Anyone with any depth of understanding of social life must look with horror at the suggestion of «government controlled by the people» as a practical proposition. Our greatest thinkers down the ages have thrown up their hands in despair at the notion of democracy—rule by the people. In modern times, the intelligentsia will point to:
What the People en Masse is Like: Impressionable, irrational and easily manipulated by misinformation, rhetoric and propaganda; and demanding to be led by a «strong» leader who tells them what they want to hear.
Any large group, organized or just a crowd, can develop its own will. Members of such groups, no matter how educated and otherwise intelligent in their private life, tend to lose their individuality and become dominated by a lowest common denominator: i.e. unconscious urges for aggression, gratification, conformity, safety, dependence &c. Members then feel anonymous and empowered by the group. But that power is poorly used: crowds or groups ignore rules, are highly impressionable, and lack the capacity for independent opinion or reasoned judgement. They are intolerant, impulsive and ready to engage in impossible projects including their own self-destruction.
Crowds, being unable to reason or reflect and desiring submission, are always at the mercy of emergent leaders who themselves abjure the use of intelligence and are inclined to action. These leaders spontaneously relate to the crowd in the way it prefers i.e. via affirmation, repetition, appeals to emotion, simple solutions (for complex issues), assertive authority, and active avoidance of any reasoning or subtlety in analysis. They use words manipulatively, play on instinctual fears and wishes, and cater to beliefs and illusions no matter how erroneous.
In any case, the thought given to political issues by most people is minimal. Videos show that people are ready to ban water, impose a Nazi-style Orwellian police state, add birth control drugs to the water supply, and support killing elderly people for healthcare. Winston Churchill, the UK Prime Minister who famously said that democracy is the worst kind of government except for all the others that have been tried, also noted that "the best argument against democracy is a five-minute talk with the average voter".
What Government is Like: the use of power by unprincipled politicians, beholden to monied vested interests and trapped by their own bureaucrats.
Government is about the exercise of power and modern politicians are as power-centred as their predecessors. They may have ideological positions, but they tend to forget principles if their re-election is at stake. They follow crowd sentiments and consensus and, using the prestige that goes with their position, oppose critical reflection. They distrust rationality and are ready to denigrate and reject truth when expedient. Only a Constitution enshrining individual rights, together with an independent judiciary that deeply believes in that Constitution, can protect critics, dissenters or objectors against a government that is self-serving or subservient to the will of the majority. But a determined government can stack the judiciary and shape their judgements.
The citizenry, expected to possess sovereignty, is a mixture of groups and classes that are often dominated by a crowd mentality (cf. above) at critical moments. The government, expected to exercise sovereignty on behalf of the citizenry, is assumed to possess higher values and use reasoned judgement. However, parliamentary assemblies are dominated by power-centred politicians and often show the simplicity, suggestibility and emotionality typical of groups. Political leaders exert a preponderant influence, but one dependent on transitory prestige. They lead via eloquent and assertive but unverified, false or unverifiable claims. Societies being complex entities, the bureaucracy ends up being in charge of what happens. Yet it too ends up serving its own ends, frequently kowtows to political pressure, and manifests a crowd-like mentality.
Economic catastrophe and increasing constraints on individual liberty.
Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavours to live at the expense of everybody else. (Frederic Bastiat.) It is always easier to cater to a sense of entitlement than to demand self-reliance. So politicians vote for more expenditure rather than less. As a result, taxation tends to increase, and public debt tends to rise. It is always easier to inflate away these debts than to exert self-discipline. Bureaucracy continually increases, with ever larger budgets that cause citizens to incur costs. Government functions with an enormous amount of ineffectiveness, waste, inefficiency, fraud, corruption, and losses through military preparation and warfare.
Liberty is diminished through the endless passage of laws and regulations, and because of the every-decreasing portion of earnings that a person is allowed to spend as they choose. Bureaucracy continually increases, taking on a life of its own and obtaining ever larger budgets, often via intimidation of politicians. In the end-stage, governmental coercion becomes ever greater to preserve power and prevent feared anarchy.
Maturation depends on a new state of mind of the populace: one characterized by a sense of responsibility for their politicians.
The move to thewill not occur simply due to bad government with social chaos, impoverishment and anger. That might lead to mass protests, formation of a new party, a new ideology, or new policies—however, such changes are of a quite different order from willingly assuming responsibility for political actors and government policies.
The issue for the politically-concerned reader is whether the time for change has now arrived. It is not within the scope of a taxonomic inquiry to pronounce on this matter. In any case, it is difficult to assess the popular mind. If now is not the time, then perhaps the children of the Millennials will usher in will come sooner or later.political values, or perhaps it will be their grandchildren. Taxonomically-speaking, the transition
Nevertheless it is possible and necessary to spell out how, in practice, progress could be achieved if the will exists. Otherwise it might seem that this taxonomic prediction is just pie-in-the-sky. This is not to suggest that this particular strategy need occur: it is simply an example.
Principle: Any viable strategy has to be radical without seeming radical.
Progression to a new
Radical proposals certainly excite more interest. But radical change does not characterize social life. Nor does it have a place in thewhere is the core and is the goal in practice.
Here are the components of a potentially effective strategy.
A. Commit to the existing constitutional system.
The Problem: Many political groups (in line with a primitive group mentality dominated by anger, hatred and fear) cry out for ideologically-oriented radical change or revolution. They often fear anarchy and dictatorship while justifying (or ignoring) their own wish to dominate society. Such fringe groups can make a lot of noise and might cause turmoil and governmental over-reaction.
The Situation: The problem does not lie with the constitution of government, but with how it is operated by current politicians and elites. The solution is not to be found through imposing any ideology (as imagined in the 19th & 20th centuries), but in the tolerance of a diversity of ideologies and perspectives.
The Solution: Any existing constitution has deep roots of familiarity, cultural support and established beliefs. This is of enormous political value because it provides the stability and reassurance necessary for change of any significance. Even tinkering with the constitution is counter-productive. It will provoke antagonism, divide the people, displace energy and sustain the established elites and their behaviours.
B. Recognize and value society's many interest groups.
These diverse interest groups, not ordinarily viewed as political players, define civil society.
Recall that the only actors in society are organised groups. Individuals get whatever power they have from the associations to which they belong or from which they get support. The ease in forming such associations, their number and diversity, are all measures of the vitality of civic life.
Depending on its size, a developed society has many thousands or tens thousands, of interest groups (i.e. formal associations or voluntary bodies) covering every aspect of social life: commercial, recreational, charitable, cultural, educational, scientific, religious, military, communal &c.
... as well as political. But note that in the UK, political party membership is minuscule. As of 2013, the Conservative Party membership has dropped by ~95% over the past half-century to around 100,000: the exact figure is kept hidden. The Liberal Party, with just 50,000 members, won 57 seats in in the 2010 election and formed a ruling coalition with the Conservatives.
People join interest groups. They bring their energy, commitment and enjoyment to them. It is this popular energy that must now be harnessed by the political process.
No. Any expectation of individuals opens the door to crowd phenomena, and complete loss of control of progress to demagogic leaders. Any expectation of political parties opens the door to ideological domination of the agenda. These parties are typically controlled by an informal oligarchy disposed to use of any means for their own ends.
C. Highlight the common interest in civic life: Fixing dysfunction in politics in a way that is not issue-specific or evidently in favour of a particular group.
Interest groups are extraordinarily diverse and yet they coexist. This is fortunate as one person is often a member of several. Mostly they ignore each other, but some may conflict about an issue or compete for government attention, public profile, donations or members. Some interest groups directly engage with government policy-making through research, education, campaigns or crusades.
The size of these groups varies from tiny to millions. For example in the UK, while political parties have a tiny membership (see B. above), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has over 1 million paid-up members.
What all interest groups have in common is that they represent the spirit of society. With the exception of elite monied groups and giant corporations, they depend on a government that can function fairly and effectively. The vast majority of civic associations are harmed by a dysfunctional political system, by corruption in high places, by social turmoil and by self-serving or vested interests.
The majority of such bodies, including most of the large ones, depend on membership subscriptions and command limited resources. This means that they cannot easily lobby, and their leaders generally feel ignored by politicians.
D. Create a new special umbrella association to bring civic groups together.
The initial project would be to contact groups, explain, and persuade them to become members of a new umbrella association to tackle political abuses in society. It will require sponsorship and steering, probably by a credible, unequivocally philanthropic organization oriented to the public good. The process must be wholly outside both government and the political party system.
If there is no interest (as some predict), then the time is not yet right.
Name: National Association for Proper Politician Participation and Practices: NAPPPP.
Funding: Private. Probably initial seed funding by suitable sponsors, and then continuing funding through a small membership subscription.
Suggestion: This might be progressive according to membership size/wealth, and left nominal for groups with less than 100 members.
Staffing: Small secretariat, keeping overheads small.
Mission: Creation of appropriate referendum items. That is: identifying political abuses, formulating appropriate referendum items that may command wide assent, and commissioning the referendum process. The prime focus will be to improve the context within which elections, policy-making and decision-making occur.
Method: Running an annual NAPPP convention to obtain key decisions.
Wealth & Powers: To be kept to an absolute minimum to avoid being co-opted by the political system and to reduce the attraction for power-seeking individuals.
E. Organize an annual convention to select items for referenda.
The secretariat will need to develop appropriate viable rules for attendance and participation at the convention, for reviewing and selecting possible items to be put to a referendum, and for enabling debate and discussion prior to voting on those items. Exclusion of items that are issue-focused, directly or indirectly, will be essential.
Attendance online should be feasible to reduce costs for small associations, and enable the whole population to know what is happening and participate in a limited way.
A genuine social consensus is essential and referenda costs must be kept under control. So rules for acceptance of a referendum item will need developing e.g. how big a majority in terms of number of members represented, and in terms of numbers of groups attending.
Other protocols will be required to ensure fairness and impartiality, and maximize success in the subsequent referendum. It is important that no specific interest group can be identified with any particular choice of item i.e. the items should not self-evidently support specific social goals outside a better political process.
F. Conduct referenda and communicate with government.
A regular schedule of referenda is desirable to condition the public e.g. semi-annually or quarterly but perhaps more often.
The associations will know what the referenda items will be, and it will be part of their responsibility to get their members out to vote—without necessarily directing them how to vote. Quite possibly, more people will vote in these referenda than in elections.
The secretariat will have the responsibility for communicating with the government, directly and indirectly, via the national media. However, local marches and similar activism will be a matter for local communities.
There may be a need to repeat referenda, perhaps with some modification, until the message finally gets through to those in government and changes are made.
The above proposals build on all the features defined in the
Politicians and governments are likely to be willing to accept public choices—when they feel there is no other option. When vast numbers of people repeatedly vote for something, it will be difficult for democratic governments to resist responding positively.
To this point, governments support vested interests, especially military, and largely ignore popular needs and wishes so far as these do not impair election prospects. But it is surely conceivable that government will eventually accept explicit choices carrying unequivocal and widespread public support. Doing so is the essence of this revolutionary transition.
Should governments resist a democratic consensus, there are likely to be massive peaceful protests that will produce a response. It is possible that some legislators will run for election on a specific platform of implementing referenda choices. One way or another, the government will come to accept the social consensus where it undoubtedly exists.
Authoritarian societies still in Stage-1 or early Stage-2 are aware of the power of groups and typically suppress freedom of association and limit public activities so they are not faced with the pressures.
Government persists. Political choices still have to be made. Issues have to be resolved. Power will not disappear. Bureaucratic agencies will not shrivel. Systems will not magically reform themselves.
Most people do not fully grasp what happens in government. However, those in leading positions within even small civic associations are likely to understand from personal experiences. Their pragmatism will likely prevail, and they will not expect the impossible from the political system.
Most politicians will continue to operate as usual—flattering the public’s greed and vanity; vilifying opponents without proof or reason; using formulae and slogans devoid of precise meaning; and relying on propaganda.
However, as perverse incentives and opportunities for harming the citizenry are slowly blocked, improvement is predictable.
It can be presumed that large interests, like the defence industry and the banks, which get what they want from the current political system, might well abjure any association with those that desire change in the conduct of government.
But does this matter? Even if the Bankers Association and the defence industry lobby or boycott NAPPPP, they represent relatively few in society. In any case, their members are likely to be part of other Associations: perhaps representing deep-sea fishing or prevention of cruelty to animals or support for multiple sclerosis sufferers, and those bodies will likely participate. So no person is going to be excluded.
See more on social consensus and the use of referenda.
Originally posted: 1-Nov-2013. Last updated: 11-Apr-2014.