In this world of technological advancements and dissipation of political authority, democratic oversight is more important than ever. And yet, that is precisely where we are failing, writes Tim Dunlop.
We live in a democratic twilight, a period in which the terrible and the wonderful are sometimes indistinguishable from each other.
We live in a kind of utopia where needs are met and senses are delighted and we can do stuff that borders on magic.
We carry around in our pockets devices that allow us not just to talk to each other, but that give us access to vast databases, that let us play games, watch movies, read a book – write a book – or find out what movie is on near us, what restaurants are available, where our friends are and what they are doing, or where the nearest public toilet is.
Materially, we want for nothing, provided we can pay.
Politically, it is another matter.
We carry around in our pockets devices that allow governments and corporations to track us, to know where we are and where we have been, what we have watched, what we have spent our money on, who we have spoken to and for how long, what books, music, food and perversions we like and have sought out.
We allow ourselves to be surveilled like this because the flipside is that having a phone with geolocation and cloud memory and payment facilities and search facilities and a way to talk to and share stuff with friends and family is convenient, useful and exciting.
Big Brother is also Big Santa.
Our apparent disregard for our own privacy and for checks and balances on the power of government and corporations is actually quite rational.
In such a world, though, democratic oversight is more important than ever, and yet, that is precisely where we are failing.
Yes, we live in a sort of utopia, but it is a busted utopia, and it is something that is simultaneously of our own creation and yet infuriatingly beyond our control.
The underlying problem is that political authority has been dissipated. As German commentator Marc Saxer notes:
The increasing complexity and interdependence of the globalized world sharply limit the ability of democratic actors to influence policy making. With institutional decision-making processes constrained by fiscal, legal and ideological barriers, progressive policy making is increasingly replaced by technocratic policy implementation.
We are ruled by creatures who have entered into the conditions of their own irrelevance, who have handed over most of what they do to the so-called “market” but who have, at the same time, reserved for themselves the right to spy on us and police our borders, even as they declare there are no borders.
They have globalised the economy and thus handed the tools for economic management to vast private and semi-private instrumentalities like free-trade agreements and the about-to-be-enacted Trans Pacific Partnership, and in so doing they have neutered themselves at home.
In compensation they inflict themselves on those over whom they still have some control but whose vote they don’t need: the unemployed, those seeking asylum, and other disadvantaged groups.
(Tony Abbott went so far this week as to suggest his new unemployment scheme allowed employers to “have a kind of try before you buy look at unemployed people”, thus reducing the unemployed to the status of used cars.)
We talk a lot about inequality, and the growing prevalence of it in our first world is a genuine problem. But we need to talk more about what causes it.
Wealth doesn’t just get distributed upwards by accident: somewhere along the line, decisions have been made to do that, though by and large, those decisions are hidden from us.
The second budget has corrected that, and it is, of course, deemed a success. Meanwhile, the structural weaknesses remain.
So many social problems – from local unemployment to the trafficking in human beings that drives migration throughout the world – are really just attempts to manage that growing part of the population that is surplus to the requirements of production, and the matter is only going to become more acute.
Robotics and artificial intelligence are on the verge of a singular breakthrough that will disrupt not just repetitive blue-collar jobs, but more creative white collar ones as well.
In and of itself, this might not be a bad thing, but it is happening in a world that, politically, has no idea how to respond.
In one sense, the answer is obvious: as the middle class disappears – because the jobs that support it disappear – the only thing that will allow us to maintain the sort of tranquil civilisation that we think of as normal, is a massive, government mandated redistribution of wealth.
But tell that to the 1 per cent. Not only does their wealth insulate them from the vagaries of the world economy, it allows them to “buy” political influence and thus engineer outcomes that favour them.
Using data drawn from over 1800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the [study concluded] that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of, or even against the will of, the majority of voters.
The bottom line is we are changing the material conditions of how we produce and pay for things, but we are doing it within a political framework that increasingly reflects the interests of elites rather than the rest of us.
Thus the logic of “austerity”: we defund institutions like universal healthcare and public education rather than distribute income away from the wealthy so that we can pay for such services.
And as we defund these institutions, we are being told that they can be knocked over but that the quality of life that they enable will magically continue.
That’s simply not true. Equitable societies are built by nations committed to that goal: they don’t just emerge from the random operation of markets.
So this is the turning point we are approaching.
If we don’t manage this structural transformation, we will no longer live in the land of the fair go, but a place more like that described by economist Tyler Cowen is his book, Average is Over:
Imagine a wealthy billionaire … riding in a limousine, with open windows, through the streets of Calcutta. A lot of beggars will be competing for the attention of that billionaire, and yet probably the billionaire won’t much need the attention of the beggars … [This] is what the contemporary world is like.
So what’s it to be? A society where the majority live on the scraps tossed out the window by a passing billionaire, or an actual democracy?
If you don’t think you get to choose, then the oligarchy is already here.