“Jose Arcadio Buendia, who was the most enterprising man ever to be seen in the village, had set up the placement of the houses in such a way that from all of them one could reach the river and draw water with the same effort, and he had lined up the streets with such good sense that no house got more sun than another during the hot time of the day.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
It has been an especially terrible few weeks in the UK and US. With the massacre in Orlando and the murder of an MP in England, the future must come into reckoning. The present is of concern enough, but what happens next?
The nature of political debate has become debased; a popularity contest between whoever can get the most attention. The idea of good governance being based on compromise and consensus seems to have become forgotten once more. We as societies are in charge of our values, the way we talk and interact to more abstract concerns of organisation and morality. However, they are linked; the way we interact is a direct evaluation of our idea of what makes a good citizen.
Political ideas and beliefs are based around an ideal position of where and what society is. Whether these are pragmatic concerns around what we term as human nature; or utopian ideals of what we could evolve into, there needs to be a renewed focus on consensus making. In a thought experiment; me and my wife attempted to come up with statements that 100% of the human race could agree on:
- Hands are useful
- Trees are important
- Memory is essential
- Clean water is essential
- Weather is changeable
Simple statements and even the last is somewhat debatable dependent on where you live. Please feel free to add to our pathetic list below if you can think of anymore. It is harder than it seems. Just when you think you might have a new one, there’s always a ‘but someone…’
How do you find consensus between people and their desires, needs and wants when taking into account the greater needs of the country, the continent and the world?
Perhaps the information age could come to the rescue. For example, imagine a world where you registered your every view and opinion via the internet or mobile phone. On foreign policy, the NHS, taxation, crime and punishment and every other policy decision required. Each opinion would be suffixed with a question on whether you are likely to change your opinion in the next five years.
Once yearly, a reminder is sent “Have you changed your views in the past year? Yes/No”. If No then your recorded view remains unchanged, if Yes then you can edit the form. Collate the opinions and form policy based around where majority consensus is found. Dump the government, to be replaced by the civil service following the wishes of the population.
It sounds positively dystopian, a world where you get thousands of reminders yearly. Perhaps adding a civic duty to remain informed on each subject; with the plethora of information sources and personal ideals available, it would seem remiss to not be thoughtful, perhaps a prison sentence for not having a considered opinion. New issue arises? Ping – a new reminder arrives. How soon would our habits change? Would we care more or hate the intrusion? I have a singular loathing of forms at the best of times and don’t even have a mobile phone.
Consensus building is a difficult proposition. An ideal that asks more questions than it can answer. What would your world look like and how much would others agree with it? Will you listen to them as they listen to you? Can you find a point of agreement?
But the Devil had been sitting behind the stove and had heard everything. He was delighted that a peasant’s wife had led her husband to boast that if he had enough land he would fear no one, not even the Devil. ‘Good!’ he thought. ‘I’ll have a little game with you. I shall see that you have plenty of land and that way I’ll get you in my clutches!’
Leo Tolstoy, How much land does a man need?
What is the future of government, what and how are they to take form in a world globalised and intertwined like never before?
We need our governments to listen; to seek the public out, to talk and actively participate in the society they help form. We also require people to participate too; higher activity may well bring out the worst elements of society, but they need to be open. Oppressing views, going far beyond social shaming and marginalisation, can upset the overall balance. Closing down difficult topics of conversation however tempting should not be the reaction in the first instance.
How far is too far? We view freedom of speech in a somewhat more constrictive way in the UK compared to our US counterparts. Freedom of speech begins with the ability to openly dissent against the government without fear of repression; arrest, censorship or execution. Freedom of expression then takes over, how we represent those views and opinions and on a wider society encompassing scale. Views and opinions can be dangerous; words do matter even if actions get the greater press. To the citizens of the US; freedom of speech is extended to beyond the government to all opinions and views.
Without an ability to dissent against government policies, we see democracy shift towards anocracy before autocracy:
Anocracy, on the other hand, is characterized by institutions and political elites that are far less capable of performing fundamental tasks and ensuring their own continuity. Anocratic regimes very often reflect inherent qualities of instability or ineffectiveness and are especially vulnerable to the onset of new political instability events, such as outbreaks of armed conflict, unexpected changes in leadership, or adverse regime changes (e.g., a seizure of power by a personalistic or military leader).
Cole and Marshall, Global report for The Center for Systemic Peace 2014(1)
This is a situation that we would both recognise in the past within Europe but yet would feel distant from in our liberal democracies. If society chooses not to respect political process and politicians do not respect the wishes of the electorate in consensus, then the government ceases to be effectual but representative of only a small portion of society. Enforced benevolence is to forever expect the worst of people; yet people in general are not criminal through deterrence but seemingly through cooperation.
The first past the post system used both in the US and UK exacerbates the situation vastly. By forcing polarisation of views, by not allowing for nuance in political policy and belief is patronising at the minimum. People simply don’t fall into neat categories but into individually conglomerated groups of relatively like-minded individuals. The monolithic Left and Right contain ideas and policies that will not appeal to their electorate as a whole, but in small portions as well as there being a great deal of crossover. This has translated in liberal democracies to a rush to the centre ground; where consensus surely must be found. The centre ground remains extremely amorphous, an ill-defined creation of triangulation and focus groups. It still does not allow for nuance but a generalist view of society.
Elections based on a system of proportional representation (PR); using one of the many variants, would give for a more nuanced government. It could undoubtedly open the door to views that are not widely held, to hold a position within our democratic institutions. However, for any coalition to work a prospect faced by most countries using PR; consensus between parties works on a loose basis, where overlap occurs rather than at the fringes. Fringe elements would still remain at the outskirts of acceptability and power.
Society itself defines what is acceptable and what a fringe view is. This is misconstrued as the centre ground, rather than the minimum requirements. We should want more from the world we live in; expect better, do better, live freer and in safety in whichever part of it you call home. How much of the political landscape actually represents you and can you compromise? How much land do you need?