Democracy: Reform or bust?

For the past few weeks, my Labour and Social Policy lecturer has been making bold statements in relation to how we can get past the current economic and political crises’ that are paralysing the world. If we look at the current debt crisis in the EU and the occupy every-street-in-the-world-imagineable movements, we are seeing a clear breakdown in the level of social security, whether perceived or real experienced by people in the traditional west.

We have been assaulted recently with headlines of slowing economic growth, protests becoming more and more volatile, international conflicts such as the never-ending fighting in the Middle East, Political unrest in African countries and the most pertinent for us in our part of the world, credit downgrades and so called Osterity measures.

For the most part, we have always associated democracy with capitalism, they are seen on our side as complimentary concepts. Individual freedoms enjoyed from democratic governments allows individual enterprise to flourish. It’s how the west has explained its victory over the USSR during the Cold War era. It lay the foundations of the re-emergence and growth of liberalism in Political Science. Democracy has been thus used by various countries to justify their policies toward other “repressive” regimes. The spread of democracy even justifying unlawful intervention of certain nations in the conflicts of others. The legal implications put aside though, we are facing a new crisis in the west. Our continual adherence to the bible of economic neo-liberalism has put us in the very situation it was meant to avoid.

The so called trickle down effect, whereby economic expansion that brings greater wealth to nations, would then flow down to the lower levels of society through various processes such as improved employment opportunities would as President John F Kennedy described it, create a “a rising tide that would lift all boats” in the harbour so to speak, has undoubtedly flatlined. While countries have become richer in general, this distribution has failed to flow on. In almost every country in the world where rapid economic development has taken place there has been  rising inequality and distribution of income. This growing gap in relative incomes is problematic for all countries. To follow a Marxist line, the growing gap leads to tensions between classes of citizens. So the so called equalizing effect of democracy and capitalism has led to a roundabout way of going back to the society we had before (the one we were trying to avoid). except instead of having an antiquated elite system based on hereditary lines we are seeing one that is created on the basis of a person or individual being able to hoard capital. Ie, the current financial system where an elite group of banks and businesses hold the majority of the wealth in the world.

So what’s the point of all of this then? Well unlike historical times where hoarding resources that were real and tangible such as land and territory would lead to a distinct advantage over others who were trying to maximise their utility, we now have a situation where people have been able to create wealth based on perceived values and with no tangible aspect. Ie. Currency speculators, the banking system, the stock exchange etc. This has meant that the systems of international trade that we rely on are based on fragile foundations. Throw in globalization and increased interconnectedness, just one failure in the chain can lead to its downfall. Cue Global Financial Crisis.

The thing with anything that has a perceived value is that that perceived value can drop at any time. At least with tangible assets you can get use out of them even if their perceived value drops. Ie, land values may drop, but you can still use it to grow crops etc. However, with speculation, once the value of money or stocks drop, they have no use or value after the value added is removed. But my purpose isn’t to discuss the economics of the whole thing, I want to draw your attention to how we have dealt with the crisis’ in differing countries and illustrate the point that my professor was trying to get us to understand. The fundamental issue is not finding a solution. It’s the political will to make a solution stick.

The answers are quite simple to our economic woes. We have to cut spending somewhere because quite simply put, we all have ageing populations that can’t sustain the current standard of living that we enjoy and demand. We need to cut spending, we need to make bold policy decisions and we need to focus investment on structural re-adjustment projects to cope with the rising unemployment that this reduced level of economic growth will bring. But the problem is the way in which democracy is being implemented. These are unpopular concepts with the majority.

As a concept I will defend equal representation to my dying death. But my issue is not with democracy as a concept, rather democracy in practice. At present the current system of political parties seeking to advance their individual ideas based on a will to gain control of government is fundamentally wrong in my opinion. Political parties attempt to aggregate views and many issues, pool resources and engage in politically popular decision making processes. Their ultimate goal is to stay in power. So all their policies will be based on a pluralist assumption of society. There is nothing wrong with this in theory, but in practice, what it has created are institutions that are based on advancing individual issues and narrow views of operational systems so that interest groups are able to flourish. Interest groups are polarising, and if one is able to set the policy agenda it dominates all following decisions. There is an inherent bias to one group of society. Just look at the Business Roundtable and the way they were able to influence all of New Zealand’s economic policies during the 1980’s and 90’s.

The problem lies in how representation is defined. We see everyone having a vote as representation. But I differ on this, true representation is making that vote count. How effective is someones vote is the real question. At present, let’s be honest, not very. Some would argue this is because voters who vote on “issues” fail to account for the plurality in the party system. And here in lies one of the key problems. Our votes don’t reflect what we want in a government most of the time. This is because of the very party system that has grown into our perceived operational norm of democracy.

The second problem is the way in which political parties choose to manipulate information to further their views. We all know the old addage of control information, control the masses rings very true. No need for anecdotes here. But I argue that the way in which media, capitalism and democracy in its current form have converged to create the situation that has now paralysed many EU leaders and our leaders in New Zealand too. Popular opinion rules. The media reports what this is, political parties respond to this by modifying policies and the debate is taken out of context and logic so people are forced to deal with the emotional impacts of policy instead of the real benefits and impacts. Modern political leaders are unable to make a move now without the force or weight of often misinformed public opinion coming down collectively upon them.

So basically democracy has become a rule of the masses, the tyranny of the majority rules in our countries. Which is failing all of us who don’t belong in the majority. There have been countless examples of how the views and needs of minorities have been excluded by the will of the masses in New Zealand and other countries too. This is not what democracy is about. And the effects for the Pacific community in New Zealand are profound. We are catered to through rhetoric, a few tokenistic visits from party leaders and appealed to as a bloc vote because of our communal nature. But what is sorely lacking is real representation. Why might you ask? because we do not reflect the majority, and therefore we are not important. Structurally, this is the fault of the way in which democracy operates. I lay blame solely at the feet of the political system.

This is where democracy needs reform in my view. I have a few ideas as to how we can achieve this, but I’ll save that for another blog post. This has obviously been quite a theoretical post, but I think that most of my anxiety toward the state of politics in New Zealand recently has been because of this.

I know there will be those who don’t agree with what I’m saying here, but I challenge you to prove how our current system has been able to deal with the recent crisis’ in policymaking processes all over the world. I would haphazard a guess at it being rather ineffectual.

So this is my attempt at being constructive, I tend to complain a lot about what is going on, but there’s no value in complaining without offering solutions. This is the beginning of my exploration for one. 🙂


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