Wishing you a very Happy New Year! I hope your 2019 has got off to a serene start.
I’d like to launch 2019 with an ambitious series of blog posts that take a look at some of our global systems that have served reasonably well for a long time, but now it may well be worth asking if we can create something better. Let’s start with a little thing like democracy. (Yikes!)
In their book Crowdocracy, Alan Watkins and Iman Stratenus set out a list of democracy’s fundamental shortcomings:
- Democracy is not majority rule.
A study looked at more than 20 years of data, and found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” But it was a very different story for the richest 10% of Americans. If the wealthy are against a law, it has a zero percent chance of being passed. If they are in favour of it, it has a 70% chance of being passed.
And of course there is gerrymandering, the practice of manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts to favour the party in power. And the first-past-the-post system means that the number of seats a party wins rarely bears any relation to the number of votes it received. In 2015 the British Conservative government won the election with only 37% of the vote – the rest of the electorate voted for a different party, or didn’t vote at all. The Greens and UKIP got more than 5 million votes (out of an electorate of 46 million), but got only one seat apiece, while in Scotland the Scottish National Party received 50% of the votes but won 95% of the seats. In different years in the US, Al Gore and Hilary Clinton polled 51% and 56% respectively, but still lost. (Source: Wikipedia)
Small wonder that a lot of people don’t feel that their government represents their views and interests. Odds are, it doesn’t. It has been said that we get the politicians we deserve, but sometimes we don’t even get the ones we voted for.
And we haven’t even talked about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, or the Russians…
- Supreme power is held by the lobby and vested interests.
There is a strong correlation between your budget and your chances of electoral victory. In the Senate in 2014, 91% of the candidates who spent the most money, won. The sums of money involved are vast, and most of it comes from the richest 0.2% of the population. The climate-change-denying Koch brothers expected to spend $889 million on the 2016 presidential election, and they probably did. Do we really believe that donors expect no favours in exchange for their generosity, or that a politician is immune to the hope of future largesse?
In the 5 years to 2015, the 200 most politically active companies in the US spent $5.8 billion influencing the government, and received $4.4 trillion in taxpayer support – so their money was well spent. In the UK, the lobbying industry is estimated to be worth £2 billion. The late Nye Evan MP referred to “gastronomic pimping”, in which MPs are handsomely wined and dined in the hope of future favours. In his first week as London Mayor, Boris Johnson was invited to attend a dinner party along with 19 senior bankers, at which he pledged to do his utmost to ward off banking regulation in the City.
Even our former Prime Minister David Cameron called it out, saying: “It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”
Jimmy Carter was even more blunt: “It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or being elected president.”
- Democracy fosters superficial and inadequate focus on the issues.
It sometimes feels as if, when one party says white is white, the other party will say white is black, just to be contrary. As H. L. Mencken pithily summed it up: “Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right.”
The night that Barack Obama was inaugurated, a group of high-powered Republicans met and agreed to “show a united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies.” The unrelentingly adversarial nature of politics in both the US and the UK makes it increasingly hard to find the optimal outcome for the country, when the major parties refuse to agree with each other on anything at all. And let’s not even talk about the yah-boo-sucks schoolyard jeers of Prime Minister’s Questions.
- Democracy fosters division.
US: Republicans vs Democrats. UK: Brexit vs Remainers. QED.
- Politicians are struggling under the weight of escalating complexity.
The world is a complicated place. It was complicated enough in the era of Yes, Minister (Sir Humphrey on classic form here), and it is exponentially more complicated now. Cabinet appointments, in the UK at least, are based less on relevant expertise than on whether one’s star is rising (Foreign Secretary) or falling (Culture). And sometimes a minister has just got the hang of, say, Transport, when they get whisked to the Exchequer, and have to master their brief from Day 1, with zero tolerance for failure.
Rather them than me.
- Democracy is not a meritocracy.
If it were, we wouldn’t need spin doctors.
Human nature being what it is, and as we’re mostly too time-starved to do our due diligence, our choice is more likely to be determined by appearance, demeanour, and media-friendliness than by character and policies.
And in certain countries, already having bucketloads of cash doesn’t hurt either.
- Politicians don’t have a voice either – their vote is “whipped”.
(For non-UK readers, the “whip” isn’t actually a physical whip (although it may sometimes have the same effect) – he/she is a political official appointed by their party to ensure their Members of Parliament vote the way they are supposed to.)
Politicians have many competing loyalties, and sometimes they may be left with no choice but to toe the party line.
- The system facilitates self-interest and scandal.
Possibly because most politicians get paid less than their peers in banking or industry, they often feel entitled to garner a few perks on the side, of varying degrees of legitimacy – from lucrative “revolving door” roles when they leave office, to blatantly fraudulent expense claims.
Since leaving office in 2007, Tony Blair has accumulated an estimated £80 million in earnings, while Bill and Hillary Clinton made $240 million between 2000 and 2015. Vladimir Putin is estimated to be worth $200 BILLION, which would make him the richest person on earth – and we probably don’t even want to speculate how he came by his money.
Arguably they are entitled to their wealth – politics is a brutal business, and the CEO of Time Warner makes $50 million a year just for running a Fortune 100 company, not a country – but you can’t help wondering whether this tarnishes their motivation.
So one way and another, democracy has its issues. There are, of course, many forms ofdemocracy – Switzerland, Singapore, and the Nordic countries have some interesting models. China isn’t a democracy, but until recently didn’t seem any the worse for it.
The main point I’m making is not that democracy is failing, but that we shouldn’t simply assume that democracy is the ultimate form of political governance. There may possibly be something better.
Watkins advocates crowdocracy, using technology to enable universal participation in governance. He draws inspiration from Iceland’s crowdsourcing of its new constitution in 2012 in the wake of the financial crash. Although I very much concurred with his analysis of the failings of democracy in its current form, I wasn’t convinced by the practicalities of his vision for crowdocracy. It seemed likely to me that most people would still be disengaged from the process, while the country would be run by the kind of committee-loving people who usually get to run things.
Holacracy was fashionable for a while, especially in Silicon Valley. The concept is of a self-organising structure with minimal management, maximum autonomy, in a kind of biomimetic nested structure. The shoe company Zappos is one of its chief proponents. It may have some potential, although I’m not aware of any countries attempting it at a nationwide level.
The next stage beyond holacracy would seem to be Teal organisations, as advocated by Frederic Laloux. The three foundations of the Teal organization (lifted from this review) are:
- Self-management: To operate effectively based on a system of peer relationships, without the need for either hierarchy or consensus.
- Wholeness: People no longer have to show only their “professional” self, or hide doubts and vulnerability. Instead, a culture invites everyone to bring all of who we are at work.
- Evolutionary purpose: Instead of trying to predict and control the future, the organization has a life and a sense of direction of its own. Everyone is invited to listen in and understand what the organization wants to become, what purpose it wants to serve.
Could something like this ever work at a national level? It sounds like a terrifying prospect, with visions of anarchy and chaos immediately leaping to mind.
In a perfect world (which doesn’t exist) we would all be terribly sensible people who simply want the greatest good for the greatest number, as described in the fictional country of Herland. If we lived in a system that trusted us to be good and decent people, would we live up to that level of responsibility? But wouldn’t we have had to already reach that level of responsibility in order to create that system? Our social contracts and sense of community would need to be a lot stronger than they are now.
So it all becomes rather cart-and-horse.
I’d be really interested to hear what you think. What great ideas do you have for the form of governance you would like to see in your country?
I spent the last few days of 2018 doing my review of the year. I describe the full process in my article for the Sisters magazine (and my dear friends Anja and Ishika also describe theirs). If you didn’t get around to doing an annual review before the end of the year, it’s not too late. In fact, there’s never a bad time to do a review – a bit of a life audit is always a great idea!