Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Democracy is dead! (well, it’s been for some time now)

It will come as a surprise to exactly no one to say that politics as a human activity is not very popular of late, and those that practice it for a living (politicians) are not the most admired or respected of public figures. Not exactly a dazzling piece of news, as decrying public representatives (even in times when such politicians were not supposed to represent anybody, as in Imperial Rome or Classical China) and painting them as a bunch of corrupt, despotic, venal, unenlightened, cruel, merciless, self-interested, rapacious, short-sighted, meretricious, duplicitous, power-hungry scoundrels is such an old habit that we can find it in the first written records (from the code of Hammurabi to the epic of Gilgamesh, from the Tao te ching to the Iliad, and from the Rig Veda to the Bible), and can trace a history of denouncing and despising aspiring leaders that runs through every single book in the Western canon that has dealt with the topic. But even within such a rich and bountiful tradition, aggregating individual decisions to decide the course of collective action (and participating in such aggregation in an outsized role, as traditional political representatives are wont to do) is getting an egregiously bad rap lately, as illustrated by the following examples:

·         Europeans on immigrants: probably every sane and reasonable person understand that if your country is in the midst of a vicious civil war (like Syria is currently) where no faction likely to win it is minimally committed to respect plurality or human rights, or is just a hellhole run by corrupt autocrats that would relinquish power under no circumstances even when the combined pressure of climate change and demographic explosion is leaving less and less to extract (like most of Sub-Saharan Africa), the only rational alternative open to any human being with functioning feet is to pack up and leave. Unfortunately, similarly sane and reasonable persons can legitimately reach the conclusion that injecting in culturally homogeneous and aging populations an excessive amount of youngsters from radically different cultural backgrounds may have some deleterious effect (see the whole of the USA, growing more dysfunctional by the day, although such dysfunctionality has a number of additional causes that may require a post of their own to analyze). The solution to such conundrum would be to coolly determine what percentage of that young (and desperate) population can be reasonably absorbed (in a continent of 400 million souls there shouldn’t be such a problem to dilute a few millions of destitute refugees) and how to responsibly bear the cost of such absorption to ensure the unlucky human beings that have reached Europe’s soil are either painlessly integrated or kept safely settled for what may turn out to  be many years since we help stabilize their home countries and they can return. Instead, what we have is a deal cut amidst the greatest secret by bureaucrats with no consultation to public opinion to send as many of those refugees to a semi-democratic country, growing less democratic by the day (Turkey, and don’t get me wrong, I dearly love it) in the hope that it will be able to keep the huddled masses indefinitely away from Europe. Not that the lack of consultation is the greatest sin of the harebrained and absolutely impractical deal, as the public opinion had been previously led to a state of irrational frenzy about the fear of the foreigner stoked by an irresponsible press that would have made such consultation highly problematic and most likely counterproductive.

·         Venezuelans on how to rule themselves: when people see the economy of a formerly resource-rich country at the verge of implosion they tend to identify it with the well-known and well-worn story of a leftist, populist traditional Latin-American Caudillo that has been for years making promises to the lower rungs of the population that the latest minimal gyration of the international markets (in the form of a substantial fall in the price of oil) has made impossible to satisfy. Indeed, that covers a good part of the situation, completed by a substantial network of cronies lifted under Hugo Chavez, the predecessor of the current caudillo (Nicolas Maduro) that have provided the kleptocratic regime a veneer of legitimacy and support, but it doesn’t exhaust the roots of Venezuela’s problems. The other side of the coin is the distrust of significant portions of the population towards the opposition leaders, which they (rightly or wrongly) see as representatives of the old oligarchic elites that for decades ruled the country unopposed, in a similarly extractive, crony and kleptocratic way (only the fraction of the population that benefitted from the extraction of wealth was different from the one raised by Chavez). Again, the theory of political action tells us that different segments of the population, or at least the old elite and the new one, should be able to hammer out a social compact where both had more to gain than in the current impasse. But instead of that the Chavist left demonizes the opposition (and puts its most salient representatives in jail), tries to change the constitution to stay more time in power and dismisses the recently elected lower chamber after the opposition wins a majority in it, whilst the non-Chavists (that at least have overcome their previous mutual distrust and thus present a unified front against the current government) have failed thus far to convince the lower rungs of the population that their victory would not represent a return to the traditional upper class rule and disregard of their needs, so they have been unable to extend their base of support much further than their current 51%, which seems not enough to displace the entrenched Chavists.

·         Spaniards on forming government: I’ll have to get more localist than what I normally fancy for this one, but it is an interesting application of my overall argument in this post, so here we go. Since the general elections held in December of last year, which even with an electoral system designed with the explicit purpose of ensuring two-party rule (which was seen as more stable when the latest constitution was drafted than a purely proportional system like Italy’s) delivered a fragmented parliament, with four relatively mainstream parties (two roughly to the left and two roughly to the right, if that classification still means anything, which is dubious, two traditional ones and two very new ones) unable to obtain majorities combining only with what should be their closest ideological allies, which demanded either an alliance of a major party with two minor ones (one to his left and one to his right) or an alliance between the two major parties. Again, in a rational universe drafting a workable agreement should have been possible, but in the actual one nothing of the sort has happened, and the most likely scenario (to be officially sanctioned in three weeks, unless an unexpected and at this point highly unlikely agreement is reached) is new elections, this being the first time in the relatively young Spanish democracy in which the elected representatives of the people show themselves to be unable to get the minimum votes needed to have a new government sworn in. The most interesting point, however, is the electorate’s reaction to such unashamed show of lack of negotiating acumen on the part of the current batch of politicians. One would assume that they would severely punish such incompetent representatives, when the popular will has been so clear that what they expect from them is to forge new alliances and include in their mandate aspects they collectively believe that had been insufficiently represented within the old parties (thus the sudden apparition of the new ones). Nothing further from the truth, as the distribution of the vote according to the latest polls so resemble last year’s that the most likely scenario would be a similarly split parliament, where the same negotiators within the same parties would hold almost the same cards. I imagine each voter irrationally thinks his original option has spent the last four months defending the banner of reasonableness and principled ideals, and it is the ones chosen by the foolish rest of the population which have been partisan, and which have negotiated in bad faith. Obviously, not all the electors can be right about this one, and it is quite likely they are all equally wrong.

·         And of course, the USA Republican party nomination process (and may be the Democratic one too): at this point most rational voters, regardless of how angry they are with their current government, with the current direction of their avowed party, or with the overall direction their society is taking, should have realized that Donald Trump would be a terrible, terrible general election candidate, and an even worst president. But not only does he still have a decent chance of ending up being the nominee, the only realistic alternative is a guy that seems plucked from a B-series movie whose script showed not a iota of shame or sense of parody, which wouldn’t have a snowball’s in hell’s chances even if the democrats decided to nominate a true Muslim communist from Kenya to represent them come November (according to the voters not exactly flocking under Cruz’s banner he would actually be the second in a row proposed by the evil Leftists to lead God’s chosen and most Christian nation, btw). According to my theory of the organization, political parties are groups of diverse people (not so diverse in this case, but I digress) joined by the desire to gain power and perpetuate those that self-identify with their cause. It is surprising, then, to see the Republicans conscientiously choosing between the two options most suited to ensure they stay out of the White House, and they eventually lose the Senate and weaken their impregnable position in Congress, thereby having less power and thus less opportunities to perpetuate their world view and to advance the causes of conservatism (which is what their party is nominally about)

What all these vignettes share is that they highlight the inability of groups to further their collective interest through the inability of part of them (the representatives) to negotiate the best deal for the majority (the represented), the moment that different sub-segments of the latter have to be taken into account. That’s probably bad enough, but apparently on the other hand you got this: If only it ever came to pass! which sounds amazingly inspiring, and if it were ever done (or even half done) would utterly disprove my theory of a secular stagnation derived from the coming to a halt of technological progress (you want technology progressing? What can be more progressive than sending minimal probes to the nearest star?). Unfortunately, I find it highly unlikely it ever gets done, and I’ll tell you why right away: current politics. For this to happen it will never be enough that a few millionaires get together, decide it is a good use of their resources, that it would be a lot of fun and why the heck not, so they would get it done. The 100 million dollars that Yuri Milner as already pledged (and that many like him would be likely to pledge) is but small change compared to the real cost of such a magnificent endeavor. To really see it to completion a lot of public funds would need to be committed. Probably from multiple nations, which would then want a say on the design decisions (you know how it works: if I put X millions, I want companies from my part of the world receiving contracts for at least 1.2X millions in exchange). Which would then make the costs and timeline balloon to the grotesque proportions we have grown accustomed to (it should be obvious to any perspicuous reader that I spent last week in ITER having my engineer heart broken by seeing how such a similarly magnificent initiative is at least as likely to fail as to ever get completed because of the shortsighted and dysfunctional governance structure that politicians imposed as a precondition to  authorizing the budget for the construction to proceed).

So basically, politics suck, and they seem to suck lately even more than the historical average, to the extent that some commentators are ascribing most of the world’s malaises not to the unavoidable give and take that has to be ironed out in diverse electoral bodies, but to the existence of a political process by itself, presenting as enviable alternatives the autocracies that in recent years seem to have had more economic success thanks to the lack of such hindering process, that allowed them to decide and impose the better path to continue progressing towards economic development. I happen to disagree with such a contentious contention, and to explain why I will need to develop two complementary lines of thought:

·         First, what is the origin with the legitimate dissatisfaction with the prevalent political process in the West (representative democracy). To understand such origin we will need to show what feature of the dominant reason of the latest decades makes it less and less suitable and less compatible with such a system to aggregate the preferences of the represented

·         Second, to what extent the highlighted problems (be them derived from their misalignment with the age’s dominant reason or form other additional causes) are exclusive of representative democracy, or can be expected to afflict similarly other alternative forms of government (and I will deal mainly with autocracy as an all-encompassing alternative)

·         Finally, if I can show that autocracy would likely face the same problems, and even exacerbate them or make them worse, I would like to present my own proposal for an alternative process of collectively deciding how to better steer society (an alternative that will surprise no regular reader of this blog)

 But such developments will require an additional post, as this one has run already for too long. 

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