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  an open letter

(to citizens, of all stripes, of so-called "democracies")



Many thoughtful citizens, from all points in the political "spectrum", are deeply troubled by recent developments in our so-called "democracies"...particularly in the English-speaking world that has - hitherto - done so much to promote freedom & equality (at least, in some areas of the world)...albeit, usually for reasons of (enlightened) self-interest.

But, what we're (now) seeing in USA...and elsewhere, shouldn't really surprise anyone that's read John Ralston Saul, William Greider or, in a more rigorous vein, Thomas Ferguson's Golden Rule: the investment theory of party competition (University of Chicago Press: 1995). "Money-driven political systems", to summarise Ferguson, are always easily dominated by this kind of vile "populist" point-scoring, whilst the majority of issues, of real interest to the populace, are ignored or explained away, as all major election funding comes from sources that largely agree on these...and, typically, own the media to boot. The only real exceptions are when an established group of the powerful decides to reinvent itself - and genuinely attempts to put common-goods first...as their road to power. Most historians’d cite the New Deal as such, but - forget that, for the moment - democracy itself was first invented & reinvented in this very fashion. Just ask Solon & Cleisthenes....

Think of it this way. Who are you actually “grateful” to - and willing to put yourself out for - your boss, who (effectively) pays your bills, or the “friend” that gives you money when you (absolutely) need it. Now, replace your boss w/an amorphous bunch, only vaguely accessible through polling...and the disgruntled. Then, let the polling be driven by mass media debates (see below) - and the most visible masses of the disgruntled enraged by carefully-orchestrated corporate spin...and (more recently) even funded & organized by corporations pushing their own agendas (see Greider). Sure - politicians’re "grateful" to their electors...but, it’s those that fund their election that actually get serviced.

Another lovely point, proven in exhaustive detail in a fairly recent academic work - Diana Mutz's Impersonal Influence: how perceptions of mass collectives affect political attitudes (Cambridge: 1998) - is that the average voter generally votes upon common-good grounds, unlike many/most members of elites...as any truly honest neo-classical economist should expect...and understand! Trouble is, the "masses" still judge common-good outcomes by consulting the media - despite their growing distrust of same - even over their own experience - and journalists typically gloss over debates where an honest portrayal of total policy options would result in mass opinions unfavourable to big business - and, in left circles, union power as well....

[The latter issue is complex, but social democrat labour-market policy, since the 80s at least, has generally delivered the worst of both worlds in the long run, because it has partially bought into delusions of frictionless labour markets, whilst also forestalling genuinely viable labour market reform (see below), principally due to the importance of union funding/structures.]

Thus, the clearly linked rise in public disgust w/both politicians and journalists - especially political journalists - over recent times, as the informally-linked "system" has solidified, and excluded more & more real policy debate over genuine common-good issues. Sure...people look for simple solutions - but mainly because the only alternatives that are given any hope of success (by the media: and this attitude is relentless in most outlets) just seem too similar in v.important respects...so, then - maybe they just go for who they like, since they so distrust their information sources, yet are all too aware (as Mutz clearly shows) that their personal experience cannot simply be generalized in huge polities....

This is a pity...as democracy is designed to - literally - sum up our personal experience, and render judgement upon extant governance in consequence. Rather than the "fourth estate",  journalism (now) is the albatross around the neck of democracy, teaching citizens to vote contrary to their real experience of life today, and stifling all those who attempt to challenge the (well-funded) major parties dominance.

Given this outcome, the historically-minded might well (now) wish that English monarchs' desire to stamp-out the nascent press'd had a very different outcome...

Anyway...a further nail in our collective coffins comes from Christopher Boehm's marvellous Hierarchy in the Forest: the evolution of egalitarian behaviour (Harvard: 1999), wherein he (exhaustively) compares mobile hunter-gather groups, and reconsiders the primate record, to suggest why all democracies & such have been bottom-up. It's because they - and our proto-human ancestors - had to work HARD in enforcing Australia's (much-maligned) "tall poppy" syndrome: otherwise...big men, systemic violence, hierarchy & the whole rotten deal.

This had to be done consciously & face-to-face...because, if dissolved into unthinking ritual, specialists promptly subverted same in their own interests. Makes you think about Australia a little differently, now...doesn't it?  Hell...the real surprise, and the (final) proof that aboriginals (and lumpen-prole convicts) so shaped our primary ethos, is that this has been maintained w/NO direct democracy (anywhere), in a huge, dispersed nation that - in historical polity terms - is a complete joke as a demos....

And, incidentally, people who (unthinkingly) consider that the majority are “comfortable & relaxed” genuinely ought to take a very serious look at "False Positive" as it clearly provides a much deeper insight into middle America than any regular economic index. It also (fully) reconciles the joke of “good” economic figures w/typically “poor” consumer confidence, record wealth disparities & a shrinking middle class - something that hits small business much harder than their corporate “friends” - and also helps (further) explain why our current governments are so keen to keep the fear level up....

Add to this the fact that a high proportion of the decent jobs in the recent US job growth have gone to resident aliens - ie: non-voters...

Self-centred? Losing empathy? Try near-paralysed w/fears (economic/social...and now terrorist), insistently reminded that there are no viable alternatives - and far too time-pressed &/or badly-educated to reconsider these things themselves...

Add to this - in the US example - what I like to call “top-nation psychosis” - something which is universal in human history (and I do mean universal). All such become inward-looking due to self-satisfaction w/their status, fail to reform evidently malfunctioning institutions...as they become incapable of effectively learning (sure, some of the internal critiques’re true: big deal!) from their peers...since they refuse to see them as such, and then fall into an inglorious welter of mutual blame...

And, if it wasn’t for the nukes - despite the high likelihood that the physicists’ve already incapacitated same w/out their master’s knowledge - as well as the Iraqi blood on his hands, I’d almost be tempted to cheer Bush on...as the massively inept screwup that put an end to unilateral power, at least for the moment.

What we (genuinely) need now - in all democracies, and from all sides of politics that truly trust the democratic process - is a conscious public project to replace spoon-fed mediation w/a “new” variant of direct democracy, based around a deliberative assembly chosen - at random - from voters...with the same to elect a president in charge (effectively) of administering labor & capital, as well as being the head of state...

So...that means heading the currency-issuing Bank; and in charge of structuring - and administering - labour market regulation...to drive that badly-skewed nightmare back to full employment (and hence real job security), w/high minimum wages...but, sans collective bargaining (now you can see my genuine objection to unions - at least - in their current form). This way, "representative" assemblies'd turn into a faction-ridden centre for corporatist trades over legislation - actually, what they are already - but, at least, leave management of the most basic local common-goods to someone actually chosen for this role...by a truly representative proportion of “us” that had sufficient time/resources to properly deliberate....

It’s not actually new...the ancient Greeks loved using such "lottery" approaches - it stopped "expertise" from leveraging its way into dominance - and James Fishkin's The Voice of the People (Yale:1995) offers details of his experiments w/such randomly chosen assemblies - and has shown that they deliver moderate, interestingly different, policy approaches to those of the politicians & thinktanks....Plus, they they turn people into citizens. And, remember, our citizens love a bet - and trust their fellows much more than they do their parliaments...so, I reckon it’d win, if it got any real hearing.

And, also...lest we forget, as Juliet Schor - The Overworked American (Basic Books: 1992) - has carefully demonstrated...working hours per person in the West's job markets haven't changed much since the early seventies. All that's happened is that the work was redistributed - and everyone, except those on high salaries, have paid the real price...through increased transfer payments (which regular salary earners - not the rich - foot the main bill for), insecure or under-employment, and the overall climate of fear which has allowed the selling of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative nightmares....

Basic divide & rule stuff - but, the signs are there that crunch time is pretty near. Historically, elites always play these games - they simply get far too greedy/incompetent & their arrangements fall apart. Read Fischer’s The Great Wave (Oxford: 1996) if you need a compellingly optimistic case to discard current social/political doomsaying. The environment, however, is another story.... But, on the social/political front, in a mixed economy open to foreign trade, it seems to happen every time. What history also teaches, however, is that it's only when there's an effective program to mobilize around, that anything other than a bloody mess results in any individual nation.

So - get talking - and, if you don't like my model...build your own... And, to those of my readers in the political class, remember - as the “apolitical” have long memories when it comes to those that deliver their dreams - any government that delivered same'd probably be in power for decades...even (especially) if it screwed its corporate funders in doing so...



John Henry Calvinist