Opinionista Denis Beckett 3 March 2015

Apathy, the perfect weapon of deep stability

Why has there never been a Commission of Inquiry with the brief to design a failsafe stable political system? In the absence of a real one, let’s try a wannabe version, beginning in two paragraphs…right after I’ve done two other things.

The first of these tasks is to thank some people. Rian has kept a watching brief on this theme since Noah was a baby, but weeks ago it emerged that his take on what I’m saying is a million miles from my take. That was a salutary shock, and a stimulus to put the basics into an ABC. And later generous listeners Rod, two Mikes, Ray and Pat enabled me to speak the topic in the most cogent half-hour yet. This is work in progress – hey, it moves forward all the time; it gets clearer all the time.

Secondly, a ‘sorry’. I’m a fraud among Opinionistas. No opinion on anything much, let alone Party leaders’ sins and dress sense. Only dogged plugging away at the Great Debate being a Great Mistake. The essence is simple: democracy as we know it has, in many countries including ours, no chance of delivering the stable harmonious society that reasonable people want. What does that is the next upgrade to the political foundation. For the unsexiness of exploring that upgrade, I apologise to disappointed readers (and subtly hint that if they go away now, they avoid the pain). I also say to people who want to live the way that is commonly sung about, prayed for, dreamed for, longed for: catch a wake-up, turn to the real route.

Kindly imagine a thing. Imagine a Commission of Inquiry having to design a totally secure society, a society where never again will barbarous politics impair reasonable people’s lives, never again will public policy plunge people into fear, hate, chaos, oppression, shrinkage or complexes, whether of inferiority or of persecution. And then kindly wonder what this Commission might say.

Funny thing to wonder, that (and a funny thought to ponder: why have we never heard of that Commission?) Well, a wannabe commission has been on the go for a few decades, a one-man one composed of me, so let me suggest some elements:

Embrace apathy. The absolute starting point. Most people aren’t interested in politics. Most politics behaves as if they are, ought to be, or can be made to be. That premise is absurd.

Comprehend apathy. Political people treat non-voters as hopeless halfwits. Actually, their belief that no particular party will make a difference that counts to their lives is often extremely sound, and always sounder than a blind vote for a My People’s Party.

Thank apathy. The greatest political resource on earth is people who aren’t interested in politics. These people love no faction, hate no faction, are not very fired up on other people’s evil; they get on with life. They are the secret weapon of ultimate stability, not yet activated.

Use apathy. To activate the power of apathy, provide intelligent elections. Don’t ask people to display an allegiance they do not feel – let them use a veto. Make it easy, natural, and close to instant that when a politician threatens their peace or pocket they can say “that’s enough, off you go”.

Your Commission would also work on making representatives more scared of voters than of party bosses, on making it natural for voters to feel tugs to several parties, on supplying more say to people who care about the outcome than people who don’t. It would develop the potential to tame fanatics through their friends and family. It’d do its thing naturally, no gimmicks or constitutional trickydickery. It would pursue good political behaviour by making bad behaviour counter-productive. It’d de-dramatise elections into a flow like a stock exchange. It’d do stuff that we’re not going into here. Here the point is that if you aim to guarantee sound politics, you find techniques and principles to do the job.

And then we ask: do we see these principles in action now?

Not very much. Politics is often a herd-count, measuring the size of tribes. Typically half the people don’t vote. Of those who do, most only ever vote for the Our People’s Party that they inherited from their parents and will bequeath to their children. An election is a gigantic five-yearly orgasm that can put a nation on hold for a year. A 1% switch of views can cramp the state through years of reversing, often to re-reverse two years later. Between votes, activists dominate and public mood is measured by the size of crowds, whether in rallies or mobs or riots or protests. If 50,000 people gather over an issue, and shout and yell and do some fierce stuff for the cameras, the nation is agog, ignoring the five million who could have been there but preferred to get on with watering the dahlias or betting on the horses or swotting algebra or driving a taxi.

Democracy freed multitudes from believing they were born inferior. It was the greatest step on mankind’s long march from the power of the strong to the power of the many. But it’s old now. If your dentist gave you the treatments of 2¼ centuries ago, you’d look askance. Communications, transport, the same; everything that works. Democracy is still in effect tying leather thongs onto wooden wheels and calling them tyres. In most countries it does not have the capacity to contain the pressures of 21st-century life – wealth distribution, race or group identity issues, riot and blowout and the inarticulate fury that we euphemise as ‘service delivery protests’.

But it has worked in some countries, so we say “it’s a fragile flower that needs fertile soil”, meaning that if a country is in trouble its people aren’t up to the system. No; if a country is in trouble, change the system and not the people. Just change it to a failsafe system, which means root it solidly in the magnificent caution of Mr and Ms Ordinary.

How is that done? Short answer is by having a lot of leadership interacting, all your leaders at all their levels – local, regional, national – being scared of your vote, and extra scared if you belong in the ranks of the allegedly apathetic. When conflict pushes the temperature up, sound politics allows for emergency elections, possibly repeated ones. The idea is that, first, there is too much leadership in too many sites for any political gang to pull a Hitler; second, the hotter things get, the more Apathetics turn out to in effect vote their veto: “quiet, belligerent politicians, or you’re out”.

In seriously sound politics, politicians will dread a high poll. It means the nervous, the neutral, the cautious are building up to shut some noisy voices down. Nutshell: when the fear of your community tossing you off your high horse is a major feature of political life, politicians will avoid high horses.

I ask a genuine question: does that add up to you? Do you see a prospect of acquiring a country at harmony with itself by turning rudimentary democracy into advanced people’s rule? If so, why aren’t you saying so? It’s when this little mission grows beyond one squawking voice that I, and I think you too, start to actually feel a society that doesn’t need to build its walls higher every day. DM


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