Democracy Shamocracy


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


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.


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 (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.