Monday, 26 February 2007

Jaded by power

Published September 2002

Those in power get jaded, deluded, and seduced by power itself. The hunger for absolute power and, more to the point, the abuse of power, are part of human nature.

This quote from Clint Eastwood begs the question: How can an individual in society protect him/her self against abuse of power by the institutions that are designed to manage and protect that society? On all sides, in all arenas, we find compelling evidence of the truth of Eastwood�s remark.

Elected officials

Politics in the so-called democratic countries of the west rely on electoral rigging, gerrymandering of constituencies, media spin-doctoring and manipulation, corporate donations to political groups . . . While politicians scratch their heads in supposed wonder at the apathy of the electorate, a frightening proportion of people living in the west do not vote and have virtually disenfranchised themselves.

Selected officials

So much for our elected officials, what of those who are selected, the career civil servants whose job it is to administer state services? With rare exceptions, the delivery of state services is unwieldy and unfriendly to the individual � even the handful of civil servants that aren't obsessed with promotion and career breaks find themselves tied to the bureaucratic nightmares of form-filling, rubber-stamping and paper trails.

Brown paper envelopes

In recent years Irish taxpayers have funded a spate of costly legal investigations into dishonesty in high places, including one investigation that focused specifically on collusion between politicians, planning officers and private property speculators. In these tribunals it emerged that hundreds of thousands of anonymous pounds were being passed around in brown paper envelopes. For the individual the brown paper envelope usually contains a demand for money. In the corridors of power in Ireland that same receptacle came to represent a gift of money.

The brown paper envelope is endemic, not only in Ireland, but in western society as a whole. Already victim of the consequences of immoral collusion between state (elected and selected) and private sector, the hard-earned money of the individual taxpayer is further frittered away on outing the perpetrators? Media spin doctors are paid (more tax costs) to reassure us that reform is now in hand (further tax costs). The individual is paying, time and again, to perpetuate the cycle of abuse, funding corrupt institutions and individuals to reinvent themselves every time they are caught out.

This reinvention delivers a lexicon of political correctness - words such as "openness", "accountability", "participative democracy" - the spin doctors make a fortune from coining them and training their clients to use them meaningfully. There was I, since my childhood, thinking that these concepts were cornerstones of a truly democratic society. Well, thought made a fool of me! Brown paper envelopes and double standards are the true cornerstones I fear.

The libertarian proposition

Which brings me back to Clint Eastwood, who is a self-professed libertarian. Taking its founding principles from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, a growing libertarian movement is emerging in the US. This movement sees itself as occupying a separate space in a separate dimension from the traditional left-right divide represented by political parties in the west. The left-right divide has its origin in the post-revolutionary governing assembly in France in the 1790s. To avoid violence in the assembly, monarchists were seated on the right, republicans on the left, with armed guards positioned between them.

For whatever reasons, the two-dimensional, left-right divide has dominated western political thinking since. To suggest that this concept has outlived its usefulness is a profound understatement. Do young people not vote because they are lazy or because no candidate addresses their issues, speaks with their voice? Are they apathetic, disillusioned, or downright skeptical?

The diamond model

Such is the crisis of western democracy that the people who pay for it do not believe in it but it's such a beast they can't even contemplate fixing it. Where to start? The libertarians (who need a spin doctor to work on that awful name) propose a new model for political (and social and economic) science. This model proposes four dimensions, theoretically in a diamond formation. At the top of the diamond is the libertarian and, at the opposite pole is the authoritian. To the right is the conservative who favours economic freedom and moral control. And opposite is the leftie who favours moral freedom and economic controls.

diamond model of political structures by David Nolan

This grid is the brainchild of one David Nolan, a political science graduate of MIT, who first presented the concept in 1971. The model offers a number of opportunities for re-evaluating our political perceptions. For example, rather than placing Marxism in the left and Stalinism in the right, it places both in Authoritarian - the former to the left of the grid, the latter to the right. This process recognises the fact that both have more in common with each other than with their respective political outfielders.

Unjading the jaded

Some crucial issues emerge when you view how societies organise themselves using the diamond model. Rather than addressing fundamental questions about state control vs. freedoms, western democracies only address right-left issues. Apply some healthy skepticism and it becomes apparent that those that currently control our societies have a vested interest in and imagine the degree of political and institutional control you wish to pay for. Hey presto - maybe the self-disenfranchised (or can we call them conscientious objectors?) will find something worth voting for.

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