The following words on the subject of secrets and politics were spoken at a recent Sydney public symposium, organised by my colleague Benedetta Brevini, Beyond Wikileaks (8th October 2013).
There are three sensitive secrets I’d like to reveal about the topical subject of secrets. The first is surely the most obvious, and shouldn’t really be secret: we live in the age of monitory democracy in which muckraking, the public exposure of secrets kept by the powerful, is the new norm. Public struggles to tame arbitrary power are chronic. Individuals and groups using mobile phones, bulletin boards, news groups, wikis and blogs, sometimes manage, against great odds, to heap embarrassing publicity on their powerful opponents. Corporations are given stick by well-organised, media-savvy groups such as Adbusters. Power-monitoring bodies like Human Rights Watch, Avaaz.org, Global Witness and Amnesty International regularly do the same, usually with help from networks of supporters spread around the globe. There are initiatives such as the World Wide Web Consortium (known as W3C) that promote universal open access to digital networks. There are even bodies (like the Democratic Audit network, the Global Accountability Project and Transparency International) that specialise in providing public assessments of existing power-scrutinising mechanisms and the degree to which they fairly represent citizens’ interests. Politicians, parties and parliaments are roughed up by dot.org muckrakers like California Watch and Mediapart (a Paris-based watchdog staffed by a number of veteran French newspaper and news agency journalists). And, at all levels, governments are grilled on a wide range of matters, from their expenses claims and human rights records to their energy production plans and the quality of the drinking water of their cities. View Here
It’s difficult from afar to grasp the depressing scale and depth of European disintegration, so let me try from close range to convey something of what’s going on by using a simple method: extracting snippets of randomly-chosen local political news published in a handful of printed and online European sources on just one rather ordinary day, September 18th 2013.
In the Netherlands, newly-inaugurated King Willem-Alexander makes his first annual appearance before parliament with a speech announcing the end of the welfare state. ‘Due to social developments such as globalisation and an ageing population,’ says the king, ‘our labour market and public services are no longer suited to the demands of the times.’ He adds: ‘The classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a “participatory society”’. It sounds promising: citizens will be expected hereon to take care of themselves, or create civil society solutions to such problems as care for the elderly, unemployment and housing shortages. Decoded, the king said: due to EU budget rules, state social policy is fated to shrink. There is no alternative. The egalitarian policies dating from the 1960s are finished. Austerity is not a temporary belt-tightening exercise. From this day forwards, in the ‘participatory society’, each individual must follow the rule, sauve qui peut. View Here
In our age of monitory democracy, as Rupert Murdoch is once again learning to his cost, rascals and rogues are finding it hard to conceal from public attention their private wheeler-dealing.
The latest ‘we will hit back’ revelations published by the pay-walled investigative British website Exaronews show with spectacular clarity that we live in times when publicity rains down hard on all things private and personal. The realm that used to be called ‘private’ becomes publicly contested. Privacy battles are constantly fought, lost and won. Awash in vast oceans of circulating information that is portable and easily reproduced and distributed, anxiety about privacy becomes commonplace. Not even the powerful, whose preferred drug is secrecy, are any longer safe behind closed doors. View Here
My first moments with His Holiness last week were not quite what I’d expected. In pulled the police-escorted motorcade, sirens wailing, blue lights flashing, bang on time, according to plan. As the motorcade drew to a halt, the small welcoming party hushed. The winter sunshine air tingled. Our distinguished guest, now frail with age, eased himself from one of the lead vehicles. Re-wrapping his red and gold robes, he adjusted his spectacles, stood erect, then extended clasped hands in my direction. ‘Tashi delek’, I said nervously, using most of the Tibetan words I know. ‘Welcome to Australia, to the University of Sydney, and to the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights. We’re honoured to be hosting your visit.’
As if determined to upstage the solemn greeting of a Nobel Laureate extraordinaire, scores of cockatoos and parrots suddenly screeched from a tree directly above. ‘What’s all the noise?’, asked the Dalai Lama, frowning. ‘Our native birds are raucous, known for their full throats. It’s a local speciality’, I smiled, clutching for unrehearsed words. ‘Oh’, said His Holiness, ‘what time do they usually get up?’ ‘Probably before dawn, around 5 o’clock this morning’, I replied. ‘Oh’, said our honoured guest, now looking cheeky, ‘almost as early as me. I suppose I’ve some competition for the students’ attention this morning.’
Readers interested in some of the big political ideas and trends of our time may like to listen to a recent talk on the greening of democratic politics. Hosted in Sydney by the newly-foundedInstitute for Democracy and Human Rights, it aimed to provoke discussion about the long-term, ‘deep’ effects of green politics on the language and institutions and ‘imaginary’ of democracy.
Listeners are reminded that in half a generation, green-minded intellectuals, movements and political parties have helped ensure that such matters as chemical pollutants, nuclear power, carbon emissions, climate change and species destruction are ‘in the air’ and firmly on the policy agenda of democratic politics. Public awareness that humans are the only biological species ever to have occupied the entire planet, with potentially catastrophic consequences, is growing. Green politics has helped popularise precautionary attitudes towards ‘progress’ and its blind embrace. It has also tabled vital tactical questions: for instance, should priority be given to civic initiatives and social movements or to the formation of political parties and alliances with mainstream parties? How can green parties best be kept ‘democratic’? Does their political success require broadening green politics to include themes such as immigration and gender discrimination?
Despite these notable achievements, or so runs the argument, the profoundly radical implications of green politics for the way people imagine and live democracy remain poorly understood. Levels of support for democratic principles certainly run high within green circles, as confirmed by the widespread uproar triggered by James Lovelock’s suggestion that it ‘may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while’. Yet why people with green sympathies should embrace democracy for more than tactical reasons, whether democratic principles themselves can be ‘greened’ and what that might imply for the way people imagine to be the essence or ‘spirit’ of democracy are matters that remain obscure within green circles and beyond – or so this talk on green politics and the future of democracy suggests.
-> Originally published in The Conversation, May 16, 2013
The following remarks on truth and democracy were presented at the opening of a brainstorming session entitled Does Truth Really Matter in Australian Politics? Political Accountability in an Era of Agitated Media. The lively, all-day gathering of journalists, academics, students and web activists was convened by Peter Fray and hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) and the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, 9th April, 2013. View Here
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.