Tuesday, October 20, 2009

There's Nothing Wrong With Democracy As Long As We All Accept That There's Something Fundamentally Wrong With Democracy

It's always a bit demoralising to be told that the world's turned to shit and we might as well all give up, especially when it's one of my idols doing the telling.  If I hadn't been David Mitchell's reassuringly defeatist tones I was hearing in my head whilst reading, I might even have given up half way through.

It's an article that prompted a number of commenters to declare they always suspected that Mitchell was a fascist.  A suspicion based, presumably, largely on the fact that he has a posh voice and a side parting, and that the favourite film of the character he plays in Channel 4's Peep Show is Das Boot.

The mistake they make is to read Mitchell's interpretation of politics and to think this is the same thing as Mitchell's political opinion.  That, and to misunderstand what fascism actually is.  Yes, Mitchell is blunt and defeatist in tone, but I think you'll find that's his public persona, or maybe even his actual personality - not fascism.

The thrust of his argument is that although we all become incredibly morally self-righteous when our country wages an unjust war, we actually make more of a fuss when it comes to the price of oil, because it affects us directly.  We rely on oil.  So, if we remove all human morality from the equation, it makes sense for our leaders to go to war in order to secure oil.  We all get cheaper fuel and more iPods, and we forget anyone ever died and re-elect the same people.  A sweeping generalisation, yes.  But let's not forget that Tony Blair was still Prime Minister after the 2005 General Election.

In fact, it's not an argument dissimilar to one made by one of Mitchell's characters in the first series of That Mitchell And Webb Sound.  In a discussion about climate change, the character repeatedly asks "how much stuff do we have to throw away to make everything okay again?"  You know, stuff.  Good stuff like televisions and microwaves.  When told "all of it", he decides there isn't any point trying, and he'd rather keep all the stuff then, if that's alright.

We like stuff and we like to think that having stuff and acquiring more stuff only makes the world a better place and we will vote against anyone who tries to restrict our acquisition and use of stuff.  We will generally vote for the politician who promises they will make our lives more comfortable, thus enhancing our enjoyment of stuff.

And that's what's fundamentally wrong with democracy.  Altruistic policies may sway us incrementally one way or the other, but by far the biggest influence on our vote is what will affect us directly.  Democracy is a popularity contest.  It's not who has the right long-term policies, it's who has the most popular short-term policies, who gets into power.  And no matter how good a politician's intentions initially, if they want to wield significant power, then they need to compromise their integrity.

Mitchell's problem isn't simply that he doesn't want to lose all his cool stuff, though.  He also feels that the vote brings less satisfaction to him than ownership of a washing machine.  One's a time saving device that leaves your morning free to write comment pieces for The Observer, and one makes you feel helpless and insignificant.

Let's face it, UK politics is inaccessible, and voting feels like pissing in the wind.  The best thing about it is that it's a good excuse to go for a walk.  If you're really lucky your polling station is at a local primary school and you can play hopscotch in the playground on the way home.

As a member of the public you are not warmly welcomed into the Houses of Parliament to see your elected representatives at work.  The Scottish Parliament is quite different.  There is a quick open-looking security section, before you find a proud exhibition of the history of Scottish politics, information points, and so on.  It feels warm, it feels friendly.  Inside the debating chamber itself, it feels like a light, purposeful workplace.

I was at Westminster a few weeks ago, and it could not be more different from Edinburgh.  Big ugly black concrete barriers separate you from the armed police stood outside.  The police, admittedly, are very friendly when you go to speak to them, which you'll need to do because there's no clear indication of how to get inside.  You'll be directed down a ramp and go through security, which is always at the highest level (including having a photo badge made) regardless of the perceived terrorist threat.

Once you're through security it's not really clear where to go, but the most likely (and as it turns out, correct) route to take is into a large hall that feels like an abandoned church.  There's no obvious point from which to get information, but there are a couple of people hanging around who look like they probably work there but don't sound terribly sure of themselves.

I had a conference room to go to from this point, so I didn't see the debating chamber.  But what I can gather from television is that it consists largely of people sitting on benches trying with some difficulty to make notes, and occasionally standing up to jeer and wave bits of paper at each other.

Meanwhile we have a press owned by big business, and regulated by an organisation with no real powers, chaired by the editor of one of the most sensationalist mainstream newspapers on the market.  If they choose to do so, they can happily print outright lies to suit their own agenda and know they'll probably get away with it.

If this is what voting appears to get us then I'm not surprised that people don't think it's relevant any more.  It comes along every two or three years, and in between lots of things happen as a result that we don't see or understand.

All that we know is that we don't particularly like Labour any more so we're going to vote for whoever has the next most votes local to our area, resulting in the Tories 'winning' an overwhelming landslide victory by default.  And we'll just accept it.

This despite the fact that we all know the Tories are going to continue the same sort of anti-regulation policies that brought us the credit crunch, will do virtually nothing for the very poorest people affected, and are just as likely as Tony Blair to lead us into an unpopular war.  Not to mention the friends they make in Europe.  But hey, what's good enough for Rupert Murdoch and Bono should be good enough for the rest of us.

But wait...

That doesn't mean we're really apathetic, does it?

Do we have a duty to vote?  Is a refusal to vote perhaps an insult to those who died to bring it in the first place?  No, of course it isn't.  If we've been reduced to believing that the vote is the be-all and end-all of the political process then we may as well just keep our washing machines and be done with it.

In theory, it should be up to our representatives (and the whole point is that they are our representatives) to come to us to ask us what we think.  But, if they don't, it's becoming increasingly easy to tell them anyway.

Social media has arrived.  Any suggestion that Twitter is merely a waste of time and energy was well and truly kicked into touch last week, with the Trafigura and Jan Moir scandals.  The general public made their feelings on super-injunctions and homophobia quite clear, and as long as we don't take our foot off the pedal then we might even see some real reform as a result.

It would be nice to see the story ending with a change to the libel laws and a press regulatory body that is not merely ornamental.  Perhaps we might even push the PCC to curb the gleeful peddling of anti-immigrant, Islamophobic sentiment in newspapers.  Perhaps on Thursday Twitter can be used to challenge Nick Griffin on Question Time while the programme is broadcast.

Then maybe we won't quite so often all have to be shocked by documentaries such as this.

No.  I'm not ready to say we should all give up just yet.


***

Incidentally, does anyone have any good examples of politicians (or, if you will, politwicians) using social media properly?  The only MP I know of who is actively engaging is John Prescott.  I'm sure there must be others, but I'm equally sure that most will have a URL and a blog but won't actually be participating in any real social media community sense.

Of course, social media is not the only place our representatives need to come to engage with us, but it's a big place to start for them.  That shouldn't mean they don't have to bother with schools, libraries, local halls, pubs, cafés, community projects, churches, mosques, temples.


***

As an aside point, I couldn't fit this video anywhere comfortably into the post.  It was linked by a commenter who agreed rather too enthusiastically with David Mitchell's article.

It basically suggests that we are all effectively human livestock being farmed by the state being given the illusion of freedom.  It's a very interesting idea but the concept is over-simplified to the point of absurdity.  It might as well liken the state to masturbation and call Gordon Brown a massive wanker desperately giving us all a hand job in the hope that we'll vote him back into power.  It's a bit long but worth watching if you really have nothing better to do.

The person who owns the blog is a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, which basically means that he believes in no Government and free-market capitalism, that old Friedmanite chestnut that if you deregulate the markets, they'll find a happy balance where everyone is rich and free, because a small number of corporations own all the wealth and hire private security firms to stop all their oil from being stolen by its rightful owners.

Which would never happen under the current system...

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