Peak Democracy

There are many signs indicating that we might have reached peak democracy somewhere around the 1980s, democracy being a system of government by the whole (adult) population. As various philosophers have mentioned the whole population being the sovereign.

As Hobbes mentions in the Leviathan, the State needs to be provided with power as it embeds an internal morality of our reason to protect ourselves from each other, as we mistrust each other we need a third party (state, police, courts) for that. Slowly these ideas moved in some societies into the direction of democracy.

We are rapidly learning that democracy is a fragile idea. It is a peaceful way to control power, it works something like an ‘organised revolution’. However both peacefulness and power are not necessarily stable elements, in particular in a social environment that is in constant state of change. The more turbulent the society, the more fragile democracy.

Democracy is an idea and therefore not just a rational way of running a country, it also requires a narrative. There is at least as much emotion involved in the idea of democracy  as rationality. It look like that we have lost the right national narratives and the emotional side of democracy. Facts and the battle for the truth has hijacked democracy. Of course facts and the truth are very important but these are not the only things that keep democracy alive.

The reality is that in our complex society most people don’t see themselves (anymore) as the sovereign and instead believe that they are part of a system over which they have little or no control. We have lost parts of the population in the battle for facts and truth. We are missing the leadership to keep the narrative alive  that also adds the emotion and the passion to the debate.

The importance of the right national narrative

The Roman historian Titus Livius (59 BC – AD 17) – the Roman historian wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people, titled Ab Urbe Condita, ”From the Founding of the City”, covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome before the traditional founding in 753 BC through the reign of Augustus in Livy’s own lifetime.

The first 5 of his books talk about the history of Rome from its beginnings with Romulus roughly till Livy’s own times, the other 9 book are covering the more recent history of his own time.

In a fascinating presentation Associate Professor Kathryn Welch from The University of Sydney, discussed Book 5 and the history of the destruction of Rome by the Gauls in 390BC.

The key person in this story is Marcus Furius Camillus (c. 446 – 365 BC) – a Roman soldier and statesman of the patrician class.  In short, shortly before the invasion of the Gauls its ruler Camillus is according to Livy unjustly exiled. The Gauls destruct the city but thanks to the right rituals of the Roman people the gods spared the destruction of the citadel. Camillus comes back from exile and rebuild the city. Livy tells that if Camillus had not been exiled, he – as a righteous person – would have saved the city. There is no evidence that the Gauls sacked the city, however they were their most important competitors at that time. Camillus is also an historic figure; the rest of the story is probably mostly fiction, with the aim to present a formative story to the Roman society about the values needed for a harmonious community.

Camillus is positioned by Livy as a virtuous person.

·         He provided good counsel

·         He was just and faithful

·         He showed courage and greatness of soul (magnitude animi)

·         He was a moderate

It is no coincidence that these are the four classical cardinal virtues as per Aristotle (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance.).

Furthermore, Livy mentioned that Camillus attitude was that of dutiful respect towards gods, fatherland, and parents and other kinsmen (Pietas). Furthermore, he strives for a harmonious community.

This shows the timelessness and the power of a good narrative. Bringing this back to modern times, this could be a key missing element in current politics. Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost good national narratives. Polarisation is leading to polarising narratives which is leading to less harmonious societies. Getting the right narrative would is critical to restore trust and harmony in our fractured communities.

Voting for elected representatives does not lead to them feeling they are truly representing the sovereign. Over the last few decades those with political power have become career politicians, and therefore have become more protective of their job. Following party politics has become an important element in order to secure your job and your future career. This sometimes leads to stubbornness and entrenchment which in turn can easily lead to ‘stupid’ decisions. While this is not a black and white situation, it has led to a situation where many people are disillusioned by the political system, which they no longer see as representing them: the sovereign.

One could argue that this has always been the case in history. It is those with power who are in charge and these people certainly don’t represent the sovereign. In the animal kingdom it was the silverback, in tribal societies the chief with often very restrictive customs, it than moved the aristocracy, the priests, religion in general and in our times to people with money who like their elitist forebears can manipulate the law, or make the rules and laws, or lobby for them in a way that suit their interest.

While there have been ‘just’ rulers who largely represented the sovereign, they have been the exception rather than the rule. While it is in the interest of the sovereign to ensure that there is equatability, fairness and order, the eternal question remains what is bad and what is good.

For that reason, we developed the system of democracy, with elected representatives. Democracy is very much linked to capitalism with its free market concept. And the combination of democracy and capitalism has at large done wonders to humanity over the last 100 years. There is more wealth, less wars, less poverty, better healthcare but also as a result a global population that has exploded. This is now creating a whole new set of problems, which require different political systems, different rules, and different laws.

Under neoliberalism the balance has more gone toward the individual with money and less to society. This imbalance is now leading to an undermining of democracy. Most people would fit in the category of society rather than in the group of individuals with money.

This is creating the social, political, and economic tensions as we now see them all around us.

While leading political philosophers such as Locke, Mill, Bentham and others were right in their theoretical theories of democracy, sovereign, justice and so on. They lived in an era with less than 10% of the current global population and without the level of technology that we currently enjoy.

Rather than harking back to the old political theories, policies and strategies that have worked well over the last 100 years, we must make some fundamental changes to suit our current times.  We need radically new political theories, policies and strategies to cater for the sovereign in the 21st century and beyond. The question is if the current democratic system with many of its politicians very much depending on or influenced by neoliberalism can lead that change.

In a recent published book on China from Peter Harcher, Red Zone explains some Chinese tactics. This example intrigued me in relation to how to manufacture change. The CCP managed to acquire and militarise the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea by starting with fishing boats.  It then sent fishing regulators, then the coast guard, and finally the military.  All without a single shot fired.  This kind of tactics by stealth can also be used in a positive way to manufacture change.