Not the end of democracy – not so fast

Democracy is in crisis. So many believe. David Runciman’s recent book has the title, ‘How Democracy Ends’. He takes a very different approach from Yascha Mounk – see my last two posts.

Democracy it seems cannot survive on its own. It needs (Runciman suggests) the shock of war, or something akin. The coming together after war. It also needs targets: the widening of the franchise, a shared vision of a society where everyone has a vote, was one such.

A target readily becomes a vision, with optimism and even idealism wound in. Trade unions were the vehicle for the working man, the Workers Education Association for the middle classes extending a hand up to the working class.

Now we all have the vote. And, for older generations, they’ve seen no further advantages in wealth or status come their way. Arguably the reverse. No matter that in terms of comfort and lifestyle most of us score more heavily now. We’ve lost the vision. For younger generations there’s the perception that their parents’ generation had it better than they have. They’ve never had the vision.

Those in power, in business, in the City, and indeed in the cities, small ‘c’, those down south, especially the south-east – they have the status, and the wealth. And they flaunt it. (In past times the division of wealth might have been seen as part of the natural order – but no more.)

Older generations now sense that they’ve found a voice, calling out against change – wanting to return to the old safe areas. (The old borders, real and metaphorical.) The institutions of democracy take a hit, with some hefty encouragement from the media.

For younger generations it’s a different issue – they see themselves as outside the system, not so different from previous generations you might say. But they’re not indifferent: typically they are issue-driven, and social media have taken the insistence and passion of their beliefs to another level. To the extent that political scientists like Yascha Mounk are asking the question, ‘can liberal democracy survive social media?’

Not quite as alarmist as ‘How Democracy Ends’. Mounk is talking of liberal democracy, and survival, not an endgame.

Democracy has always been inadequate to the task. That’s written in to its unwritten constitution. So much is expected of it. So much more demanded than it can readily deliver. Incompetence is the other side of the coin: always there to a greater or lesser extent, and always will be. ‘The blunders of our government’ (to quote King and Crewe’s phrase) reflect back on democracy itself.

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Old-style deference, working to middle, middle to upper class is no more. We, the people, across all classes, have asserted ourselves. There are no ‘betters’. We the people call the tune, and there is indeed a specific ‘will of the people’, which can be identified – and if we can’t do it ourselves, then there are others who will do it for us.

We’re in a battle against a globalised world, against the City, against elites, and vast inequalities of pay, against real pay doing no more than hold its level over the last thirty years, against the EU, against immigration.

Democracy isn’t doing it for us. We don’t worry that it’s a lot to ask, we deem democracy to be in crisis.

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In David Runciman’s view it’s a mid-life crisis, and that assumes old age and death. He does argue in defence of democracy that unlike any other system it has inbuilt recovery mechanisms – but they may not be enough.

I think Runciman, and many another, have got it wrong.

Our focus should be on how democracy can best take on and deal with the challenges that society faces. The hard work, the argument, the big picture, the detail. Talk down the ability of a democratic society to make the right decisions, we make those decisions harder. Short cuts. Apparently easy answers. Looking back rather than forward. Fringe even extreme views gain currency.

This is where the distinction made by Mounk (see my last post) between liberal and illiberal democracy becomes key. Where is the vision if we reduce democracy to no more than a convenient and hitherto just-about-effective modus operandi? Or, worse, to a Trump-inspired transactional nationalism?

In our current Brexit context, how are we to deal with the worldwide and EU-wide immigration issue if all we can think to do is tighten our own border controls? How do we take on big business and big money, if we’re obliged for want of other allies to kow-tow to the USA? And just how much power might a free-trading ‘Anglosphere’ wield in a world out east driven by the Chinese Belt and Road initiative?

To borrow a phrase, liberal democracy needs to take back control.

Runciman puts up Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan and the sociologist Max Weber as proponents of a mechanistic de-humanised view of society, where we cede power to the state out of self-interest, defending ourselves against an innate tendency for society to descend into violence.

He is curiously shy when it comes to liberal democracy. (It doesn’t get a mention.) But he’s clear regarding representative democracy, which in its contemporary form is ‘tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffective’.  The more gloomy we are, the more old Hobbes comes to the fore. And characterised in this way, why bother to save it?

His shyness extends to the role of the individual, who hardly gets a mention. (Though he does appear as a depersonalised online unit.) Liberalism brought the individual into play – the individual finding expression in democracy, and democracy in the individual. We have rights and freedoms, as long as we do not trespass on those of others. Yes, it is a minefield, an almost impossible task, there is no ideal world, progress can only ever take us so far, and we will lose ground as well as gain it – but that, if you want, is the stuff of democracy.

Democracy is not, to use Churchill’s characterisation, the least worst form of government. It is a bloody miracle we’ve got this far: we are fools to disdain it.

What we have to be focusing on is making it more robust. And that of course means the liberal democracies, not the emerging illiberal democracies of Hungary, Brazil, Turkey. Venezuela. It is not democracy as a system that should be at issue, but rather the scale of the problems we’re faced with.

Democracy has to adjust to deal with many challenges – and that (taking one example) has required and will require ceding of power upward to supranational bodies, with the European Commission the most controversial example, but balanced by a devolving of greater responsibility to local levels. Democracy works best at multiple, and connected, levels. The debate should be about structures of accountability, from local to supranational. The transactional approach cheered on by Donald Trump, with self-interest and specifically national interest always paramount, throws the issue into sharp relief.

Denigrate democracy, treat it with disdain, or part of the problem, or at best as suffering a midlife crisis, then you open up the other possibilities which Runciman discusses in his book – oligarchies (specifically  epistocracies – see below), pragmatic authoritarianism (as realised in the Chinese model of state capitalism), and liberated technology (internet utopias and  accelerationism, whereby a liberated economy and liberated networks, ‘crack the future open’).

Epistocracy, government by the best, is considered (though ultimately dismissed) as a serious alternative to democracy. Runciman quotes the American philosopher, Jason Brennan author of ‘Against Democracy’ (2016): ‘Political participation is not valuable for most people. On the contrary it does most of us little good and instead tends to stultify and corrupt us. It turns us into civic enemies who have grounds to hate one another.’ Runciman acknowledges that attaching power to knowledge can create monsters, but he leaves us in no doubt that he has some sympathy with Brennan’s direction of travel.

His conclusions – ‘Mature, Western democracy is over the hill …(it) will almost certainly have a drawn-out demise … democracy is not us. The demise of democracy is not our demise …’ I could continue, but I will desist.

Above all, what we miss in Runciman, as we do in Hobbes, and in the cheerless bunch of prophets he enlists to make his case, is any role for the positive aspects of human nature, for enterprise and compassion working together, for vision, ideals and aspirations – for new goals, for coming together rather than falling apart, for instinctively supporting rather than denigrating. For notions of liberty and responsibility. For any evidence that he’s taken on board any of that great liberal tradition from John Stuart Mill, and his precursors, to John Rawls, Amartya Sen and beyond.

The challenges facing society are terrible and wonderful, depressing if we wish them to be, exciting if we will ourselves to see them that way. We need champions not purveyors of doom, optimists not nay-sayers, a little bit of joy to put up against the gloom.

Connected, need I say, to a hard pragmatism. There need be no end to democracy, any more than there as been (pace Fukuyama) or ever will be an ultimate triumph.

‘Yes we can,’ was only ten years ago.

The rise and rise of populism (2)

I referred in my last post to immediate actions which can be taken to combat the rise of populism. In this post I look at what I described as the deeper crisis.

I’m taking Yascha Mounk’s book ‘The People versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it’ as my starting-point and primary source. For Mounk the fundamental distinction is between what he describes as ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Looking first at illiberal democracy, Venezuela, Hungary and Turkey, and Poland and Brazil as might be, all come to mind. ‘While the form populism takes may initially be democratic, its long-term effect is to undermine not only liberalism but democracy as well … attacks by populists on independent institutions and the rule of law ultimately erode the conditions for free and fair elections …’ It is these independent institutions, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a free press, which define liberal democracy. To this list I’d add representative multi-party government, based on regular elections and changes of administration and policy as the electorate dictates.

Illiberal democracy too readily turns into dictatorship.

But illiberal democracy, and the support it gathers to itself, doesn’t arise from nothing. It is popular dissatisfaction with existing systems and institutions, and a sense of exclusion, which have driven the rise of populism. Mounk and others have defined this as ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Much of this is inevitable and unavoidable. The technocratic challenges of our time require bureaucratic agencies, independent banks, and international treaties and organisations, all of which put distance between the ordinary man and woman and the elites which have taken charge of these institutions. Independent agencies in the USA include the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). President Trump has the EPA and the Federal Reserve firmly in his sights. But perhaps, in Mounk’s view, the most powerful ‘independent agency’ in the world is the European Commission. The European parliament has little power, so career bureaucrats call the tune.

Following on from the demise of the Breton Woods currency controls in the early 1970s, banks have become ‘key institutions deciding on whether to focus on minimising inflation or unemployment’. The European Central Bank followed the example of the  Bundesbank in terms of independence from government. Donald Trump rails against Jerome Powell when the Federal Reserve pushes up interest rates.

The extension of judicial oversight ‘is another way in which important issues have been taken out of democratic contestation’. The power of Supreme Court judges in the USA is more than ever evident. The Supreme Court in the UK plays a much less overt role in political affairs but sections of the press have attempted to paint it as a creature of the elite.  The European Court of Justice has also been attacked, much more vociferously.

The nature of political campaigning, American hyper-capitalism, and illicit funding (think Arron Banks) in other countries, have put further distance between legislatures and the popular will. Wealth and education, and personal and professional experience, put legislators in a class apart from their constituents.

‘At a minimum, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In many developed democracies these mechanisms have become significantly impaired over past decades …many supposed democracies resemble competitive oligarchies’.

The ‘popular views’ highlighted by Eatwell and Goodwin (see my previous post) are directly relevant here. (Social media should also be added to the mix.) ‘If these long-term drivers are not confronted in a concerted and intelligent manner the rise of populism is likely to continue.’

This would lend credence to the arguments of those who take a more root and branch approach – who see the very institutions of the modern state, and the captive professionals who work for them, as lying at the heart of the problem. For them ‘returning power to the people is both the obvious solution and a straightforward task’. Take on the independent banks, the bureaucratic and international agencies …

And yet, Mounk argues, they are fundamental to our continuing prosperity. (Though not money and its perversion of the electoral system).  Remember the origins of the European Union, rebuilding the continent after the Second World War. (The issue is not how to do away with the EU and the European Commission, but how to make them more accountable.)

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Likewise international treaties such as the Paris Accord are fundamental to our futures.

Constitutional courts in many countries have a proud record.

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In Mounk’s words, ‘undemocratic liberalism … is woefully under-theorised …a better understanding of its nature and its remedies [my italics] is of much more than academic interest’.

I’d argue this is a massive understatement. The rise of populism has brought issues which were systemic but held in the background to the fore, and we need to understand what is at stake – by ‘we’ I mean the wider public. Democracy is not enough of itself. It does not, as experience around the world have shown, have its own inbuilt survival mechanisms.

Liberal democracy provides that mechanism, ensures the balance of forces and the representation of all people and interests. Or so it should. Its failure to do so brings illiberal and ultimately undemocratic forces into play – to the detriment of all.

 

 

 

The rise and rise of populism (1)

Theresa May has today come back with a draft Brexit deal from Brussels. Will it get through her cabinet meeting later today – will it get through parliament in the coming weeks? The convolutions over recent months have been extraordinary, and occupied newspapers, TV, parliament and civil servants, and intruded overly into all our lives. Our time could have been better spent elsewhere.

I wrote when I set up this blog that ‘zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future’. We have done too much of the latter over the last two years. It is the reality of the moment we have to address.

In this blog and the following one I’m looking at the rise of populism and, with the help of an Economist article and a new book from the political theorist Yascha Mounk, attempting to put it in context.

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Bagehot (Economist 3rd November) is on the look-out for ‘intelligent explanations’ for Brexit and specifically the rise of populism that lies behind it, and he finds guidance in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s book ‘National Populism’.

The authors identify ‘four Ds’ that they believe explain populism:

immigration, under the curious heading ‘destruction’;

distrust of established elites: 58% of Britons think that ‘politicians do not listen to me’;

deprivation: ‘a growing feeling of both absolute and relative deprivation … tipped the balance for significant groups of voters,’ in Bagehot’s words;

de-alignment: it’s true that Labour and Tories together at the last election won 82% of the vote, but ‘Brexit cuts like a knife though both main parties’.

Bagehot argues that all this should warn ‘the political elite should not to take the decision to re-fight the 2016 referendum lightly if the opportunity presents itself’.  Those whose opinions were ignored ‘could be dangerously radicalised if the vote went in favour of Remain’.

This is a dangerous argument in itself. If Brexit is a pathway to disaster for the country, as Remainers believe it is, and as events are proving, then we who might be immune to ‘dangerous radicalisation’ should not back off because we fear it from the other side.

Bagehot’s other conclusion, that nationalist populism will be an important part of British politics for decades, is probably true – but not certainly so.

Disinformation and dishonesty and simple deviousness (Ds again) played a significant part in swinging the referendum vote. (Or as a local leaflet has it: ‘manipulation, mistruths and campaign violations.’) They will be harder to counter as long as the media play the polarising game: restricting UK media ownership to fully resident and full UK-taxpaying citizens would be an important step forward.

But we have the media we have – in the UK and the USA. Looking beyond, we have immediate actions we could take, if the will is there. But there is also a deeper crisis, which immediate actions can ameliorate but not resolve – a crisis for democracy and for liberal democracy, in the very institutions which have underpinned our democracies in the post-war years. I’ll return to this in the post following.

As for immediate actions …. I don’t believe answers lie in new democratic institutions, citizens’ forums and the like, but returning power to local authorities would be an important step. Likewise, nation-wide investment in infrastructure: starting in, not ending in, or not even reaching (I’m thinking of HS2), deprived areas.  And a curtailing of arrogance among the elite – de-eliting the elite. Many MPs have a close relationship with their constituencies (see Isabel Hardman’s new book, ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’): all need to do so, and the ‘club’ atmosphere of the Commons, and all signs of arrogance among MPs, need to be stamped down on hard. A surfeit of posh Tories and democratised Trotskyites hasn’t helped.

Fewer ‘free-traders’ would also help: arguments that there exist ‘free trade’ alternatives to the EU and the single market reassured many Leave voters that there was a real alternative to the EU. I grew tired of ‘free-traders’ referring to an economists’ ‘commissariat, as if there was a plot afoot among mendacious economists to fool the nation in the interests of … who? … global capitalism, I assume.

But immediate actions can’t level out the playing field between a rampant banking and global business sector, and the wider business sector, between a brutally acquisitive oligarchy for whom wealth brings power and influence, and the ordinary person, out of London, out west, or north, or east.

I’ll address this wider context in my next post.

Reporting back from Cheltenham 2018

The Cheltenham Literature Festival that is – they also have music and jazz and science festivals!

It is wet, thoroughly so, and there is a wedding in the village, and the mist is down, a still presence yet the wind blows the leaves in the ash tree, and the lawn, emptied of leaves when we mowed it close yesterday, is now covered again. We have a talk at the literature festival, Neil MacGregor, late of the National Gallery and British Museum…

We parked nearby, and scurried to the food tent, where we drank coffees without any form of literary aid, not even a newspaper. Though The Times sponsors. Where were they? Then another scurry, across the gardens to the Town Hall …

MacGregor subject in his recent radio programmes and new book is on sacred objects, and their place in society. They focus the connection between religion and community, whether it’s the Lion Man, carved from mammoth ivory, discovered in a cave near Ulm, dating back 40,000 years …  or a 19th century model from Siberia (a Siberian people under threat from Tsarist expansion putting down a marker) of a celebration of the solstice, also made from mammoth ivory, this time recovered from the melting permafrost… or Our Lady of Kazan, the protectress of the old Russia, and the new, with a photo of Putin and his torso bathing beneath the icon. (Not the original but a 16th century copy, but that hardly matters – and even the copy has a remarkable story.)

The icon supports power, and the state, whereas the Virgin of Guadeloupe marks a vision of a local peasant boy of the Virgin, which a reluctant church accepted as genuine, and it then became the symbol of all Mexicans, of the Mexican people. MacGregor also highlighted the statue given decades ago by America to France representing the flame of the Statue of Liberty, but given its situation above the tunnel in Paris where Princess Diana died, now a shrine to Diana, who has become a modern protectress for many.

What I wondered is how a resurgent China fits into this picture. China has its own symbols, establishing continuities with the past just as the Cultural Revolution tried to remove them. This is the all-powerful State overriding the local and the individual – co-opting the individual. Will we, can we, ever re-establish our connection with the sacred? Will state symbols come to dominate? Or the symbols of mass culture? Will they be the limits of the sacred?

To the festival the following afternoon, for a debate on the financial crash and its continuing legacy, with Alastair Darling, Kamal Ahmed and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England. A high-quality discussion, with the hard experience of the first two providing insights – for example, the instant support from the USA when asked by Darling to keep the support going for RBS after the markets closed in the UK – would that kind of cooperation happen now? As for the banks, punishment has been meted out on a much bigger state in the USA, but accountability has hardly changed. And as for future issues – fintech, automation, AI – they didn’t really come to grips with any of this. But they only had an hour…

Back home, and hour or two’s respite, supper, then into Cheltenham again for a Leonard Cohen evening, with a conversation between three Cohen devotees, a rock musician, a music journalist, and a wonderful white-haired 70-year-old Canadian, Ted Goossen whose main job is translating from the Japanese (the new Murakami novel also features at the festival, and he’s translated) but he’s been singing Cohen songs in clubs since he was 16 – which suggest 1964 or 1965, beating me by a year or so.

Suzanne remains the first love of many. Chelsea Hotel was the journalist’s favourite – she focused on the word ‘that’ when Cohen says in the last line he doesn’t think of her (‘her’ being Janis Joplin) ‘that often’. Cohen returned to meditation seriously in his last years: Goossen spoke movingly about this side of Cohen, and the Zen connection. Likewise mention of Cohen’s love of Lorca, and duende, that mood of celebration and dance and melancholy that is so much part of Andalucia.

The second half of the evening had a big amateur orchestra and singers, The Fantasy Orchestra, combining in crazy yet wonderfully musical fashion to play and sing a variety of songs, memorably a big and bubbling lady in a cotton ‘William Morris’ dress who belted out So long Marianne, and had us singing along with the chorus… ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’- the message hit home. ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything,’ words that have cheered me through the recent dark times. They ended with Hallelujah – what I hadn’t realised is how long Cohen had laboured over the lyric – some eighty versions.

We all sang the chorus … not quite the usual Cheltenham event!

 

Back to Europe

Should we sit back post-Brexit (if indeed it happens), as one-time Remainers, and accept our severance from Europe as permanent? Or do we make it clear that our aim will be to to rejoin – rejoin both EU and Europe. Get ‘back to Europe’.

Robert Peston (late of the BBC, now ITV’s political editor) spoke with his usual passion, lucidity and calm deliberation (a uniquely Pestonian combination) last Friday evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

He is very much in the Remain camp, but careful to understand both sides of the argument. But as an economist he is in no doubt about where Britain’s interest lies. Likewise over the role of the EU in guaranteeing long-term peace in Europe.

His one caveat, and a crucial one, relates to the divide in the country that Brexit has revealed and the last two years has exacerbated. How much deeper the divide, how much more bitter the recriminations in the country, if we don’t leave? Where might a hyper-charged political atmosphere lead – what damage to our institutions?

I understand that concern. But there is of course the other side. The anger and blame if we leave. But I’d suggest that maybe too many on the Remain side aren’t quite passionate enough – they’re not of the go to-the-wall mentality. Rather, shrug, and see what happens. Which is curious in a way because Remainers have a majority among the young and better educated, but it may just be that the capacity to be reasonable among the Remainers tones down their opposition. They aren’t quite angry enough.

Nor should we sideline the moral argument, highlighted by Macron’s statement that Brexit advocates were liars. ‘Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.’

Let’s say purveyors of half-truths and distortions. Without the fake stories, without the BBC’s equivocation, Leave would never have won. (Which isn’t to argue that elites and arrogance, wealth distribution and immigration weren’t the deeper concerns which drove the Brexit vote. These are the issues of and for our time. But Brexit is simply the wrong way to deal with them.)

Should we sit back, or on the fence, and allow Brexit to happen, without continuing to challenge at every step, before and after 29th March next year?

Saturday morning there was a Guardian story that Conservative MPS are talking to Labour MPs about winning their support for Theresa May-negotiated settlement with the EU. Takes me back to Peston. The outcome of a vote in parliament?  Another referendum on the final terms? He almost said a ‘Peoples’ Vote’ but checked himself. He put it at 40% likely – maybe 50%.

So … if, from next April on, we have a Customs Union, of sorts, and various other stop-gaps and cobbled-together elements. Do we sit back quietly? No, surely, we need a Back to Europe movement, and we need to be the ones arguing, shouting if need be, above the mess and the noise.

Liberal democracy – in crisis?

Forgive the length of this post. But if you’re concerned about the travails of Western democracies, and where they all might lead, do read on.

There have been many books written post-Brexit, post-Trump about the crisis for democracy and specifically liberal democracy. I’ve tried to keep a count, and over recent months I’ve put aside reviews and extracts. (I’m not in the privileged position of an Andrew Rawnsley to whom I imagine all the books, and others I don’t know of, will have been sent in the hope that he will review them.)

What follows are my summaries of and comments on reviews from The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Prospect, The New York Times and The Atlantic. My aim has been to achieve, for myself and others, a broader perspective on what’s been argued, and where it might take us. How real is the crisis, what are the causes, are they manageable, or are they somehow intrinsic to democracy? How seriously should we take book titles such as ‘How Democracy Ends’, ‘The People vs Democracy’ and ‘Why Liberalism Failed’.

For my part I’m an unashamed advocate of liberal democracy – liberal as the best hope for democracy, and I find it frustrating that so many of the books cannot see a way out of pulling out of the tailspin they dissect in their books. We need articles and books and broadcasters to pick up on the virtues both of democracy and liberal democracy. If the end in view is recognised and respected, then we can focus on how we get there, instead of taking a perverse pleasure in gloomy prognoses, which seems to have become the fallback position in the current debate.

I’ve not referred to The Economist’s long essay on Liberalism in its current, 175th anniversary edition. That’s for another time and place.

Reviews are in no particular order. First publication of all the books was this year, apart from David Goodhart’s book. 

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The Road to Somewhere (David Goodhart)

 Goodhart has won both praise and notoriety for the distinction he makes in ‘The Road To Somewhere’ between ‘Somewheres’ (‘no’ voters) and ’Nowheres’ (‘yes’ voters). For the ‘Somewheres’, the home-lovers, the ordinary men and women caricatured as those who’ve never ventured too far, the issues are as much cultural as economic: the sense that their home town has changed too fast, that the big cities and elites, the big corporations and the globalised world, have left them behind.

It’s a questionable thesis. Distance from power has always been a divide, so too (as Brexit showed) age difference – the young voted but substantial margin to stay, the old to leave the EU. To be an ‘Anywhere’ doesn’t mean that you don’t have strong local loyalties, and as Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian, we’ve a strong sense that the ‘Somewheres’ have been in control (think prisons, welfare, education) for a little while now. (Who are the real elite?) And what of the role of the press: across great sections of the press ‘the liberal internationalism of (the) ‘Anywheres’ has been drowned out’.

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How We Must Change To Prosper in Europe (Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton)

A country-specific blueprint. We need big changes. What, in their view, we don’t need is Brexit.

Any trading benefits from Brexit are illusory, they argue, and our clout on the world stage will be diminished. More power to Westminster won’t translate into more power for the regions. Remaining is not enough: radical reform is needed – to education, infrastructure and the world of work. ‘In fact the whole British economy needs restructuring to give ordinary people more of a stake.’

There are many books out there just now suggesting a much wider malaise: Adonis and Hutton suggest that there are country-specific answers – but giving ‘ordinary people’ more of a stake is an almost universal refrain in Western democracies.

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The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Francis Fukuyama) and The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (Kwame Anthony Appiah)

I’ve read various reviews of these two books. The Economist gets lost in identifying what these two books on the subject of identity are really about. The Washington Post is better, The New York Times best. It brings in a touch of humour, which with a diffuse subject like identity really helps. I’ll quote:

‘Both books belong to one of today’s most important genres: the Not-About-Trump-But-Also-Sort-Of-About-Trump, or N.A.T.B.A.S.O.A.T., book. There is a hunger to understand this moment, but from a remove. And both books help explain so much more than Trump. #MeToo. White nationalism. Hindu nationalism. Black Lives Matter. Campus debates about privilege and appropriation. Syria. Islamism. The spread of populism and retreat of democracy worldwide. The rise of the far right in Europe. The rise of the far left in the United States. All these phenomena throb with questions of identity, of “Who am I?” and “To what do I belong?” Appiah and Fukuyama seek out answers.

Appiah believes we’re in wars of identity because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind. We think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. Fukuyama, less a cosmopolitan and more a nation-state guy, has greater sympathy for people clinging to differences. He thinks it a natural response to our age — but also seems to believe that if we don’t find a way to subsume narrow identities into national ones, we’re all going to die.’

‘… less a cosmopolitan, more a nation-state guy’ – yes, that’s the divide, and put this way it sounds like a discussion over coffee. Would that it were so!

(Ref.: New York Times, 27th August 2018)

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Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (Adam Tooze)

In contrast to the prognoses and speculations, answers and action plans of other authors, what we have here is contemporary history at its best. Tooze offers a practical and pragmatic explanation of the economic aspects of the current crisis. He also takes his starting-point as 2008, just a year before I started this blog, when despite the financial crisis and the Iraq debacle optimism came a little bit easier than it does now. I can’t fault The Economist’s summary, so I’ll quote it at length:

‘Four big themes emerge … The first was the immediate post-crisis response, in which the banks were rescued and the financial taps were loosened. The second was the Eurozone crisis … The third was a shift in the developed world after 2010 to a more austere fiscal policy. The fourth was the rise in populist politics in Europe and America.’

Tooze takes ‘the view that the immediate financial response to the crisis was necessary, but unfortunate in that executives in the banking industry paid too low a price for their folly; that Europe was slow and narrow-minded in dealing with the peripheral countries; and that the switch to austerity was a mistake. Taken together the backlash against bankers, frustration with EU governments and the impact of austerity led to the rise of populism, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote.’

A big part of the problem was a failure of leadership in the post-crisis period. But ‘the more dangerous failure… lies in the unwillingness to deal with the problems which lie at the heart of the system and persist today. The finance sector, which caused the crisis, looks remarkably unaltered.’

(Ref.: The Economist, 4th August 2018)

I’ll add here quotations from Yanis Varoufakis’ Guardian review of Tooze’s book. (Much more aggressive, as you’d expect from Varoufakis.) He refers to ..

‘the black magic of financialisation … turning car companies like General Motors into large speculative financial corporations that also made some cars … ultimately replacing the aim of GDP growth with that of “financial resilience”: enduring paper asset inflation for the few and permanent austerity for the many.’

‘…. from the 1990s onwardsthe “real action” was taking place in the balance sheets of the global financiers.’

(Ref.: The Guardian, 12th August 2018)

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The global dimension

I don’t have to hand any recent books on the global dimensions of the crisis, and specifically the antipathy felt by many on the left and right toward the big global corporations, and above all the banks.  (They do exist.) Varoufakis’s review of Adam Tooze’s book must suffice:

‘…  from the 1990s onwards, the “real action” was taking place in the balance sheets of the global financiers. …

What this meant globally is that imbalanced dollar-denominated financial flows, which had initially grown on the back of the US trade deficit, “succeeded” in achieving escape velocity and almost leaving planet Earth behind …  before crashing down violently in 2008. …

In the end, the financialised technostructure was saved by two governments (America and China), while the neoliberal populist myth (that wholesale deregulation will make everyone’s dreams come true under the rule of democracy) is now dead. Is it any wonder that racism and geopolitical tensions are all the rage? …

Varoufakis never pulls punches.

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Why Liberalism Failed (Patrick Deneen)

Deneen’s contribution to the debate lumps the two definitions of liberalism, free-market and left-liberal/rights-focused. Both focus on individual self-expression. ‘Because the liberal spirit mechanically destroys inherited customs and local traditions, sometimes in the name of market efficiency and sometimes in the name of individual rights, it creates more room for the expansion of the state, as market-maker and law-enforcer.’ He refers to Hobbes’ Leviathan, always good starting-point for pessimists. Deneen ‘reminds the reader that before the advent of modern liberalism, philosophy identified liberty with self-mastery rather than self-expression’.  He reminds the reader how wide-ranging is the current mood of disillusion with liberalism.

But, as The Economist points out, liberalism encompasses a wide range of traditions. Deneen over-defines it, to suit his convenience. The Economist also argues strongly for liberalism’s ability to reform itself – current difficulties do not represent some kind of end-state for liberalism.  Deneen and it seems The Economist itself argues that ‘the current record of liberalism is dismal’. (Why blame the creed itself, which indeed ‘has many traditions’? I’d argue liberalism needs to re-focus and re-define. What is doesn’t need is a guilt complex.) Read, as The Economist puts it, ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ not as a funeral oration but as a call to action.

Deneen refers to pre-modern notions of liberty ‘as self-mastery and self-denial’. Shades of Nietzsche here. But I’d put up against that pre-modern notions of the sanctity of the individual, so closely associated with the rise and extension of Christianity, from which first the Enlightenment and then the liberal agendas followed as the old hierarchies broke down. That of course is a much wider and far-reaching story.

(Ref.: The Economist, 27th January 2018)

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How Democracies Die (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt)

Levitsky and Ziblatt assert that Trump ‘has probably crossed the line from rough-around-the-edges populist to would-be strongman.’ They list ‘four key indicators of authoritarian behaviour’. 1) ‘Rejection or weak commitment to democratic rules.’ 2) Attempts ‘to undermine the legitimacy of election results.’ 3) Attacks on the press, promises to curb ‘fake news’. 4) Readiness to curb the civil liberties of opponents’.

But while Trump has mouthed the words, but he hasn’t (nor has he the power to) locked up opponents or smashed the presses. But he has in his incoherent way (and incoherence, as Bob Woodward makes clear, is a defining characteristic – and autocrats do require some coherence if they are to turn the world upside down) further undermined two defining characteristics of 20th century democracy – mutual tolerance, both parties accepting each other as legitimate, and forbearance, with election winners exercising some restraint, aware always of the next election.

The issue of race is as intractable as ever: America has ‘never tried to maintain democratic norms in a demos as diverse as today’s.’

I’d add that diversity, in increasingly multi-racial societies, is a mighty challenge for European societies as well – maybe the defining challenge. Without the immigration issue the referendum would have been won decisively by the Remainers, and while Hungary and Poland would probably still be limiting the independence of the judiciary the tensions between the other 27 EU countries would be much-reduced.

(Ref.: The Economist, 27th January 2018 )

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The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (Yascha Mounk)

Mounk suggests that there are two sides to the liberal democracy equation, 1) ‘protecting individuals from the tyranny of the majority through check and balances and enumerating rights’, and 2) ‘handing power to the people’. ‘Liberal elites are willing to exclude the people from important decisions, most notably in the case of immigration in the case of the EU, in the name of “rights”. Meanwhile populists are willing to dispense with constitutional niceties in the name of the “people”’.  Slow economic growth is the prime reason why liberal democracy is splitting into its ‘component parts’. Where liberals blame globalisation, populists see lobbyists and elites rigging the system.  Social media, immigration, notions that different groups should celebrate their differences – these are all further contributory factors.

The Economist gives much of this the nod, but I’m wary of assertions such as ‘liberal elites are willing to exclude people from important decisions’. The ‘people’ in that populist sense were never part of the political debate. Western democracies are based on representation, at a parliamentary and local level. We lose sight of this at our peril.  Immigration has always been a feature of vibrant societies, it’s always engendered bitter hostilities. And as in the case of the immigration explosion in the UK after 2005 – it was never anticipated at the level it actually happened.

(I’m also wary of the term ‘liberal elites’, much used by The Economist. Elites are increasingly illiberal, and there lies part of the problem.)

Mounk argues that ‘the more technocratic elites try to protect important area of decision-making, not least immigration, from the will of the people, the more they will create festering resentment’. Yes, to the sensitivity to immigration, and ensuring it’s accompanied by all the necessary support and restrictions, but not the emotive language. Like Fukuyama, he seems to be advocating, in The Economist’s words, ‘domesticating nationalism rather than attempting to define it as an anachronistic relic’. Let Americans judge how this might apply to the USA, but for Europe nationalisms have a proven capacity to get out of hand, and we should play any such game very very cautiously.

(Ref: The Economist, 17th March 2018)

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In the Shadows of the American Century: the Rise and Decline of American Global Power (Alfred McCoy)

MvCoy’s book is not central to an appraisal of liberalism today but I will include one quote from Diane Robert’s review of his book in Prospect: ‘Like other empires before it, the US refuses to acknowledge that the nature of empires is to fall. Not quickly of course – Rome didn’t collapse as soon as the Visigoths or Vandals raised the city. It took years, and America won’t be any different ….’

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Behold America: A History of America First and the American Dream (Sarah Churchwell)

Diane Roberts also reviewed Sarah Churchwell’s book in Prospect. (I heard Churchwell talk about her book at the Hay book festival last May.) Quoting Roberts’s paraphrase of Churchwell’s argument, ‘The US has always expended a lot of energy denying the past … pretending … that slavery and genocide have simply disappeared from the national psyche like dew into the grass … The sustaining national myth has been that America was once an Arcadia of small-towns … populated by fair-skinned folks who loved their mothers …’ Whether it’s Jews, Reds, Black Panthers, feminists, environmentalists, European socialists, political correctness – to ‘America Firsters’ they are all out to destroy God’s country. Fox News is beating an old (the Chicago Tribune 1923 being an instance Churchwell quotes) anti-immigrant drum. The Trumps, father Fred and son Donald, have a dubious record (Fred Trump, New York 1927, Donald, Charlottesville 2017).

Roberts states that ‘America wants to be first in the international stage without accepting its responsibilities.’ In the post-war world, of course, the USA did take on that responsibility (a chequered record but the role as clear and Europe benefitted hugely) but the curiosity is that Trump’s ‘America First’ America wants to scale back its responsibilities – underlining the point that as it narrows its focus America will become even more ‘first’ only to its own citizens, and ‘exceptional’ likewise.

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Democracy’s Retreat

The Economist back in June 2018 (16th June) ran a feature entitled ‘Democracy’s Retreat’, with the subhead ‘After decides of triumph democracy is losing ground. Why?’

‘The end of history’, as proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama was on a par with the Thousand-Year Reich as a mis-statement – history is a creature of all the mis-steps and follies and mis-readings and simple folly that man is capable of, with the hand of nature also thrown brutally in from time to time. The retreat of democracy isn’t in any sense because democracy has been ‘found out’: but it was, is and will be something we have to fight for at very turn.

So I’m wary of distinctions between democracy (rule by the people) and liberal democracy (a freely-elected government, which respects individual and minority rights, the rule of law and independent institutions). ‘Rule by the people’ leaves open the question who the people are, and who decides who they are. Liberal democracy aims to put in place and preserve institutions which will guarantee democracy for a foreseeable future. So when Yascha Mounk (see above) argues that liberalism and democracy are separable I’m doubtful. How democratic is a government elected on promises to censor speech or curtail minority rights? That of itself diminishes democracy.

Yes, ‘plenty of liberal institutions are undemocratic’. Unelected judges can over-rule elected politicians. Politicians must be subject to the rule of law. But I’d argue that the rule of law is a guarantor of democracy. Of course, we have to ask who in the first place lays down the legal code by which governments are limited? It can be introduced in a constitution, or in the unique case of the UK be enshrined in tradition. The independence of the judiciary is fundamental to the functioning of any liberal democracy.

Globally, The Economist tells us, ‘the support for democracy remains high’ – a median of 78% of people polled in 38 countries agreed that a ‘a system where elected representatives made the laws was a good one’. But 24% thought that military rule would be fine – one of the front runners in the upcoming Brazilian election is himself of that mind.  In Hungary the financial crisis and immigration upset the democratic order. Ethnic hatreds remain a tool of potential autocrats around the world. Independent institutions such as the judiciary in Hungary and Poland, are under threat. Fines can force independent newspapers out of business (witness Russia and now Turkey).  Children can be indoctrinated from a very young age: ‘as young as four in Turkey are taught that their president saved the nation from the Gulenists ‘…. Many crave power …. Some because they want to change the world … Some, for its own sake. Some, because brings adulation, money and sex … Autocracy and graft create a vicious circle.’

Democracy has fought back in a few countries – where the autocrat assumed the electoral process had been sufficiently perverted to allow elections to proceed in safety – only to be proved wrong.  Malaysia and South Africa (within the ANC) being two examples.

‘What is certain, however, is that freely elected governments bound by the rule of law have less power to abuse citizens.’ For my part I will never forget Philippe Sands at the Hay festival back in May engaging in an imaginary conversation with his Turkish journalist friend, Ahmet Altan who has been imprisoned for life by the Turkish president.

That is a telling, a terrible, reminder of why we must be forever vigilant in defence of the rule of law.

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How Democracy Ends (Andrew Rawnsley)

Rawnsley writing in The Observer considers the David Runciman book, How Democracy Ends. ‘…one of the very best of the current crop of books on the subject.’

A first point to note – have we been here before? In Runciman’s view, no. Putin ‘s may be a parody democracy, but he isn’t Hitler. (Compare Yanis Varoufakis: ‘From where I stand, we are at a 1930 point – soon after the crash, and with a fascist moment upon us.’)

‘A widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics’ – these are Runciman’s words. (Rawnsley concurs.) I’m wary of such easy emotive language. Disgust? With the whole edifice?

Confidence has been sapped ‘by governments that struggle to deliver the underlying contract to spread prosperity sufficiently widely and fairly so that everyone has the sense of a stake in society’. An underlying contract? I’d argue that, if such a thing exists, which is questionable, it sets the bar too high. We too easily forget that liberal society is always a work-in-progress.

Yes, post-war prosperity and liberal agendas radically changed expectations – and it is expectations that aren’t being matched. But it’s less that average real wages in the USA have been stagnant for forty years, more a real and perceived greater inequality in its distribution – an elite garnering both wealth and influence. (What isn’t mentioned by Rawnsley in his review is the extent to which sections of the press have sought to discredit both parliament and the rule of law. What role do they have in that sense of ‘disgust’?)

On other points I’d agree.  The internet has poisoned the well, and opposition sects do promote conspiracy theories, democracy has become more venomous, Silicon Valley is calling the shots and government doesn’t know how to respond (though the EU is trying). There’s bruising free speech in the public forums, mirrored now in virulent divisions with parliament and Congress, and within party.

Is Runciman right that representative government has lost the capacity to re-invigorate itself? Now that the franchise is universal, and the welfare state fully (if too often carelessly) operational. Do we need a clear set of goals in peacetime, or ‘chaos and violence’, as in wartime, to bring the best out of democracy? A clear set of goals? – yes, we do.

‘Stable democracies retain their extraordinary capacity to stave off the worst that can happen without tackling the problems that threatened disaster in the first place.’ (Runciman’s words.) So we shouldn’t feel too good about Greece remaining democratic despite everything, or the survival of the Eurozone against the odds. That’s a point, to Rawnsley’s mind, well made, and in one sense true, but I’d argue that democracy has never been a straight-line affair. ‘Staving off’ is a natural and usually necessary response response. Democracy proceeds by compromises, delays, wrong-turns – and occasional leaps forward.

But despite the title Runciman ‘doesn’t think democracy is over’. (Rawnsley) He looks at alternatives ‘and rightly finds them wanting’ – Chinese authoritarian capitalism, ’the notion of government by experts’, a Platonic ‘rule of the knowers’. ‘Intellectuals are just as prone to making mistakes as the crow.’ No surprise there. Can technology offer ’some kind of liberation’, as Runciman suggests. Like Rawnsley I’m doubtful.

Also, like Rawnsley, I’m not as pessimistic as Runciman. Nor is Runciman quite as pessimistic as he might seem. In Rawnsley’s words: ‘Yes, democracy is often messy, clumsy and ineffectual. Yes, voters sometimes empower ghastly rulers …. But almost despite itself … Runciman seems to be saying there is something special about democracy. One of its great merits is the capacity for self-questioning and self-correction … lacking in other systems of government. Democracy can go wrong, but it has the flexibility to sort itself right.’

A direct quote from Runciman:’ Democratic politics assume there is no settled answer to any question … (this) protects us from getting stuck with any truly bad ideas.’

And another from Runciman (from an interview with Prospect): ‘I suspect that one reason for Brexit and Trump is not that people have lost faith in democracy but that many have the kind of unthinking faith in it that allows them to believe it can survive anything…’

So – I’d argue – we need to take the initiative, rather than hang back on the ropes. Focus on a clear set of goals.

And remember that democracy has ultimately to be about belief – believing we are on the right track. It doesn’t have to be a belief in progress, but just a belief in the integrity and the future of a mightily flawed but remarkable institution, which is in truth a bloody miracle. If we are not positive and assertive and out there about democracy, and liberal democracy, others will steal the field from us.

(Ref.: The Observer, 20th May 2018)

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Yuval Noah Harari)

I’ll sign off with Harari’s argument that AI, artificial intelligence, could have within it the possible demise of democracy and liberalism. The old stories are discredited, religion is sidelined, likewise the nation-state in a globalised world…

What follows is based on an article in The Atlantic (‘Why Technology Favors Tyranny’, October 2018 issue) which has been adapted from Harari’s book.

I started with Adonis and Hutton’s very practical approach to one nation’s immediate difficulties. Harari takes us to the other extreme, as these extracts reveal:

Artificial intelligence could erase many practical advantages of democracy, and erode the ideals of liberty and equality. It will further concentrate power among a small elite if we don’t take steps to stop it.  …

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance. …

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. …

Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete. … … economic growth may not solve social problems that are now being created by technological disruption, because such growth is increasingly predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies. …

As many people lose their economic value, they might also come to lose their political power. The same technologies that might make billions of people economically irrelevant might also make them easier to monitor and control. …

The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. … (tilting in favour of dictatorships)

Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world. …

Can parliaments and political parties overcome these challenges and forestall the darker scenarios? At the current moment this does not seem likely. Technological disruption is not even a leading item on the political agenda. …

Harari’s answers don’t take us very far. ‘For starters, we need to place a much higher priority on understanding how the human mind works – particularly how our own wisdom and compassion can be cultivated. … More practically, and more immediately, if we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, we must regulate the ownership of data.’

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Do I have any conclusions? Can we reverse the threats to democracy (and head off Harari’s speculations) and re-assert the values and practice of liberal democracy? For one, I’d go well beyond Harari’s statement about cultivating our wisdom and compassion, and assert the absolute value, integrity and importance of each individual  human being – whatever their country, race or creed. Compassion and wisdom are indeed part of that.

At a more practical level, as a matter of urgency, ensure that all groupings have a stake, and perceive that they have a stake, in their country’s governance, progress and prosperity. And in a wider prosperity beyond their borders. This will always be a rocky and crisis-ridden road, but as long we have a clear sense of direction, then we might just be able to manage the challenges en route – for the forseeable future at least!

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Buddhism and politics – never the twain shall meet?

‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.’ (Rudyard Kipling, Barrack-Room Ballads.)

I don’t claim to be a practising Buddhist. But there is no better way in my experience of understanding the world. That’s why I began this blog. To explore how Buddhism, and Zen especially, might connect with the ordinary world.

Unhappiness, dissatisfaction – in the world and with the world – dukkha – are the Buddhist’s starting-point.

‘Unhappiness arises because there is resistance and rejection … Rejection and resistance are part of anger because nothing will ever be exactly as we wish. If we are still looking for satisfaction in worldly matters, we haven’t seen Dhamma [the Buddhist truth] yet.’ (Ayya Khema)

So do we put worldly affairs behind us? If we’re following a path to enlightenment then, it seems, we must. And yet of course, we can’t. Monks cut their bonds with home, they move as far from obstacles as they can. This requires discipline and sacrifice. For a higher reward.

But the ordinary outside world will and must go on as before.

The Venerable Myokyo’s comments on Zen Master Daie help. (Zen Traces, September 2018.) Master Daie highlights the contrast between ‘gentlemen of affairs’ and ‘home leavers’ (meaning monks of course).

A gentleman of affairs – a nobleman back in Tang dynasty China. ‘Affairs’ – the daily grind, affairs as we understand them?  No, ‘this affair, this great affair of birth and death.’

What if we substitute ‘men and women going about their ordinary daily affairs’ for ‘gentlemen of affairs’. Bring ‘this great affair of birth and death’ down to earth.

If we are mindful in our daily affairs there is always something blocking our path – something we want and can’t have, something that simply isn’t right, something beautiful but beyond our reach, something ugly and too close to home. (I’m paraphrasing the Venerable Myokyo.)

For men and women in their daily affairs, as for the gentlemen of affairs, there is one route to follow. Faced with all the wants, likes, dislikes, loathings that block the path – ‘just sit down in meditation: not to get rid of them, but to look at them. To look at them clearly and recognise them. In that recognition they lose their power.’

We don’t all sit down to meditate.  But if we step back (meditation in its simplest form) and look at all our likes and loathings, and see them for what they are – our own projections on to the world, and not of the world itself – then they will lose their power.

Their emotive power. But we do not lose, surely, our power to distinguish between right and wrong. If we are political in that sense we can’t put our compassion behind us. We want to ensure that a world in which everyone may follow their own path, free from hindrance, and follow a path to enlightenment if they wish, will always be there.

There can be no guarantees that will be the case.