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ideas 2

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 07-Oct-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 858

Democracy – seeds of doubt or seeds that will sprout strong?



Charming it was, last weekend, to see the Opera House working not as a venue but as a campus. The crowds at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas crawled around and through the House like mould through cheese, or maybe kids at a treasure hunt, and all in the pursuit of the subversive mental entity. If nothing else, it shows we’re hungry for this mind stuff, and when our leaders and academies won’t or can’t deliver, we look elsewhere.

So how’s this for a dangerous idea. Democracy was born with the seeds of its destruction in its mouth and, right now, we’re seeing them sprout.

Not so dangerous really. John Adams said it two centuries ago: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Maybe this is obvious. Democracy, as the politics of desire, has proved less adept at eradicating monarchy than at making fat little sovereigns of us all, pleasure-seeking, pain-intolerant. Our leaders are our creatures; what we won’t accept, they daren’t impose.

Thus, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, cannot so much as mouth the words “carbon tax”. Our hedonism demands her cowardice. And it is this hedonic addiction, this bondage to small, salient desirables such as big-screen tellies and Kuta holidays that has left democracy paralysed in the face of the elephant-size undesirables such as climate change and the GFC.

A century ago, America led the rising graph on this desire-democracy. Now it may be leading the fall. (Although Brazil, its electoral circus comprising six footballers, four singers, two stand-up comics, a celebrity transsexual, a catwalk model and an allegedly illiterate clown, might take the cake here.)

This wasn’t always so. Early on, as democracy grew from the husk of aristocracy, it was still capable of imposing the taxes and statutes, the checks and balances needed to constrain desire for the greater good. And perhaps, over time, we were always going to vote away such constraints, just as we voted away the constraints of theology in order to swim freely in the warm springs of liberalism.

But now, as resentment builds at a free-market oligarchy that not only allows itself to fail, and fail spectacularly, but expects us plebs to pick up the tab, a strange new cross-fertilisation is apparent. It’s a conservative people-power movement where people cherry-pick values from old-right and old-left to make a new political blend.

In Britain “Red Tory” Phillip Blond has become the philosopher-king of this new synthesis, arguing that since 1945 “liberalism has undone both the left and the right” by making desire central. The presumption of self-interested individualism, he says, as propagated by Rousseau and Adam Smith, necessitated the nanny-state in place of the personal conscience. (Blond, one notes, has a background in Anglican theology.)

For Blond, then, “individualism and statism are two sides of the same coin”. Paradoxically, he says, the presumption of individual equality has led to “a perverse corporatism” on both sides, in which the “equality of opportunity” doctrine has only entrenched and perpetuated disadvantage until it seems almost genetic.

Blond has the ear of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and is credited with his “Big Society” answer to big government. How that translates on the ground remains to be seen. Some expect little advance on notorious “get on yer bike” advice to the poor from the Thatcher-era minister Norman Tebbit, and Blond fears that Labour’s Ed Miliband (equipped with his own whispering philosopher, “blue Labour” academic Maurice Glasman) might take this new middle ground first.

But at least they’re having the debate. At least it’s actually about ideas, and the arguments are genuinely thoughtful in a way that suggests there’s life in democracy yet. Here, where we’re entertaining the same weirdly refreshing mix of values, it seems almost accidental.

Perhaps it was no accident. Perhaps, faced with choosing between our own circus of semi-literate clowns, and confronting the terrible irony that just when we get sufficiently fed-up with two-party posturing to vote otherwise, the third party vanishes, we did the only reasonable thing. We elevated a ruffian gang of independents who may not amount to much as individuals but jointly render the system more honest and operable than it has been for years.

This is not a “hung” parliament. That’s the loaded terminology of a two-party orthodoxy. This parliament – suddenly and unexpectedly freed from the morbidities of the whip system – is a working parliament.

So perhaps it’s not democracy eating itself. Perhaps what we’re seeing is democracy feeding itself; perhaps the seeds in its mouth were not those of destruction, but of renewal?

Perhaps. This suggests we’ll need to drop the bicameral system. Redesign our parliaments to be not oppositional shoe-boxes but round, maybe, or square, with cross-benches as long as the sides. Further, far from mandating the vote, restrict it, turning a duty into a privilege, earnable by demonstrating some semblance of knowledge. (I’m thinking a really challenging test, like naming the deputy PM.)

This way we might hope for a trickle-up effect, whereby a smarter constituency eventually demands and gets smarter politicians. But how long have we got?




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