Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 / 26:1 / 99:1

This year David Cameron, the head of the British coalition government, managed to marginalize his country, putting it in a minority of one which could be easily outvoted by the other twenty-six members of the European Union. That was the ‘26:1’ story of the year.

2011 saw the protests of the Occupy movement spread far beyond Wall Street, giving currency to the ‘99:1’ slogan. The activists brandished an eclectic range of signs reflected disparate niche interests and concerns but had one thing in common; they had little hope that the elected politicians would remedy the inequities they identified. 

“It is not in the nature of politics that the best men should be elected. The best men do not want to govern their fellow men.” So said George MacDonald, a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister who died in 1905.

Over a century later his words still ring true and his conclusion is even more alarming today. It is perhaps the case that his ‘best men’ are not only absent from the political arena but also far from numerous in the boardrooms of global financial institutions. The current dire state of the world economy seems to confirm this suspicion.

It can be predicted that the world of banking will change for the better. Reforms will be imposed, once again the alert minds of experienced and enlightened human beings will do more than algorithms to deliver the results shareholders will demand.

But citizens, the 99 percent, are not shareholders with votes that make a difference. Those who have in the past seen their vote in parliamentary elections as having positive economic or societal outcomes are increasingly uneasy. More and more they feel that if their candidate has what it takes to be elected he is almost certainly not the best man to make any contribution to effective governance.

The best any would-be parliamentarian can offer his constituents is a pithy slogan speaking of vision, of hope, of change. At the same time he will scrupulously avoid defining change in any terms which are bold, or radical, or disruptive. For were he to do so he would be seen as rash by the vast majority who equate ‘daring’ with dangerous, ‘radical’ with suspect and who view ‘disruptive’ as a harbinger of their own future and personal discomfort.

Thus it is that candidates often win elections by being above all reassuring and then when they find themselves elected recognize in the mirror their own mediocrity, inability to lead, to innovate, to inspire confidence. They are nowhere in the world’s mature parliamentary democracies the best men or women. Some are indeed deplorably lacking in character. Americans seeking to be their party’s candidate spend millions on campaigns maligning the opponents in their own parties. A German rises to accept a cabinet position, feeling… one must assume… that his non-authorship of his doctoral dissertation will be viewed as a trivial transgression. British parliamentarians gleefully claim expenses for items of the most egregious personal vanity.

It is telling that few young people express any ambition to enter conventional politics although there is no lack of altruistic engagement in non-governmental activism. Not that there are no representatives of a younger generation in the established political parties, some indeed with their ideals intact. But they, too, will one day need to win elections if they are to make progress in their careers. They will learn the vocabulary of reassurance and the tortured syntax of making promises which on closer examination are patently empty. Beliefs and principles they may once have had will fade as fast as elected positions are obtained, with the remuneration they provide, the status they imply, the opportunity to imagine if only briefly that they are indeed the best ones entitled to determine the future of their country and the fate of the governed.

The parliamentarians are not alone to be blamed. Over the decades the ranks of non-elected bureaucrats manning the vast apparatus of modern government has grown rapidly. When in 2010 the Greek economy was recognized as being terminally afflicted the German media were quick to point out that one-fifth of that country’s workforce are employed as civil servants. Indignation ensued with nobody in any hurry to point out that in the Federal Republic the comparable figure is one-sixth and thus insignificantly lower. However in this particular area the quantitative measure is possibly less important than the qualitative. Where those in the pay of the state are perceived as being positive agents promoting society’s well-being, the size of the cohort is of secondary importance. This could be the case in Sweden where the public sector is responsible for one-third of the labour market.

But in many countries it can surely be presumed that civil service staffing remains high because no elected government has demonstrated the courage to reduce the manpower to a level commensurate with the benefit the bureaucracy actually delivers for the good of the citizenry. And it can be assumed that a search for the ‘best men’ will not result in many discoveries in the corridors of power behind the parliamentary chambers.

There is no doubt that the democratically constituted parliaments of the latter half of the twentieth century were often a force for the good. There emerged leaders who could be called statesmen, individuals who saw clearly the imperatives after the defeat of the Nazi tyranny and who paved the way for the eclipse of the Soviet system.

The free world was well served by these men and women. But the governmental structures within which they worked have changed irrevocably as has the world we live in. Globalization, digitalization and even virtualization have created an environment which is as alien as it is unstable. It is a world which is not ‘product’ but ‘process’, in constant but discontinuous evolution.

Is the framework of parliamentary democracy… now in the twenty-first century singularly lacking in the ‘best men’… equal to the contemporary tasks of governance? There is the distinct fear that it is not. And on the supra-national level almost certainly not, however well-intentioned the motives underlying the United Nations or the European Union. The ‘best men’ are not to be found there either, or if there be a few they are unable to accede to leadership roles or find it prudent to keep quiet.

It might be suggested that the more globalization is understood and accepted as non-reversible, the more relevant ‘localization’ could become. It could be the era of socio-political networks brought to life at grass-roots level, not created by national governments suddenly moved by the principles of subsidiarity. Springing from the shared concerns and aspirations of communities such networks could be based on geographical proximity.
On this last day of 2011 there was a report on Radio 4 devoted to a social entrepreneurship project under the title ‘Your Square Mile’. The aim is to motivate citizens to take charge not only of their neighbourhoods but of their destinies. The website summarizes the aims.

“… the UK rioting brought chaos and devastation to the streets of our major cities over three nights in August. But amidst all that was some of the most uplifting news footage we’ve seen in a long while. Those armies of people taking to their streets with brooms, mops and buckets, to clean up after the rampaging hordes and reclaim their neighbourhoods, gave us hope that we haven’t all become selfish, money-grabbing hermits.”

However the ‘neighbourhood’ could also be virtual, in the form of ‘tribes’ united by common beliefs and principles. There may, to be sure, be a lot in untidiness; the London riots were not without tribal character, albeit of a negative kind.
If espoused by enough of the 99 percent, ‘tribal communitarianism’ could coexist with the 1 percent. Indeed the 1 percent… the bankers, brokers, tycoons and even the legislators and their bureaucrats… could perhaps simply be ignored as the 99 percent discover and experiment with alternatives to the status quo in a multiplicity of ‘bite-sized’ revolutions. Any wholesale overthrow of the establishment in an excess of anti-capitalist zeal would be a very old-fashioned way of bringing about change in the age of instant communication and social networking.

Communitarianism is summarized in a Wikipedia entry as a position which “cannot be classified as being wholly left or right, and many theorists claim to represent a sort of radical centre”.
If localism were to emerge as one template for the future of peoples living in countries now ill-served by outdated and bloated parliamentary systems, it might turn out that the ‘best men’ could identify with a radically centrist position and will be prepared to stand tall on a local level, even if they be writer, poet or man of faith as was George MacDonald. And, of course, if they be woman.

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