(see The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal for more of this series of essays)
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gunChairman Mao
In a networked environment the person who knows what to do next is in chargeGupta’s Law of Networked Politics
I am a worst-case-scenario survival-of-the-species kinda guy. I’m fascinated with large scale, total mortality problems. I work right on the edge of the envelope, on the stuff which is going to hurt and kill a lot of us. Sometimes the work is more direct, and sometimes the work is more indirect, but the core is very simple: I want us to stay alive, and I want us to have a long future.
I am worried about the internet and its revolutions, let me tell you why…
- People have forgotten that most revolutions make things worse
- Civil right and democracy have become confused with each other
- The backbone of the internet is commercial, not civil
- All of this together risks an enormous step backwards in political morality
Democracy is two wolves and a sheep debating what’s for dinnertrad. misattributed to Ben Franklin
Our democracies are failing and spreading democracy is not going to fix the world because the fundamental freedoms which democracy was designed to protect are being attacked most effectively by the most powerful democracies in the world. If you are fighting for democracy, you are fighting for the wrong thing.
America and Britain have held the mantle as the world’s premier democracies for hundreds of years. India has joined as the world’s largest democracy, and yet all three have appalling human rights records. America and Britain mounted terrible, destructive wars and shipped unconvicted terror suspects to countries like Egypt to be tortured. India, at a billion people, with profound political chaos on all sides, is filled with bizarre political pits into which entire demographics slip.
The idea of welcoming more people to this mess is not appealing. We are not solving the problem by spreading this way of choosing our leaders. If we do continue to confuse democracy with human rights, we are going to accelerate our own destruction, for reasons I’m about to elucidate.
Consider, if you will, the American Bill of Rights:
- free speech, religion, right to protest
- right to own guns, explicitly for political purposes
- no troops on your property
- no snooping and government theft of property
- due process
- courts that work
- civil jury trial
- bail, and no cruel and unusual punishments
- your rights are your rights and extend beyond this list
- powers not explicitly given to the government are retained by the people
Now, in the US, this list of rights is in tatters. It’s been completely shredded. Protest happens in cages far from the event, guns are unavailable to citizens in cities, unconstitutional government snooping online is completely ubiquitous, seizure in drug cases is automatic and nigh-impossible to reverse, Guantanamo Bay contains untried American citizens, jury trial (and particularly jury nullification) is under pressure for drug cases, solitary confinement to the point of broken minds is being used in non-espionage cases, and nobody’s successfully claimed defense of their rights under the IX and X amendments in living memory.
The US is, without a shadow of a doubt, a democracy. Anybody can run for election, and the massive machineries of the political parties do nothing to suppress the formation of new, third parties that the people themselves do not do by simply ignoring Ralph Nader. Britain and India have their own equivalent problems. Do not look to the UN either – torture states sit on the human rights panels, and Muslim countries are pushing through anti-blasphemy rulings, and the UN is fundamentally anti-gun-rights at every level.
I am scared that the current generation of political activists, by seizing on democracy as the cause are completely missing the point. Democracy is a means to an end: good, just government. Right now we have democracy, but without good, just government, and this is the crisis of our times. We have fallen from grace, while retaining our vote.
We are all liable, and yet the greater struggle remains before us.
So let me lay out the big threats. There are but two, plus a minor third.
- global environmental catastrophe caused by bulk factors like CO2 and deforestation
- self-replicating disasters like plagues, bioweapons, genetic engineering and nanotech
- nuclear war
The countries causing most of these risks are democracies, my friends. We have the vote, but we have not reined in our own cultures to bring us back from the various cliffs which we speed towards, one ton of coal and one biolab grant at a time.
Democracy is not the answer. A democracy in Egypt still has to deal with the political mess of Israel and Gaza. They still have to deal with fundamentalist Islam and “one person, one vote, once” thinking. Piling more people into the democratic boat is not going to fix the problems of good, just government in Egypt because a good, just government cannot effectively deal with the generations of Devil’s Bargains struck around Israel, or fundamentalists who are willing to kill for a return to a theocratic past. We are back in the domain of rough men who stand ready to do violence on our behalf.
Unwinding the mess by putting people chosen at the bottom at the top does not work as we are seeing in the US and Britain. Democracies have screwed up the future so badly it may take generations to see it righted.
In all probability, the world is still run by the elite secret branches of governments that control the nuclear weapons and any orbital weapons platforms that may exist. But before you rush to conspiracy theory, I very much doubt that the government machineries that operate the nuclear show have any opinions about drugs, guns, abortion or social policy. Relics of the cold war, whether they sleep in the sea, in silos or in orbit, exist along a different political axis to today’s struggles.
In our rampage to put our guys on top, and to give others the freedom to put their guys on top, we have failed to note that
- “our guys” are completely failing to address the real issues on climate and technological risk
- “our guys” are systematically stripping away our civil rights
People, this is not working. And it’s not going to be fixed by dumb politics from the left, or dumb politics from the right, or a series of leaks which kick out the foundations from half a dozen more marginally stable countries.
It’s going to be fixed by a global, catastrophic wave of disillusionment, of which the leaks process might be a part.
We’ve gotten so badly lost in our own dreams of riches and entitlements that we continue to burn the planet’s scarce resources to line our pockets while millions die. That’s been true for fifty years, and still taking any real political stance on poverty alienates one from both left and right. To act on what we know about climate and environment, to suggest a one planet lifestyle be made possible and socially acceptable brands one as a political radical of an entirely different stripe from any conventional political group, including the greens.
But this is what we need: the politics of disillusionment, the bleak, sharp eyes of people who look to the future with dread at what we have wrought, and love for those who die, every day, in the shattered gutters around our gleaming, unsustainable concrete citadels.
Let me highlight four policy points.
- No human being should die of hunger or lack of access to basic medical and dental care.
- No human being should consume or pollute so much of the world’s resources that they damage the future existence of others
- Everybody should have access to enough land to live
- Violence should be confined to defense
Now there is endless haggling in the ideological wreckage left by Communism about any politics which attempts to end poverty as a priority. The structures of totalitarian control required to make people pay for their neighbor’s welfare are protested endlessly, and the counter-examples of Stalin and Mao immediately raised. So let me say, very clearly, that I am not discussing the same terrain as the old, ideological left. I am not suggesting for a minute that centralize-and-redistribute, or a worker’s-dictatorship is the answer to anything.
Rather, I am suggesting that we need political innovation on the scale of the Scottish Enlightenment and the American Revolution to address this generation’s political curses: the failure of democracies to protect the environment or the future, or to hold the civil rights won by previous generations.
That’s my challenge to you: break free of -isms and get back down to political basics: what are the rights of every man, woman, and child, and how should we cooperate effectively to live in the full expression of those rights?
The spread of the broken system we call democracy will not help. We must anticipate a far greater struggle than the struggle to choose those who oppress us.
We must struggle together for our freedom, and to protect our world.
(read more of this series in The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal)