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Democracy and the New Year

And so 2011 comes to an end and 2012 is upon us.

2011 was an extraordinary year, perhaps the most so in decades, and one from which the effects will be felt for a long time to come. Charlie Brooker of The Guardian recently compared this last year to an end of season finale. So many big things have happened in the past year that, as he reminds us, many events, that in a normal year would be highlights, are likely to be forgotten. I’ll list just a few (with many, no doubt, notable omissions) as a reminder: we saw the Arab Spring (still unfolding); we saw the death of Osama bin Laden and the overthrow of Gaddafi; there was the extraordinary volatility of global markets (ongoing, and demonstrating the continuing failure to rectify the events of three years ago); the horrifying massacres in Oslo; riots in London; the emergence of the Occupy Movement; the near shut-down of the US Government over failures to agree on budgets, a symptom of an increasingly dysfunctional political process and the chasmic ideological divide that sits under it; the public humiliation of Rupert Murdoch in the UK, the end of a newspaper that has existed, for better or worse, for more than a century, and the bursting of the festering public sore about the proper relationship between government, the press, and big business; the replacement of governments in Greece and Italy as a result of the financial crisis; broader debates and questions about the future of the European project; and, just when I thought nothing more could be squeezed into the year, an almost certainly illegitimate election in Russia and the death of Kim Jong Il in North Korea.

The overwhelming characteristic of 2011 was the sheer amount of uncertainty that it left in its wake. what will the Middle East look like in years to come? What of Europe? Employment prospects and future prosperity? China? The year has raised far more questions than it has answered. As someone who is trying to write a book about what is wrong in the world, having the world in such a volatile state of flux has been more than a little frustrating. I remember a period in July and August where the relentlessness of the news drove me very close to despair.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions for the future is that democracy. Many of the year’s events come back to this point. There should be little doubt that democracy is not in good shape right now and shows no sign of improving. Time Magazine anointed the collective entity “The Protester” as its person of the year.  Protest was, in differing ways, at the heart of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, the problems in Greece, and the London Riots. The uncertainty in Europe is the inevitable result of forming a unified economic zone without a matching political zone, and the European “democratic deficit” has never been more apparent. The denial to the Greeks of a referendum over the imposed austerity measures, and the more or less automatic imposition of a technocracy in Italy are worrying signs. The fear for many citizens, and what underlies movements such as Occupy, is that democracy has finally mutated into the plutocracy that it has been heading towards for a few decades now, the proportional-representation-dollar-democracy of Milton Friedman’s fantasies. In the UK this has been overt: David Cameron walked away from negotiations on the future of Europe explicitly to protect Britain’s financial industry, and the moneyed class that it serves.

There is every sign that democratic processes right now are failing to do their job. There is too little genuine debate, and representation is skewed against, and is uninclusive of, the interests of the majority. To give a simple example of how wrong it can all go, we had a referendum in the UK this year on whether to adopt the “Alternative Vote” (AV) election system in favour of the single vote system currently in place. The public discussion leading up to the vote was simply appalling and contained, almost exclusively, misinformation. I watched, horrified and infuriated, as one Tory member spoke on television, declaring as a categorical fact that the AV system leads to hung parliaments. He cited the example of Australia (which has used the AV system for a century now). Yes, Australia had a hung parliament in the 2010 election. So too, in the same year, did the UK with its first-past-the-post voting system, as did Belgium with its proportional-representation system. Had the respectable Tory member spent just two minutes and taken the simple expedient of googling up the Australian voting history he would have discovered that the 2010 election result was an anomaly. More disappointing still was that no one else did this either and so this lie, and many others with it, is what the British public took with them to the polls. The only conclusion that the evidence showed is that democracy can lead to unclear results. The broad and increasingly common occurrence of close elections betrays a deeper truth: we are no longer happy just to “kick the rascals out” – we want to have a choice that doesn’t reduce to one between rascals: we want both a higher calibre of politicians and a higher calibre of political discussion that includes us.

Across the pond in the US the situation is, if possible, even worse. In the aftermath of the failed budget super-committee, Grover Nordquist tells the American people that they must decide whether “they want a European welfare state or a return to true America” as if this is an adequate description of the available options. But this is not political discussion. It contains no information but merely employs the (now familiar) intimidation tactic of implying that anyone who disagrees is unpatriotic. I don’t mean to single out Republicans here – I’m sure that the rhetoric of Democratic Party is just as unconstructive. Citizens on both sides of the political divide deserve a better and more informative discussion. There is no true America (or Britain, or France, or …), just the choices that an informed polis makes. Democracy is not voting – what happens before the vote is more important. I hesitate to predict anything about the events of 2012, but one event that will (almost certainly… most likely… maybe… well who can say anymore!) occur is the US presidential election. I am looking forward to hearing such alien words as “gubernatorial” bandied about. But US elections have been far too closely correlated to the amount spent on campaigning and too little on the quality of discussion, and I fear the worst. I fear that, regardless of the outcome of the election, it will have so little legitimacy that it may result in civil unrest. Not a crystal-ball prediction, this, just a fear. There is only so much a citizenry can take. And that’s just my fear about one relatively little event that we already know about. What of all the events that we currently know little or nothing about? I fear what may happen when citizens around the world have had enough. We sit on the knife’s edge. A government over-reacts with force, someone is made a martyr, and we are through the looking glass. Civilisation is a surprisingly fragile thing. We need change – dramatic change – but not, I think, revolution. I’m forever an aggressive gradualist.

So I wish you all a qualified Happy New Year. We take with us more uncertainty than anyone can be comfortable with, but we might also take with us some hope.

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