Antiquities have been the news in recent weeks. After being closed since the US-led Invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad re-opened, having recovered up to one third of the 15,000 or so priceless artefacts that were looted in the days and weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Further north, pictures emerged of members of ISIS using sledgehammers to destroy a different set of priceless artefacts in the equivalent museum in Mosul. That these events occurred within days of each other is co-incidental, but they remind us that Iraq is still caught in the “1 step forward, 2 steps back” loop that characterises so much of its recent history.
For the purposes of this article, it is worth noting that prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein, both these facilities were open, well-funded, protected by State security forces and under no threat of looting or destruction.
Unfortunately, museums weren’t a priority in the ensuing US invasion, and the preservation of their history was added to the long list of sacrifices Iraqis had to make for the gift of western-style democracy.
Iraq is not the only example of where enforced democracy has gone spectacularly wrong. In 2013, UK, French and American armed forces put an end to the regime of Muammar Gaddaffi in Libya, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to celebrate. Within 2 years, ISIS showed up there too, beheading Christians on a beach looking out across the sea to southern Italy.
Egyptians too have experienced the reality of political freedom for which they were not ready. After forcing the resignation of their perennial President, Hosni Mubarark, they decided to plunge themselves into a civil war, as one leader after another came and went without being able to turn Egypt in Surrey overnight.
Meanwhile in Syria, where the current regime as so far managed to resist a popular uprising, the expansion is ISIS is meeting its most stubborn resistance.
For many in the Middle East and North Africa, democracy has been like a dose of chemotherapy to treat a common cold. The regimes under which they lived all their lives were brutal and repressive, but the vacuums exposed by the removal of those regimes are being filled with extremism, not the rubrics of sophisticated self-governance that we are accustomed to in the west.
Many commentators warned of this outcome before the West began its project of benevolence in the ancient world, but such arguments wilted before the certainty that democracy was always the least-worst option, because it devolved power to the people, who must surely know best how to manage their affairs. The fact that the people in these places had no experience of democratic responsibility didn’t seem to matter.
Indeed, extending this critique of western democracy to western nations themselves exposes an ever decreasing certainty that self-governance has lived up to the promise heralded by the defeat of Europe’s 20th century dictators. In fact, it could be argued that our blind faith in democracy has more to do with the sacrifices of the past rather than objective analysis of its merits and demerits.
In 2 years time, US voters will go to the polls to elect a new President. Candidates on either side or the Democratic/Republican divide have already declared their interest. The most notable Republican candidate to is Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush, and brother of former President George W. Bush. The most notable Democratic candidate is Hilary Clinton, wife of 2 time President Bill Clinton.
If democracy is supposed to be “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, it seems preposterous that in a country of 270m people, the possibility exists that 5 of the last 7 Presidents will come from just 2 families. Political lineage this tight would put a 16th century European monarchy to shame.
The rise of political elites is not the only issue with democracy in its current form. One hundred years ago, in advance of the rising tide of democracy around the world, income inequality was greater than it is today. As the decades passed, and people became more accustomed to self-government, income inequality began to narrow. Democracy seemed to be making a difference. However, since the 1980s, the gap has begun to widen again, and will probably soon reach the same level as 100 years ago.
The cause of this is public debt, which has grown like a toxic plume on political waters that democracy promised would be clean and pure. Politicians, ever-eager to convince voters that they can best manage their affairs, indebt their nations to stay in power, using the funds to keep people happy rather than grow their economies. The result is that the lenders (the wealthy) see a greater rate of return on their lending than the rate of growth in economies to which they lend, which expands their wealth over and above that of the average citizen.
Thomas Pickety has expanded on this is his now famous “r > g” formula, which dictates the rich will continue to get richer for as long as the average Joe Soap is allowed to borrow money from them, but instead of focusing on the mechanisms that permit this (namely sovereign debt), Pickety’s acolytes instead suggest some grand conspiracy in which a cabal of politicians and bankers plot the demise of civilisation.
Wealth and money are problems enough with self-governance, but these pale in comparison to even more complex problems like how we ensure our planet is habitable in a couple of hundred years . Its true that previous generations had to deal with very big problems (eg world wars) but ours is the first generation which has had to deal with a pan-national problem on which a clock is ticking.
Thus far, the democracies of western Europe have made inverse progress on dealing with Climate Change (emissions are still rising), because telling people that they have to use less, or more expensive, energy simply doesn’t fit with day to day requirements of electoral politics. Conversely, the country that is making the most progress in reducing emissions and planning for a post-carbon world is China, where there has never, ever been a contested election.
If your starting point is that the people who want power the most are the people you least want to wield it, democracy as a system of government is fatally flawed. Politics in the 21st century is an exercise in media management, which means that the politicians with the most money are those most likely to succeed. To go back to Jeb Bush, the media in US is currently more concerned with how much money he is raising rather than how he is proposing to govern the country.
It might be interesting to compare the process of electing governments to the process of deciding whether an accused person is innocent or guilty of a crime. In a jury trial, jury participants are carefully screened to confirm that they are not known to or involved in the life of the accused or the victim, to ensure that the decisions of the jury are totally impartial and based on evidence alone.
If we allowed the same rules to apply to jury selection as we do to Government, we’d have juries populated by people who were intimately involved with either the victim or the accused, and the outcome of the trial would depend not on the evidence presented but the composition of the jury.
Leaving aside everything we know about politics, if we objectively analyse alternative systems of running countries, in truth, many of us would choose a system in which those selected to perform the task of governance were entirely impartial, and would make governance decisions solely on the basis of evidence rather than hearsay or articles of faith.
A precedent for such a system of governance exists. Sortition refers to governance in which legislators are chosen by lottery. In such a system, there are no political parties, no political funds, no electoral promises or manifestos, no pork barrel spending projects and no whip systems. The people chosen to legislate are presented with evidence and make decisions on the basis of that evidence. At the end of their term, they are replaced by another group of legislators, again chosen by lottery.
Of course, like any system of government, Sortition also has its flaws. There is a supposed absence of legitimacy, in that laws passed by democratically elected politicians may be more widely accepted than laws passed by legislators chosen by lottery. This presumes that people’s national inclination to abide by the law is based on democratic legitimacy, rather than a more fundamental acceptance of rules based society, and ignores the fact that many laws passed by democratically elected politicians are widely flouted.
The is also an argument of accountability. Democratically elected politicians will typically have to renew their electoral mandate, and as such take account of the views of those who elected them when making legislative decisions, which is the bedrock on which parliamentary democracy is built.
However, when faced with decisions in which the national interest is at odds with some local sectoral interest, politicians will frequently place the need to be re-elected above the national interest, which is at odds with the design of self-governance. Sortition removes this flaw, because the a legislator chosen by lottery will never have to seek re-election.
If we go back to our starting point, that the people who want power the most are the people you least want to wield it, Sortition ticks a lot of boxes. In fact, Sortition establishes exactly the opposite situation: people who are selected by lottery to govern probably have no interest in governing, which makes them exactly the most suitable people for the job, in exactly the same way that people who have no association with the accused in a trial are exactly the right people to pronounce on whether they are innocent or guilty.
Politics as we know it is currently caught in a downward spiral. Elections are no longer fought on the basis of competence or vision, but on the basis of which candidates can lie most passionately about doing the exact opposite of what the sitting government is doing, even if that is totally at odds with the ideals of the candidate doing the lying (Socialists opposing property taxes is a good example).
This is the nature of democracy in the media age. Power can only be achieved by deception, and deception is best practiced by those who long most to wield power. As each government comes and goes, and the party that forms it gets found out of lying through its teeth, the electorate becomes more and more cynical, and more and more open to extremes.
In Europe we tend to view extremist as something foreign and historical, that could never happen in places like Berlin or London or Rome ever again. Residents of Mosul probably felt the same way when they were visiting their museum and libraries less than 15 years ago.