Monday, 15 July 2019

What to do about Manipulative Authoritarianism?

Despite the use of terms such as ‘populism’, ‘illiberalism’, or ‘neo-fascism’, the many related movements that are posing a serious threat to democracy are in essence all variants of ‘Manipulative Authoritarianism’.

Its tools are intimidation and marginalisation. It will wear any mask and exploit any theme that can help win them support, dressing up as patriots, traditionalists, champions of freedom, defenders of ‘democracy’ even, so long as it gets them more support to obtain more power to do whatever they want with fewer and fewer constraints.

Its ultimate enemy is democracy as a political culture which strives to enable society to work out in an informed and uncoerced manner what should or should not happen in the common interest of its members, and hold to account those who go against the agreed positions.

To counter manipulative authoritarianism, we need to identify where they are posing the greatest threats, and what counter-measures should be put in place.

Let us focus on four areas where the foundation of democracy is being most seriously corroded, and what actions must be urgently taken.

Democracy is not just about giving the people a say about what should happen, it is about giving them an informed say. And without an objective basis for distinguishing reliable info from fabrication, we become extremely vulnerable to deception. So we must:
 Debunk absolutist rhetoric about ‘freedom of speech’; regulate against irresponsible communications; and set clear criteria to define the unacceptable promotion of hatred, lies, misleading stories, and intimidation.
 Not allow political speech to be exempt; and legislate to give powers to disqualify candidates who deceive the public.
 Establish legally recognised professional standards for journalists, scientific researchers, investigators in line with medical or engineers’ standards.

Democracy is about enabling people to hold those with collective power to act on their behalf. Without proper accountability, political leaders can do what they want regardless of the consequences. So we must:
 Put in constitutional protection of democratic institutions from those who seek to undermine them; and not allow people to stand for office with the professed aim of undermining/dismantling the democratic institution in question.
 Strengthen rules on transparency and enforce them strictly against over-spending on campaign limits; financial impropriety; obstruction of justice; and support from foreign government.
 Make punishment commensurate with seriousness of offences, e.g., removal from office for defined violations.

Democracy functions on the premise that everyone counts as equal as a fellow citizen. But anti-inclusion rhetoric and practices have spread without counter-measures put in place. So we must:
 Facilitate cooperative culture and opportunities to meet, across cultural divides, age gaps, and any other superficial differences that are irrelevant to civic solidarity.
 Increase deliberative and meaningful engagement (see, Whose Government is it?).
 Reduce power gap, guarantee decent pay, and involve workers in setting pay differentials.

System Integrity
Democracy requires rules and procedures to facilitate decision-making that reflects people’s concerns and deliberations. But cunning manipulation of these rules and procedures can give unfair advantages to their supporters and exclude those they want to marginalise. So we must set up a Democracy Commission that will have the responsibility and the power to:
 Scrutinise (and, if necessary, reject) proposals to bring in new barriers (e.g., Voter ID), constituency boundaries, or selectively lower the bar to suit one party (e.g., campaign finance limit).
 Explore alternative voting systems, thresholds, procedures, campaign advertising etc. that may make electoral participation fairer.
 Invalidate results where rules have been twisted or broken.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Key Lessons on Power Inequality

History has taught us that power can take many forms – money, weapons, status, land, authority; and if any individual or group is allowed to amass much greater power than others, then the powerful elite is liable to act to the detriment of everyone else. Let us take four specific lessons from the past that have been instructive to this day.

First, even the most conservative-minded about the need for reducing inequalities domestically are quick to recognise that in international affairs, a balance of power is essential to guarantee good relations. If one country is becoming so powerful, or is forming a formidable alliance with another, that others are at risk of having to bow down to its demands, then something must be done to check its rise, or counter-alliances must be formed. This is reflected in diplomatic manoeuvres and military strategies through the ages. The only reason why some refuse to promote at home a principle they would wholeheartedly follow when dealing with others abroad, is that at home, they rather hope their own superior power would go unchallenged.

Secondly, from the overthrowing of kings by the Athenians and Romans, through the English Civil War and the French Revolution, to the rejection of colonial rule and military dictatorships since the Second World War, the pattern is clear. If a few could ‘take the throne’ by birth-right or belligerence, they would use their power to shield themselves from having to justify what they did to others who were subject to their whims and decisions. When leaders are only answerable to their private conscience or a god whose voice only they can hear, the danger of oppression is deep and permanent. But the system of absolute rule can be displaced, not just in relation to countries, but to businesses too, as worker-owned enterprises and multi-stakeholder cooperatives have demonstrated. The more those in charge have to count on the consent of those they oversee, the less likely they will treat the latter irresponsibly.

Thirdly, even if the route to the top is based on an open electoral process, there must be on-going checks and balances that can constrain, and if necessary, remove those in ruling positions. Louise Napoleon won the popular vote in France and made himself Emperor. The Nazis won seats in an election and proceeded to dismantle democracy in Germany. Without adequate power or dedication to keep watch over those who have taken control, misrule can quickly entrench itself. Democratic systems have to keep learning and improving so that public deception can be more effectively exposed, the power of money to buy political influence curtailed, and the abuse of power more swiftly detected and rectified. From national presidents to corporate CEOs, there can be no guarantee that they will not deliberately put their own interests above those of the people they have authority over, or make seriously erroneous judgements of what should be done. The only reliable redress is that they are subject to scrutiny that is backed by enforceable demands to make them step down as a last resort.

Finally, we must not forget the impact of power polarisation on social cohesion. When a powerful elite relentlessly elevate themselves to an ever higher level of power with attendant privileges and luxuries forever beyond the reach of others, their dismissive attitude towards the plight of everyone else corrodes all bonds of solidarity. The trajectories of the collapsing Roman Empire, the degenerative downfall of dynasties in China, the disintegration of the Ancien Regime, the intensifying sense of alienation amidst the widening inequalities today in the US, Europe, and more broadly, the global plutocratic society – all point to an unhappy ending, unless the power gap is narrowed between the have-not and have-lots.

[A longer version of this essay was previously published with the Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics]
Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle is available in e-book and paperback: