Conceptions of democracy

There are two conceptions of democracy. In one, it’s a product. You buy a governance product from a firm (called a party) and it lasts four years. People want to see shiny marketing for the product they buy and be reassured that it’s good. They care about isolated scandals the way they care about food scares, but otherwise they don’t want to be involved in the making of politics any more than they’d want to see the back offices of hotels or the workings of airlines. The parties, government agencies, and the administration guard their internals as any business would, and people who expose the works to the public are troublemakers.

Since everyone has to buy the same governance for a particular term, democracy as  product tends to be bland. Good marketing is to conform to broad and shallow expectations, and trail them slightly. It’s risky to overshoot. People who want special features feel neglected by the available offerings. Market discipline ought to curb self interest by the firms (parties) and their officers (politicians) but since a duopoly or oligopoly inevitably arises corruption and capture are problems. Democracy as product gradually leads to less government, as governance is one product among many and people buy more and more of their life from private firms instead of the state.

The other conception of democracy is collective management and we’re not used to it in most countries. Maybe the Swiss know a thing. Citizens are not customers of the state but owners-employees (partners). You have to decide what the sate including you will do, not what “The Government” will do for you. People have to care about the workings of the state and take time to understand them. For that kind of democracy, aside from extremely narrow military and banking operatons, full transparency is essential. The people who operate in secret are the traitors. In this relationship of people and the state, a bigger state is good because owning and controlling the major things in your life is better than buying them as a consumer.

Participating citizens will still want to delegate their democratic duties to people who are more expert, more engaged, and at times more passionate about causes. But there’s no need for broad constituencies or elections that make representation blunt. Each citizen can in theory pick their own ideal representative, and change their nomination at any time. This is well within reach of a digital society. Superstar representatives will have many followers, finge representatives whose program is marketable will have some followers, and “undecided” citizens will decide if only passively the way they’d pick insurance. The main issue with this democracy, if any, is that it might work and yield unsavoury results such as racism that lots of people want.

These conceptions of democracy are radically different. I think the participatory one is better. Current politicians won’t do it, but the technology is here to create it to the point that it’s an irresistible reality begging to be adopted.

The August 2011 UK riots

The first observation about the riots is that they’re a failure of government. Any government whose people revolt has failed in some way. It hasn’t failed totally or everywhere but it is responsible for a failure – a significant one in this case. The first thing that Cameron has to do is bow down to Britain and admit failure. That’s true from any political perspective. Whether you’re a fluffy nurturing liberal or a tough personal responsibility conservative, Cameron’s government has failed to govern effectively.

Calling the looters criminals is self-serving hypocrisy to avoid admitting failure. All kinds of people commit crimes, but the category “criminal” is rarely helpful for the purpose of explanation. A “criminal” is someone who has freedom of choice and chooses to do something harmful for self-serving reasons. Say Bernie Maddoff, he was a “criminal”. A madman, terrorist, or rioter cannot be explained away as a “criminal”. You may wish to treat them harshly, but you have to ask further questions if you want to explain their behaviour. You should ask these questions so that you can reach and stop other people who may be on the same path. We don’t analyse “criminals” because we’ve accepted that greed, materialism, and selfishness are normal – we just expect people to control them. We do analyse abusers, extremists, and rioters because there may be something useful society could do to change their motives.

To dismiss rioters as “criminals” is to assume that their motivation has been to acquire trainers or PlayStations without paying, and that there has been a remarkably unlikely concentration of these “criminals” in poor UK suburbs over a particular week. Or else it is to assume that the anger, or whatever, they were feeling is normal, that it’s normal they would want to burn stores and break things, but they should just control themselves like normal people. These are not helpful explanations, so let’s please not call them criminals.

So, after admitting and apologising for failure, Cameron needs to start failing less. Then the question opens, what kind of failure was this?

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