With the Dalai Lama’s visit to Sydney just around the corner, I was naturally drawn to freshreports that during the past year the Chinese authorities have been experimenting in Tibet with a new political ‘grid’ (wangge) system of neighbourhood information-gathering units, led by ‘grid captains’.
More than 600 street-side ‘convenience police posts’ (bian minjing wu zhan) equipped with computers and video technology have apparently already been set up in towns, rural areas and temples throughout Tibet. These posts are a vital part of the new grid system, which operates 24/7. They are linked in turn to voluntary ‘civilian’ networks called ‘red armband patrols’, whose job at the grass-roots level is to anticipate ‘sudden incidents’ (self-immolations, for instance) and to conduct ‘doorstep interviews’ and searches of Tibetan homes in search of politically forbidden materials, including photographs of the Dalai Lama. The Chinese rulers recently announced that they intend to expand the state-of-the-art surveillance system. They say it is designed to ‘improve public access to basic services’. They describe the dragnet as an important component in the country-wide drive towards ‘social stability maintenance’ (weiwen) and ‘scientifically guiding public opinion’. Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, says the grid system comprises ‘nets in the sky and traps on the ground’. Other Party documents speak of ‘strengthening information and intelligence work to achieve in practical terms smart ears and clear eyes to gain the initiative’. View Here
Strange are the times we’re living through. In matters of democracy, they feature many novel and contradictory global trends, none quite so potentially fractious as the political tension between majority rule government and public struggles to restrain and humble lethal forms of arbitrary power.
Wherever monitory democracy takes root, these two sets of principles, languages and practices typically co-exist, intermingle and overlap. They functionally require and energise each other. Governments based on majority consent and the humbling of arbitrary power seem to be twins. Democracy means nothing less than fairly fought elections and much more: citizens’ freedom from publicly unaccountable power. Truth is the two axioms have different histories, contrasting dynamics and, in practice, potentially contradictory effects. The tension between majority rule and public resistance to arbitrary power can end in tears, or produce explosions. When the different visions of what counts as ‘democracy’ clash and collide, public disaffection, fear and violence may be the result. View Here
Readers might like to sample the following birthday toast in honour of the English political writer Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809). It was prepared for a dinner hosted by Graham Allen MP, Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, in the House of Commons, London, January 28th 2013.
Look around, or beyond the borders where you live. You’ll probably have noticed that disquiet and disaffection are spreading through the drought fields of democracy. Political parties and legislatures are not exactly in favour. Public disenchantment with politicians and official “politics” is rising everywhere, fed by corruption and power-grabbing, factional infighting and mischief-making populists. There are widening gaps between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. The rich are hyper-rich. Middle-class citizens fear for the future. A new precarious class of semi-employed or permanently unemployed people has meanwhile been born. And xenophobia and bigoted nationalism are on the rise.
Bliss was it in that spring to be alive, and to be young, on the streets, was very heaven. Or so it seemed to millions of women and men in early 2011, shortly after the first protests in Tunisia rocked the foundations of the whole Arab world. Public ecstasy flourished. Freed from fear, often for the first time, citizens found themselves dancing, singing and kissing strangers in the streets. Dignity and justice, freedom and democracy, was the prevailing talk. Political exiles came home. The first fair and clean elections in living memory happened. Dictators were everywhere forced onto the back foot. Several were toppled; a few went on trial, or fled into exile; others, among them Gaddafi and al-Assad, fought back, like maniacs, using murderous tactics and weapons.
The spirit and institutions of Greek democracy are dying, but who really cares? Kostas Vaxevanis does. His name merits global attention because during the past year Hot Doc, the weekly magazine he owns and edits, has published a string of gutsy stories detailing the financial rip-offs that have brought his country to the point of economic, political and psychological breakdown.
Vaxevanis began by exposing the huge kickbacks on weapons contracts allegedly pocketed by a former defence minister, who is now behind bars, awaiting trial. Hot Doc then implicated the central bank of Greece in shorting the country’s debt by local speculators. It tracked the issuing of large unsecured loans (known locally as thalassodaneia) by private banks. Last month brought its biggest and most controversial scoop: the publication of a list of 2,000 rich and powerful Greeks with funds stashed in Swiss bank accounts. Hot Docsales and online hits rocketed. Vaxevanis was arrested. Cold-shouldered by mainstream media, he was pelted with abuse, targeted by assassins and accused by state authorities of violating privacy laws and ‘turning the country into a coliseum’.
The day before I’m due to interview Somsri Hananuntasuk in steamy downtown Bangkok, mean-faced riot police crushed a public rally of red-shirted pro-government protesters and their yellow-shirted opponents. These days, thanks to mobile phone crowd sourcing, even small protests in this sprawling city of festering tensions fast morph into big and ugly confrontations. As it happened, luckily for the police, a massive electrical storm rained down on the parade, scattering demonstrators in all directions. Some ran for their lives, chased by stick- and shield- wielding police who managed, just as the heavens were opening, to snatch and drag away scores of citizens, more than a few badly bruised and bleeding.
India’s most respected public intellectual Ashis Nandy recently appealed to his fellow citizens to recognise and deal with a spreading malady in Indian politics. He calls it ‘psephocracy’. The quality of political leadership and government, says Nandy, is compromised by the reduction of Indian democracy to struggles to win the spoils of office. ‘The moment you enter office, you begin to think of the next election’, he notes.
The preoccupation with winning and retaining office has toxic effects. Incumbents dare not put a foot wrong. Underachievement is consequently rife; bold and imaginative political leadership withers. Far too much time is spent log-rolling coalition partners. Vast sums of campaign funds are raised through shady backroom deals. Patron-client arrangements called vote banks flourish, along with corrupt wheeling and dealing. Focus groups, targeted advertising and negative campaigning become regular techniques of governing. Parties degenerate into oligarchies hungry for electoral conquests. Party hopping, the strange practice of representatives switching allegiance to another party when in office, flourishes. So does behind-the-scenes lobbying. Under extreme circumstances, as Narendra Modri showed in Gujurat in 2002, politicians seeking re-election are even prepared to win office by stirring up communal suspicion and hatred, riots and pogroms. View Here
Dear reader, don’t let yourselves be fooled: whatever political charlatans, cynics or melancholics say to the contrary, democracy as we know it is turning green. There’s never been a period in the history of democracy quite like it. Slowly but surely, the spirit, visionary ideals, language and institutions of democracy are granting recognition and representation to the bio-habitats in which we dwell. The trend is subject to political setbacks, certainly. It has its enemies. Nothing is guaranteed. It could all end disastrously. Yet the trend is global, cuts deep into our daily lives and is defined by many developments, most of them unprecedented.
The greening of democracy runs far beyond spreading public talk of sustainability and climate justice. It’s more consequential than disputes about the price of carbon and emissions trading schemes. The trend includes the birth of new instruments of representation, such as green parties, pirate parties and environmental courts. Less obviously, it includes novel power-monitoring mechanisms such as deliberative forums, bio-regional assemblies and earth watch networks. These innovations are proof positive that we’re living through a new phase of what Alexis de Tocqueville famously called the democratic revolution, this time one that is marked by the empowerment of ‘nature’ in human affairs.
The trend would astonish our great grandparents. To see why, let’s take an example, the franchise, the question of who is legally entitled to vote. Pundits insist that the old battles to universalise the right to vote are over, that the question of who votes and is represented in public affairs is now a settled issue, yet they’re plainly wrong. Gradually, the interests of a whole new constituency are making their presence felt in human affairs: our biosphere.
Efforts to ensure its political representation include more than talk of animal rights, simian sovereignty and respect for sentient creatures. The greening trend runs much deeper. It prompts fundamental questions about the meaning of democracy, and whether it has a future. It forces us to think about how we think about democracy.
The greening of democracy goes beyond the familiar arguments about whether open democratic societies are capable of cultivating public awareness of future generations (they can) or whether democracies can act quickly enough to handle the coming mega-disasters (they can). The trend forces us to answer the most basic question: are we human beings capable of democratising ourselves?
The question has at least three pointed parts. Can we human beings humble ourselves by collectively recognising our ineluctably deep dependence upon the ecosystems in which we dwell? Can we simultaneously find new ways of practically extending voices and votes in human affairs to our ecosystems? Third, and consequently, is it possible in theory and practice to rid the whole idea of democracy of its anthropocentrism? Can it come to mean, descriptively speaking, a form of life and a way of rendering power publicly accountable by means of institutions in which humans and their biosphere are treated symmetrically, as interdependent equals, in opposition to the reigning view that humans are the pinnacle of creation, lords and ladies of the universe, ‘the people’ who are the ultimate source of sovereign power and authority on Earth?
This way of playing with words and asking questions may seem strange. It might even be judged a trite game in pseud’s corner. It isn’t. For it should be remembered that all human societies have created ways of registering or re-presenting their interdependence with the natural world and its (sometimes invisible, like the wind) elements by means of verbal, written and pictorial expressions. It should also not be forgotten that the democratic tradition, as I point out in The Life and Death of Democracy, is salted and peppered with many old customs, ways of politically representing ‘nature’, some of them, such as water tribunals, tings and dyke committees, stretching back well into medieval times. Memories of their importance have mostly been extinguished, although from time to time their spirit has been kept alive, especially in the world of literature, for instance in Erich Kästner’s classic children’s tale of an assembly of the world’s animals that calls on humans to behave more decently in the world.
The contemporary greening of democratic politics brings to life and puts into practice new ways of imagining the political inclusion and representation of the biosphere within human affairs. It forces us to realise that we humans move among miracles, that we’ve a common primordial bond with every other living species, that we’re part of the earth’s ‘unfathomable flow of impacts over billions of years of evolution’ (the words of the American naturalist and philosopher Edward L. McCord). Green politics stimulates our awareness that there are many different ways of seeing and acting upon the biosphere, that it is not just raw, non-human, ‘out there’ nature but a complex set of interacting living elements whose dynamics and significance are shaped by humans embedded within the deep structures of their biosphere.
The point that human and non-human nature form part of a common but fragile dynamic needs to be registered in the very language of democracy. Language shapes who we are; it speaks us, as Heidegger noted, and that’s why in matters of democracy, the most power-sensitive political form yet invented, the language of democratic politics should never be taken for granted.
Thinking hard and deeply about language is necessary therapy for democrats. There are indeed times when the key terms of democracy need to be challenged. The history of democracy is full of phrase struggles. Think of the still-unfinished job of subverting sexist or homophobic language; or the invention and popularisation of terms such as social democracy, liberal democracy and Christian democracy; or the (hardly remembered) contribution by democrats of words like ‘ok’ to the English language.
Now think of the way the language of democratic politics is a carrier of unwarranted insults and blind indignities thrust at our biosphere. Let’s take the surprising example of donkey voting. It’s a familiar phrase, dating from the early 1960s. It refers, especially in compulsory parliamentary elections using preferential voting systems, to citizens who thoughtlessly rank each candidate in the order they are listed on the ballot paper. The donkey voter is a stupid voter, an idiot who pays no attention to the merits of the candidates. The presumption buried deep within the phrase is that donkeys are foolish, gloomy and (as in an old icon still used by supporters of the Democratic Party in the United States) mulishly stubborn.
The main trouble with the phrase is its ignorance of donkeys. Humans are often enough stubborn, gloomy and foolish. Donkeys aren’t. They’re patient, gentle and as loyal as Eeyore, or Sancho Panza’s Platero and Dapple. Their learning capacity is higher than horses. Donkeys require little feeding, and can easily survive the harshest conditions. They ferried wounded soldiers out of the hellish trenches of the Somme; transported Napoleon across the Alps; delivered Jesus to Jerusalem. They’re surefooted and brave: they’ve been known to survive 50-metre cliff falls, and jennies will walk through raging fires to save their young.
Laboratory tests show that compared with all other mammals donkey milk is closest to human milk. That’s reason enough to stop insulting the donkey, to remember that the future of humanity is bound up not just with donkeys but with all living species, and to see that the future of democracy thus depends on greening its own language.
-> Originally published in The Conversation, September 5, 2012
In preparation for an upcoming event at the University of Sydney, I’ve been re-reading ex-diplomat Stefan Halper’s interpretation of contemporary Chinese politics. Like most books by outsiders on the subject of China, The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate The Twenty-First Century is entangled in friend-foe thinking. It plays a strange game of binary opposites: remarkably, it’s both pro-China and anti-China. It sets out to be positive but ends up on a negative note, which prompts the question whether the book suffers from muddle, or whether, as seems more likely, the political game of binary opposites inherited from the Cold War turns out to be just that: a single game with rotatable places for various players who are more or less tacitly agreed on its rules.