Democracy Shamocracy

Preface

MattInShanghai recently commented:

I noticed that you also have been caught up by the “expenses scandal” which seems to be gripping the UK at the moment. But without resorting to “conspiracy theories”, think about this. Fiddling of expenses by our elected officials must have been going on for decades, at the very least, and thousands of people had to have been aware of it (including all of the media). Why has the “scandal” been exposed just now?? I mean, even if the PM hired his brother to clean his house at taxpayers’ expense, surely this did not cause the UK economy to collapse. Maybe it has something to do with a (temporary) split between the politicians and their masters? The politicians, currently in power, facing immanent defenestration might have gotten a misguided idea that going after some fat cats might just restore their street-cred enough to get reelected. If so, they were certainly put back in their proper place. Just a thought…

Tiberius agrees with this assessment, and  posted  this on a recent Cynicus Economicus blog:

I agree that Gordon Brown is a pragmatist: he understands well the limits of State power in a globalised world, and the power of international finance to make or break governments and their people. His ‘problem’ is that he has far less ability to shape public opinion than the ‘vested interests’ do, and, now both have turned against him, he has become unable to deliver the political stability on which the system relies.

Whether that next step towards stability will be one of fascism or democracy is the worry.

Why then has Tiberius even bothered to comment on the recent expenses scandal, if he realises that, in reality, it is just a power game?

In order to explain this, it will be necessary for Tiberius to expound some of the tenets of his political philosophy. He asks, Weary Surfer, for your patience.

Democracy Shamocracy

Introduction

The essay that follows will seek to challenge a piece of what might be considered ‘received wisdom’; a falsehood so pervasive that it is passed over with little comment when uttered by our so-called political commentators: the illusion of a UK democracy.

This illusion constitutes one of the four foundational myths on which the civilized life of our country is based: common misapprehensions that  may pass for ‘common sense’, but which are, in reality, nothing more than symptoms of a collective self-delusion.

Tiberius believe it to be incumbent on every free-thinking person to take the time to challenge these falsities via a course of what Noam Chomsky refers to as “intellectual self-defence”.

These foundational myths, from which every rational person should seek to disavow themselves, can be listed as follows:

Myth 1: The UK is a “democracy” (in any meaningful sense of that word)

Myth 2: The UK is (and historically always has been) a force for good in the world

Myth 3: There exists in the UK a free, independent, and liberal press

Myth 4: The UK has a politically-neutral educational system

The remainder of this blog will challenge the first, and probably most insidious, of these myths.

The Myth of Democracy

The first thing to note is that most people think of democracy in binary terms: a country either is or is not democratic. This is a mistake and it should instead be more appropriately viewed as a spectrum, some countries being ‘more democratic’ than others.

In terms of a pure democracy, the UK has never been democratic. There was never a time when the entire population of the UK got to vote on all the major issues of their time, from distribution of wealth to foreign policy. The system that currently exists was never agreed upon by the masses but, rather, has developed incrementally from the system that went before it.

A few hundred years ago we lived under a theocracy – it was a system under which people had no power, save for those born into the ruling class. From there we achieved a system under which the landowners ruled the country, this was ostensibly called “democracy” but it was severely limited. However, if nothing else, it began to sow the popular seeds of what democracy could be.

Now, there is no denying that the system is “better” than the one it has replaced; nor that certain democratic victories have been won over the last few centuries. But to go further than this and imply that we have reached a democratic society, in an ‘end of history’ sense, is to misunderstand what democracy would look like: either through naivety or deliberate obfuscation from the status-quo.

At this point, some may consider this to be a purely semantic argument, and in some respects it is: but this is not to say that it is not an important one. The words that we use to represent our reality can serve as a limitation on our thoughts, quelling our capacity to imagine what could otherwise be. It’s Newspeak, but less transparently so.

But the important point to note is this: It is possible to oppose the current system and not be ‘anti-democratic’.

Democracy Renamed

If the UK is not a democracy, then what is it?

Technically, in sociological parlance, it is what is known as a polyarchy. The term was first coined in 1956 by the political scientist Robert A. Dahl in his book A Preface to Democratic Theory

Noam Chomsky defines the term thus:

[A polyarchy is a] system in which power resides in the hands of those who [James Madison] called “the wealth of the nation, the responsible class of men”. And the rest of the population is fragmented, distracted, allowed to participated every couple of years  – to come and say “Yes, thank you – you can continue for the next four years” and they have a little choice among the responsible men/wealth of the nation.

That’s the way the country was founded: it was founded on the principle (explained by Madison in the Constitutional Convention) that the primary goal of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

Chomsky reinforces this point by saying of America:

It is not a democratic society, and it was not intended to be.

This statement is equally applicable on this side of the Atlantic.

Yet that’s not how we see things: we tend to envisage ourselves as the masters (or mistresses) of our own destiny. This is for two reasons : firstly, this is how we are encouraged to see things (those pesky myth-makers!) and secondly, that is how we want to see things.

The human brain seems always to do its best to make a tolerable interpretation of any situation; we don’t want to face the reality that we are a subordinated mass supporting a corrupt (and often violent) oligarchy, so instead we try and identify with our superiors (“we’re all British after all”). We’re like an entire nation displaying Stockholm-syndrome and ‘democracy’ is the hood placed over us to blind us to our predicament.

In a society such as ours,  what passes for ‘democracy’ is the opium of the people.

Un-Representative Democracy

We sometimes hear our society described as “representative democracy”, under which the population ‘surrenders’  their right to determine law and policy to elected representatives, to whom the government is directly answerable.

In practice, popular rule under such systems comes down to a question of the accountability and responsiveness of the government to the people, via both their formal representatives and other informal channels of public opinion, i.e. interest groups, political lobbying, media campaigns.

Let us leave aside the question of whether the population ever actually possessed the rights they are asked to ‘surrender to the system’, and look instead at how the system works in principle.

Representative democracy is generally considered to presuppose the following:

  • Free and fair elections on the basis of universal suffrage;
  • Guaranteed freedoms of association and expression, independent of governmental control;
  • Openness of government action to public scrutiny;
  • An effective jury system;
  • Equality of access for citizens to the means of influencing public decision-making.

Now, it is usually agreed in sociological circles that the ‘liberal democracies’ of the West meet the first four of these criteria (though to differing degrees) but fail to meet the fifth.

“Not too bad”, you might say, “Four out of Five is a respectable score” and, to a certain extent, Tiberius would agree (he’d certainly rather live in a society with these freedoms than without them).

However, if we examine it closer, we can see that it is definitely a crucial 20% that we appear to be missing out on.

If we acknowledge that the five requirements above do not exist in isolation from one another then we can speculate on the effects of the absence of this fifth factor, by asking ourselves the following questions:

  • In a society without “Equality of access for citizens to the means of influencing public decision-making”, who decided what constitutes a “Free and fair election”? Is, for example, the UK’s current ‘first past the post system’ a fair election?
  • In the absence of a written constitution, how can the public ensure that “Guaranteed freedoms of association and expression” remain “independent of governmental control”? What can we do about the fact that the UK government is currently kerbing our rights in the name of anti-terrorism if we have no means of creating a popular movement?
  • What is the point of “Openness of government action to public scrutiny” if, after scrutinising the action, there is no possibility of changing it or holding the government accountable to it? Knowledge may be power, but isn’t knowledge without the possibility of action simply powerlessness?
  • Who defines whether a jury system is “effective” and does it become ‘ineffective’ simply because it is not producing the results the government would like? The UK government is currently trying to kerb the right to trial by jury on the ground that it is ineffective – is this democratic?

So the reality is that we live in society in which some people have more access to the means of influencing decision-making then others; the state is systematically biased, and the resources to affect outcomes are heavily concentrated among elite groups (dominant classes /special interests).

For those people who lack the means of influence all of the above-stated prerequisites for the “representative democracy” become, in essence, articles of faith. Citizens of representative democracies are left to hope that elections remain fair, that governments continue to allow freedoms of association and remain open to scrutiny, and that the jury system continues to be seen as effective,  since in the event of any changes there would be very little they could do about it anyway.

The reason for widespread apathy is that any other response is a waste of time; and for people who do wish for society to change (like Tiberius), this political reality means that they have to become a more pragmatic, and less idealistic.

Tiberius will attempt to explain his position by highlighting an infinitely greater scandal, one for which New Labour will be remembered long after the dust has settled on moats and duck houses: the invasion of Iraq.

Non-Accountability

Here in Leeds, we have five New Labour MPs:  Battle, Benn, Hamilton, Mundie, Truswell. (Note: plus one Liberal Democract, Mulholland, who shall be ignored for this analysis)

According to TheyWorkForYou.com (TWFY) only one of these MPs (Battle) was “strongly against” the war in Iraq, two (Hamilton & Truswell) were “moderately against” it, while the other two (Benn & Mundie) were both “very strongly for”.

The war – as any legally-minded person can tell you – was illegal, and brought about by a multitude of lies (for best analysis of which Tiberius recommends Media Len’s ‘Myth of The Liberal Media‘, ch4.)

So, given the information that has come to light since then – dodgy-dossiers, bogus weapons claims – one would think an investigation into what brought this country to a war in violation of UN protocol would be a priority for the guardians of our democracy.

But instead, now one can see all of our city’s Labour MPs are singing from the  same hymn sheet – with four voting “Very strongly against” an investigation into the Iraq war, and one merely “Strongly against” (Truswell). Even Battle, who strongly opposed the Iraq war, is very strongly against an investigation into it.

This, to Tiberius’ mind, is a real scandal.

Now, it is, of course, lamentable that we happen to live in a country which is more upset by claims for duck houses and moats than by the illegal invasion of a sovereign state.  But given this political reality, what should one do if they hope for some kind of accountability?

Tiberius believes that you have to work with what you’ve got; if there is no appetite to hold people to account for murder, you have to make doubly sure you prosecute when there is evidence of theft; even Al Capone was only take down on the charge of tax evasion.

Now, of course, there are dangers inherent in such a strategy: what you consider an opportunity to make things more progressive, may be seen by others as an opportunity for reaction.This is why Tiberius wouldn’t base this attack purely on moral indignation, but rather use satire: taking the piss out of those politicians that have been taking the piss out of their constituents for years (even if in some cases the facts are so bizarre in some cases they are almost beyond parody).

If the BNP were voted in as a result of this tide of anger then this would be a disaster, and one that would call into question the tactics employed. Tiberius, however, likes to give the British public more credit than that, and will highlight this using a local example.

None Of The Above

Yesterday’s YEP, ran a feature on Anne Bateson – a boxing coach from Leeds who “is setting up a ‘protest party’ to allow voters to register their frustration with the mainstream parties at the ballot box.”

Her party, None Of The Above (NOTA) is:

appealing for the votes of people who are so fed up with politicians that they would either not vote or spoil their ballot papers.

In other words, it is an apolitical movement, offering no solutions, just the opportunity to register disillusionment with the system.

Not only this, but:

If a NOTA candidate won a constituency, he or she would immediately resign and force a by-election.

(Though of course, as things stand (and as millions of New Labour voters know) there would be no legal obligation for them to do so: a manifesto pledge is as worthless as the paper it is written on.)

Ms Bateson argues that this would force mainstream candidates to listen more carefully to voters.

So again, this is devoid of any real political content, instead merely trying to impell our MPs to behave a bit more appropriately.

But this is not to say that Ms. Bateson’s means of protest has no value: by politicising the populace it creates the possibility for a groundswell movement for genuine democratic change – as people create spaces for discussion, they become more engaged with the system. Once they do this it is inevitable that, to a certain extent they will begin to realise the system’s true nature and the limits of their own influence over it.

However, the effect could perhaps be the opposite of that intended: it could be that the more people understand of how the system works, the more disgusted they become with it in its entirety; they desire a ‘strong, incorruptible leader’, who will promise to ‘clean up the system’ and look out for the interests of the ‘working-class’. Without wishing to overstate the risk too much, let’s not forget that Hitler was elected in a climate of similar political and economic turmoil.

Revolution Or Revulsion?

So this is the issue of our time: whether to seize the opportunity to  press for a meaningful democracy or to do away with the system entirely. In short, Democratic Revolution or Democratic Revulsion?

As MattInShanghai alludes, the latter will always be the preferred option for the vested interests – the newspaper moguls, the shareholders, the financial elites – because corporations will, by definition, prefer a fascistic model of society.

And as funding for New Labour vanishes and the party slides ever closer to bankruptcy, it will be interesting to see where the money goes next; following the financial trial inevitably tells you who the elites are backing for symbolic governance.

So without some understanding of the myths they live under, without some kind of class-analysis, the British public will remain like a neutered cat: trapped in infantile pursuits, rolling over on its back for its owners’ pleasure, distracted by the simplest of things dangled enticingly infront of it. Yes, they may scratch their keeper once in a while for some perceived slight, but they’ll soon forgive – or if the damage is too great, move on to someone else who seems to promise better care.

But times are changing. In our internet age the cultural spells that we live under are easier to break, we become less vulnerable to attempts at bewitchment by those with power. If we are indeed a neutered cat then we’re one that still has a chance to grow some balls.

And, while always mindful of the victories that we have won and the attempts by power to roll these back, we must use these times of uncertainty to challenge the assumptions of this “shamocracy” that we all live under.

Instead of looking for celebrity saviours, or naively thinking that our representatives would behave better if only they knew how Gosh Darn Angry We Are, Tiberius thinks it’s high time we became our own politicians.

Advertisements

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://tiberiusleodis.wordpress.com/2009/06/04/democracy-shamocracy/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. An interesting perspective and I am in complete agreement with the point about democracy being located on a spectrum. I also agree that there is a problem that certain interests are also over-represented in the current system.

    My concern is that the more power in the hands of the government, the greater the return for the over-represented interests for climbing into bed with government.

    Under such circumstances, might the best solution be to reduce the power of the government to a minimum – which means shrink the size of government?

    Put crudely, the more honey in the honey pot, the more the bees will buzz around the pot.

  2. Tiberius,

    An excellent piece. I think I now understand your position, and I agree that action along the lines you have outlined is probably our best hope. I’ll write more after I’ve had time to digest everything you mentioned here, but here are my initial thoughts on the subject.

    Bloggers such as yourself and Cynicus try to strip away some of the myths (whether economic, social or political) which surround us, and which make “mainstream” reporting so devoid of any real substance. This is rightly seen as a prerequisite of any significant change. Without a deeper understanding of underlying reality by the electorate, the sham economic and political discourse in our “representative democracies” will keep them (the electorate) distracted forever. You put it quite nicely:

    So without some understanding of the myths they live under, without some kind of class-analysis, the British public will remain like a neutered cat: trapped in infantile pursuits, rolling over on its back for its owners’ pleasure, distracted by the simplest of things dangled enticingly in front of it. Yes, they may scratch their keeper once in a while for some perceived slight, but they’ll soon forgive – or if the damage is too great, move on to someone else who seems to promise better care.

    I suppose many bloggers are guided by similar sentiments (with the possible exception of the “class-analysis” bit ;-)). The underlying problem was identified and nicely described some 2,500 years ago by Confucius in the Analects as the doctrine of the “rectification of names”:

    If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.

    Although my reading of this passage differs from some western commentaries, I believe that the message here is quite clear. If language becomes detached from reality, discourse loses its power to change things. Words such as “freedom”, “democracy”, “terrorist”, “liberation”, “free-markets” have been so debased recently, that they lost any meaning they might have had, and the press repeats them mindlessly regardless of the context (a cynic might remark that this is exactly how it should be).

    But here is where the problems start. It is one thing to point out the falsity of a myth, quite a different one to propose a “true” alternative. How do you know whether your alternative is “true”? Are you simply replacing one myth by another? Cynicus in his blog mercilessly dissects the corruption, lies, propaganda, self-serving interests, sham economic thinking etc. of our political/economic establishment. But his solution is to revert to some idyllic, Smithian free-market Arcadia, where the “invisible hand” will take care of all our problems. Maybe he is right, maybe he isn’t. Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system was unbelievably prescient. To this day, the Marxist school is the only economic school which takes into account power relations within society, their influence on the law, state institutions and dominant ideologies. I believe that without taking these factors into account, no “true” economic theory can be constructed. But Marx’s rigid, Hegelian historical determinism, his optimistic XIX c. belief that evolution is synonymous with progress, coupled with a doctrinaire dogmatism among his disciples led to (practical) disaster and untold suffering.

    If I understand your position correctly, your approach is similar to what Popper called “piecemeal social engineering”. Rather than trying to create a system which will lead to universal happiness, one should try to remedy specific existing wrongs in the system we have (for example by punishing corrupt politicians). Although the Fabians were very muddled in their thinking (according to Marxists), their practical achievements in terms of bettering the lives of people far exceeded those of the (far more ideologically pure) Soviet Bolsheviks. Although there is no (theoretical) reason why “piecemeal social engineering” should work, one can only hope that it does.

    Well, I’m off my hobby horse for now (it’s very late). I feel a little bit sorry for Gordon Brown. Although I have never been a great fan of his (or of any UK politician in recent decades), I agree with your view that he is in some way a victim of forces beyond his control. He has had consistently bad press almost from day 1 as PM. One can only speculate which “sin” against the powers that be has caused him to fall out of favour. I do have a feeling that he probably has some personal integrity (unlike that blatant whore, Blair). Perhaps this has been his downfall.

    As far as domestic political news goes, I found last year’s public bitch-slapping of Osbourne (the son of a baronet) by Mandelson for stepping out of line, far more interesting than the recent expenses scandal. Have the landed classes lost their grip on this country? Whatever next???

    Best Regards,
    Matt

  3. There has always been a parallel government in existence, how else would the political class circumvent democracy which they only see as a mere inconvenience to getting things done and maintaining their privileged status?

    We have long reached the point where the political class themselves can no longer conceal this charade of illusion and democratic choice from the people.

    The task of deception and delivery of the compliant masses to the politicians is contracted out to the professionals in the media.

    The media fashions our outlook and gives us our culture and opinions on everything. When questions are raised, we parrot the answer they gave us in the first place.

    This is most skilfully and professionally done.

    For tens of millions, the screen is the parallel life for which they suspend belief and prefer. Their lives are devoid of purpose or meaning and so they absorb themselves daily into the bread and circuses of distraction television. How sad their lives are so empty that virtual reality is preferable to their own real lives.

    News, politics, consumerist life style, sport, sex, game shows, reality TV, celebrity, alarmism, is shaped, nuanced, spun, fashioned, sliced and diced and spoon-fed to the viewer 24/7 and all dutifully absorbed by the recipient.

    The result is a dutiful, brainwashed compliant citizen with no mind of it’s own – delivered on a plate to our political class.

    You need look no further as to why our civilisation can be so hoodwinked into believing anything required of them by their political class. The media always tells them the truth.

    When the media bangs endlessly on about Cameron Brown, Brown Cameron, the Red team Blue team, Labour Conservative, Obama McCain, Democrat Republican, it doesn’t matter it’s all a game of make belief and the people always lose.

    Nothing changes. The diet of deceit with a smiley face is endless, our people are so dumbed down they are confused and disorientated. That’s as it should be, for the plates of deception must be kept spinning.

    Brown is owned, as are all politicians, they’ve been vetted and have ticked all the right boxes. Their allegiance is not to the people, their allegiance lies elsewhere.

    Bits are flying off our political system at an alarming rate, the writing is on the wall and it is all about to come to an end. Even the culprits themselves know this. The party’s over!

    The mould is broke, there’s no plan ‘B’ – unless you’re into conspiracies that is.

    I needn’t go on, you get the picture.

    The next election will see the end of what is. Which just leaves the question of what arises from the ashes, as someone here has already pointed out.

  4. Thank you all for your insightful comments which have had me in Ponder Land for the last few days!

    @Cynicus

    My concern is that the more power in the hands of the government, the greater the return for the over-represented interests for climbing into bed with government.

    Yes, true – but this depends on what you mean by power. There needs to be a distinction drawn between Institutional and Individual Power (or, if you prefer, Potential Power, and Practical Power.)

    Now, in principle, I agree that all power structures should be dismantled, because they are – by their very nature corrupting.

    The trouble is that is just unrealistic at the moment. We live in a world containing many power structures, and these would all have to be disbanded at once should we hope to achieve freedom from oppression.

    The most dangerous of these institutions, are, of course, the corporations – run, as they are, on completely undemocratic lines. State power (in this country) offers us some protection against these corporations (“Not much, because the government is mainly run by the corporations” Chomsky would say) but it does have a limited effect.

    So I would like for states to remain powerful for nowif they are run along democratic lines – and you have to judge each case on its own mertis:

    If I lived in North Korea, or Burma – I would advocate the overthrow of the government (if I thought there was a reasonable chance of success) as I don’t think that what would emerge from that power vacuum could possibly be any worse than those regimes.

    On the other end of the spectrum, if we look at countries with far stronger democracies than the UK , for example Bolivia, Venezuela. The governments there are achieving many victories for the populations (including, unprecedented rights for the native populations), and in the face of continued US hostility (Bush) and undermining (Obama), it makes sense for these Latin Americans to support their states – while remaining vigilant and critical at all times.

    So yes, I agree that as things stand “more power in the hands of the government, the greater the return for the over-represented interests for climbing into bed with government.” But, to my mind, this is an argument for giving this power over to democratic instituions, not getting rid of the power in its entirety.

    Under such circumstances, might the best solution be to reduce the power of the government to a minimum – which means shrink the size of government?

    By reducing the power of states in the current economic situation, you only serve to further increase the dominance that corporations have over people’s lives.

    In a democratic society a ‘government’ would look completely different from the one we have now – and that is what we should be aiming for.

    So the “power” you speak of, should not be reduced – but rather the ability to harness that power should be distributed more evenly amongst the population.

    Put crudely, the more honey in the honey pot, the more the bees will buzz around the pot.

    I understand what you mean but I still think the situation should be more appropriately viewed by keeping the following in mind:

    -the honey pot was put there in the first place by the bees;

    – over the years the population have won the rights to enjoy the benefit of this honey pot (slightly) more and worked out some (limited) ways of keep the bees at bay;

    -removing the honey pot now will mean the bees just start stinging the population;

    – only once you’ve got rid of the bees, can you then remove the honey pot;

    – the best way of getting rid of the bees is to make sure there are lots of people watching over the honey pot and swatting them away.

    A little abstract but I’m sure you get the idea!

    @MattInShanghai

    But here is where the problems start. It is one thing to point out the falsity of a myth, quite a different one to propose a “true” alternative. How do you know whether your alternative is “true”? Are you simply replacing one myth by another?

    Without wishing to stray too far into the metaphysical, I don’t hold much with this kind of ‘relativism’, or ‘postmodernism’, in fact, I think it is quite dangerous.

    I too am interested in Eastern philosophy and, like the Buddhists, am comfortable in believing that ‘truth’ can be separated into both its “Conventional” and “Ultimate” dimensions – with the former being essentially cultural agreements, and the later as matters of faith.

    However, once this has been acknowledge, (that we have established the limitations of our discourse), I think we can go on to make meaningful statements.

    So, for example, “Metres”, and “Centimetres” are just arbitrary conventions for measuring length. But the fact they are arbitrary should not imply they are meaningless. If we both agree on what centimetres are, then my saying thatsuch and such a thing is “50cm in length”, will make sense to you as I am conveying some relevant information about reality.

    In relation to ‘myths’: let’s say we define a ‘myth’ as a narrative that has little relation to documented facts and whose value is purely symbolic (and I would define it in an ideologically neutral way because I don’t think all myths are bad). If we agree on this definition (set it as a convention between us that we can use to measure reality against), we can then ask whether an alternative account more closely corresponds to the facts of the case than the others (recognising that those facts will need to be un-ideologically scrutinized too). If it does not, we call it a myth; if it does, we call it an ‘accurate account’.

    Likewise, after I gave you themeasurement, you could point out it if it was inaccurate – maybe bring out your own ruler and say “no actually, it’s more like 70cm”. If I came back at you with “yeah, well centimetres are just arbitrary anyway so it doesn’t matter ” I think you’d rightly be non too impressed!

    Saying that though, I do think there is scope for some flexibility here inasmuch as I don’t think that myths themselves should be viewed in either/or terms. For example, the idea that there is a ‘missing-link’ that separates man from his ape ancestors, is a myth – but it is a myth more closely relates to the facts of our evolution (as currently understood) then, say, the ‘Garden of Eden’ myth: they’re both myths, just one is a bit more, er, myth-y!

    We now that pretty good understanding that of our evolutionary past, but this doesn’t mean the current narrative is complete and cannot be amended as more facts become know – and I don’t know any scientific person who would argue that this is the case. But to go further than this and say that our current understanding of our origins is also a myth, I think blurs the issue.

    In summary: Meaning is something that exists between things, not within things. But that ‘truths’ are relationship (and therefore temporal) should not imply that they do not have value.

    I believe that without taking these factors into account, no “true” economic theory can be constructed. But Marx’s rigid, Hegelian historical determinism, his optimistic XIX c. belief that evolution is synonymous with progress, coupled with a doctrinaire dogmatism among his disciples led to (practical) disaster and untold suffering.

    I am more inclined to have faith in Marx’s view of progress, though probably not in the same terms. I’d have to write another essay to explain my position though!

    If I understand your position correctly, your approach is similar to what Popper called “piecemeal social engineering”.

    I have to confess to not having read much of Popper’s work (which, I know, is a pretty poor show for someone who likes to think of himself as scientific!)

    With regard to “piecemeal social engineering”, yes I agree with that approach inasmuch as I am ‘naturally’ more of a reformer rather than a revolutionary – but again, this is not a dogmatic view, and, as I said above, I think you have to judge each case in isolation.

    So yes, as things stand, in this country. I probably would advocate “piecemeal social engineering” to a certain extent – so long as this allows for what I would consider revolutionary reforms. A purely ‘reformist’ agenda becomes an obstacle to change (which I am told the Fabians are). I would also reserve the right to change this position should the political climate change.

    I feel a little bit sorry for Gordon Brown. One can only speculate which “sin” against the powers that be has caused him to fall out of favour. I do have a feeling that he probably has some personal integrity (unlike that blatant whore, Blair). Perhaps this has been his downfall.

    I think in our image-obsessed time, even Facism-Lite requires a friendly face. I think one of Brown’s ‘problems’ is that he looks naturally dour – and when he tries to act a bit more approachable, it just looks laughable.

    All very superficial and pathetic, but such is our time.

    As far as domestic political news goes, I found last year’s public bitch-slapping of Osbourne (the son of a baronet) by Mandelson for stepping out of line, far more interesting than the recent expenses scandal. Have the landed classes lost their grip on this country? Whatever next???

    Revolution! 😉

    @Anon.

    Thanks for your contribution – I agree with everything you’ve written.

    Now I would be interested in hearing your proposals for solutions!

    T.

  5. Tiberius,

    Thanks for your reply. A few words of clarification, which I hope will make my position a little more understandable.

    I don’t believe that the methods used in the natural sciences are strictly applicable to the various social sciences (esp. economics, political science, history etc.). In fact, the abuse of pseudo-scientific phraseology (and especially the use of mathematics) is one of the problems dogging these “sciences”. Without getting all metaphysical on you, let me just point out the deep ideological bias of trying to posit the sphere of economic life as a quasi-natural, quasi-autonomous entity, susceptible to “objective” analysis using the methods employed in physics, biology and other sciences. When this position is accepted, then everything that happens in society becomes solely the result of impersonal, natural “forces” for which no individual or group bears any responsibility, just as is the case with earthquakes, tsunamis, thunderstorms, the plague and other “natural” calamities. You are poor, hungry, cannot feed your children — well this is just Malthus’ “iron law of population growth” at work. Your ancestors have been breeding too much in the past. Tough luck… Nothing to see here, please move on. Anyway, you get the picture.

    I must have made a terrible job of presenting my views if you could suspect me of being a “relativist” (or even, heaven forbid, some “postmodernist”). I think that all theories relating to the social sphere are in the final reckoning “false”, although I readily admit that some theories are “better” than others. That’s why I believe that Marx’s analysis of capitalist society is better than von Mises’, but not true in any absolute sense. This is the reason, why I (perhaps confusingly) use terms such as “myth”, “theory”, “hypothesis”, “narrative” interchangeably. This position is not as paradoxical as it sounds, but to explain it would require an excursion into philosophy, which I suspect would be of little interest to you or your readers. If you really need to stick a label on my views “extreme skeptic” would probably be close to the mark.

    All of the above might seem like semantic nit-picking, but I believe my position has some practical, pragmatic consequences. The point is this. If a particular theory (which I have provisionally adopted) is likely to break down at some point (diverge from reality), and I must use “gut feeling” to guide me when it has gone astray, what is the point of constructing a coherent, comprehensive theory in the first place? Why not simply follow your “gut feeling”? You gave a perfect example of this in your short discussion with Steve Tierney, when you said (in effect), “If an economic theory says that there must be destitute, hungry people in society, than f***k the theory”.

    Hopefully you can see how nicely this ties in with my numerous rants against “ideology”. We cannot avoid constructing models of surrounding reality, and often these models are useful guides in our everyday affairs. But they must be seen as what they are – tools. If you surrender your common sense and humanity for some abstract creation, you are in deep trouble.

    Best Regards
    Matt

  6. Anon.
    Now I would be interested in hearing your proposals for solutions! T.

    Anon replies.

    I don’t know what the solution will be, personally I don’t think there is one.

    A new chapter is being written as I stroke these keys, a sea change is taking place on the way we live, haven’t you noticed? There was an election all over Europe last week end, the people are awakening, the tectonic plates are groaning.

    Solution I know not, but something is happening out there. I suspect our role will be but mere spectators.

  7. Matt,

    I agree with all you say regarding the ideological covering that the employment of pseudo-science hopes tries to give.

    Re “This position is not as paradoxical as it sounds, but to explain it would require an excursion into philosophy, which I suspect would be of little interest to you or your readers. If you really need to stick a label on my views “extreme skeptic” would probably be close to the mark.”

    Your position remind me of that quote “The map is not the territory” – and I guess this ties in with what you say re semantics.

    “If a particular theory (which I have provisionally adopted) is likely to break down at some point (diverge from reality), and I must use “gut feeling” to guide me when it has gone astray, what is the point of constructing a coherent, comprehensive theory in the first place?Why not simply follow your “gut feeling”?”

    I’d say “because humans have more than one gut!” – but it would require an essay to explain why I think that.

    “Hopefully you can see how nicely this ties in with my numerous rants against “ideology”. We cannot avoid constructing models of surrounding reality, and often these models are useful guides in our everyday affairs. But they must be seen as what they are – tools. If you surrender your common sense and humanity for some abstract creation, you are in deep trouble.”

    I agree wholeheartedly with this also.

    PS, you are a very good writer/explainer…do you have your own blog?

    @ Anon.

    Re “A new chapter is being written as I stroke these keys, a sea change is taking place on the way we live, haven’t you noticed?”

    I certainly have – that’s why I started this blog!

  8. Tiberius,

    Thanks for the kind words. I don’t have a blog of my own. I currently only comment on your and Cynicus’ blogs. It is nice to be able to engage in discussion with intelligent and insightful individuals in the blogosphere. Looking forward to many further exchanges.

    Best Regards
    Matt

  9. It’s a breath of fresh air to find sensible comment like this. To me, the word democracy means “people are informed” + “people decide”. In this formula, “people decide” must mean true popular sovereignty but need not mean that people decide directly on all issues and all of the time, or even most of the time. The necessary and sufficient condition to ensure popular sovereignty is that the people are able to force a ballot on a particular issue on which they and their representatives do not happen to agree. This is a simple enough concept and it has been implemented for 150 years in Switzerland for example. I lived there for a couple of years and can say from first-hand experience it is a very affluent and yet equitable place to live. There are some indications that it is because of the highly democratised nature of the Swiss society and not in spite of it that the Swiss enjoy such a high standard of living. Initiative & Referendum enshrined in the constitution is the mechanism of ensuring popular sovereignty there. The right of Initiative ensures not only that the people will get their way on specific issues, but that the precise way in which this mechanism itself is implemented is also under their control. This is extremely powerful, perhaps Victor Hugo also thought that when he cryptically said that “Switzerland will have the last word in history”.

    Of course here in the UK we are a long way off even a decent representative democracy, never mind direct democracy. Popular sovereignty almost never enters into the discourse. This leads nicely into the other half of the whole – information. Out of all Chomsky’s works that I have read so far, I find his joint effort with Herman – Manufacturing Consent, the most eye-opening. The indoctrination that begins at school and continues via the news and entertainment media all of our lives, is so pervasive and effective that for the most part it is impossible to have a sensible conversation about these things with people. In theory this is a much bigger problem than the shortcomings of a purely representative democracy. Perhaps if the people and their representatives were well informed then the functioning of our system would be much closer to the ideal. In practice it is probably not possible to have truly free mass news media without first achieving popular sovereignty.

    So it seems to me that the Swiss already have the best part of the solution. Hopefully soon they will also address the drawbacks of news media that are privately owned and funded through advertising revenue. News gathering and distribution is so crucial to the functioning of a democracy that it must be treated as a public service – that is to say publicly funded (like the BBC) and democratically administered (unlike the BBC). Perhaps the editorial staff could be elected just like MPs, or drawn by lot from a pool like jurors.
    BR, Evgueni

  10. Hi Evgueni,

    Thanks for the detailed comments (and kind words).

    Regarding Switzerland, I can’t claim to know anything about the country – but their cocktail of transparent governance and opaque banking certainly is an intriguing one!

    Regarding ‘information’, I agree that Manufacturing Consent is a vital read for anyone wishing to tackle what I’ve called “Myth 3: There exists in the UK a free, independent, and liberal press”. I was going to write further on this subject but suspect that, with readers as informed as yourself, I would be merely preaching to the choir.

    Your ideas for democratising the media are certainly intriguing, but I suspect could not realistically be implemented outwith a major overhaul of the current economic system.

    T.

  11. Tiberius,
    don’t let my comments stop you from elaborating on the myth of “a free press”. I think we should all try as much as possible to use the internet to air the ideas and opinions that are otherwise excluded from popular media, the biggest of these being the idea that popular media themselves suffer from a built-in systemic bias of omission. Clearly it is the most insidious kind of bias because it ultimately is capable of quietly suppressing discussion altogether, or marginalising it. This is very hard to explain to people, but we should keep trying.

    On the subject of Switzerland, at the risk of sounding like Douglas Adams’ girl in the small cafe in Rickmansworth who suddenly realised how finally to make the world a good and happy place, I am convinced that the Swiss really do have something that the rest of us in the “free world” still can only dream about. The text of the Swiss constitution is available in English on the internet and you can glean a lot about how their society works, e.g. the section on banking and economic activity. But the thing that is really special is in Articles 138-142 which ensure that any amendment to the constitution must be approved by the electorate. The people can also propose and decide on amendments themselves. This right to Initiative and various mandatory and optional referenda is crucial. The constitution is no longer something for the political elites to rewrite or reinterpret, it is a living document, authored by the people. It makes any erosion of democracy in Switzerland inconceivable.

    As for a democratic news media, I certainly agree it will probably come last here. I cannot easily see a circumstance in which the politicos find themselves both able and willing to confront the corporate media.

    BR,
    Evgueni

  12. Tiberius,

    Found this blog via looking for Anne Bateson’s efforts in the West Leeds Weekly News fish-wrapper – good to find another local guy to mutter incoherently with.

    As for your point on democracy I think your right; it is inherently biased towards certain groups and tends to skew what should be natural human interaction and mutual benefit (though possibly we disagree as to why this is important). As for your following point:

    “In terms of a pure democracy, the UK has never been democratic. There was never a time when the entire population of the UK got to vote on all the major issues of their time, from distribution of wealth to foreign policy.”

    you have grasped the myths associated with democracy but not the point of it; democracy is not (should not be) a means of inacting a socialist, redistribution policy, it is (or should be) a means of electing citizen law-makers to enact rules that compliment constitutionally-protected natural rights of humans; our right to life, liberty and property which we have rightfully earned. It should protect the negative freedoms when new infringements become possible on them and be responsible for organising the defence of the citizenry and lands which they serve (defence of the realm).

    It is only since democracy has been used as a collectivist response to enact socialist principles of wealth redistribution, that we have seen the gradual decline in personal freedom and the rise of autocrats in every aspect of our life; the rise of despotism through the democracy-back-door if you will.

    Incidentally here is a better proposition of what is wrong with democracy:

    http://lpuk.org/pages/multimedia/individualism-versus-collectivism.php

    Will read again in the future! Like the article about First Leeds; this may interest you from my own perspective, especially the point at the end about “share-taxis”. T

    Why not try freedom instead?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: