There was an article in The Age on Saturday that attempts to analyse the post-riot problems of the world we inhabit in a way, so far as I can see, that if acted upon would only make them worse. What the author does is look at “the miserable reality” of our democracies.
Four years into the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, governments of vital parts of the capitalist world are running on empty. Pessimism has the upper hand. Understandably. Since the infamous Dutch tulip craze of the early 17th century, there have been 10 major panics caused by burst financial bubbles. Seven have happened since the early 1970s. Each triggered economic and political disruptions, but the 2007 blowout is the worst. And it’s by no means over.
We have apparently had ten major panics caused by the bursting of bubbles since the early 1600s and seven of them have been in the last forty years! Things must have really destabilised over these past few years. Hundreds of years with only three, and now seven in only four decades. Clearly democracy is on the rocks.
It is “bankers’ greed” that is the problem with our democracies, it seems. Those people we entrust with our savings are doing something that is causing our political system to sway. We are now in danger of a growing take over by an “authoritarian power”. I don’t know if this is being directed at Rudd-Gillard or “even Obama”, but what are we to make of this:
Gone for the moment are the democratic virtues of publicly accountable government and a decent civil society based on the commitment to empowering the powerless.
Ah yes. Empowering the powerless. It is just one of those things that one cannot by definition do, since the moment someone is empowered, they are no longer the powerless. In a democracy, we put political power into the hands of some and try to limit the damage they will do as much as we can by putting all the obstacles we can think of in their way while giving them the authority to do what needs to be done. We have in Australia, like in the US, a bicameral system Federal Government that must deal with independent state governments who have power of their own. We have courts that attempt to ensure that the laws passed are within our constitutional framework and that the executive does not overstep its bounds. We have Federal Parliamentary elections every three years with no possibility of a referendum extending it to four. This is it, I’m afraid. This is, more or less, as good as it gets.
Recessions happen. If the last forty years have been all that bad, we have a very high level of badness in Australia. But I too worry about the future. The odd thing about the Howard-Costello years was how extraordinarily good they were. Now our elected government is in the grip of a Keynesian stupidity, which is what happens when socialists get elected to govern. But as for our author, this seems to be the problem he has:
Banking and credit sector executives who caused the crisis remain unpunished. No toothy regulatory structures for countering their greed have been built.
Did these people really cause the crisis? Not even in the United States can that be said to be true, let alone in Australia. Just who are those local banking and credit sector executives and precisely what was it they did that brought on the GFC? In just which way should they have behaved differently before the crisis was revealed? Not knowing in just which way the unexpected will unfold is simply one of those things.
Yet it seems to me that this is really the point he is making:
With injustice now the blighted face of democracy, cynicism and fatalism gain ground. ‘What’s the best way to deal with this crisis?’ runs a popular Japanese joke. The answer: ‘Let the system collapse.’ The panacea looks more plausible by the day.
I am not sure just which system we should let collapse. Our political system of representative government? Our financial system based on a regulated market economy? Somehow this seems to be the part that needs to collapse:
Surrounded this week by street hecklers, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, minced no words. Mouthing fulsome praise for business, he threatened those ‘who’ve been robbing and stealing’ with ‘punishment they’ll bitterly regret’.
We all may come to regret it, for the strange vulnerability of democrats and democracy to authoritarian power should not be underestimated.
Is this it, is this the terrifying face of authoritarian power: the desire to punish those who rioted, looted shops and burned buses in the street? My friend, civil society depends on civil order. This is just the kind of thing people such as myself wish to see our governments and court systems do. This is not a failure of democracy. This is how a democracy works.