, students and web activists was convened by Peter Fray and hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) and the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, 9th April, 2013.
Sceptics say that talk of truth is implausible, or a downright fraud, but remarkable – and puzzling – is the tenacity of the whole idea of truth. Look at two contradictory trends of our times. It’s said we live in the age of ‘truthiness’ (Stephen Colbert), an age when clever politicians say openly that what ‘is’ depends on ‘the meaning of what is is’ (Bill Clinton). It’s argued by others that truth is a trope, that everything’s relative to everything else. For still others, Truth died along with God, or ‘truth’ is a power/knowledge effect (Foucault).
Despite the scepticism and prevarication, we live in times when public references to the ‘truth’ of things are flourishing. There’s much talk of the value of ‘objectivity’, references to indisputable ‘facts’ and resort to Truth Commissions, websites such as www.factcheck.org and Truth-o-Meters provided by organisations like PolitiFact. Despite everything, we live in an age when people from all walks of life regularly say things like ‘that’s not true’. It’s a period as well when ‘sorting out the truth in politics’ hatches great political scandals that double as media events, episodes when ‘telling the truth’ becomes of paramount value.
I’d like to convince you that the simultaneous public denial and public embrace of truth is a feature of democracies like Australia. So let’s look in a bit more depth at the truth paradox, let’s call it. For complicated historical reasons that run deep, and stretch back to Luther’s famous, explosive, influential attack on popery as the sole interpreter of scripture in An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520), talk of ‘Truth’ or ‘truth’ has become philosophically and politically questionable. Tropes like ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ nowadays arouse suspicions. There’s a quantum turn going on, a pluralisation of people’s lived perceptions of the world. The whole trend is fed by a growing abundance of platforms where power is interrogated and chastened, so that monitory democracies tend to nurture uncertainty, doubt, scepticism, modesty, irony, the conviction that truth has many faces, the recognition that the meaning of the world and its dynamics are so complicated that, ultimately, its true meaning and significance cannot be fully grasped.
During my lifetime, philosophers in the European tradition have complicated matters by pointing to the disputed plural meanings of the ‘truth’ word. For instance, truth can refer to propositions that correspond to ‘reality’, to the accurate ‘mirroring’ of reality by ideas in our heads, or in bar graphs or statistical charts that purport to represent ‘objectively’ some or other state of affairs. Alternatively, truth can refer to water-tight, logical reasoning, to the learned art of developing a chain of premises which lead to a valid conclusion, such as ‘snow is white is true if and only if snow is white’. Heidegger, by contrast, thought that truth can only mean ‘the disclosure of what keeps itself concealed’. Wittgenstein meanwhile famously said that truth or knowledge is in the end always based on acknowledgement, the more or less shared ‘world picture’ and language framework (Thomas Kuhn would later say the paradigm) in which we live our lives, a framework that pre-structures interpretations of the world and shapes what meaningfully is communicated to others.
These contested meanings of truth are symptomatic of the contemporary trend that is leading democracies towards the pluralisation of truth, or to organised efforts to destroy it outright. Coming to grips with this trend isn’t easy, so let’s for a moment think counter-factually about truth. Imagine a world where talk of truth and Truth had been abolished, for instance by switching on a political version of Killswitch, a mobile phone app that promises to ‘seamlessly and discreetly remove all traces of your ex from your Facebook’ (it was released, defiantly, on Valentine’s Day)? What would be the consequences? I see four probable effects.
First: the whole phenomenon of lying would disappear. Truth and lies are twins. We don’t usually think of things this way, but lying, the opposite of truth, keeps the whole idea of truth alive. Lying is the deliberate saying of what is not so. It is wilful deception – covering up things that the liar supposes to be ‘true’. When Harry Truman said: ‘Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in..’. Truman meant: when Richard Nixon lies, he supposes he knows what is true. When inventing effective lies, he designs falsehoods under the guidance of truth. When all’s said and done, Richard Nixon, the no good lying bastard, knows the meaning of, and pays homage to, truth.
It follows that in a world without truth, lying would by definition disappear. We could no longer say ‘all politicians are bloody liars’. We could no longer accuse bogus think tanks and lobbyists of ‘handling the truth carelessly’. Emancipated from the scourge of lying, we might feel welcome relief, and propose three cheers, but that would be premature, for the disappearing of truth would entail several probable downsides for democracy.
The most obvious setback would be that the powerful, those who decide on behalf of others who gets what when and how, would find it much easier to get their way. Speaking truth to power, the originally 18th - century mantra of philosophers, journalists and citizens, always forced the powerful to do battle with public accusations of their illegitimacy. Talk of truth (she was often represented as a woman) was one of power’s limits, as I tried to show in two studies of power: the late 18th-century life and writings of Tom Paine (who triggered the Silas Deane affair, the first public scandal of the young American republic) and a history of power in 20th-century Europe centred on Václav Havel, a citizen playwright who courageously defied arbitrary power for several decades before 1989 in the name of the principle of ‘living in the truth’ (it was famously articulated in the essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’).
So the abolition of truth would abolish more than lying. Truth is a trope, but its champions can have unsettling and undermining effects on arrogant and powerful governors. In a world where (say) belief in God has lost its absolute grip, so that references to God no longer serve as a check upon hubris, ditching truth would require citizens and their (elected and unelected) representatives to lay down a powerful weapon when confronted by arbitrary power. The powerless would become more vulnerable to the powerful.
There would be a second consequence: a world that disregarded veracity would become vulnerable to the spread of bullshit. Advertising, public relations and political ‘announcables’ (Lindsay Tanner) are examples of bullshit. It’s a democratic phenomenon: every citizen, every politician, every organisation is supposed to have views on things, no matter how ill-conceived or carelessly put. I recommend to you Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. It argues that bullshit, carefully defined, is on the rise, and that we should worry our heads about bullshit because it is much more dangerous than lying. Why? This is because bullshit sends veracity packing. Take an example: consider an Anzac Day orator, who goes on bombastically about how great Australia is, and how the diggers who gave their lives, their guts and their blood, on foreign shores made us the greatest country in the world. The speaker isn’t trying to deceive the audience; the speaker doesn’t care what the audience thinks. Matters of what’s true and what’s false are irrelevant. The speaker as ‘bullshit artist’ wants simply to be seen as a good bloke, a patriot, sincere all the way down to his socks, or underpants. Sincerity is a form of bullshit. It’s a performance, sure, but like excrement, from which all nutrients have been removed, bullshit is empty speech. It’s ‘hot air’, improvised speech from which informative content and truth claims have been extracted. The abolition of truth, it follows, would most probably increase the volume and spread of bullshit, which would function (as it already does now) as fertiliser for publicly unaccountable, arbitrary power.
The disappearance, or the disappearing of truth, would feed a third trend in 21st-century media-saturated democracies: the growth of pockets of organised public silence about the operation of power. I’ve tried elsewhere to analyse the dynamics of public silence by examining Lehmann Bros, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima. These are recent examples of the troubling privatisation of power. Those in charge of their operations managed successfully to govern their organisations in silence – silence within and outside the organisation. This silence fed upon intensive public relations campaigns that had the knock-on effect of cocooning these large-scale power adventures. That nurtured group think by fabricating positive stories of their performance within media-saturated settings. In the end, we now know, the privatisation of power resulted in catastrophes.
I’d like to close by returning to the truth paradox with which I began. Democratic societies are today simultaneously undermining and clinging to talk of truth. Truth is a democratic trope. It’s as if democracies can neither live with nor live without clean-cut, straightforward truth. Can they live indefinitely with the ambiguity? Perhaps they can’t. Perhaps something has to give. Perhaps we’re heading backwards into a world where simple-minded or un-ironic belief in Truth will triumph, a world that enfranchises Certainties and Facts – a world that embraces the view that Truth is a plebiscite of Facts and Certainties, whose clear and vocal verdicts must be respected.
Perhaps political gravity will pull us in this direction. For more than a few reasons, I somehow doubt it, if only because something subtle is going on within democracies such as Australia. Without mincing words, might it be that the stubbornness of truth, people’s embrace of a retro-ideal, is feeding a fundamental pluralisation of its meaning, to the point where truth has many faces and, in consequence, the greatest foes of truth are not lies and ignorance but the illusion of a single Truth – like the Market, the Nation, Christianity or Islam?
If Truth is the great enemy of truths, then it follows that the only known human cure for the potentially deadly effects of singular Truth and, as it happens, the cure for lying, bullshit and silence, is what Greek democrats called parrhesia. By this I mean free-spirited talk, the bold circulation of differing viewpoints about what is true and false, challenges to bullshit or unwarranted public silence, in other words, courageous conjectures, corrective judgements, the institutional humbling of power by means of checks and balances placed on the merchants of Truth, Lying, Bullshit and Silence, all done with a strong sense that ‘truth’ has many faces.
Something like this democratic conception of the pluralism of truths was recommended by Wittgenstein. ‘Suppose it were forbidden to say “I know” and only allowed to say “I believe I know”’, he wrote in On Certainty.
I’ve always loved that aphorism, which happens to be the founding core principle of the Dutch start-up crowd-funded news site de Correspondent. Soon to launch (in September), it’s already raised around $1.3 million (in 8 days!) through reader subscription pledges in advance. de Correspondent is in pursuit of a new and more pluralist understanding of ‘truth’ and ‘news’.
Its editor, Rob Wijnberg, explains that ‘news’ claiming to be ‘true’ and ‘objective’ is the great unrecognised addiction of our time. He insists that those who only see the world via ‘the news’ are unlikely to know how the world works, and that what is therefore needed is a digital experiment that presents news differently, from a variety of perspectives, more slowly, more contextually. ‘I don’t believe in “the news” in the objective sense of the word’, says Wijnberg. ‘You can describe the world in infinite ways, and “the news” happens to be one of them…I want the correspondents to make their choices explicit – what they do think is important, and why should readers care about it? You do that by making clear that you’re not following an objective news agenda, but a subjective journey through the world.’
One final remark about the political consequences of a plural and more ironic understanding of truth: if I’m right about the need for democrats to think in terms of a plurality of truths, then the whole ideal of ‘the informed citizen’ has to be abandoned. It has become an unhelpful cliché in discussions of media and politics. Engaged citizens whose heads are stuffed with unlimited quantities of “information” about a “reality” that they’re on top of: that’s an utterly implausible and – yes – anti-democratic ideal which dates from the late nineteenth century. Favoured originally by the champions of a restricted, educated franchise, and by interests who rejected partisan politics grounded in the vagaries and injustices of everyday social life, the ideal of the “informed citizen” was elitist. Today, it’s an intellectualist ideal. It’s unsuited to the age of plural truths, lying, bullshit and silence. It does not belong to times that badly need not ‘informed citizens’, but wise citizens who know that they are not the only ones who know that they do not know everything.
Readers interested in the fate of Julian Assange, his bid for a seat in the Australian Senate and the legal and political reasons why he’s still in grave danger of extradition to the United States, might like to look at the following short video clip of a recent ABC interview. It’s also here:
With the Dalai Lama’s visit to Sydney just around the corner, I was naturally drawn to fresh reports that during the past year the Chinese authorities have been experimenting in Tibet with a new political ‘grid’ (wangge) system of neighbourhood information-gathering units, led by ‘grid captains’.
More than 600 street-side ‘convenience police posts’ (bian minjing wu zhan) equipped with computers and video technology have apparently already been set up in towns, rural areas and temples throughout Tibet. These posts are a vital part of the new grid system, which operates 24/7. They are linked in turn to voluntary ‘civilian’ networks called ‘red armband patrols’, whose job at the grass-roots level is to anticipate ‘sudden incidents’ (self-immolations, for instance) and to conduct ‘doorstep interviews’ and searches of Tibetan homes in search of politically forbidden materials, including photographs of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese rulers recently announced that they intend to expand the state-of-the-art surveillance system. They say it is designed to ‘improve public access to basic services’. They describe the dragnet as an important component in the country-wide drive towards ‘social stability maintenance’ (weiwen) and ‘scientifically guiding public opinion’. Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, says the grid system comprises ‘nets in the sky and traps on the ground’. Other Party documents speak of ‘strengthening information and intelligence work to achieve in practical terms smart ears and clear eyes to gain the initiative’.
A Human Rights Watch report meanwhile notes the way the new system targets ‘special groups’, such as ex-prisoners, ‘nuns and monks on the move’, and Tibetans who have returned from exile in India. It quotes a Chinese scholar, who helpfully explains that by means of the new system, ‘information is proactively gathered about people, events, and things so as to build up a database of urban components and events.’ It’s a surveillance system ‘through which relevant departments and work units can proactively uncover problems in a timely manner.’
Outsiders have few extra details of the new data-gathering system. But what’s interesting is how observers and critics of the sophisticated new control strategy reach for worn-out old epithets when describing its modus operandi. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch points out that the new system ‘encroaches on Tibetans’ rights to freedom of expression, belief, and association.‘ She notes that the point of the new system is 'surveillance and control’. Since its chief flaw is its failure to address popular grievances among Tibetans, she concludes, the ‘Chinese authorities should dismantle this Orwellian 'grid’ system'.
She’s right about the crushing anti-democratic effects of the grid system, except that it isn’t ‘Orwellian’. It’s something new, something more disturbing. It squarely belongs to the early years of the 21st century, to the age of networked communications and monitory democracy, which it’s designed to mimic, to counter, and to destroy. From what we know of the new Chinese grid system, it’s not an ‘Orwellian’ centralised system of control. Yes, it’s chartered with ‘searching for faults, traces, unseen threats, gaps, shadows’, but its methods are ‘networked’. It stands beyond the age of radio and television broadcasting. It most closely resembles a composite of the ‘decentralised’ and ‘distributed’ networks famously foretold half a century ago by the Polish-American pioneer of computer networks, Paul Baran:
The institutional dynamics of monitory democracy are different. They most closely resemble a dynamic, multi-dimensional version of Baran’s ‘distributed networks’. Put abstractly, monitory democracy is a complex and open-edged system for taming and restraining arbitrary power, for deciding fairly and non-violently who gets what, when, and how. Its heavily-mediated structures tend to be dispersed. Its ‘agents’ find themselves in multi-dimensional environments produced by the actions and interactions with other agents in the system. Monitory democracy can thus be represented in the following way:
Under conditions of monitory democracy, agents are constantly acting and reacting within organised fields of power marked by many different levels and multiple dimensions. Monitory democracy is therefore typically marked by political uncertainties. There is competition, co-operation, compromise, anticipation, refusal and rebellion. In matters political, nothing is ever fixed. It is meaningless to talk of a ‘consolidated’ monitory democracy. Its multiple spaces and complex systems of action and interaction never reach ‘equilibrium’. Agents never find the ‘optimum’. They are constantly in transition, caught up in perpetual novelty.
By contrast, the Chinese-imposed ‘grid’ system of surveillance is top-down, controlling, disciplining, punishing. It is the flipside of monitory democracy, its simulacrum, a perverse mirroring of its distributed networks of arguing and bargaining, a top-down countering of the struggles of monitory mechanisms to undo the follies and evils of arbitrary power. The ‘nets in the sky and traps on the ground’ of the grid are designed to privatise and destroy independent public life in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In this sense, the grid highlights the fundamental distinction between top-down surveillance and bottom-up public monitoring of power.
The surveillance grid that the Chinese authorities are rolling out in Tibet is undoubtedly the antithesis of the complex model of democratic freedom pieced together by the exiled Tibetan government and a supportive global infrastructure of pro-Tibetan monitory institutions. Inspired six decades ago by the spiritual teachings of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan polity is an unusual example of monitory democracy. Guided by dreams of a future homeland, it features a myriad of globally-distributed monitory mechanisms, periodic elections and a cross-border parliament representing citizens who are scattered across the planet, yet who feel bound together by Buddhist beliefs in an afterlife that is fundamentally at odds with (say) the American liberal vision of self-centred individuals endowed with rights to life, property and liberty.
Can this novel experiment in handling power survive the onslaught of gridded systems of surveillance and control? Will the citizens of Tibet, those who are living inside and outside of China, allow themselves to be drawn, slowly but surely, into a top-down, bottom-up system geared to ‘searching for faults, traces, unseen threats, gaps, shadows’? These are among the big and vital political questions facing Tibetans and the peoples of our wider Asia and Pacific region.
Strange are the times we’re living through. In matters of democracy, they feature many novel and contradictory global trends, none quite so potentially fractious as the political tension between majority rule government and public struggles to restrain and humble lethal forms of arbitrary power.
Wherever monitory democracy takes root, these two sets of principles, languages and practices typically co-exist, intermingle and overlap. They functionally require and energise each other. Governments based on majority consent and the humbling of arbitrary power seem to be twins. Democracy means nothing less than fairly fought elections and much more: citizens' freedom from publicly unaccountable power. Truth is the two axioms have different histories, contrasting dynamics and, in practice, potentially contradictory effects. The tension between majority rule and public resistance to arbitrary power can end in tears, or produce explosions. When the different visions of what counts as ‘democracy’ clash and collide, public disaffection, fear and violence may be the result.
Consider the case of Kenya, and its currently disputed election results. Uhuru Kenyatta claims to have won a 50% majority. On the current hotly-disputed figures, he averted a run-off by a 0.07 per cent margin. There were only 8,418 votes in it - out of some 12.4 million cast. Supporters of Kenyatta have welcomed their paper-thin victory as confirmation of the principle that in a democracy ‘the people’ should decide who is to govern them. What they really mean by this is ‘a majority of voters’, which is not quite the same thing. When voting is not compulsory, a majority of voters can mean an overall minority of citizens. Why ‘the majority’ should decide the government is unexplained. The reasoning is both metaphysical and pragmatic, and is backed by the presumption that there has to be a way of forming governments, and majority rule is the simplest, cleanest way to do it.
Supporters of Kenyatta understandably don’t worry their heads about the history of democracy, which shows in fact that the majority rule principle has often been dogged by objections, and by practical efforts to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’: the restraint of majority-supported governments from getting the upper hand and abusing their power, at the expense of loser minorities. The age of monitory democracy is full of examples of these restraining and enabling mechanisms, ranging from written constitutions, local tribunals and judicial review to public enquiries, disability access and guaranteed rights of linguistic, ethnic, sexual preference and other minorities.
Although they, too, are committed to their own version of majority rule, the supporters of Raila Odinga are in effect bound together by their objection to the divisive and dominating effects of majoritarianism. Understandably, they are fussing about the serious administrative flaws within the election. A finger-scan biometric identification system designed to eliminate multiple voting failed. Turnout exceeded 100% in scores of polling stations. There were no fewer than three different voter registers in use. Results forms were altered using correction fluid, or pen. Party observers were thrown out of counting rooms. A new electronic method of cross-checking paper results collapsed mid-way through the vote tally. You get the picture. That’s why Odinga has hired George W. Bush’s former lawyer (William Burck) to challenge the presidential election results in the Supreme Court of Kenya. What’s interesting is that Odinga and his followers object to more than electoral malpractice. By their actions, they are appealing to a monitory institution, the public courts, to review the disputed election result.
Seen in their way, democracy is not psephocracy. It is more than just a fair and free election. It is a manner of handling power in which elections and governments are themselves publicly scrutinised by unelected, but respected and ‘authoritative’ institutions, such as courts. Odinga and those who voted for him are of course motivated by a wide variety of material interests, including tribal rivalries. Yet their appeal to the courts has a higher democratic meaning: for them, democracy means respect for diversity, pluralism, the reduction of bossing and bullying and violence, wherever and whenever it happens. Democracy is a system in which nobody is entitled to preach soliloquies from the pulpit, pull strings in private or sit pompously on the throne of power.
Something else is happening in the Kenyan election drama that compounds the deep tension built into the ideal and practice of monitory democracy: the involvement of a distant court, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, as a co-determiner of decisions about who governs Kenya. Court documents suggest that during the violence that racked Kenya during and after the last election in 2007, Kenyatta contributed money and other forms of support to a murderous Kikuyu gang known as Mungiki. Legal opinions are divided about whether or not the case is watertight. Regardless of the details, the decision of the court to put Kenyatta on trial in July 2013 is not simply a wilful and unwarranted European interference with the ‘will of the people of Kenya’, as many supporters of Kenyatta say. It is instead symptomatic of an historic and probably irreversible political trend of our times: the spread of cross-border mechanisms of publicly scrutinising and restraining arbitrary power, sometimes from great distances. If democracy is understood in old-fashioned terms as popular self-government within the boundaries of a territorial state - as it was typically understood in the age of representative democracy that lasted until the end of the 1930s - then there is a problem. Outside interference with the ‘sovereignty’ of the state is deemed illegitimate. That’s how Kenyatta and many of his supporters see things. But if democracy means the public restraint of arbitrary power by a variety of power-chastening mechanisms, even in cross-border settings, then there isn’t a problem, only a practical matter of how to resolve the grinding frictions between two principles that lie at the heart of monitory democracy.
So what is to be done to overcome this political friction in Kenya? The short answer is that there are no ready-made textbook solutions. Either manipulative bully tactics or democratic compromises will decide this one. That’s why it’s much too easy, muddled and practically divisive to say that the People of Kenya should decide who governs them. That is the Mugabe option. Curiously, Barack Obama said much the same thing in a video message to Kenyans before the election: ‘The choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people.’ Never mind that the fading democratic empire he leads is interested less in democratic principles and much more in the fact that Kenya is a vital hub for U.S. corporations, billion-dollar health programs, hunting down militant jihadi cells and countering rising Chinese influence in the region. For it turns out that talk of ‘the People’ is a performative trope, a cunning fiction designed to stir hearts and numb brains and to ensure that a power grab looks legitimate, even though well over half the flesh-and-blood people of Kenya have not sanctioned the appointment of Kenyatta (turnout was a remarkable 86% of eligible voters, but that means that Kenyatta has the support of 43% of Kenyan citizens).
The local lambasting of ‘unelected judges’ is part of this populist trope. Judges are appointed, not elected. They can of course be corrupted. Judges often get things wildly wrong, sometimes with seriously unjust consequences. Yet it has to be said that in the age of monitory democracy, there are times when public appeals to written constitutions, wise judges and professionally-run courts, wherever they’re located, are vital for the health and strength of democracy. By forcing a public rethink and reversal of bad decisions or unfair outcomes, they restrain arbitrary power. They serve as a healthy corrective to the dangers of psephocracy.
This is certainly such a moment in Kenyan politics, but whether a working compromise between majority-rule government and the refusal of arbitrary power will prevail during the coming weeks and months is for Kenyan citizens, politicians and big-men ‘stakeholders’ and local and global judges to decide. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. It is not lost on Kenyans that a return to violence would have catastrophic consequences for the whole country. A lot of banding together must now happen. A new spirit of democratic compromise is vital.
The willingness of President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta to listen to public criticism, and to learn from it, is undoubtedly vital. He’s clearly attracted by red carpets, fancy hotels and the
trimmings and trappings of power. Here’s a quick taste:
So there’s a real danger that he will come to resemble The Ruler who transforms himself into a massive floating being who has to be tied down to prevent him drifting up into the sky (a figure featured in Wizard of the Crow, the wonderful satire on power by Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o). It’s a good sign that Kenyatta has pledged to respect the findings of the constitutional commissioners who are now examining evidence of electoral malpractice. Let’s see whether word and deed are matched. On the outside legal front, it’s also encouraging that Kenyatta, unlike Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the first African head of state to face charges in The Hague, has in effect already acknowledged the democratic principle of rule of law across borders by attending the court to defend himself. Kenyatta and his running mate (William Ruto) still vow to ‘cooperate with international institutions’. More than likely, during the coming months, the ICC case against both of them (Ruto is due to appear in May) will fade. If necessary, their lawyers will string out proceedings for years.
That leaves the vital question of whether Kenyatta is capable of governing fairly, openly and with a sense of democratic justice. A few days ago, in an open letter to Kenyatta, a writer in Nairobi’s Standard captured exactly the challenge facing Kenyan citizens and their representatives. ‘It is a changed world’, the letter began. ‘Now people know how to say things like, Haki zetu! ['Our Rights’ in Swahili]!‘. Then they only said, “Hail His Excellency the President.” They called people like your late papa names like, “Farmer No. 1, Wiseman No. 1, Philosopher No. 1,” and that kind of cock and bull.’ Warning of the dangers of turning Kenya into ‘a ragtag of mutually hostile warlike tribes that bay for each other’s blood’, the open letter concluded with friendly advice about the coming period: ‘It is going to be different, Sir. I sincerely trust you do not believe in that bosh of “Wiseman No. 1”? For if you do, then you are set for a very rough ride. People now know how to stand up for their rights. They will stand up to you. In very clear language, they will tell you, “No!”
Everybody warned this would be no ordinary invitation, and they were right. Three hundred metres from Knightsbridge underground station, just a stone’s throw from fashion-conscious Harrods, I suddenly encounter a wall of police. I try to remember my instructions. Look straight ahead. Avoid eye contact. If asked my name, reply with a question. Ask who authorised them to ask. Climb the stone steps. Act purposefully. Appear to know exactly where you’re heading. I don’t.
Through a set of double doors, I’m confronted by more police officers, this time armed, with meaner faces. “Good afternoon”, I say politely, as I edge towards the receptionist. “I’ve an appointment at the Ecuador embassy. Am I at the correct address?” “Ring the brass bell”, grunts the bored-looking man squatting at his desk. A few minutes later, after some confusion about whether or not my name’s on the appointments list, I’m ushered inside. I’m greeted by the personal assistant of the most wanted man in the world. “Julian is taking a call,” says the well-spoken and debonair young man in black-rimmed glasses. “I’m terribly sorry. Please do have a seat. Would you like some tea, or coffee, or polonium, perhaps?” There’s a smile, but it’s pretty faint. I know I’ve reached my destination: a prison with wit and purpose.
The deadpan irony sets the tone of the lunch and dinner to come. The silver-haired “high-tech terrorist” (Joe Biden’s description) appears quietly, dressed in crumpled slacks, a V-necked pullover, socks. He’s relaxed, and welcoming. The quarters are cramped. We shuffle down a corridor into his office, where we occupy a desk covered in laptops and cables and scraps of paper. It’s black coffee for him and tea for me. I offer gifts that I’m told he’ll like. Popular delicacies from down under: a couple of honeycomb Violet Crumbles, chocolate biscuit Tim Tams, a bottle of Dead Arm shiraz from my native South Australia. I know he likes to read. Lying on his desk is a biography of Martin Luther, the man who harnessed the printing press to split the Church. To add to his collection, I hand my pale-skinned host a small book I’ve mockingly wrapped in black tissue paper with red ribbon, tied in a bow. The noir et rouge and dead arm pranks aren’t lost on him. Nor is the significance of the book: José Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island. Inside its front cover, I’ve scribbled a few words: ‘For Julian Assange, who knows about journeys because there aren’t alternatives.’
I’d been told he might be heavy weather. Fame is a terrible burden, and understandably the famous must find ways of dealing with sycophants, detractors and intruders. People said he’d circle at first, avoid questions, proffer shyness, or perhaps even radiate bored arrogance. It isn’t at all like that. Calm, witty, clear-headed throughout, he’s in a talkative mood. But there’s no small talk.
I tackle the obvious by asking him about life inside his embassy prison. “The issue is not airlessness and lack of sunshine. If anything gets to me it’s the visual monotony of it all.” He explains how we human beings have need of motion, and that our sensory apparatus, when properly “calibrated”, imparts mental and bodily feelings of being in our own self-filmed movie. Physical confinement is sensory deprivation. Sameness drags prisoners down. I tell how the Czech champion of living the truth Václav Havel, when serving a 40-month prison spell, used to find respite from monotony by doing such things as smoking a cigarette in front of a mirror. “Bradley Manning did something similar,” says Assange. “The prison authorities claimed his repeated staring in the mirror was the mark of a disturbed and dangerous character. Despite his protestations that there was nothing else to do, he was put into solitary confinement, caged, naked and stripped of his glasses.”
Life in the Ecuador embassy is nothing like this. It’s a civilised cell. After eight months, Assange tells me, the embassy staff remain unswervingly supportive, friendly and professionally helpful. They get what’s at stake. When delivering messages, they knock politely on his office door, as they did more than a few times during our time together. Yet despite feeling safe, Assange feels the pinch of confinement. He says the “de-calibration” (he uses a term borrowed from physics) that comes with “spatial confinement” is a curse. That’s why he listens to classical music, especially Rachmaninov. He has boxing lessons (gloves are on his study shelf) and works out several times a week (“just to get the room moving around”) with a wiry ex-SAS whistleblower. The need for variety is why he welcomes visitors and why, judging from the long and animated conversation to come, he’s desperately passionate about ideas.
Assange begins to enjoy the moment. Nibbling a chocolate biscuit and sipping coffee, he springs a surprise. “Truth is I love a good fight. Many people are counting on me to be strong. I want my freedom, of course, but confinement gives me time to think. I’m focussed and purposeful.” It sounds implausible. Entrapment wounds; it’s painful. Psychic defences are needed to ward off the unbearable. But striking is his utter defiance. “Never, ever become someone’s victim is a golden rule,” he says. In graphic detail, he then sketches his ten days in solitary confinement, in the basement of Wandsworth Prison, in south-west London, in late 2010. “I had expected to be completely out of my depth. But I felt no fear. I was tremendously enthusiastic about the challenge to come. I learned to adapt on my feet.” He means what he says.
I’m keen to talk about courage and its political significance. We do so for well over an hour. Lunch arrives: soup and a vegetable wrap from the local Marks and Spencer. His boxing mate appears. Assange says “it will be a while” and politely asks him to wait in the adjoining room. I remind Assange that he’s holed up in the right-wing Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, home to one of the safest Tory seats in Britain. So, just for fun, I play devil’s advocate by repeating the well-known remark of Winston Churchill that success is never final, failure is never fatal, and that what really counts in life is courage, the ability of people to carry on, despite everything. Assange lights up. “That’s undoubtedly true.” He’s never written or spoken at length about courage, but our time together convinces me he’s thought deeply and in sophisticated ways about the subject. He’s been forced to.
We discuss the detention without trial and torture of Bradley Manning. Assange mentions how the authorities are “picking off people all around me” (he’s referring to the ongoing FBI investigation and arrests of WikiLeaks activists). There’s no maudlin wobble. He understands the traps of “obsessive self-preoccupation” and speaks of the vital importance of cultivating a strong personal sense of “higher duty” to carry on. Courage is for him something that’s more important than fear because it involves putting fear in its place. I quote Aristotle at him: courage is the primary virtue because it makes all other virtues possible. “Yes, and that’s what’s worrying about present-day trends. We’re losing our civic courage.”
So where does courage come from, I ask? What are its taproots? Some people evidently draw breath from spiritual or religious sources, I say. He frowns. “My case is quite different. It’s hardship that makes or breaks us. True courage is when you manage to hold things together, even though most people expect you to fall to pieces.” The words ooze resilience. They could easily be his personal anthem, the proverb engraved on his Knightsbridge prison walls. He goes on to explain that although courage may or may not be a quality within human genes, a good measure of it is always learned. Courage is cultivated. It’s infectious. “Women on average have more of it than men,” he says. We discuss examples: on our list are Raging Grannies, Pussy Riot and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. “These women show men what courage is. Treated as outsiders, women have learned the hard way how to deal with structural power. They’re consequently much more adaptable than men. The world of men is structured force.”
The phrase catches me by surprise, but it captures in the most concise way exactly what the prisoner sitting across the table has done, in style, with great courage: he’s confronted structured force head-on. Julian Assange could be described as a Tom Paine of the early 21st century. Drawing strength from distress, disgusted by the hypocrisy of governments, willing to take on the mighty, he’s reminded the world of a universal political truth: arbitrary power thrives on secrets. We run through how WikiLeaks perfected the art of publicly challenging secretive state power. This “intelligence agency of the people” (as Assange calls his organisation) did more than harness to the full the defining features of the unfinished communications revolution of our time: the easy-access multi-media integration and low-cost copying of information that is then instantly whizzed around the world through digital networks. WikiLeaks did something much gutsier. It took on the mightiest power on earth. It managed to master the clever arts of “cryptographic anonymity”, military-grade encryption designed to protect both its sources and itself as a global publisher. For the first time, on a global scale, WikiLeaks created a custom-made mailbox that enabled disgruntled muckrakers within any organisation to deposit and store classified data in a camouflaged cloud of servers. Assange and his supporters then pushed that bullet-proofed information (video footage of an American helicopter gunship crew cursing and firing on unarmed civilians and journalists, for instance) into public circulation, as an act of radical transparency and “truth”.
We’re at the several hours mark, but everybody around me remains gracious. Nobody looks at watches; in fact, there’s not a clock to be seen. The debonair assistant pops in and out of the office, sometimes squatting at our table, tapping out messages on his laptop, fielding phone calls, several times handing his mobile to Assange. “It’s the latest crisis,” he whispers during the first of them. “We handle on average at least four or five a day.” He looks undaunted. This one’s just to do with the FBI investigation.
When Assange comes off the phone, I change topics. I ask him about his pre-Christmas speech from the embassy balcony, when he predicted that in the next Australian federal parliament an “elected senator” would replace an “unelected senator” (he was referring to Foreign Minister Bob Carr, appointed through the casual vacancy rule). Now that the federal election date (September 14th) has been announced, is he still seriously intending to stand as a candidate?
Our conversation grows intense. For several years, Assange has been serious about entering formal politics. A new WikiLeaks Party is soon to be launched. He’s sure it will easily attract the minimum of 500 paid-up members required by law. The composition of its 10-member national council is decided. There’s already a draft election manifesto. The party will field candidates for the Senate, probably in several states. And, yes, Assange is certain to be among them, probably as a candidate in Victoria, where (conveniently) three Labor senators face re-election.
Assange bounces through the probable scenarios. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa will be re-elected, for another four years. He’ll stand firm in his personal and political support for Assange. This will ramp up pressure on the Swedish authorities, whose case against him is “falling apart”, with the two women plaintiffs looking for a way to extricate themselves from the protracted messy drama. “The Swedish government should drop the case. But that requires them to make their own thorough investigation of how and why their system failed.” The man’s not for turning. He’s certainly no intention of apologising for things he hasn’t said, or done. If he wins a seat in the Senate, he says, the US Department of Justice won’t want to spark an international diplomatic row. The planet’s biggest military empire will back down. It will drop its grand jury espionage investigation. The Cameron government will follow suit, says Assange, otherwise “the political costs of the current standoff will be higher still”. So the obvious question: what are the chances of that happening? Can bytes and ballots trump bullets? Can dare claim victory in his personal battle for political freedom?
What he has in mind has never before been attempted in Australian federal politics. Eugene Debs ran for the US presidency from prison (in 1920). Sinn Fein MP Bobby Sands was elected to Westminster while on hunger strike (in 1981). Under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi won a general election (in 1990). In defiance of Israeli occupation and prison confinement, Wael Husseini was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (in 2006). There are plenty of similar examples, so why shouldn’t Julian Assange attempt to do the same, and in style?
By now the boxing mate, kept waiting several hours, has gone home. The young assistant has left for another appointment outside the embassy. Dinner is nowhere in sight. We reach for chocolate biscuits and spend the last hour drilling down into the barriers Assange might well face. We start with nagging questions about his eligibility to stand. He’s characteristically upbeat. The technical objections (raised by Graeme Orr and others) aren’t real, he says. He’s no traitor to his country, and most definitely not under the “acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power” (section 44 of the Australian constitution). Truth is he was let down by a gutless Gillard government and forced into political asylum, under threat of extradition. “I’m safe here inside the embassy walls,” he mocks, “protected by more than a dozen police, including one stationed night and day right outside my bathroom window.”
The man of courage clearly relishes the thought of being the first Australian senator catapulted from prison into a debating chamber. I crack a bad joke, telling him that he’d better hurry up, reminding him that the Commonwealth Electoral Act stipulates that people who’ve been sentenced for more than 3 years in prison don’t have the right to vote in federal elections while they’re serving their sentence. His eyes twinkle, before laying into those who insist that the federal electoral laws are against him, that he’s ineligible because candidates must already be registered to vote. “That’s untrue,” he notes. “The Act specifies only that candidates must in principle be qualified to become a voter.” Assange is right, but since he’s not currently on the electoral roll much turns on whether his preferred strategy of registering as an overseas voter will work. Courtesy of legislation pushed through by John Howard, I know from bitter experience, having once lived abroad for more than three years, what it means to lose the right to vote. Assange says his case is different. He’s been overseas for less than three years (he was last in Australia in June 2010) and intends to return home within six years – that’s why he’s just applied to be on the electoral roll in Victoria.
That leaves two final snags. If victorious, some advisors speculate, Assange might need to take oath before the Governor-General. For this to happen he’d have to be set free, naturally, but it could also be done, “for the first time ever, by video link”. Whatever the situation, continued confinement, he says, would breach the rule that he must take up his Senate seat within two months. “In that case, the Senate could vote to evict me. But that would trigger a big political row. Australians probably wouldn’t swallow it. They’ve learned a lesson from the controversial dismissal of Gough Whitlam.”
I’m curious about the kind of political party WikiLeaks will launch. “The party will combine a small, centralised leadership with maximum grass roots involvement and support. By relying on decentralised Wikipedia-style, user-generated structures, it will do without apparatchiks. The party will be incorruptible and ideologically united.” I flinch at his mention of ideological unity. He explains that the party will display iron self-discipline in its support for maximum “inclusiveness”. It will be bound together by unswerving commitment to the core principles of civic courage nourished by “understanding” and “truthfulness” and the “free flow of information”. It will practise in politics what WikiLeaks has done in the field of information. It will be digital, and stay digital. Those who don’t accept its transparency principles will be told to “rack off”. That’s the ideological unity bit.
Assange agrees the WikiLeaks Party must address and respond creatively to the creeping local disaffection with mainstream politicians, parties and parliaments. “I loathe the reactiveness of the Left,” and that’s why, he says, much can be learned from clever new initiatives in other countries. We discuss Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star movement (it won more than 25% of the popular vote in Italy’s recent general election). On our list is the Pirate Party in Germany (it practises “liquid democracy” and has representatives in four state parliaments). So is Iceland’s Best Party. It won enough votes to co-run the Reykjavik City Council, partly on the promise that it would not honour any of its promises, that since all other political parties are secretly corrupt it would be openly corrupt. Assange lets out a laugh. “Parties should be fun. They should put the word party back into politics.” The WikiLeaks Party will try to do this, and to learn from initiatives in other democracies. Supported by networks of “friends of WikiLeaks”, it will be seen as “work in progress” designed “to outflank its opponents”.
He and his party supporters are bound to attract hordes of detractors. Tom Paine was cursed by foes; he even suffered the dishonour of being called a “filthy little atheist” by Theodore Roosevelt. Assange is similarly facing an army of spiteful enemies. In Britain and the United States, there are signs they’re now closing in on him with new arguments. He used to be denounced as a “cat torturer”, a “terrorist” and “enemy combatant” and accused of committing “an illegal act” (Julia Gillard). He was attacked as both an “anti-Semite” and a “Mossad agent”. There were murderous calls to “illegally shoot the son of a bitch” (Bob Beckel). These days the language is milder but no less vicious. He’s said to be ‘paranoid’, all ‘alone’ in his gilded prison, abandoned by his supporters, at the British taxpayers’ expense. He and WikiLeaks are guilty of the same “obfuscation and misinformation” (Jemima Khan) they claim to expose. Swedish media and politics are meanwhile crammed with crass epithets: “rapist”, “repugnant swine”, low-life “coward”, “Australian pig” and “pitiful wretch” hooked on sex-without-a-condom.
I can’t tell from our time together whether any of this stuff hurts. It’s clear he’s aware that going into parliamentary politics will involve permanent fire-fighting, but unflappable he sounds. “I’ve had to deal with the FBI, the British press and more than a few rank functionaries. The Australian press are decent by comparison. No doubt the Australian Tax Office will show an interest in our campaign. Old enemies may make an appearance.”
Assange knows that in the age of surveillance and media saturation little remains of the private sphere. I put to him a prediction: the way he dodged questions about the Swedish allegations during a recent video-link appearance before the Oxford Union (“I have answered these questions extensively in the past”) isn’t sustainable, that avoiding the subject when running for the Senate will be blood to the hounds of the press pack. He asks what he should do. I put to him a positive alternative, which is to come clean on his alleged misogyny. “I’m not interested in softening my image by planting attractive women around me, as for instance George W. Bush did. I like women. They’re on balance braver than men, and I’ve worked with many in exposing projects that damage women’s lives. An example is the scandalous practice of UN peacekeepers trading food for sex that we exposed. Our WikiLeaks Party will attract the support of many women.” But what about the charge of misogyny, I ask? Isn’t Julia Gillard’s use of the word to attack the Leader of the Opposition worth widening? The reply is very Julian Assange: “Let’s just say I prefer miso to misogyny.”
There are moments when Assange seems much too serious, nerdish even, yet one thing’s very clear: prison hasn’t ruined his deadpan humour. He’s smart, and he’s shrewd; he’s a fox, not a hedgehog. That’s why he’s counting on lots of public support down under. “When people speak up and stand together it frightens corrupt and undemocratic power”, he says. “True democracy is the resistance of people armed with truth against lies.” I wonder whether he’s right. Australians can be a politically lazy bunch, but we’re also known for our cheeky cheerfulness, our taste for the matter-of-fact, plus our strong dislike of bullshit. We respect hard work and admire courageous achievement. We’re mawkish in the company of Ned Kelly underdogs. And so, if a political fight over his election to the Senate were to break out, strong public support for Assange might suddenly surface.
Time’s up. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I slip on my coat, prepare to say goodbye, to pass back through the wall of mean-faced police. Assange shakes my hand, twice in fact. Both of us are pretty tired and stuck for words, so I let myself loose by asking him to ponder a wild southern hemisphere fantasy, a hero’s welcome later this year, a rapscallion’s reunion with spring sunshine, fresh ocean air, flowers, banners, tweets, whistles, haunting sounds of didgeridoos. For a few seconds, he smiles, then draws back, looks down, and glances sideways. It’s the reaction of a man who knows in his guts there are no easy solutions in sight. The cards are stacked, piled high against success. He’s trapped. He knows his fate will be decided not by legal niceties, or diplomatic rulebooks, but by politics. That’s why he’s aware that in the great dramas to come, nothing should be ruled out.
The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power lists his odds of winning a Senate seat as seven-to-two. The cautious fortune telling may be significant. Down under, nationwide polls conducted by UMR Research, the company used by the Labor Party, show (during 2012) that a clear majority of Australians think he wouldn’t receive a fair trial if extradited to the United States, and that in any case he and WikiLeaks shouldn’t be prosecuted for releasing leaked diplomatic cables. Green voters (66%) and Labor supporters (45%) are sympathetic to Assange. Significant numbers of Coalition supporters (40%) think the same way. In the most recent UMR poll, Assange tells me, around 27% of voters say they’ll vote for him.
That should be enough to slingshot him from Knightsbridge to Canberra. Set aside the cheap diatribes and what you think of Julian Assange as a person, or whether he’s done this or not achieved that. The fact is that electoral victory for him later this year would be one of those rare political miracles that make life as a citizen worth living. In a country weighed down by sub-standard politicians, sub-standard journalists and sub-standard freedom of information laws, the political triumph would be great. It would breathe badly-needed life into Australian democracy. And, yes, if the miracle happened, from that very moment the fun party down under would begin.
Readers might like to sample the following birthday toast in honour of the English political writer Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809). It was prepared for a dinner hosted by Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, in the House of Commons, London, January 28th 2013.
Citizenesses and Citizens,
We gather tonight to celebrate the birth of Thomas Paine 276 years ago, in Thetford, on Saturday 29th January, 1737. Our dinner is not indulgence; it is a public act. It is a poignant reminder that memories of people’s lives need protection, and that because departed characters like Paine sometimes feel much more alive than the living, memorial gatherings are vital contributions to guarding the precious things of the past, a powerful way of publicly remembering them, in bodies present, and in words.
Paine’s close friend Thomas Jefferson liked to say that the dead have no rights, but that way of thinking belongs to a bygone era, to times when people believed the past
was overcast with gloom, whereas the future would bring sunshine with roses. We are learning to be more circumspect. It is not only that there are no laws of human progress and that the future sometimes turns sour, as we know from the past century, the most violent and destructive in human history. We are coming to see that the dead, particularly those who have been bossed and bullied by their foes, as Paine was, have stories to tell, that they have rights, and that their lack is to be regretted, and resisted. We may ignore our ancestors, treat them as featherbrains, or worse, but legendary figures like Tom Paine - the literary lion who penned the three biggest-selling books of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a citizen extraordinary who still today excites public interest, even prompting President Obama to quote him in his first inaugural address - remind us that the dead are often very much with us, part of us, part of our future.
With luck and help from living friends, the dead can teach us to speak a new political language. They can instruct us in unorthodox ways of thinking, different feelings about life’s meaning; the dead can even suggest new ways of resolving current public problems, like very British parliamentary corruption scandals, the abuse of power by corporate journalists and the spread of poverty among young people and senior citizens. When the dead manage to teach us to think again, to act differently, as Paine did in style, they live on powerfully, into the present. They become living legends. They prove that the past is continuous; they show that yesterday is today, always present, an ingredient of the future.
Citizenesses and citizens: truly remarkable is the way Tom Paine, against mighty odds, managed to survive the revolutionary upheavals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Paine was undoubtedly the greatest English champion of clean, open, humble government. And it has often been said that his life-long devotion to the cause of liberty for all; his brave and unshrinking advocacy of truth in politics; his deep-seated dislike of kingship and priestly tyranny, even his willingness to attack the hubris of the American and French revolutionaries…it is said that all of this guaranteed that he would be remembered on occasions such as our own. We should be less sure, for that view understates his scandalous treatment by his contemporaries: especially by political and religious bigots who dreamed of dangling him from a gibbet; or tried to nail him to the cross of public opinion; or chucked stones and cursed, as did the hostile crowd that puffed with anger at Dover, from where he was forced into exile, with an arrest warrant for seditious libel around his ears, thus ensuring that he would never return to his native England.
The rough injustice he suffered hammers home the point that legends are made, not born. Tradition never just happens; memory is far from automatic. The presence of the past is an achievement of the living. The dead cannot speak for themselves; they always need help from their latter-day friends. Tammy Paine’s foes were a motley bunch of wigged and powdered supporters of mentally ill King George III, Jacobin terroristes, boorish Christian sectarians in America, but they understood this point well. That is why they tried to damn and disappear him; to accuse him of seditious libel; to condemn him as a ‘filthy little atheist’ (Teddy Roosevelt), even to accuse him of bad grammar and confabulation (George Chalmers, his first biographer, howled that he added an ‘e’ to disguise his Norfolk upbringing).
The aim in every case was to push Paine into a rat’s alley, where not even his bones survived. His bones were indeed lost, as you know. But even though Paine found no final resting place, it was thanks to his friends that memories of his brilliant achievements survived, beginning with the first glimpse we have of him, a daunting epitaph for a pet crow, which he buried in the garden of his home on Bridgegate:
Here lies the body of John Crow,
Who once was high but now is low;
Ye brother Crows take warning all,
For as you rise, so must you fall.
As you rise, so must you fall: with these words, written when he was just eight years old, the boy from Thetford signalled his life-long contempt for hubris and his deep dislike of grovelling; in an age of corrupting government oiled by sinecures, he was brave enough to call George III ‘king or Madjesty’, even to conclude a letter to the Home Secretary: ‘I am, Mr Dundas, Not your humble and obedient servant’. In snorting style, Paine satirised corruption caused by unaccountable power. He hurled his quill at the indignity of poverty, the pity of war, unrestrained markets and greedy banks. He did everything he could to prevent the abuse of citizens’ rights by governments. He disliked parochialism (‘where liberty is not, there is my country’, he reportedly told Benjamin Franklin); and he drew from the principle that the earth is common property the conclusion that the most vulnerable in society – especially the young and old – ought to be guaranteed as of right their fair share of its wealth.
Most compelling of all was Paine’s burning desire to meet the arguments of his foes, not with gunpowder or the sword, or haughty bitterness, but with words from Isaiah: ‘Let us reason the matter together’. It is at least arguable that both that command and its egalitarian sentiments are today badly needed in a Britain battered and bruised by deep economic and political recession and public disaffection with party politics. What is certain is that the spreading public debate about such matters as constitutional reform, European integration and social injustice must continue, even intensify, informed by the understanding that history matters, and that these are the times when the living speak freely of the dead, so granting them voices and votes. The connection between our celebration this evening and memory and politics should be made clear to all. Fond memories of Tom Paine must be kept green in our souls, according to the principle he so powerfully helped to fashion: democracy among the living demands democracy among the dead.
Look around, or beyond the borders where you live. You’ll probably have noticed that disquiet and disaffection are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. Political parties and legislatures are not exactly in favour. Public disenchantment with politicians and official “politics” is rising everywhere, fed by corruption and power-grabbing, factional infighting and mischief-making populists. There are widening gaps between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. The rich are hyper-rich. Middle-class citizens fear for the future. A new precarious class of semi-employed or permanently unemployed people has meanwhile been born. And xenophobia and bigoted nationalism are on the rise.
Now ask the citizens of Greece, Spain or Portugal what they think about democracy: a clear majority say it’s a fine ideal that feels corrupted and practically broken. Significant minorities of citizens in democracies otherwise as different as Slovenia and Chile, Italy, Japan and India say much the same thing. Some parliamentary democracies – Hungary, Israel and Ukraine among them – are breeding active disillusionment with democratic ideals. In the US, polls regularly show that more than half of Americans think their own imperial democracy is in decline. Many of its citizens meanwhile ask: has democracy come to Iraq, or to Afghanistan? Will it come to Egypt or Syria?
Answers to such questions seem redundant. Little wonder that the doubters of democracy – radicals such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek – feel encouraged, or that public defenders of democracy are on the move. Alan Ryan’s epic thousand-page defence of the political ideals of “liberal democracy” is best read in this context. More than three decades in the making, it’s a brave and clever book. Eloquence, erudition, brio and vivacity: these are justifiably some of the fine-spun words advertising its publication. But when judged as a diagnosis of the present miseries of democracy or as a riposte to its critics, On Politics, for all its weighty brilliance, is out-of-season, a disappointingly old-fashioned book.
Ryan is an English political thinker known and respected for previous books on John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, and for his excellent writings in the New York Review of Books. Here he spreads his scholarly wings to fly through the “classics” of political thought in search of an answer to a single pressing question: “How can human beings best govern themselves?”
Ryan’s reply is blunt: “the only morally acceptable form of democracy is liberal democracy”. By that he means a “decent” state, a type of policy that supposes we are “destined to be ruled by elites” but nevertheless checks top-down tyranny through periodic elections and the protection of citizens through written constitutions and law enforcement mechanisms that guarantee the equal right of individuals to pursue their “private economic, literary, or religious concerns without having to answer to anyone else”. Like Francis Fukuyama before him, Ryan regards these ideals of liberal democracy as morally and politically universal. They represent a triumph of European modernity, a net advance over all previous political thinking.
In support of this position, On Politics comes crammed with smart observations and wise advice. Readers unfamiliar with figures such as Machiavelli, Montaigne, Montesquieu and Marsilius of Padua, or with scores of lesser-known political writers, will profit from its clear explanations and well-crafted prose. There’s one trouble: the crisp narrative is framed throughout by a reductive teleology. In other words, the history of political thought from Herodotus to the present is told for the sake of a single end, a telos or final cause: persuading the reader that liberal democratic ideals are the touchstone of political progress.
Just as latter-day liberals often credit John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) as the founding statement of liberalism – even though it knew nothing of the term or its present meanings – so Ryan lines up past political thinkers for the purpose of assessing their liberal credentials. Here there’s an odd paradox: despite its avowed liberal openness, the text is much too closed. Every mentioned thinker, from Aristotle and Aquinas to Alexander Hamilton, Karl Marx, Joseph Schumpeter and John Dewey, is subject to the Liberal Democracy Likeness Test. Some get high marks. Others are graded less generously. More than a few critics of liberalism, figures including Thomas Carlyle and Friedrich Nietzsche, are given short shrift or ignored, reduced to silent victims of the exclusionary impulses of a single-minded grand narrative.
The story gets off to an unpromising start. “Political thought as we understand it began in Athens,” he writes, before repeating the standard point that Athenian democracy was born of struggles against Persian despotism. The political ideal of democracy as citizenship among equals subsequently flourished, he says, but self-government in Athens was constantly prone to demagogy and intolerance of minority opinions. It was founded on slavery and the subjugation of women. It knew nothing of liberalism, which gives “the ordinary person a degree of intellectual, spiritual, and occupational freedom the ancient world never dreamed of”.
Ryan here ignores recent research findings that highlight (for instance) the rich significance of the fact that Athenian democrats regularly sought political advice from female muses and worshipped a goddess of democracy; or that they worried their heads about slavery because they feared the disease of political hubris. Ryan neglects the pre-Greek origins of the vital term demokratia, which has roots in the Mycenaean language of Linear B, first decoded in the early 1950s. And he says nothing about the origins of the basic political unit of early Greek democracy, the assembly, which was an eastern import, through Phoenicia from ancient Syria-Mesopotamia, where archaeological evidence confirms that cities such as Nippur and Babylon were sites of assembly-based politics.
These opening slips tinge Ryan’s global history of political thinking with shades of old-fashioned Orientalism. The west is reckoned the measure of all things; by implication, the east is deemed its inferior appendage. Hence his silence about the historical contributions of Islamic civilisation to the political identity of “the west” – Muslim gifts that included the university, sustained reflection (around 950 CE by al-Farabi) on the merits of democracy, a new type of assembly (the mosque), deep ambivalence about monarchy and the nation state and, possibly, the principle and practice of political representation.
Missing from this book, and much-needed in our troubled times, is a more capacious, globally sensitive understanding of freedom, citizenship and democracy. Even its sense of recent history is distorted by liberal democratic blinders. Consider its shallow engagement with the fundamental rethinking of democracy during the 1940s. Ryan sees this period as the point of triumph of liberal democracy against its Fascist and Stalinist opponents. Closer attention shows this decade was instead a moment of what physicists call dark energy: the universe of meaning of democracy underwent a dramatic expansion, in defiance of the cosmic gravity of contemporary events. The ideal of monitory democracy was born.
Championed in different terms by political writers as diverse as Thomas Mann, Jacques Maritain and (in the English context) George Orwell and JB Priestley, what I call monitory democracy was a new historical form of democracy, one much more sensitive than its predecessors to the evils of arbitrary power. The new ideal wasn’t nostalgic for Greek participatory democracy; and it wasn’t blindly in love with modern parliamentary democracy, liberalism or sovereign territorial states. Monitory democracy implied nothing less than free and fair elections of parliamentary representatives, but it also promised something much more: democracy now meant the continuous public scrutiny, chastening and control of power, wherever it is exercised, including the world of big business, according to standards “deeper” and more universal than the old reigning principles of periodic elections, majority rule and popular sovereignty in constitutional form.
Fed by post-1945 inventions such as human rights networks, truth and reconciliation tribunals, citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting and Indian-style secularism, monitory democracy has brought new vigour to the old democratic ideals of freedom and equality. Whether it will survive is another matter, but what is clear is that it’s not just a “western” phenomenon; in fact, talk of “the west” and references to an east-west divide are unhelpful in grasping both its origins and its current dynamics, which have taken root in a variety of global settings, often well beyond the shores of the Atlantic region.
India, with its unique mix of power-checking mechanisms, from quota-based reservation and citizen satyagraha (non-violent action) to railway courts, water consultation schemes, Lok Adalat dispute resolution and public interest litigation, is the world’s biggest and most dynamic monitory democracy. Whatever is said about its present dysfunctions, it’s not a liberal democracy in Ryan’s sense.
The same is true of Taiwan, whose polity continues to defy the liberal rule that democracy can survive only in a “country” defined by strong feelings of national unity and sovereign territorial borders. Its brave people showed long ago that democracy with “Asian” characteristics was possible; even that democracy (min zhu) had distinctively indigenous “Asian” roots. They demonstrated, against their Chinese Communist party critics, that democracy was not a synonym for western liberal conceit, class domination and selfish “bourgeois” individualism.
Similar things can be said about the model of democratic freedom pieced together by the exiled Tibetan government. It defies virtually all liberal precepts. Inspired six decades ago by the spiritual teachings of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan polity is an unusual example of monitory democracy. Guided by dreams of a future homeland, it features periodic elections, a cross-border parliament representing citizens who are scattered across the globe yet who feel bound together by Buddhist beliefs in an afterlife that is fundamentally at odds with the liberal vision of self-centred individuals endowed with rights to life, property and liberty.
Ignoring these and other anomalies, the final part of On Politics moves to explain and justify the continuing relevance of liberalism in the face of many novel 21st-century challenges. It’s the least convincing part of the book. Ryan tries hard to blow the liberal trumpet of openness, equality and individuality, but the sounds are strained. He grows lugubrious. “Only the slow implementation of better governance by weeding out corruption and ignorance will save us, if anything can,” he writes, typically, as if to confirm the old adage that when under pressure broad-minded liberalism is too feathery to stand its own ground.
Ryan says not a word about the present economic crisis or what it teaches us about the dangers to democracy of bubble-prone markets. He’s instead cheered by the improbability of “major wars”, vexed by the dilemmas of “humanitarian intervention”, but weighed down by a long list of political dangers. “Globalisation”, “failed states” and “terrifyingly uninformed” opinions circulated by mass media are among his concerns. So, too, are “sectarian strife”, “old-fashioned nationalism” and our limited “ability to govern a shrinking world”.
Who will read this thousand-page defence of liberal democracy? Busy young people will probably not find it attractive, especially those with a healthy sense of fast-changing realities, a democratic attachment to new social media and a strong sense of disaffection with parliamentary politics. With jobless figures high and rising within their ranks (30 per cent in Italy, 50 per cent in Spain, 5.5m in the European Union alone), many young citizens now feel excluded from the democratic game. Their cynicism flourishes. Dropping out is their new norm.
Who can blame them? Young citizens see few intelligent political leaders who speak their language, actively represent their interests and work for equitable political change. For many, “liberal democracy” is phantom democracy, a game played by rich and powerful men trading in broken promises. They see that Big Money and Big Lobbying disproportionately win votes, and that the rhythms of parliamentary government are out of whack with environmental catastrophes such as Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima. Parliamentary democracy seems reactive, dragged down by its inability to address large domestic and cross-border issues. Especially worrying, many young people say, is the growing resort to executive rule. From drones and nuclear weapons to imposed fiscal austerity and environmental policy, decisions of basic importance to the lives of millions of people are being decided (or blocked) arbitrarily, behind closed doors, often in remote cross-border settings.
Is it possible that these youthful complaints are early warning signals, sirens sounding worse things to come? Are we perhaps entering times comparable to the great crisis that brought democracy to its knees during the 1920s and 1930s? Nobody knows. “Human beings are historical creatures, moved by reminiscence as much as by hopes for a far future”, Ryan writes – but what exactly this rule means in our times remains unclear: “All we know is that what happens will come as a surprise.”
What we do know from the history of democracy is that bold new political thinking never comes easily in periods of crisis. Political drift and mental confusion often get the upper hand – which is why, in a wonderfully curious way, this long, learned but strangely antiquarian book is so important. Yes, it’s too tame, too bound up with western presumptions and too blinded by its own liberal precepts. But we should thank Ryan for reminding us that in this crisis political thinking really matters, that the new dangers to democracy cannot be undone without the help of political thinkers who strive to jump over their own shadows, who seek fresh ways of spelling out visionary alternatives to the public, with a strong sense of urgency, backed by premonitions of what might happen if democracy were to be hollowed out, emptied of meaning, turned into something useless or perhaps even dangerous.
This review was originally published in London’s Financial Times, December 14, 2012
Bliss was it in that spring to be alive, and to be young, on the streets, was very heaven. Or so it seemed to millions of women and men in early 2011, shortly after the first protests in Tunisia rocked the foundations of the whole Arab world. Public ecstasy flourished. Freed from fear, often for the first time, citizens found themselves dancing, singing and kissing strangers in the streets. Dignity and justice, freedom and democracy, was the prevailing talk. Political exiles came home. The first fair and clean elections in living memory happened. Dictators were everywhere forced onto the back foot. Several were toppled; a few went on trial, or fled into exile; others, among them Gaddafi and al-Assad, fought back, like maniacs, using murderous tactics and weapons.
Exactly two years later, all things considered, have the convulsions in the Arab world been a boon for the spirit and institutions of power-sharing democracy? It’s much too early to tell. Revolutions resemble extended earthquakes. They take time. They have their own time. They alter people’s sense of time. Their impact and historical significance are known only well after their onset. As events unfold, the sense of liminality spreads. ‘Revolution fills life with unknowables,’ notes the Chinese writer Yu Hua. He adds that upheavals unpredictably break ‘the social ties that bind one person to another’, so that lives are often changed overnight: ‘some people soar high in the blink of an eye, and others just as quickly stumble into the deepest pit.’
Those words certainly apply to the Arab world. Look carefully at the present moment. Judged in terms of democratic principles, the most striking fact about the region is its utter contradictoriness. The fading imperial democracy, the United States, unconditionally backs Israel, a state that talks constantly about democracy and human rights yet in practice discriminates heavily against its own Arab subjects, builds walls and heaps terrible suffering upon its Palestinian neighbours. The American democracy brought massive violence and suffering to Iraq, which now resembles a comprador state aligned with Iran, which backs the criminal Syrian regime, which the United States wants to axe. In support of ‘democracy’ against ‘terror’, American drones, their use unauthorised by Congress, terrorise from above, kill and disrupt the lives of people down below.
The United States and its Western allies meanwhile back rich little Qatar. Home to al Jazeera, a vital contributor to the spread of democratic values, Qatar helps fund and support Hamas, which in the name of self-determination crushes dissent within its own ranks. The Western-backed Saudi Arabia dictatorship clings on for dear life, fears its own people, whom it plies with lavish handouts, knowing that they’re ultimately the source of its own repressive power.
That’s not the end of Western ‘democratic’ double standards. The United States and its Western allies silently consent to martial law and terror in Bahrain, whose oppressed Shiite majority refuse violence and champion the cause of democracy and human rights against a Sunni monarchy backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The West finds a new ally in the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt. Its democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, declares: ‘I have no rights, only responsibilities….If I do not deliver, do not obey me.’ Before a huge crowd of cheering supporters, he goes on to defend his decision to grant himself near-absolute constitutional powers: ‘My duty is to move forward with the goals of the revolution’, he says, ‘and eliminate all obstacles from the past’.
Throughout the region, political Islamists are on a roll. They’re making history anew, beginning with the rejection of several ‘laws’ of Atlantic-region political science. Hussein Agha, Robert Malley and others are not impressed. They predict that things will turn out badly, but this is to understate the interim achievements of the upheavals in general, and political Islam in particular. It turns out that secularism in the American, French or British sense is not a basic precondition of power-sharing constitutional democracy. In the elegant phrase of Naser Ghobadzadeh, a young Iranian scholar, political Islam is a force for the new democratic virtue of religious secularity, what Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia wisely calls a new compromise (wasatiyyah) between religion and politics.
Political Islamists also challenge the standard political science presumption that democracy requires a binding sense of national identity backed by a sovereign territorial state. They think differently. Whatever might be thought of the Iranian case, political Islamists have no particular love of armies, states, nations and nationalism. Their efforts to break the back of the old military dictatorships by spreading the spirit of democracy across borders therefore shouldn’t be underestimated. Public vows of support for brothers and sisters of the wider ummah are common. Regional political thinking is a felt imperative. How to re-shape the region politically is another matter.
Political Islam has managed to breathe life into the body of ‘post-sovereign’ democratic ideals, yet the whole process is deeply conflicted. It knows that nationalism always greased the wheels of dictatorship and that’s the reason many supporters of political Islam dream of political forms beyond the territorial state. That’s why (for instance) they conclude that Fatah and the PLO have no future, and why they think that the people of Gaza and the West Bank, whose hearts ache for a durable truce with self-governing institutions, may come to realise their dream not through a weakling pseudo- state, but by means of a new regional settlement, of the kind championed by the present Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt. For the moment, of course, that government remains trapped within the contradictory structures of the Egyptian state. Political Islam is forced to perform a delicate balancing act: it needs to satisfy its militant supporters with substantial domestic reforms; neutralise its military opponents; negotiate with the West; forge a different relationship with its neighbour state of Israel; and push towards a new and more dynamic regional settlement that remains undefined.
Political Islamists are also learning that democracy can be a wild horse. They hunger for state power; after a long history of underground resistance and suffering, they understandably don’t want to squander their deserved gains. Yet in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the engine rooms of last year’s upheavals, political Islamists are discovering that electoral victory and governing often require give-and-take pragmatism. As they set their sights on state power, they’re discovering as well that throughout the region, thanks to colonialism, state structures, where they exist, have been twice cursed: their efficiency and effectiveness are limited and, in the eyes of many people, they’re simply not legitimate. That’s why those who occupy the levers of state power in the name of ‘the people’ quickly find themselves opposed by long queues of real people - Arab nationalists, old-fashioned secularists, trade unionists, liberal minorities, Salafists hostile to women, atheism and ecumenicism.
Unfamiliar dynamics result. Protests against the injustice of unemployment, government corruption and state violence erupt; as recent disturbances in the Tunisian city of Siliana show, Islamist governments committed to ‘justice’ are easily accused of propping up systems of injustice. Another example: buoyed by the shift towards political Islam throughout the region, Salafists fancy themselves as the new opposition. That’s why they’re tempted to contest elections, which they otherwise denounce as an insult to God’s sovereignty.
The new regional power, Turkey, itself caught up in an unprecedented democratic transition that defies most textbook descriptions, indulges the contradictions. Committed to destroying the al-Assad regime in Syria, sensing that the terrible violence in that country is a proxy regional war, the Turkish government finds itself in the company of a strange assortment of political animals, including militant Kurds, whose cause at home it does everything to crush. The ramshackle democracy called Lebanon, governed by a fragile coalition of parties backed by Hezbollah, helps forces hostile to democracy to flourish. Throughout the region, the rule is clear: without a vibrant civil society backed by respect for local versions of human rights and the rule of law, the push for democracy hands opportunities to militias, shadowy armed networks, criminal gangs, kidnappers, assassins. Strange but true: as in Yemen and Libya, the fight for justice through new forms of democracy breeds new patterns of violent death and destruction.
And so the contraries multiply. Two years after the first breakthroughs, democratic principles are everywhere contradicted by struggles for power that bear little or no resemblance to professed intentions, or defined strategies. Where will all this end? What will historians say in fifty years from now when they look back on the region? Everybody wants to be on the winning side of history, yet nobody knows which side is right, or what winning might mean, or how to get there. Only one thing is certain: the present trends, suffused with contradiction, are not sustainable.
The spirit and institutions of Greek democracy are dying, but who really cares? Kostas Vaxevanis does. His name merits global attention because during the past year Hot Doc, the weekly magazine he owns and edits, has published a string of gutsy stories detailing the financial rip-offs that have brought his country to the point of economic, political and psychological breakdown.
Vaxevanis began by exposing the huge kickbacks on weapons contracts allegedly pocketed by a former defence minister, who is now behind bars, awaiting trial. Hot Doc then implicated the central bank of Greece in shorting the country’s debt by local speculators. It tracked the issuing of large unsecured loans (known locally as thalassodaneia) by private banks. Last month brought its biggest and most controversial scoop: the publication of a list of 2,000 rich and powerful Greeks with funds stashed in Swiss bank accounts. Hot Doc sales and online hits rocketed. Vaxevanis was arrested. Cold-shouldered by mainstream media, he was pelted with abuse, targeted by assassins and accused by state authorities of violating privacy laws and ‘turning the country into a coliseum’.
Vaxevanis remained defiant. ‘We’ll continue doing our job,’ he said, ‘and that is to uncover everything that others wish to hide.’ Earlier this month, he was vindicated by an Athens court. A judge ruled that he’d acted for the public good. Events then took a macabre turn: the Athens public prosecutor’s office announced his re-trial in a higher level misdemeanour court. If convicted, he could suffer a two-year prison sentence.
Brave Kostas Vaxevanis belongs to the age of monitory democracy. He’s a new muckraker, an exemplar of a distinctively 21st-century style of political writing. To describe him this way is to give new meaning to a charming old Americanism, an earthy neologism from the late nineteenth century, when muckraking referred to journalism committed to the cause of publicly exposing arbitrary power.
Most people have today forgotten writers like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Jacob Riis. Their condescension by posterity is shameful. For the muckrakers, true to their name, took advantage of the widening circulation of newspapers, magazines and books made possible by advertising, and by cheaper, mass production and distribution methods, to offer sensational public exposés of grimy governmental corruption and waste, business fraud, and social deprivation. Among my favourites from this period was the Pennsylvania-born journalist Nellie Bly. She did something daring and dangerous: for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper the New York World, Bly faked insanity to publish an undercover exposé of a woman’s lunatic asylum. Other muckrakers openly challenged political bosses and corporate fat cats. They questioned industrial progress at any price. The muckrakers took on profiteering, deception, low standards of public health and safety. They complained about child labour, prostitution and alcohol. They called for an end to city slums. They poured scorn on legislators, portraying them as pawns of industrialists and financiers, as corrupters of the principle that representatives should serve all of their constituents, not just the rich and powerful.
Our media-saturated age of monitory democracy is reviving and transforming muckraking in this old sense. New muckrakers like Kostas Vaxevanis put their finger on a perennial problem for which democracy is a solution: the power of elites always thrives on secrecy, silence and invisibility. Gathering behind closed doors and deciding things in peace and private quiet is their speciality. Little wonder then that in media-saturated societies, to put things paradoxically, muckrakers ensure that unexpected ‘leaks’ and revelations become predictably commonplace. Despite his neglect of the shaping effects of communications media, the French philosopher Alain Badiou is right: everyday life is constantly ruptured by mediated ‘events’. They pose challenges to both the licit and the illicit. It is not just that stuff happens; muckrakers ensure that shit happens. Muckraking becomes rife. There are moments when it even feels as if the whole world is run by rogues.
Muckraking is a controversial practice, certainly, but there’s no doubt it has definite political effects on the old institutions of representative democracy. Public disaffection with official ‘politics’ has much to do with the practise of muckraking under conditions of communicative abundance. In recent decades, much survey evidence suggests that citizens in many established democracies, although they strongly identify with democratic ideals, have grown more distrustful of politicians, doubtful about governing institutions, and disillusioned with leaders in the public sector.
Politicians are sitting ducks. The limited media presence and media vulnerability of parliaments is striking. Despite efforts at harnessing new digital media, parties have been left flat-footed. They neither own nor control their media outlets and they’ve lost much of the astonishing energy displayed at the end of the 19th century by political parties, such as Germany’s SPD, which at the time was the greatest political party machine on the face of the earth, in no small measure because it powerfully championed literacy and was a leading publisher of books, pamphlets and newspapers in its own right.
The net effect is that under conditions of communicative abundance the core institutions of representative democracy have become easy targets of rough riding. Think for a moment about any current public controversy that attracts widespread attention: muckraked news and disputes about its wider public significance typically begin outside the formal machinery of representative democracy. The messages become memes quickly relayed by many power-scrutinising organisations, large, medium and small. They often hit their target, sometimes from long distances, often by means of boomerang effects. In the media-saturated world of communicative abundance, that kind of latticed or networked pattern of circulating controversial messages is typical, not exceptional. It produces constant feedback effects: unpredictably non-linear links between inputs and outputs.
Who or what drives the new muckraking? The temptations and abuses of power by oligarchs, certainly. The criminal obscenities, hypocrisies and political stupidities of those responsible for the deep crisis of parliamentary democracy in Greece and the wider Atlantic region, no doubt. The decline of parties and representative politics and strengthening democratic sensibilities against arbitrary power also play their part. But of critical importance is the advent of communicative abundance. Just as the old muckrakers took advantage of advertising-driven mass production and circulation of newspapers, so the new muckrakers are learning fast how to use digital networks for political ends.
The new muckraking isn’t the effect of new media alone, as believers in the magical powers of technology suppose. Individuals, groups, networks and whole organisations make muckraking happen. Yet buried within the infrastructures of communicative abundance are technical features that enable muckrakers to do their work of publicly scrutinising power, much more efficiently and effectively than at any moment in the history of democracy.
From the end of the 1960s, a communications revolution has been unfolding. It’s by no means finished. Product and process innovations have been happening in virtually every field of an increasingly commercialised media. Technical factors, such as electronic memory, tighter channel spacing, new frequency allocation, direct satellite broadcasting, digital tuning and advanced compression techniques, have made a huge difference. Yet within the infrastructure of communicative abundance there’s something more important, more special: its distributed networks.
In contrast, say, to centralised state-run broadcasting systems of the past, the spider’s web linkages among many different nodes within a distributed network make them intrinsically more resistant to centralised control. The network is structured by the logic of packet switching: information flows are broken into bytes, then pass through many points en route to their destination, where they are re-assembled as messages. If they meet resistance at any point within the system of nodes then the information flows are simply diverted automatically, re-routed in the direction of their intended destination.
It is this packet-switched and networked character of media-saturated societies that makes them so prone to dissonance. Some observers (Giovanni Navarria is among them) claim that a new understanding of power as ‘mutually shared weakness’ is needed for making sense of the impact of networks on the distribution of power within any given political order. Their point is that those who exercise power over others are subject constantly to muckraking and its unforeseen setbacks, reversals and revolts. Manipulation and bossing and bullying of the powerless become difficult. The powerless readily find the networked communicative means through which to take their revenge on the powerful. The consequence: power disputes follow unexpected pathways and reach surprising destinations that have unexpected outcomes.
Navarria and others have a point. Innovations such as the South Korean site OhmyNews, UK Uncut, California Watch and Mediapart (a Paris-based watchdog staffed by a number of veteran French newspaper and news agency journalists) help radically alter the ecology of public affairs reporting and commentary. The new dot.org muckrakers don’t simply give voice to the voiceless. Their aggressive muckraking triggers echo effects which spell deep trouble for conventional understandings of journalism.
The days of journalism proud of its commitment to the sober principle that ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’ (that was the phrase coined in 1921 by the Manchester Guardian’s long-time editor C.P. Scott) are over. References to fact-based ‘objectivity’, an ideal that was born of the age of representative democracy, are equally implausible. Talk of ‘fairness’ (a criterion of good journalism famously championed by Hubert Beuve-Méry, the founder and first editor of Le Monde) is also becoming questionable. In place of the rituals of ‘objectivity’ and 'fairness’ we see the rise of adversarial and ‘gotcha’ styles of journalism, forms of writing that are driven not just by ratings, sales and hits, but by the will to expose wrongdoing. Muckraking sometimes comes in highly professional form, as at London’s The Guardian, which played a decisive role in the phone-hacking scandal that hit News Corporation in mid-2011. In other contexts, muckraking equals biting political satire, of the deadly kind popularised in India by STAR’s weekly show Poll Khol, which uses a comedian anchorman, an animated monkey, news clips and Bollywood soundtracks (the programme title is translated as ‘open election’ but is actually drawn from a popular Hindi metaphor which means ‘revealing the hidden story’).
Thanks to the new muckraking, rough riding of the powerful happens - on a scale never before witnessed. Contrary to the pessimists and purists, democratic politics is not withering away. In matters of who gets what, when and how, thanks to the new muckrakers, nothing is ever settled, or straightforward. Our great grandparents would find the whole process astonishing in its democratic intensity. There seems to be no end of scandals. There are even times when so-called ‘-gate’ scandals, like earthquakes, rumble beneath the feet of whole governments.
Sceptics say that muckraking has gone too far, that it breeds distrust and disaffection, that it’s poisoning the spirit of democracy. The case of Kostas Vaxevanis, his refusal to let Greek democracy die, shows that kind of objection is both premature and out of touch. On balance, all things considered, muckraking has always been a good and necessary thing for democracy. It’s now becoming a life-and-death imperative. We’re living in confused times when the political dirty business of dragging arbitrary power from behind curtains of secrecy is fundamentally important. ‘Greece is ruled by a small group of politicians, businesspeople and journalists with the same interests’, Vaxevanis said recently. In a Twitter post, he noted the consequence: ‘While society demands disclosure, they cover up.’
He’s right, and his point is surely relevant not just for Greece, but for democratic countries otherwise as different as Japan, India, Spain and the United Kingdom. The disease of dysfunctional democracy is spreading. The gaps between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, are widening. Public disaffection with politicians and parties flourishes. Cynicism grows. Dropping out is becoming common. Worst of all, where all this leads is becoming ever less clear. Political drift is the new norm.
The day before I’m due to interview Somsri Hananuntasuk in steamy downtown Bangkok, mean-faced riot police crushed a public rally of red-shirted pro-government protesters and their yellow-shirted opponents. These days, thanks to mobile phone crowd sourcing, even small protests in this sprawling city of festering tensions fast morph into big and ugly confrontations. As it happened, luckily for the police, a massive electrical storm rained down on the parade, scattering demonstrators in all directions. Some ran for their lives, chased by stick- and shield- wielding police who managed, just as the heavens were opening, to snatch and drag away scores of citizens, more than a few badly bruised and bleeding.
The graphic media coverage that followed overnight set the scene for our conversation about the darling of the red shirts, Thaksin Shinawatra. Somsri Hananuntasuk knows her subject well. Former Chair of Amnesty International Thailand and ex-Director of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), now a prominent and widely-respected public figure, she begins with a surprise confession. ‘I cast my vote for Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. He was a fascinating figure: a wonderful new face, young, intelligent, a visionary businessman who didn’t come from the old political class. Many of us thought his business accomplishments meant he could succeed in modernising Thai politics.’
She goes on to explain that Shinawatra was an outsider, a rebel within the ruling oligarchy, the first top politician to hail from Chiang Mai province in the north of the country, near where the bulk of the Thai population live, many of them at or beneath the poverty line. ‘Shinawatra talked the language of these people. His opponent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was an Oxford graduate who spoke in generalisations, often so abstract that many poor citizens simply couldn’t understand what he was saying. From a modestly wealthy family, Shinawatra visited villages and temples. He learned to play the role of a populist. Especially in the north and north-eastern parts of the country, people felt they could learn things from him. He won their ears and touched their hearts.’
Home-grown populist überdemocrat he became, with transformative effects on Thailand’s society and politics. Shinawatra symbolised several faces of the new Asia of the 21st century. Outsiders know the basics of the man, and how be built his political dynasty. Somsri Hananuntasuk complicates the picture. She says that Shinawatra amassed a private fortune in real estate, satellite telecommunications, computers, paging services and cable television. He became a billionaire after founding Advanced Info Service (AIS), the country’s leading mobile phone operator. He drove hard bargains; the tycoon was not beyond swindling. He lived up to the meaning of his Thai surname: ‘routinely appropriate action’. As if determined to match the vanity of Silvio Berlusconi, Shinawatra bought a struggling English football team, Manchester City, whose fans on the terrace for a while adored him, despite patchy results and their inability to pronounce his name in club chants (they instead nicknamed him ‘Frank Sinatra’).
Somsri Hananuntasuk highlights Shinawatra’s sense of style, his rough humour, his knack for cultivating celebrity status, his powerful grip on the local telecommunications industry, his willingness in the early days of his political career to play the role of champion of new communications media. ‘He was a rich business guy, but he helped popularise computers and champion computer literacy among poor citizens. He was a capitalist who sided with some activists from the political left. Most NGOs never took his side. But he was among the world’s first supporters of Nicholas Negroponte’s One laptop Per Child project and before Thailand established an Election Commission he even rented out computers to help monitor elections.’
The political strategy of one computer, one vote paid off. Beginning with his appointment as Foreign Minister in 1994, Shinawatra stayed for nearly a decade at the top of Thai politics. He was the first prime minister to serve a full term. He stood for progress. Shinawatra claimed his poverty-reduction programmes made a difference. Through such schemes as the ‘One District, One Scholarship’ funded by the legalisation of the huge underground lottery system and village-managed micro-credit development funds, he supported the positive redistribution of wealth, the enhancement of life chances of the poor majority. His reforms sometimes had dramatic effects, as in the area of subsidised universal health care. ‘The 30 baht [one dollar] health care scheme introduced by Shinawatra silenced many of his critics’, Somsri Hananuntasuk explains. ‘Although it was resisted by doctors and hospital staff, and placed every medical facility under great pressure, it had the effect of raising awareness of the human rights of the poor. For 30 baht, women could now give birth in a hospital. Patients were entitled to receive heart surgery, treatment for lung cancer, or flu. Grassroots people were delighted.’
There were sinister sides to Shinawatra’s avowed leftism. Especially after his re-election in 2005, when the highest voter turnout in Thai history rewarded his Thais Love Thais (Thai Rak Thai) Party with a landslide victory, he stacked government ministries with his own women and men. ‘The administrative reforms were dubbed the ‘big bang’. In the name of streamlining bureaucracy, getting results and serving the majority of the people, he elevated his family members, often rewarding them with business contracts and political advantage. That his sister Yingluck is now Prime Minister is no coincidence. He set out to build a dynasty, what we call a political clan system.’ The macho man of the people began to tamper with the courts and fiddle with mainstream media. He cracked down on press freedoms and unlicensed community radio stations, launched defamation suits against critical journalists and kick-started a bloody assault on the Malay Muslim population in the southernmost provinces of the country. ‘Many of us began to feel that a strange new form of people’s dictatorship was being prepared. The feeling was reinforced by Shinawatra’s tightening links with the police. A former lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Thai Police, he won their support for declaring a ‘war’ on drugs. Aimed at the widespread trade in methamphetamines, known locally as ya ba, it turned out to be a campaign of extra-judicial murder of poor people. It was shoot-to-kill of ‘blacklisted’ traffickers. We human rights activists were shocked. Estimates vary, but perhaps 3,000 people lost their lives during the 90-day clampdown. Many victims reportedly had the same drugs in identical plastic bags planted on their bodies. Over a thousand of those killed had no links with the drug trade. It was frightening.’
The abuse of power by Shinawatra seemed almost to replay the worst fears of the Athenian philosopher Plato, the first great critic of democracy. More than 2,500 years ago, he blasted democracy as a decadent type of politics whose main dynamic is the appeal to ‘the people’ by clever demagogues who hail from the ruling class. Greeks had a term, which has since slipped out of use, to describe the whole process of demagogues grabbing power through the people. They called it democratisation (dēmokrateo).
The parallel with Thai politics of the past decade is uncanny. So vicious were the political frictions triggered by Shinawatra’s populist defection from the traditional political establishment (called the ammart), the Thai army soon stepped in, dressed in full battle gear, backed by big business and the monarchy and egged on by street protests of urban middle class citizens frightened by the prospect of permanent rule by a tycoon businessman and people-loving macho demagogue. In the early years of the 21st century, Shinawatra proved by his actions that the old axiom ‘no bourgeois, no democracy’ is by no means valid for the Asia and Pacific region, whose middle classes have no ‘natural’ taste for democracy. The upshot: forced out of office, convicted on conflict of interest charges (the Thai Supreme Court referred to ‘policy corruption’) and stripped of his passport and half his assets, Shinawatra began to play the role of the wronged democrat, the martyred man of the people, the phrai, their champion in what he now likes to call ‘a tug-of-war for democracy, against state violence’.
Is Thaksin Shinawatra’s political career finished? Last week, the first-ever independent Truth for Reconciliation Commission for Thailand (TRCT) issued its public report on the 2010 violence and included by way of its finding the recommendation that he bow out of the Thai political scene. While Somsri Hananuntasuk welcomes the report as both informative and a possible basis for future justice, she doubts the recommendation will be taken up. ‘Shinawatra lives on, connected to us, directly involved in our politics from afar,’ she says. ‘Now operating from Dubai, he has several passports [granted by the governments of Montenegro, Bahamas and Nicaragua] and owns property in Hong Kong. He’s mobile. He’s already touched down in border towns in Laos and Cambodia to greet legions of his red-shirt faithful. Shinawatra has options. He’s connected by the Internet. His tweets attract huge audiences. Every press conference abroad gets maximum attention at home. Public rallies are held using live satellite and phone-in links.’ She adds, with a wise smile: ‘The really strange thing about our political situation in Thailand is that we’re governed by remote control.’
Following massive protests (during April and May 2010) by red shirts against military rule and a landslide election victory in July 2011, Shinawatra’s sister Yingluck is now prime minister. But as Somsri Hananuntasuk points out, by way of conclusion, Yingluck’s current popularity is fed by her highly disciplined efforts not to upset her brother. ‘She dodges questions in the parliament, talks about things in principle, sets up investigations, claims she doesn’t have adequate information, or is too busy.’ The dynasty that works together, stays together, she quips. ‘Thailand is surely the only country in the world where key decisions are made or sanctioned by a former prime minister in exile. It’s become our Thai way of doing politics. We’re one country, with two prime ministers.’
India’s most respected public intellectual Ashis Nandy recently appealed to his fellow citizens to recognise and deal with a spreading malady in Indian politics. He calls it ‘psephocracy’. The quality of political leadership and government, says Nandy, is compromised by the reduction of Indian democracy to struggles to win the spoils of office. ‘The moment you enter office, you begin to think of the next election’, he notes.
The preoccupation with winning and retaining office has toxic effects. Incumbents dare not put a foot wrong. Underachievement is consequently rife; bold and imaginative political leadership withers. Far too much time is spent log-rolling coalition partners. Vast sums of campaign funds are raised through shady backroom deals. Patron-client arrangements called vote banks flourish, along with corrupt wheeling and dealing. Focus groups, targeted advertising and negative campaigning become regular techniques of governing. Parties degenerate into oligarchies hungry for electoral conquests. Party hopping, the strange practice of representatives switching allegiance to another party when in office, flourishes. So does behind-the-scenes lobbying. Under extreme circumstances, as Narendra Modri showed in Gujurat in 2002, politicians seeking re-election are even prepared to win office by stirring up communal suspicion and hatred, riots and pogroms.
Nandy exaggerates, but his point about psephocracy is pertinent. Using a rarely-used word from the OED, he puts his finger firmly on a degenerative disease found not only in India but in many other democracies, including (as we see from the current presidential campaign) the United States. The trend is uneven and politically contested, certainly, but Nandy’s attack on psephocracy prompts a vital question about whether and how democracy can be rethought, and be practised, so that it comes to mean more than electoral integrity, commonly called free, fair and clean elections.
The question isn’t new. It was in fact first raised and last debated in depth during the 1940s, a much-neglected moment in the history of democracy when political writers from across the political spectrum helped effect a Copernican shift in the meaning and ethical justification of democracy. The ideal of monitory democracy was born. It was a new historical form of democracy, one much more sensitive than its predecessors to the evils of arbitrary power. The new ideal implied nothing less than free and fair elections, but something much more. Democracy came to mean the continuous public scrutiny, chastening and control of power, wherever it is exercised, according to standards ‘deeper’ and more universal than the old reigning principles of periodic elections, majority rule and popular sovereignty.
The ideal of monitory democracy (a new term I’ve elaborated in The Life and Death of Democracy) was born of a moment of profound crisis when majority-rule parliamentary democracy tottered on the cliff-edge of self-extinction. By 1941, down on its knees, it seemed rudderless, spiritless, paralysed, doomed. When President Roosevelt called for ‘bravely shielding the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism’, when untold numbers of villains like Mussolini and Hitler had drawn the contrary conclusion that dictatorship, empire and totalitarianism were the future, only eleven electoral democracies remained on the face of the planet.
What’s fascinating about the 1940s is that the possible self-extinction of electoral democracy triggered a moment of ‘dark energy’: the universe of meaning of democracy underwent a dramatic expansion, in defiance of the cosmic gravity of contemporary events. Thomas Mann gave voice to the trend when noting the need for ‘democracy’s deep and forceful recollection of itself, the renewal of its spiritual and moral self-consciousness'. Others voiced puzzlement and shock at the way the electoral democracies of the 1920s and 1930s had enabled the rise of leaders (Theodor Adorno dubbed them ‘glorified barkers’) skilled at calling on ‘the people’ to mount the stage of history – only then to muzzle, maim and murder flesh-and-blood people in their name, so destroying the plural freedoms and political equality (one person, one vote) for which electoral democracy had avowedly stood.
Many 1940s commentators agreed that both the language and practise of majority-rule electoral democracy had been utterly corrupted, to the point where even the word democracy was wielded in ‘a consciously dishonest way’ (Orwell). Yet (they asked) how might democracy regain its integrity? Could it come to mean more than free elections?
Many agreed that a new form of democracy was needed, a type of post-electoral democracy whose spirit and institutions were infused with a robust commitment to casting out the devils of arbitrary, publicly unaccountable power. The Irish man of letters, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) captured the point. ‘A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people…who believed in a democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true.’ Lewis added that he was opposed to all forms of slavery because no human beings were ‘fit to be masters’. The ‘real reason for democracy’ is that human beings are fallen creatures, so that ‘no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.’
Suspicion of unchecked power prompted many political writers to reject the twin follies of sentimental optimism and blasé cynicism. Capturing the new spirit, Hannah Arendt called for active confrontation with the demons of arbitrary power. ‘The problem of evil’, she wrote in 1945, ‘will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe’. But what exactly did that imply in practice?
Political recommendations were often divided, for instance over the need to correct markets and redistribute wealth through welfare state policies. The typical pattern during this period was that those who strongly favoured so-called free markets against concentrated state power (von Hayek was an example) were not keen on democracy, whereas those (such as J.M. Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter) who reminded everybody that unregulated ‘free’ markets had imploded during the 1920s and 1930s, dragging down parliamentary democracy, were friendlier towards democracy. Some even recommended workers’ control of industry - the extension of the principle of elected representation into the heartlands of the market, as in fact happened with the invention during the 1940s of the German system of co-determination.
Although the political commentators of the 1940s didn’t quite put things this way, they were calling in effect for the democratisation of electoral democracy. In the name of democracy, for instance, some writers flatly rejected the core axiom of electoral democracy, ‘the will of the people’. The French Catholic philosopher and early champion of human rights Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) insisted that ‘the people are not God, the people do not have infallible reason and virtues without flaw.’ J.B. Priestley’s BBC lectures (broadcast as The Postscript, on Sunday evenings through 1940 and again in 1941, and which drew peak audiences of 16 million, a figure which rivalled Churchill’s popularity with listeners) repeated the point by asking: ‘Who are the people?’ His answer, with Hitler on his mind: ‘The people are real human beings. If you prick them, they bleed. They have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sweethearts, wives, and children. They swing between fear and hope. They have strange dreams. They hunger for happiness. They all have names and faces. They are not some cross-section of abstract stuff.’
So, if ‘the People’, abstractly conceived, were no longer the imaginary source of legitimate power then it followed that the problem was to find in these dark and tumultuous times more down-to-earth methods of effectively placing constraints on the dangerous power of manipulative leaders. Nobody recommended a return to Greek-style assembly democracy; that option was seen as a failure of political imagination and practically incapable of meeting the challenges of the dark and dangerous times. Far bolder and forward-looking measures were badly needed.
Some political writers (Carl J. Friedrich, Bhimrao Ambedkar) argued for the primacy of constitutional restraints on arbitrary power. Others called for the re-injection of spiritual concerns into the ethos and institutions of democracy. Reinhold Niebuhr (the teacher of Martin Luther King Jr.) provided among the weightiest cases for renewing and transforming democracy along these lines. ‘The perils of uncontrolled power are perennial reminders of the virtues of a democratic society’, he wrote. ‘But modern democracy requires a more realistic philosophical and religious basis, not only in order to anticipate and understand the perils to which it is exposed, but also to give it a more persuasive justification.’ He concluded with words that became famous: ‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.’
In perhaps the boldest move, still other thinkers proposed ditching the reigning presumption that the ‘natural’ home of democracy was the sovereign territorial state, or what René Cassin, co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dubbed the Leviathan State. So they pleaded for extending democratic principles across territorial borders. ‘The history of the past twenty years’, Friedrich wrote, ‘has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that constitutional democracy cannot function effectively on a national plane.’ Thomas Mann similarly rubbished attempts to ‘reduce the democratic idea to the idea of peace, and to assert that the right of a free people to determine its own destiny includes respect for the rights of foreign people and thus constitutes the best guarantee for the creation of a community of nations and for peace.’ He added: ‘We must reach higher and envisage the whole. We must define democracy as that form of government and of society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man.’
This way of thinking helped inspire one of the most remarkable features of the Copernican shift of thinking about democracy during this period: let’s call it the common-law marriage of democracy and human rights, and the subsequent world-wide growth of monitory organisations, networks and campaigns committed to the defence of human rights. The crowning achievement of the decade was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Drafted in 1947/8, it seemed to many at the time a mere sideshow of questionable importance. Its preamble spoke of ‘the inherent dignity’ and ‘the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. Against tremendous odds, the declaration (John Dewey pointed out) was a call for civil societies and governments everywhere to speak and act as if human rights mattered.
The fundamental re-thinking of electoral democracy through the lens of human rights had several long-term effects, some of them unintended, more than a few surprising. Today, networked organisations like Human Rights Watch, the Aga Khan Development Network, Amnesty International and tens of thousands of other non-governmental human rights organisations monitor power. They have helped alter the political ecology of actually existing democracies. They routinely deal with a wide range of rights matters including torture, child soldiers, the abuse of women, the monitoring of elections and freedom of religious conviction. They strive to be goads to the conscience of governments and citizens, and in this respect they solve a basic problem that had dogged electoral democracy: who decides who ‘the people’ are?
Since the 1940s, most human rights organisations and networks have answered: every human being is entitled to exercise their right to have rights, including the right to prevent arbitrary exercises of power through independent public monitoring and free association with others, considered as equals. Their reply has fundamentally altered the meaning of democracy, shielding it from the follies and pitfalls of psephocracy. But ever since the 1940s, as John Dewey noted at the time, the common-law marriage with democracy also produced discord. It exposed the utopian language and politics of ‘universal’ human rights to the real-world forces of a brand new form of democracy.
Monitory democracy turned out to be good for human rights. It did more than serve as a permanent reminder that who gets what, when and how should depend on the permanent public scrutiny of power, not just on bland talk of ‘the right to vote’ or contested elections and election statistics. Monitory democracy brought talk of universal human rights down to earth. It urged the advocates of human rights to think twice about embracing the pre-political rhetoric of ‘good governance’ and the ‘human right to development’. Most striking of all is the way the champions of monitory democracy have managed to table the most profoundly subversive but still-unanswered question of all: why should we give priority to human rights and privilege human affairs at the expense of the non-human domains upon which we human beings daily depend?
Dear reader, don’t let yourselves be fooled: whatever political charlatans, cynics or melancholics say to the contrary, democracy as we know it is turning green. There’s never been a period in the history of democracy quite like it. Slowly but surely, the spirit, visionary ideals, language and institutions of democracy are granting recognition and representation to the bio-habitats in which we dwell. The trend is subject to political setbacks, certainly. It has its enemies. Nothing is guaranteed. It could all end disastrously. Yet the trend is global, cuts deep into our daily lives and is defined by many developments, most of them unprecedented.
The greening of democracy runs far beyond spreading public talk of sustainability and climate justice. It’s more consequential than disputes about the price of carbon and emissions trading schemes. The trend includes the birth of new instruments of representation, such as green parties, pirate parties and environmental courts. Less obviously, it includes novel power-monitoring mechanisms such as deliberative forums, bio-regional assemblies and earth watch networks. These innovations are proof positive that we’re living through a new phase of what Alexis de Tocqueville famously called the democratic revolution, this time one that is marked by the empowerment of ‘nature’ in human affairs.
The trend would astonish our great grandparents. To see why, let’s take an example, the franchise, the question of who is legally entitled to vote. Pundits insist that the old battles to universalise the right to vote are over, that the question of who votes and is represented in public affairs is now a settled issue, yet they’re plainly wrong. Gradually, the interests of a whole new constituency are making their presence felt in human affairs: our biosphere.
Efforts to ensure its political representation include more than talk of animal rights, simian sovereignty and respect for sentient creatures. The greening trend runs much deeper. It prompts fundamental questions about the meaning of democracy, and whether it has a future. It forces us to think about how we think about democracy.
The greening of democracy goes beyond the familiar arguments about whether open democratic societies are capable of cultivating public awareness of future generations (they can) or whether democracies can act quickly enough to handle the coming mega-disasters (they can). The trend forces us to answer the most basic question: are we human beings capable of democratising ourselves?
The question has at least three pointed parts. Can we human beings humble ourselves by collectively recognising our ineluctably deep dependence upon the ecosystems in which we dwell? Can we simultaneously find new ways of practically extending voices and votes in human affairs to our ecosystems? Third, and consequently, is it possible in theory and practice to rid the whole idea of democracy of its anthropocentrism? Can it come to mean, descriptively speaking, a form of life and a way of rendering power publicly accountable by means of institutions in which humans and their biosphere are treated symmetrically, as interdependent equals, in opposition to the reigning view that humans are the pinnacle of creation, lords and ladies of the universe, ‘the people’ who are the ultimate source of sovereign power and authority on Earth?
This way of playing with words and asking questions may seem strange. It might even be judged a trite game in pseud’s corner. It isn’t. For it should be remembered that all human societies have created ways of registering or re-presenting their interdependence with the natural world and its (sometimes invisible, like the wind) elements by means of verbal, written and pictorial expressions. It should also not be forgotten that the democratic tradition, as I point out in The Life and Death of Democracy, is salted and peppered with many old customs, ways of politically representing ‘nature’, some of them, such as water tribunals, tings and dyke committees, stretching back well into medieval times. Memories of their importance have mostly been extinguished, although from time to time their spirit has been kept alive, especially in the world of literature, for instance in Erich Kästner’s classic children’s tale of an assembly of the world’s animals that calls on humans to behave more decently in the world.
The contemporary greening of democratic politics brings to life and puts into practice new ways of imagining the political inclusion and representation of the biosphere within human affairs. It forces us to realise that we humans move among miracles, that we’ve a common primordial bond with every other living species, that we’re part of the earth’s ‘unfathomable flow of impacts over billions of years of evolution’ (the words of the American naturalist and philosopher Edward L. McCord). Green politics stimulates our awareness that there are many different ways of seeing and acting upon the biosphere, that it is not just raw, non-human, ‘out there’ nature but a complex set of interacting living elements whose dynamics and significance are shaped by humans embedded within the deep structures of their biosphere.
The point that human and non-human nature form part of a common but fragile dynamic needs to be registered in the very language of democracy. Language shapes who we are; it speaks us, as Heidegger noted, and that’s why in matters of democracy, the most power-sensitive political form yet invented, the language of democratic politics should never be taken for granted.
Thinking hard and deeply about language is necessary therapy for democrats. There are indeed times when the key terms of democracy need to be challenged. The history of democracy is full of phrase struggles. Think of the still-unfinished job of subverting sexist or homophobic language; or the invention and popularisation of terms such as social democracy, liberal democracy and Christian democracy; or the (hardly remembered) contribution by democrats of words like ‘ok’ to the English language.
Now think of the way the language of democratic politics is a carrier of unwarranted insults and blind indignities thrust at our biosphere. Let’s take the surprising example of donkey voting. It’s a familiar phrase, dating from the early 1960s. It refers, especially in compulsory parliamentary elections using preferential voting systems, to citizens who thoughtlessly rank each candidate in the order they are listed on the ballot paper. The donkey voter is a stupid voter, an idiot who pays no attention to the merits of the candidates. The presumption buried deep within the phrase is that donkeys are foolish, gloomy and (as in an old icon still used by supporters of the Democratic Party in the United States) mulishly stubborn.
The main trouble with the phrase is its ignorance of donkeys. Humans are often enough stubborn, gloomy and foolish. Donkeys aren’t. They’re patient, gentle and as loyal as Eeyore, or Sancho Panza’s Platero and Dapple. Their learning capacity is higher than horses. Donkeys require little feeding, and can easily survive the harshest conditions. They ferried wounded soldiers out of the hellish trenches of the Somme; transported Napoleon across the Alps; delivered Jesus to Jerusalem. They’re surefooted and brave: they’ve been known to survive 50-metre cliff falls, and jennies will walk through raging fires to save their young.
Laboratory tests show that compared with all other mammals donkey milk is closest to human milk. That’s reason enough to stop insulting the donkey, to remember that the future of humanity is bound up not just with donkeys but with all living species, and to see that the future of democracy thus depends on greening its own language.
In preparation for an upcoming event at the University of Sydney, I’ve been re-reading ex-diplomat Stefan Halper’s interpretation of contemporary Chinese politics. Like most books by outsiders on the subject of China, The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate The Twenty-First Century is entangled in friend-foe thinking. It plays a strange game of binary opposites: remarkably, it’s both pro-China and anti-China. It sets out to be positive but ends up on a negative note, which prompts the question whether the book suffers from muddle, or whether, as seems more likely, the political game of binary opposites inherited from the Cold War turns out to be just that: a single game with rotatable places for various players who are more or less tacitly agreed on its rules.
Halper certainly provokes. He chides the China watchers in Washington sometimes known as the hawks’ club. Its members include figures like Paul Wolfowitz, the author of a hard-line report on Chinese military capacity in the dying days of the George W. Bush administration; the sinologists Arthur Waldron and Michael Pillsbury; and pundit Robert Kaplan, who’s on record as saying that the twenty-first century will be defined by the American military contest with a China that is preparing to ‘lob missiles accurately at moving ships in the Pacific’.
Halper also contradicts those China watchers who warn of the grave dangers of its burgeoning economic power on the world scene – the critics who doubt that ‘China is coming to get us’ because they are convinced instead that ‘China is coming to buy us’. Halper is also critical of right-wing believers in ‘great power’ theories, figures such as Robert Zoellick , John Mearsheimer and John B. Henry who draw analogies between contemporary China and Wilhelmine Germany, then conclude that rising global powers inevitably confront hegemonic powers.
Halper rejects hawk talk. He says that China is indeed ‘the world’s most powerful rising power’ but outright conflict with the dominant global power, the United States, is by no means inevitable, or even probable. He offers several reasons. The Chinese and American economies are locked within a marriage of liabilities. Chinese military spending has been growing exponentially for over a decade, but the CCP leadership has disavowed a ‘catch up’ strategy with the United States, whose own military spending currently exceeds that of all other states combined. The Chinese emphasis is instead on procuring new-generation weaponry so that it can establish an ‘area of denial’ around mainland China, extending towards Taiwan and southwards into the South China Sea.
The Chinese search for new deterrents is combined with level-headed determination to avoid a costly and dangerous arms race with the United States, says Halper. Hence comparisons with past great powers and their deadly rivalries don’t apply. The analytical geometry of the Cold War is obsolete. China stands for something historically different. Locked into a marriage of economic liabilities and knowing that war would have catastrophic consequences, both for the CCP and the Chinese economy and people, the authorities are experimenting successfully with a brand new political vision: ‘authoritarian capitalism’ applied on a global scale.
Here Halper criticises bodies like the U.S.-China Business Council, the ‘commercial engagers’ who are persuaded that pro-market reforms are the friend of public liberties. Halper cites a group of American economists around William J. Baumol. They wager that ‘the odds are with the optimists’. They favour a democratic China because in their view history shows that the growth of ‘business skills’ most often hones ‘the talents needed to achieve and maintain self-governance’. Halper rightly questions their poor grasp of history and their spurious economic reductionism. His doubts serve to toughen his conviction that in matters of government what is going on in today’s China is without precedent.
So a strange tension between pro-China and anti-China begins to resurface within the book, which ends up defending the thesis that China poses a strong legitimacy challenge to the United States, and by implication to ‘the rest of the West’. China is a big and complicated country, says Halper. Yet the success of the CCP in binding together its sprawling fractiousness foreshadows the global spread of authoritarian rule. China has shown that a one-party system of free-market capitalism without civil and political liberties is not just possible. For growing numbers of admirers, among them African dictators, it is a viable alternative to the American model of self-government. China is ‘shrinking the West’. The illusion that capitalism begets democracy is crumbling.
Halper at no point bothers to justify his faith in the superiority of American-style ‘liberal democracy’. He’s silent as well about the historical significance of the new hybrid ‘post-Washington’ forms of monitory democracy that have taken root in places as different as Taiwan, Brazil, India, South Africa and the European Union. He’s instead preoccupied with showing that in world affairs America’s voice is being drowned out in a new global struggle centred on rhetoric. Future American success on the world stage is about more than market prowess and military muscle. It is equally about ‘whose story wins’.
There are more than a few grains of truth in his claim that contemporary Chinese developments befuddle our inherited narratives of democratisation. The point might be widened, to say that we’re at one of those rare watershed moments in the modern history of democracy when an almighty battle among rival language games has broken out over the question of how to name anomalies, and whether or not they have long-term political significance. Such battles have happened before in the history of democracy. Think of the rowdy controversies sparked by the appeals to the nation, the terror and military conquests of the French revolution: the bitter struggles to interpret its good and bad ‘democratical’ effects through such neologisms as representative democracy, Caesarism, dictatorship, Bonapartism, imperialism and despotism. Or consider the rise of fascism during the 1920s and 1930s, when newly-invented terms like people’s dictatorship and totalitarianism vied for prominence as descriptors of the decadent trends unleashed by the coming of mass democracy.
Analogous disputes now centre on China’s global role in the 21st-century world. Terms such as post-democracy, civilisation state, people’s socialist democracy, tributary empire, neo-totalitarianism and deliberative authoritarianism are all competing for public attention in a great naming game. There’s a desperate political struggle by insiders and outsiders alike to convince others that their particular description of Chinese politics is universally relevant.
By crafting terms like the ‘Beijing consensus’ and ‘authoritarian capitalism’, Halper wants to produce the winning story. The trouble is that his narrative is unconvincing. The fatal weakness of this book is its inattention to political language. It is strangely un-inquisitive; at times, it is downright careless about the key categories it wields, sometimes like blunt axes. Consider Halper’s repeated references to ‘China’. It seems never to occur to him that the common use of contested neologisms such as Huaxia and Zhongguo (both are today translated as ‘China’) are not much more than a century old. He does not acknowledge that the synecdoche ‘China’ has since become an artefact of international relations realpolitik, a unifying category that blindly ignores complications, such as unresolved territorial disputes (Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang) and a living history of contested visions (projected by intellectuals such as Liang Qichao, Lu Xun and Liu Xiaobo) of what ‘China’ is, or ought to become. The probability that the new crop of leaders to be chosen at the forthcoming 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China have no immaculate vision of their country’s global role, and that they shall continue to improvise as they go along, is never entertained.
In Halper’s hands ‘China’ is a political monolith, a sovereign state unencumbered by overlapping jurisdictions and obligations. That’s evidently not the case, even in highly sensitive areas, as Pitman Potter and other scholars have shown when examining the ways the Chinese authorities, even prior to the WTO accession, have creatively incorporated foreign legal rules covering such matters as administrative supervision, commercial contracts and intellectual property rights.
The term authoritarian capitalism is equally troubling. Readers learn nothing from Halper about indigenous public traditions of Chinese affection for democracy. They are kept in the dark as well about internal divisions within the upper echelons of the Party. Deep-seated tensions between the central leadership and the often corrupt and defensive local Party authorities, seen by Pierre Landry and other scholars as vital for understanding present-day political dynamics, including the resort to elections, deliberative mechanisms and promotions based on merit, are ignored. So, too, is the political significance of the sharp jump in social inequality (proof that one problem with market competition is that some people always lose) and the conjecture of Cheng Li and others that developing tensions within the Chinese new middle class and between the urban rich and the rural poor are slowly but surely preparing the ground for either a social explosion or the birth of a multi-party system.
Such complications seem uninteresting to Halper. It’s simply ‘China’ this and ‘authoritarian capitalism’ that. In spite of his avowed opposition to Cold War thinking and call for multilateral engagement, Halper consequently ends up retreating to the comforting thought (for Americans) that the coming battles with China amount to a clash of two civilisations. China stands for authoritarianism. On the global chessboard America is perforce the guardian of the West and ‘liberal democratic’ ideals – exactly as Cold War ideologues used to say.
It was raw, convincing, a two-hour burst of unsmiling defiance, a croaky voice of the not-young, not-old generation to which I happily belong. I’d seen him perform live before. Several times, in fact. This moment was special. Last month it was. Berlin. Spandau. The Zitadelle. One of the great Renaissance military forts, once occupied by Napoleon, then by the Nazis, who carried out research on nerve gas there until their crushing military defeat in the spring of ‘45. There we stood, the next generation, in the fort’s gravel courtyard, under drizzling summer skies. A thousand music lovers soaked to the skin. Nobody cared. It was Bob Dylan’s turn.
Just a few video fragments have survived the night, among them a short clip of Ballad of a Thin Man. As in previous live versions, the Spandau rendition, re-arranged to complement Dylan’s gravelly voice, came charged with the gnash and growl of the original. Recorded in 1965, it’s arguably his angriest song. Have a quick listen to the grey cat in the Cordobes hat:
What’s Ballad of a Thin Man all about, you may ask? The question should be refused. Dylan himself has always played the role of the silent recluse, so we don’t know his original intentions. ‘I’d get sued’, Dylan once told reporters when declining to talk about the song. The fanatics within his global fan base meanwhile show why second guessing his intended meanings borders on the ludicrous. The fanatics hang on his every word. Like codes in need of cracking, every line and every utterance of the song-writer poet is thought worthy of reflection, analysis and (yes) deconstruction. Their fanaticism and their folly are twins.
There is no ‘true’ meaning of Ballad of a Thin Man. There never can be. It will forever be charged with enigma and surplus meaning. That’s to say its significance will always hang on the understandings and ‘overstandings’ of its listeners. Many people say (for instance) the tune is a diatribe against the ignorance of journalists. Those ‘word swallowers’ who click their ‘high heels’ before the powerful, yet haven’t a clue about most of the things they report. They ask questions. ‘Is this where it is?’ Comes a reply: ‘It’s his’, to which the non-plussed journalist mutters ‘What’s mine?’ and ‘Oh my God Am I here all alone?’ and somebody chips in: ‘Where what is?’. The so-called interview comes to an end. ‘Here is your throat back’, says the journalist, lost. ‘Thanks for the loan.’
The lyrics ooze sarcasm, sneering fury, but for me Ballad of a Thin Man is a blues-rock rebellion against much more than corner-cutting clueless journalism. It’s an angry protest against the wider political disease of wilful ignorance. Mister Jones is your average, normal, uncomprehending nobody, a respectable figure dumbed down by the age of media saturation and its obsession with polls, gaffes and speculation. Mister Jones has ‘been with the professors’, read books and met lawyers. Eyes in pocket and nose on the ground, clean-cut and boring, a ‘lovely’ person, perfectly civilised, Mister Jones is the archetype of a lazy accomplice of top-down power.
He is unable to understand, let alone come to grips with or act upon the world. ‘Something is happening here But you don’t know what it is Do you, Mister Jones?’ She has a job, gets on with things, minds her own business, feels good by donating to ‘tax-deductible organizations’. Confident in ‘facts’ gleaned through ‘many contacts’ but stripped of understanding and responsibility for others, Mister Jones is what ancient Greek democrats called an apolitical idiot.
Ballad of a Thin Man sounds the alarm against the end of politics, the possibility that citizens will no longer think or feel or care any more, that they will lose their sense of wonder, never get excited or believe in anything except their own comfortable, narrow-minded mediocrity. Mister Jones is a living oblivion. A character whose apathy ought to seem bone-chilling but who lives in blissful ignorance, ignorant of their own ignorance, unaware that fence-sitting neutrality is not an option, wilfully uninterested in things that they know nothing about, even though those things impact their lives.
The really disturbing thing about Mister Jones is that his ignorance is vincible. She is ignorance in action. He doesn’t want to know. When bad things are happening, she turns blind eyes. He hasn’t yet figured out that lazy ignorance is prone to acquiescence, or to active collaboration. Mister Jones has never pondered the thought that most evils in the world are the work not of knaves, but of fools like himself. That’s why he’s so dangerous.
Mister Jones is an enemy of democracy. ‘There ought to be a law Against you comin’ around', howls Dylan. Understandably. Mister Jones is an unthinking person drawn to the conclusion either that everything’s all right with the world, or that nothing can be done to change it, perhaps even that the world is going to the dogs. Mister Jones is a sycophant, the potential plaything of power, the ‘nice’ person willing to go with the flow of things, the decent well-intentioned character who turns out to be the fool who helps bring disasters into the world.
Wilful ignorance as the mother of political evil: spare just several minutes more to witness the best early version of the point, performed in Copenhagen nearly half a century ago, with every last drop of Dylan’s electric energy….
A popular recent joke in China tells of two Communist Party members enjoying drinks in a fancy bar in downtown Shanghai. One says to the other: ‘I think I’ve lost touch with my comrades.’ The second asks: ‘Are you sure?’ Replies the first: ‘Ya, every time I type into Baidu the word “comrade” I get nobody.’ The joke’s pedestrian, but its popularity is another reminder that the language of twentieth-century Chinese communism has found its destiny, in the dustbin of local wit.
Presuming the CCP apparatus retains its grip on power, and supposing its governing machinery requires the oil of public legitimacy, what will replace Marxism-Leninism-Maoism as the dominant language of state power? Are there plausible substitutes for the old ruling ideology?
Such questions occupy the heart of a recent New York Times op-ed piece by Jiang Qing (founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang) and Daniel A. Bell (a prominent Canadian scholar of Chinese politics). They call for a new moral foundation for political rule and everyday life in China. To the surprise of most China watchers, they say, ‘Western liberal democracy’ has no future in China. Their swipe against Francis Fukuyama and the American foreign policy establishment is backed by a strong preference for Confucian notions of Humane Authority.
Qing and Bell explain that the current revival of Confucianism in China is fuelled by the moral bankruptcy of communism. They presume (or hope) that Confucian values are destined, with Party help, to replace communism as the ruling ideas. Their anticipation underestimates the magnetism of other values. Their silence about the conspicuous consumption of the middle classes and the hyper-rich ‘princelings’ is typical. Can risky market innovation, profit and self-interested greed of the ‘small person’ (xiăorén) denounced by Confucius be combined with his teachings on the saintly, scholarly, ascetic ‘perfect man’ (jūnzĭ)? Or (to take another example) how many Chinese women will be willing to embrace the old Confucian values of chastity, silence, hard work and compliance? Qing and Bell don’t say.
Playing the role of court intellectuals, they yearn for a ‘progressive’ politics of Confucianism. Central to their vision is a strategy for building a new governing institution to replace the leading role of the Party. The sketch includes plans for a tri-cameral legislature. It would comprise a House of Exemplary Persons guided by mandates from heaven; a House of the Nation, whose representatives are imbued with ‘wisdom from history and culture’; and an appointed or elected House of the People.
The blueprint seems quixotic. Never mind the clutch of difficulties that would confront legislators when trying, in the much-changed circumstances of the early twenty-first century, to sort out the philosophical and political tangles within key texts such as the Analects. What does it mean to say that authorities should be ‘beneficent without great expenditure’ or ‘majestic without being fierce’ (Book 20)? Or that those who govern by means of ‘virtue’ can be ‘compared to the north polar star, which keeps its place and all the stars turn towards it’ (Book 2)? Of what relevance are these words in resolving bitter conflicts such as last week’s events in the Jiangsu city of Quidong, where at least 50,000 citizens defied riot police, stripped shirtless the local mayor, who quickly changed his tune by announcing the shut-down of a pulp mill pipeline which locals feared would pollute the nearby coastline?
Problems of interpretation would be compounded by the political impracticality of the Way of Humane Authority. Qing and Bell’s scheme bears more than a passing resemblance to the tale told by Jonathan Swift of the efforts of intellectuals at the Academy of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, erect buildings from the roof down, plough farmland with pigs and transform marbles into soft pillows and pincushions. There are (it’s true) members of the Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing now pushing for the revival of Confucianism. These ideologues may dream of dressing up their old wolfish habits in the new sheep’s clothing of Confucianism, yet what Qing and Bell’s proposal in effect does is to confront them with a high-risk strategic dilemma. It puts the Party in a pickle.
The CCP could toughen its move away from communism by means of a frontal top-down propaganda campaign in favour of Confucianism. The media fervour and political bossing required would contradict the Confucian spirit of ‘humane authority’. It would also produce public resistance from many groups. Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong and other qigong activists, Catholics and Protestants, middle class cynics, Uighur Muslims and others who have little or no interest in such propaganda would understandably condemn it as a new form of sacralisation of state power.
An alternative, bottom-up pathway to Confucianism would prove just as rocky. A twenty-first century version of the Maoist ‘Smash the Four Olds’ (culture, customs, ideas, habits) campaign, launched at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, would surely stir up great public resistance to the CCP and its manipulative propaganda from below. Its fantasy of ‘social harmony’ would be exposed; state Confucianism from below would breed social confusion and resistance to power above.
There’s another difficulty lurking inside Qing and Bell’s proposal. The Confucian polity they envisage is designed to function as a non-violent peace formula, yet the ‘humane’ openness and tolerance it promises would be contradicted by the compulsory public forgetting required to make it stick. The trouble with the whole idea of a Confucian state is not just that it privileges one set of ethics at the expense of others, that it runs counter to a society whose citizens make sense of their lives drawing on resources as varied as ancestor worship (the annual Qingming Festival is an example), ancient metaphysics and state-of-the-art social media. Talk of a Confucian state is wilfully forgetful. It is a recipe for historical injustice.
State Confucianism would practically demand the extinction of memories of pain and suffering of many ethical communities who still today feel deeply aggrieved by their ongoing history of maltreatment. Ongoing demonstrations by Tibetans and Uighur Muslims in the western province of Xinjiang are living proof of unfinished historical business. So, too, are the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and the phenomenal resurgence of official and underground Protestantism - the single greatest revival Christianity has ever known.
Along with Christianity and Islam, the most popular forms of religion in China, Buddhism and Taoism, are also enjoying an extraordinary rebirth. The age when god was red is over. The country now resembles a giant spiritual laboratory. Many different religious experiments are competing for the attention of Chinese citizens, and that is no bad thing.
With the exception of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, no single faith or creed ever enjoyed an exclusive grip on Chinese citizens. The current return to normality cannot be stopped, which is why a post-communist version of the old Qing dynasty practice of attempting to use the state to impose religious orthodoxy is doomed. A clear alternative to State Confucianism is the Taiwan and Hong Kong model of a secular democratic state and a plural and tolerant religious society. What’s so wrong with that alternative? Why could it not work in practice for millions of Chinese citizens? Qing and Bell don’t say.
‘No bourgeois, no democracy’ is a formula made famous during the 1960s by the American scholar Barrington Moore Jr. It’s still frequently quoted in the academic literature. When explaining the connections between modern parliamentary democracy and market capitalism, some scholars, journalists and politicians even regard it as a ‘law’ founded on solid statistical evidence.
The formula has old roots. A most interesting and still-relevant version is found in Joseph Schumpeter’s classic Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published exactly 60 years ago this month. When re-reading it recently, I was struck by its daring rhetoric. ‘History clearly confirms’, wrote Schumpeter, ‘modern democracy is a product of the capitalist process.’ Generalising from the special case of Britain and the Low Countries, he noted how the early modern property-owning bourgeoisie, unlike previous classes, imagined their interests were ‘best served by being left alone’. The bourgeoisie was a class whose identity depended upon freeing property from controls based on tradition, church and monarchy. Contemptuous of cramps on its own power, the bourgeoisie favoured restraints upon others, especially those classes (the aristocracy) that had taken refuge in state structures. The early bourgeoisie had parliamentary democracy in its veins. Hence its attraction to civil and political freedoms, periodic elections and constitutional government.
The view that ‘modern democracy rose along with capitalism’ (Schumpeter’s words) is often given a twist, to say that capitalist markets and a robust middle class are essential drivers of representative democracy. No bourgeois, no democracy. Hillary Clinton repeated a variant of the formula last week in Mongolia, in a speech delivered to an international forum of democracy advocates.‘You can’t have economic liberalisation without political liberalisation’, she said. The converse rule holds true, she added. Democracy is good for business. No democracy, no bourgeois. ‘Countries that want to be open for business but closed to free expression will find that this approach comes at cost; it kills innovation and discourages entrepreneurship.’
Fine reasoning, but flawed. The historical record of countries such as Russia, Germany and Japan shows that there’s nothing automatic or necessary about bourgeois support for democracy. In each case, for reasons to do with business greed and fear of losing fortunes, owners of private capital clung to state power with an iron fist. Their calculation: better rich and safe than equal.
Something similar is now happening in parts of the contemporary Asia and Pacific region. The dynamism, technical ingenuity and productivity of its markets are impressive; with the Atlantic economy in dire straits, the Asia and Pacific zone has out-invested, out-produced and out-traded the rest of the world. Yet the region also displays deep ambivalence about democracy. In countries otherwise as different as China, India, Vietnam and the Philippines, powerful business interests show no special liking for democracy. Insisting it breeds social disorder and political gridlock, they’ve long ago concluded that the old European principles of freedom of association, fair elections and majority-rule democracy are out of date - less legitimate and effective than strong government committed to ring-fencing markets and keeping citizens in their place.
Schumpeter wouldn’t be shocked. In contrast to later catchy versions of the ‘no bourgeois, no democracy’ formula, he pointed out that even in countries with established parliamentary traditions (Weimar Germany was a prime example), owners of capital and their middle class supporters are often politically fickle. Confident their fortunes are better protected by manipulation, propaganda and strong leaders backed by force, they turn their backs on the spirit and substance of democracy. Bourgeois, no democracy.
So it should come as no surprise that the deepening economic crisis in the Atlantic region is re-activating old bourgeois ambivalence about parliamentary democracy. The trend is uneven and hard to measure, but ponder for a moment an in-depth survey of the political attitudes of American CEOs conducted by the New York-based The Conference Board. It’s an industry body that recently asked seventy prominent corporate executives which institutions are best handling the present economic crisis.
The survey reveals (unsurprisingly) that 90% of these CEOs think that ‘multinational corporations’ are proving ‘moderately’ or ‘very’ or ‘most’ effective. The robust narcissism of these CEOs is understandable; given the big mess within the private banking sector, equally understandable is their conviction that the runner-up favourite institution is ‘central banks’. 80% of the surveyed group ranked them as ‘moderately’ or ‘very’ or ‘most’ competent.
Guess which institution was ranked third most ‘effective’ by these American CEOs? Readers of Schumpeter will knowingly smile: the Chinese government. It won the approval of 64% of the sample (the US presidency scored 33%; the Congress a miserable 5%). Many CEOs complained bitterly about the current absence of ‘leadership’ and the urgent need to halt ‘domestic political stalemates’ and short-termism. ‘The Chinese have some policies we hate’, noted one CEO, ‘but at least we know what those policies are.’
Might these words be signs of our times? Coded warnings that the era of big business compliance with welfare state intervention is well and truly over? Proof that big business is selfishly prepared to take off its political gloves? If so, then perhaps it’s time for a call to democratic arms, in support of a new politics of protecting democracy against what Schumpeter called the ‘predatory’ and ‘cuthroat’ impulses that fuel the ‘capitalist engine’.
When future historians look back on the agreement forged in Brussels during the past several days and nights, they’ll surely be struck by its historical significance. The complex deal agreed by representatives of the EU member states involved more than a little horse trading and bluff. It’s still just a paper and digital agreement. It awaits action. But whatever the details and fortunes of its coming implementation, the June 2012 Brussels Summit deal is a big victory for the European project - a massive setback to money-market speculators and hard-line populists and nationalists who’d wanted a break-up of the Eurozone, or a reversal or outright annulment of the political achievements of six decades of European integration.
It’s true that the Brussels Summit deal has unmistakable polysemic qualities. It’s a basket of hard-fought compromises that mean different things to different member-state representatives. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. Ambiguity is nothing new in the history of European integration. Especially during critical junctures, loosely-worded declarations, fudged and fork-tongued statements and open-ended agreements have consistently functioned as vital tactics for advancing the European project. Like the Single European Act (1987) and the Maastricht Treaty (1992), this Brussels Summit agreement is riddled with sweet words and bitter unknowns. Therein lies the secret of its probable success, and its epochal importance.
So what actually happened in Brussels? Pressured by a worsening banking and political crisis, the tense negotiations behind closed doors produced a brand new bundle of workable resolutions. All member states of the European Union, including Britain, firmly agreed that the euro should survive. The powers of the European Central Bank will be expanded. It will supervise the banking sector of the Eurozone countries, so that by the end of 2012 the remit of the ECB will begin to resemble that of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
Bailout funds are meanwhile to be made available, through the European Stability Mechanism, for buying the debts of struggling banks directly, rather than extending loans to bankrupted governments. The loathed practice of subjecting governments (as happened in Greece) to the humiliating diktats of a ‘troika’ comprising the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF will be halted. In effect, the agreed scheme for directly recapitalising struggling banks, initially targeted at Spain and potentially at Italy, brings the Eurozone closer to embracing the principle of a common sharing of debt.
Finally, and of greatest significance, the Brussels Summit agreed that debt collectivisation and the formation of a common banking system requires a new round of political integration. For that purpose, the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, was authorised to draw up detailed proposals to be presented to the next scheduled summit meeting in October.
It’s easy to spot the massive holes in the woven basket of agreed proposals. The suffering of the Greek people went largely unmentioned. It seems ethically perverse to millions of European citizens that banks that gambled and squandered money are now entitled to support and compensation using taxpayers' precious taxes. German pressure ensured that the ticklish topic of eurobonds was set aside. There was no principled agreement that the ECB would become a lender of last resort, or that it would operate a deposit guarantee scheme. No attention was paid to the massive structural imbalances within the European economy. Fiscal austerity remains on its high horse. The agreed ‘growth pact’ (130 billion euros) provides no serious remedies for the pain and misery inflicted by mounting unemployment.
These are major weaknesses. Seen as challenges, they show just how much unfinished business remains on the European political agenda. Yet notice the biggest achievement of the Brussels Summit, which also happens to be the biggest paradox of the present European crisis: the way European symbolic integration is advancing at a fast pace. The Brussels Summit deal is both the culmination and encapsulation of an unprecedented Europeanisation of media coverage of matters that are now affecting all European citizens, including those (for instance in Britain and Germany) who suppose they can weather the storm by going it alone. ‘We have taken decisions unthinkable just some months ago’, remarked José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, at the conclusion of the Summit. He was right.
A common European sense of common problems within commonly-shared space is gathering pace. Whatever petty-minded populists and nationalists may say, Europe will never again be the same. The present life-or-death crisis is fuelling many different and contradictory trends, certainly. But there can be no doubt that it’s also erecting a new political stage on which the next round of skirmishes and struggles will be fought over such matters as the meaning of a ‘post-sovereign’ Europe and whether new viable mechanisms of cross-border democracy can reverse the present-day drift towards emergency rule.
If there was a machine capable of detecting reticence and hostility towards democracy there’s no doubt it would be working overtime in this European crisis. It would buzz and bleep in more than a few locations, some of them unexpected, including (it turns out) the studios of CNN. Earlier this week, their big-audience presenter Fareed Zakaria (he’s also Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine) proposed a cure for the ills of the Eurozone: less democracy.
Zakaria began by acknowledging Paul Krugman’s point that the present austerity consensus is ruining the prospects for job-creating growth. Zakaria claimed, on the basis of ‘having been in Europe briefly earlier this week’, that Europe’s political elites have understood the principle. The sticking point, he said, is that at the same time they’re sure that economic recovery won’t lead to the balanced budgets and fiscal discipline that global money markets expect. The governing elites (he meant Angela Merkel and her allies) believe that many of the countries in trouble ‘have economies that are uncompetitive, hobbled by bad regulatory and tax frameworks and also by large and inefficient governments, with ever-increasing entitlements doled out to their citizens.'
The deepening crisis, Zakaria noted, offers a golden opportunity to put an end to all this inefficient and wasteful welfare state stuff. Global money markets have a right to insist that governments ‘get their houses in order’. But there’s a catch, he concluded. During the past few decades, politicians have grown used to winning elections by ‘promising voters more benefits, more pensions and more health care’. So in this crisis democracy has become part of the problem. ‘The question’, he concluded, is whether governments can now ‘get elected offering less?’
These are pretty big asks, but as this crisis within the Atlantic region worsens, anything can now happen. Fareed Zakaria’s liberal dream may come true. Much hereon will depend however upon the actions of citizens, and whether they’re prepared, in large numbers, anti-democracy detectors in hand, to resist the deadly combination of austerity, unregulated money markets and emergency rule.
Shortly after touching down in Berlin last week, I contact a friend who says she’s on her way home to Athens, to vote in this weekend’s cliff-hanger election, the most desperate since the defeat of military dictatorship four decades ago. ‘Somehow I doubt that whoever gets elected will be able to change anything’, she tells me. ‘We’re trapped in a tragic situation. Our economy has collapsed. So has our political system. But I’m hoping to regain my optimism’. I chuckle. ‘OK’, my friend replies. ‘Let’s say I’m on a short holiday to fight fascism.’ She isn’t joking.
Welcome to Europe, the devil’s new playground, a continent where dark political forces are sweeping not just through Greece but a wide region suffering compulsory government austerity, stagnation and capital flight, unemployment and poverty. From Riga and Dublin to Kiev and Almaty, several hundred million people now find themselves trapped in swamps of economic and political stagnation. Arbitrary rule and political disaffection are flourishing. The spirit and substance of democracy are struggling to survive. In some places, democracy’s already a thing of the past.
When first writing about the probable shock-wave effects of the present economic collapse, I confess to having sharply underestimated its political destructiveness. Five years into the crisis, a new spectre is haunting Europe and its Eurasian hinterlands. Let’s call it Putinism. It’s not the old fascism (though I agree with my friend that New Dawn fascism in Greece is a serious menace), but a new political force that favours top-down destruction by governments of the democratic principle that arbitrary power is illegitimate and dangerous.
Putinism is not just a Russian phenomenon. It’s much more than a powerful trend in post-Soviet states such as as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Belarus. It’s a political disease spreading through various parts of the European and Eurasian regions, a type of post-democracy in which incumbent governments, wrapped in populist rhetoric, expand their executive powers by means of media controls, strangled judiciaries, hidden corruption and armed crackdowns on opponents, backed by shadowy secret forces.
Look at the trends, beginning with the best-known case of Hungary. It’s the country that led the exit from the Soviet empire, to embrace what came to be called, from the early 1990s, the Copenhagen criteria, a bundle of values that included the rule of law, periodic elections and public freedoms to monitor and restrain arbitrary exercises of power. Hungary’s now sinking a boot into this bundle. On the banks of the Danube, with each passing day, the government of Viktor Orbán is building a xenophobic dictatorship. I met him several times before 1989, when he fancied himself a ‘dissident’, and each time was struck by his consummate opportunism. Blessed since 2010 by a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority, he’s wielded that vice as a weapon by re-writing the constitution and muzzling the courts and the media. He’s also gerrymandered constituencies and transformed his Fidesz party into a gloves-off ‘Fuehrer party’ that enjoys formidable support among conservative, clerical, nationalist Hungarians suffering allergic reactions to Jews, Romany and other ‘foreigners’.
The end result might well be a durable form of Putinism located right in the heart of middle Europe, a one-party state led by a charismatic leader who wins elections by stirring up conflict, playing off social divisions, pandering to the rich, protecting state property, fiddling laws, all in the name of a fictitious ‘People’ happy to see its rulers crack the skulls of their opponents.
What I’m calling Putinism is described by a recent Freedom House report as ‘stagnation and backsliding’. That’s misleading. It’s in fact a uniquely 21st-century phenomenon, a political mutation, a parasite that feeds on the dysfunctions of parliamentary democracy triggered by burst market bubbles, compulsory austerity and chronic stagnation. That’s why, with no solutions to the economic crisis in sight, it’s making substantial gains, not only in Hungary and Greece (remember that only one-fifth of its citizens voted for New Democracy) but throughout a much wider region.
Consider Estonia, where new ‘oligarchs’, big money and government manipulation are poisoning the institutions of free media and parliament. Or ponder last year’s decision by Latvian president Valdis Zatlers to dissolve parliament by means of a referendum, or that country’s harsh government austerity measures, which have realised a Putinist dream: a forced mass emigration of one-sixth of the disgruntled citizenry, so that in the space of just a few years the country’s population has shrunk from 2.4 million to just under 2 million.
Elsewhere in the EU, for instance in Romania, an austerity coalition government, keen to prolong its power, has postponed local elections scheduled for this month. Then there’s neighbouring Ukraine, the vital buffer zone linking the EU and Russia, a country where the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych is busily remoulding state power, building up a system of permanent emergency rule designed to bring to an end the Orange Revolution. Judges, academics, journalists and editors who dare speak out are intimidated and punished. And a few months ago, parliament passed legislation granting sweeping powers to the internal security forces (SBU) to round on public protesters, whose actions now fall within the criminal category of ‘mass riots’.
Analogous trends are found throughout the Balkans, where parliamentary democracy is imploding, or heading towards Putinism. Kosovo is racked by fraudulent elections and voter boycotts. Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t have a functioning government. Macedonia doesn’t even have an agreed country name; but its coalition government, led by Nikola Gruevski, recently seized the opportunity provided by an opposition parliamentary boycott to pass laws that give greater electoral representation to Macedonians living abroad, a diaspora that typically votes for the ruling coalition. Albania’s EU candidacy meanwhile looks improbable following big-time corruption scandals, disputed elections, the shooting of anti-government protesters and the assassination of a judge - the first time that has happened in the country’s history,
The dark list lengthens, so prompting the parting questions: what’s the long-term significance of this trend towards Putinism? Is it proof that ‘end of history’ (Fukuyama) and ‘third wave’ (Huntington) interpretations of the triumph of ‘liberal democracy’ were always pipe dreams? Yes. Further proof of an old ‘law’ in the history of democracy: that democratic ways of handling power have no historical guarantees of success or survival, and that they’re much easier to destroy than to build? No doubt. Doesn’t the rise of Putinism show that contemporary democracies, especially when their market foundations collapse, are quite easily tempted to commit ‘democide’? Certainly.
More questions and answers should follow, but just these few imply that the current ‘crisis of Europe’ is arguably not just a Eurozone problem. Something much bigger and more consequential and sinister is unfolding: a threat to cherished democratic values and institutions incomparably more precious than the current preoccupation with sovereign debt, credit ratings, government bonds and bailout packages.
In The Fixed Period, the 19th-century English writer Anthony Trollope describes a university college where the professors are compulsorily retired at 67, given a year to contemplate the world, then peacefully extinguished from the ways of the world with a generous dose of chloroform. The University of Sydney is being kinder to me. A few days ago, I gave my inaugural in the oldest lecture theatre in the country. It’s a stunning setting, adjacent to the famous sandstone and lawned quadrangle. The house was full, nobody appeared to fall asleep and afterwards questions came thick and fast.
Here’s the gist of what was said: new democratic thinking and politics needs to register that we’ve entered an age of big-footprint ‘megaprojects’ that are touching and transforming the lives of millions of people and their bio-habitats, in unprecedented ways. Carbon filtration plants (the world’s first has just opened in Norway), under-sea tunnels and mining operations centred on gold, or coal, uranium, tar sands and rare earth metals are examples. Megaprojects also include inter-city high-speed railway networks, new airports and airport extensions, shadow banking systems, the research and development of weapons systems, liquid natural gas plants, new communications networks and nuclear power stations.
Megaprojects are distinguished by their astronomical design and construction costs (at least US$1 billion) and by their substantial complexity, scale and deep impact upon people and their environment. The Internet is an example of how many of them make our lives easier. Yet given their high sunk costs, their complexity and scale, measured in terms of the numbers of people whose lives are affected, these big power adventures, when they go wrong, damage citizens’ lives and have potentially hurtful effects upon large swathes of humanity and their environment.
Catastrophes are the result, and they’re becoming unexceptional. Tagged with names like Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon, Bankia, Chernobyl, Countrywide Financial, Lehman Brothers and Fukushima, they’re a new normal in our lives.
Why do they happen? In 90% of cases, the proximate cause is that those who run these projects refuse open public scrutiny of their operations. There’s usually lots of public relations work, but institutional dysphasia sets in. Monitory democracy is shoved aside. Group-think, wilful blindness, unchecked praise and anti-learning mechanisms (Daniel Ellsberg) flourish. Those in charge of operations discourage bad news from moving up the inner hierarchy. Cults of loyalty reinforced by aloofness and cold fear are their thing. There is no management by walking around, or by talk back.
Troublemakers are ousted from the organisation. Contrarians are blanked, or rebuked as Chicken Littles. Discussing the un-discussable requires guts, which are usually in short supply. Silence traps employees into distancing themselves from matters of ethics; they draw the conclusion that it’s someone else’s job to solve the problems, or that problems will resolve themselves. Journalists play along; a standard combination of promises of access, sinecures and over-dependence on official handouts renders them obedient. They become plane spotters, captive cheerleaders of the power adventure, silent cogs in its machinery of compliance.
When trying to make sense of Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon and other catastrophes of our times, apocalyptic thinking should play no role. The lecture emphasised that the new catastrophes of our age aren’t the climax of inevitable historical trends. They’ve different features than the catastrophes of the past; and many things can be done to prevent them, above all by experimenting with new ‘early warning’ communication mechanisms that break open the anti-political silence that causes them in the first place.
‘See something, say something’, is a widely-used motto invented by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority and today used elsewhere, in many different settings. The motto captures the new significance of struggles for freedom of public information in the early years of the 21st century. Wielded as a political weapon, as WikiLeaks has shown in practice, the principle of open communication serves as a ‘reality check’ on dangerous unrestrained power. It’s a potent means of ensuring that those in charge of mega-organisations don’t stray into cloud cuckoo land, wander into territory where misadventures of power come wrapped in silent nonchalance, until the point when disasters strike.
What exactly can be done to break the organised silence that breeds megaproject catastrophes? Find out from the podcast lecture and Q&A session that followed.
From Tunis to Oakland, Madrid to Athens and Sydney, an estimated 900 major occupations of public places by citizens took place around the world during the past 12 months. The following notes probe their political significance. With apologies to Marx and his well-known Theses on Feuerbach (1845), they were written for a session of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, held on May 17th, 2012.
First thesis: public occupations are proof positive that small groups of committed citizens can have big effects. Especially in the Atlantic region, against hefty odds, they’ve given a bad name to government ‘austerity’ policies that protect the rich, slash wages, scale back public employment, tear up collective bargaining and let banks and credit institutions off the hook. Occupy politics is a declaration of independence from ‘odious debt’, an insistence that there are times when debts are so foul that citizens collectively have the right to declare them null and void. So the occupations have helped revive ‘the social question’. Talk of rich and poor, injustice and indignation is back in fashion. So is Karl Marx.
Second thesis: understanding occupation politics is a formidable challenge. In his eleven theses on Feuerbach, Marx helpfully suggested that analyses of conflicts over the distribution of wealth must avoid becoming knotted in other-worldly abstractions. Pay attention to the context, he said. Stay close to the ground, stand alongside the flesh-and-blood combatants. Try to understand what they say. So let’s take his advice by giving a twist to his final thesis on Feuerbach: ‘In sympathy with occupy politics, millions demand change, including philosophers, but the point is to interpret the world, without lapsing into mysticism.’
Third, the phrase ‘Occupy Movement’ is a stale mantra. Despite great variations of language, style and tactics in such different settings as Puerta del Sol, Kuala Lumpur’s Independence Square and Zuccotti Park, most activists and observers talk in terms of a ‘movement’, or a ‘motion on the way to being a movement’ (Todd Gitlin).
My fourth thesis: the word ‘movement’ has a questionable history. It’s neither innocent nor timeless nor ‘neutral’. It’s a neologism from the 1840s, when Lorenz von Stein and others first used it as a toponym for making sense of the birth of class politics. This was a period saturated with images of a world in motion. Industrial progress, the spread of European empires, railways, electric motors, the conquest of nature, belief that classes are capable of reading and performing the script written for them by the revolutionary forces of history: the category of ‘movement’ belonged to that era. A fish in its waters, it fed on metaphysical presumptions. ‘It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim’, Marx (with Engels) wrote in The Holy Family (1844). ‘It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.’ Strange stuff.
Thesis number five: people who today use the term ‘movement’ are usually unaware of its tainted genealogy. In their vocabulary, it functions as a taken-for-granted signpost that warps their worldly perspective. Take an example: the pragmatists who complain that occupation politics has no single narrative, no coherent organisation and no leadership, in effect trash it for failing to act as a movement with a sense of its own political mission. It needs to pull itself together, they say, agree proximate goals, put together a coalition, fashion a single coherent narrative, then elect some representatives who speak on its behalf, positively in its defence. Strangely old-fashioned, pragmatists overlook the novelty of occupy politics.
Sixth: certain philosophers, keen to outdo the pragmatists, fancy themselves as the Master Intellectuals of occupy politics. The ‘occupy movement’ is ‘the beginning, not the end’, says the chest-plucking, hirsute, self-styled Marx and Lenin of the 21st century, Slavoj Žižek. He thinks of it as (potentially) a unified force that contains the germs of ‘the truly New’. In the same breath, he chastises its narcissism, treats it like a child, praises its historical potential and expects it to become the Universal Subject-Object. He fancies himself as the dramaturg of a great historical drama. For him, it’s not a question of what this or that activist, or even the whole occupy movement, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the movement is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. That’s why he insists that the ‘movement’ face the terrible truths: democracy and human rights are bourgeois rubbish. It’s ‘Capitalism’ which ‘is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem’, he writes. The Occupy Movement is its solution. Žižek is amusing, but he’s a reactionary clown, a peddler of 19th-century mysticism.
Seventh, occupation politics contains multiple tendencies, diffuse aims and fuzzy edges. It’s a networked carnival of the disaffected. Their protests are infused with a strong sense of performance and satire. When evicted from UC Berkeley, protesters launched helium-filled tents above the heads of riot police; in Sydney, a Guy Fawkes rally featured a large placard: ‘I don’t believe in anything I’m just here for the violence’. The most potent resource of the occupiers is their democratic political attitude: they reject bossing and bullying, they refuse to play the bankers’ and politicians’ game of ‘playing poker with people’s lives’ (Alexis Tsipras). But occupation politics isn’t a movement. The toponym doesn’t fit its topography, which is more complex, more fluid, more interesting. Occupation politics has antecedents. It recovers the spirit of Make Poverty History and the Battle of Seattle; and it’s a creative remix of some earlier democratic inventions, such as the peace vigil, the civil rights sit-in and the student teach-in.
Eighth thesis: occupy politics is a child of the age of communicative abundance. Harnessing the latest tools of communication, its gatherings resemble multi-media broadcast studios, lighthouses, early warning stations, loud cries to the world by witnesses who know its sufferings. Occupation politics may feel ‘utopian’, but it’s a high-tech and down-to-earth media forewarning of how easily democracy is destroyed by unfettered markets, great inequalities of wealth, the fetish of consumption and the arbitrary ‘thieving’ power of elected governments, banks and credit institutions. The occupations are monitory democracy in action.
Ninth thesis: occupy politics cannot side-step questions about political representation. Despite efforts to practise ‘liquid democracy’ and new forms of finger-wiggling ‘consensus’ and ‘non-violent direct action’, the tricky business of ‘who represents whom’ within its own ranks lingers. There’s another reason why the subject of political representation can’t be avoided: anger and indignation are not enough. Occupation politics is vulnerable to official manipulation and repression. Self-protection against these forces thus requires finding coalition civil society partners, outflanking political parties, influencing election results and forcing parliaments to change course. If citizens are serious about ‘taking back their institutions’ (Beppe Grillo), they need more than action at a distance. Occupy politics implies the ‘occupation’ of representative institutions.
Tenth thesis: the occupy initiatives foreground the frightening build-up of state violence in all actually existing democracies. To occupy (originally from the Latin occupare) is to seize a place, often without warning, for the purpose of turning it into something other than what it was, to transform its significance. Occupation using peaceful methods automatically disrupts power relations and wins the moral high ground. That’s why political authorities feel threatened and why they fight back, initially with smooth words and firm warnings. Sooner or later, they reply with steel cordons, truncheons, tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon, drones, or troops. The trending Twitter hashtag of the Spanish indignados, #HolaDictadura (Hello Dictatorship) captures the point: occupation politics teaches us that democratic ideals now come encased in high-tech surveillance and repression.
Is there an eleventh thesis? Marx thought so, but why not instead treat it as an open space, to be occupied by others?
Every joke resembles a tiny revolution, George Orwell once wrote. He had a point. Even when they’re instantly forgotten, of little or no consequence or just plain silly, jokes momentarily disrupt the settled routines of our daily lives. The joker draws us into suspended animation. As the joke is told, tension mounts. Suddenly, unscripted, without warning, we find ourselves chortling and chuckling.
Jokes sometimes fall flat on their face, of course. But when jokes tickle our funny bones, they do more than deliver us into the arms of the joker. Even when light and comforting, jokes bite into our habits; they provide comic relief from unfunny reality. They pit us against others, and against ourselves. For a brief moment, against the grain of our own intentions, we find ourselves poking fun at people or things that are normally taken seriously. Jokes often trap us into debunking ourselves; they fling custard pies in our faces. Laughter also lets us vent pent-up aggressions against taboos, or injustices protected by the rich, the powerful and the complacent. Jokes pinprick their bottoms, drag them off their thrones, sometimes with a bump. When that happens, laughter violates things taken for granted, or rules wrapped in respectability. It puts them and us at risk: it’s as if everything, just for a moment, is up for grabs. A little revolution erupts.
During one of my earliest trips into walled-off East Berlin, over drinks one evening in a smoky local pub, dissident friends proved the point by whispering in my ear the joke of the moment (the year was 1983). One of my favourites, it featured head honcho Eric Honecker, who’d just taken the decision to prove to the Party and the country the high levels of support he enjoyed among the working class. So he set off on a lightning tour of a high-rise apartment complex in the Pankow district of Berlin. Chaperoned by a clutch of comrade officials, he rang a second-floor door bell. A young girl answered the door. “Who are you?” she asked. “Little girl”, Honecker replied, “I am the man who makes sure everything goes well for you. I provide you with food, clothing and a place to live….” “Mummy, Mummy”, the girl called out, “Come quick! Uncle Peter from Munich is here!”
Jokes against leaders have a different function under democratic conditions. A mark of a vibrant democracy is the willingness of its citizens regularly to pull off little revolutions by chucking irreverence at those who occupy top positions of power. Democracies depend upon leaders, no doubt. They learn from them, follow them, admire and respect them. But they don’t bow down to them. They refuse to treat them as deities. They periodically force them to stand naked before their citizens, and even before the whole world.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s new film The Dictator (just released, along with a surprise job offer to Peter Slipper) reminds us that elected leaders are sackable. They aren’t to be confused with the office (president, prime minister, premier, chancellor) they temporarily occupy. Unlike the monarchies of the past, and the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, both of which required subjects to treat their rulers with fascinated reverence, democracies cut the connection between the body and personality of a leader and the office she or he holds. Political jokes remind us that elected leaders don’t own the office, as if it was their personal throne. In that sense, jokes keep alive the principle of rotating leaders, the need periodically to boot them out of office, back out into the streets.
Even in the grimmest and gravest circumstances, irreverent jokes against powerful leaders are necessary, and desirable. Think of the way some American citizens (in early 2003) spoofed George W. Bush. Halted by gridlocked traffic on a highway leading into Washington, DC, a driver is startled by shouting. She winds down her window, to be greeted by an agitated citizen waving a jerrycan in the air and bearing breaking news. “The president has just been kidnapped by terrorists! They’re demanding a huge ransom, otherwise they say they’ll set him on fire! The government says citizens should contribute, so the situation can be resolved fast.” Replies the startled driver: “How much on average are citizens donating?” Says the messenger: “About a gallon apiece.”
In recent weeks, in Scotland, where economic and political conditions aren’t exactly easy, a comparable joke has been doing the rounds.
With opinion polls putting him under great pressure, Prime Minister David Cameron visits a Glasgow primary school, where a class is in the middle of a discussion about words and their meanings. The teacher asks Mr Cameron if he would like to lead the discussion on a challenging new word the class has just learned: “Tragedy”.
So the prime minister asks the class if they can think of an example of a tragedy. A boy at the front, keen to impress, stands up and says: “If my best friend is playing in his neighbourhood and a car runs over him and kills him, well, that would be a tragedy.'
“Incorrect”, says Cameron. “That would merely be an accident.”
A brave girl decides to have a stab. She gets up from her desk and says: “If a school bus carrying thirty children drove over a cliff, killing everybody inside, that would be a tragedy.”
“I’m afraid not”, replies Cameron. “That’s what we would call a great loss.”
The classroom falls silent. No other kid dares volunteer. Cameron looks around the room. “Isn’t there someone here who can give me an example of a tragedy?” Young Callum plucks up courage, raises his hand from the back of the class and says: “If a plane carrying you and Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband was hit by a missile and blown to smithereens, umm, that would be a tragedy.”
“Fantastic!” exclaims Cameron. “And can you tell me why that would be a tragedy?”
“Well,” says young Callum, “it has to be a tragedy, because it certainly wouldn’t be a great loss, and it probably wouldn’t be a f**king accident either.”
Javier Cercas, Spain’s most celebrated contemporary writer, was recently in Sydney, where I had the great pleasure of interviewing him before an audience in the University’s Great Hall.
For those who may not know his work, Cercas was born in Ibahernando, in central Spain, in 1962. Fascinated from a young age by the works of Jorge Luis Borges and determined to become a writer, Cercas studied Spanish literature at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His haunting novel Soldiers of Salamis (2004) became a great success. Digging into the painful history of Spain’s Civil War through the gripping, death-defying story of fascist soldier Sanchez Mazas, Cercas uses irony, paradox and self-references to involve us in the creation of the novel. In this way, he encourages readers of his ‘true tale’ to ponder for themselves questions about the vital importance in a democracy of coming to terms with the past and the difficulty of deciding what is true, what is false, what is best forgotten and what cannot be remembered.
Javier Cercas has published nine books and many shorter texts and translations. His most recent work is The Anatomy of a Moment (2011), a controversial prize-winning account of the failed coup d’état in Spain in February 1981. Cercas is the recipient of many Spanish and international awards, including the Premio Salambó and the Premio Nacional de Narrativa in Spain, the International Foreign Fiction Prize in United Kingdom, the Grinzane Cavour in Italy and the Athens Prize for Literature in Greece. A regular contributor to the Catalan edition of El País, he lives in Barcelona.
You’ll see from the video of our conversation that Cercas has much to say about how and why democracies should remember their past - and why it’s a politically hot and tricky subject:
If radio’s your thing, please listen to the ABC audio version here:
Is there life after conventional parliamentary politics? That’s the intriguing question on the lips of many German citizens this weekend as supporters of the Pirate Party assemble in the north German city of Neumünster to discuss tactics and policies. Their national conference will attract several thousand participants and tens of thousands of on-line supporters, many of them reportedly bemused by recent stunning political victories.
Founded by a circle of hackers in a Berlin pub in the summer of 2006, the rag-tag Pirates managed last year to capture 15 seats in the local city parliament. They went on to scare the living daylights out of the dominant parties in Saarland; with over 7% of the vote, they entered its state parliament for the first time. Polls now show that almost a third of German voters fancy their libertarian style. In a federal election (due later next year), the Pirates would poll 13% of the vote. That rivals the Greens and is potentially enough to form a coalition government, though with which rival party or parties remains unclear.
How to make sense of this orange-tinged Pirate upsurge? They’re certainly not a freak ‘German’ phenomenon, as you might think. Their inspiration stems from prior developments in Sweden, home to Piratebay.org, a website that hosts torrent files, and to an active Piratpartie, which won seats in the 2009 European elections. Critics of the Pirates, in the hope of explaining them away, dish out epithets in all directions. The party and its supporters are denounced as anti-political neophytes. They are called policy-free techno-wizards, or monomaniacs fixed on a few crackpot policies, among them a guaranteed basic income for citizens, instant on-line voting and full Internet freedoms.
The complaints are understandable. But they serve to fudge the point that the Pirates are symptoms of several deep tremors currently shaking the social foundations not just of German politics, but of many other European democracies as well. Support for the Pirates feeds upon disaffection with mainstream parties and official ‘politics’. In Germany, as elsewhere, lots of survey evidence shows that citizens, although strongly supportive of democratic ideals, have grown distrustful of politicians and governing political institutions. The Greens, partly due to tactical mistakes, now find themselves targets of the disaffection, which elsewhere on the European continent is fuelling support for xenophobes and populists hell-bent on shaking up the way political business is done.
The Pirates are different, better educated and more left-leaning in their egalitarianism. Yet they draw strength from the same fatigue with mainstream politics. The disaffection has much to do with another trend putting wind in the sails of the Pirates. They’re arguably the first political party, if party it can be called, whose core supporters are digital natives united not by content but by form. They stand for extending the right to have a say and to participate in party affairs to all who have access to a computer.
The Pirates have grasped that we live in an age of communicative abundance, media-saturated societies defined by information tools that are cheap, portable and defiant of space-time barriers. Messages become memes, sometimes rapidly relayed by power-scrutinising networks and organisations that specialise in reining in unaccountable power. The constant feedback effects ensure that muckraking becomes rife, which is why the old representative institutions find themselves outflanked from all sides.
Politicians become sitting ducks. Parliaments, with their mostly limited media presence, are vulnerable. Political parties, despite efforts at harnessing new digital media, seem flat-footed. They neither own nor control their media outlets, and that’s one key reason why they’ve lost the astonishing energy they displayed at the end of the 19th century. That was a time when parties like Germany’s SPD, at the time the greatest political machine on the face of the earth, were powerful champions of literacy and leading publishers of books, pamphlets and newspapers in their own right. That spirit, along with control over the means of communication, has all but disappeared. It’s the key reason why the Pirates are experimenting with liquid feedback voting, Pirate pads (online documents to which anyone can contribute), locally produced campaign posters and various other crowd-sourcing strategies designed to foster a sense of inclusiveness.
A more sinister trend keeps the Pirates sailing, this time against the tides. They’ve spotted that smart phones and other digital tools are double-edged, super-sharp swords. They potentially empower citizens, yes. But new methods of cheap storage and easy retrieval of information, coded according to the secret algorithms of businesses and governments, have harmful effects. That’s why the Pirates complain loudly that personal data has become the new engine fuel of concentrated power – and why they’re viscerally opposed to the creeping erosion of privacy and web-based censorship in all its forms.
Do the Pirates have a future in high politics? Will their popularity spread? Party supporters are for the moment on a roll, but what’s clear is that tricky dilemmas await them. From the outset, the Pirates spoke of themselves as a ‘soft’ party and not a ‘clear issues’ party. Like the Greens before them, they rejected the principle of representation in favour of ‘direct’ or ‘grass roots’ democracy. They’re now finding that principle doesn’t sit comfortably on parliamentary seats. How will their commitment to conscience voting square with coalition government, supposing they go for that?
What about the boycott of mainstream media outlets by elected Pirate representatives? Doesn’t it produces a curious flipside version of the very thing they oppose: leaders dressed in friendly but faceless smiles because they duck controversial issues out of fear that speaking out will cause what the buccaneers call ‘shit storms’? And in the coming federal elections, what if the Pirates so badly stripped votes from the Greens, the SPD and the Left Party that Angela Merkel was returned to office?
Hefty challenges. They shouldn’t blind us to an elementary lesson: whatever happens to the Pirates as a party-political network, the disaffection endemic within many democracies, plus the longing for systems of communication that are in the hands of citizens, not businesses or governments, will not go away. The Pirates are not simply strange political neophytes. They’re a warning that meaner and more manipulative ways of handling power may be just over the horizon, heading our way.
When Rupert Murdoch gives further evidence to the Leveson Inquiry this week it will mark another turning point in his public disgrace. The legal noose around the neck of News International, on both sides of the Atlantic, will also tighten, thanks to fresh revelations detailed in Dial M for Murdoch, a new book by Westminster MP Tom Watson and The Independent’s Martin Hickman.
The boss man’s appearance will stoke the sense that his media empire is responsible for something bigger and more publicly dangerous than hacking into innocent citizens’ lives. For some years, we’re beginning to see, Murdoch’s News International busily experimented with the dark arts of parallel government. It was in the dirty business of building a shadowy form of unchecked oligarchy that doesn’t appear in the textbooks. Let’s call it “mediacracy”.
The term is more than just a fun pun. First coined forty years ago by the Republican Party strategist Kevin Phillips, it’s a word we need to help track down and expose a hidden world of power not normally covered by journalists, or spoken about by politicians, or seen naked with public eyes. To speak of “mediacracy” is to spotlight the troubling point that we live in an age of organised political fabrication. It warns that all popularly elected governments today come wrapped in invisible webs of back-channel media contacts and closed information circuits. They operate within fields of power inhabited by journalists, consultants, lobbyists, think tanks and public relations firms. Their combined media management work is usually undercover. Citizens only see the symptoms: the heavily manipulated, aggressively sensationalist and fast-changing publicity cycles that are the new normal of high-level politics.
The trend is not describable through commonplace terms like “spin” or “propaganda”. Talk of the “manipulation” of elected governments by “big money” and “big business” misses the mark. The dynamics of mediacracy are more intricate. In power terms, it’s the resultant of many forces operating from within and outside government. The trend demands new political thinking and fresh frameworks of analysis. I try my hand in a just-finished manuscript called Media and Democracy in an Age of Decadence. It sees the forces pushing us towards mediacracy as corrigible trends. Stuff happens, controversies simmer, and dramatic scandals erupt. Sometimes media magnates are wrong-footed, journalists are arrested and ministers and whole governments are exposed, or forced to resign. Yet the book crosses swords with two groups of observers: those who think the digital age leads automatically to greater ‘transparency’ and ‘accountability’; and complacent media scholars who suppose that mediacracy doesn’t exist, except in faraway “autocracies”, where media serve in effect as “propaganda” produced by journalists and other “lapdogs” of state power.
The Murdoch-gate scandal now unfolding beneath our pinched noses throws such presumptions into disarray. It shows that closed-system webs of information co-produced by politicians, journalists and various public relations specialists are part and parcel of our political reality. Tom Watson and Martin Hickman go so far as to accuse News International of running a “toxic shadow state”. They show how News Corporation staff spun webs of unmonitored exchanges among journalists, police officers, snooping private detectives, celebrities, innocent citizens and politicians within the Westminster parliament. The octopoid tentacles of this parallel state, we now know, extend to the harassment of MPs and public intellectuals, including our own Robert Manne, Tim Flannery and David McKnight. If Watson and Hickman have it right, News International even spied on its own senior executives.
Bizarre. It’s the stuff of absurdist fiction, perhaps a few pages straight from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. The trouble is that Murdoch’s mediacracy is more than fiction. It’s dead serious real-world business, an unfolding political morality tale of what happens when profit, greed, amorality and hubris get the upper hand over toothy public scrutiny mechanisms and the rule of law.
Murdoch-gate applies the lie-detector test to Rupert Murdoch’s boast, delivered in a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies in October 2010, that News International “will vigorously pursue the truth - and we will not tolerate wrongdoing”. Murdoch’s appearance before this week’s parliamentary inquiry will do more than highlight the dog-and-pony show quality of this claim. It will show why mediacracy bodes ill for democracy, and why it’s not just a British or American problem. Let’s hope his cross-questioning is meticulous, and lengthy. For that will show why fearless public confrontations with the perpetrators of mediacracy are its best antidote - and why humbling those who’ve become much too big for their boots is vital for the survival and future flourishing of democracy.
Archaeologists tell us that Sumerian kings had their face slapped once a year by a priest to remind them of the importance of humility. Medieval historians note that monarchs were sometimes forced to swear to God that they would not abuse their power. Bob Brown used his resignation speech to remind us that democracies use more down-to-earth methods to humble the powerful. Not just written constitutions, political parties, periodic elections and parliamentary representatives accountable to their own citizens. There’s something more: democracies require leaders who know when their time is up and who feel it’s their duty to leave office, to make way for others, with grace and humility.
There are many democratic virtues, among them courage, honesty, mercy, tolerance, but the cardinal democratic virtue is humility. For three decades, Bob Brown has been her champion. His Murdoch newspaper critics have consistently mis-described him as a “crackpot” and “dangerous obsessive”. The ABC’s Annabel Crabb sees him as a “conviction politician”. Both perspectives overlook his most striking quality: humility.
The son of a country policeman, he’s one of those rare politicians who grasped right from the beginning that those who trumpet their own humility suffer from its lack. But the man who once heckled President George W. Bush in a joint parliamentary session demonstrated that humility is never meek, docile, or submissive; contrary to popular wisdom, humility is their foe. It takes guts.
So what is humility? From the campaign against the Franklin Dam which landed him in prison through to recent efforts to rein in carbon polluters and mining companies, Brown showed that humility requires living honestly, without political illusions. He was not a “compromise politician” in any simple sense. He just didn’t like fantasists. Nonsense on stilts, lies and bullshit were never his thing.
Brown faced trainloads of abuse during his time in politics, but he consistently reminded his opponents that we human beings are dwellers on earth (from humus, from which the word humility also derives). Humble people draw breath from that connection. That’s why he once fasted for a week on Mount Wellington as an anti-nuclear activist and why he’s soon off to test his hiking skills in the mountains of Tasmania. Brown showed that humility strengthens the powerless. It mentors others, radiates in their presence, calmly, cheerfully. Humility is a social virtue; it helps people ‘be themselves’. It is also a generous virtue, the opposite of haughty hunger for power over others. That’s why Brown balked at humiliation, shunned showy arrogance and all forms of aggressiveness. Humility for him implied equality: it stands opposed to all forms of human bossing and violent rule, including human attempts to dominate the biosphere in which we dwell.
During our interview last year in Canberra, I thought I’d test Bob Brown by asking him whether he worried the aphrodisiac power would rush to his head after taking control of the Senate. Wouldn’t it fan the coals of arrogant pride? Contradict his political reputation for decency, openness, fairness? Turn him into a political celebrity? I’ve asked the question to scores of politicians before. Not one ever replied as he did that afternoon. Unflinching, deadpan, he visibly meant what he said: “In a decade or two from now, I’ll be dead. To think that in some way or other, celebrity is going to be the fulfilling thing in life is to head for a crash. I just think doing what you can in an extraordinary circumstance on a planet that is in real trouble is the most fulfilling thing available”.
The sentiments summarise Bob Brown’s remarkable awareness of his own limits. They explain why his humble decision to hand on the leadership of the oldest Green party in the world should come as no surprise. It is certainly no “bombshell”. Brown has proved that political careers don’t necessarily end in failure. His has ended on a mountain high, which should prompt us to thank him for his democratic services and to say: enjoy washing the dishes and good luck to you, mate.
Günter Grass has dared say publicly in a poem what needed saying: the present Netanyahu government of Israel is a potential danger to its own people, the wider region, and perhaps even to the rest of our planet. Proof of the anti-war poem’s point came pretty quickly.
During the past several days, verbal bombs have been launched at the man of letters, from all directions. With a general election and (who knows?) another war just around the corner, the aim of the Netanyahu government and its domestic and foreign supporters seems clear: to kill the old poet’s reputation, and to silence and maim anybody anywhere who dares share his opinion.
When making sense of the attacks on Grass, it’s worth noting that sections of German political society rushed to support the Israeli government. Germany’s media was suddenly awash with doubts about the integrity and motives of their leading poet. There’s since been vigorous support for both the poem, What Must Be Said, and the right of the 84-year-old Nobel Prize winner to speak his mind.
It seems bound to grow, partly because the first few commentaries on Grass went well beyond insult. Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle seems wilfully to have misread the poem: “Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level [the poem provides no evidence for this claim] is not ingenious but absurd.” Die Welt carried an editorial by the country’s leading Jewish writer, Henryk Broder. He insisted that Grass had always “had a problem with Jews” (that’s untrue) and “a tendency toward megalomania” (that may be true) but that “this time he is completely nuts” (readers’ call).
Germans who think this way indulge the spirit if not the substance of Angela Merkel’s 2008 widely-reported speech in Jerusalem. There she spoke of the “truth” that the security of the Israeli state belonged to Germany’s understanding of its own sovereign raison d'état. It was a peculiar speech - and strangely out of touch with strong support for Palestinian statehood and growing public discomfort among German citizens about Israel’s foreign policy behaviour.
Merkel in effect said that the Federal Republic of Germany, whatever its constitutional obligations to its own citizens, or to the rest of Europe, would protect the state of Israel, no matter what. It was sovereignty thinking at its worst. By projecting its mindset well beyond German borders, Merkel certainly outdid Carl Schmitt, the leading constitutional lawyer and political thinker of the early Nazi period. He insisted that sovereign rule, a few people arbitrarily deciding important things, such as military interventions, especially in emergency situations, should always trump the principles of power-sharing democracy and its culture of respect for openly-expressed differences.
Grass’s poem rightly rejects Merkel’s posturing, yet criticising Israel in Germany remains tricky business. Twisted guilt and sublimated shame run deep, and the old poet wants nothing of them. Practically speaking, that means he’s opposed to the sale of Dolphin-class, potentially nuclear-armed submarines by Germany to Israel on the quiet. He calls for “free and open monitoring of Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear potential and capability through an international entity that the government of both countries approve.”
Is it a thought crime to invoke the spirit of monitory democracy, “grown old, and with what ink remains”? Many Israeli commentators are sure that it is, which prompts the thought that more things need to be said, this time about the troubled state of democracy in Israel.
Founded in 1948, the settler state of Israel was a rescue operation from European genocide. It was a parliamentary democracy with a difference. Infused with the spirit of Judaism, it included a sizeable minority of Arab people. It featured free elections based on proportional representation, a directly elected prime minister, a strong independent judiciary and a robust media and civil society.
It was hardly a textbook democratic state. Powerful bodies such as the Jewish Agency, which handled Jewish immigration, and the Jewish National Fund, which owned substantial amounts of land in the name of the Jewish people, functioned from the beginning almost as states-within-a-state.
There was also the inconvenient truth that three-quarters of a million Palestinian people were forcibly expelled from their homelands. Israel’s democracy was founded on exclusion and (in effect) war against people who lost nearly everything. From the time of Athens, war on balance has been bad for the spirit and institutions of democracy. It ruins lives, stirs up fantasies of national greatness and belief in the invincibility of state power, the kind of “illusions” (Grass’s word) expressed in Ariel Sharon’s 2002 Knesset speech, when he praised Israel’s high-alert “fighting democracy”.
The Netanyahu government’s statements of recent days push in the same direction. Netanyahu himself says that Grass’s poem is “shameful”. The Israeli Embassy in Berlin denounced it as a work of Christian Europe: “What must be said is that it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder.” Forgetting the stateless Palestinians, it cast the poet as a friend of Iran (Grass rightly calls Ahmadinejad a “loudmouth”) before adding that “Israel is the only state in the world whose right to exist is openly doubted.”
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai meanwhile said Grass was an “anti-Semite” who once “wore an SS uniform”. The latter point is correct (Grass joined the Waffen-SS towards the end of World War II, when aged 17), but Yishai wielded it like a sword to declare him “persona non grata” and to urge he be stripped of his Nobel Prize. On Facebook, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman agreed. The poem, he wrote, revealed the “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”
Grass actually says in his poem that Israel is “a land to which I am, and always will be, attached”. But that seems of little interest to those bent on peddling muddled syllogisms: A is B; A is therefore C; and, thus, A is B, C and no doubt D. The illogic is a bad omen, of a world beyond anything that could fairly be called democratic. Its ultimate purpose, when used as a weapon by politicians like Netanyahu, is to pin down waverers and to dog-whistle excitement among supporters at home.
Two months ago, when in Berlin, I had the pleasure of a few hours with Tamar Hermann, a distinguished Israeli scholar who until recently headed up the Israel Democracy Institute. She steered me in the direction of IDI’s Democracy Index Survey 2011. It’s an excellent scholarly attempt to measure “democratic and anti-democratic thinking and performance” in Israel, and it’s definitely worth reading.
The independent report contains many positive findings, including unwavering support for “democracy” and high levels of interest in “politics” among Israeli citizens. But the report also tables a few things that need to be talked about. It shows (for 2011) that there is common belief among the country’s citizens that they have no way of influencing political decisions. It reveals that a sizeable segment (nearly 30%) of non-Arab citizens are willing to ditch democracy in favour of Jewish religious law (halakha). And it reports that a clear majority of the same citizens do not think there is any significant discrimination against Arabs; that their exclusion from holding political office is nevertheless right; and that harsh public criticism of the Israeli state by anybody is wrong.
Wednesday 4th April 2012: a funny old day, though my field notes record that it began well.
An early morning message arrives from Athens, from Periklis Douvitsas. He’s the editor of the publishing house looking after Why Democracy. It’s shortly to appear in Greek translation. “I am sending you the cover art”, he writes. He explains its minimalism. “We have had two best sellers each year (2010 and 2011) based on this design, a black [pencil sketch] drawing by P. Ghezzi.” With a hint of sadness, Periklis says he likes the “black fog” and the “scratched ballot box” because “it is a very good commentary on the Greek situation”. He signs off. “I hope you like it.” I write back to say I do, a lot.
Later that day, I log on to check the news from Athens, a city where I once briefly lived, and quickly grew to love. For nearly a year, I’ve been following events there almost daily. Political convictions should be tested, so I wrote several pieces for The Conversation. They sketched a basic thought that still seems pertinent: the citizens of Athens, against their will, have been flung into a stress-test laboratory where the meaning and viability of democracy have been pushed to breaking point.
Since those essays appeared the Greek crisis has deepened. Jürgen Habermas writes in his new book, The Crisis of the European Union, that the spectre of “post-democratic, bureaucratic rule” hangs over Europe, that its “political elites are burying their heads in the sand” and “persisting unapologetically” in the “disenfranchisement of the European citizens”.
Things are actually more complicated and much worse for Greek citizens. It’s not just that they’re being bossed about by publicly unaccountable bodies such as the European Central Bank, the IMF and the Merkel government and its allies. Truth is that the Greeks' own system of party politics and representative government badly failed them. It helped corrupt their state and bankrupt their economy. Greek citizens were then herded into the rotten uncertainty that comes with unemployment, massive debt and poverty. Democracy failure robbed them of their dignity.
The afternoon’s gloomy news of the suicide of Dimitris Christoulas drove home these points. The distraught 77-year-old retired pharmacist shot himself through the head in Syntagma Square near the parliament building. Shaken witnesses said that before pulling the trigger he’d shouted “I don’t want to leave debts to my children.” The note he left behind, pinned to a nearby tree, compared “a dignified end to my life” as far better than “scrounging through garbage cans for my sustenance.” He added: “I believe that young people with no future [nearly 50% are now unemployed], will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma Square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.”
The public reaction was swift. A motorcycle protest rally through the streets of Athens happened within hours. There was a public vigil in honour of Christoulas, organised by citizens who pointed out that Greece’s suicide rate, once nearly the lowest in Europe, had doubled since 2009. Then came the evening hooded protests, the hated riot police and street fighting. “This is not suicide, it is political murder,” one banner said. “Who will be next? ” asked another. “Austerity kills,” read still another.
The suffering of those who take their own lives is always an enigma, ultimately private and unfathomable. But towards the end of a strange day I can’t help pondering what comes after Greek democracy and wondering whether Why Democracy is too little too late…
“I’m feeling a little delicate”, said Aung San Suu Kyi politely to the mainly foreign press pack, gathered like beginner pupils at her feet. She added, with a gentle smile, that “any tough questions and I shall faint straightaway”. The journalists chuckled.
Charmed by her impeccable Oxford English, they were understandably thrilled to be in the presence of a truly brave woman leader, flowers in her hair, history seemingly on her side. It was one of those moments in global media politics that American journalists crudely but accurately call a clusterf**k. Fly in from another time zone. Make contact with old mates. Get up to speed, fast. Grab the spiciest local material. Concentrate on the keyboard. File. Relax, do some shopping, perhaps enjoy a few drinks. Then move on, like digital nomads, to the next global happening.
Under such conditions, we shouldn’t be surprised – but we really should – that the world’s headlines during the past week have been salted and peppered with talk of “democracy”. The word has mirror effects. It confirms that “we” in the established world of “democracy” have new neighbours. The word reaffirms who “we” are. A CBS News correspondent reported that “Burma may finally be on the road to democracy”. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung celebrated Burma’s “almost insatiable hunger for democracy and prosperity”. London’s The Independent noted, a bit more soberly, the country’s “stumbling journey towards democracy”. Even the New York Times repeated the formulation that Burma was now “a halfway house between authoritarianism and democracy”.
It’s actually nothing of the sort. It’s been an astonishing few months and an extraordinary week in Burma, to be sure. The first chinks of sunlight passing through the cracks of a dark and brutal dictatorship have had warming effects. A Mikhail Gorbachev- or F.W. de Klerk-like politician of retreat has appeared, as if from nowhere.
Thein Sein is the man: a former general who’s convinced the status quo is unsustainable, that more openness will win support at home and abroad, a figure who thinks that talk of “stakeholders” and “democracy” will function as a social peace formula, in the process saving the skins of the old ruling junta. His conviction has helped Suu Kyi to tap local resentments, sketch alternatives and to raise hopes. Fogs of fear are lifting. Faced with a free choice in polling stations for the first time in their lives, small shop keepers, Buddhist monks, school teachers and bamboo and betel nut farmers feel sleepless joy. The ground shakes under their feet. And something distinctive that augurs well for the future is happening: large numbers of children have been drawn into the euphoria.
All this has been well-reported in recent days. Yet the first moments of democracy are highly risky adventures. Suu Kyi feels faint for understandable reasons that run beyond physical exhaustion. What is now happening in Burma re-confirms the old rule that journeys toward democracy never come with maps and compasses. They’re experiments in handling unleashed uncertainties. They involve complex dynamics and they’re long-term affairs. Tight linear causations don’t apply. Relations of power, who gets what, when and how, are up for grabs. Luck, surprise and unintended outcomes are often the most important players. And there is never an end point. No democracy is ever “consolidated”. Democracies are always in transition – towards new ways of handling power that are better, or worse, than what came before.
Something else of vital importance was overlooked in this week’s flood of reports from Yangon. With few exceptions, foreign correspondents indulged the suspect habit of applying their own Western yardsticks to measure the significance of the events. They paid little or no attention to the wider Asia and Pacific region, which meant they ignored the way the region is powerfully making its mark and taking its revenge on old European democratic ideals and practices. It’s not just that the Westminster model of “liberal” parliamentary democracy has largely failed to take root in the region. The Asia and Pacific region is defying the textbooks. It’s a laboratory of democracy, the main testing ground of its new 21st-century forms.
Mainstream scholars say that democracy requires a ‘sovereign’ territorial state that guarantees the physical security of its citizens. It needs widespread agreement that democracy is essentially competition among political parties, periodic elections and parliamentary government. For good measure, these scholars add that democracy requires a homogeneous “national identity” and a functioning market economy that’s capable of generating wealth that lifts citizens out of poverty and guarantees them a basic standard of living sufficient to encourage them to take an interest in public affairs.
This way of thinking about democracy’s preconditions is utterly inapplicable in most parts of the region. The cases of India, Taiwan, Indonesia, Nepal, Bhutan, the Tibetan Government in Exile and the various island democracies of the Pacific Ocean are just some of the anomalous cases that throw the thinking into disarray.
Burma is yet another anomaly.
Comprising borderlands wedged
between Indian democracy and Chinese authoritarianism, it is hardly a country, as the Burmese scholar Thant Myint-U has noted. Territorial, ethnic and linguistic tensions are rife. All government institutions have been corrupted by military-backed patrimony. Independent power-monitoring institutions are weak. There is no functioning market economy. Joblessness is chronic; most people are dirt poor.
So can millions of citizens lift themselves towards equality and dignity under these conditions? Can they and their new leaders do things the Asian and Pacific way? Is a Buddhist democracy possible? We’re going to see.
While still on the subject of H.L. Mencken, it’s worth remembering one of his deliciously light-hearted jibes at parliamentary democracy. In the course of warning of the dangers of popular ignorance, especially in a 1930s world bristling with economic and geo-political uncertainty, he forecast in Notes on Democracy that American politics would be damaged by its embrace of the fiction of an informed “people”. Mencken supposed that the gravest danger to the ideals and practice of representative democracy was not its dependence on the bourgeoisie, as Marx and American socialists of the period thought. The great weakness of parliamentary democracy was its deluded attachment to ignorant people. He waggishly dubbed them the “booboisie”.
No need for a language alert here. By “booboisie” he was referring to people prone to ignorance and stupid mistakes. Such people are still known today in America as ‘boobs’, and Mencken was surely right that democracies tolerate them, just as much as they’re challenged by their folly. Here’s an unfortunate local example: the recent series of organised diatribes of the Murdoch-owned press against the recommendations of the Finkelstein Report that a new regulatory media framework should replace the past-its-sell-by-date Press Council. There’s no space to dwell at length on the broadsides, some of which talk hysterically of the “new totalitarianism”, but one attack did catch my eye.
Space was given over by the Weekend Australian to Brendan O’Neill, ex-Trotskyite editor of the online magazine Spiked and author of a trashy satire on green politics, Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas. O’Neill links together the Leveson inquiry into press ethics and the Finkelstein report to insist that they’re living proof that ‘the chattering classes’ of contemporary democracies are defined by their shoulder-shrugging attitude to press freedom. Writing as the ventriloquist of Rupert Murdoch, who’d like to kill off both the Leveson inquiry and bury the Finkelstein report, he concludes that “today’s bourgeoisie – in glaring contrast to the original and radical bourgeoisie, who created the modern world – are indifferent to the ideal of press freedom”.
Here’s the booboisie at its worst. Soon after publishing his diatribe in support of the liberty-loving Murdoch press, more bad news came its way, this time in the form of a most serious allegation that in Britain it sponsored hacking into the operations of the chief TV rival of its BSkyB. It did so by setting up a software company NDS to crack the smart code cards of its rival ONdigital, owned by the ITV companies Granada and Carlton. It then set about distributing the codes through a pirate website with the raunchy acronym of THOIC: The House of Ill Compute. The allegations, if they turn out to be accurate, underscore yet again the hypocrisy of a media Goliath posing as a freedom-loving David. So that’s a boob, Brendan.
But larger follies run though O’Neill’s potted account of the early modern struggles for liberty of the press. I’ve written on the subject in The Media and Democracy, and in a forthcoming new book called The Media and Democracy in An Age of Decadence, so I was sensitive to the details of his case. He’s right about the importance of the English Civil War of the 1640s in triggering calls, for the first time, for public freedom from pre-publication censorship. The ancients knew nothing of liberty of the press; it’s a modern ideal. But if O’Neill had looked carefully into the period, instead of mythologising the past and misusing it tendentiously for present-day political purposes, then he’d have seen that the “bourgeois” champions of liberty of the press were trapped in more than a few tangles and twists of their own making.
Many early defenders of liberty of the press were in fact God-fearing republicans, or constitutional monarchists, not men who “believed the press should be absolutely free of state meddling”. They were typically men; women were never included in their vision of press freedom. They normally paid homage to the doctrine of the sovereign emergency powers of government (the First Amendment of the US constitution was the first blow against that way of thinking). The early champions of press freedom were also Protestant zealots. John Milton’s great polemic Areopagitica (1644) specifically ruled out press freedom for Catholics and “the Turk”, on the ground that toleration of the intolerant would be ethically and politically self-defeating. Well into the 19th century, talk of press freedom spoke with a strong upper class accent. The propertied classes of the Atlantic region did everything they could to block the spread of press liberties to ignorant commoners. And so on.
Marching under Murdoch’s tattered and torn moral banner, chanting the slogans of press freedom, O’Neill trips up on matters of historical fact. In America, that’s again called a boob, which makes me think that our curmudgeonly critic of democracy H.L. Mencken might well have slipped a wry smile when noting that hired journalists of the fifth largest global media conglomerate have joined the ranks of the booboisie.
Disquiet and disaffection, like a fast-moving swarm of sticky locusts, are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. Look around, beyond the borders in which you’re living. Public disenchantment with politicians and official “politics” is on the rise everywhere, stirred up by factional infighting and mischief-making populists.
Ask the citizens of Greece, or Hungary or Ireland what they think about democracy: a clear majority say that it’s a fine ideal that now feels corrupted and practically broken. Significant minorities of citizens in democracies otherwise as different as Spain and Chile, Italy, Japan and India, say much the same thing.
Some so-called democracies, Israel and Ukraine among them, are breeding active disillusionment with democratic ideals. And in the United States, a 2010 poll conducted by Opinion Dynamics for Fox News found that nearly two-thirds of Americans (62% with a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points) think that their own imperial democracy is in decline. The figures haven’t since changed. And now these same citizens ask: has democracy come to Iraq, or to Afghanistan? Will it come to Syria?
Answers to such questions seem redundant. Little wonder that the doubters of democracy are feeling encouraged. “The marriage between democracy and capitalism is over”, says Slavoj Žižek, the self-styled Lenin of our age. “Democracy equals monetary abstraction equals an organised death wish”, writes his French philosopher friend Alain Badiou. “The West has become very conceited”, says Fu Ying, China’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. “At the end of the day, democracy alone cannot put food on the table. That’s the reality.”
Sensing that political tides are flowing in their favour, she and other critics play up the crumbling social foundations of democracy. Here they have a point. Among the prime political lessons of the great Atlantic stagnation caused by a burst banking bubble is the deep structural dependence of democratic ways of handling power upon markets. Market failures have bred democracy failures, with painful social consequences. Hourglass-shaped societies are taking shape. Gini coefficients and wealth inequalities are widening.
In more than a few democracies, the rich are now hyper-rich. Middle class anxieties are spreading; a new precarious class of semi-employed or permanently unemployed people has been born; xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise; and with jobless figures high and rising among young people (30% in Italy, 50% in Spain, 5.5 million in the EU alone) many young citizens feel excluded from the democratic game.
Who can blame them? Young citizens look around and see few intelligent political leaders who speak their language, represent their interests and are able to change things. Obama stands for broken promises. For them, electoral democracy is phantom democracy. It resembles a game played by rich and powerful men. Political parties are unattractive. Politicians breed nausea.
Parliaments are, well, worse than talk shops. Especially worrying, many young people say, is the present-day dramatic jump in the use of executive powers. In a whole range of matters, from drones and nuclear weapons to imposed fiscal austerity and environmental protection, decisions of basic importance to the lives of millions of people are being decided (or blocked) arbitrarily, often behind closed doors in remote cross-border settings.
It’s possible that the complaints of the young generation are early warning signals, sirens announcing worse things to come. Nobody knows, but the parallels with the great crisis that brought democracy to its knees during the 1920s and 1930s seem palpable.
It’s true that web-based public scrutiny of power is flourishing; that the universal franchise is widely thought to be a settled issue; and, at least on paper, that there are record numbers of “free and fair” electoral democracies (at least 25 according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, double the number since 1945). And, yes, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito are conspicuous by their absence; instead there are quiet figures, Mario Monti, Angela Merkel and Yoshihiko Noda among them.
The differences must be borne in mind. Yet the fact is that we are living in times when parliamentary democracy is suffering arteriosclerosis. Big money disproportionately wins votes. Surrounded by lobbyists, legislative committees outsource vital political decisions, politicians are consequently mistrusted and parliamentary mechanisms often seem toothless. The rhythms of representative government are out of whack with environmental catastrophes such as Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima. Parliamentary democracy seems unhinged, reactive, dragged down by its inability to address large domestic and cross-border issues…and effectively to solve them, fairly and squarely.
It’s these trends that demand unorthodox political thinking, a new sense of urgency about democracy’s strengths and weaknesses, its past, present and future global fortunes. We must try to jump over our own shadows, set aside givens, make room for new challenges, such as whether and how the right of democratic representation can be extended to our biosphere, or examining whether the Asia and Pacific region holds the keys to the future of democracy, or whether new justifications of its superiority can go beyond the Winston Churchill cliché that it’s the least worst form of government. But fresh democratic thinking, new democratic imaginaries as the political philosophers say, require different methods of saying things, of articulating what cannot easily be said, of exposing silences and taken-for-granted presumptions.
The professional journal article, littered with political science jargon published a year after submission and acceptance by anonymous peer readers, then studied by a few handfuls of the same, isn’t right for capturing the moment. Books and chapters in books still have their place, but their publication lead time means they risk obsolescence at the hands of fast-moving novelties. Random op-ed pieces come and go, but are readily forgotten. So what’s required is something that’s both more immediate and more durable: fresh ways of writing, perhaps mixed with other media, vivid ways of capturing heterodox ideas, the long-term significance of events, the immediacy of characters, setbacks, political scandals, breakdowns and breakthroughs.
Notebooks are a medium for doing these things. Not to be confused with the tear-jerker film by that title, or with wafer-thin laptops, they’re a democratic form of writing. Made up of broken and interrupted fragments, they refuse cock-sure certainty. They grip the ground but don’t suppose they own it. Notebooks refuse to indulge the bad habits of traditional intellectuals and politicians proud of their ability to defend and advance large abstractions. Notebooks expose perplexities. They pose question marks. Wherever possible, they add semi-colons, blanks and margin notes to the grandiose bluff and bluster of democracy apologists like Samuel Huntington Jr. and Francis Fukuyama, or anti-democracy ideologists such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek.
Modesty is the most striking quality of notebooks. They keep conversations going. As Tocqueville first showed during his jottings from the United States in the early 1830s, democracy notebooks capture particulars. They strive for accuracy, but they make no pretence to “truth”. They have a strong sense of the contingency of things and in this respect they express one of the most important unique features of democracy as a lived political form: the way it calls on citizens and their representatives to live openly as equals with the stresses and strains of political uncertainty.
Jottings on democracy word-pressed into web-based notebooks, written for unknown readers in unknown lands: not a straightforward task, as you’ll see during the coming days, weeks and months. It’s a testing strange art with few guidelines, but two standing examples spring to mind. One of them is Arundhati Roy’s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy (2009).The famous Indian novelist and Booker prize-winning political activist and citizen of the world asks a string of disturbing questions: is there life after democracy? What happens once democracy has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning, when its institutions have metastasized into something useless, or dangerous? What happens now that democracy and the free market have fused into a single predatory organism with a thin, constricted imagination that revolves almost entirely around the idea of maximizing profit? Is it possible to reverse this process? Can something that has mutated go back to being what it used to be?
Roy says that what we need today, for the sake of the survival of this planet, is long-term vision. She asks: can governments whose very survival depends on immediate, extractive, short-term gain provide this? Could it be that democracy, the sacred answer to our short-term hopes and prayers, the protector of our individual freedoms and nurturer of our avaricious dreams, will turn out to be the endgame for the human race?
For my taste, Roy’s field notes suffer from carping self-importance. Short on irony, they leave out all the remarkable rough-and-tumble counter-trends of India’s “banyan democracy”. Dialectics is not among her favourite words. Thorns never come with roses. That’s to say her jottings are one-eyed and one-sided; untrue to their own modest literary form, they capture certain troubling trends in Indian democracy (the military occupation of Kashmir and the Naxalite uprising, for instance) but not significant others, such as the freedom of the powerless publicly to organise trade unions, or to protest and vote against big-time corruption.
Roy’s account of the prevailing “working model” at the global level, “Western liberal democracy”, rests on similar misrepresentations. Her jottings amount to a “feral howl”. They’re her chosen words and they squarely depend throughout upon a vague but never-defined vision of “genuine democracy”. Is she nostalgic for Gandhi’s vision of self-governing village republics? Or is she perhaps a fan of Greek assembly democracy? She doesn’t say.
The ambiguity brings me to H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. It’s different fare. Published in 1926 and written by the American writer who’s today called the Sage of Baltimore, Mencken’s notes denounce democracy as an organised form of political ignorance. Prone to rigidity, they read like Nietzsche against the New Deal, and (less stridently) against fascism. With democracies such as Italy, Poland and the Weimar Republic tottering on the edge of self-extinction, or democide, Mencken’s notes were determined to give the whole idea of democracy a push, over the cliff, into the abyss.
If Roy is tediously un-ironic, Mencken was savagely sarcastic. Heaping scorn on representative democracy from every angle, there’s never a dull note. Anecdotal, witty and irreverent, democracy is “incomparably idiotic”, an ill-conceived and unworkable system in which inferior men dominate their superiors. Democracy is the beatification of mediocrity. It unleashes ignorant mob rule by demagogues. Elections resemble vast geysers of hormones. “Government under democracy is thus government by orgy, almost by orgasm”.
You get the picture. Faced with a choice between Arundhati Roy and H.L. Mencken, both of them hanging judges issuing warped verdicts on the false ambitions and hypocrisies of democracy, it’s time to progress. Join me in the field notebook adventure. But remember: there are no known maps, timetabled destinations or guaranteed safe passages.