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The post below is an amalgamation of our recent post “A tale of two Normans” and our seminal essay “What would Gandhi have thought?” on the partitocracy.
20 July 2012
Episode one: Murder in the Cathedral
St Thomas à Becket, son of a Norman landowner, was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. He angered England’s King Henry II by refusing to sign the 1164 Constitutions of Clarendon, which strengthened the king’s hand vis-à-vis the church by providing for the trial of clerical criminals in lay courts instead of, as heretofore, in the church’s own ecclesiastical courts. The rift between the two men never healed and by the end of the year 1170 the king had had enough. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” he asked his courtiers. Four of the king’s knights took him at his word: Sir Reginald FitzUrse, Sir Hugh de Morville, Sir William de Tracy and Sir Richard le Breton. On 29 December they hightailed it to Canterbury and hacked the rebel Archbishop to pieces in front of the cathedral choir while the monks were chanting vespers. Becket’s martyrdom, unpleasant though it must have been at the time, enabled him to be fast-tracked to sainthood and a mere two years after this death he was canonised by Pope Alexander III.
Episode two: Flashman handbags a Norman in the Palace of Westminster
We move on 850 years to 10 July 2012. Jesse Norman, Old Etonian and Tory Member of Parliament (MP) for Hereford, has just headed a rebellion of 91 Tory MPs, who have voted against a bill tabled in the House of Commons on behalf of Her Majesty’s First Minister, Old Etonian Dave “Flashman” Cameron, that would have expelled hereditary peers from the House of Lords. Flashman is incandescent with rage at the lese-majesty of this lowly back-bencher who has had the brass neck to rise up in revolt against the party’s fiat. Collaring the rebel ring-leader outside the Chamber, Flashman reads the Riot Act to him, “pointing and prodding in a very aggressive manner,” according to one report. Our Norman seeks sanctuary in the Commons’ Strangers’ Bar. But alas! Even there he could not escape. The mutiny and Flashman’s wrath had gotten to the ears of the Tory Whips, a posse of party zealots charged with tarring and feathering any MP who has the temerity to vote according to his conscience instead of obeying the party diktat. Four Whips – Stephen Crabb, Philip Dunne, Bill Wiggin and James Duddridge – marched into the Strangers’ Bar and unceremoniously ordered Norman out of the parliamentary estate. He had committed the cardinal sin of disobedience – he must be ejected from Parliament forthwith! No time even to finish his whisky-and-soda! Lucifer had rebelled against God and God’s Archangels were telling him to go to Hell. So out slunk Norman, a sad and now solitary figure, into the dark and stormy Westminster night, his tail between his legs, his reputation in tatters, his hopes of preferment for ever dashed by his insolent act of rebellion. Pope Benedict XVI has not yet revealed his hand on the question of canonisation.
DEMOCRACY SUBVERTED BY PARTITOCRACY
Our purpose in this essay is to contribute a little towards lifting the mask that conceals the ugly face of the body politic.
The nations of the world are largely divided into dictatorships or self-styled democracies.
We are opposed to hierarchy. A fortiori, therefore, we are opposed to dictatorship, including all those dictatorships – such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain – with which the “western democracies” enjoy a cosy relationship based on the exchange of oil for arms.
We are naturally in favour of democracy. What we are implacably opposed to, however, is so-called “western” democracy. Or as Gandhi might have said, if asked what he thought about western democracy: “That would be a good idea!”
In fact, democracy is neither western nor eastern. It belongs to neither north nor south. Democracy is universally applicable.
Democracy is a word derived from Greek meaning “rule by the people”. By this definition, however, western so-called democracies are not in fact democracies. They are partitocracies.
Partitocracy means “rule by political parties”.
In the so-called western democracies, there are normally two major political parties, both of them fully committed to the market economy. Normally, one of these parties holds power for a time during which it implements market-favourable policies involving austerity for the population at large. At the next election, the party in power, which has become unpopular because of its austerity policies, is succeeded by the other party, whose popularity has not decreased since it was not the party which had implemented the austerity measures. That second party then goes on to impose on the population precisely the same austerity measures as its predecessor. At the succeeding election, its resultant unpopularity forces it to give way to the first party. And so it goes on. The two parties, which have virtually the same policies, alternate in office. The party elite on both sides is reasonably happy with this system since it means that each of the parties has its turn in office. The people, moreover, has no realistic alternative but to vote for one or other party. Thus, since the parties have virtually identical programmes, the people has no opportunity to vote for change.
We have witnessed precisely this recently in three European countries. In the parliamentary election in Ireland in February 2011 the right-wing Fianna Fáil party handed on the baton to the right-wing Fine Gael party, tweedledum replacing tweedledee. In November 2011 the same thing happened in Spain, the right-wing People’s Party replacing the right-wing Socialist Party. In Greece, in summer 2012, the right-wing New Democracy party replaced the right-wing Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK).
The role of the party machine comes into its own at election time. To be elected to a parliament requires an enormous amount of time and money. Meetings have to be organised and funded, advertising has to be designed and paid for. Individual candidates do not normally have the time or money to fund a campaign. This is where the party machine steps in. The party machine provides the wherewithal to enable candidates to present themselves and their policies to the electorate. In exchange – this is of totemic importance – the candidate has to pledge to obey the party line set in private by the cupola of the party (consisting of a handful of the party elite). If elected, the new member of parliament must continue to obey the party line if he or she is to stand a chance of preferment (being appointed to a ministerial post, for instance) or simply in order to avoid being deselected by the party at the next election.
The myth is that the candidate is elected to represent the people of his constituency. The reality is that he or she is elected to represent the interests of a private political organisation (the political party) funded by lobby groups and self-interested personal backers (individuals, companies or trade unions).
So-called democracy in the west is dependent on cartloads of funding from corporate and special-interest sponsors. In January 2010, in the United States, the Supreme Court made a bad situation worse in a ruling that allows private corporations and trade unions to spend as much as they want to publicise election candidates.
Thus, in a parliamentary “democracy” of the kind we have today in the west, it is the people alone that goes unrepresented.
Imagine the outcry in a market economy if the economy of a country were to be controlled by only two giant private corporations, each of which took it in turn to rule the roost. This would rightly be described as an oligopoly or, more strictly, a duopoly and an infringement of free competition. Anti-trust action would be taken. The parallel diarchy in the political sphere is passed over in silence.
But that is not all. Many “democracies” have taken steps to make it extremely difficult for small new parties with alternative policies to break into the charmed circle. They have adopted electoral laws which set a threshold below which votes for parliamentary candidates will be discarded. Often this is fixed at 5 per cent of the votes cast, which means that unless a party achieves this percentage at national level it will not be represented in parliament. Without parliamentary representations new parties tend to wither on the vine. Which, of course, is the whole point of the minimum percentage rule: we don’t want rank outsiders bursting into our cosy political club.
Another nail in the coffin of democracy is the media. Normally controlled by a handful of giant corporations, which always favour the status quo (the present political diarchy suiting them well), the media automatically exclude non-establishment candidates from all but the most superficial coverage.
A further problem is the historic sell-out of principle by the world’s socialist parties. These parties retain their socialist moniker in order to hoodwink gullible supporters into thinking that they support socialism, whereas in reality they have gone over to the other side. All the western socialist parties are today capitalist parties. In substance but not in name, they differ in no respect from the capitalism parties of the right. They have betrayed their birthright for a mess of potage – occasional investiture with the trappings, but not the reality, of power. The reality of power remains firmly at all times in the hands of the corporations and businesses to which all political parties now do slavish obeisance. For this reason, we believe that the western socialist parties, together with their lackeys in one-time radical trade unions, are a greater impediment to political change than the conservative parties. At least with the conservative parties we know that they are our enemies. They make no bones about it. The socialist parties by contrast are snakes in the grass. They pretend to be other than what they are. As a result, they con a great many unsophisticated electors into voting for them in the mistaken belief that they remain the progressive parties of their origins, that they still represent the interests of the downtrodden and the common man. It is the Big Lie of contemporary politics. The socialist parties of today are traitors to the cause. They are the Judas Iscariots of our time. In exchange for their 30 pieces of silver, they have betrayed every ideal of socialism. Foremost among these turncoats, of course, is the so-called British “Labour” Party, which has made a Faustian pact with the representatives of Capital.
Politicians, understandably, regularly come out as the least popular category when people are polled to give their views as to which occupations they most admire. Antigone1984 has had a long and in-depth acquaintance with politicians of all stripes, both nationally and internationally. Its conclusion is that in general, with a very few honourable exceptions, politicians are the scum of the earth. Just as the scum rises to the top, so politicians have risen to the summit of the political cesspool. They represent not the people but themselves and only themselves. The sole aim of their political activity is to secure personal preferment. It is often claimed that politicians are liars, that they do not tell the truth. Antigone1984 does not believe this. It does not believe that they are liars. To be a liar you have to know what the truth is. The politician has no idea what the truth is. He or she does not know what the word means. To a politician, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is defined as whatever words happen to be coming out of his mouth at any given moment in time. It need bear no relations to the facts nor to whatever that same politician has said in the past. Nor need it bear any relation to what he or she says two minutes later. As we have just suggested, to a politician the truth varies according to whatever suits his personal interests at the moment he is speaking. UK journalist Simon Hoggart summed up the typical politician when he quoted this remark by an anonymous political activist: “Most Members of Parliament are as slippery as a bucket of worms. Put your hand in and it comes out all slimy.” Public service is a euphemism for the opportunist pursuit of personal ambition.
What should happen?
Ideally, direct democracy should replace so-called representative democracy. Ancient Athens and, to some extent, current-day Switzerland provide us with models. Of course, there would be massive opposition from the establishment, not least from existing members of parliament, who would automatically lose their jobs. Ideologically too, the idea that the people themselves should take political decisions is utterly repugnant to the political élite, who will fight tooth-and-nail to preserve their current domination.
In addition, political parties should be abolished by law. As we have shown, they are the antithesis of democracy.
Pending the introduction of direct democracy – but why wait? – any citizen would be able to stand for parliament in an election. This would require a disbursement of public funds – an equal amount for each candidate, no other expenditure being permitted – for canvassing. Regardless of whether or not they had stood in previous elections, candidates would be entitled to equal air-time on radio and television and an equal amount of press coverage. That this radical change would present an organisational challenge there is no doubt. But then democracy is a messy business. If you want a hassle-free change of government, you can always bring in the colonels.
Once elected, members of parliament would be under an obligation to take instructions from no one. They also would be subject to deselection at any time by their constituents, should the electors decide that they were not up to scratch.
The media would also need to be reformed. Journalists would be elected by popular vote and would not be subject to instructions from editors or news desks.
What will in fact happen? Our crystal ball indicates that we shall have more of the same. The status quo will continue. As we have explained above, the virtually invariable alternation in power of two parties with virtually identical policies means that no significant political change is possible in western societies. The political system has been deliberately designed to eliminate the possibility of change – while at the same time using spin doctors and advertising to give the totally fallacious impression that the alternation in power of differently named political parties does in fact represent change. As has often been said, “if voting changed anything, it wouldn’t be allowed”.
The people have twigged this, of course – interdum vulgus rectum videt, as Horace says (Epistles 2, line 63) – which is why they increasingly shun the ballot box. The turnout in the last parliamentary election in the UK in 2012 was 65 % compared with 84 % in 1950.
Moreover, membership of UK political parties has slipped dramatically in the years since the Second World War. A note from the Library of the UK House of Commons published in June 2012 said that in 2010 the Conservative Party had around 177 000 members, whereas in the early 1950s it claimed nearly 3 million. The Labour Party had about 194 000 members in 2010, whereas in the early 1950s it claimed more than a million.
Naturally, the reaction of the political parties to the collapse in party membership has in no case involved questioning the raison d’être of the parties themselves. For the political parties, their own existence constitutes, without question, the bedrock of democracy, the lynchpin of the political system. This is a “given”. It can no more be questioned than can the equation 2 + 2 = 4. And, besides, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
None the less, the parties are worried about the decline in party membership because they rely on this pliant body of largely conformist personally ambitious local activists to raise funds and undertake vital publicity at election time.
Accordingly, their reaction to the decline has largely taken three forms:
(1) make voting legally compulsory (as it already is, for instance, in countries such as Belgium). This is a clever ruse. The knee-jerk tendency of the majority of citizens to obey the law will inevitably result in a higher turn-out than if it is left up to the voters themselves to decide whether or not to turn out and vote. The parties will then claim that the voters, having turned out in large numbers, are no longer disenchanted with the existing political set-up;
(2) ignore the decline in membership – a membership which is in any case routinely ignored by the party hierarchies except at election time when it is called on to raise funds or knock on doors – and legislate for the comprehensive funding of political parties out of public coffers;
(3) swell the pool of “useful idiot” local activists by offering free or cut-price party membership.
However, none of these proposals is intended to alter the fact that when voters do turn out, under duress, they will still normally be faced, in practice, with a “choice” between two parties whose policies are virtually indistinguishable.
Moreover, if, as a result of a political miracle and contrary to our expectations, any non-conformist political group were to get into a position where it could offer voters a genuine choice of an alternative to the status quo, it is undoubtedly the case that the existing economic elite and their representatives in so-called democratic governments would not be willing to surrender power peacefully. The ultimate raison d’être of the judiciary, the army and the police is not to protect the people but to defend government against the people. The reactionary role of the judiciary, the army, the police (and the secret police) in western societies cannot be over-estimated. Antigone1984 favours the political accountability at all times of non-elected public servants. The people should have the right to relieve them of their duties at any moment.
If a society is dominated by an undemocratic privileged elite which exploits the mass of the people, if no peaceful means are in fact (as opposed to in theory) available to that people to seek redress, then has that people the right to take up arms to secure its democratic rights and an equitable share of the society’s output? The French, Russian and Chinese revolutionaries obviously thought so. The African National Congress took up arms to defeat apartheid in South Africa. The Arab Spring of 2011 has involved popular armed revolt against the cliques in power. In fact, we can cite an example of successful armed revolt that took place much closer to the heart of today’s global capitalism. The now-revered Fathers of the 18 C American Revolution – Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Paine, George Washington – were in fact dissident colonists who mounted an armed rebellion against the legitimate government of King George III of England.
You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts. For instance:
1. Why? or How? That is the question(3 Jan 2012)
2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich(6 Feb 2012)
3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices(2 Feb 2012)
4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat(31 Jan 2012)