Sunday, February 28, 2010

An alternate life, where I studied politics

Some very undeveloped thoughts on the state of democracy

Here an Obama adviser suggests that the Labour Party in the big cities is controlled by tight cabals who restrain the rise of maverick, radical politicians such as Obama. Quite apart from whether Obama is a radical, this raises questions about the potency of democracy in this country.

The transparency of the process by which individuals rise up through party ranks to positions of power is vital to the health of democracy. It is what allows us to say that democracy exists at all, since it clearly is not vested in the opportunity to vote once every five years. Instead it is vested in the possibility that anybody could, theoretically, rise up through a party machine to face an election. The party members who favour their platform, here represent the citizens who are not members of a party, in much the same way as MPs stand in for the rest of us when voting on law, until the politician gets to face a proper election. Finding out that this process is strangled by close-knit gangs of small-time politicians is not exactly surprising, but it informs against taking the existence of robust democracy seriously, since so much of it is already carved up between a small, unrepresentative cliques.

This is important, because the perception that democracy functions is vital for the health of society. The less a society is perceived as fair the worse the nature of its citizens' contributions. So if people believe, against some pretty impressive evidence, that democracy is thriving in this country - as opposed to power being concentrated in the hands of a tiny set of tycoons, moguls and lawyers - then they will probably be more inclined to contribute and co-operate with society in its basic functions. Less likely to cheat, steal, hurt others, help the police and so on.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps most people really do cheat as much as they can, perhaps they are cynical as to the motives of politicians - and I mean really cynical, not the faux-cynicism which is endemically fashionable but which lacks the finesse of true evidence-based disappointment - perhaps people won't co-operate less in a dystopian police state, since they already fail to co-operate now in the weakened "democratic" society of today. Perhaps it is only the power of the state to capture and punish criminals that stops us all from being criminals. But if that is so, what does that tell us about our alienation from our surroundings, and the true rotten state of affairs that passes for modern society.

On the other hand, perhaps people do believe in society and do find that they co-operate willingly because they believe that society is at least attempting to achieve fairness. If so then having genuinely participatory democracy is vital to engage and maintain that belief and prevent it getting sucked into cynicism. And genuine participatory democracy cannot begin to flourish if strangled by cabals. But then of course the cabals couldn't exist if people genuinely participated in democracy. So what kind of system do you try to bring about, which will encourage people to get involved, neuter complacent cynicism by offering genuine opportunities to contribute, and cast fresh and enduring light on the murky practices of professional politicians.

How do you get people to sacrifice their time to participate, and stop them being satisfied merely in complaining?