Thursday, 27 February 2014

Civilisation and a civil society

Once upon a time, the land was ruled by meanest, baddest bastard with the biggest fists, the foulest temper, the most cunning mind. His ambition to rule was greater than that of any of his rivals, who would often pay for their resistance to him with their lives.

As the centuries passed, men of learning would be co-opted by the large-fisted ruler to help him rule even greater territories; intelligent, calculating men. He reached an understanding with them: he would share his wealth with them, they would lend legitimacy to him. The ruler's sway extended, encompassing ever-greater territories until they became the kingdoms still recognisable today.

The men of learning devised the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings. The ruler had become king not because he was larger-fisted and more brutally uncompromising in his quest for dominance over others - but because this was the will of God Almighty. Such a scheme worked well for a while, supported by the world's first global corporation, the Church of Rome. Absolute monarchs would slaughter their own subjects in vast numbers during wars fought for vanity or in avoidable famines. Came the Enlightenment, and men came to question the authority of God as vested in the infallible Church, and in turn, of their ruler.

Some rulers lost their head; others gave ground gracefully. In place of the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons (and sometimes even daughters) of the big-fisted bastard, a system began to emerge which set up checks and balances to ensure that no one human being or family ended up too dominant*. Parliaments were first elected by the powerful few; eventually universal suffrage gave every adult the chance to select their rulers.

But as the vote became accessible to the poor and the poorly educated, along came some clever, ambitious, big-fisted people got together around a new idea for gaining power and becoming rulers themselves, an idea that evolved symbiotically along with democracy. It's called populism. "Vote for us, and we'll legally take the rich man's money (through taxation) and we shall redistribute it to you poor people (in benefits). And because there are more of you poor people than of those rich people, the democratic system will ensure I get elected and remain in power".

This idea proved so popular that all political parties to one extent or another took to it. Without some measure of redistribution, maintaining power was impossible. Politics became a question of moving a slider up and down society, determining to whom should be given (and how much) and from whom should be taken away (and how much). Getting this balance right was now key to winning and maintaining power - not having large fists and an aggressive mien.

Democracy ensures that the people who rule over us are smart; the system keeps them in check. When it emerges that actually they are stupid, they stumble and fall. Victor Yanukovych certainly believed he could cling onto power balancing the interests of the Kremlin, his oligarchic cronies and the Ukrainian people. He has been exposed as a stupid and venal ruler - an one with stupendously bad taste too. (Read this excellent analysis of Yanukovych by ethicist Prof Peter Singer.)

Democracy is the least-bad system created by humans for ruling themselves. It is not perfect; trips to the ballot box are few and far between. If they were more frequent, institutional paralysis would set in. I'm sure that in future, a more participative system based on e-ballots or mobile voting on local issues will evolve.

What I'm writing about here applies not only to governments and states. More broadly, the march of civilisation (I admit to sharing the Whig view of history - that over time, things tend to get better) affects the economy too. Big businesses can get too big, too powerful; they can collude with one another to the detriment of the consumer and the economy. And here, in a democracy, a proper set of checks and balances is required to wisely regulate business in such a way as not to block the natural, healthy entrepreneurship of the ambitious, courageous and visionary people, but on the other hand not to allow big-fistedness of corporations to smash the interests of the consumer. From the late 19th Century, in America, home of 'capitalism', cartels of colluding businesses have attracted the attention of the well-run state.

The Russian model of governance is way behind the west, despite the sham show displayed on Russia Today. Money generates power, which generates more money, used in turn to buy more power and so on. The regulators are told what to do. The interests of the state and the interests of the big-fisted bastards are one and the same. The difference between Putin and Yanukovych is that the former is intensely clever (the kind of chap who'd have made a good mediaeval pope) while the latter was a dullard, unable to grasp the macro implications of the way he ran the show.

The Russian way, going back to the Mongol occupation, is that you fawn to your superiors while tyrannising your underlings. "I'm it, you're shit." Your underling must be kept in place, brutally if needs be. For one day, they will topple you. No concept of 'win-win' or mutual trust.

Civilisation will flow into Ukraine from the West; the process of nation-building must begin right now, based on the creation of strong institutions that enjoy the trust of the people. Regulators who regulate fairly and wisely, and block the emergence of any big-fisted thieving bastard. Ukrainians have paid a high price for ridding themselves of their bandit president; to ensure that further banditry and robbing of the state does not occur, a civil society must now arise bottom-up, supported by countries and institutions that offer models of good governance.

* North Korea is the exception that proves the rule.

This time last year:
Images of God

This time two years ago:
City-centre living, Warsaw-style

This time three years ago:
Communist plaque on Zygmunt's Column

This time six years ago:
Three weeks into Lent

1 comment:

Sigismundo said...

The sight on the news of those blank-faced, turnip-headed pro-Russians in Crimea refusing to even talk to the British press because it was "an organ of the fascist regimes of western Europe" leads me to believe that this is a story that will not go away for a while, no matter how many billions the EU is willing to squander on bailing out Ukraine.

Some people will always prefer the clear-cut certainties offered by a single absolute ruler over the seemingly chaotic, many-headedness of democracy. And they may have a point. In classical Athens in times of crisis it was common to set aside democracy to appoint a single ruler with dictatorial powers who could simply get things done. To an extent this was repeated during WW2 with Churchill in Britain.