Monday, 18 January 2010

Is this democracy?

DK is having one of his periodic pops at democracy, which is all very well, if for no other reason than to turn attention on a very important political concept, and one for which the coinage has Justify Fullbeen greatly debased. DK's criticisms are mostly correct, as far as they go. Democracy has certain flaws, which are worth being reminded of, if only to draw attention to what the word actually means, being so over-used and vaguely defined. But DK seems to be attacking, not democracy, but our present political system, which I think is inaccurately defined as such, for reasons I will expand upon.

Regarding the abuse of language, common in politics, Orwell writes:

'The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.'

From the essay 'Politics and the English Language'

I am not suggesting DK is employing this latter technique, but it seems the case that a debate on the subject in hand will involve sometimes as many definitions as participants. Insofar as DK wishes to attack our present political system, I will generally agree, but not when he attributes it to a surfeit of democracy.

My contribution to the comment thread was as follows:

"Most modern politicians have studied politics as an academic subject, and thus will know that ours is not a democratic system, but rather a mixed system, such as the constitution of the Roman Republic or Sparta, which combines elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. This is seen by classical writers such as Polybius and Livy as the best form of government, as the different elements hold in check the others from lapsing into their Mr Hyde alter-egos, being tyranny, oligarchy and mob rule. In our case, the system seems to be breaking down, but I don't think this can be attributed solely to the democratic element mis-functioning."

My reliance on classical writers (see above) is mocked by one Ed Rose, evidently some kind of savant, who tells me that "just because classical writers wrote something, doesn't make it true." He also finds fault with my assertion that our political system is a blend of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy rather than a straight democracy. This seems obvious to me. Our Head of State is an hereditary monarch. We have a bi-cameral Parliament, the more powerful of which, the Commons, is democratically elected, the lesser, the Lords, traditionally a bastion of the aristocracy. This latter is no longer the case, as the hereditary peers have been mostly driven out and replaced by appointees from the political class that dominates the Commons. This could be seen as the democratic element usurping the aristocratic, thus throwing off the checks and balances of the mixed constitution advocated by Polybius, and if we view our Monarch as a powerless rubber stamp for whatever the current government desires, DK's description of our present system would seem to stand.

However, I don't think this really is the case. Our present system does not resemble mob rule. Our nation is one of the most ordered in the world. Our governments are amongst the most stable. The present government probably enjoys the support of 15 to 20% of the population, and much of that grudging. No doubt the government can be assured of widespread passivity. But this is borne not only from a lack of interest or concern, but also a sense of alienation in the people, who disbelieve that change is possible through the so-called democratic system, and as the expenses scandal illustrated, the people view the politicians as cut off from us, out of our reach, almost untouchable.

So, what of the aristocracy? Certainly in terms of the hereditary peers, we can see a diminution of their political clout. But although this bloc has receded, we are not short of individuals and entities that wield power out of proportion to their size, and enjoy the licence once enjoyed by the nobility. By strict definition, aristocracy is government by the best. Oligarchy, it's degenerate alter-ego, is government by the few. The former, I have no doubt, has fled the field, but the latter I see everywhere.

This is getting over-long, so I'll cut to the chase. The main problem with our political system is not that democracy has got out of hand, but rather that the political class has slipped its democratic anchor, corporations and financial institutions now stand in place of the aristocracy, and the monarchy has transformed into on one hand a tabloid soap story and on the other a secretive and autocratic executive. The checks and balances of our mixed constitution are being removed, and power is thus fusing into one, Borg-like entity. Not democracy, but crypocratic oligarchy.


alison said...

Democracy is mob rule. I want my constitutional monarchy back. Your posts will no doubt make good reading when I get home!

Trooper Thompson said...

"Democracy is mob rule"

this is the same as:

"Monarchy is tyranny".

I hope you read the Polybius quote above, which differentiates between such matters.