Tag Archives: Democracy

Former ambassador Jeffrey Bleich speaks on Trump, disruptive technology, and the role of education in a changing economy

The Conversation

Image 20170303 31726 ru4nzy
We need to rethink our educational model, says Jeffrey Bleich. Alan Porritt/AAP

Jeffrey Bleich, University of Sydney

An edited transcript of the keynote address delivered by Jeffrey Bleich at Universities Australia’s higher education conference in Canberra on 1 March, 2017. The Conversation

You can also listen to the full speech here:

Jeffrey Bleich’s keynote address.
Recording by Universities Australia 62.5 MB (download)

While I’ve spoken at many of your universities over the years, it has always been in a non-partisan role – as either ambassador or now as chair of the Fulbright board. So, whenever I’ve been asked questions about politics or elections before, I always did what diplomats have long done. I thought very carefully, before saying …nothing.

But these are not ordinary times. The recent US election has evoked a profound sense of uncertainty across the political spectrum.

The things we had counted on, suddenly and surprisingly proved incorrect. We are not sure what we can rely on anymore, and it has shaken many people’s confidence about the path forward. It is times like these, when good friends like the US and Australia put aside conventions and get real about what we need to do together.

No one saw this coming

Candidly, no one saw this coming – until it came. In the US, on the morning of November 8, 2016, no trustworthy polling organisation, no responsible media outlet, no respected political pundit, no one, thought that Donald Trump would be elected the President of the United States. Even Mr Trump did not expect it.

He won, in part, because many people in the US did not trust the political parties to address their concerns. They did not trust government. They did not trust the media. They did not trust experts. They did not trust the international liberal order. And the fact that neither party liked Mr Trump, that the media mocked him, that experts were appalled by him, and that he seemed to have no experience in government or diplomacy or any interest in it, did not discourage them. It gave them hope. They might not have agreed with him, but they believed that at least he would shake things up. And that is what they wanted.

This is not a fluke. Only a few months earlier, we witnessed something similar in Europe – the stunning decision by the people of the UK to reject the recommendation of their prime minister and virtually all leaders on both sides of politics, and exit the EU.

We’ve witnessed the Philippines elect President Duterte – a leader who attacks all politics as usual, belittles allies, and has authorised the vigilante killings of thousands of people.

Here in Australia, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party won four seats in the last election, and you’ve had five prime ministers in the past seven years (if you count Prime Minister Rudd twice).

Virtually every other major Western democracy these days is led by a fragile coalition government. And the world is already bracing for the rise of new nationalist, populist, and authoritarian minority movements in Europe.

So this populist unrest is not unique to the US.

The question is why, and what are the consequences for Western Democracies around the world. In the time that I have been asked to speak, I’d like to suggest we are witnessing an historic moment that requires an historic response.

New technologies, and global trends, are principally driving the shock and uncertainty. I’ll share my thoughts about what these are and where they are leading us. I’ll then do something that we all need to do – suggest some ways that higher education can adapt to meet these global trends and restore our sense of order and common vision.

But first, how we got here.

The digital revolution

Every person in this room, grew up in a century defined by the Second Industrial Revolution. Today, that revolution is being eclipsed by a Digital Revolution.

The uncertainty that we are experiencing in every aspect of our society, including our politics, is the same disorientation that occurred between 1870 and 1910 when the first Industrial revolution ended and a second one began.

It eventually vaulted nations like America and Australia to the top of the world order. But it also produced a Gilded Age, labor unrest, mass migrations, a great depression, and two world wars. That era is closing, and we are now experiencing the new great disruption that Silicon Valley promised.

Digital technology – while solving crucial problems – is creating or compounding others.

  1. It has outstripped the capacity of Government to control it, and amplified the collapse of public confidence in democratic governments.
  2. It has inflamed rivalries between those who benefit and those who don’t.

3) It has undermined standards – of journalism, of altruism, and of civility – that are necessary for us to find common ground.

To appreciate this, we have to see where we’ve come from.

A hundred and fifty years ago, we went through the same thing. Changes in technology revolutionised media, global integration, and demographics. The changes were profound.

In 1879, during a three-month period, both the electric light and a workable internal combustion engine were invented.

Those two inventions alone produced over the next 40 years a dizzying number of new technologies. The telephone, phonograph, motion pictures, cars, airplanes, elevators, X-rays, electric machinery, consumer appliances, highways, suburbs, supermarkets, all created in a 40-year burst from 1875 to 1915. It fundamentally transformed how people live.

We’ve known for a while that the structures created by this Second Industrial Revolution were running their course, at least in advanced economies, and was being replaced by a new revolution, the digital revolution.

In retrospect, we should have seen all of the side effects coming. Recently the pace of these advances had started to build on each other exponentially, and the pressure has been mounting.

Everyone who has had to throw out their CD player for a DVD player for an iPod for an iPhone for Spotify, knows what I mean.

The pace at which our world is being changed just keeps accelerating. Every year there has been some massive new disruption. Every year a new massive theory of disruption: “the digital economy”, “the social network”, “the Internet of things”, “sharing economy”, “big data”. Last year “machine learning” – where machines teach themselves things we do not know – was the Buzzword.

The word in Silicon Valley this year is “singularity” – where our species itself is altered by technology – gene-editing, bionics, AI – creating a new hybrid species.

Disruptive technology

Three years ago as I was getting ready to depart Australia, I gave a talk about how driverless cars would soon transform our societies, but that this would be a hard transition and it would be several years before we saw driverless vehicles on the streets.

Well I was wrong about that. As I was going to the San Francisco airport to fly here, the car driving alongside me was a driverless Google car.

In Philadelphia driverless cars are operating as taxis. As the tech writer William Gibson wrote:

“The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.”

Yet.

Now I love driverless cars. Self-driving cars can reduce accidents, save us from needless deaths, injuries, and property damage, reduce traffic, give us more leisure time, reduce stress, and improve our quality of life.

Believe me, as an ex-ambassador, life is better in the backseat of the car.

But that’s not how you look at it if you are a 47-year-old truck driver or bus driver or cab-driver or you drive a fork lift and have a high school education, are carrying a lot of debt, and have a family to take care of. All you see is some elites in San Francisco trying to kill your job and destroy your family.

And driverless cars are only one disruptive technology. If you work in a small hotel or motel, you see AirBnB as an existential threat. If you work in manufacturing, 3D printing and robotics are direct threats to your job. If you are a book-keeper, artificial intelligence is an immediate threat to your job.

Fear of losing control

Many of us feel that we’ve lost control over the pace of it all. The technology is driving itself.

Breakthroughs that once took decades to develop can now be developed in a matter of months. We can test the impact of a particular set of compounds on thousands of cells simultaneously.

We can take the data from every mobile phone, every laptop, every modern vehicle, every refrigerator and toaster and microwave and aggregate them and analyse them as fast as the speed of the internet.

I was with the director of Google’s cutting edge incubator, Google X, Astro Teller, and he was asked what he feared about technology. He said,

“it is simply going so fast now that no one can control where it is taking us.”

Archimedes said that if you gave him a long enough lever, he could move the earth. Today, the lever of technology has extended so long that it takes very little pressure to fundamentally move the earth.

This dramatic acceleration of technology affects not only the workers who see their jobs disappearing and fear these new technologies. It inspires fear in retirees and dependents just as much.

Gene therapies may make it typical for people to live healthy active lives past the age of 100. That should be a cause for celebration. People getting to know their great grand-children, maybe even their great-great grandchildren.

But it’s also frightening. How will society support a generation that lives 20 years longer than they’d planned, that runs out of retirement savings? And if they live healthy lives to age 100, they will need to fill more of those years with work – their work lives may need to last 60-70 years.

But as technology accelerates, their training may barely be sufficient to last them 10 years. How will that work? How do we educate and re-train people for six careers over a lifetime? And what sorts of jobs will those be? How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable?

Even if you could find work for people and retrain them every 10 years, what sort of economic model can sustain this?

In denial?

If you aren’t feeling anxious and uncertain yet, then you are in denial. If you are a 47-year-old bus driver, or coal miner, or assembly line worker, or cashier, or toll booth operator, you might want a leader who promises to shut this all down.

Build a wall, bring back the old jobs; let me keep my iPhone and Facebook (I like those), but otherwise, just go back to the way it was.

This could have been predicted.

The Industrial Revolution in the last Century caused the same great anxieties, and caused politics around the world to go haywire. There were massive disruptions in labor markets, unprecedented levels of migration, and other effects of industrialisation.

The result may sound familiar. Popular unrest especially in Europe and East Asia, xenophobia, isolationism, violent protests, and the emergence of authoritarians and demagogues around the world.

In the US, William Jennings Bryan was nominated three times for president during this Gilded Age – offering a bizarre mix of populist messages. He was anti-Darwinism, pro-Isolationism, proposed a Silver Standard, favored Prohibition, and stunned the political establishment with the way he campaigned – defying all conventional logic.

Demagogues flourish when large sections of society feel overwhelmed and fear they will be left behind. They offer simple solutions to complex problems and play on people’s fears and prejudices.

But technology does not do this alone. At the turn of the last century, the US did not elect William Jennings Bryan. It elected leaders who embraced technology. It chose people who felt government had an important role in fostering technology and dealing with its unwanted effects. Healthy democracies resisted demagogues and authoritarians and fascists. But less healthy ones didn’t.

The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of this throughout Europe. So this is not about technology alone. Three other trends already existed that fed public anxiety, and drew people to an authoritarian figure.

The gaming of democracy

The first trend is a 30-year campaign to diminish the importance of democratically elected governments.

For 30 years, political leaders on both sides of the aisle in the US ran for government by running against it. They secured votes by campaigning on the notion that government is a mess and couldn’t do anything right.

President Reagan had demonstrated the power of running for election on the claim that government was too big and bloated and ineffective. He ran on a campaign of cutting taxes and red-tape.

His successor George H.W. Bush did the same, to win, and then lost when he failed to keep his promise not to raise taxes. The next president, Bill Clinton, followed the same playbook, leading the charge that the era of big government was over. In all cases, the message was that we needed less and less government. George W. Bush ran almost entirely on promises to continue shrinking wasteful government.

Tom Friedman, the New York Times writer, had an insight about this. It came from his days when he covered the advertising war between Hungry Jacks and McDonalds.

He was interviewing the head of marketing for Hungry Jacks and asked him why – with the hundreds of millions of dollars Hungry Jacks was spending to win market share from McDonalds – it hadn’t actually gone after McDonalds burgers. Why didn’t they run an ad saying that McDonalds burgers were nasty frozen patties? The marketing head looked at him and said:

“That is the very first rule of marketing. You never kill the category.”

Loss of confidence in governments

Well, to win elections, both sides had been killing the category of government. And then in 2008, the US government seemed to vindicate their worst fears.

In September 2008, the country was already mired in an unpopular war in Iraq that was costing us our bravest troops and billions of dollars, and then we were hit by a recession that was directly due to the federal government easing its bank regulations. The two things that we counted on our government to do most – keep us secure, and protect our economy – it had failed to do. And both parties had supported both decisions.

If anyone was looking for proof that government couldn’t do anything right, that was the moment.

I think the Brexit vote shows that US voters aren’t the only ones losing confidence in government.

All of the indicators are moving in the wrong direction.

Voting rates have been falling in the US and many other Western democracies. Polls show that young people’s faith in democracy is plummeting. Tax protests movements have risen. America’s wealthiest people are looking for ways to avoid paying taxes through elaborate tax avoidance schemes. Recall that then-candidate Trump said that if he hadn’t paid taxes in 20 years, it was because he was “smart”.

Technology has exaggerated these effects.

For the average American, polling, data-analytics, micro-targeting voters, have turned politics into a game, and left them feeling manipulated. The political parties seemed more intent on using these tools to play the system and block each other than to deal with the real issues that we were facing.

While businesses were expected to innovate and do things faster, cheaper, better, governments now had less money, and were hamstrung with older technologies, and had more difficulty keeping pace. Government seemed to make the case for its detractors – moving slower or sometimes not at all. In the face of runaway technology, we have often seen walk-away government.

Millennials have the least patience with democratic government.

Having grown up at the pace of the internet, millennials aren’t afraid of technology. They love the new technologies; they trust technology to transform the workplace for the better.

To them, tech companies will solve their problems more than government, and so government seems irrelevant. To some, not all, government is entertainment or worse. And if you think government is entertainment, then why not elect a reality show star; and if it’s a joke, then why bother showing up to vote at all?

Disrupting demographic expectations

The second major trend in the US relates to demographics. Demographic effects have emerged in the past 25 years that have had a particularly pronounced effect on white males.

Your former countryman, Rupert Murdoch, built a news empire on the simple insight 25 years ago, that white males in America were getting angrier, and wanted someone to vindicate their anger. Even Fox & friends cannot keep up with the appetite for anger. Now they face competition from the even angrier Breitbart.

So where does that anger come from?

If you were a straight white male in the US in the first half of the last century with a high school education or less, you might lose out on jobs or opportunities to college educated white males, but that was it. You had an advantage over anyone else. You did not have to compete against women, people of colour, or people who were openly gay or lesbian. And you did not have much in the way of international competition.

Industries were largely protected among those countries with which we actually traded. But about half of the world’s economy was locked up in a failed economic system – Soviet-style communism – which did not compete with American jobs at all.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the US economy changed dramatically. Programs to enforce civil rights laws profoundly changed the workforce, introducing opportunities for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and other previously disadvantaged groups to compete for jobs.

At the same time, the fall of the Berlin wall was effectively a starting gun for global competition. Suddenly a talented workforce around the world that had been denied the chance to compete was unleashed.

Western nations saw great opportunity in trading with these countries and working them into their supply chains. And now, suddenly, a white male worker who had a built-in advantage was forced to compete with women, people of colour, and people around the globe, who were hungrier and potentially more competitive than they were.

Now white males may never have been entitled to that advantage, but the feeling of loss, and resentment, and unfairness that they felt is a very real emotion that most of us would probably feel in similar circumstances. Even if an advantage we have isn’t fair, we still feel pain and possibly anger when it is taken away.

Especially if it affects your livelihood and your place in society.

The truth is, that the benefits of globalisation and modernisation have not been evenly distributed. While women and minorities and people who had been subject to crippling poverty in former communist countries are better off today, the white working class in America doesn’t feel that way.

Unlike minorities, they didn’t grow up expecting to have to work twice as hard to get half as far, or to live in poverty. They expected that their lives would be better than their parents lives, and that their kids’ lives would be even better than theirs.

But that is becoming less true now.

Statistically, about half of the middle class is not more successful than their parents. Their fathers supported a family, had a nice house, two car garage, vacation, health care, the ability to send their kids to college, and enough for a decent retirement, working a 40 hour a week.

Today, wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living. To have those same things, both parents work, they work longer hours – nights and weekends – and they go deep into debt. They feel like they are working harder and not getting as far. And they are worried that their kids will do even worse.

So they don’t want to just turn back the clock on technology, they want to turn back the clock on civil rights and globalisation, too. Because they don’t see how it is helping them.

So it is no surprise that some of President Trump’s strongest supporters want him to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, or ban all refugees, or deport immigrants, or roll back the reproductive rights of women, or reduce civil rights enforcement.

There is some bigotry here, but about 80% of Republicans currently support Donald Trump, and the vast majority of them are not bigots. If you don’t believe the heartbreak in this group is real, consider this.

If you are a white male with no college education in the US you are the only demographic in the OECD, the developed countries, whose life expectancy is going down. The main reasons for this are all forms of self-harm: suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, or morbid obesity.

We miss the point if we think this is just prejudice or intolerance. For many, they voted for Donald Trump because he gave them hope. Everyone needs hope.

All of us want to believe that our lives will improve, or at least that our children’s lives will be better than ours. But for people who have lost their advantage in the market, and have to compete harder than ever just to have the same job, and who worry that their kids will have it even harder, they’ve lost hope in the current system.

Nearly two-thirds of the counties that voted for Donald Trump in swing states voted for Barack Obama. For them, Donald Trump was the hope candidate.

One last thing. I have no tolerance for bigots and racists, but I also cannot abide ignoring the fundamental humanity of others, particularly people who are heartbroken.

Now imagine how the people who depend on these men feel, their wives and their daughters and their mothers, and you can understand how many women, too, would not really care what Donald Trump has said about women.

The degrading of journalism

Finally, the third global trend that we need to address is the dramatic change in how we get and interpret information.

This shift isn’t new either. Before the printing press was invented, written documents were drafted by scribes.

Those documents were trusted because – frankly – they are hard to produce. Only those with some standing in the community and reputation had the resources to produce them. It was too expensive and time-consuming for a scoundrel with a crazy idea to publish a book. And so people got used to generally trusting things that were written.

When the printing press dramatically reduced the cost of the printed word, all sorts of things could be published that wouldn’t have been before.

While this actually improved the flow of information, it also confused people who were used to trusting the things they read, and it disrupted society and politics for many years.

Here, we had two media revolutions at once. Until about 30 years ago, news was generally obtained from one or two newspapers, and the small number of network channels available in each country – which usually devoted up to an hour for news.
While different papers might cover the same news stories differently, they generally reported the same facts and merely drew different conclusions from them.

With the advent of cable news programs, this changed. We created a vehicle for virtually limitless news. Instead of news organisations being forced to decide what were the most important events that happened each day, they could report on many things that were not necessarily relevant to people’s lives but would boost ratings.

News organisations could make news a form of entertainment and compete for viewers in ways that didn’t exist before. And, before long, news balkanized so that every viewer could pick a news service that reinforced their prejudices.

In this way, conservatives who did not trust liberals, could find a channel that reassured them that liberals were untrustworthy, and capable of the most irrational and diabolical acts. And vise-versa. Social media only compounded this, because its algorithms ensured that you’d be fed advertising that reinforced your biases and beliefs.

If this was not enough to bring down trust in government, a second wave of media disruption emerged close on its heels.

With the arrival of cellphones and the world-wide web, suddenly every person with an internet connection could become a journalist and publisher.

Before the traditional media had even heard about a story, people were blogging it, uploading images to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and effectively getting their story out faster than cable could.

In order to stay relevant, traditional media simply followed suit and began running with whatever came in across the internet – right, wrong, or horrifyingly wrong.

The notion was that you wouldn’t be wrong for long, but that you needed to publish quickly or risk being irrelevant.

And so we have the phenomenon that at one point over 40% of Americans believed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. It did not matter that President Obama was born in Hawaii, and that his birth had been duly recorded and reported in the newspaper for all to see. Bloggers created this lie, sent it around at the speed of the internet, and news channels covered the “phenomenon” as if it were actual news.

If anyone on earth recognised the power of this phenomenon, it was the chief evangelist of this claim, Donald Trump; the person who would be the next president.

Today some substantial portion of Americans believe Michelle Obama is a man dressed as a woman. Even more believe that climate change is a hoax, that airplane vapor trails are a government conspiracy to spread chemicals to humans, that vaccinations cause autism, and that toilets in Australia flush backwards.

In this environment, where facts are ignored, and people choose the stories that support their world view, is it any wonder that a substantial number of voters believe even the most outlandish claims.

That the president can claim that it wasn’t raining when it was. That his crowds broke records when they didn’t. That millions of people cast illegal votes when they did not?

Over the past 30 years a perfect storm has formed to produce an election in which a large enough portion of the American public has backed ideas that have been heretofore unthinkable.

Our nation elected a president that was prepared to call into question not only a stunningly broad set of policies that had served the US well, but he was also prepared to question basic facts, science, and principles of our democracy.

And that is why the challenge for our nations, and our nations’ universities is both great and urgent.

Role of universities

So what is the way forward? We should not lose heart. During the Gilded Age, when a similar rapid change in technology, media, and demographics all converged to short-circuit our politics, our nations endured. In fact, our nations preserved and strengthened the values that have made America and Australia great.

We remained nations that ensured religious tolerance, the rule of law, free press, free minds, freedom of travel, free markets, and the free movement of capital.

Despite missteps along the way, over time we became fairer nations, more prosperous nations, and more secure nations not by abandoning our values, but by fighting for them.

So this is the challenge facing our universities as they confront their own disruption. Whatever is happening in the US will challenge every democracy and every pillar of democracy. The future is here, it just is not evenly distributed. Yet.

The only antidote to the impulse to divide and exclude, to isolate, to create barriers, and to resist the future is this.

We need to rethink education to help address the things that ail our democracies. And we must put our best minds to work to offer a vision of the future in this new economy that works for everyone.

The forces I’ve described challenge many assumptions about how we should learn, the lives and careers we should be prepared to perform, and how our economies should operate.

To successfully navigate this turn, educational institutions need to refocus on solutions that reboot our democracy, and prepare our citizens for this new economy.

Australia is already ahead of the US in many actions needed to restore and refresh democracy. Australia’s universal voting offers a model that the US should consider.

Universal voting reduces the influence of extremism and money in elections, it keeps the debate more on the issues that matter, and it forces citizens to stay more informed and engaged.

Australia already has a head start on educating citizens. In the US, free public education is guaranteed only until year 12, and civics education has been dropped from most curricula.

Today, every study shows that to be economically competitive and an effective citizen in a Western economy, you need at least 14 years of education including civics. So again, the system here in Australia is one that Western democracies need to study and adopt.

There are things that no one has solved where we all need to pioneer together. Both of our Second Industrial Revolution economies were originally designed to train people to work from ages 25 to 55 (after doing military service) in one career and generally not live past 65. The training they received prepared them for a single career that would last their full working life. This no longer works.
If the students we are training today are going to live to be 120 years old, and their careers are likely to span 90 years, but their training will only make them competitive for 10 years, then we have a problem.

We need to rethink our educational model.

We will need to increasingly train young people not just in a skill, but in how to learn, and for skills that cut across multiple disciplines. Universities may become less a way station for youth, than a life-long subscription service, with frequent retrainings.

We need to restructure information systems so that facts matter, false statements are exposed, and making false claims has real consequences. The irony of the information age is that increasingly we seem to know more, but understand less. But this can be fixed.

Imagine a world where every article is immediately fact-checked by libraries, and reviewed for accuracy and relevance by a trusted board of editors drawing on high-speed computers. Where every article has the equivalent of a yelp-rating, or is crowd-corrected Wikipedia style. Where every false and digitally altered image can be exposed through blockchain technology. Universities can do this.

After a while, just as we know which restaurants to avoid, we would know which writers and journals and articles and politicians we can’t trust.

And finally, we need to devote our best minds to answering the greatest question of the digital age.

How will we give people purpose when machines can do everything that is dull, dangerous, or determinable? What economic model works where most of the things in life can be produced sustainably at low cost through robotics? How do we develop a bright vision of the future and give them hope.

Australia and America and Europe faced a similar set of questions 100 years ago. Then the vast majority of our citizens worked agriculture jobs in family owned businesses in rural communities. Over 80% of jobs were in family farms then. What would happen when all of the kids moved to the cities? How could there possibly be enough jobs for them all, and how would America feed itself?

Today, more people are employed than ever, they have more opportunity than ever, and America has more food to export than ever. The question for our universities is to help us see the future and prepare future generations to succeed in it.

No one can say for certain yet what the future holds. But the two things we know about the new economy are that people need a purpose, and that the most prized roles for human beings will be things that only human beings can do.

So as you begin this important work, consider this as a model for the university of the future.

The greatest limits on human civilisation have always been access to water, arable land for food, a source of energy, protection from the elements, and protection from each other.

A vast portion of our economy has been focused on producing those things. But now we have ways to turn salt water and brackish water into usable water.

We have the ability to produce foods that are more nutritious and last longer requiring less land.

We have created clean and renewable sources of energy that could make any place on earth energy self-sufficient.

We can create machines that do the back-breaking monotonous work involved in most jobs.

And, for the first time in human history, we can actually visualise a world that is liberated from dull, dangerous, and determinable work, from activities that cause us stress without producing much value, and from lives extinguished before they achieved their potential.

We have the potential to liberate the workforce to do the one thing that machines can’t do – improve ourselves and the emotional lives of others.

To date, our economic models have ignored many forms of high value work. Here’s one example that I think we can all relate to.

Ultimately, every family and community depends on people who raise our children, look after ageing parents, bring food and comfort to ailing neighbour. And in most cases we don’t compensate them, or reward them, or even give them a title.

They are untrained, unsupported, and yet they are entrusted with our most challenging problem – the human condition – a son who is an addict, a brother who is abusive, a daughter who is depressed, a mother who has lost her memory.

So many people need help with the emotional and mental parts of their lives. Yet, human history has been dominated by one era after another of people simply inflicting more misery on other people, while other work is rewarded.

Massive violence, incarceration, alienation, institutionalisation are ultimately products of emotional failings. Our economies have been driven by scarcity, and our actions by irrational fear, and prejudice, and other products of our own emotional and mental limitations.

So imagine this…

Imagine a world in which our technologists work to meet the most basic human needs sustainably, and our economies are freed up to do the things that society has always neglected – resolve disputes, restore mental health, nurse, teach, imagine, explore, imagine, design, create art, and provide the human touch.

Imagine paying people as much to do this, as we currently pay for them to mine coal, or guard a prison.

Done right, the moment of doubt we face today may be the beginning of something even more profound.

We could move from an impulse to exclude and brand people to just the opposite: an economy based on human outreach and improving the human condition.

We stand together at a great human inflection point. Society will be very different in the next 100 years than it has been over the past 100 years.

Either we need to offer a vision for something better, or we cling to the past and will be left behind.

I am confident that we will rise to the occasion.

While we struggle with the impulses and politics and challenges of today, we have to keep our eye on the future.

As President John F. Kennedy said,

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present, will miss the future.”

I believe our best minds and universities can forge a new vision. One in which we produce an economy that is less violent, less wasteful, less stressful, and in which we live longer and better lives. The world as we have created it is merely a reflection of our thinking.

Change our minds, and we can change the world.

Jeffrey Bleich, Former US Ambassador to Australia; Chair of the Fulbright board; Visiting Professor and a member of the Council of Advisors at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission).  Read the original article.

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The Intricacies of Democracy in Ancient Greece

Daniel Zalec

Historian Paul Cartledge contextualises and assesses democracy in the ancient Greek world as a multifaceted phenomenon, expanding on the themes of his 2016 book, Democracy: A Life. Dr. Cartledge also explains the importance of this legacy to the modern western world. This Hellenic Society event was held at The Hellenic Centre in London; and audience questions follow.

Lecture date: October 19, 2016.
Alternative lecture: Gresham College (Sep. 27, 2016).

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All hail Trump, the great transgressor!

The Conversation

Brian McNair, Queensland University of Technology

Since Big Brother first exploded onto our screens in 2000 I’ve been a fan of reality TV. In 2002 I wrote a book that included a defence of the genre’s democratising impact on our culture.

Where many commentators and more than a few of my academic colleagues dismissed reality TV as dumbed-down trash pandering to the baser instincts of the mob, I preferred to regard it as a prime location for the untold, self-revelatory, often intimate stories of ordinary people.

Shows like Sylvania Waters, Driving School and Airline showed non-celebrities – “real people” – going about their business, revealing their emotional and psychological quirks, overcoming the obstacles of everyday, previously unexamined lives.

The Apprentice exemplified a particular sub-genre of reality TV, giving us a glimpse of what it was like to build a business and struggle for success in corporate life, the dynamics of team-building and peer rivalry, the hubris that brought down the blowhards and the self-regarding.

“You’re fired!” was the catchphrase of Donald Trump (and Sir Alan Sugar in the UK version). It was informative and also entertaining. Trump was good at it, bringing his tough, no-nonsense management style into our living rooms.

And if that’s where his “tell it like it is” approach had remained, we would probably be looking forward to four, maybe eight years of President Hillary Clinton. Instead, we face the ascendancy to the most powerful office on Earth of a man formerly known to most of his voters as a reality TV star.

It’s as if Kim Kardashian, or, god save us, Kanye West was suddenly running the country (Yeezus for POTUS in 2020, anyone?) – surreally shocking in a way that the elections of former film stars Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the presidency and the governorship of California respectively never were.

Trump presents himself as an outsider, though his reality TV celebrity means that he comes from the heart of mainstream popular culture, as well as being a fully paid-up member of the rich capitalist elite he affects to despise – one who proudly pays no taxes, has been near bankruptcy several times, and convicted for racial discrimination in his real-estate operations among other alleged ethics violations such as the Trump University scam (settled out of court in December).

The white working- and middle-class stiffs who voted for him in such numbers appear to have forgotten the latter, or to not care, while rewarding him for his readiness to say the refreshingly (for them) transgressive things he thinks they want to hear.

From the beginning of his campaign Trump deliberately transgressed the conventions and codes of political communication in America. He already had the “Birther” slander on his political CV, the mark of a racist who simply couldn’t bear the idea of a black man in the White House.

At the outset of his campaign he proposed his wall on the Mexican border, and insulted that nation with crude stereotypes. He expressed racist views about a judge who was handling one of the many legal actions against him because the man had Mexican roots.

He promised to ban all Muslims from entering the US until “we’ve figured out what’s going on” with Islamic State – a pledge now downsized to include only those Muslims who come from countries with a history of terrorism. Will that include France and Belgium, one wonders? Or Australia? Or the UK? All of those countries have produced homegrown Islamists who have fought and killed for IS.

None of that put off the people who would eventually vote for him. He famously mocked a disabled reporter in front of a huge rally of baying supporters. It only made them love him more.

As did the release of the recording in which he observes that when you’re famous – and you got the sense listening to that tape that he was talking from experience – you could “grope” women’s “pussies” with impunity. The man actually boasted about how easy it was for people like him to commit what most people would regard as sexual assault.

He ran beauty pageants, and it seems reasonable to speculate that he would have enjoyed groping a few of the competitors along the way, when he was not insulting them for their body shape or attitude. Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping were his names for Alicia Machado, Miss Universe in 1996 when Trump took over the franchise. Apparently she ate too much.

In one televised debate he obliquely referred to a female journalist’s menstrual cycle, and routine misogyny has been a key element of Trump’s transgressive pitch. He “loves” women, he insists. You can imagine him joshing to his alpha male mates – why else would he marry and grope so many of them?

He invited the Russians to hack Clinton’s emails (and they did), and praised the sound management skills of dictators such as Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein and Rodrigo Duterte.

In the past, the merest hint of a candidate’s admiration for the Russian Bear or Saddam would have killed a campaign stone dead. Not Trump’s.

Having spent a century denouncing the USSR and Russia as the existential enemy par excellence, the American political system and public were now embracing a man who actively favoured Putin over his own president – the same Barack Obama who Trump regarded as an imposter in the White House.

Not one of these transgressions made the slightest dent in his image, or slowed his rise. On the contrary, his supporters recognised a kindred spirit. Hell yes! Pussy groping, disability-mocking, casual racism and sexism, joking about getting away with shooting people in the street because you’re so popular – that was the American way, and after eight years of a black man running the show and spoiling their fun it was time to remind the world who’s boss.

Trump’s transgressions were not gaffes of the type that sunk Gary Hart in 1988 or Gerald Ford in 1974, but delivered with a skillful eye for the attention they would attract in the news media. He succeeded in setting the 2016 news agenda way beyond his wildest dreams.

It’s reliably reported that neither he, nor his campaign team, seriously thought they could win the presidency when the race started, but so hopeless were his 16 competitors in the GOP camp that he was able to take the nomination and go on to challenge Clinton – one of the “nasty women” he despised so much.

Clinton had her vulnerabilities too, and Trump skilfully exploited them, which is what we expect in a political campaign. But he transgressed by calling on the Russians to assist, and by – it is alleged, and currently under investigation by the US intelligence agencies – actually conspiring with Putin’s security services to damage the Clinton campaign.

Which brings us to the Buzzfeed dossier, of which the most exotic if not politically significant feature is the assertion that Trump was videoed while in Russia engaging in “perverted” sex acts with prostitutes.

Let’s tell it like it is, in the spirit of The Donald. He is alleged by a Russian source in correspondence with a senior former MI6 operative, regarded by the CIA as credible enough for the dossier to have been passed to Obama, to have employed prostitutes to piss on a hotel bed previously slept in by Barack and Michelle Obama.

It is further alleged in the unverified dossier that, as a result of this and other sexual transgressions recorded on videotape, Trump is vulnerable to blackmail in his dealings with Russia.

This may or may not be true, and we may never know now that Trump himself is in charge of the US security apparatus, but the mere fact that we regard it as even possible in the context of a US president is, when you think about it, the most transgressive thing of all. Bill Clinton was Slick Willie, but at least the Monica Lewinsky affair happened in the security of the White House, and he came close to impeachment for lying about “not having sex with that woman”.

Trump’s alleged transgression was only exposed after the election, and despite the implications for US and global security – if the allegations of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the FSB to distort the US political process are true, Trump would be guilty of treason – it does not seem to have seriously disrupted the transition.

Neither his voters, nor the great of majority of Republicans in Congress, seem the slightest bit worried that their man in the Oval Office could be a Russian stooge with a taste for golden showers. So deep is their hatred of the “liberal elite”, political correctness and all the other bogeymen of their nightmares that they seem able to let the scandal and the sleaziness wash over them.

And that means, alas, that those who think Trump will settle into a more conventional presidency, constrained by wiser heads like Rex Tillerson or Mad Dog Mattis – Mad Dog being the voice of moderate reason in this administration – are deluding themselves.

There is no precedent for the Trump presidency in modern times, and no limit to where he can go from here. He has transgressed and broken taboos all the way to the White House, and been rewarded.

He will continue to smash political conventions built over decades and centuries, using Twitter to goad and mobilise his supporters as required, attacking the free and independent media as well as dissenters in general, embracing murderous dictators and corrupt capitalists all over the world where he has business interests.

He will start a dynasty, and use the venerable office he now occupies to boost family members and businesses, friends and cronies. No-one seriously doubts that, and no-one in the GOP except for John McCain and a few sidelined others can be relied upon to stand against it.

For Trump, transgression has worked as a campaign strategy, and he can be expected to pursue a similar approach to governance, as in his recent comments about the EU and Germany. Until he fails, and fails so badly that no amount of scapegoating muslims or liberals can cover it up, America is his to do with what he will.

His transgressions will shift the culture and may even become mainstream, so that the kinds of racist and sexist discourse we have spent decades erasing from public view will again be respectable. The new culture of unapologetic bigotry and bullying will spread. Political success in a volatile ideological market place drives imitation.

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation will have a go at emulating Trump. In the UK, Nigel Farage is hovering menacingly. In France, Marine Le Pen could easily become president of the republic, and so on.

All over the world, hitherto marginal figures who share Trump’s contempt for fact-based rationality and informed policy making, good manners and basic civility will be jumping on the populist bandwagon.

Some media organisations will strive to maintain critical scrutiny over the Trump administration, others will become cheerleaders and propagandists such as Sean Hannity on Fox News. No-one can assume that in this atmosphere what we still call “liberal” democracy will survive.

If the democracy we have built in so many places around the world since 1945 is to outlast one or perhaps two Trump terms, all who reject the political philosophy of the strongman and the bully must prepare to counter it, in their private lives and public utterances.

They should do so in the knowledge that Trump is a minority president, defeated in the popular vote, the perverse product of a dysfunctional political and media system which for too long treated him as an absurd novelty and then, having given him the opening, had no means of preventing his rise.

He won by the rules, though if the dirty dossier is even a bit accurate, he did not play fair. We must remember that when his supporters start demanding “respect” for the office, and for Trump himself.

For a president who has transgressed so many of the conventions which make our democracies civilised and decent, respect is not an entitlement. It must be earned.

So come on Donald, prove yourself fit to be president, and prove us sceptics wrong.

If in four years time the American and global economy are just as strong or stronger than Obama helped make them; if the Chinese and the Russians have been dissuaded from their expansionist and illegal activities in the South China Sea and eastern Europe; if the progressive sexual politics and multiculturalism of the past decades have not been reversed; and if Islamic jihad has indeed been defeated as you assert only you can do – then you’ll have my respect.

I’ll even eat my Make America Great Again hat.

The ConversationBrian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission).  Read the original article.

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Amanda Vanstone on narcissists

‘Narcissists are on uncomfortable ground when they are not the centre of the world… These people on the edge need to understand that the rest of us will not back down on our view just because they have a different one.

They have to be made to accept that we all have an equal right to hold different views. With any luck we can drag some of them to seeing that we all have an equal responsibility to have some understanding of each other’s point of view. Those discussions are where we find the true meaning of democracy, the great conversation of all of our lives.’ – Amanda Vanstone, The Sydney Morning Herald, January 1 2017

 

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Justice Beech-Jones on parliamentarians

‘The overwhelming majority of parliamentarians are not motivated by an intention to enrich themselves or their families. Instead, they act in what they believe to be the best interests of the electorate, cognisant that the most likely reward for their service is persistent criticism and ultimately electoral rejection. The continuity and relative strength of our parliamentary democracy is a product of their efforts and the maintenance of public confidence in their honesty. All the work of parliamentarians can be destroyed by the wilful misconduct of only some of their members. Corruption by elected representatives consumes democracies. It destroys public confidence in democratic institutions. It opens up consideration of alternative modes of government, especially those that offer an illusion of security and order.’

Excerpt from  sentencing remarks by Beech-Jones J in R v Obeid (No. 12) [2016] NSWSC 1815 (15 December 2016).

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Trump’s claims of a conspiracy against him are undermining democracy

The Conversation

Stephen Harrington, Queensland University of Technology

Two months ago – in a piece I submitted to this website, but which was not published – I wrote:

As the coming months unfold, [Donald] Trump is likely to do or say something that will push him beyond a hitherto unforeseen event horizon that will almost completely break his candidacy.

And, when the post-election analyses are written, it’s looking very likely that “grab them by the pussy” will be marked as that event horizon: the point at which public (and, particularly, Republican) support moved away from him to a point of no return.

Although, as a result, many political observers around the world now seem almost certain to breathe a sigh of relief on November 8, that sense of relief might also be premature.

‘The election is going to be rigged…’

Donald Trump was never going to be a magnanimous loser. Big egos almost never enjoy a soft landing when they fall.

It’s hard to imagine a man who once disputed the outcome of the Emmy Awards would suddenly become more gracious when the stakes were raised, and when running against a female opponent.

As far back as August he was buying insurance for a potential electoral loss by telling his supporters:

I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest.

In recent days, now faced with an almost certain landslide loss, he has massively ramped-up that rhetoric.

Donald Trump’s supporters worry about the ‘rigged’ election.

When pressed during Wednesday’s third presidental debate by moderator Chris Wallace as to whether he would accept the election outcome, Trump said he’d “keep [us] in suspense”.

That may be a non-answer, but it is still an unprecedented move by a major political candidate in the US.

Why we need faith in the system

It is quite normal for people to lack faith in their political representatives or to disagree with them, even vehemently, on ideological grounds.

It is also common for politicians to claim that they have been represented unfairly. Conservative politicians, for instance, have long railed against the so-called “liberal” media. Indeed, Trump is claiming that negative coverage of his campaign is one part of big conspiracy to have Clinton elected (who, ironically, also once complained about conspiracies herself):

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It is, however, quite another thing entirely for people to feel that officials have been elevated illegally to their positions, or that the electoral apparatus itself is corrupt. For them to get that feeling from the presidential nominee of a major political party is very dangerous indeed.

Democracy rests heavily on the idea that, though we may not like those who govern, they gained that power by fair means, and there will be another opportunity to remove them from power via the same mechanism in the near future.

In order for the political system to work, we require broadly shared faith that it does work: a somewhat circuitous idea academics have called “system legitimacy”.

In healthy democracies, the vanquished play a crucial part in this by performing a display of respect for the will of the people, often in the form of a gracious concession speech. In some cases they can display extraordinary goodwill to their former rivals.

That is why Trump’s attempt to paint himself (and his supporters) as the victim of a corrupt system may be uniquely damaging, and may permanently reshape the political landscape. Because this is unprecedented, we have no idea what the long-term effects of this strategy might be.

Suggesting that the election is “rigged” creates doubt among some citizens as to whether they should even bother voting in the first place. It can intimidate those who do choose to vote, and lead some fringe groups to believe that politicians should be removed by force.

In a country that loves guns – and their open carriage – as deeply as America, it’s a potentially deadly combination.

Governing after Trump

Trump prides himself on being a political “outsider” who – unlike the “career politicians” he disparages – has not devoted his life to the political system. So, assuming he is defeated in less than three weeks, he has no investment in the ongoing stability of American democracy.

It would be my guess, therefore, that he will be content to keep his supporters in a state of permanent anger for as long as possible.

In fact, observers have suspected for some time that his ultimate goal might be to leverage that support to create his own news media outlet, which might explain why he currently has Stephen Bannon (formerly of Breitbart) and Roger Ailes (the disgraced former CEO of Fox News) working for his campaign.

A news outlet of this sort would presumably contribute even further to what I have called “a collapse of factual consensus” in recent years, in which it’s becoming almost impossible to find societal (let alone political) agreement on reality.

At the same time, existing partisan divides are getting wider and wider.

Even John McCain, the man who once built a political movement around rejecting extreme partisanship, now says that the Republican Party won’t hold hearings for any of Hillary Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations. This too, as Ed Kilgore points out, is unprecedented.

Hillary Clinton will go where no woman has gone before when she becomes the president of the United States. But, if this instability and obstructionism continues, she will face challenges that no president before her has faced either.

Rupert Murdoch once called Australia “ungovernable”. But, thanks in large part to Trump’s destructive efforts, Clinton may soon find out what a truly “ungovernable” nation really looks like.

The ConversationStephen Harrington, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Media and Communication, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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What’s in a name? How a democracy becomes an aristocracy

The Conversation

Sandra Field, Yale-NUS College

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Is there something about the deep logic of democracy that destines it to succeed in the world? Democracy, the form of politics that includes everyone as equals – does it perhaps suit human nature better than the alternatives? After all, surely any person who is excluded from the decision-making in a society will be more liable to rise up against it.

From ancient thinkers like Seneca to contemporary thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, we can see some version of this line of thought. Seneca thought that tyrannies could never last long; Fukuyama famously argued that liberal democracy is the end of history.

I want to focus instead on the person credited with giving the most direct and uncompromising statement of this thought: Benedict de Spinoza.

For centuries, “democracy” was a term of abuse, understood as a dangerous form of mob rule. Spinoza was one of the first in the history of modern political thought to celebrate democracy.

Living in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, amid political turmoil in his own country, and witnessing the disorders across the channel in England, Spinoza was intensely interested in the concrete, material basis for peace.

Spinoza was the one of the first to celebrate democracy
as a material basis for peace. 
Wikipedia Commons

He argues that monarchies are flawed political orders because they fail to harness the power of the people. Out of a well-founded fear of being overthrown, they oppress their subjects. The subjects, hating their king, have no loyalty and obey only out of fear.

Also, even the most virtuous king will have difficulty making wise and constant decisions that everyone can respect and uphold. A monarchy can only improve itself by approximating a democracy: instituting a representative assembly to which the king must defer.

But surely an even more direct way to harness the power of the people is not to have a king at all and to simply organise society as a democracy.

Democracies directly engage their citizens’ loyalty by politically involving them. Having diverse voices in their collective decision-making then allows better decisions to be made.

Managing inclusion and exclusion

Thus, Spinoza celebrates democracy and criticises monarchy. On this basis, he is hailed as a democrat and the originator of a radical, materialist conception of democracy, grounded in the power of the people.

But we should be careful here. Between monarchy as rule of the one and democracy as rule of the many, there is an intermediate option: aristocracy, or rule of the few.

Spinoza’s view of aristocracy should give pause to radical democrats. He does not see a historical movement towards democracy, nor does he see the superiority of democracy as written into human nature.

To be sure, politically including everyone, as in a democracy, can harness the power of the people. But Spinoza’s analysis of the commoners within an aristocracy shows the power of the people can equally be harnessed by political exclusion, so long as the depoliticised acquiescence of those excluded commoners is secured.

Everyone’s equal except new arrivals

Spinoza remarks that people generally conceive of themselves as equals and therefore resist political inequality. However, he also tells us a historical story of how this self-conception might be disrupted.

Suppose a population settles in a new place. Nobody wants to be subordinated to anyone else, so they view themselves as equals and organise themselves as a democracy.

Later, immigrants arrive. The locals, Spinoza writes:

… think it unfair that foreigners who come to join them should have equal rights in a state which they have won for themselves by their toil and at cost of their blood.

Do the immigrants object? No, says Spinoza:

Nor do the foreigners themselves make any objection to this, having come to settle there not with view to being rulers but to promote their private interests, and they are quite happy provided they are granted freedom to transact their own business in security.

The regime is transformed into an aristocracy, with the immigrants as the commoners excluded from political participation.

The crucial thing to note is that the power of the commoners is harnessed to the aristocracy. They comply with the laws of the country and contribute to its flourishing, not because they are politically included, but because they are content with their private economic freedoms. In other words, their depoliticised acquiescence is secured.

Most immigrants to the US want nothing more than a shot at the American Dream.

An unequal order can be stable

Spinoza believes that an unequal political order can be stable. This is because a well-organised aristocracy will have a robust collective decision-making process in its political assembly (thus not being fickle like the rule of a king) and procedures to ensure that, despite their political inequality, the commoners have legal equality and do not suffer abuse.

This example shows that the desire and demand for political equality is not a human universal. Rather, it can be quelled or extinguished under certain circumstances, such as when it is balanced against other desires and expectations.

Spinoza’s story fairly transparently reflects his understanding of the history of Venice. In Spinoza’s time, many writers viewed the aristocratic Venetian republic as the exemplar of good, peaceful and harmonious political order.

So Spinoza may well make a striking new move in the history of political thought by defending the idea of a good democratic regime. But he does not radically reject the common sense of political thought in his period. To the contrary, he provides a theoretical frame for understanding the real possibility of good aristocratic regimes.

The lesson is not that all aristocracies will be as good as Venice. A poorly organised aristocracy will face rebellion from its disgruntled commoners.

But if the material contentment and basic dignity of the commoners are upheld and their expectations carefully managed, an aristocracy can harness the power of the people just as well as a democracy.

Democracy can be hollowed out

Despite the prevalence of democracy today, the phenomenon of depoliticised acquiescence should not be unfamiliar to contemporary eyes.

For example, the United States is formally democratic. Nonetheless, it features two significant forms of political exclusion: migrant populations (legal and illegal) excluded from franchise; and a large proportion of the eligible voting population who (are encouraged to) self-exclude by not voting.

From voter ID laws to literacy tests such as this one from 1964, the right to vote in the US remains threatened.

These excluded groups are mostly depoliticised: they are not politically involved, do not seek to make political claim on a larger share of the benefits of social co-operation, and do not mount a serious challenge to the broad stability of the political order or to popular compliance with its laws and institutions.

The predictable result is that they face persistently unequal outcomes in wealth, health and other indicators.

Bringing my Spinozist frame to bear on this phenomenon, we can view immigrants and non-voters as latter-day commoners, whose behaviour reflects their depoliticised acquiescence. When their disadvantage becomes extreme, then they may become politicised and rebellious. Yet so long as this does not happen and they remain depoliticised, their unequal consideration in public policy is unchallenged.

The idea that human nature has some special affinity with democracy as a regime of political inclusion is too rosy. We need to recognise that human nature can equally be channelled into an exclusive kind of democracy.

Contemporary democracy contains within itself impulses towards inclusion, but also impulses towards exclusion. Aristocratic democracy (to use a historical term which sounds strange to contemporary ears) is a real possibility. If we are not attentive, it can insidiously empty out the substantive promise of democratic rule by the people.

The ConversationSandra Field, Assistant Professor of Humanities (Philosophy), Yale-NUS College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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A New Democratic Enlightenment?

The Conversation

John Keane, University of Sydney

This is the slightly rewritten text of my address to the opening plenary session, ‘New Enlightenment Neue Aufklärung’, at the European Forum Alpbach, Alpbach, Austria, 28 August 2016.

European Forum Alpbach, Austria

Ladies and Gentlemen, Citizens and Citizenesses:

The disintegration of Europe that the world is witnessing, and in some quarters beginning to fear, no doubt has multiple causes and causers. One cause whose power to shape ultimate outcomes should not be underestimated is the felt decadence of democratic institutions. Many observers speak of a developing crisis of European democracy. While the headline phrase triggers my discomfort about unwarranted exaggeration, it plausibly captures a basic fact of contemporary European politics: the fact that the present-day paralysis of the spirit and institutions of democracy in the European region is bound up with the slow death of social democracy.

In the Austrian context, in the run-up to a bitterly contested presidential election, I’m aware that talk of the death of social democracy sounds straightforwardly a political statement. Understandably so, for once upon a time the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAPÖ) was among the most powerful, dynamic and forward-thinking party machines of the modern world. In striking contrast, today’s Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) is a sickly pale shadow of its former robust self. The decline of social democracy in Austria is palpable. Yet what I have to offer to you this afternoon is an analysis that aims to be less local and more far-reaching, an audit of social democracy that is at the same time conceptual and historical and concerned with global trends, a probe that equally pays attention to language, through which (I remind you in the village of Erwin Schrödinger) people form pictures of ‘reality’ and move through their world.

Enlightenment

The theme of our European Forum Alpbach symposium on politics is the New Enlightenment (Neue Aufklärung) so here’s my opening conjecture: the language and ideal of social democracy has its roots in the 18th-century Enlightenment. Enlightenment: when people encounter the word, they think immediately of reason and rationality, a black swan moment when new mental energies flowed, when the early modern 18th-century world began to be turned upside down by fearless criticism of prejudice, pride and power.

The interpretation is unfortunately too simple. Truth is that the intellectual upheaval that came to be called the Enlightenment (the phrase was largely a 19th-century neologism, typically circulated by its enemies) was a much messier affair. Historians, philosophers and political thinkers have taught us to see this 18th-century upheaval in less Whiggish and sanguine ways. Most analysts of the so-called Enlightenment today prefer to view it as multiple enlightenments, as various intellectual and literary tendencies centred on many different themes, with positive and negative effects.

Consider, for example, how Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Michel Foucault long ago challenged us to see that the 18th-century fetish of ‘reason’, its will to know everything and to measure and master the world, fed the spirit of bureaucratic ‘unreason’, incarceration and totalitarian rule. Or think of Isaiah Berlin’s reminder that the opponents of Enlightenment, dubbed the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, included thinkers, poets, painters and writers who plausibly championed pluralism and attacked the blind belief in scientific progress, in effect because they viewed the world as shaped not by the ‘laws of nature’, but by the contingencies of history.

My research on Thomas Paine and the eighteenth century (published as Tom Paine: A Political Life) tried to complicate matters by making the point that the Enlightenment also included champions of civil rights, social justice and democratic representation, rebels and radicals who were sharply aware of the miseries suffered by people ground down by modern institutions not of their own choosing. These dissenting rebels despised misery. Thanks to them, we could say, misery was given its proper name. Starvation and indignity, violence and powerlessness, were denounced as unnecessary blights on the face of the world. Misery was no longer regarded as God-given, or as part of the natural order of things (natura naturans). It was seen to be contingent, remediable, if necessary by means of revolutionary upheavals.

Social Democracy

Social democracy was the offspring of this bold way of imagining a world freed from misery. Its fortunes were tied to the rise and expansion of modern industrial capitalism. Coined during the 1840s, the neologism Sozialdemokratie first circulated among disaffected German-speaking skilled craftsmen, farm and factory workers, whose support for social democracy made possible the conversion of isolated pockets of social resistance into powerful mass movements protected by trade unions, political parties and governments committed to widening the franchise and building welfare state institutions.

Market inequalities fuelled resentments among the supporters of social democracy. Their powerful charge was that ‘free market’ competition produces chronic gaps between winners and losers and, eventually, a society defined by private splendour and public squalor. If Eduard Bernstein, Karl Renner, Rosa Luxemburg, Clement Attlee, Jawaharlal Nehru or Bruno Kreisky were suddenly to reappear in our midst, they would not be surprised by the way practically all market-driven democracies are today coming to resemble hour glass-shaped societies. In these societies, as Thomas Piketty and other political economists explain, the wealth of small numbers of extremely rich people has multiplied, the shrinking middle classes feel insecure and the ranks of the permanently poor and the precariat are swelling – as in the United States, the richest capitalist market economy on the face of the earth, where 1% of households now own 38% of the national wealth; or in Britain, where at the end of three decades of deregulated growth, 30 per cent of children live in poverty; or in Austria, where at least 20% of citizens are now suffering money and dignity problems.

Social democrats of the 19th- and early-20th centuries found obnoxious, and actively resisted, social inequality on this scale. They railed against the general dehumanising effects of treating people as commodities. Social democrats acknowledged the technical prowess, productivity and dynamism of markets. But they were sure that love and friendship, family life, public freedoms and the vote could not be bought with money, or somehow be manufactured by commodity production, exchange and consumption. That was the whole point of their radical demands for a living wage, the abolition of child labour and Eight Hours Work, Eight Hours Recreation and Eight Hours Rest. In the dark year of 1944, the Hungarian social democrat Karl Polanyi put the point in defiant words: ‘To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment’, he wrote, ‘would result in the demolition of society’. His reasoning, traceable to the 18th-century Enlightenment, was that human beings are ‘fictitious commodities’. His conclusion: dignity through democracy had to be fought for politically, which at a minimum meant the weakening of market forces and strengthening the hand of the commonweal against private profits, money and selfishness.

Market Failures

More than a few social democrats went further, by pointing out, in opposition to Jean-Baptiste Say, Friedrich von Hayek and other liberal political economists, the reasons why unregulated markets are prone to collapse. Economists of recent decades have regularly described these failures as ‘externalities’, but their jargon is misleading. Something more fundamental is at stake. Free markets periodically cripple themselves, sometimes to the point of total breakdown, for instance because (a) they whip up socially disruptive storms of technical innovation (Joseph Schumpeter’s point) or because (b) as we know from recent bitter experience, unregulated markets generate bubbles whose inevitable bursting bring whole economies to their knees.

The social democratic critique of free market capitalism proved compelling for millions of people. But what exactly did social democracy mean to its champions and sympathisers? Winning parliamentary elections and controlling the levers of state power, certainly. Yet there was always some muddle over the meaning of the ‘social’ in social democracy; and there were frequent brawls about whether and how the taming of markets, which many called ‘democracy’ and ‘socialism’, could be achieved.

There is no time for me to recall the great moments of high drama, conceptual strife and contradictions, dark sides and luscious ironies that form part of a recorded history that includes courageous struggles of the downtrodden to form co-operatives, friendly societies, free trade unions, and to spread literacy and win the struggle for the universal franchise through social democratic parties. There were fractious splits that gave birth to anarchism and Bolshevism; and outbursts of nationalism and xenophobia and (in Sweden) experiments with eugenics. The history also includes the re-launch of social democratic parties at the Frankfurt Declaration of the Socialist International (1951), as well as efforts to nationalise railways and heavy industry, to socialise the provision of health care and formal education for all citizens. And the history of social democracy also embraces big and bold thinking, romantic talk of the need to abolish alienation, respect for what Paul Lafargue called the right to be lazy (le droit à la paresse), even the vision of a future communist society projected by his father-in-law Karl Marx, a society in which women and men, freed from the shackles of the market, went hunting in the morning, fished in the afternoon and, after a good dinner, engaged others in frank political discussion.

A Slow Death

A strange but striking feature of the history of social democracy is just how distant and worn out this language now feels. The slow death of social democracy during the past several decades has the quality of an unfolding political tragedy; it certainly signals the decline and disappearance of the spirit and substance of the old Enlightenment. Yes, there is a Grosse Koalition in Germany, and a red-green government led by Stefan Löfven in Sweden. But almost everywhere social democratic political parties and organisations have run out of steam; their loss of organising energy and political imagination is palpable. Collaborators with financial capitalism (Jürgen Kocka) then double-speak apologists of austerity, their Third Way has turned out to be a dead end.

Gone are the flags, historic speeches and bouquets of red roses. Party leader intellectuals of the calibre of Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932), Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941) and C.A.R. Crosland (1918-1977) are figures of a distant past. Today’s party leaders who still dare to call themselves social democrats are by comparison intellectual pygmies. Loud calls for greater equality, social justice and public service have faded, often into choking silence. Positive references to the Keynesian welfare state have disappeared. As if to prove that social democracy was just an intermezzo between capitalism and more capitalism, these leaders speak of budgetary restraint, triple ‘A’ ratings, ‘renewed growth’ and ‘competition’, public-private partnerships, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘business partners’.

Sometimes the duplicity induces pain. I once witnessed the fabulist Tony Blair reassure a gathering of trade unionists that he was against free market forces before moving on, two hours later, after a light lunch together, to tell a group of business executives exactly the opposite. The crisis of Atlantic-region capitalism since 2008 seems to have amplified the duplicity. Within the dwindling ranks of committed social democrats, few now call themselves socialists (Alexis Tsipras and Jeremy Corbyn are exceptions), or even social democrats. Most leaders are party faithful, machine men and women surrounded by media advisers, connoisseurs of governmental power geared to free markets. Few make noise about tax avoidance by big business and the rich, the decay of public services, the weakening of trade unions, or rising inequality. All of them, usually without knowing it, are blind apologists of the drift towards a new form of financial capitalism protected by what I have elsewhere called ‘banking states’ that have lost control over money supply, so that in most democratic countries over 95% of the ‘broad money’ supply is now in the hands of private banks and credit institutions.

Ladies and gentlemen: social democracy failed to understand, let alone regulate, this new historical type of capitalism, whose near-breakdown in 2007/2008 has damaged the lives of millions of people in Europe and elsewhere. But the disintegration of social democracy has been overdetermined by other, multiple forces. Among the most important are these entangled trends, here summarised in the briefest form:

● Membership of social democratic parties has dipped dramatically. Although accurate figures are hard to obtain – these parties are notoriously secretive about their active membership lists – we know that in 1950 the Norwegian Labour Party, one of the most successful in the world, had over 200,000 paid-up members; and that today its membership is barely one-quarter that figure. Much the same trend is evident within the British Labour Party, whose membership peaked in the early 1950s at over 1 million and is today less than half that figure. Helped by the recent £3 special offer registration, total membership of the Labour Party is now around 370,000 – less than the 400,000 figure recorded at the 1997 general election. During Blair’s years of leadership alone, membership declined steadily every year from 405,000 to 166,000. When it is considered that during the post-1945 period, the size of the electorate in most countries has been steadily increasing (by 20% between 1964 and 2005 in Britain alone) the proportion of people who are no longer members of social democratic parties is far more substantial than even the raw numbers suggest. The figures imply a profound waning of enthusiasm for social democracy in party form. Satirists might even say that its parties are waging a new political struggle: the struggle for self-effacement.

● Social democratic parties were among the slowest to react to the upheavals effected by the digital, globally networked communications revolution that began during the 1960s. The harnessing of big data through networked campaigning techniques by these parties has often been resisted, or ignored. Striking is the contrast with the powerful social democratic parties of the late 19th century. They stood for universal public literacy and published influential newspapers, books, pamphlets and best-selling utopian novels and literary fantasies such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000–1887 (1888). Social democracy was once a powerful symbol of democratic openness and communicative empowerment. Today it symbolises sound bites and media grabs, the avoidance of bad news. The old class struggles have been replaced by phrase struggles;

● Social democratic parties have shown limited awareness of the emergence, since the 1940s, of monitory democracy. This is a new historical form of democracy in which free and fair elections and parliaments are of declining importance, certainly when compared with the rising importance of the public monitoring and restraint – humbling – of arbitrary power by means of a multitude of newly-invented watchdog institutions such as citizens’ assemblies, teach-ins, public forums, activist courts, environmental networks and WikiLeaks, to name just a few innovations;

● Gripped by a territorial state mentality and confined to nation state barracks, social democratic parties have underestimated the agenda-setting and blackmail and veto effects of cross-border chains of organised corporate and governmental power. Operating within the boundaries of territorial states, social democratic parties and governments have consequently been weakened and victimised by what Albert Einstein dubbed ‘spooky action at a distance’: cross-border butterfly effects, arbitrage pressures and quantum tunnels, all of which have greatly complicated the politics of wealth and income redistribution;

● The rise of the People’s Republic of China as an economic great power on the global power stage has had two ironic effects: it has weakened an important part of the social support base of social democracy (industrial manufacturing, trade unions, workers) and established a viable ‘socialist’ alternative to capitalism in social democratic form: one party state capitalism legitimated by locally-made forms of democratic rule; and

● The long-term silence of social democrats about environmental degradation has accelerated the death of social democracy. We have entered an age of gradually rising public awareness of the destructive effects of the modern human will to dominate our biosphere, of the bad habit of treating nature, just as Africans or indigenous peoples were once treated, as commodities, as objects of production, profit and other selfishly human ends.

This last-mentioned development needs some elaboration. For more than half a generation, beginning with works such as Rachel Carson’s _Silent Spring _(1962), green thinkers, scientists, journalists, politicians and social movement activists have been pointing out that the whole social democratic tradition is implicated deeply in the spoliation of our planet. They note that social democracy was the Janus face of free-market capitalism: both stood for the human domination of nature. Hence they call for a new politics with green qualities, a new democratic enlightenment that poses a fundamental challenge to both the style and substance of the old social democracy, or what remains of it.

The New Democratic Enlightenment

What is this new democratic enlightenment? It has multiple features, especially a strong sense of the complexity and indeterminacy of things and processes in our world. It displays resistance to wilful simplification, and opposition to all ideologies, including populism. There is preference for extra-parliamentary civic action and monitory democracy against the old model of electoral democracy in territorial state form. The Neue Aufklärung features sympathy for a rich repertoire of new political tactics practised in a variety of local and cross-border settings: citizen science networks, Barcelona-style municipalismo, bio-regional assemblies, green political parties (the first in the world was the United Tasmania Group), earth watch summits and the skilful staging of non-violent media events (Greenpeace originally called them ‘mind bombs’).

The new democratic enlightenment is marked by an earthy cosmopolitanism. It displays a deep sensitivity to the global interdependence of peoples and their ecosystems. There is support for new post-carbon energy regimes and opposition to fossil-fuelled growth and habitat destruction. There is also acute awareness of the opportunities and dangers posed by marketisation of the most intimate areas of everyday life, for instance fertility outsourcing, data harvesting, nanotechnologies, stem cell research and humanoid robots. The new enlightenment has a clear understanding of the golden rule that whoever has the gold rules. It displays strong awareness that market control of daily life, civil society and political institutions has negative social and political consequences, unless checked by open public debate, political resistance, public regulation and the positive redistribution of wealth, for instance through a basic citizens’ income. Especially striking is the new enlightenment’s call for the ‘de-commodification’ (Claus Offe) of the biosphere, in effect, the replacement of social democracy’s will to dominate nature and its innocent attachment to History with a more prudent sense of ‘deep time’ aware of the fragile complexity of the biosphere and its multiple rhythms.

The new democratic enlightenment is opposed to the old social democratic metaphysics of economic progress, and the machismo of its favoured imagery of warrior male bodies gathered at the gates of pits, docks and factories, singing hymns to industrial growth, under smoke-stained skies. The new enlightenment issues a warning: that unless we human beings change our ways with the world in which we dwell things may turn out badly – very badly indeed. Its overall attitude to the world is precautionary: whether we know it or not, it is said, we humans are now deciding which evolutionary pathway awaits us, including the possibility that we are trapped in an extinction event of our own making.

It is worth asking whether these themes of the new enlightenment are evidence of a black swan moment in global affairs? Are they proof that we are living through the beginning of a large phase transformation analogous to the last decades of the 18th century, when the rough-and-tumble resistance to the miseries produced by market-driven industrial capitalism slowly but surely morphed into a highly disciplined workers’ movement receptive to the siren calls of social democracy?

It is impossible to know with utter certainty whether these are the right questions, or whether our times are like that. Only the historians of the future will be able to tell us, yet it should be noted that many champions of the new enlightenment are now convinced that a tipping point has indeed been reached. Their sense of alternative possibilities (Robert Musil’s Möglichkeitsinne) is strong. In effect, the new enlightenment is an exercise in democracy ‘dreaming itself’. It demands that democracy be taken seriously and self-reflexively redefined as monitory democracy. It insists that the point is not only to change the world, but also to interpret it in new ways, through new languages, to grasp that so many things of our times are too strange to be thought, to see that although democracy is never fully realisable, that it is always the ‘democracy to come’ (Jacques Derrida), it is nevertheless still the most powerful earthly weapon available for humbling the powerful and taming their arrogant and foolish will to power.

But where does this new enlightenment leave social democracy? What is the relationship between the first and second enlightenments? Thinking social democrats will reply to such questions by emphasising the flexibility of their creed, the capacity of their originally 19th-century standpoint to adapt to 21st-century circumstances. I have friends and colleagues who are adamant that it’s much too early to bid farewell to social democracy. They reject the charge that it is a worn-out ideology whose moments of triumph belong to the past, or that it is a mournful lament for the achievements of bygone days (Tony Judt).

These social democrats admit that the goal of re-building social solidarity among citizens through civil society and government action has been damaged by market-produced inequality and fudged agendas designed to win votes from business, the rich and right-wing political competitors. These thinking social democrats know that the old slogans and sense of time of social democracy are exhausted. They admit to being impressed by the media-savvy initiatives and staged détournement of civic networks such as M-15, Amnesty International and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, whose actions aim to put a stop to the violence of states, armies and gangs, but also to corporate misconduct and market injustices and miseries in cross-border settings. These thinking social democrats then play the ace card in their pack: they reiterate the importance of ‘complex equality’ (Michael Walzer) as the core value of their creed. These social democrats aim to retrieve its most fruitful old ‘wish image’ (Wunschbild) to deal politically with the new problems of our time. They are sure that the old topic of misery, inequality, capitalism and democracy deserves to be revived. In a recent lecture in Firenze, along these lines, Jürgen Kocka, one of Germany’s most influential social democratic intellectuals, expressed this point well. The new ‘financialised’ capitalism, he noted, is ‘becoming more and more market radical, more mobile, unsteady and breathless’. His conclusion is defiant: ‘capitalism is not democratic and democracy not capitalistic’.

The Future?

Ladies and gentlemen: you will no doubt be asking after the chances of practical success of the new enlightenment, this new dreaming of democracy. In Europe and elsewhere, how viable is the hope that red and green can be mixed, you will ask? Can the result be more than bland shades of neutral brown? Might the old and new be combined into a powerful force for an enlightened politics of democratic equality against the power of money and markets and their ruination of our biosphere? Time will tell whether the proposed metamorphosis I’ve sketched can happen successfully. As things stand, only one thing can safely be said. If the new enlightenment happened then it would confirm an old political axiom famously outlined by the English designer, poet and socialist William Morris (1834 – 1896): when enlightened people fight for liberty, equality and democracy, he noted, the battles and wars they lose typically inspire others to carry on their fight. When they do that, in much-changed circumstances, he noted, they need to experiment with new languages, and use new and improved means, fuelled by new hopes and new sensibilities. Shouldn’t a new enlightenment, a second enlightenment that is less intellectually arrogant and more democratically powerful than its predecessor, heed this wise advice?

The ConversationJohn Keane, Professor of Politics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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Explainer: what is free speech?

The Conversation

David van Mill, University of Western Australia

Who can say what to whom in Australia? In this six-part series, we look at the complex idea of freedom of speech, who gets to exercise it and whether it is being curtailed in public debate.


The term “free speech” is not ideal. The “free” part skews in favour of those who oppose regulation and the “speech” part puts the focus on the spoken word, even though the discussion embraces wider communication including art, writing, films, plays, flag burning and advertising.

It might, therefore, be better to drop the term “free speech” to highlight that the debate is really about whether or not we should regulate the communication of ideas, thoughts and beliefs.

This analysis, however, is not the place to rewrite the terms of reference. So I will use the term free speech with the caveat that “free” does not mean a lack of regulation, and “speech” covers a variety of activities.

Justifying free speech

It is not enough to say “three cheers for speech!”, because if we don’t know why speech is important we don’t know if it is worth protecting.

John Stuart Mill thought that freedom of thought and discussion (he doesn’t use the term “free speech”) is valuable because it brings us closer to the truth, which in turn promotes utility. Alexander Meiklejohn suggests speech is important because it allows for democratic self-government. And Thomas Scanlon and C. Edwin Baker argue that free expression is justified because it promotes autonomy.

These are the three heavyweight contenders in the debate about why speech is important.

The important thing to notice about all of them is that the justification offered in favour of speech also allows for some limitations. If expression is justified because it promotes truth, we have no grounds for defending it when truth is undermined. Speech that damages democratic processes will find itself unprotected by the self-government thesis. And if the autonomy argument is compelling we will not want to protect speech that undermines this goal.

The heated debate about “political correctness” (a term I dislike), or PC, demonstrates this nicely. The usual claim is that PC stifles free speech. This accusation is difficult to quantify. PC might, for example, limit the speech of white men but enhance that of minorities; I would need more data before reaching a conclusion.

But the complaint itself tells us something about the complex nature of speech. Why complain at all? The usual answer is that communication is being muted by PC. This seems to be an argument that we should oppose PC in the name of free speech itself. To make this claim we need to show why speech is important (enter justification here). Once we offer a justification we again have an argument for why speech can be limited.

Perhaps combining the three justifications discussed above will allow for lots of unregulated speech. This doesn’t seem to work because the three accounts often clash. Justifying speech because it promotes truth, for example, seems to allow silencing many a politician (oh joy!) and hence interfering with political speech.

These difficulties suggest that any persuasive argument about speech (as opposed to saying “three cheers”) has to embrace the fact that speech can, and indeed should, be limited. An even more confronting conclusion is that giving reasons for why speech is important makes us reveal underlying values that seem to be even more fundamental than speech itself.

Which speech deserves special protection?

Having (hopefully) established that speech is not unconditionally good, the next task is to determine what the appropriate limits should be.

This will depend in large part on why speech is justified in the first place. The autonomy account will offer different protections than the truth/utility account which in turn will differ from the self-government justification.

Mill, for example, tells us that truth is best promoted by allowing a great deal of communication. But he is willing to shut down speech if it leads to unacceptable harm. This argument faces difficulties, one being harmful speech might lead us towards truth.

His justification for speech seems to clash with his reason for limiting speech. Mill was a pretty smart guy, but even he struggled to provide a coherent and consistent position on free speech.

The thing to keep in mind is that the justifications we use to defend speech will always prioritise some forms of communication over others, and this will be our guide to picking out speech most in need of protection. This again suggests that speech is not valuable in and of itself.

Should some speech acts be punished?

What should we do with speech that is not protected by our favoured justification? The answer depends on balancing the speech act in question against other values.

If the speech is not causing harm we might want to leave it alone. Others might think that harmless but grossly offensive speech should be punished. If speech reveals wartime secrets to the enemy we might want to put the person in prison.

Engaging in hate speech in Europe can quite possibly lead to the same outcome. Libel will incur civil rather than criminal charges. And Mill suggests that in many instances the appropriate punishment for speech is “social disapprobation” rather than legal penalty.

The reason why the argument over free speech has not been put to bed long ago is that people bring different sets of values to the discussion. The debate does not takes place in a vacuum and arguments have to be assessed against social norms, values and institutions. Speech is a social phenomenon because it requires speakers and listeners to engage with one another. The “problem” of free speech does not exist for the person stranded on a deserted island.

Even people with the same values can disagree on the facts of the matter. They might accept Mill’s argument that speech can be limited if it causes harm but disagree over whether hate speech, for example, is captured by the harm principle.

The topic quickly becomes devilishly difficult. The one thing I can say with confidence is that it is unlikely a one-size-fits-all principle will help us navigate the treacherous waters of free speech.

The ConversationDavid van Mill, Associate Professor in Political Science and International Relations, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.
 

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Election explainer: why do I have to vote, anyway?

The Conversation

Lisa Hill, University of Adelaide

Before too long Australians will be heading off to the polls. As usual there will be complaints from those who object to being required to vote when the majority of Western democracies remain voluntary.

Yet almost of all those voluntary settings are battling escalating turnout decline and, with it, the slow death of representative democracy. Australians continue to enjoy turnout levels that are the envy of voluntary-voting regimes the world over.

Why have compulsory voting?

Australia has one of the oldest systems of compulsory voting. Queensland was the first Australian state to introduce it in 1914, but voting did not become compulsory at the federal level until 1924.

Compulsory voting was adopted to tackle the problem of low voter turnout. At the time, it hovered below 60%.

It turned out to be an extremely decisive and well-accepted remedy. After its introduction, turnout surged dramatically to more than 90% of registered voters. It has stayed that way ever since.

Compulsory voting can therefore improve turnout by up to 30 percentage points. Conversely, when a well-established democratic system abandons it, turnout drops steeply by between 20 and 30 percentage points, as happened recently in Chile.

Critics of compulsory voting often claim there are equally effective, voluntary means for raising voter turnout. But compulsory voting is the only really reliable and decisive means for keeping turnout high. And its effect is immediate.

There are several sound reasons for requiring people to vote.

When everyone votes, governments are more legitimate. People tend to think of democracy as a constitutional form but, really, it is an activity constituted by the political participation of citizens. Unless it is performed it only exists in theory.

There are many ways of performing democracy. But voting is the most-consequential and, arguably, least-demanding method, especially in well-run systems such as Australia’s. Through voting, we sign up to the political community and enter into a partnership with other members so that together we can constitute democracy as it is meant to be:

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Because the one-vote one-value principle is embodied in democratic practice and ensured through almost-complete participation, voting in Australia is one of the few activities that allow us to express our equality with other citizens and to exercise our interests equally in self-government and self-protection.

This is why participation should be universal. If only a few participate, the political community is only partially and lopsidedly constituted. All must join with all, not some with some, especially when that “some” turns out to be the prosperous and well-educated as is invariably the case in voluntary systems.

Does compulsory voting do any good?

Compulsory voting regimes have lower levels of corruption.

They also have higher levels of satisfaction with the way democracy is working than do voluntary systems. In compulsory voting regimes – where just about everybody votes – government attention and spending is more evenly distributed across social classes.

More evenly distributed government attention means more even wealth distribution. As a result, compulsory voting settings enjoy lower levels of wealth inequality. It is no coincidence that when compulsory voting was first introduced in Australia there was a dramatic increase in pension spending. When everyone votes, governments are more representative.

Some say compulsory voting causes the electoral process to be clogged with too many incompetent and ignorant voters who vote “badly”. Higher turnout, they say, brings a higher proportion of informal and “donkey” votes that distort electoral outcomes.

Some claim that high turnout elections are characterised by a higher proportion of voters who are incapable of even voting in their own interests.

With regard to the last claim, high levels of turnout actually correlate with governments that are more responsive to the needs and priorities of the entire electorate.

That is, governments are more representative and therefore more democratic when everyone votes. So, somehow or other, poorer and less-well-educated voters, no matter how badly they perform on political knowledge surveys, do seem to know what they are doing.

How bad is the ‘bad voting’ problem in Australia?

Informal voting tends to be higher in compulsory voting regimes. This is because people whose first language isn’t English, less-well-educated, and poorer members of the electorate have been brought into the voting process.

These electors, while clear about how they want to vote, have a hard time casting a valid ballot due to factors associated with their disadvantage.

Yet these informal votes do little harm because they are not counted. Therefore, they are incapable of distorting outcomes.

Also, the donkey vote – where voters mindlessly number their ballots from top to bottom or in reverse – only accounts for around 1% of total votes cast in Australia. This is actually lower than in many systems where voting is voluntary such as the US, where the figure has been estimated at between 2% and 4%.

Compelling people to vote seems to increase their political knowledge. This is partly because voters choose to inform themselves when they know they have to vote and partly because the voting process “imparts incidental knowledge”. And it causes that knowledge to be spread more evenly throughout the citizenry.

Without compulsory voting, Australian democracy would look very different. Turnout would likely drop to around 60% or lower and governments would be less representative. There would be lower levels of satisfaction with the political system. The electorate would be less politically informed. We would also have greater wealth inequality and more corruption.

In any case, the majority (more than 70%) of Australians approve of compulsory voting – and have done so for decades. The nay-sayers continue to be a minority.

The ConversationLisa Hill, Professor of Politics, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

 

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