EP22 – Democracy, part 1

 

Not you, obviously.

You can’t deny the will of the people, mate. If you or they can be sure of what it is. Or who they even are.

How is the future looking to you, right now? Hah-hah! Yuh. Uncertain. ..Exciting isn’t it?

Unsee The Future continues. Whether you voted for it or not.

Democracy is a loaded word right now. Almost a loaded gun. How do we agree the practices that define it? Who has the corner on it and if it feels more like a kidnap to others of us, what are their demands?

Politics. Gah! It’s the big problem of any age, right? What say can The People really have in it? Well, it’s surprising how much people have found a way, across the centuries, even in ancient feudal times. Let my people go. But it’s all sped up rather considerably with technology.

And more people than ever are taking part in it. 900million eligible voters in India going to the poles this April and nearly two hundred million also doing so in Indonesia. That’s a lot of participation, isn’t it? And paperwork.

ALONG WITH RIGHT HERE, YOU CAN LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD OR YOUR FAVOURITE PODCAST APP, OR FIND IT ON MIXCLOUD.

The mechanisms of democracy, the trends of it, the demands upon it, the identities it both invokes and creates – what are they right now? Because if we are to stand a chance of dealing with the existential crises of a planet under severe human pressure, the humans had better work out how to engage with everything, after a generation of dwindling desire to do so. If engagement was tough in the somnambulous neoliberal and technocratic years – the European Union years, the Clinton years – it’ll be an impossibility in the nightmarish deepfake future, surely?

And the point is that if ordinary us raised our democratic expectations as the era of the printing press grew, and then even more so with the advent of television, where on Earth do you suppose that leaves us in the digital age? And where might it take us in the biological?

In the status panto of our times, do we even understand what democracy is any more and why we we want it?

 

Somnambulent technocracies.

“Theatre is the essential art form of democracy. And we know this because both were born at the same time in the same city” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director of New York’s Public Theatre.

Greece, the sixth century BC, the city state of Athens. Right there, the idea that power should flow from below to above, from the consent of the governed to the governing and not the other way around – that little world shaker of an idea emerged. And right then and there, at just the same time, so did another one. The concept of dialogue.

The ancient Greeks loved a bit of lifestyle. Parties and storytelling. And in the festival of Dionysus – son of Zeus and Hera and a lot more artistic and fluid, in many ways, than macho old Apollo – the whole of Athens would turn out to the acropolis to be entertained and to get religiously whammoed.

But in the early plays that were premiered at the festival, the protagonists would always be monologuing to the crowd. Preaching the story as the possessor of truth, in-world, if you like. Legend has it that a chap called Thespis came up with the idea of turning the protagonist 90° and adding another one. And have them talk to each other. Suddenly, as Eustis puts it, they weren’t possessors of truth to the audience, they were just guys with an opinion up on stage.

“The thesis of that” he says, is that: “truth can only emerge in the conflict of different points of view.”

Truth must be inferred from a conflict of viewpoints. Debate. Claim and challenge. Bringing together opposing views, in order to find new truth. Together. The agora was the antithesis of the arena of war. Despite how bloody the Commons has always been.

Democracy is, for all the conflicting politics, about empathy and trust; trying to ensure we feel it and earn it for each other. In the heated squabbles getting ever more cooked on the stove of our media channels today, have we forgotten what democracy is? The coming together of conflicting stories to thrash out new understanding. Creating leadership that is, in a big sense, ground level up. As the will of the people fails to find decision making in clumsy referenda and populist rallies and cultural counter insurgencies across the world, arguably in the shadow of some very entrenched hierarchies, are our times today calling for a new leadership to come from the ground up. Leadership from us stoopid lot – everybody?

Can this make any practical sense? Well, I am beginning to suspect so, but only with some new stories of us to go with some next level technology to express them.

And interestingly, from taking theatre out to everyday people as his work has, removing it from the elitist traps of art a bit, democratising it if you like, Oskar Eustis says: “What we learned is that people’s need for theatre is as powerful as their need for food or drink.”

I wonder if our political struggles right now, in this historic moment together on Earth, could be summed up in one of two words. One might be the emotional truth of our politics today, and the other the practical implication. Either could be the tidy headline, but one of those words perhaps represents where we are and the other what we need to do about it. Because firstly, I think the spirit of our age politically, two decades into the twenty first, is circling around the word recognition.

In a claggy soup of noise with everyone finding their voice at once, all the different movements essentially all saying their own version of Me Too to a huge spectrum of what are really, honestly, tribal hurts, injustices, fears and hopes all highlighted in new ways by being thrown together, clanking off each other – what about me? – you could say they’re emerging in response to localised versions of the same fear. The fear of drowning in change. And disappearing.

“I’m not fearful mate, I know what I think!” – yes, yes I know, so do I. But I wonder if we’re collectively beginning to deal with some kind of cultural PTSD. From our experiences in world as it is. Future shock. That twentieth century-coined phrase now thrown into the tinitus-inducing echo chamber of digitally-connected human life in the twenty-first. Overload quietly implying the collapse of civilisation under all the noise.

Perhaps. But I think there is another word that describes the same challenges of our living together in the flooded digital global village in a more practical way, and it’s the real challenge back to our political expectations now – engagement.

When do we engage with politics, and when don’t we? And ever more pertinently, how could we? What is the trajectory of democracy today, and how might we hope to interact with it in the future? What on Earth is the likelihood of making a difference as one person among seven billion and rising, and why would we imagine we could? The problems are too big, right? With so many culture snipers on our roofs, better to just keep your head down.

Tell that to a Trump supporter. To a Brexit voter. To a Gillet Jaune marcher. To a vegan.

Because there’s a problem with resigning ourselves to cynical silence. An emotional one. It gnaws away at you.

Any sense of lostness, or helplessness. That lack of meaning. Or certainly fairness. Doesn’t it.

But the digitisation of everything has done more than give us more channels to consume sleeping drugs with. MTV may have put my generation to sleep before it found its name, but if the tube was a brainwave transmission, YouTube is a dialogue.

Uh-oh. Everyone can talk back now. Ev. Er. Y. One.

The internet is an accidental social revolution, comrade – of course it is.

Because, as you already know, my fellow libertarian liberal socialist proud patriot freedom justice warrior, the 21st century challenge to democracy isn’t digitising voting systems and managing shifting influences of businesses and services going online. >yawn< It’s managing the true human vulnerability of wherever we live – because when we’ve truly adopted somewhere, we move in emotionally. And that now means the internet.

We’ve invested everything migrating to the world wide web of feelings.

 

Emotional migration.

It’s one thing to dream up utopian future ways of living. It’s another to live them. We can plan all the highways flows and roundabouts we like, to ensure smooth movement of goods and services. But when humans move in anywhere, they move in emotionally. It’s why good politicians are always good storytellers.

Our fantasies of the future across a century of science fiction have frequently tended to look conspicuously technological, because technology is a hard-shaped deliverable that it’s easy to picture changing the way we do things – not just the tools, but the very jobs. Tech is a definite new shape in your living room with a definite price tag attached if you want it. Which you always do, of course. And so when we picture the future, we always lob in Jetsonsy future junk to illustrate our sense of progress. Our fetish for such a definite sense of it is what has us banging on about automation so much even now – the bots, man, the bots are coming.

So you could say that **consumerism!** has unsurprisingly been the cultural force fuelling globalisation thanks partly to its apparently more accountable thinking – numbers you can tally up and statistical aims you can qualify with terribly grown-up seeming spreadsheets of units of tech sold. It’s been hard to argue with the logic of it, it seems – even in its sometimes fantastical lack of holistic accountability. As a result, it is consumerism that has arguably done the most to shape our popular jetpack expectations of what the future should look like – which is essentially lots of upgrades and a regular fashion churn of products to put in the bin in the quest for a better tomorrow.

But fashion, fad and the engine of consumerism heavily encouraging it all does in the end bank on something a lot softer and more nebulous than numbers and boxes and even bits of data. Our damn-fool human feelings. Our damn-fool human feelings always form the deeper truth of our living – surrounded, motivated and diverted as they always ultimately are by emotional context.

The states of mind we are always breathing in and out and sharing between us in everything we can’t help empathically doing.

Today, there’s a big emotional context influencing our choices like a global weather system. The macro atmospherics of a big new political mood emerging. One in no mood for the globalised status quo. Populism. And from Brazil to Turkey, the Philippines to Russia, Italy to the US and back home to old Blighty, what it seems to be saying is: All this shopping choice doesn’t add up to any real control, does it.

“Instead of branding us with your affectations of values, we’d like some say over who we think we are.”

Now, in the glorious cultural renaissance that is Brexit, in my home country of the UK, the word fascist has been thrown around a very actual lot in our profane slanging matches – sorry, democratic debates. And in many polite and vaguely lefty minds like mine “the rise of nationalism” is an oft-repeated phrase that seems to really mean a series of attempted fascist coups. Which has many of us wondering, how soon before the books are being burned in the streets again? Those not already tidied up by Marie Kondo.

But nationalism is not defacto fascism. According to futurism philosopher guru Yuval Noah Harrari.

“Nations are communities of millions of strangers who don’t really know each other, but thanks to nationalism we can all care about one another and co-operate effectively. This is very good” he says, a little utopianly. In fact, he asserts the idea that John Lennon got it bigly wrong suggesting we all try to imagine a world without borders. “Far more likely, without nationalism we would have been living in tribal chaos” he says.

All you need is not simply love. A smooth digital passport recognition system doesn’t half help the world also get on. And only the more desirable people get in.

We would do well to remember, Harari essentially says, that while nationalism would tell me my nation is unique, fascism would tell me my nation is supreme – and that every other consideration is subservient to that idea.

For us on the half-empty globalised high street the tell is, surely, how comfortable your sense of identity is with your multiplicity of identity. You are many things all at once, you fascinating individual. You’re someone living in a home, a family, a locality, a nation, a region, and a planet, as the undoubted genetic and cultural product of multiple races, with many different tribes of allegiance beyond these in taste, interest and experience. The day a new political leader tells you to lay down all that of you, if it is in conflict with a flag, is the day you probably just voted in an actual fascist.

“Fascism is what happens when people try to ignore the complications and try to make life too easy for themselves.” Harrari says simply. “If the nation demands that I betray truth and beauty, then I will betray truth and beauty.”

The great beguilment, when it works, he says, is convincing you that you are more beautiful than you really are.

Manipulation. Democracy is meant to be about us manipulating the national interests as a demos, right? We the people. Our will, making the politicians, our representatives, serve our interests. How did that work out for those who voted to leave the EU?

Because for this to work enough, it presupposes we know who we are and what we most want – some overriding unity of identity largely subserviating other squabbles within a nation’s cultural borders in its people’s heads.

The over-riding characteristic of modern populism is that it has sharply divided hearts, minds, families and nations along brand new cross-cutting lines to the old tribes. And it’s flummoxing our usual language for politics. Someone somewhere apparently blew a whistle and millions of us knew to suddenly run to different ends of the political playground. Leaving a rump of us who can still just afford skiing holidays asleep in aprés bars in the middle, wondering where half the family disappeared off to.

Is the British Brexit divide turning into a belief in the rise of fascism, vs the belief that such fears are a histrionic smokescreen for an undemocratic status quo? Is Patrick Howse right to write a letter to the BBC outlining just what kind of process demonstrates the public funded corporation is “enabling fascists”? Did Farage get platformed unchallenged across BBC News having said he’d “pick up a rifle and head for the front lines” if he didn’t get the Brexit he wants? Is David Lammy just triggering Godwin’s Law by calling out Jacob Reese-Mogg for aligning with the AfD? As David Allen Green tweeted: “Those who do not think the rising threats of political violence, strident nationalism, attempts to bypass parliamentary institutions and increasing nastiness towards minorities do *not* indicate the beginning of a turn towards fascism must ask themselves… …what would?”.

Is this all just the perception of a desperate social justice warrior class that knows it’s end is nigh? Or is the very demand for Brexit a perception that the end of civilisation is nigh and SJW’s are trying to hasten it? Whatever official decision is made with Brexit in the end, it won’t begin the healing, says Anthony Painter writing for the RSA.

“When the decision is made, a narrative of betrayal will set in – perhaps even amongst whoever has ‘won’, especially if they wish to evade responsibility. Loss and disjuncture, schism and grief will be powerful forces” he says. And he believes that: “No-one should underestimate the risks: there is oxygen, there is fuel, all it awaits is a flame. The triumphalist will be the fool. And in all this, the fundamentals will remain. For all the talk of the ‘will of the people’, there is no such thing. The very notion in these times is an elaborate and seductive populist deceit.

“There will be creative ideas for new democratic mechanisms and they are a thoroughly good idea. But something deeper is also required” he suggests. “After decades of heightened inequality, increasing culture wars, deeper tribalism, geographical inequity, alienation, economic insecurity, and generational disconnect, have we become incapable of imagining a different future for society? Maybe that’s the answer: rediscovering our collective imagination.”

But there is a thing to also notice. For all genuine worry, another characteristic of today’s populism is the lesser role upfront grand wizards appear, or don’t appear, to have been playing. You can name a fair few dictators and dog whistlers, obviously, but they do seem to be trying to cash in on something, not conjure it.

So-called populist movements seem to be just appearing all over the place with few superstar leaders. Who’s been sending the memos?

 

Mobilised discontent.

France. They love a bit of sitting on tractors blocking the high street, right? A proud tradition of social republicanism and a marrow-deep commitment to lifestyle leads to a lot of strikes and marches and intellectual riots, right? All reasons to ruddy adore les Française in my opinion, stupidly two-dimensional as this racist summation is.

In May 1968, in a global mood of restlessness with the status quo, France underwent a popular mutiny that felt so close to a civil war at one point, President Charles de Gaulle supposedly actually fled the country for an embarrassed afternoon. It was a series of student protests against the rise of capitalism’s consumerist and imperialist inequalities that spread to a general strike which shut down the country’s economy and is said to have been a turning point for the socialist nation’s modern identity.

Beguilingly in the retelling of this, the May 68 unrests “spurred an artistic movement, with songs, imaginative graffiti, posters, and slogans” as Wikipedia puts it romantically. Ah, to be part of something so meaningfully merchandisable today. >coughs: Occupy!<
Well, today you bet there have been a few new protests about the failings of our economic systems. And France seems to have lead the way in this again. I’m sure, in the end, with no less poetry. Or mech.

Les Gillet Jaunes. Those big gatherings of people in the yellow hi-vis vests of staple economic jobs that keep the machine working. Marches of discontent against the machine, wanting to really be seen that have supposedly gotten so bad after months of recurring protests often descending into damage and violence, that: “For the first time soldiers, normally on anti-terrorism patrols, are to be deployed outside public buildings in order to free up police” says the BBC’s Hugh Schofield.

So who are the GJ?

“We’re not just French people who are moaning. We’re fighting for our rights. We just want the tax system to be more equal” say Laurie and Elodie, both in their mid 30s. The Local France meets them and speaks to a selection of typical people joining the marches in Paris and other major cities, describing jobless millennials, cash-strapped pensioners and small business owners, as well as “militant anti-capitalists”.

“To get to our age and have to beg, it’s mad,” says 70 year old Paloma, ““This is the first time I’ve ever protested.”

“Our leaders are completely detached from reality,” says Hubert Bertrand, 53 who believes that tax and social security bills in France, among the highest in Europe, leave him unable to give his staff a pay rise. “We should have entrepreneurs, shopkeepers and artisans running the country.” he asserts.

“These are people who feel they’ve been squeezed by globalisation.” says Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief of The Economist, talking to Clara Young for the OECD.

“They feel the fabric of social life has been hollowed out” she says. Often people who, put simply, depend on cars because of where they live, in the kinds of semi-rural areas poorly served by infrastructure, fuel prices were the flashpoint – if that’s not an explosive way of putting it – when President Macron hiked petrol costs to tackle climate change. Which hardly makes a helpful association, apart from anything else.

Under the surface of the inflammatory headlines, is there a sense of abandonment manifesting in parts of modern France?

Clara Young quotes a statistic that the 10% of national regions in OECD countries that lost the most jobs after the 2008 crisis were those that had shifted their economies towards goods and services that aren’t internationally tradeable. We appear to need globalisation, alright. But what do we do if it feels like it’s increasingly just not, somehow, working for us? How do we engage? With what?

Because mostly the Gillet Jaunes are not jobless. They’re people saying they consider themselves to be doing everything ‘right’ by the system, working hard, and yet feel more squeezed than those much higher up the economic ladder doing less concrete jobs for the country. It’s not about creating jobs per se, but some sense of prospects and mobility – about creating the conditions to encourage people to realise more potential – and feel recognised as part of everyone’s success as a result. Pretty core human community needs.

Over here, the copycat Yellow Vest marches have tended to be characterised as full of right-wing nutjobs. Not least because they don’t tend to produce crafted manifestos of vision either but lists of things the marchers are simply against, or apparently for, depending on their less than elitist English. But look at the lists and you might find, around the social justice button pingers of anti migrancy, that you might be sympathetic to more points than not, my good liberal.

As Adam Nossiter put it in the New York Times, in France: “The Yellow Vests… say they want more, and they want it sooner rather than later — lower taxes, higher salaries, freedom from gnawing financial fear, and a better life. Those deeper demands, the government’s inability to keep up, and fierce resentment of prosperous and successful cities run like an electrified wire connecting populist uprisings in the West, including in Britain, Italy, the United States…” And while some of this is connected to right-wing political parties, the GJ illustrate that it doesn’t have to be.

The problem is just how much emerging fascist groups are mixed in with genuine injustice and a lot of echo chamber myth – especially that of the white working class underdog. No racial groups get special entitlement to misery when it comes to globalisation, mate.

How did we get to all this? Well, give us twenty years and hindsight will begin to make it obvious and set the story in our telling. But certainly all over the democratic world it’s often said that something has culturally removed Westminster, Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Washington further than ever from the ordinary person trying to make ordinary headway. They just don’t look like they even need the voter. But perhaps the problem more prosaically is just how stratified everything of us now is, with, as one person said to me recently, such a vastness of difference between one level of rich and the next that even millions of the rich are feeling poor.

This all sound like the oldest recipe for political flambé you can get. But the story of democracy globally includes key developments that gradually gave us all more we could do with it than burn down half of Paris or London. Technology has definitely helped to drive democracy. Indeed, arguably made its rise inevitable. And social media at leat means we can now mobilise to the streets faster than manifestos can.

But in western countries it’s taken us a generation to want to bother again. Democracy’s not been much of a dialogue since I left school, has it? More like an old couple staring silently at their potatoes, when they’re made to sit down to dinner together.

Getting to here, for a good thirty years in the modern West – the financialised neoliberal years – you could argue we’ve been both especially distracted and increasingly disillusioned with the idea of real change. And engagement, such as it is, has turned into a very insular, physically lazy act – late night, post-shift, thumb work. But as the twenty first century has opened up, it looks like we’re beginning to realise this obviously gives us new ways to disrupt. If we want to. People power like never before, potentially. New alliances possible.

It’s just, along with all that, in our quest to slay the dragon of the status quo we’re finding a kaleidoscope of new perceptions of what the status quo even means.

In the middle of this new cloud of human emotional life, emerges much quicker threads of thinking, like a human hive processor, capable of analysing the system. The old system. And we appear to be in the early stages of waking up to what’s wrong with it. Kind of fundamentally. Is populism one aspect of liberal democracy’s cultural vision vacuum?

Inspired empowerment seems in short supply for millions of us feeling like we’re propping up economies and societies that don’t value us, in the face of massive changes apparently looming to threaten all our ways of life. Ever more rapid social and economic shifts that seem to want to crowd us right out, even. Asking us to do the dance of democracy as we’ve known it every now and then, but in the end to very limited meaning for you and me.

The swelling, spilling over reaction to all this has taken whole political systems by surprise. And awoken others of us rudely. From the Arab springs to Occupy to Brexit and ol’ Forty Five, we’ve begun sidelining some out of touch politicians and making ourselves heard with rapid organisation, working around them.

Which sounds rather democratic. Bottom up. But. The thing is. Right in the middle of this fledgling peoply digital democratic protest, where have we been placing our re-invigorated hopes?

Because, if elected officials can be out of touch, what about corporate business leaders? People who’s influence is publicly without any democratic accountability but who’s economic influence dwarfs some nations.

Because you bet the most powerful mandate you’ve given anyone with your support is to the least democratic or accountable groups on the planet. And it looks like you’ve barely even started mobilising for them.

 

NEXT TIME, ON UNSEE THE FUTURE:

In part 2, we’ll be looking at some of the possible mechanisms of future democracy, and seeing if there’s anything we’ve missed along the way, before we can talk more seriously about ground-up leadership and real engagement from ordinary us lot.

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