Wednesday, 13 November 2013

[Guest View] The Perils of Democracy

by Gavin Kitching

Recently I spent three very enjoyable days reading Pride and Prejudice. I had never read it before. I had seen the various dramatizations of course and knew the story as well as anybody, but I’d never actually read it. I was therefore unprepared for how genuinely funny it is, but also for the complexity and prolixity of its prose; a mass of sentences two, three or four lines long, a welter of subordinate clauses, piling nuance upon nuance, qualification upon qualification. It left me admiring of the skill of those who have ‘dramatized’ it for contemporary consumption. They have to cut and simplify if it is to have widespread contemporary appeal, but to do so in a way that does not compromise its sophistication or charm. And certainly the great BBC dramatization managed that, but only by making the principal characters rather older than Jane Austen has them. I don’t think contemporary readers could even begin to believe that a girl “not yet twenty and one” could command the positively baroque prose, the immense sophistication of vocabulary and reasoning, with which Austen endows Lizzie Bennet.
Why do I say all this? Because it is on my mind, but also because Pride and Prejudice, like all Austen’s novels, conjures a small, defined, knowable social world of which all the characters, whatever their weaknesses and shortcomings, are clearly in command. They all know what goes on in that world, where they fit in, what they need to do to make their way in it. They are in command of its rules, its social norms, in short, and they pursue their interests and passions knowledgably within the behavioral limits those norms lay down. And when they don’t – when they transgress the norms – retribution is swift , widely anticipated and endorsed by all, because known to all. Jane Austen’s world is a world of certitude in short. Whatever its stresses and strains, especially for its female inhabitants, they do not derive from social uncertainty or insecurity. On the contrary, they derive from the claustrophobically narrow (but therefore predictable) confines of that world.

My book, The Last Days of Democracy? Capitalism and Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century is about a world as remote from Jane Austen’s carefully constructed and constricted universe as one could possibly imagine. It is a book about a humanly-created universe of such enormous scale and complexity that the people who have created it do not, as individuals, understand it at all, and certainly cannot negotiate their way in it with any secure knowledge or certainty. In fact at the heart of the book is an old ‘social science’ insight, that human beings are collectively able to create states of affairs while having little or no individual understanding of what they have created or indeed how. The book considers a number of examples of such states of affairs, from anthropogenic climate change and complex global financial interdependencies, to sovereign debt problems, ever-rising health care costs and over-fished and polluted rivers and seas.
Now if, as an individual citizen, you inhabit a universe of such scale and unknowability, there are, logically-speaking, only two ways in which you can respond to your situation. You can:

1. endeavour to educate yourself about how this universe has come about, and how the problematic states of affairs it contains may be solved or mitigated, or

2. you can trust your democratically elected representatives to understand what you do not understand, and to act accordingly i.e. to enact and carry out policies which will solve or at least mitigate such problems.

However that this neat logic has no practical efficacy in the contemporary world because in that world citizens do not (or do not mainly or overwhelmingly) choose either of these options. Rather, they make little or no attempt to deepen their understanding of these ‘collective action problems’, as I call them, but neither do they trust their representatives to understand them or act on them. And as a result, so I argue, democracy is increasingly in peril in our contemporary world, because democratically elected governments (specifically democratically-elected governments) find it all but impossible to act effectively to solve, or even mitigate, such problems. But if they do not, or cannot do so, then this must, sooner or later, call their fundamental legitimacy into question. In the worst case scenario in fact it may lead to situations in which citizens abandon ‘ineffective’ democracy for some more policy-effective authoritarian alternatives.

But why do the bulk of citizens neither deepen their understanding of an ever-more complex world nor trust their representatives’ understandings? Because, so I argue, of that very complexity. When the gap between individual intention and action and collective outcomes is as wide and total as it is in our world, it is possible to fill that gap with a range of explanatory narratives, some of them contradictory one with another. Thus possible answers to the question “how do individual activities lead, en masse and unintentionally, to anthropogenic climate change?” include:

(1) ‘They don’t, because there is no such thing as anthropogenic climate change.’

(2) ‘They don’t, because anthropogenic climate change is mainly the result of government and corporate activities, not of individual behavior.’

(3) ‘They do, through individuals ‘choosing’ to act in the same ways en masse – i.e. by driving billions of cars, taking millions of aircraft journeys, using, en masse energy-intensive forms of heating and air-conditioning, consuming en masse commodities produced by energy-intensive methods etc.’

And the point is that, unlike in Jane Austen’s world, individual citizens have no resources in their day-to-day lives, in their day-to-day existence, which can allow them to choose between these competing narratives, which will show them that one is unambiguously right and the others unambiguously wrong. But that also means that they have no ‘existential’ basis upon which to trust their representatives’ choice of narratives either. In fact, as we know, which ever of the climate change narratives those representatives choose to endorse, there will be groups of citizens (including groups of their own constituents) who will disagree with that choice, perhaps violently.
Anthropogenic climate change is certainly the most extreme example of the problems posed for democracy by collective action problems, but it is by no means the only one. Financial crises deriving from the unforeseen macro consequences of what are supposedly individually rational financial transactions is another example, as is the creation of government budget deficits through pursuing the substantively irrational, but democratically popular, policy of lowering taxes while maintaining or increasing government expenditures.

All these examples involve collective consequences diverging from individual intentions in ways which are difficult and complex to understand, but they differ in the forms of that complexity. In some cases the causal nexus between actions and outcomes or consequences is so complex that it is possible to deny that the consequence is a result of human action at all (climate change). More commonly the causal link between human action and unintended consequences is not denied, but its nature is either radically disputed (financial crises) or there is radical disagreement on how best to solve or mitigate the consequence involved (rising health care costs, sovereign debt crises, rising energy bills, ever-increasing traffic congestion).

At bottom in fact what all these collective action problems have in common is that (a) they are hard to understand and (more importantly) (b) such understanding cannot be obtained from ‘ordinary experience’ alone. If one is to understand the causes of climate change and the relative merits of the different policies proffered to combat it one has to gain some intellectual command of the issues. And the same is true of financial crises, and even of health care problems or public transport policies. It is true of course that people, citizens, can directly experience some of the consequences of cuts in health expenditures, or of policies put in place to reduce traffic congestion. But even in those cases, having to spend five hours in an A&E department in extreme pain from an untreated broken wrist, or having to pay a road congestion levy because one has inadvertently driven down a road without an exemption from the levy, does little or nothing to tell one what are the best policies overall for dealing with the rising costs of health care, or for unblocking ever more grid-locked city roads. In short, these are issues the understanding of which either falls outside of ‘ordinary’ citizens’ experience altogether, or which, even when they do not, require that experiential understanding be supplemented by intellectual understanding.

Indeed all these examples point to a still more general and deep truth, oft-discussed in philosophy – that what we refer to as ‘empirical evidence’ or ‘sense data’, and to which enthusiasts for ‘commonsense’ so frequently appeal for ‘obvious’ and ‘irrefutable’ proofs and disproofs – is itself no simple thing, but a complex compound of what we see or perceive and what we know about what we see or perceive. Heirs to a 250 year tradition of romantic thought, we ‘see’ the bare, barren landscapes of the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands as ‘natural’ when they are nothing of the sort. We ‘see’ them that way simply because we don’t know (for example) that most of the forests that once covered the Scottish Highlands were felled to construct the Tudor navies of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.[1] We are convinced, by the evidence of our ‘senses’ that homeopathic medicine works, (in our own case, in the case of friends and acquaintances) because we simply don’t understand the astonishing way that the so-called ‘placebo effect’ works in a statistically significant proportion of cases. Our conflation or confusion of weather with climate is therefore just another example – albeit a profound and extreme one – of the dangers which arise from placing undue faith in what we perceive and (in this case) in what we can remember, when dealing with a phenomenon whose temporality simply escapes these parameters, and which can only be grasped though systematic, long term, statistical study.[2]

In short then, our world is one in which, even when citizens wish to act in their own interest, it can be very difficult for them to understand, or be clear, in what such action should consist. Jane Austen’s characters, both men and women, act all the time out of self-interest. She simply takes that for granted, and delights in the voltes face and rationalisations in which the pursuit of that interest involves them as their circumstances change. But she never doubts, and, more importantly, her characters never doubt, in what that self-interest consists or how best to pursue it. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” And because that is a truth universally acknowledged, would-be wives seek out husbands possessed of a good fortune, would-be husbands without such a fortune seek out better-placed wives, or attempt to bedazzle young girls of good fortune into eloping with them, and all try, in one way or another, to make materially advantaging matches which will also bring them a degree of personal happiness.

But by contrast ours is a world in which there are few truths so “universally acknowledged” and hence it is also a world in which it is much less clear either what one’s self-interest is or how to pursue it. One might say in fact that in Jane Austen’s carefully constructed little world people’s lives alone show them what is in their interest. By contrast ours is a world in which, while our lives may still tell us what is in our interests in a range of personal matters, they leave it entirely unclear what is in our interests politically or (therefore) what policies or policy-makers to support. And therefore in politics we must supplement learning from our lives, - existential learning - with intellectual learning and understanding. In fact in our modern globalized world we must not merely understand our own lives, we must have some understanding of the lives and activities of others very remote from us, both socially and geographically, if we are to have a clear grasp on our self-interest now, and such understanding can only be intellectual.

But all the evidence suggests that very few people – very few citizens – are willing, or perhaps are able (when all of life’s other demands are met) to make such an effort at intellectual understanding. Indeed there are some theorists of democracy who think that it is actually irrational for individual citizens to invest time and energy in such understanding, given how little influence individual citizens have on policy-making in mass democracies. However, just for this reason such theorists typically stress that it is ‘rational’ for individual citizens to trust their ‘political elites’ to understand what they do not, and to leave complex policy-making to them. But we have already seen that in contemporary democracies the lack of ‘universally acknowledged’ narratives about the causes (and thus the solution/mitigation) of complex collective action problems also erodes trust in the policy choices of elites (whatever those choices may be). Thus contemporary citizens are typically radically uncertain both of what their interests are, and of which policy elites to trust. This is in fact a psychologically consistent state of affairs. People plagued by uncertainty very typically do not know who to trust. Or, in a variant of this, people plagued by uncertainty may swing violently from one temporary ‘certainty’ to another, and with such swings may come matching swings in their trust of different political elites or individual politicians. But though all this makes perfect psychological sense, it may be disastrous for policy-making in democratic states. In short, and to reiterate a point made earlier, if citizens’ understandings of the increasingly complex problems their societies confront are defective, then it is politically rational either for them to work on improving that understanding, or for them to ‘give up’ and leave all these matters entirely to political elites. What is politically irrational, and disastrous, is for them neither to improve their understanding nor ‘give up’ and trust their elites. And that, I believe, is the situation we typically confront in the majority of western democracies today.

But even if that is true, what to do about it? In The Last Days of Democracy? I make so bold as to offer two suggestions, although I am highly doubtful whether either will ever eventuate. In focusing first on the ways in which citizen ignorance and uncertainty constrains national governments, I suggest that it makes no more sense for biological ageing to be a sufficient qualification for voting than for it to be a sufficient qualification for driving a car. To drive a vehicle one requires a degree of biologically-based maturity and strength, but one is also required to master the rules of the road intellectually and, more importantly, to be taught the skills of car driving and to gain experience of driving on our crowded roads.

Following this logic I suggest that, as well as reaching a certain biological age, all would-be voters should be required to pass a voting test. This test would be in a multiple-choice format, and would test citizens’ command of a range of rather basic political and economic facts. It would be required to be taken by all citizens desiring to vote (not only by those voting for the first time), but it would not be compulsory for anyone who did not so desire. (I here endorse the libertarian principle that a preference not to vote is a perfectly valid preference in a democracy, not of course the official position in Australia!). However, the Electoral Commission responsible for administering such tests would make them permanently available for sitting, so that anyone who had failed the test previously, or who had declined to take it, could reclaim their franchise at any time. I assume here that peoples’ circumstances may change in a whole variety of ways that could lead previous non-voters to wish to vote. However, whatever the motives which drive people to want to vote, they must still pass the test before they can do so. In this reformed situation it is ability to pass the voting test that guarantees and maintains an individual citizen’s voting rights, not the material, or social, or economic ‘need’ to vote – however intense. I also emphasize however that being a non-voter would not compromise any other of the legal rights or duties of citizenship. Non-voters would still need to pay their taxes, they would still be eligible for jury service, or military service. But equally they would have as much right to health care, pensions, unemployment benefits and other social benefits, as voters. Such a reform of course unties traditional ‘legal duty’ linkages, such as that between tax-paying and the franchise, or military service and the franchise, but to compensate for this it also unties a whole range of ‘social rights’ linkages from the franchise.

In the second part of the book, I move from the problems that complex collective action problems pose for democracy within a nation-state context, to the even more formidable problems they pose when trans-national or ‘global’ in extent and range. Here I focus on the problems posed for democratic states specifically by the fact that citizen’s experientially-based identities are still overwhelmingly ‘national’, while many of the world’s most threatening collective action problems require trans-national political initiatives. This is especially true of course of global environmental and financial problems, but is also true of the trans-national regulation of river flows and water resources, of oceanic fishing and pollution regulation, and trans-national movements of people, both legal and illegal.

The general thrust of my argument in this second part of the book is that even collective action problems which are initially categorized as ‘global’ or ‘regional’ or ‘trans-national’ in their causality or consequences, are very rapidly ‘nationalised’ in policy-discourse and policy-making. I take the sovereign debt problems of the EU states as a striking contemporary example of this, but I also consider the policy and discourse ‘nationalization’ of such issues as youth unemployment, corporate and individual tax avoidance, and legal and illegal immigration. I also consider the unique difficulties that face democratic states and policy-makers in trying to negotiate effective trans-national agreements to deal with such issues. The difficulties here derive primarily from the ‘policy short-termism’ which is built into electoral cycles, and in particular to the vulnerability of all democratic governments to opposition claims that some national interest or interest-group has been ‘sold out’, or will be ‘sold out’, in the pursuit of trans-national agreements.

In all this I am simply following the line of reasoning of much ‘globalization’ literature which traces some of the world’s most intractable problems to the disjunction between an increasingly globalized economy and a political and policy realm that is still overwhelmingly national or (at best) regional in focus. Thus I am at one with many other people in thinking that the enhanced vulnerability of the world economy to a variety of debt and financial crises since the 1980s is a hallmark of a global capitalist economy which has simply ‘outgrown’ any capacity for effective regulation.
Once again however it is far easier to state the problem than to come up with a solution. It might be tempting to adopt a ‘quasi-Marxism’ which sees humanity’s political organization as inevitably ‘adjusting’ – probably with some time lag – to its economic organization. In this
Communist Manifesto view of the world, one sees the modern state as emerging as a response to the needs of ‘capital’, and in particular to its need to escape the restrictions on its growth deriving from localized and ‘feudal’ forms of politics. Then, following this logic chronologically, one sees the contemporary emergence of regional blocs and (ultimately?) of some global forms of regulation and governance as an inevitable political ‘adjustment’ to the emergence of a genuinely global capitalist economy with its unprecedented financial, environmental and other problems.

The difficulty with this view of things however is that it radically understates the extent to which the ‘nation state’ has become a locus of identity, as well as of political organization. Whatever view of the origins and nature of nationalism one adopts, it is clear that a combination of language, culture and social institutionalization has made self-identification in terms of nationality ‘second-nature’ to a large part of the world’s population. It is all very well, as I emphasize in the second part of my book, to say that ‘humanity’ cannot solve some of its most threatening collective action problems nationalistically, but this is a completely empty statement if ‘humanity’ has no existential meaning or force for the vast majority of humanity! It is rather like asking Jane Austen’s characters to take existentially on board a world in which women do not have to depend on marriage for economic security. Logically such a possibility changes everything for her characters, but actually, existentially, it changes nothing. Because in early nineteenth century England no such possibility yet existed for the vast majority of the gentlewomen about whom, and for whom, she wrote. (Although ironically it did for her!).
I therefore take it that a form of global governance for capitalism is not going to emerge from some ‘organic’ expansion of politics from the national to the global level in ‘adjustment’ to economic forces. On the contrary, it seems to me that any existentially significant (rather than abstract and emotionally empty) concept of a global capitalism, just like any existentially significant (rather than abstract and emotionally empty) concept of humanity, must be a response to political institutionalization not a precondition of it.
In other words, it is by first creating a set of global governance institutions for capitalism (institutions which would play an environmental as well as narrowly economic role) that one may subsequently create a felt sense of a global capitalism and of a common humanity. One does this by creating an institution that, for the first time has some political responsibility for the functioning, and malfunctioning, of the global economy, and which, just for that reason, becomes a focus of intense canvassing and political mobilization for everybody from national governments and NGOs to trans-national corporations and INGOs. In a lengthy appendix to the book (which I think some of you have received) I suggest how the current G20 might be reformed to create just such an organization. In particular I outline how it might be equipped with a bureaucracy which existentially embodies a globalist and cosmopolitan ethic, whose members become in effect the first self-consciously human (rather than national or ethnic) human beings.



In conclusion then, the central preoccupation, even obsession, of The Last Days of Democracy? is the ever-growing importance of intellect in our post-modern world. So long as the environmental imprint of human beings on the planet Earth was localized and light, so long as their forms of economic organization were broadly coterminous with social worlds that they could know through ‘ordinary’, life experiences and wanderings, so long was existential , experiential learning sufficient for them to negotiate and understand their realities, and to pursue their individual interests knowledgably and skillfully within social realms intuitively grasped. But none of this any longer pertains. Now it is far, far more important – environmentally, economically, even socially – what masses of people do (and there are nearly 7 billion of us to compose any number of such ‘masses’) than what any individual, or group of individuals, does. And there is simply no intuitive, existential, way of understanding these doings – of understanding the environmental consequences of hundreds of millions of people driving cars (for example), or the economic consequences of hundreds of thousands of people trading derivatives,(for example), or the economic consequences of a mass of institutions, national and international, trading government bonds (for example). These things can only be understood intellectually, in terms of categories, concepts and explanations that are inherently and inevitably abstract, which means beyond everyone’s existential grasp (including that of so-called experts) although not beyond anyone’s intellectual grasp.
And to repeat, in our contemporary world there is no adequate substitute for that intellectual understanding, not for the citizens of modern-day democracies, and not for their leaders either. Because in default of such understandings, serious, even catastrophic, policy mistakes are likely to be made. Moreover in democratic societies (democratic societies particularly) leaders just cannot pursue policies, however wise or appropriate, whose point and justification a majority of citizens do not understand (= do not intellectually understand). In fact the impossibility of leaders doing that, is part of what ‘popular sovereignty’ means in a democratic society.

Therefore the central question for democratic societies (all of them) becomes how to incentivise and spread these forms of intellectual understanding of an ever more complex world among both citizens and leaders, how to help people grasp that in assessing a range of policy issues on which the very future of humanity and of our planet depends, existentially-based ‘common sense’ will not cut the mustard anymore. The Last Days of Democracy? proffers some suggestions on how to do this, how to create a more educative political process at both the national and global levels. These suggestions may be accepted or rejected, in whole or part. But what cannot be rejected, or so I believe, is the very inconvenient truth that to enter a world whose continued viability depends above all on mass intellectual understanding of its functioning is not only to enter a world without precedent in human history. It is to enter a challengingly difficult, indeed uniquely perilous world.

[1] Thanks to George Monbiot, via Phil Hutchinson, for this example.
[2] My son, Sam Cawthorne-Kitching, recently completed a University of Newcastle MPhil dissertation on climate change in the Northumberland National Park. He demonstrated very clearly that such change is occurring there, but he also demonstrated to his innumerate father how technically demanding a task it is to produce statistically robust evidence of such change.

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