The thing people fear the most is uncertainty. Bad or good, things that are known can be prepared for and dealt with. Things that are unknown can be ignored. But things that are known in the abstract but unknown in their specifics cause visceral angst in human beings. We know that we are going to die, but not how. We know that airplanes crash out of the sky, but not when. As someone who enjoys open water swimming, I always enter the ocean (particularly new bodies of water) with the knowledge that big toothy fish inhabit the sea, but I do not know if they will be sharing proximate space with me at that particular moment. That makes me anxious (after all, if I know that they are there, I do not go into the water; if I do not know that they are there, I do not worry when I do so–although I might subsequently be surprised). Many terminally ill people have noted that it is the uncertainty of their prognosis that is the hardest aspect of their condition, and that the final prognosis gives them the peace of mind to accept their fate (I experienced this first hand with my father). The bottom line is drawn by none other than Donald Rumsfeld: There are known knowns and known unknowns, but the problem lies with the unknown unknowns.
People consequently spend their whole lives hedging against uncertainty. We cling to our parents at the sight of new and strange things, waiting for their reassurance that all is OK. We go to school and educate ourselves so that we can increase our career and income prospects. We form emotional attachments and enter into relationships in order to to fill the uncertainties of solitary existence. We buy insurance. We double check our parachutes and bungy cords. We clean our guns, we check the oil and fluids before long trips–our lives are a long list of hedging against the uncertainties of the moment. The point is simple: there is an innate fear of uncertainty inherent in the human condition, which we constantly try to overcome by imposing degrees of certainty in our lives.
That makes democracy a most remarkable and unnatural form of political rule. As part of the quest for certainty, humans establish social hierarchies. Firms, schools, churches, unions, parties, even the family itself, are hierarchical organisations. Thus authoritarianism, as the ultimate political expression of social hierarchy, is also the ultimate guarantor of political certainty: as the saying goes, Mussolini made the trains run on time. Many have argued that authoritarianism (especially in non-Anglo Saxon societies), is the more natural form of political regime. Perhaps there is some truth to that. After all, under authoritarian regimes there is the certainty of punishment for voicing opposition, the certainty of favour given to allies and toadies, the certainty that you will not be bothered if you keep your head down and go to work or school, the certainty of imprisonment or death should one confront the hierarchical status quo. Authoritarians are all about certainty, and in that measure they are naturally reassuring to a risk-adverse and uncertain public.
Yet, democracy is unique in that it takes what we fear the most–uncertainty–and turns it into the centerpiece of the political system. Elections are no more than institutionalised (if not ritualised) uncertainty. At the moment of ballot casting, no one knows the outcome. To be sure, incumbents may have an advantage over opponents, opinion polls attempt to semi-scientifically show clear tendencies among voting preferences, and electoral fraud abounds at all levels in many democratic regimes. The point is that these occur precisely because contenders for elected positions are trying to achieve some measure of certainty over the outcome, which creates a whole industry of prognosticators and facilitators attempting to do the same for profit. In other words, the measure of a mature democratic system is the relatively high degree of uncertainty of its electoral processes. The more certain the outcome of any given election, the more undemocratic the political system in which it occurs (fully understanding that popular support in advance of elections can make outcomes all but certain–but the point is that we do not absolutely know that at the time our ballots are cast). But that still does not address the existential dilemma: we want to have some degree of certainty about where out lives are heading, politically and otherwise.
The answer, as it turns out, is counter-intuitive yet simple. Institutionalised uncertainty in the form of regular free and transparent elections amongst a universally enfranchised adult population is not only a contradiction of the social hierarchies that are the organisational bulk of most human society; they are also a guarantee of accountability. That is the beauty of the mechanism, and why it needs to be protected. Hierarchy may guarnatee some degree of certainty, but it reduces accountability in most instances. The duty of those at the top of social hierarchies are to themselves and other social leaders, and much less so to their subordinates. The reason? Such hierarchical accountability leads to more certainty in decision-making (if not outcomes). That is why genuine grassroots consultation in hierarchical social systems is an exeption rather than the rule.
Uncertain electoral outcomes are what keep politicians honest and accountable. No matter what they do, they know that at regular 2, 3, 4 or 6 year intervals they will be held to account by the voting population. While they may try to hide their corruption and personal malfeasance, politicians ultimately have to deliver on the promises and behave according to popular expectations of office-holders (or at least disguise their behaviour accordingly). It is the uncertainty of the electoral moment that hangs, like the shadow of the future, over present political decision-making; politicians need to think of the future electoral consequences of their current decisions. This may, from time to time, lead to sub-optimal policy outcomes since popular majority opinion may not always be informed on specific subjects (the despicable treatment of Ahmed Zaoui by the Fifth Labour government was due, in part, to its calculation that rough treatment of a Muslim asylum seeker would be countenanced by the NZ public in the wake of 9/11–and so it was). But the larger point is that institutionalised uncertainty in the form of open and transparent elections at regular intervals is a hedge against unaccountability on the part of the political elite. Thus we must resist the siren song of politicians who say that is in the general interest for them to enact policy unencumbered by popular opinion or who ram through policy without popular consultation. Politicians that do so believe that the public are either stupid or suffer from short-sightedness and political amnesia, leading to no adverse electoral consequences and a reaffirmation of the certainty of hierarchy (in which elite interests are satisfied first). Instead, the voting public must run against its baser instinct and embrace uncertainty when it comes to the political system, since it is that embrace that promotes accountability from those chosen to lead it.
Next post: entitlements.
Posted on 11:02, June 1st, 2009 by Anita
In the United States on Sunday George Tiller, a doctor, was shot and killed as he attended church. Tiller, who ran one of only three remaining clinics providing late term abortions in the US, had been shot in 1993, his name has been on anti-abortion assassination lists and his clinic was bombed in 1985.
In New Zealand we have never had an abortion doctor killed, but we have had doctors, nurses and clinic staff threatened, attacked and harassed. I pray that no further anti-abortion violence comes to New Zealand, and at the same time I pray that we will progress the issue to give women the right to control their own bodies and that we will find a social consensus for a woman’s right to choose.
But right now the cost seems very high, and all I can do is pray for the safety of everyone ensuring women continue to have access to the limited choices they are given. George Tiller was a great man whose personal actions gave more to women than I could ever hope to.
I try to not end too many posts with lyrics, but today I can’t help posting a section of Ani DiFranco’s Hello Birmingham. With an echo of Pablo’s recent posts, she is talking, at least in part, of the powerlessness of electors to make the changes that matter.
One of the most undervalued concepts in the study of democracy is the notion of consent. Yet it is an absolutely vital aspect of the discourse of civility. “Informed consent” is considered essential for medical treatment; sexual relations should be consensual; parents must sign consent forms releasing schools and sports organisations from liability in the treatment of their children, citizens consent to the decisions of their elected representatives, etc. Even so, in the study of democracy the notion of consent is conspicuous by its absence. I shall attempt to address it here.
There are two types of political rule: hegemony and domination. Domination is rule where the population acquiesces to superior force and the socio-economic dictates of elites. Hegemony is rule by ideological leadership and consent. Consent is the willing acceptance and subjective incorporation by subordinate groups of elite ideology, political control and socio-economic institutions. Under rule by domination people do not necessarily agree with or accept the legitimacy of the political and economic elite–they just bow before their power. Under hegemonic rule people believe in the legitimacy of the elite ideology and its political institutions and socio-economic form, that is, they actively and willingly accept the elite world view. Consider this parallel in family life: children raised in abusive households do not consent to the authority of their parents, they just acquiesce to their superior strength and physical control. That relationship ends as soon as the child is old and large enough to either leave home or physically confront the abusers. In “hegemonic” households, children consent to the authority of their parents because the believe that parents have their best interests always in mind. Of course, all hegemonic regimes have an element of coercion in them, but it is not the majority basis of rule but rather is used as a disciplinary device against ideological transgressors (which is essentially what all criminal penalties are in democracies). Dominating elites rule primarily rule by coercion; hegemonic elites do not. The good news for those interested in authoritarian regime demise is that rule by force cannot last indefinitely: you cannot coerce or repress the majority in the same measure over extended periods of time without ideological support or increased resistance from the population. Thus it is hegemonic rule that is the most durable.
Although all episodes of domination are dictatorships, properly conceived, and all democracies are ostensibly hegemonic, hegemony can be achieved by authoritarians in specific instances. The key is to substitute rule by force with ideological leadership designed to secure consent over time. Thus, the Cuban regime in the 1960s and 1970 could be considered hegemonic; so can the country in which I now live. People believe in, support and approve of the authoritarian leadership’s way of doing things and in the majority prefer not to have things change. Conversely, democracies can lose ideological support and the consent of the majority if they fail to deliver on popular expectations or if the leadership begins to rule in its own self-interest–at that point hegemony is lost and domination begins. This was seen in several Latin American countries in the 1990s (think of Peru under Fujimori as the salient case). The key to securing and maintaining mass consent is to meet popular expectations on the political, social and economic levels. That is, consent needs to be simultaneously reproduced on all three dimensions for hegemony to obtain. Although popular support may ebb and wane on any one dimension at a given moment in time, the aggregate must be maintained. Thus, for example, the economic reforms of the 1980s caused severe dislocations in NZ, but it did not fundamentally undermine majority support for democratic institutions or social mores. However, when a crisis on one level deepens and extends into the other two, then the possibility of an “organic crisis of the state” (to use Gramsci’s term) becomes real–that is the revolutionary moment.
The bottom line is this: consent is given willfully, actively and freely. It implies (relative) freedom of choice in doing so on any intersubjective dimension. Acquiescence is unwillingly given, passive and a product of the fear of consequences. It implies limited or no freedom of choice. Majority consent is the basis of long-term rule; majority acquiescence is not. Of course, consent can be manipulated or, as Burowoy argues, manufactured. Parties, unions, firms and other other collective actors frame/channel the hegemonic “debate” in ways that reaffirm rather than challange the status quo. Through such agents elites may construct the terms of the ” debate” in a way that clouds the nature of their relationship with subordinate groups or which diverts attention from the essentials of that relationship and towards incidentals like sports, popular culture, nationalism etc. That is why subordinate groups need to be autonomous and self-aware in the expression of their collective interests.
The most important aspect of consent, however, is its contingency. Consent is not given once, forever. It is, in reality, contingent on popular expectations being met over time. Think of it this way: most adults in their 40s will not consent to be paid the same salary as they were as teenagers in their first job. They expect more because of their experience, knowledge, discipline etc. Likewise, people living under hegemonic rule demand that their expectations be met at the political, social and economic levels. They want the political leadership to be responsive to their concerns; they want the social order to be peaceful; they want their material needs to be met. Moreover, what constituted the minimum “threshold” of consent in one era will not necessarily suffice to maintain it in the next. In most democracies today, people expect more out of life (and from the state) than they did in 1880 or 1980. Should their expectations not be met, then the slide towards organic crisis begins….
In democratic capitalism mass contingent consent is two-sided: capitalists consent to a restrained rate of profit and limits on their exploitation via the regulatory and fiscal intervention of a State ruled by majority-elected and responsive political classes (politicians and state managers); subordinate groups consent to the (structural) rule of capital in exchange for incremental increases in their standards of living and freedom of opportunity within the productive apparatus and social division of labour. Together, this dual consent constitutes the democratic class compromise that is, however implicit rather than formalized, at the heart of all democratic capitalist societies.
Thus the “matrix” of consent requires simultaneous reproduction of dual thresholds of consent on all three dimensions leading to a contingent class compromise over time–no mean feat, yet the basis for hegemonic rule in a democratic capitalist society.
There is more to the picture but for the moment this sketch will have to suffice. If I can collect my thoughts further I shall update the post. One thing to bear in mind is that the pursuit and maintenance of mass contingent consent is actually an argument in favour of parliamentary democracy over its presidential alternative, and in favor of MMP over first-past-the-post, two-party systems. The reason is that parliamentary balances under MMP systems are (theoretically at least) more finely attuned to the fluid dynamics and complexities of reproducing a minimum threshold of mass contingent consent in heterogenous societies in which individual and collective expectations often differ (when not counterpoised).
Note: this post has been updated twice since its original publication.
Next post: uncertainty.
(This and the last are posts I’ve been meaning to put up all week, having been prevented by a migraine and a deadline.)
This week seems an opportune time to link to a small but superb collection of North Korean propaganda posters reproduced (with two brief and fascinating contextual notes) from David Heather and Koen de Ceuster’s book North Korean Posters.
Discussion of the second test in the media has cast a great deal of heat and not very much light on the issues at stake, including one alarming statement in the NZ media by Tim Beal of Victoria University that the USA could defeat the DPRK militarily “without losing a single soldier” (audio), which runs contra to the understanding of the situation I had when I lived there. My understanding, admittedly mostly from pub discussions with officers in the South Korean and US defence establishment, was that the reason there’s a stalemate is a sort of mutually assured destruction, because while the forces in the South clearly have the strategic advantage, the DPRK has an unknown but very large number of well-protected and hidden artillery pieces and conventional rockets in the mountains just north of the border, within easy range of Seoul, and the few dozen hours it might take to destroy them all could result in catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure in that very densely-populated city.
Paul Henry led TV One’s Close Up the other evening with disbelief that GetAcross – “just a few protesters” – could bring Auckland to “a virtual standstill”, and that the police were “powerless to stop them – almost unwilling to stop them”.
Yes, that is amazing.
But he goes on:
Hang on a minute. “Vulnerable” denotes susceptibility to attack, and this construction therefore defines “civil disobedience” as an attack on society, or at least on Auckland. But civil disobedience as a form of activism, an agent of social change or a means of engaging people in the wider political process is by definition not an attack, but one of the `institutions of societal democracy’ referred to in Pablo’s recent post on the topic; a civic duty, to use Thoreau’s formulation, rather than an act of social destructiveness. That the police didn’t – or couldn’t – prevent it by force seems to me a good thing for our society, and I might add a refreshing change from former attitudes toward peaceful protest.
This wasn’t an attack which weakened society, it was an action which could strengthen it by demonstrating that when you want something, there’s no better way to get it than to make your views known. The GetAcross action didn’t result in violence, property damage, serious disorder or anything of the sort – all it did was show up a critical weak link in Auckland’s infrastructure chain. When a couple of thousand – at most – people on bikes can cause tens of thousands of people to become stuck in traffic just by crossing one bridge, once, there are more serious problems than the protest action. If by simply adding a lane two metres wide, ARTA could prevent this from ever having to happen again – then why wouldn’t they? If not, then aren’t they asking for the weak link to be tested, again and again?
Update: To my great delight, James at Editing The Herald has skewered Garth George’s latest set of authoritarian mutterings about this topic on the sharp spike of the the black civil rights movement. Party on, James.
Anita’s post below on raising democratic children was meaningful to me because I was primarily raised in authoritarian societies, was involved in anti-authoritarian activities in my youth and first got to vote when I arrived in the US to attend university (under Nixon!). Later as a single parent I worked hard to raise my kids in what I liked to call a “triangular” social democratic family (Dad and two kids with a reasonably equitable sharing of household rights and responsibilities given our respective life positions). Although we do not agree on many issues, I can confidently say that they are both politically engaged.
I spent a large part of the Reagan years living on and off in Latin America studying processes of authoritarian demise and democratic (re)constitution, spent the early 1990s working in and out of the US government, then decided to emigrate to NZ once the kids were old enough to fend for themselves. In NZ I initially found one of the two freest places I have lived in (along with Uruguay), but then unhappily watched the corrosion of democratic values in both political and civil society over the next decade. I am now again involuntarily living under yet another authoritarian regime (not quite as murderous as the ones of my youth), and having written previously about the dilemmas of democratic consolidation in post-authoritarian societies, I have time to reflect from afar on what the term means to me, with specific reference to NZ. Once I finish the current book project I am working on, I intend to write a book about the subject of democracy in transitional societies, and to that purpose have begun to deconstruct my thought on what democracy involves.
Over the next few blog posts I will sketch out my preliminary thoughts on the issue (these are too long for one post). The reason I do so is not so much as a self-indulgent attempt to see what the thoughts look like on paper, but because I think that sometimes people who have lived their entire lives in a democratic society lose sight of what that really means and what it involves. Perhaps it takes someone who has experience with both dictatorial and democratic systems to cast fresh light on the latter. That is my purpose here.
To begin with, we must separate “democracy” into its procedural and substantive dimensions. Procedural democracy refers to the means (procedures) by which political power is acquired and maintained. Substantive democracy refers to the three dimensions on which democratic societies are reproduced: institutional, societal and economic. I explain each in turn.
Procedural democracy is characterised by free and open competitive elections between self-constituted political actors awarded equal legal status and free from interference from the state, with an unencumbered right to vote shared by the entire adult population of citizens (and in the case of NZ, permanent residents, of which I am one). This much is the obvious procedural minimum–there is more with regard to how the selection of incumbents of political decision-making positions is accomplished. But the key points are the freedom of expression, preference and competition embedded in the concept of procedural democracy; and the fact that elections, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic worth. By themselves elections are just a procedure, or as a Chilean observer once commented, a type of “secular communion” held at regular intervals by the electorate to consecrate their commitment to the political form as well as to select those who shall temporarily rule.
That is where substantive democracy comes in. Elections without institutional, societal and economic underpinnings are all procedure and no substance. Ferdinand Marcos held (and won) regular elections, as did the PRI regime in Mexico and Brazilian military regime of 1964-1985. The country where I am currently living has regular elections as well, but the outcome is pre-determined: the ruling party always wins. Thus, what matters most for the constitution and consolidation of democracy is not holding elections, but the substantive reproduction of democracy in its institutional, societal and economic dimensions.
Institutional democracy refers to the organization of the state apparatus and collective actors, the rules that bind them, and the forms of interaction they engage. The guiding principle of institutional democracy is transparency, equality and accountability. Institutions, both public and private, big and small, operate in away that minimizes preferential bias or ascriptive intrusions in their governance and outputs. The notions of polyarchy and pluralism apply here. Good representation of the concept is the notion that “justice is blind” or that collective agents and public officials are responsible (effectively answerable) to their principals. Needless to say, even in an advanced liberal democracy like NZ, the reality is somewhat less than the ideal.
That may be due to difficulties at the societal level. Societal democracy refers to the inculcation of notions of consent, concession, compromise, collective interest, equality, solidarity, individual rights, mutual consideration, egalitarianism and legitimate exchange. This promotes general belief in tolerance, respect for difference, non-hierarchical outlooks and negotiated solutions in the pursuit of mutual second-best collective outcomes (as opposed to self-interested first choice maximization of opportunities). It also promotes a (relatively) high degree of public participation in politically-oriented activity (including participation in the type of demonstrations seen in Auckland the past few days). This is what distinguishes democratic from authoritarian societies. Yet here too the ideal is not matched by reality even in the most mature of democracies–but it remains an aspirational objective.
Part of the reason societal democracy is less than perfect is due to failures to achieve economic democracy. At an economic level substantive democracy involves a general agreement within society that favours political guarantees for maintaining a minimum standard of living and just compensation for productive labour. It includes acceptance of minimum health and welfare standards for those who are structurally unemployable (i.e., through no fault of their own). The means of achieving economic democracy are much debated, but the fact of its necessity is not.
There is a fair bit of argument about what dimension should come first. Does procedural-institutional democracy precede societal and economic democracy (as liberal theorists claim), or, as Marxists argue, is the process the reverse? Can it be imposed by external actors, and if so, on which dimensions? (I would argue that in most cases it cannot). The degree to which a society has moved towards achieving procedural and substantive democracy helps distinguish between liberal, illiberal, exclusionary, delegative and radical democratic systems. As an example, let us imagine that we can “score” democratic “value” points based on a continuum from least to most (please note that this is my subjective rating for heuristic purposes and does not use Freedom House or Transparency International scores). Generally speaking, arrayed on a scale of 1-10 (1=undemocratic; 10=democratic utopia), countries are considered democratic if they score above 5 on all dimensions (a minimum of 20 points). Moreover, that score is not static or immutable–it varies over time depending on socio-economic, demographic and political conditions. Thus, when I arrived in NZ in 1997 I scored the country as a 8 on a procedural level, 8 on an institutional level, 9 on a societal level and a 7 on an economic level. By 2007 my scores for NZ were 7.5, 7, 8 and 8 ( a net decline of 1.5 democratic “value” points). In contrast, I had the US scored in 1997 as 6, 6, 8 and 7, moving to 5., 5.5, 7.5 and 6 under the reign of George W. Bush. As for the country I am currently living in, the scores are 1.5, 5, 6.5 and 1.
The point is not to argue for the precision of these scores. The point is that democracy is a living, breathing entity, one that reproduces dialectically across the above-mentioned dimensions, and one that is susceptible to decline if it does not reproduce a minimum threshold of democratic “value” across them. In subsequent posts I shall elaborate on the five factors that need to be reconciled for this to occur. These are consent, uncertainty, contingency, entitlements and self-restraint. In the next post I shall address the issue of consent as the foundation of hegemonic rule, and of democracies specifically.
For the moment suffice it to say that I endorse Anita’s insightful remarks about the early political socialisation of children, as that constitutes a precondition for the achievement of societal and institutional democracy.
PS: Please feel free to weigh in. All reasoned views welcome–after all, I have a book project in mind!
One of the right’s responses to the Hikoi yesterday has been to complain about the presence of children on the march which disingenuous comments like “Why are there school children there?”. One could criticise these comments for relying on barely hidden stereotypes about Māori, or for gross hypocrisy given the “family values” movements “family friendly” week day marches, but anyhow … what I actually want to talk about is why it is important that children are politically active.
As a child I attended many demonstrations, protests and marches: some at the suggestion of my parents, some off my own bat. I remember, as a 14 year old, asking my parents to write me a note for school so I could attend a rally at parliament in support of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill; I attended in school uniform with no school friends or family members. I also remember being in Parliament the night it was passed and realising that we had done it – I was a very very small part of that “we”, but I was a part of that “we”. I grew into a politically engaged young adult, and now adult. I know that one can make a difference, I know that my voice matters and that I can make it heard.
That is an amazing thing to know, and that is at the heart of democracy – knowing that our opinions are respected, and that raising our voices is worthwhile.
I hope that, when Key and Hide back down, every child on that march is told “you did that, together we made that difference”, I hope that when they get old enough to vote they will vote in the seats they created, I hope that when they see something wrong in the future they say “I know I can do something about that”.
Raising democratic children is about way more than school, it is about raising children who know they have power and know how to exercise it.
It is nearly impossible to steal emails, because to be stealing you have to take something so that the owner no longer has it (not only blindingly obvious but also in the Crimes Act).
So if we go with the common rumour that Brash’s emails were printed out, and imagine someone with legitimate access to them made copies then it’s not theft, in fact I can’t see how it would even be criminal. Another scenario, someone forwards the emails on to someone else, again not theft, and I can’t see how it’s criminal.
The Nats know this, they know it won’t have been theft and is really unlikely to have even been criminal but they keep saying “stolen emails” over and over. They say it because it’s spin – the exact same kind of spin documented in The Hollow Men – they say it because it smears Nicky Hager and it distracts from what the emails show about their behaviour. That makes sense, that’s politics: dirtier than I’d like it to be but no more dirty that we expect from the Nats.
So the question becomes, why do the media keep repeating that National spin?
Much has been said about the poor reporting of the case of James Mason, who was yesterday found guilty of punching his four year-old in the face, but the thing I can’t figure out isn’t the focus on the ear-flick or whatever, but why anyone thinks it is a s59 test case. From having read the Stuff and Herald stories, I gather the following:
It may be because I haven’t read widely today, but the only other person I’ve seen make this argument is RedLogix at The Standard. Are we missing something here?
Aside from which, let me repeat the sentiment that those who want to burn political capital by defending a man who punches a four year-old in the face in public are more than welcome to do so.
I knew about sow crates, I know about poultry farms, plenty of people always have.
It is inconceivable that any politician has not had every chance to find out about sow crates. Any MP who doesn’t know has avoided knowing, any Minister of Agriculture (past or present) who didn’t know has been completely remiss.
 I have been vegetarian since my early 20s so I have no reason to pay attention to pig farming practices, I have never been involved in the animal rights movement. I have less reason to know about this than the average NZer.