When I was a bairn there used to be a wee round-a-bout like this one out the back of my house.
It was a bit of a team sport and it wasn’t often that you really got much chance to play on it and get the full experience. By today’s standards it was horribly dangerous and many of the other examples dotted about the town were of the more modern health and safety conscious type and were simply no fun to play on.
We used to play all sorts of games designed to rip arms off or result in a variety of life threatening head injuries. One that was less deadly but more interesting was when you got your mates to spin it as fast as they possibly could and you would hing on for dear life in the middle, facing in the way, and try to kick the central pillar. I mean, how hard could it be?
Well it was near impossible in reality and the faster they span you the harder it got. There’s something about the visceral experience of intellectual knowledge that really hammers home the realities of the way the world actually functions, even when that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
I couldn’t have told you about the Coriolis effect or frames of reference when I was 8 but I knew intellectually what was going on. The experience of not being able to put your own leg where you told it to go no matter how hard you tried was something completely different to that knowledge.
The more I study modern democracies the more I am reminded of that round-a-bout. The closer you get to the centre of power the harder it is to actually do what you came there to do. Make no mistake, even in a total authoritarian dictatorship, the will of the people is paramount. When the Leviathan awakes it’s Guillotines all round for anyone that stands in its way. So political elites the world over have learned to try and maintain the slumber of that popular Leviathan.
One of the most powerful groups in any society are the press, those that distribute and share information with the masses. Most of the time they keep that Leviathan safely snoring, placated with a steady diet of football and celebrity gossip. Occasionally, however, they break out the pots and pans and start screaming ‘Fire, fire!’ loud enough to wake the dead.
So political elites are very much beholden to those that control the spigots of information in the ‘free press’ lest they lose their minds and wake the beast.
The same is true of all the little factions it is necessary to placate to gain and hold power outside of populist politics, which is a different sort of straight jacket. Compromises are inevitably made in building the fragile coalitions necessary to attain power.
The irony is that those that have power are often paralysed by the fear of using it for fear that they will lose it again.
The War on Drugs is a classic example of this. A moral panic was stirred up, mostly by the press in America, in the 20’s and 30’s. At its source it was a veneer of moral rectitude over unreconstructed racism but it spread around the world like a plague. Drugs were evil and needed to have a war waged against them. That narrative has persisted for decades with most of the mainstream press ready on a hair trigger to vilify any politician who dares suggest that this Emperor has no clothes.
It’s properly stupid, everybody and their dog knows that most ‘drugs’ are much less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and that the vast majority of the harms that do exist are directly related to the criminalisation of drugs rather than the drugs themselves. And yet the dance continues decade after decade. Nobody that would do anything to fix it is ever allowed anywhere near power because it is an easy stick for the press to beat an aspiring political leader with and it is easier for their political opponents to cynically let the press do so because winning is more important than being right.
Almost every political leader with two brain cells to rub together knows that the War on Drugs is moronic but they either lack the power to do anything about it or will never say they will because that will prevent them ever getting the power to do something about it.
It is a classic catch-22 situation and it is structural to the way our democracies and ‘free’ press currently function.
What we really need is a War on Stupid rather than a War on Drugs. A war on the stupid structural failures of our democracies and in particular our ‘free’ press because there is nothing free about a system of distributing a tsunami of lies and misinformation that is owned by a handful of billionaires who use it to maintain and entrench their own wealth and power.
Away back in 1999 Amartya Sen wrote
“elections can be deeply defective if they occur without the different sides getting an adequate opportunity to present their respective cases, or without the electorate enjoying the freedom to obtain news and to consider the views of the competing protagonists”
by which he meant that if you don’t have a free press, that actually provides a balanced presentation of all the facts and opinions in a manner that maximises the opportunity of the electorate to come to well informed and rational conclusions, you not only don’t have a ‘free’ press you don’t actually have a democracy either.
The War on Drugs and any number of entirely irrational policy dogmas that blight our world are the result of our structural democratic failure to create a truly Free Press.
The press is not the only structural failure in our democracies but it is an existential one. We won’t truly have something that technically qualifies for the description democracy until we genuinely have a Free Press.
A Free Press is necessary but not sufficient. Money, lobbying, pressure groups, and structural corruption within political parties all have similar effects and need fixing if we are to have any hope of benefiting from Scotland becoming independent.
Those that are rich ought to have proportionally less influence than those that are poor, otherwise financial inequity becomes self-reinforcing and necessarily harmful to society. Only registered voters should be allowed to donate to politicians or political campaigns, including registered lobby groups, and there must be strict caps and preferably tax incentives for those least able to do so. There exists anti-corruption best practice recommendations for political parties that should be implemented, one way or the other.
Representative democracy has pretty much reached the limit of what it can do for us by way of improving how we are governed. The next step is integrating more direct democratic processes into our representative democracies to overcome the structural limitations they have demonstrated.
Citizens’ Assemblies have shown great promise. Twenty years ago nobody would have even dreamed that politicians in Ireland would be able to change the law on abortion in Ireland. Like the War on Drugs the issue was too toxic and no party proposing change was ever going to have the power to do so. But by handing the issue back to the public to examine it and decide on how best to proceed the Dail was able to sidestep that structural limitation and make progress. Scotland’s first Citizens’ Assembly recommended that we implement a permanent Citizens’ Chamber in Holyrood tasked with oversight and possibly some form of revision. Personally I think that is a manifestly good idea. Checks and balances are what are needed to overcome the structural failings of representative democracy and those checks and balances are going to have the same structural failings if they are not based on a fundamentally different system of democracy. The direct democratic foundations of a well designed Citizens’ Chamber are the best solution I have yet to see presented.
We need to make a change or our politicians are going to continue making the same mistakes and intentionally smashing everyone’s faces against the same brick wall forever, even after independence.
This moment, where we find ourselves in the eye of the democratic storm, poised between being subjects and citizens, is the ideal one to take stock and to plot a different, better, path forward.