Politics Opinion

Democracy: An unachievable work in progress

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Ignorance, incompetence and corruption plague our so-called "democracies" — no matter who one votes for, one gets a neoliberal-oriented government with variations on a theme, writes Dr Evan Jones.

I WAKE UP depressed — seriously depressed. Yet I have no physical or pathological afflictions. I have no home mortgage or rental stress. There is food on the table.

The problem is the world. The world is fucked. Perennially, the people who rise to run the world are fucked — ignorant, incompetent, opportunistic, cowardly, venal, corrupt and criminal. And not just in the "autocratic" part of the much-propagandised dichotomy. The same thing applies, alas, in so-called democracies.

There is no medication or therapy that offers relief for this source of depression.

In "democracies", one turns out to vote every few years. But, regarding the essentials, not much changes. To think that previously disenfranchised cohorts fought for the vote over several hundred years. Only to be finessed.

A major shift occurred when, after the demise of the post-WWII "long boom", nominal labour and social democratic parties adopted a neoliberal economic and social policy agenda (albeit such parties trimmed their sails in parliaments from the beginning). No matter who one votes for, one gets a neoliberal-oriented government with variations on a theme.

The proximate cause of my enhanced depression quotient is the Australian Federal Labor Government. Ah, how we lamented Labor’s defeat in April 2019, facing a morally bereft and incompetent Coalition in office. Now we have Labor with a huge mandate to govern — and what?

A key moment of despair was Labor’s vote on 8 March against Green Senator Nick McKim’s Migration Amendment (Evacuation to Safety) bill 2023 to bring all remaining refugees onshore from Papua New Guinea and Nauru. This is strange as Labor was reducing their numbers anyway, if at a snail’s pace.

Yet, in January 2023, Labor handed a $420 million contract to the allegedly dodgy U.S. prison operate Management and Training Corporation to run "garrison and welfare" operations on Nauru for three years, where less than 60 refugees remain. All garrison and no welfare.

A very expensive operation to deter would-be boat-bound asylum seekers. Meanwhile, well-dressed "asylum" seekers are flying in, in their tens of thousands, contributing to making housing not merely unaffordable but unavailable. The $420 million could be better spent elsewhere.

Then there’s the Doomsday Clock for climate change, ticking down to midnight according to the latest update by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Labor’s safeguard mechanism is a drop in a holey bucket.

As the Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss highlights, the mechanism – marginally adapted from the previous Coalition Government’s scheme – is damned both by its dependence on a farcical carbon credits mechanism and by Labor’s contemporaneous and generous approval of new fossil fuel-based projects. (Of which more below.)

The most depressing aspect of the Albanese Government’s agenda is, of course, its AUKUS submarine deal, declared in mid-March 2023 from the U.S.’ militarised San Diego base. Prabir Purkayastha readily appraised the underlying absurdity of the deal. Myriad naysayers piled on to the critique, not least Labor ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating.

The nuclear subs affair was an illegitimate crackpot manoeuvre by our unlamented previous Prime Minister. Apart from sucking up to the U.S. and UK, Scott Morrison was also wedging Labor. In cementing AUKUS, Labor is wedging itself.

The nuclear subs deal is so preposterous, with its multi-pronged incoherent rationale, that the probability is that it will fall apart. Let’s hope so. What is certain is that Australia will have ceded its political sovereignty to the U.S. and the UK (as outlined, for example, by Cameron Leckie, Ramesh Thakur and Joseph Camilleri). Equally certain is that fabulous sums of taxpayers’ dollars will disappear into a black hole — and for no discernible outcome. Depressing.

Correction. With this gigantic financial waste, there will be inevitable pressure on social services delivery — a key reason why voters prefer Labor to the Coalition in office (think Robodebt). Labor can count on the Opposition and the media harping about the scale of public debt.

Speaking of public debt, Labor’s ambivalence about the Coalition’s stage three tax cuts is incomprehensible. The case for scrapping them is a laydown misere.

Albanese Labor needs to keep repeating the mantra: "We have a mandate". The nominal Opposition has been reduced to a rabble — the iron heart has pierced its soul.

Another Labor sin — the slavish kowtowing to the abomination which is the apartheid state of Israel. Why?

The Labor Government at least moved readily to free the Biloela Murugappan family from deprivation of liberty and threat of deportation. In July 2022, Labor released lawyer Bernard Collaery from his ongoing torture, with Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus dropping the charges.

Excellent news, but then there’s David McBride and Richard Boyle, both whistleblowers, regarding the transgressions of the Australian Army and the Australian Tax Office, respectively. They are still being hung out to dry — not a good look.

But all roads lead to Julian Assange. Assange is being slowly murdered in Britain’s Belmarsh Prison, with successive Australian governments indifferent to the crime. The Australian authorities’ craven abandonment of the criminal state apparatuses of the U.S. and UK is part and parcel of the abdication of sovereignty with respect to the bipartisan AUKUS nuclear subs deal. Labor didn’t even demand Assange’s release as part of the deal.

Meanwhile, wars continue apace, not least the war in Ukraine — product of a long U.S.-sponsored war against Russia, escalating in late 2013 to February 2014 and subsequently using the Ukrainian population (especially Russophone Ukrainians) as cannon fodder.

Yet the Labor Government has joined the U..S-driven carnage in providing military equipment to Volodymyr Zelensky’s regime to further perpetuate an already lost war, with a rabidly partisan media as cheer squad. It has welcomed Zelensky into our hallowed Parliament.

Add the fact that Labor governs in an unprecedented milieu of war-mongering think tanks, notably the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) – which needs to be dismantled – and a nascent military-industrial lobby. Wretched and depressing.

Must it be so?

In 1970, the Australian historian of philosophy John Passmore published a book called The Perfectibility Of Man. There he outlines the speculations of intellectual giants over several millennia on the prospects for the human condition. God’s grace figured in the equation for a considerable period.

Heavenly inspiration for goodness being found unreliable, philosophers turned increasingly to self-redemption and on a more earthly and social basis. Western philosophers (increasingly ideologues) became enamoured of "liberalism". Into the 19th Century, optimism (save for the Malthusians) became pervasive.

The application of liberalist precepts in the political and economic spheres was going to lift humanity en masse, domestically and globally. "Old Corruption" would be dismantled and enlightened institutional structures would fashion enlightened governing elites.

Globally, liberal precepts were to be spread via the civilisational influence of British imperialism. Priya Satia’s 2020 book, Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire lays out (densely) the contemporary arguments. Thus, "liberal imperialism" —  J S Mill himself and his father James were both sometime-employees of the East India Company.

More, Satia highlights that the contemporary historian’s role served to rationalise and defend this imperial thrust. Indeed, claims Satia, "history", as a distinct discipline, was being simultaneously constructed — effectively tainted with original sin in fulfilling its early task.

Quoting Satia:

'For much of the modern period, historians have not been critics but abettors of those in power… The narrative of the British Empire is, thus, also a narrative of the rise and fall of a particular historical sensibility.'

Thus the age of liberal imperialism didn’t marginalise human evil; rather, it furthered it and, via a complicit history writing, hid it from view or dismissed its transparent excesses as aberrations.

Internationally, Britain’s liberal imperialism has belatedly attracted critical attention, highlighting that the abuses were not aberrations but systemic — vide Richard Gott’s 2011 Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt, Shashi Tharoor’s 2017 Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India (albeit criticised as a partisan and selective history) and Caroline Elkins’ 2022 Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire.

Domestically, the promise of human betterment was also unfulfilled — less brutal than in the colonies but brutal nevertheless (think Peterloo Massacre, the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 and the Irish famine). It turned out that the formal universality of the liberal creed was a lie and that the right to liberty applied only to those with property. The myth and reality clash is outlined in my 2020 piece, The Underbelly of Liberalism.

The armchair perfectibility philosophers evidently failed to include power relations in their speculations. Those exercising power (in the West, notably via the capital/labour relationship) are naturally prone to abuse it.

Finally, the barbarism of World War I killed any remnants of 19th Century liberalist optimism.

More on this subject to follow...

Dr Evan Jones is a former political economist.

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