“Democracy implies that the man must take responsibility for choosing his rules and representatives, and for the maintenance of his ‘rights’ against the possible and probable encroachments of the government whom he has sanctioned to act for him in public matters”.
“Do you want to be like common people?” Jarvis Cocker.
In ancient Greek, demos means ‘common’ and kratos, or cracy means ‘strength’. Put the two together and every three years something called an election happens that temporarily puts a decision in the hands of The Voters. The Electorate. The Citizens. The People. That’s us, by the way. We the people, if you’ll excuse such shameless populist rhetoric, have too much power. We are forever being told what we want to hear, like children asking a fretful mother about Santa Claus. On the other hand, we don’t have enough. Around 99 per cent of Australians opposed the idea of an internet filter and it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference. If this is our democracy at work, what exactly are we voting for?
The political model of a century ago is no longer applicable to the societies that it has helped create. Party membership on the left and the right is at an all-time low, and governments around the world are regarded with a scorn usually reserved for poisonous invertebrates. Even in countries like Australia, where our political system is comparatively non-murderous, the word crisis seems to accompany most mainstream discussions about the state of our polity. The modern citizen – equipped with a smart-phone, rights and a sense of individuality harmonised to the demands of consumer-capitalism – is quite obviously different from the citizen of a century ago. We no longer ride penny-farthings, die of cholera, or belong to political parties; so why has politics had such a hard time keeping up? I would argue that politics is not broken but is working exactly as it always has. And this is the problem. The information revolution, so-called, has the potential to alter modern democracy for the better or to erase it permanently from the historical record. Our perennial disappointment in our political leaders implies that we want to be led, but it also says a lot about the difficulty of catering to the diverse needs of an increasingly independent political subject.
Let me now propose a solution: dissolve the political parties; let us nominate where 50 per cent of our taxes get spent; elect expert ministers to portfolios. Why not try something novel like having an environment minister that has studied environmental science, or an education minister that has worked as a teacher? Let the ministers elect a central council that is completely transparent, as in live-streaming-all-data-available transparent. Write a new constitution that enshrines freedom, transparency and accountability for everyone. Let people vote on issues they are passionate about, instead of having to choose a party that might be strong in one area, but weak in another.
I know, I’m talking about a complete reimagining of the political process: a crowd-sourced democracy with a consensus-driven meritocracy. But we have the technology so why not? The model might be problematic in terms of access, but it’s not going to make anyone less empowered than they already are. Do we want to be responsible for who does what and where, or would we rather just bitch about things without expecting them to ever change?
On the subject of change we can believe in, the Government now mandates internet providers hold on to
your data for two years. Of course, this is to track paedophiles, organised criminals and those elusive boogeymen known as terrorists, but this kind of surveillance state has real implications for the future of what we know as democracy. To paraphrase Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, “imagine being born into a world where constant surveillance is taken for granted”. Anyone proposing a change to the order of things could have their internet histories, or their Snapchat paraded before the press. “Don’t listen to this person, they once searched for pornography, real saucy stuff too, took us hours to go through the lot of it”.
Democracy is the only form of effective government that even pretends to recognise a baseline level of accountability. However, in light of things like the PRISM program (and Australia’s willing involvement in it, as reported recently by The Age) it’s hard to believe that this monolithic infrastructure has only our best interests at heart. Any government assuring us that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear should apply that logic equally to themselves before slavishly demonising the likes of Assange, Manning and Snowden.
Implicit in the concept of citizenship is compromise. We accept a level of public service in the form of utilities, roads, and schools and in return we pay taxes and agree not to break the social contract. Most of us are happy to accept nine-to-five jobs and extortionate mortgages in return for behaving ourselves. But did you agree to an internet filter? Did you agree to a war in Iraq? Did you agree to allow the Government to look at potentially every email, tweet, post and internet search that you make? Do you care?
Ultimately this begs the question of who is really governing this country. If it is we, the people, as we are so often told, why doesn’t government listen? If it is they, why not just dispense with politicians altogether and ask Google to design software to run the country for us? The program could act on Bentham’s ideas about “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The supercomputer shall be called Bradman, be powered on cane-sugar, and reside beneath Uluru. Before you run out to petition for a Bentham-inspired robotic overlord, it should be noted that Bentham also designed the Panopticon: a prison in which every inmate is visible at all times.
Soon Australians will line up once more to put a different face on the same lumbering machine that can then continue to ignore us until the next election. So unless people are prepared to exercise some common-strength outside the three-year mandate, there should be little reason to complain about more of the same. After all, don’t we get the government we deserve?