Posts Tagged ‘Add new tag’

Deconstructing Democracy, Part 3: Uncertainty.

datePosted on 20:42, June 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

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.

Deconstructing Democracy: Introduction.

datePosted on 19:38, May 26th, 2009 by Pablo

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!

A May Day Reminder.

datePosted on 20:31, May 1st, 2009 by Pablo

For workers around the world, May Day is not just a statutory holiday. It represents over a century of hard won rights, rights that in most cases were won in the face of considerable structural and political odds. It is also a reminder that without vigilance, solidarity and organisation, those rights can be lost in the blink of a legislative (if “democratic”)  or blinkered dictatorial eye.  New Zealand is an exemplary case in point, with the legacy of the Chilean-dictatorship inspired Employment Contracts Act still strongly felt in the labour market (and likely to be felt even more so if the National government is able to undertake its proposed reforms of current employment law).

Less people think I am exaggerating about the Chilean connection to the 1991 ECA, let it be noted that its inspiration was the 1979 Plan Laboral (Labour Plan) imposed by executive fiat on Chileans by the Pincohet regime. The author of the Plan, Jose “Pepe” Pineda, was a frequent guest of Roger Douglas and the Business Roundtable in the 1980s and 1990s, and his framework for acheiving what is known as “enforced” or “atomizing” pluralism in the labour market is the essence of the ECA (and one that was not completely undone by the 1999 Employment Relations Act). Atomizing pluralism is the forced decentralization of collective bargaining at the lowest productive levels. It mandates a mix of individual and collective contracts and the multiplication of bargaining agents on the shop floor. The stated intent is to achieve “labour market flexibility,” but the real intent is to destroy the union movement as an effective economic and political agent of the working classes by forcibly dividing worker representation. This has been achieved in New Zealand.

In a book co-authored with Kate Nicholls titled “Labour Markets in Small Open Democracies” (Palgrave MacMillan 2003) I compared labour movement responses to the double impact of globalization of production and market-oriented reforms (including labour market reform) in Australia, Chile, Ireland, New Zealand and Uruguay after 1990. We paired the cases based upon their similar location on the global production chain (Australia and Chile, New Zealand and Uruguay, with Ireland as an extra-regional outlier that served as a quasi-control variable). Among other things we found that the single most important factor that allowed the labour movement to resist attempts to reduce or break its collective power in the face of the dual threat posed by market globalization and neo-liberal inspired macroeconomic reform was ideological unity and independence from working class based political parties.

Let me rephrase that: ideological unity and independence  are the key to labour movement success in a market-driven age. Thus, Australian and Uruguayan unions, rooted in a strong blue collar ethos, ideologically unified and independent from Leftist parties, retained a considerable capacity to thwart the most noxious of labour market reform prescriptions such as enforced shopfloor pluralism. Conversely, Chilean and Kiwi unions, subordinate to the interests of Left parties and ideologically divided amongst themselves, were powerless to stop market-driven reforms, especially when those reforms were pushed by Left-centre governments they helped elect and in which former union bureaucrats held official positions. Successful betrayal of working class principles in favour of pro-capitalist reforms by the political Left in power was due, more than anything else, to the subordinate status of the union movement relative to the political Left. The political ambitions of professional politicians and union bureaucrats took precedence over the material interests of the rank and file, and the result was a relative decline in union fortunes.

There is more to the story, to include the impact of a working class debt culture and the role of popular diversions in eroding working class solidarity. But  the cautionary tale on this day is that workers need to remember that their political representatives on the Left should work for them, rather than the other way around. Contrary to Leninist principles of party vanguardism where the Party dominates the union movement, the union movement needs to control the Party if it is to be a genuine agent of working class interests. In this age of globalization in which the class “enemy” is diversified, flexible and fluid, social movement unionism and labour internationalism needs to be coupled with a reassertion of grassroots representation in union leaderships, which  in turn must lead to a reassertion of union authority within Left political parties. The stakes are simply too high for workers to allow union apparatchiks and party bosses to determine their fortunes for them.

UNITE is an example of such a new union. The NDU is known to retain a sense of responsibility to the rank and file, Beyond that, the New Zealand labour movement obeys the iron law of oligarchy, whereby the first duty of the organisation is to preserve itself, which means in practice that the interests of the agents rather than the principles is what comes first.

On this May Day, confronted by a Centre Right government after 8 years of sold-out Labour rule, it may be a time for the intellectual Left as well as workers to reflect on these issues in order to effectively confront (if not reverse) the adverse tide into which they have been headed for nearly twenty years. Or as Lenin put it: “What is to be Done?”

PS: I have previously made comments along these lines in the comment thread on Anita’s earlier post titled “Worker Organized Resistance.” For those who have read it my apologies for the overlap.