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Democracy's pre-conditions

And why they are not in place

Pete Hay

The British Scientist, James Lovelock - described by New Scientist as 'one of the great thinkers of our times', tells us that, by the close of the century, the current population of Planet Earth will have been reduced by 80 per cent. This will come about because our rapacity, our greed, our fetish with the raw level of economic throughput - growth - as the indicator by which we assess public wellbeing, has set us on a course to destroy the life-sustaining integrity of our collective home. We have pushed the planet past the points of no return - what the literature calls the 'tipping points'. Already.

Scientists don't say this in public. This is because of a misguided view ('misguided' in my opinion) that to not offer people - and politicians - hope is to deprive them of the necessary motivation to strive, politically, for change. The scientists don't say this in public, but they most emphatically do so, most of them, in private. The tipping points have already been reached. It is too late, now, to halt the melting of the Arctic ice. And this means, feedback loops being what they are, that it is now too late, as well, to halt the thaw of the heat-reflecting Greenland ice sheet. And as this cooling mechanism is lost, the rate of temperature rise will inexorably accelerate still further. CO2 storing-algae that float on the surface of the oceans and are crucial to the production of rainclouds, die. At a 4 degree C average planetary rise (on what already exists) the tropical rainforests - the lungs of the earth - 'melt away to be replaced by scrub and desert'. It is technically possible that such an event might bring on the collapse of the nitrogen cycle and the end of life on earth. Assuming this doesn't happen, we can anticipate a planet from which most oceanic life will have disappeared, and a baking, diminished land surface on most of which any mode of agriculture will not be possible. And for most of the globe, no water.

This is known. It has been known for two decades, even if the new, speeded-up timeframe over which this is happening has taken us by surprise. If you were to sit where I sit, and had to deal with the avalanche of evidence that I confront on a daily basis, you would know it, too - even the most sceptical of you. You would insist that dealing with the consequences that attend this issue ('consequences' because it is already too late for prevention) must become the clear and overwhelming priority of democratic governments everywhere, and that this priority should brook no deflection, not even when assailed by dire economic circumstance.

So. How have democratic governments responded to this, the greatest challenge we have faced since the splitting of the atom at the very least, and probably since the last great meteorite strike (when we still had a great deal of evolving to do and when democratic governments were, accordingly, nowhere in sight!)?

They have not. To deny the reality of human-induced climate-change is now akin to maintaining a belief in a flat earth. Who, these days, is a flat-earther? Some rogue and irresponsible scientists prepared to take the devil's shilling are flat-earthers. Fanatical neo-cons in love with abstruse and arid abstractions of cloud-cuckoo economic theory, and with no grip at all on the real world, are flat-earthers. Unfortunately a self-perpetuating critical mass of them happen to be employed in the Murdoch media empire. And, of course, politicians. Very many politicians, here and elsewhere in the world's democracies. For whom Barnaby Joyce can stand as paradigmatic. (In the Mercury, Peter Boyer, writing on the typical politician's response to the complexities of climate science, writes of the 'political delusion' of leaders who construct themselves as 'realists' on the issue - contra scientists and environmentalists, who are not. This is a very similar observation to my own, albeit somewhat less forgiving.)

Through the 1990s we could have done something about the catastrophe that now impends - something preventative. Instead, our own national government, and the government of the most powerful nation on earth, were dominated by flat-earthers. And 10 crucial years were lost.

Now, I'm not actually here to talk about climate change. What I want to ask is why it is that the world's democracies have proven so inept at dealing with an issue of such import and technical complexity.

We always talk about the wrong thing when we discuss democracy. We are doing it today. We equate democracy with the formal machinery of government, and we think that that is all there is to it. For George W. Bush, on a mission to export 'democracy' to the non-western world, it meant installing political systems in which people get to periodically choose between an oil barrel millionaire and a defence contracts millionaire. This Wallmart-on-the-skirts-of-every-town notion of democracy - this anaemic notion of democracy as electoral contest between two blandly homogenised political organisations offering no greater order of choice than two rival soap powder brands on the supermarket shelf - this is sham democracy. Pre-packaged, substanceless, tinsel democracy.

We've heard very many definitions of democracy this weekend, and it's time I added mine. It is this: democracy exists when there is meaningful - as opposed to merely formal or symbolic - involvement of ordinary people in the shaping of the decisions to which they are thereafter subject, and when the processes that inform their input to those decisions have integrity - are untrammelled and clear of obfuscation and manipulation. In the first instance, then, the test of democracy, lies within the health of civil society - the public realm - rather than the formal institutions of government.

Civil society has, however, abdicated its crucial role across much of its democratic range - I'll come back to this - and has vacated the field to formal structures, though these seem increasingly unable to deal with the difficult and complex problems of the times in which we live.

The problem of democratic structures is essentially one of mismatch between the increasingly technical nature of public decision-making, and the amateur standing of the elected Member. Parliamentarians are teachers, farmers, company directors, lawyers - very many lawyers - often with highly particular professional expertise, often with no particular expertise at all. They are, for the most part, spectacularly ill-equipped to make sense of the technical complexity that the nature of so much decision-making today mandates. Most crucially, almost none of them have a professional background in ecology or other processes that explain how life works, and how it all fits together. Climate change, then, is simply the most dramatic and dismaying example of a more general political pathology.

Now, it can be argued that this is actually not a problem - that the amateur has the capacity to render the technical and the complex simple, and to impose a common sense perspective upon any apparently intractable or convoluted problem. My response to this is to quote the brilliant aphorism of H.L. Mencken, and commend to you its good sense: 'for every complex problem there's a simple solution. And it's wrong.'

The evidence that this is how it is in the political system is abundant, perhaps most compellingly in the extent to which the decisions that most profoundly influence the conditions under which we live our lives are not made in the political arena at all. What most shapes our lives? Investments in new technologies. Do we debate, in the world's legislatures, whether to invest in this technology, or that technology? Almost never, and if we do, only at the edges. We may attempt to regulate the uses to which a technology is put after it becomes a reality, but mostly the first thing we know of a life-changing technology - the personal computer, say, or biotechnologies, or nanotechnologies, or even the good old internal combustion engine - is when they turn up, virtually unannounced, in our lives. One day they are just there, their costs and benefits not having undergone the scrutiny of debate in any democratic forum - and our lives are changed forever.

Why has this happened? Because the very complexity of such decisions renders them not amenable to the democratic discourse, the latter being adapted to less technologically exuberant times - and so it is that this crucial tier of decision-making slips beyond the scope of democratic discourse.

Much of the problem stems from the progressivist ideology of industrial modernism, an ideology within which democracy is located front and centre. The progressivist heritage has it that the world is on an eternal trajectory of positive change - from a given state to a better state. Its key institutions are seen as 'can do' - as problem solving. Formal democratic structures still function within that cocoon of myth. I think they are more problem causing than problem solving - and the crisis of democratic institutions, a crisis that has been much discussed these last three or four decades, stems from the disconnection between institutional faith in the myth of the 'can do' capacities of the formal structures of government, and the fact that large swaths of the population beyond those institutions no longer share the same faith.

The German social theorist, Ulrich Beck, has written tellingly about the failure of institutions to respond effectually to the large scale hazards that originally arrived, with the blessing of science, as problem solving. The disjunction lies in the risk-denying logic of contemporary institutions, which remain imprisoned within their nineteenth century problem-solving ideologies. Each hazard, as it manifests, is absorbed within a self-serving belief that 'lessons have been learned' and, therefore, the institutions of regulation and management are back in control. Beck has labelled this 'organised irresponsibility' - risk denial. But the people know - or at least they feel - that the risks are not under control. And so we get a crisis of trust - we no longer trust the regulators, we no longer trust the science, and we no longer trust the institutions of liberal democracy which, having ceded all technical authority to technologists, have abnegated responsibility for the most important realm of decision-making - setting the priorities for science and technological research and the subsequent deployment of technologies in the real world. We are left with what Beck calls a 'truncated democracy', one in which 'questions of technological change remain beyond the reach of political decision-making' - and one in which there is declining public faith.

Politicians respond to their own well-recognised irrelevance in several interconnected ways.

One of these ego-maintenance strategies is - in defiance of the good sense of Mencken's aphorism - to strive to at least look (and, presumably, thereby feel) like a leader. The pose one adopts is sure, emphatic, confident - an air of 'in command'. It is entirely fraudulent. Down with such false and dangerous 'leaders', say I. I want politicians to acknowledge the unbearable complexity of the age - and of its management. I want politicians who do not say 'this is how it is, and here I stand, and nothing will make me budge', but who willingly confess to the difficulty of the policy struggle - along the lines, say, of: 'this is a complex and intractable problem, and I'm still grappling with the evidence, still trying to extract appropriate meanings from it, still weighing the many contrary arguments'. Or: 'last year I believed x to be the case, but in light of new evidence I now think y to be, on balance, the preferable position'. For this to happen the media have to stop portraying open-mindedness - responsible thoughtfulness and radical, tough-minded doubt - as inconsistency, or 'flip-flopping'. I hereby pledge never again to vote for a politician who is unfailingly consistent; who never shifts as the evidence shifts for fear of appearing weak or vacillating.

A second responsibility-avoidance stratagem is to retreat into science. I've worked in the corridors of power and I've seen how all-pervasive the escape into science is. A typical formulation might be: 'don't get emotional, you'll do your case no good - I'm only interested in the science' (I repeatedly observed a certain ex-Premier dispense variations on this). There are two problems here. The first is that the overwhelming majority of the work that the brain does is emotion-processing, not reasoning. To react emotionally to any given circumstance is normal - and legitmate. It is the primary and immediate mode of reaction - it is everyone's primary reaction, including those who claim to be basing their position on science or dispassionate reason - to any situation calling for judgement. We are, in other words, primarily, essentially, emotional beings.

This is why the politics of local place are so potent. If there is a threat to one's country - and, hence to one's security of home - posed by aggression from beyond the boundaries of one's nation, governments mobilise in defence. That is universally conceded as legitimate. And so it is. But if a community says - to a company, say, or to its own government - that 'your plans to log that mountain', or 'your plans to build a canal development in that bay' constitute an aggressive threat to the security of my home, by logical extension the same obligation applies: the people whose integrity of home is threatened are entitled to mobilise in its defence. And should it be a government that is the agent of that threat, then that government is behaving tyrannously, and illegitimately - because its legitimate function is to defend the rights of its people to security of home. 'Security of home' - a phrase of explosive portent that is not to be confused with 'house' - trumps the place-obliterating claims of development capital and government every time.

That's the first problem with the default 'trust in science not emotions' position into which politicians dive when things get tough. And the second is this: there is no single entity called 'science'.

Science is hydra-headed. It splits into rival paradigms. Whenever someone invokes the authority of science - and, yes, this is so even for climate science - what we have to ask is: 'whose science is this?' What politicians do is select a convenient science 'off the shelf' - the one that suits their pre-ordained political purposes - and then claim its authority as irrefutable.

Thus the Premier dismisses the ANU study by McKay and his team on the carbon-storage capacity of old-growth forests as 'bullshit'. Oh, yes? He has read it, and independently assessed the science behind its central claims? Familiarised himself with the surrounding, highly technical discourse? Of course not. He's summoned for a briefing the scientists who will tell him what he wants to hear- most likely from Forestry Tasmania (though I can't assert this definitively, of course), scientists who work within an extremely loaded paradigm - and they have told him it's bullshit. Just what the doctor ordered! Thanks to the political gods for the convenience of pre-packaged, pre-massaged science! And never mind that, as Stanley Robert told us in one of his Mercury Science Watch column back in September 2007, in virtually all other relevant scientific paradigms there is broad agreement that 'clearfelling of forest should stop because this releases the large soil reserve carbon to the atmosphere'. Thirdly, politicians abdicate responsibility for coping with the complexities of decision-making by acting as brokers between rival interests and seeking a sufficing outcome - rather than forensically assessing the validity of rival claims, in which case a win-lose outcome, one that might actually be more appropriate, could eventuate.

What the politician says is: 'You want this policy outcome. You over there want that. And you lot want this. Let's sit down, roll up our sleeves, and see what you're willing to trade away in exchange for getting something else.' That's all very fine and reasonable, except that we live in embattled times that demand a readiness to make decisions that are not merely interests-placating and incremental - that involve a capacity to escape from old policy paradigms and the interest group pressures and blandishments, and to imagine - and to imagine very differently.

And finally - and this is almost the converse of abdicating-responsibility-for-decisions #3 - the stratagem can be adopted, if one's constituency is not particularly diverse, or if it contains a single dominant interest, of constituting one's role as a representative very literally indeed, and acting in public life as an unashamed agent for that dominant interest. Now, I have more sympathy for this position. As a 'strong democrat' I hold in-principle approbation for the idea of representation as umbilical faithfulness to the views of those who have sent the representative into public life. Indeed, in the circumstances that conduce to this conception of one's political role, it is likely to be an act of political suicide to behave in any other fashion. In 'normal', placid times, this would accord with my own position, then. But the signature crises of the times - of democratic confidence, of faith in the problem-solving capacities of science, of the running down of the planet's vital life-support systems (of which climate change is only the most immediate and portentous manifestation) - would seem to add renewed legitimacy to the mode of political being that has historically been associated with the father of English conservatism, Edmund Burke - a 'without fear or favour' approach to the making of policy decisions; a stance of 'owing nought to any favoured person or group but only to the unmediated truth as the representative assesses it, having listened impartially to all shades of informed debate'.

So much for the formal machinery of democratic government. But I've already said that the true testing ground of democracy is to be found in the condition of civil society - what the literature calls the 'public realm'. Democracy demands an engaged and activist public realm. And we don't have it. The forums of public democratic discourse are for the most part moribund.

Democracy does not exist simply when elected representatives act in accordance with public opinion. What matters is how public opinion is formed in the first place. If it is constructed via manipulated or incomplete information, or prejudice, or plausible-sounding cliché, it is not democratically legitimate. Democracy is, above all else, a discursive practice. The trouble is that, in these technologically complex times, the vector of technological change is essentially a privatising one - whilst the practice of democracy is inherently social.

That is why, as a democrat, I am not a liberal. Nevertheless, my guide and mentor in all this is a liberal, the great nineteenth century English liberal, John Stuart Mill, for whom active participation in the public realm was crucial for the practical, social and moral development of the individual. Such activity induces moral self-development in individuals because it serves the public interest rather than an exclusionary self-interest, and because one thereby learns to be other-regarding, unprejudicial, civil, fair, decent, and empathetic. Mill would have rejected the extreme form of liberalism which, for some inexplicable reason, we have come to call neo-conservatism, in which the basic unit of democratic life, the reasoning, discursive, amenable, autonomous citizen, morphs into the basic unit of the market, the impulse-driven, private, selfish, appetite-enslaved consumer.

I've come here with a problem. I don't pretend to have an answer - if I did I'd probably be famous and somewhere else. I think I know what is wrong, but I do not pretend to know how to put matters to rights. What are the preconditions for democracy that are not in place? A vibrant public realm of citizens - in contrast to the hedonistic private realm of consumers that prevails. And a broad democratic competence and confidence in the assessment of scientific and technological options - in contrast to the floundering, incompetent, formal structure of national and sub-national democratic representation that prevails, and that has lost out to the globally-scoped power of capital (something I haven't even talked about!) and to the technological complexity of contemporary public policy.

Can these pathologies be fixed? I don't know - though I hope so. Is democracy intrinsically suited for the less complex times in which it evolved but no longer adequate for today's needs? It may be so - I hope not, and I believe not. Is there hope? There's always hope, but I'm not the person to advise you where to look for it. I might not know how to bring it about, but I think I know what is needed. We need to take democratic control of technological change. And we need engaged, activist citizens, not mindless, market-cypher-reactive consumers.

I thank you.


Dr Pete Hay is a native Tasmanian who returned home in 1985 and now teaches in the School of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania. This is the text of his address at the Festival of Ideas: Dialogue on Democracy! in Launceston on 14-15 November 2008.


Suggested citation

Hay, Pete, 'Democracy's pre-conditions', Evatt Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, March 2009.<>


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