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.

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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Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

Infrastructure hasn’t over the years been a topic of too much debate. It simply went on, all around us, yet curiously out of sight. We’d complain, some of us, about HS2 and Hinckley Point, but these are new glamour projects. Not the day to day. The day to day is about detail, hard graft, the invisible – and the maintenance of what we have.

All has been suddenly thrown into a much sharper perspective by last week’s collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. The human cost is terrible, the economic cost (access to Genoa’s port, north-south communication) serious, the political cost (Italians disillusioned with government now even more so – but to whom do they turn?) likely to be high.  Italy’s interior minister blames the Eurozone’s strict rules on budget deficits – but as the Financial Times points out ‘a bigger constraint is the crushing burden of interest payments on Italy’s public debt’, 132% of annual economic output. (Source: Tony Barber, FT 18/19 August.)

Italy is not alone. Germany has bridge issues of its own. Obama’s transportation secretary described the US as ‘one big pothole’. Much of the road network across Britain, once you leave the motorway system, is in a poor state of repair: not dangerous, but a significant impediment to good communication.

(How many other bridges small as well as large on motorways across the developed world are suspect? The Genoa bridge had passed all its tests. I’m reminded of the long-term roadworks on the M5 just south of the M6 junction. You see few workers on the motorway itself: there are 40 or so (notices tell us) out of sight, working below the road surface. That at least is re-assuring.)

Quoting Tony Barber again: in the UK, ‘governments of all political stripes tend to neglect unglamorous small scale infrastructure projects and repair work in favour of ostentatious schemes with predictably spiralling costs.’

HS2 (high speed rail link) is a case in point. Local infrastructure (taking in the north-west, north-east, south, and south-west of England, and Wales and Scotland – HS2 may in twenty years time, with a following wind, just about reach Manchester and Leeds) and high levels of maintenance of existing infrastructure would be a far wiser way to spend money. In the case of Hinckley B (our very own Chinese-financed nuclear power station), funding requirements have trumped political considerations – and reduced our scope for independence and influence in the world.

One other consideration, which Italy’s situation highlights. Massive infrastructure self-evidently requires massive maintenance and repair costs, and that assumes continuing stellar economic performance. Will we need our skyscrapers in fifty (or a hundred) years’ time? Will our road networks be underused, radically underused, as we develop new modes of transport?

We move too fast, too blindly, and that won’t stop any time soon. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative is one guarantee of that. Development is driven as much by political and strategic as well as economic considerations. (One powerful reason why we need to be part of the EU – only that way will we have serious political heft in the world.)

What we can do is hold to the simple truth that infrastructure requires maintenance, and put aside the money in national budgets across the world to ensure that it is carried out to the highest level. That is the imperative now. (Easy to say, immeasurably harder to ensure it happens.) As for the future, we cannot simply rely on continuing high levels of prosperity as a guarantee of the required levels of funding, via taxation and borrowing or private investment.

If we cannot be confident in the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure, then we shouldn’t be building. One day our leaps into the dark will come to haunt us.

Europe or America – too much ‘us against them’

Europe v America

Do you lean more to Europe or to the USA? What does your instinct tell you? I remember the question being posed in a radio debate a few years ago. It caught my attention then. It’s more than ever relevant now, as Brexit disparages and attempts to sideline Europe.

Why for so many is there an instinctive hostility to the EU? Is it just to the institution? Or does it reflect the way we engage with European culture and history? At a bumptious Boris Johnson ‘I can sing Ode to Joy’ level, or at a level more woven into our soul – into our identity?

Are we a European people, one of many, an outlier, but integral nonetheless? Or are we to all intents and purposes, though we wouldn’t admit it, just another state of the USA, just doing things a little differently.

We’re uneasy about the USA, it’s brashness, its noise, its superiority complex – but we go with it – it is, we feel, an exaggeration of our own character, the same substance, lacking the finesse. But they’re our comfort zone – not Europe.

Brexiteers by default lean to America, to trade agreements which will of course be on American terms. They hide this behind ‘global’ aspirations, and a maritime, ‘old Commonwealth’ identity.

I’d argue we are already global – and we are as engaged with the USA we need to be. Trump’s penalties for companies and banks breaking US-imposed sanctions against Iran underline the point.

 

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Europe v the world

So we’ve widened it. It’s no longer Europe v America, it’s elided into Europe v ‘the world’. We’re going global. As if we need to assert one identity at the expense of another. I’m proud to be a citizen of the UK – of Europe – and of the world.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, trespasses onto this territory when (I’m quoting from The Economist) he criticises liberal Tories such as [Amber] Rudd ‘for misinterpreting Brexit as a vote for closing the borders rather than embracing a more global future’.

There are countless other such statements. The likes of Nelson have set up and pursued a false dichotomy, pitching a European against ‘a global future’. We were there of course already. The Brexit strategy will indeed involve (the shenanigans of current Cabinet debate on the subject will go down in history as farce) some kind of closure of our border with Europe, against a pie-in-the-sky chance of signing trade deals with further-flung countries that offset the damage that closure will cause.

Countless pages, articles, tomes have been written on both sides of the argument. It’s that deeper and false sense of a divide that concerns me here. The Brexit debate, and Brexit supporters for decades before the 2016 vote, have polarised ‘European’ and ‘global’, pitched one against the other, and we’re digging the divide deeper all the time.

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Don’t for heaven’s sake claim you’re an intellectual

I’m hardly saying anything new but it’s also an anti-intellectual debate. Don’t rely on argument, rely on instinct – it’s become a matter of belief. There’s a new book out about the French intellectual (The End of the French Intellectual): at least France has had such a person as the public intellectual. A species who in this country should expect to get as little appreciation from the likes of the Daily Mail as members of the House of Lords or the judiciary.

Leaping across the pond, we have Scott Pruitt, head of the American Environmental Protection Agency, barring scientists who have received federal grants from the EPA from sitting on boards advising the EPA on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’. There are no restrictions on scientists who work for the industries the EPA monitors. Again, independence of mind is under threat.

And finally, that Ruth Lea, a long-time public figure, arguing that ‘the economics ‘establishment’, including the Treasury, were utterly wrong-footed by our economic performance after the Brexit vote in June 2016′. The economics ‘establishment’ – ‘commissariat’ is another term I’ve seen used. In other words, the great majority of economists. Maybe Ruth Lea hasn’t noticed how our performance has significantly lagged the rest of Europe – and taken on board the reluctance abroad not to let the UK slide too far – for in whose interests is that? Yes, arguments were too apocalyptic, attempting to match the Brexiteers’ approach of promising the earth.

The way is still down, it’s just taking far more turnings. As long as we inhabit this falsely polarised world that won’t change.

Spring, Michele Hanson, Pinker, Kahneman, Brexit, Ursula LeGuin – a few one-sentence blogs

Time is pressing and I’m off on holiday to an island where I’ll face south across the ocean and follow the sun, and climb up to the cloud forest behind. But there are blogs that I’ve wanted to write. So I thought – how about a blog of single sentence. (Max two, but you’ll see how this expands.)

Brexit: in his speech to his party’s spring conference yesterday, LibDem leader Vince Cable argued that “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” had driven some older voters to Brexit. In response to the uproar from some in the Tory ranks I’d simply say that some truths are self-evident – and add the reminder that without anti-immigrant sentiment Brexit would have been decisively defeated.

Michele Hanson: the Guardian columnist died a few days ago, after 34 years (I think) of writing a column for the Guardian. I knew her a little back in the 70s, we had mutual friends, and I’ve caught up today with a few of the columns I didn’t read, and found them both downbeat and upbeat, wise, warm and rather wonderful – whether she’s writing on care homes, dogs, family, personal hygiene – she engaged so many people with moments and issues in life they could connect with.

At the other extreme my old bete noir, the fluffy-white-haired guru Steven Pinker, paired in this instance with the 18th century Scottish genius-philosopher, David Hume, whom Pinker neglects to mention when talking about the enlightenment – and who stated clearly and succinctly that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. In other words, don’t give reason space which it oughtn’t to have – give it, I’d argue, shared space, let one inform the other, and take both out beyond our private lives into the public sphere.

Thoughts from Tim Harford in the FT, quoting Daniel Kahneman: “When faced with a difficult question we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.” In the case of the referendum the difficult question being “Should the UK remain in the EU”, and the easier substitution “Do I like the way this country is going”.

The last item was two sentences – so I’m adding a third from Harford as a separate item – a rather obvious cheat. “No voter can master every issue … referendums instead invite us to ignore the question, give the snake-oil peddlars an edge, concentrate our ignorance into a tightly-focused beam, and hold nobody accountable for results.” Right on.

For something completely different … Alexander Harris in the Tate Etc Magazine: “So I became a collector of early autumn evenings. In the ancient analogy … the time of youth is spring. But I remember only one or two spring days from my childhood – it is all autumn: the orange of the late crocosmia flowers meets the spotted yellow fringes of hawthorn leaves; blue skies deepen above glowing stone walls, and then it all softens to a yellowy grey haze…” That set me thinking, and I only half-agree, and maybe that’s because my pre-eminent spring memory is of a day in May walking in the Cheshire hills with my first girlfriend, and spring was suffused with birdsong and a funny feeling of elation, of walking on air, that I’ve never quite recaptured …

(Treating Alexander Harris’ quote as one sentence …)

A quote from Neil Collins, an old-friend from the 70s who I haven’t seen in maybe forty years, in the FT, in the context of the collapse of Toys R Us and Maplins: “Is yours a zombie company… [zombie being] defined as a company that has failed to earn its interest cost for two consecutive years and is valued at less than three times sales. …[The Deutsche Bank] comprehensive analysis of the world’s 3000 biggest businesses implies that more of them [this year than last] have discovered a strategy for survival – [instead of just] clinging on, merely waiting a mercy killing from rising interest rates.” Two reasons for including: one, a reminder to me and anyone who enjoys abstruse speculation that there’s a hard business world out there, and if we choose to rant against capitalism we have to remember how bloody hard and ruthless the business world is  … and, two, whatever’s happening in High Street retail, things are getting slightly better – are they???

Rediscovering Ursula LeGuin, someone else who’s died recently: there’s a new book which collects together her non-fiction, ‘Dreams Must Explain Themselves’. She had Taoist beliefs … that established an instant bond – the Tao, or Dao, the way, is the wisest, simplest yet most all-encompassing of notions; and she admired Calvino, Borges, Woolf, Twain, Tolstoy and Tolkien. And how about: “To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think that imitation is superior to invention.” I’ll add my own comment – never curtail that sense of wonder, of fantasy and myth – walk on the wild as well as the wise side.

Four sentences. Time to exit.

Slow investing, slow news

As an advocate of ‘slow news’ it was good to read Tim Harford’s article on ‘slow investing’ in the Weekend FT. He argues that ‘most investors should operate closer to the six-month timescale than to the frenetic fast-twitch world in which a coffee break lasts an eternity’.

Slow news – what do I mean by that? Maybe not six months (though I have tried a month, walking the Camino in Spain) – but always go for the long perspective, avoid the cumulative effect of ‘fast-twitch’ hourly fixes. And treat the big daily bulletins with caution: they’re no more than what takes the news editors’ fancy on any one day.

Likewise investment. Check your portfolio everyday and the pain of the downs tends, according to Harford, to outweigh the joy of the ups. There’s more reason to smile if you check less frequently: good years for investors happen almost three times more often than bad years.

(Check out Delayed Gratification magazine, published by the Slow Journalism Company.)

We obsess with detail. ‘To single out one murder during a battle where there is one person killed very minute would make little sense.’ (Quoted by Harford in his article.) Morally it does of course – we lose sight of the immediacy of violence if we treat the victims as a collective entity. On the other hand, we lose the bigger picture, and we become inured to violence by the endless repetition.

Detail obscures reality. The 2009 expenses scandal was arguably as much a media as a political scandal – a drip-feed of news day-by-day by media owners pursuing their own agenda. The Brexit campaign was (and still is) all about emotive soundbites obscuring the real picture.

I’d originally included comments about the scandal involving Oxfam employees in Haiti, but I’ve taken them down: who knows where truth lies. Enough to say, I’m treating headlines and assertions with caution, and not rushing to judgement.

But should I be making judgements? Slow news can’t be a pretext for disengagement. The zenpolitics blog has always been about engaging directly with the world, and yet maintaining balance. Upekkha in Sanskrit – equaninimity. It’s a tough act.

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Elsewhere in the FT there an obit of an American cyber-libertarian, one John Perry Barlow. For one, I love the idea of a cyber-libertarian. I’m not certain it’s for me, but I covet the name. He wrote of the death of his fiancée in 1994: ‘All hope has at times seemed unjustified to me. But groundless hope, like unconditional love, is the only kind worth having.’

That strikes a chord. Ride the daily news roundabout, and what hope are we left with? I don’t want to get into arguments about whether the world is getting better or worse. But take hope as watchword, take a long-term view, plan for the long term, avoid the news obsessed doom-mongerers – take hope, even irrational hope, as a watchword, and we will do a damn sight better than over-obsessing with the everyday.