The dissatisfaction with politics and politicians is pretty near universal just now, expecially in Europe. While Obama stands out as an emblem of hope, there is much pessimism about the problems ahead of him and a feeling that they are far too large for even his abilities, given the deepening of world recession and the volatile nature of American culture.
Is there a form of government that can improve the general well-being and create a liveable human society? A recent advertisement in the New Statesman for a book advocating A People’s Parliament, based on the ancient Athenian model of a parliament selected by lottery, at random, makes one think. It would be similar to a jury of citizens, and personal ambition would be greatly reduced – as it would constantly change, but the possibilities of corruption might still be present, but not for long.
The feeling now is that what is needed is openness, with an end to secrecy. A revolution in political thinking is certainly underway, and the new political awareness and interest in how we are governed will increase as as times get harder with rising unemployment and poverty. That it will turn to violence is certain, unless the right measurements are taken – and that means an end to greed and great wealth, high taxation of those who have the means, the sharing of necessities by government control, rationing and a national incomes policy. (I’ve already discussed this in a previous blog).
It is also a good time to look again at different systems of government, this time without knee-jerk reactions. Inevitably, it comes down to human personalities. It was the ruthless power ambitions of a few that took the shine of early Communism, that turned the Wilson Labour government of the 60s from a reforming and forward-looking movement in a series of corruptions – local Labour councils made it possible for contractors, who were often newly-elected councillors themselves, to become rich through shoddy building projects and the like through public money that just poured into their laps. Socialism has to be transparent just like everything else, and it was the greed of opportunity-seekers that betrayed it. There are many who dislike the whole principle of monarchy, but there is no question that those who are born and trained to a job and are constantly under surveillance, such as the remaining monarchies of Northern Europe, produce more reliable and trustworthy heads of state than those who are appointed by a parliament or ruling body, often a theocratic or very nationalistic hierarchy, responding to national pressures that are condemned by their neighbours.
It is almost impossible to give a good definition of democracy. The citizens of the United States, with the voices of different presidents, are always trying to export what they call democracy, but not to those foreign states that have authoritative regimes over which they exercise power, either commercially like the South American banana republics or militarily as well, such as Saudi Arabia, which they would certainly not want to be a democracy. In fact, although it was Saudis who engineered the 9/11 attack on New York, they have tried to deflect the responsibility by inserting association with other countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, the US electoral college was designed to prevent democracy, and had often succeeded in insuring that the wrong candidate was elected as president.
The party system is designed in most places to ensure the dominance of a social or regional class, either permanently in power or in alternance. It stifles any new movements and makes it difficult for an individual without a party behind him or her to get elected. And often elections are just a farce, as in Nazi Germany or more recently, in what appears to have been sham elections in Zimbabwe and Iran.
In any case as Plato so cogently argued, democracy is an open invitation to corruption. It only works properly where the electorate is highly educated and not composed of mixed cultures, as at present in Britain. The Scandinavian countries and Switzerland are the most obvious examples. The latter shares a common culture and might have four official languages, but most citizens speak at three of them.
Now that the whole question of what kind of government we need is under discussion is the right time to think about it seriously. My own opinion is that we must stop choosing politicians because they resemble or actually are film stars or pop idols and look for people who are highly educated, have a good all-’round general experience of moving in different social groups; a good cultural knowledge that includes the arts – so often ignored and down-graded, and have a social consciousness, but above all are honest and competent. In other words we must begin to accept and respect elitism.
Elitism is a word that political correctness, and the low standard of intelligence we have come to accept in our elected representatives, have together, made a dirty one. Why cannot we acknowledge what we all know: that some people are more skilled than others, and not only in sport. We learn at different rates, which has something to do with the backgrounds from which we emerge, but not entirely. Many brilliant people come from the worst backgrounds. If we can eliminate poverty and illiteracy this will no longer happen. But we must encourage and push ahead those who have more ability and thinking power than others and this means creating special schools and higher educational facilities for them, as the French have down for centuries. At the same time, we must not allow anyone to become so lazy or indifferent that they do not understand the responsibilities that go with the right to vote. That is why I think that the voting age should be increased to twenty-five, and there should be a fairly vigourous examination to be able to vote. Voting is a privilege and not necessarily a right. And of course, there should always be total transparency about public affairs and the right to be informed. There could be no better way to reduce hostility between nations, and the risk of war which should be high on any agenda in the nuclear age. No one benefits from war except politicians and rulers and often, they lose by it. Rule should be by the most intelligent, competent, and well-meaningly honest, but always under scrutiny. That is the answer, which is probably why we won’t get it.
John Calder 1 July 09
editor’s note: As a longtime proponent of the Platonic assertions of compulsive democracy as well as Bloomsian reforms in education, there should be one clarification: at 82, Mr Calder is not a computer user, and while aware of the top-level effect of the internet, he does not have ready information surrounding the massive, positive impact online participation delivered for the Obama election. In particular, the young vote was inspired by electronic media. This makes the debate even more intriguing from a generational standpoint, and the challenges facing society. However, to allow comment and criticism — where there is a massive gap in skills and knowledge of electronic communications, would be unfair without pointing this out. —MLB