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The Death Spiral of Politics

The Death Spiral of Politics

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The greatest trouble with democracy is that it requires not only policymakers and technocrats, but also the wider electorate to understand complex and dynamic social and economic problems and grasp tangible and practicable solutions to those problems.

This is no mean feat. Knowledge of complex and abstract systems and phenomena — the financial system, the wider national economy, the global economy, intergovernmental relations — is cumbersome and slippy at the best of times. Gut feelings, emotional judgments can muddy facts and confuse people, and falsehoods and misconceptions can go viral while the truth about a matter is still putting its coat on.

And understanding how government policy changes affect those aforesaid complex and abstract systems is a step harder still, and a genuinely challenging task even for economists and technocrats.

Democracy demands that ordinary people possess literacy and competence in these matters. It expects that ordinary people know whether government spending should be higher or lower. It expects ordinary people to know the appropriate level of taxation. It expects that ordinary people should know what kinds of and how much infrastruture spending the government should engage in. It expects that ordinary people should know when and whether to commit blood and treasure to war, and a multiplicity of other things. Otherwise, how will they know which politician to elect? How will they know which politicians to kick out?

That is not to say that democracy is an undesirable thing. Democracy lends legitimacy and accountability to a government's decisions and actions. When a democratic government goes and does something stupid or damaging, it can be held accountable at the ballot box. This is an important difference with all of the varyingly bad and unaccountable forms of autocracy.

Yet as our world becomes ever more culturally and socially fractured, democracy is coming under ever greater strain. Electoral democracies reward those who stand in the centre ground. In a cohesive society — where disagreement over policy and worldview is small — these strains are relatively minor. Yet in a fractured and multi-polar society — such as this one, where the internet continues to fragment and ghettoize conversation — democracy can easily ignore the yawning margins, which in a modern nation can constitute millions upon millions of people.

This process is well under way across the Western world where a slew of fringe political candidates and movements are building groundswells of momentum and popularity, losing elections to those who stand in the centre ground, and achieving very few actual concrete political objectives. The best example of this in the last decade might have been Ron Paul's End The Fed movement, a movement whose policy achievements are zero, but it also applies to various green parties, and right wing groups such as Front National and UKIP.

The same, I expect, will continue with other marginal movements — unless they can somehow find a way to capture and occupy the shrinking and elusive island of centre ground from the professional centrists and the media conglomerates that back them. From Jeremy Corbyn's revitalization of the Labour party in Britain, to Donald Trump's anti-illegal immigrant crusade in the United States, to Bernie Sanders' attempt to become America's first socialist president, fringe political movements are getting bigger. But as the political landscape becomes more fractured, this just leads to more disappointment.

Indeed, even when a candidate comes from the fringe to dominate the centre ground — such as Barack Obama — they often have to compromise and moderate their views to get elected so much that they end up greatly disappointing their hordes of more radical followers.

The conclusion of this process is a loss of faith on the margins in politics and democracy as a means for social change.

And that, I believe, is a good and necessary thing. Governing is done from the centre, by appealing to the lowest common denominator like Blair, and Cameron, and Obama. But change can come from anywhere where people are willing to take things into their own hands and catalyze it.

Take the End The Fed movement, for example. It has achieved nothing but hot air politically. (And I would hope not — abolishing central banking at this point would in my view be a very bad idea for a swathe of reasons). But its anti-central banking dogma led to the creation of radically innovative technologies such as Bitcoin and the blockchain. And while I don't really think Bitcoin alone will ever stand as a replacement for state fiat currency, I do think that the technologies open up a whole new spiral of exciting new technological and social possibilities. Even the Federal Reserve (the institution Bitcoin was arguably designed to replace) thinks so!

Computing — from the advent and growth of the internet as an informational and communicational resource, through to the furious growth of e-commerce through to the advent of wireless computing, and smartphones and apps, through now to wearables, the internet of things, cryptographic currencies, 3-D printers and self-driving cars — has already done far more to transform the fabric of society in the 21st century than any government program or decision. This will only grow as we move further onward into the next industrial revolution.

I predict that as the century continues, people who wish to see social change in the world, and particularly radical social change — from eradicating poverty, to curing diseases, to increasing community cohesion, to stabilizing and regulating the economy, to creating and improving infrastructure — will increasingly cease  following political leaders and trying to win elections, and instead will start to code and build technological solutions to problems themselves. 

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