#36 A Decent Democracy
“In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 'Table Talk' 5 October 1830 (1835)
How come a poet, a romantic one at that, can skewer our politicians nearly two hundred years later? Here's an answer from a philosopher,
“People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them; poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein (d.1951), Culture and Value, (1980) 36 e.
In recent times it has been vaguely assumed that our technological advances are part of a greater evolutionary process of human improvement. Sadly, as Covid and Ukraine are teaching us, this is not true. Human beings are as prone to delusion and emotional immaturity as ever. Fear, anger, self-righteousness and aggression once again dominate public opinion.
Our predecessors knew these dangers. Here is the great and wonderfully named American Judge, Billings Learned Hand:
That community is already in the process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbour as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection; where denunciation, without specification or backing, takes the place of evidence; where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent; where faith in the eventual supremacy of reason has become so timid that we dare not enter our convictions in the open lists, to win or lose. ….
The mutual confidence on which all else depends can be maintained only by an open mind and a brave reliance upon free discussion.
Speech to the Board of Regents, University of the State of New York (24 October 1952)
Our community is indeed already in the process of dissolution. Human beings are frail and easily deluded beings. Worse still many cling fiercely to their delusions. Marie Louise von Franz, in the 1950s, recognised the condition:
“science has progressed, but still any model becomes a cage, for if one comes across phenomena difficult to explain, then instead of being adaptable and saying that the phenomena do not conform to the model and that a new hypothesis must be found, one clings to one’s hypotheses with a kind of emotional conviction and cannot be objective.”
Alchemy An introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology, Inner City Books, Toronto, 1980
Our forebears knew much about our condition. Did they also know of any remedies?
I have drawn on eminent psychotherapists to write here and here on what we can do in our personal lives. Such small conversational moments may appear to be insignificant but sooner or later one of them will lift someone over the threshold of understanding. Eventually there will be a backlash against the lunatic orthodoxy and these little conversations will have created an alternative, more healthy, narrative.
In the UK two new political parties, The Reform Party and the Reclaim Party have recently been established. I even drafted a manifesto myself. Unfortunately the biggest, most desirable party of all is still missing. It is the Reluctant Party. Millions of competent, experienced and thoughtful people are reluctant to enter politics. Theodore Roosevelt was aware of the problem in 1883;
“Every man must devote a reasonable share of his time doing his duty in the political life of the community. No man has the right to shirk his political duties under whatever plea of pleasure or business, …The first duty of an American citizen, then, is that he must work in politics, his second duty is that he must do this work in a practical way, and the third is this must be done in accordance with the highest principles of honor and justice.”
Sadly many good Americans (and other nationals) have either not heard or not heeded Roosevelt’s exhortation. What can be done?
For one excellent answer we must go back many centuries to the very beginning of democracy. In ancient Athens citizens had the right to vote directly on important issues. However the ongoing business of government was done by the Boule.
In the 5th century BC Cleisthenes reformed the system. He split up the four tribes that dominated the polis at that time, and established sortition, the selection of citizens for the Boule and its sub-committees by lottery.
Citizens could volunteer to participate in the lottery if they were over 30 years old and had a certain degree of wealth. Today the age criterion is still defensible. After all, every 30 year old has had the experience of being younger, but no 20 year old knows what it is like to be 30. We can suggest that the other criteria – wealth and volunteering – be dispensed with. In Athens citizens had to discharge their responsibilities to sustain their rights. They could be called up, no more than twice, to serve for a year. Our modern democracies should do the same.
The suggestion may seem outrageous, especially to those invested in the patronage of the currently dominant parties, but the time is ripe. The population at large is very gradually being exposed to the consequences of the errors of our current rulers. It will become very obvious that the system needs reform. The options will include,
bumble on with the current corruptible mess
rule by the Technocracy (aka the Great Reset),
rule by an opportunistic ‘Strong Leader’
a functional reform of our democracy.
All these and more are on the cards. The last is preferable.
Real Athenian democracy has many advantages:
· A large random group of citizens will be a more accurate representation of the will of the people than the current un-representative representatives controlled by party patronage
· We will inevitably have more politicians with real-life experience in the workplace
· We already have evidence of the efficacy of random selection in our jury system
· In the ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’ James Surowiecki shows that decisions made by expert groups were inferior to those made by expert groups to which non-experts were added
· Surowiecki also shows that crowds which are diverse, independent and decentralised make excellent decisions. Sortition will create just such a crowd
· Of course some ambitious idiots will also be selected but they will be outnumbered by members of the Reluctant Party, who will want to do their duty and return as soon as possible to their private lives
· One of many excellent consequences will be that those selected by lottery will want to minimise excessive legislation and bureaucracy which wastes their time
· Random citizens are less likely to be beholden to pressure groups, corporations, party loyalty and out-dated policies. They can meet the challenge of each unique situation with fresh eyes and a view to a solution rather than personal gain or ideology.
This proper participatory democracy won’t get everything right, but it will not be as consistently wrong as career politicians. There is even scope for compromise. For example one could concede 30% of parliamentary seats to be elected by the current system, thus leaving the door open for political parties to present their case. If, as they claim, they represent the interests of the people at large, they will have no problem in persuading the remain 70% to agree to their policies.
How are we to achieve this? The new parties, Reform, Reclaim should be persuaded to adopt selection by sortition for 70% of seats as a party policy. They both claim to stand for the ordinary man and woman, so let's put the ordinary man and woman in charge. As for Labour and Conservative it is time for the Reluctant to step up, inspired by Roosevelt, and sign up in great numbers to join the parties and work towards sortition starting at local level. When Jeremy Corbyn stood for Leader of the Labour Party thousands of young entryists joined the party to support him. Sadly he proved unworthy of their support, but the strategy was vindicated.
If you, dear reader, feel motivated to join your local party, do not do so until you have enlisted at least fifty of your good, sensible friends to do so as well. One woman or man on their own will make no difference. You need to join up in a great joyous gang to make the whole thing more enjoyable and efficient. Maybe you will meet like-minded locals at a stand in the park.
Whenever and wherever you gain a foothold and some momentum you will begin to win over followers from within the system. Many good people are caught up in unhealthy institutions. They play along because they cannot imagine something better. When you present a real, improved alternative it will be very attractive.
This crisis has been caused by ideologies - from gender nonsense to vaccination mandates - which are crippling our Governments, our Health Service and our education. The ideologues are winning. To quote one more illustrious predecessor, Carl Jung,
“Our blight is ideologies — they are the long-expected Antichrist!”
Psychological commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (1954)
Perhaps this idea seems too fanciful, too far from current norms and too seditous to survive the onslaught of vested interests. The corporate political cabal will never let it happen, you might say. Maybe so. Maybe there is a better idea out there. I sincerely hope so.
And yet, and yet ... if we do not do something sane soon, the Visigoths will enter Rome, the cattle trucks will roll towards Poland, and we will sit shivering by our unaffordable heat pumps muttering, “Maybe I should have done something …”
There are many, many organisations which already gather together people of courage, kindness and probity. The membership of groups such as The Free Speech Union and UsforThem is not defined by left-right politics but rather by principles and pragmatism.
The more we support each other the greater our chances of minimizing the coming destruction. Let us do what we can for the sake of our children. Let us establish real democracy.