Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On Democracy

This is one of those grab bag posts caused by a flurry of stories in today's press.

It starts with an item by Peter Costello in which he bells the cat on the "faceless" "powerbrokers", most notably those in the ALP. After an introduction about the influence of Deng Xiaoping after he formally "retired" (and one could add Lee Kwan Yu) he writes;

In Australia we have people who imagine themselves as latter day Dengs - who hold no office but boast that they can make and break party leaders and governments. These are the people the press describe as the ''faceless men'' [although we are getting heartily sick of seeing their faces these days], factional warlords, or ''party powerbrokers''.

The way to become a powerbroker is to spend an inordinate amount of time on internal party ballots. It doesn't matter that these ballots relate to non-positions of no influence. A powerbroker must engage in ceaseless activity. This shows everyone how important they are. It helps to have a union or followers who provide the factional boss with some bragging rights. But the most important skill of all is to cultivate good relations with the media.


It has always amazed me that the right wing operatives of the NSW branch of the Labor Party get such a soft run in the mainstream media. This is a group that brought the public the most incompetent state government in modern memory - from Carr to Iemma to Rees to Keneally. Outside their little fiefdom, where loyalty is rewarded with patronage, most of them would be unemployable. So what are they good at?

I would disagree with the assessment of the NSW Labor Government as "the most incompetent in modern memory", not least because of what it says of the Liberals that took so long to unseat it! I also think the accusation of being "unemployable" is odd - Karl Bitar has a nice little earner at Crown Casinos now, while I'm yet to hear of Costello having found a job.

But he absolutely nails the "modus operandi". After commenting on the stories about Sam Dastyari wavering in his support for Julia Gillard he writes;

There is nothing worse than being a powerbroker who has no power. So if Gillard is going down then the powerbrokers need to get off her bandwagon and take credit for her demise as much as they took credit for her ascension.

And there indeed is the rub, the ability of the faceless men or power-brokers to take the credit for events that have unfolded without their influence. The scribes who write about this no doubt also believe in the "great man" theory of history - events happen because of specific individuals, rather than (the more accurate) specific individuals fall into roles created by events.

Elsewhere the ever-impressive Jessica Irvine cautions about a completely different group of powerbrokers and influence peddlers, the business lobby groups. She writes;

Politicians and the media cop most of the blame these days for the dumbing down of the political debate. But let's not forget this entire industry of rent-seekers who are doing the best they can to muddy the waters of good public policy and confuse everyone.

Politicians need to wake up to the way they are being played. The public needs to switch on their rent-seeking bullshit-ometers when watching the next round of self-serving business advertising and learn to think: ''Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?'' And the media needs to rediscover its love of man bites dog tales and stop giving these guys a free kick.

Occupy Wall Street protesters in the United States are leading a global backlash against crony capitalism and special government favours for finance sector chief executives.

Australians have invented our unique brand of corporate rent-seekers, and far from standing up against them, we've often been complicit tools in their trade, shifting our opinion on public policies in response to their self-interested advertising campaigns.

When government thinks it's doing what the public wants, but what the public wants is in fact what big business wants it to want, we have a problem.

And that note to recognise the rent-seeking flavour of all the admonitions we hear from the corporate sector about public policy, provides a nice segue to the latest flurry of pieces on the Occupiers.

Shaun Carney rambles on a bit before noting that the Occupiers are going to have to get used to a bit of discomfort if they want to effect change. On the way through he notes the difference between Australia and the US that we actually have some elected representatives of a radical kind - the Greens. But he also notes the difference between the Greens trying to be an ordinary organised political movement, and the Occupiers who eschew such structures.

He also does a neat job of summarising the Occupiers;

The local version is a series of protest groups in the literal sense: they are protesting about just about anything you can name, from a left perspective. If interviews with members are any guide, they are variously against rising inequality, corporate and financial greed, our system of representative democracy, political parties and their leaders, failures of social justice and environmental degradation.

Sarah Caslan writing in The Conversation picked up the strand of the validity of protesting what is, without having to advocate for what you want. She wrote;

If you can’t validly protest the status quo without knowing exactly how to change it (particularly difficult for those without power who are most likely to be dissatisfied), that’s a playing field designed to entrench “the way it is” (whether one likes it or not).

Instead it is surely legitimate, as is happening with Occupy, to start conversations on change, whether they result in concrete steps or not. Part of the point of Occupy is to get people talking about political and economic systems and the possible need for change, and in that respect it is probably succeeding.

The validity of those concerns has been well detailed by James Arvanitakis in The Punch. He goes into detail about the problem of the distribution of wealth, putting profits before well-being, and finally the problem of "corporate power". (The first of these was Irvine's subject in her weekend column, and the latter of course today's). He concludes;

The Occupy Movement may not have a catchy slogan like “save the whale”. What they have done, however, is identify a sense of unease that the economic system is letting down a majority of the world’s population: and the evidence is there to support them.

Meanwhile The Conversation also reports on an ANU poll that shows a dramatic lift in the proportion of people "disastisfied with democracy" from 14% in 2007 to 27% now.

The utem tries to place the "blame" for this with the Government of Julia Gillard. What the Occupiers are trying to highlight is that the problem is much, much bigger than that.

The thesis as it is unfolding to me is that the initial "impetus" to democracy can be described as an approach to limiting power of one group over society (or citizens) as a whole. The motivation in the UK model built in the 17th century was about limitation of the arbitrary power of the monarch and aristocracy. The history of that evolution goes back further to the empowerment of the aristocracy over the monarch in the Magna Carta.

Before all of these the real "authority of the state" comes from the way it protects citizens from the exercise of power by force, be that defence against external aggressors, or the protection of life and property from local aggressors.

Ever since "corporations" were imbued with the "rights" of a natural person - including in the US the political right to campaign - there has grown a new unchecked power, the power of the corporation. The power of these corporations does not rest with their shareholders generally, but with the executives of the corporations and with the executives of the financial corporations (investment banks and pension funds) that can and do exercise shareholder control.

And in this mix elected representative politicians are seen increasingly as part of the power mix, not part of the restraint of power.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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