Platitudes and Platypuses : Are you getting the government you deserve?

Apologies in advance to my friend Hardly for tacking off his rebuttal to my post last week but I have spent the last week fascinated with the idea of getting the government I deserve.

I would not be writing the following words if not for George Orwell.

As intellectual hero’s go, I have few, but Orwell (along with John Ralston Saul) is one of them. Also it would be no short statement to say that his influence on my political thinking has been very profound*.

I read 1984 at the tender age of 12 and it was the first clearly political thing I had ever read and after that there was no turning back. I sought out more of his books to read along with anything else that seemed to be similar. Today I am proud to say that I have the complete set of his works, as printed by Penguin, and not a year goes by that I don’t re-read one of his books or loose myself in his essays, letters or poems.

I sometimes also ruminate on some of the similarities of our lives as while I had many reasons to live and work in Asia as long as I did, one of them was knowing that Orwell had spent five years in Burma or that his naturally contrarian and polemic positions was as much a product of his circumstances as who he was (much the same as myself).

But what I really love about Orwell is the way you can see his mind at work in his writing, it’s not just his thoughts on the page but his thought processes, his arguments, making their way towards their inevitable conclusions and the often ugly truth which they reveal.

In his stream of consciousness writing (mostly his essays but also in Homage to Catalonia, Road to Wigan Pier, Burmese Days, Down and Out in London and Paris and even 1984 (for its description of the bureaucratic life in all its dull glory) I have found much in common with the Gonzo works of Hunter S Thompson (via the placing of the writer in the story themselves and making them a central part), another writer I greatly admire.

But if there is anything I have learnt from reading his works it’s to have your own thoughts and opinions, to not just accept whatever is placed in front of you and to not be afraid to say what is needed to be said.

A good example of this is his essay The Lion and the Unicorn, written while German bombs were still falling on London and the outcome of the war was still in doubt, it traces his argument for democratic socialism as the change required for England to win the war.

In it he pulls no punches in analyzing the reasons for the precarious state of pre-war England (the failure of the ruling class and capitalism to see the threat of a re-arming Germany), the strengths and weaknesses of Hitler’s Germany, criticism of the Left, the quirks of English nationalism and its intellectual character, the hypocrisy of empire mixed with the stated knowledge that while the British Empire was no saint any Nazi empire would be far worse.

He could have written just another polemic denouncing Nazism and supporting the government (buy more bonds!) as was common at the time but instead he attacked both sides as well as acknowledged their various strengths and weaknesses before finally offering a third solution entirely.

And it’s the clear understanding of the situation mixed with the unflinching analysis of what was needed that makes his argument so compelling, personal and so readable. Even now, in the age of drone warfare, no privacy and neo-liberal governments it’s easy to understand his hopes and fears about the situation (worries about Germany winning and the failures of capitalism and empire) and trace his logic throughout to the essays end which unlike so many other works from that period paints a clear and real picture by being so open to admit the failures of his own side and the strengths of the other.

But in the end it’s his critique of empire and capitalism and the fact that he saw them not as simple constructs but also vested with the character of their respective cultures that could give them various virtues and traits that makes his essay work. He was not seeking to defend them (as he was arguing for democratic socialism) but for the need to have a realistic view of the situation as it was then and to not be blinded by sheer ideology or dogma in the face of a mortal threat.

So how does my short hagiography of Orwell relate to the title of this post?

Simple, Orwell did not like twisting words to suit circumstances and his rules for writing were to use simple clear language to present the truth (no matter how upsetting)  but with a rather gentlemanly escape clause to prevent it being presented barbarously (something which I can sometimes forget in my own poisonous screeds).

And the platitude that people get the governments they deserve is something I don’t agree with and I believe neither would Orwell.

But I am not going to be citing Orwell as my defense for the rest of this post, I will be making my own arguments and presenting them as I can.

Firstly such a saying is a platitude, it’s not a definitive or historical statement although it may work as a retroactive tool in examining the outcome of a term of government but as a warning, wisdom or sheer statement its powerless as well as having the cruel and bitter tone of a sore loser rather than offering any holistic wisdom (sorry Hardly, its not directed at you per se, it just came out that way :).

Also most people don’t know the difference between a platitude and a platypus and so believe these little crud nuggets as accepted fact without examining things any further (another side effect of living in the age of the media soundbite as expected wisdom).

But returning to the point, getting the governments we deserve: did the German people get what they deserved when they elected Hitler? Is New Zealand getting what it “deserves” in having elected John Key? Or what about Trump/Clinton, will the US be getting what its just deserts in electing either one of them?

The answer to all three is, No!

We can differentiate between saying that it’s clear that one system or candidate appears better than another or that retrospectively a choice was not the best but these are not the same as saying that a people, any people, deserved what their votes got them.

In saying that someone deserved something there is a moral judgement and while we can all have a morals, democratic politics is morally neutral.

Democratic states don’t exist or operate on morals (the people in them have morals); they operate on the rule of law and a series of underlying principles which if not allowed to exist will rapidly make a state anything but democratic. So if you happen to live in a state with morals underlining your government you’re living in a theocracy or some other nation where church and state reside in the same house (in essence God as absolute monarch and an oligarchy of priests running things on Gods behalf)**.

Now I won’t be going all POLS 101 here but I will briefly highlight some key points for readers just so things are clear about what is needed for a state to be democratic.

For a state to be democratic it must be brought to life through the will of the people; the peoples will must be expressed freely and fairly; there must be sufficient political participation to make a majority and ensure proper participation, fundamental rights must be respected, there must be trust in the government elected and the means to remove it if they lose that trust.

Readers may have noticed I did not specifically mention elections (also known as 30 minutes once every three years before going back to sleep) which while a great means of enacting many of the above principles not much if the choices of who to vote for are not really free, not everyone is voting or governments once elected can behave any way they want without censure or removal.

There are many nations around the world which call themselves a democracy but that does not make them so. Simply saying it’s the will of the people when the mechanisms of the election itself are flawed will not make those flaws go away. Does one vote every three years, for a limited pool of candidates really makes the outcome the “will of the people”? I don’t think so.

But I can see that you’re not all convinced and to help explain further, it is worth diving a little deeper into the ways people view their government and their relationship with it.

Without realizing it most people view their state (democratic or otherwise) through either one of two basic lenses.

You are either a Hobbesian in your views in that the state protects you against the ravages and depredation of others states and a brutish nature and that your social contract with it is binding regardless of what kind of government you get OR you are Lockean in nature and believe that democratic states only operate with the consent of the governed and that consent can be removed at any time, forcibly if need be.

Of course I am simplifying things quite a bit here (as I have a word limit) but this is the essence of the two positions. It’s also worth pointing out that I see benefits in both arguments but at the end of the day I come down on the side of John Locke rather than Thomas Hobbes.

If you believe that people get the governments they deserve then your most likely going to groove to what Hobbes had to say in Leviathan (and I do recommend reading it as once you get past the old time English his arguments are persuasive and readable) and it’s easy to understand how such a view, in the wake of the English Civil War (stability at any price rather than chaos), might make sense but since Hobbes believed in, and was arguing for only an absolute monarchy, you may wish to temper any ideas of who deserves what government they get with the idea of life in an absolute monarchy and you not being the absolute monarch.

If you believe that people should have a better government than the one they currently have then you will dig Locke and his Two Treatises of Government. It might just be your bag but be aware that just as Hobbes was writing in response to the chaos of civil war and to defend strong government Locke was writing to help justify removing government, by revolution if necessary! So if you like the government you have but a lot of other people do not then don’t expect them to agree with your political views or sit idly by.

Neither of these two positions, if taken to extreme, really work, but they provide the foundation of much of the ideas of the social contract and of what kind of government we expect to get.

And it’s the social contract that we turn to next because the next question is, can one vote (30 minutes every three years) be necessary and sufficient for a government to represent an entire country, electorate and all actions taken in its course.

The answer is no. Obviously the necessary works but the sufficient does not and this is where the other factors come into play.

For most of us, we get out once every three years and vote, have a big yawn and then we go back to sleep politically and forget what we were actually voting about until the next media frenzy three years later.

The idea that we voted and so the will of the people has been expressed is now good for the next electoral period is a pernicious idea and one that many in power would like us to believe. But where do we draw the line, democracy can either be direct (you have input in all decisions in government) or representative (you elect someone to represent you in government) and in the modern age who would have the time or the knowledge to participate let alone be informed as to what they were participating in?

So until we get the electronic democracy that was discussed last week we are stuck with electing people to represent us. But where is the balance between voting once every three years and then leaving the government free to do what it wants until the next election and having to give consent on each and every issue a government faces?

And this is where Orwell gets back into the argument with his articulation in The Lion and the Unicorn that the debate is not necessarily binary in position and that there may be a third option for us to consider; that of a flexible and realistic response to the situation rather than a punitive platitude in lieu of open debate or partisan politics.

And what would such a response be? What info would we give to the people of Germany, NZ and the US (the past, our present and future) in response to the question posed?

For Germany, the answer is retrospective, we can’t change time but looking back it’s easy to see where things were going but again like Locke and Hobbes the mood at the time was not as we live in now.

Germany (well 34% of them) welcomed Hitler in the wake of weak and failing government, the treaty of Versailles and things like the Great Depression. Hitler did not magically spring into being but was enacted through the democratic system and a genuine desire for change by people living in unhappy times. This does not excuse the actions taken by the brown-shirts in the street battles leading up to the election (or Hitlers own after) where political opponents were intimidated, beaten and later sent off to a concentration camp.

They hoped for something better but it took a world war and a smashed state to remove the consequence of that decision. Did they deserve that outcome based on one vote? No they did not. If anything Hitlers rise to power remains a warning about those who would seek to remove barriers to absolute power and the mechanisms of democracy. Of course there are some deep sociological questions about states in the thrall of a dictator and such but that’s for another post.

In New Zealand, as the housing hernia continues to grow and National continue to run a bargain basement government headed by a predatory merchant banker and his grubby cabal of sleazy criminals, are we getting the government we deserve, weather we voted for them (37% at the last election) or not?

No! We deserve better, we deserve a government that does not pander to just one section of the electorate at the expense of the other but neither should we simply be penalizing one section of the electorate for being worried about the market rupturing and being left with a house worth less than their mortgage when the crash comes. We deserve a government which represents us all and will get the hernia operation before we blow an O-ring in public. We deserve a government which is not selling out the populace and where ideas of eradicating poverty (better wages and fairer tax laws) and housing for all are not pie in the sky arguments.

Will the US deserve Trump as president, or Clinton as president simply to prevent Trump from being president? Is the outcome of either, if they turn out to be a bad president, able to be blamed on the electorate, the “people”, when only half of those eligible to vote, do vote; where the system locks out third parties and their differing viewpoints despite substantial support bases and both candidates are bastions of fear and loathing among many voters? Do those that vote, no matter what side, deserve what they are likely to get?

The answer again is, and chant it with me, no! Who knows what either of these two water heads will unleash on the US and the rest of the world as leader of it. Neither have the confidence of the people and neither represent a majority in a country where 50% of the populace does not vote and politics for politics sake is the order of the day. The US deserves a better president, one that generates hope and trust not fear and loathing.

The key to all of these situations is you, the voter. You don’t deserve a bad government no matter who you vote for because no one votes for a bad government. Your vote, when you cast it, is made with the best of intentions, no matter which party you support. Yes I might question your views, and yes your party might have a political pedigree of a man sized liver fluke (X-files reference!) but you did not cast that vote in the aim of seeing your country come out worse than before, you cast it in the hope of something better.

Does this absolve you from making questionable vote choices? No it does not. Caveat Emptor is the watch word at all times but that maxim cuts both ways and never forget that. Don’t just react like a pinball and careen around the partisan bumpers of political parties hoping to not go down the hole. Aim up the table for the high score and extra ball which keep you in the game just that little bit longer.

Also its not just enough to vote once a term and return to your slumbers.

If you live in a real democracy***, not one just in name but one that has all the things which make it real then fight to keep it that way.

If you live in one of those fake democracies, you know which ones I am talking about, then do more than just legitimate the status quo every three, four or five years by voting and then switching off. Be part of the political process in any way shape or form more than just voting (you could post on political blog for example) because if you do nothing but vote you will more than likely get something you won’t like no matter what you hoped/wished for when you voted.

You deserve better than the government you get.


*something which regular readers may have noticed given one small clue which I regularly give away.

** the current market state with obedience to the invisible hand of the market and economists deciding things is a lot closer to a theocracy than a democratic state.

***I would love to apply this argument to people not living in democracies but their situation is a lot harder to correct. Also you can decide if you live in a real democracy or not.

7 thoughts on “Platitudes and Platypuses : Are you getting the government you deserve?

  1. “Hitlers rise to power remains a warning about those who would seek to remove barriers to absolute power and the mechanisms of democracy.” Indeed, but aren’t things around that more nuanced than you seem to be suggesting?

    Hitler’s accession to total control of state power was authorised by Hindenburg, the head of state. Hitler’s luck in this rode on the latter’s ill-health & looming death by natural causes. Nonetheless the sequence of steps undertaken by both men to achieve the result documents the legality of Hitler’s coup. When you study it you can see that Hitler was at all times ensuring he had a mandate conferred by the German system of democracy and its state structure. You can do that here:

    So your thesis that people deserve better than what democracy gives them, while obtaining my agreement on the basis of emotional intelligence & a spiritual perspective, seems to have no real basis in democratic theory and practice.

    And while I agree our current government often seems a tad sleazy, describing them as criminal is clearly an abuse of that term. A criminal is someone who commits a crime, is charged with it, and convicted.

    There is something about leftism as a political stance that seems to make people delusional rather than realistic. I hope you don’t allowing that contagion to infect your psyche. It may not just cloud your view of politics. If it takes root, it can also cause bad mental health!

  2. Dennis:

    I am simplifying things by in describing Hitlers rise to power as I have but I try to stay under my self imposed 2500 word limit and where I can use shorthand on something I do, Hitlers rise would be a good case in point.

    As for National party members, post past and present, I find their behavior to have gone past sleazy a while back. Yes I do find that the nasty adjective just flow from my fingers when describing them but as I detailed in my post about the party there is a lot about them which is so very criminal about what some of them have done. I don’t think they needed to get charged and convicted for that label to be applied.

    Between the Hollow Men and Dirty Politics, the various behaviors of Collins and Brownlee, as well of the others who have actually been charged and convicted its closer to a criminal than sleazy.

    I am not saying that people deserve better than what democracy gives them I am saying people deserve better full stop when it comes to their governments or leaders behaving badly. Be that democracy or otherwise, its just that democracy makes the social contract explicitly given and therefore easier to revoke.

    As for the rest of your question about my post I am not sure what you are saying, you will need to elaborate a bit. I’m certainly not making an appeal to emotional intelligence or spiritual perspective in my post.

    As I said I am Lockean in nature and believe that consent to govern is only ever temporary and can be withdrawn if governments fail or go bad. I dont subscribe to the idea of people getting what they deserve if a government goes bad is correct as people don’t vote for governments on the expectation that they will go bad.

    As for my bad mental health, I lost my good mental health years ago, when I had kids! LOL.

    But if your interested in critiques of Leftism I always found Ted Kazinski’s to be rather direct if somewhat flawed but none the less an interesting critique of Leftism as its stands.

  3. I think people do get the Govt they deserve e.g. the UK,US and NZ. However they get it predicated on years of being subjected to the erosion of democratic principles by politicians of all stripes and a culture of anti-intellectualism, denial of science and a dumbing down of people to worship celebrities.
    When it comes to models of govt my go-to author is Dickens, specifically Chapter X of Little Dorrit. In this chapter Dickens sets out the Whole Science of Government. This is not a legal or academic view but a sociological one drawn from the people around him, seen with twenty twenty vision. A master of satire his words in the 1850’s resonate today. His judgments of politicians have changed little over the last a hundred and fifty or so years. Reading about the whole science of Govt, the Circumlocution Office and the Barnacle family is a reminder of the ridiculousness of politics and politicians and their danger to the people they are allegedly serving.
    Dickens dwells at length on politicians’ desire to find HOW NOT TO DO IT, in regard to necessary change and reform. Our current Govt have mastered this art – how not to build houses, how not to take industry to the regions, how not to stop building roads by giving them pretentious titles while bagging the poor with gusto and ill concealed contempt.
    I love Dickens! As a commenter on the social contract today it is our fiction writers, satirists, cartoonists and comedians who might save us or at least give us a reprieve from the politicians’art. Just sayin’.

  4. Barbra: On the erosion of democratic principles I think we would both agree. When you dont have much of them you get bad governments.

    Also, nice take on Dickens. I have never read much of him but might have a look in after this. I only ever remember reading him in high school and at the time just could not get into him, maybe time for a revisit.

  5. E.A. Not everyone reads or likes fiction. Dickens’ labyrinthine plots are not everyone’s cup of tea. Just Google Charles Dickens’ life and you will find the measure of the man!

  6. I do believe this is your best post to date and I have to admit you’ve genuinely swayed me.

    I still believe voters are culpable in the outcomes of elections but I think you put forward an excellent argument that voters deserve a better way of engaging.

    I don’t think the national party are criminal. I don’t even think Trump is criminal, although he is pushing it today with his veiled assassination comments. If anything, I think the national party have been slow-footed and apathetic. I’m not sure which base they are working for except perhaps the baby-boomer base. Even the boomers will be disappointed when the hernia ruptures and they realise the prosperity they have been sold is a mirage.

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been an internal rebellion within the party. It feels like a hostage situation where they are reliant on Key to maintain their hold on power, but all the while his poll centred politics robs them of the opportunity to use that power to further their ends.

  7. Hardly:

    Thanks for the praise, specially from someone with who we rarely share the same opinion about.

    Something which has been interesting me a lot lately, and while its not just limited to Trump, his behavior has highlighted it like no one else has, and that’s the politics or irrationality.

    Its why NZ cant seem to wake up to whats coming with the hernia or why Trump, and his supporters, are immune to arguments against them, its in part a reaction to the partisan nature of the situation but also in part a reaction to PC dogma going to far (certainly in the US case) and is something I will be exploring in future posts.

    The reality with National and Key is that they need him more than they might want to remove him. Its something I have mentioned many times on this blog and they know if he goes they are dead in the water so he continues to front the party while they enact their agenda to make NZ a safe haven for the wealthy.

    Removing Key without someone just as good is a guaranteed return to their terrible polling in the early 2000s and possible electoral irrelevance. Most know that they are on to a good thing so they keep the knives hidden, with the exception of Judith Collins who would probably try to roll key no matter what if she could.

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