Archive for the ‘election’ Category

Elections — or, how not to gnaw your arm off

Electoral politics in Australia. The mere thought of it makes me want to gnaw my arm off.

Actually, this thought is not confined to Australia. With one or two exceptions – but not many (and then, only perhaps) – it applies to the entire world.

We can take the humorous approach, and think about which clowns will best populate this circus. And it is a circus. It is a zero-ring circus under a far-too-big tent, whose antics are occasionally hilarious but almost always harmful. If only most of the people who populate it could go home and perform their shenanigans in the privacy of their own home!

The humorous approach to electoral politics is fun, but bad. These clowns are not funny; this is no laughing matter. We should take it seriously. Elected politicians are the ones entrusted with power in our system, and the clowns we elect become abusive clowns with power.

Moreover, it is an inaccurate approach. It is far too kind to refer to members of Parliament as mere clowns. They may behave like clowns in their role as politicians and parliamentarians, but mere clowns do not do harm. The Australian government regularly does harm, whether to asylum seekers, Aboriginal communities, the disabled, LGBT people, poor people, sick people, people on the receiving end of foreign policy, people on the receiving end of climate change – people in general.

I’ve long been of the view that real social change is best pursued outside of electoral channels. Channeling political activity into electoral channels constrains it, turns it into a vote-winning game, clouds issues with personalities, forces it into the system, weakens it, draws it towards the status quo.

As far as I’m concerned, one usually does better to work for social change outside the electoral realm. If we push institutions in a progressive direction, win over people, change their minds, spread good ideas, establish our own good institutions, and advance on matters of principle, we achieve lasting change. And this change will be reflected within electoral politics, because the people have changed, and vote-seeking politicians will go along with them.

Of course, the matter is not a simple one, as with anything in human affairs. At this level of generality one can say little. Electoral parties are certainly not equally bad, and some are certainly more harmful than others. Sometimes historical, economic and political circumstances are such as to make major gains possible through purely electoral means. Sometimes exceptional personalities appear on the electoral stage and are able to break through the impasse of electoral two-party sclerosis. Sometimes the circumstances may be such as to make a strategic intervention in electoral politics possible and desirable.

But it will not surprise many to assert that this political system is bad.

For one thing, it’s bad in principle. Not the fact that it is democratic — that is good. It’s the fact that it is barely democratic, and reduced to a façade of democracy, that is bad. The idea that we should entrust all power to party apparatchiks for several years at a time is nauseating. The fact that we have no power over our own affairs except to, once every 3 years, number a ballot paper ranking politicians from least to most bad is highly undemocratic, technologically backward and historically outmoded.  That it’s done on a geographic basis (in the lower house at least, which determines the government), with many seats clearly one way or the other, so that most votes will not make the slightest difference, makes its effectiveness negligible.  And the fact that we are constantly reminded that this is a supposedly wonderful democratic system — and expected not only to accept it, but to celebrate it — is patronising and demeaning. It is bad as a matter of principle — so bad that the task of finding a better system is an urgent one, merely as a matter of political morality.

There is also the small matter that the current Australian representative-democratic system takes no account of the fact that it was established illegitimately on the land of sovereign Aboriginal peoples, and will remain so until some form of treaty or sovereign agreement regularises the situation.

But even worse than all this — and it is very bad — is the way those institutions play out in practice. Large parties form; they become bureaucratic and oligarchic; they build a machine, factionalised, beholden, compromised. They attract sycophants, egomaniacs, social climbers, backstabbers, people who desire power rather than justice. Those who rise to the top are usually the worst. The parties as institutions may be founded on a set of principles, or to represent certain classes or interests, but they become machines to harvest, deliver, and manipulate votes. Having achieved power by winning enough votes, they seek to maintain power. They value votes over principle. They value power over principle. They will compromise on anything to win votes. They require financial resources to do so — and take money from powerful vested interests, compromising themselves further in the process. The party becomes more corporate, and corporations capture the party. In the end, the party privileges whatever they can use to their electoral advantage over anything that matters, and their agenda is the agenda of the status quo.

Not just one, but multiple parties — with all these faults, to a greater or lesser degree — arise and compete. The worse they are, the more attuned they are to the prejudices of the electorate, the better they are at distracting people from the most important issues, the best they are at manipulating emotions to their advantage, the better they perform. There are many exceptions, and in certain times and places there may be parties which are electorally successful by being highly principled — but if there is no external pressure to constrain them, such as a powerful extra-parliamentary activist or union movement, they will eventually become complacent.

The parties which are the best at this game — and therefore the worst — compete and compromise and adjust until they can win, until they can cobble together enough votes through a combination of class interest, voter inertia, policy, prejudice, demagoguery, fearmongering, vindictive attacks on the other side, and emotional manipulation. The other party does the same, until a stable equilibrium emerges, and the two parties compete on the margin. (In some countries it may be more than two.) They gravitate to their mutual centre. Like any commercial duopoly, they compete by minor adjustments to their policies, by attacking each other, by racing to the bottom. They aim for the 51st percentile from the left or right. They discard any coherence in their policy or (gasp!) philosophy in the process. They forget what ideas they are supposed to represent. Their whole purpose and meaning revolves around defeating the other team and taking power to — do what again? No matter, the corporate backers and think-tanks will fill in those details. They have power, they win the prize, and the rest does not matter.

Although we describe it as a race to the bottom, there is no bottom. We may speak of hitting rock bottom, but the rock is never there. Bitter experience shows that there is no depth which will not be plumbed in this process. We accelerate to negative infinity. We fall into a black hole.

Meanwhile, the electorate disengages. At best, politics becomes at best another sports match to discuss: we can opine on the various teams’ tactics and skills, and their latest results. At worst, it becomes an a subject of active aversion. We usually just vote however our parents did. We would rather gnaw our arms off than seriously engage with this nonsense. And rightly so.

But there are positive ways to engage.

Not all parties are so bad. The ones that are less bad, or even good, are usually those further from power. As parties get closer to power they will likely face the same process of degeneration, but in the meantime they can be worth supporting. In voting, we do not need to say how good each party is; we only need to say which is the least bad among them.

But that doesn’t mean we should never get involved with electoral parties; indeed I’ve done so myself. Without good people inside the parties, they will be even worse. There is much work to be done inside and outside political parties to try and keep them honest, keep them progressive, keep them from compromising principle in the name of power. Against the institutional pull of the system it may, over the long term, be a losing struggle, but that does not mean it is useless. If the party’s stance affects government policy, it affects people’s lives.

More importantly, we can recognise that politics is about far more than elections. Social change is a process which is affected by election, but it also affects elections. If we can work — however we think best, however best fits our skills and talents — to uphold, to promote, and to realise just social principles and institutions, then we can simply do it ourselves, along with our friends, colleagues, and communities. No matter how large or small — we should do what we are able. For much of the work that needs to be done, there is no need for an intermediary.

That sounds nice, of course. The reality is not quite so nice. It is not enough for every good citizen to be engaged in local issues, while horrendous politicians at the national level let the world burn. At the very least, whatever we do politically, we should do it with a view to how it affects the system as a whole, and have an idea about larger strategy and how our actions it into it. The system is bad, it is entrenched, and it is leading us towards multiple disasters. We need to stop it; but we cannot let it stop us.

In the meantime, there are elections occasionally. So we can take some time out from real politics once every few years to rank the parties best to worst, and then get back to the task of changing society — including those parties, and the system in which they operate — for the better.

That way, at least, I won’t have to gnaw my arm off.


Written by dan

June 15th, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Easiest Election Ever

Most Australians must be glad the farce is almost over. The federal election is only a few days away.

And the farce has surely led the country to an historical ebb, an international embarrassment for democracy. A debate shifted to make way for a reality TV show; a candidate who “rebrands” herself as her “real” self as a major campaign strategy; another candidate who has been roundly criticised for his extreme and anti-scientific statements; the almost complete absence of “minor” parties from the media; in addition to the usual vacuum of substance in discussions, debates, and the mainstream media.

While an international embarrassment for democracy, these developments do make the election itself easy.

Essentially, there is one question in this election with dwarfs all others. The approach to this question of both major parties is a scientific catastrophe. And the approach of the third party is not — at the very least, its concern for the question is encoded in its DNA.

First, it’s worth making clear that electoral politics is always insufficient. It is never enough to cast one’s vote and then switch off for the next 3 years. One should never put one’s faith in a representative beholden to party discipline, poll marginalism, and the democratic deficit of a faraway capital. But elections do have real effects, and in this election the effects are undoubtedly serious.

There is one question which dwarfs all others, because the future of the planet is in question, depending on actions taken in the term of the next government.

Yesterday, the Australian Academy of Science released a new climate change report. Once again, it reiterated and explained the scientific consensus that the earth is warming and that human greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause. Once again, it reiterated and explained the scientific consensus that if business continues as usual, global temperatures will increase significantly, and that this will have serious effects. And it went into some detail about what those effects might be.

This is not an ordinary peer-reviewed scientific paper. It is not just an opinion backed up by evidence and reviewed by experts. This is a synthesis of hundreds of academic papers. Like the international IPCC, it summarises the consensus of all of them. It is the sense of the entire community of experts. As such, it is inherently conservative. It is a minimal statement of what we are scientifically sure about; and it is extremely careful with questions we are not sure about.

This consensus includes: “business as usual” is expected to lead to lead to a warming of 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100, possibly only 3 degrees, but possibly as high as 7 degrees.

This consensus continues: A warming of 4.5 degrees

would mean that the world would be hotter than at any time in the last few million years. Sea level would continue to rise for many centuries. The impacts of such changes are difficult to predict, but are likely to be severe for human populations and for the natural world. The further climate is pushed beyond the envelope of relative stability that has characterised the last several millennia, the greater becomes the risk of passing tipping points that will result in profound changes in climate, vegetation, ocean circulation and ice sheet stability.

In other words, the question is not marginal. That is how you say, in scientific language, that the fate of the planet is at stake.

Even a warming of 2 degrees Celsius

would lead to a significantly different world from the one we now inhabit. Likely consequences would include more heat waves, fewer cold spells, changes to rainfall patterns and a higher global average rainfall, higher plant productivity in some places but decreases in others, disturbances to marine and terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity, disruption to food production in some regions, rising sea levels, and decreases in Arctic ice cover. While aspects of these changes may be beneficial in some regions, the overall impacts are likely to be negative under the present structure of global society.

And, modelling emissions pathways, to have a “better than even” chance of preventing temperature rise of more than 2 degrees, global emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”.

We are now about to elect a government for 3 of those 10 years.

To summarise: Australian society is about to elect a government for a time in which, in order to have a “better than even” chance of preventing a 2 degree temperature rise — which itself would still lead to a “significantly different” and more difficult world to live in — global emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”. That requires a major structural shift in the global economy, starting immediately. Of course, that implies an immediate and major structural shift in the Australian economy too.

Three years ago, both Labor and Liberal parties were in favour of capping carbon emissions — that is, setting an upper limit on emissions, by law. A majority of the Australian public has consistently supported serious action on climate change regardless of international developments, despite disillusionment, the failure of the Copenhagen conference, and an upsurge in climate denialism. As the threat of climate change has worsened, and the state of scientific knowledge become even more disturbing, both major parties have responded by abandoning those policies.

The Labor party abandoned its policy of a cap-and-trade scheme after Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal party. Abbott in 2009 described the scientific argument as “absolute crap”, and to this day disputes the scientific consensus — truly an heroic scientific dissent, since even his party colleagues describe him as “innumerate”.

Julia Gillard, Labor party leader, in her climate policy campaign speech, announced a new initiative: she would convoke a randomly-selected “Citizens’ Assembly” of 150 Australians, to examine the issue over 12 months, and wait for their opinion before taking any action. The policy has “become an ongoing joke in Labor ranks”. Needless to say, if emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”, such a total abdication of policy is scarcely imaginable. The “policy” does not even appear on Labor’s policy website, such is the level of embarrassment. The independent Climate Institute estimates their policy will lead to no peak, no decline, but a 19% increase in emissions above 1990 levels by 2020.

On the other hand, the climate change policy of the Liberal/National party coalition, under Abbott, who describes the scientific argument as “absolute crap”, includes no limit on carbon emissions, and centres around an “emissions reduction fund”. Under this policy, their document proudly announces, “businesses will not be penalised for continuing to operate at ‘business as usual’ levels” — truly likely to lead to a major structural shift in the economy within a decade. The Climate Institute estimate for their policy is no peak, no decline, but an 8% increase in emissions above 1990 levels by 2020.

As far as I can find at the time of writing, neither major party has made any response to the Academy of Science report.

The Greens do have some commitments on the environment. In particular, their policy recognises “we have only 10-15 years to use our collective human intelligence to address the crisis of climate change and to prevent catstrophe.” They propose a cap on carbon, a 40% reduction on 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and other serious action.

The only electoral outcome which can give a non-catastrophic, science-based Australian climate policy, in the period in which emissions “need to peak within 10 years and then decline rapidly”, is a large swing to the Greens.

In Australia, with mandatory and preferential voting, the electoral system makes this choice easier than elsewhere. In the US and elsewhere, With a first-past-the-post system, a vote for the Greens takes a vote away from other parties. With Australia’s preferential voting system, if the Greens do not get your highest first vote, then your vote switches to the lesser of the other evils, as you decide. You decide where your vote goes and in what order.

The Greens may well obtain the balance of power in the Senate, as well as a lower house seat here in Melbourne. An increased vote may give them real leverage to force climate action upon whatever government takes office.

Of course, a mere vote at this election is not enough. It will take serious, urgent, international and sustained action to make the changes necessary to maintain a liveable planet, as the science demands. This electoral campaign, if nothing else, should be an education to Australians about the bankruptcy of their political system, the oncoming crisis in the climate system, and the need for vast changes in their society.


Written by dan

August 17th, 2010 at 3:49 am

The uses of the world: On "foreign policy debate"

The most powerful person in the world is one who is chosen democratically, somewhat. It’s not the case that everyone affected has a say – and there are volumes written on the extraordinary flaws and outrages of the system that produces the decision – but there is an election. At every such election, there is an opportunity for a society to decide for itself its trajectory within the world – and, when the society is the most powerful in the world, to determine in substantial part the trajectory of the world.

It’s now well into the twenty-first century. Societies are richer than ever before, we have more options than ever before; our technology and our knowledge can build the world we want to see. We know everything. And yet, societies are beset by crises, cowed in fear, uncertain about the future, and united in our pessimism. We know nothing.

But in a democratic society, people can decide for ourselves; inform themselves, understand, decide, and act. In a democratic society, all ideas proceed forth, filter through, clash, synthesize, and the compelling passions of human desire resolve themselves into some semblance of a plan. A democratic society is a self-determined society, with institutions to carry out collective understandings and decisions; at the highest level, a democratic society is a planned, a self-planned society. Your individual plan for your own life is democracy, a tyrannical democracy, and rightly so; our collective plan for our society is substantive democracy, and the highest expression of human society. You are nothing more than the effect you have on the world; the world should be nothing more than the synthesis of the best the human race can produce.

What is the plan for the world? There being no institution to decide this question consciously, the nearest question we have is – what is the plan of the richest and most productive society on earth, with respect to the world? What is our orientation to the world? We have no right to a say over the rest of the world – but our orientation to the world matters crucially. What is the world we want to see, and how do we want to get there? And, in the context of a democratic election to determine who shall have the power to make decisions on these issues – how will those questions be answered? What visions will be presented, what shall be made of the possible uses of the world?

It’s now the twenty-first century – there is no excuse for isolation, for cultural ignorance, for racism or the denigration or fear of those far away, or different. At least not in the richest society in the world – it’s all on the internet. The conclusion is inescapable that there are no exotic people. Similarly, there is no excuse for the most basic of human needs going unfulfilled: hunger, preventable disease, homelessness, displacement and war became indefensible long ago. Everybody wants to get on in life; everybody wants a world free of hunger, disease, and suffering; everybody wants a life neither nasty, brutish, nor short; everybody wants a better world for their children. It is trite – it is embarrassing to say it.

And yet the world which does not satisfy these most basic needs, when such goals are within the power of the world community, is also an embarrassment. The universal imperative of moral reciprocity demands that we treat others as we would be treated ourselves. And it tragically, embarrassingly, fails still. Are you embarrassed to live in this world? Are you proud to be one of the humans: this rich, extraordinary, complex, beautiful, tender species – this paragon of animals? Or are you embarrassed to be one of these poor, pathetic, abject, cowering, vicious animals – this quintessence of dust?

It is always overblown to talk about human destiny, and to apply Shakespearian hyperbole to human nature; but nor is it far-fetched, today. Choices made today may irrevocably change the course of human development; and the debate on foreign policy between presidential candidates in the most powerful nation in the world is arguably the closest forum currently existing where one might see a conscious democratic discussion about the trajectory of the world.

What shall we do? What shall we do to achieve the coming together of all peoples? What shall we do to deal the final blows to preventable disease and hunger? What shall we do to achieve a truly global society – a human society worth the name? What shall we do to achieve a true globalization – not just the flow of capital and goods; not just the cessation of wars; but the creation of a true, integrated global community? What could we achieve?

These are crucial questions to be discussed in the context of a democratic election in the most powerful nation in the world. Not to decide the questions for the world – but to determine the orientation of this society towards their answer, in recognition of the rights and the dignity of all peoples. They go further – they lead to deep and searching questions about the nature of the world and its future.

What relevance does the nation state have in the present? What justification is there for the concept of sovereignty – the idea that the absolute and final power in all matters legal and political should reside within the nation state, with its possibly arbitrary borders and whatever hodgepodge of social fragments lies hemmed in between them? What can be done to achieve the self-expression and self-determination of the global society – with institutions at the appropriate levels for the decisions that need to be made, from the individual and the municipal, to the regional and the global?

What is the appropriate basis upon which the world should operate? The United Nations? A federation? A parliament? Or are clashing sovereign nation states with populations that have much in common still the best arrangement possible – for the time being? International law, with its current customary minimum essential to civilization – fundamentally, start no wars, respect sovereignty, respect self-determination, and respect the United Nations – should it be expanded above this minimum, and more thoroughly applied?

How is one society to approach the problems of the day? In other words, what is to be the foreign policy of this nation? What sort of foreign policy would you like to see? Or better, what sort of international policy – for today there are no foreigners, only those who live outside the arbitrary borders of our nation – would you like to see?

So, when two main contenders for the election to most powerful person in the world come together and debate their visions for the world – their orientation to the world – on September 26, 2008, in a debate specifically about foreign policy, what was the vision we saw of the human community?

Of the human family, peace on earth, and a vision for the world – nothing.
Of globalization, cultural interconnection, about worldwide understanding – nothing.
Of the contemporary place of the medieval legal concept of sovereignty – nothing.

Perhaps, then, we should lower our expectations.

Of the United Nations – nothing.
Of worldwide hunger and preventable disease – nothing.
Or, even, of multilateralism? Nothing.
Or, at the least, of international law? Nothing.

Did they even suggest any policies chosen because of accordance with international law? No – from maintaining a war waged in supreme violation of international law; to escalating an occupation which daily bombs civilians from afar; to crossing borders for unilateral attacks; to threatening nations about their nuclear programs without once mentioning the International Atomic Energy Agency.

What a vision is this, then, of the uses of the world. Weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable, all.

But still, it is true that we have a choice.

We have a choice – we can have an open-ended commitment to war in Iraq; or a timetable to bring home “combat brigades”, leaving about half the military troops still there – and all corporate mercenary forces.
We have a choice – to attack Pakistan with more consent from president “Kardari” (sic, McCain), or less.

From there, it only gets better.

We have a choice – to escalate war in Afghanistan, or to escalate war in Afghanistan.
We have a choice – to escalate the military budget, or to escalate the military budget.
We have a choice – to threaten Iran, or to threaten Iran.
We have a choice – Venezuela is a rogue state, or Venezuela is a rogue state.
We have a choice – ally with Georgian atrocities against Russian atrocities; or ally with Georgian atrocities against Russian atrocities.
We have a choice – enlarge NATO and threaten Russia; or enlarge NATO and threaten Russia.
We have a choice – provoke and waste resources with missile “defense” systems; or provoke and waste resources with missile “defense” systems.

And those are the major issues. Those are the uses of the world. In the debate of the great men, in the visions of the hopes of the world, that is where the discussion begins and ends.

But to a more important vision – to you, what of this society and this earth? What is in your vision? Is it a vision of threats and bullies, of guns and bravado – is it the world operating, as it does today, as a giant version of the mafia? Is it a vision of enemies to be defeated, and victories to be won? Is it a vision of one nation predominant over the rest? Is it a vision where the assumption always holds that your government has the right to attack anywhere on earth it sees fit? Is it a vision of international lawlessness? Is there any hope? Are we forever to escalate wars, provoke, threaten, and reign – even when the world is as rich, as educated, and as enlightened as it is today? Is it merely a sterile promontory, this world, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours? Does anything really matter at all?

Or is it, rather, this world, this planet, before the stars, a spaceship tracking an extraordinary course, a small planetary community struggling to make its way in the universe, a family about to put aside its squabbles – upon a brave overhanging firmament, an excellent canopy, a majestical roof fretted with golden fire – what is it?

What is the debate a democratic society should be having? What is the change we should believe in?

It is childlike, of course, to look upon the world with such a view. But the naivete of children looking upon the world is not to be denigrated – for it is rarely false. And growing up should never mean abandoning a vision for the future – for it is only with such vision that we stand a chance of getting there.


Written by dan

October 3rd, 2008 at 5:35 am