Opinionista Denis Beckett 31 October 2014

The politics of terminating barbarism

Treating barbarity with barbarism is inadequate politics at work. Politics that fails to contain social pressure is inadequate. But there’s no excuse for being held back by inadequate politics. The next step of political evolution contains all or any social pressures.

When a missile hits an Islamic State (IS) base it weakens an army of violent invaders, and people applaud. Something is achieved; some barbaric destroying of homes and cutting off of heads has been thwarted, or delayed, or deferred.

But not ended. Let alone that bombing is a barbarous way of rejecting barbarism, let alone the perversity of technology overtaking science-fiction while politics stays stuck in the Stone Age, the missiles create new barbarity. They cause new orphans, new hatreds, new recruits for beheadings and 911s and gunfire in parliaments and blown-up pizzerias.

This shows inadequate politics at work. Politics that fails to contain social pressures is inadequate.

No country need any longer be held back by inadequate politics. The next step of political evolution contains all or any social pressures. That step is brought about by harnessing the power of the uninterested and half-interested bulk of the population.

Most human beings do not push their way into fights. We aspire to modest things, and would nearly always achieve portions of our aims peacefully rather than lose life or limb insisting on the whole. A political system that truly reflected what most people want would see little violence, oppression, brutality. Even less if while My Crowd debate how to oppress Their Crowd, we hear loud and clear Their Crowd debating their ways of thwarting our plans.

It’s helpful to recall that our grandchildren will naturally look back at our democracy as primitive, like we look back at the monarchies and oligarchies of the past. They’ll notice that in most countries democracy is about one event. The presidential election is politics’ orgasm. All else is shuffling the pillows. It is taken as natural that power is a single entity descending from the president; entitled by a majority however slim to decide everything from who you may marry to what you may smoke. They’ll also notice that it’s rare for people to make active, considered, choices; that most people seem baffled by politics.

Commonly about half of eligible voters cast a vote (though that is disguised by citing those who voted as a proportion of those who registered). Many do not vote because they see no point. The vote puts the Pink Party in power or the Purple Party in power. So? Half the people don’t know the difference and don’t care, it does not affect them in any way they can see. They believe neither party’s promises. They don’t understand this thing ‘ideology’ that is holy to politicos. When they are told to take joy in having 0.000001% of a say over which clique is to make all the rules, they respond bleakly.

Many who do vote, vote because we’re told it’s a duty. Having no idea which party would bring more peace or more prosperity or more of anything we need, we do what’s obvious, we slot in behind the party that looks like us or prays our prayers, the one that our parents led us to and our children follow us to. Voting is like filling in a census form.

Which is odd, as nearly all of us have strong views on public affairs. We are keen on a peaceful life, keen on low taxes, keen on honest government, keen on good schools, keen on efficient services, keen on a square deal. Our commonalities make us potentially an engine of enormous stability.

Commonality is not all. People can boil over about other people, their habits, their attire, their cooking, their plundering of the wealth or their deadweighting of the economy or their numberless sins unnamed. Generally, the people who boil hottest are activists, or at least voters, using their vote for two purposes. They want to benefit their group, but not to benefit their group so much that other groups jeopardise their safety. The non-voters are more likely to prioritise one factor, the peace-and-calm factor, and to worry less about class wars, race wars, religion-wars, other people’s failings or other tribes’ heresies.

To turn on the engine of enormous stability, adequate politics wants to be used by people who have not traditionally seen value in a vote. It wants to create a society where the vote is the automatic and only weapon for anybody whatsoever who seeks anything from the world around them, anything from the tiny, a speedbump in my road, to the gigantic, a law to make my God everybody’s God.

Adequate politics wants nobody even trying to make political progress by sword, by missile, by strike, by riot, by anything but the vote. Which means giving you confidence that your vote carries clout at any time, at any level, on any issue.

At any time? If it’s now that something bugs you, it’s now that you proceed to recall and replace your representatives. You do not wait for a several-year term to expire.

At any level? Your national vote matters somewhat more than before, and lots of votes in other contexts – regional, municipal, sub-municipal – matter very much more.

On any issue? You want tavern hours lengthened/shortened? Use your vote. Left-handers deported? Use your vote. The activists’ wrangling is disturbing you? Use your vote.

Let’s note that this aim is fully on course with the long march of political progress. Planet Earth has forever been pushing, with zigzagging and pitfalls, away from the power of the strong toward the power of the meek. Every step has seemed at first like an empowering of the enemy – votes for people who support communists and terrorists, unthinkable! Every step, when power is genuinely broadened, has in the event led to saner, stabler, social life, wider sharing of respect, sounder social justice, longer-term planning.

From monarchies through oligarchies to broader oligarchies, the sharp edges of political inadequacy have been rounded off. The next step is right out of inadequacy. It makes a fundamental switch. It changes the basis of stability, replacing the checks and balances of raw democracy with the greatly richer balance that is the caution of ordinary people.

So far, politics has exploited a small fraction of that balance. People see themselves as having a leader, singular, backed by a structure that is supposedly in their service but in practice immeasurably beyond their reach. Voters hold government on a tenuous leash. To switch roads can be a once in a lifetime thing, involving traumas with the priest, the ancestors, family and employers.

Adequate politics produces many leaders, as many as electorates deem worth having, and it puts them all on short, stout, leashes, allowing different layers of government to hold each other in check while formerly non-voting people provide two crucial guarantees.

When trouble comes up, poll percentages will increase as less-interested people roll up to dampen the heat. When politicians spend too much, or put fright or embarrassment or inconvenience into the lives of their electorates, they face a sanction more final than the other side’s courts, prisons, mobs, saboteurs, missiles. They get shut down by their own electorates, their own people, primarily the ones who “aren’t interested in politics”.

Adequate politics erases the notion of a place or people being “not up to democracy”. All or any local customs, all or any individual bigotries, banalities, eccentricities, are equally locked into a structure that compels reasonable results. It does not ask for reasonable results, let alone for promises to be reasonable. The mechanism causes reasonable results.

It also revises the approach to enemies. The more unreasonable the enemy is, restricting leadership to ideologues who tell the young men that murdering and maiming for their people is the right thing to do, the harder you strengthen the mothers and fathers and football coaches and flute teachers; supplying the tools to make the will of silent people clear.

How is the mechanism to be installed? That is another story and by no means a difficult one. But I’ve given you enough words for one article.

For now I want to do just one thing. I want to leave you contemplating the prospect that making the will of silent people clear is the real right thing to do.

For decades I have been told I am naive, I am stupid, I don’t understand how the world works, treating the humble and ignorant as stronger than the wise and the great.

Time now to turn that around. What is stupid is to cling to herdcount democracy that does not have the potential to contain 21st-century pressures. DM

Note: There is more in my book Demogarchy, on (with a price tag of $5.70, though if that deters you, you advise dbeckett@global.co.za and I sort you out).

This article represents a new departure for me, a “going live” after a long time of wrestling with content and concept. I’m asking friends (you, too) to forward it and am also asking Daily Maverick and Politicsweb to indulge me publishing it. I intend doing quite a flow now, of short pieces arguing that the version of adequate politics that I call Demogarchy cannot help creating co-operation between factions no matter how little they love one another or how long they have been at each other’s throats. These articles will appear on the Demogarchy website and on its Facebook page.

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