Power in Australia: The rich rule and the poor can help themselves

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(Meme by AndrewRhodes via @Talaolp)

The ways regular people supposedly exercise power are pretty ineffective, says weekend philosopher Dr Samuel Douglas. The wealthy and well-connected in society have much more scope to exert influence.

IT'S ABOUT 14 years ago that I marched in opposition to the war in Iraq. The sun was shining and there was a palpable sense of solidarity and purpose in the crowd. Newcastle isn’t a big town for protests, so seeing 20,000 people walking down Hunter Street was a new and exhilarating experience.

When I watched the news that night and saw that up to a million people around Australia had risen in protest, the feeling I’d been nurturing all day felt like it was being confirmed: We are the people and we are powerful.

Except we weren’t.

The great philosopher, mathematician and troublemaker Bertrand Russell defined power in 1938 as

'... the ability to produce intended effects.'

In February and March 2003, our march was intended to stop or at least slow the rush to participate in George W. Bush’s ill-conceived middle-eastern adventure.

But, to put it bluntly, we protesters didn’t achieve this. We really didn’t have the power – at that point – to stop the Iraq war.

Does my vote equal power?

As a voter, I’ve rarely seen the outcomes my political preferences reflected at Federal level — including my choice of candidate. At the state level I’ve usually been a constituent in "safe" seats and therefore largely invisible. And don’t even get me started on local government!

Sure, electoral democracy can only ever deliver the aggregate of a voting group’s intentions. But even then, it’s not clear that our current situation does that. How many Coalition voters wanted to see the shemozzle currently playing out in Canberra? It can’t be many — and they were the winning side (just). What of the intentions of everyone else? If you voted for Labor, the Greens, a minor party or independent candidate, I don’t think you’re watching the news thinking: “Well this is just fine.”

Involvement in politics doesn’t begin and end with protests and voting. We have the right to contact our elected representatives and let them know what we want. How often does this actually work though? Petitions, letter-writing campaigns and social media outrage rarely result in a change of government policy. The extended furore that led to the "robodebt" inquiry may be an exception, but how much long-term change results from it remains to be seen.

The power of lobbyists

However, if you can throw a lazy $100,000 at a political party, then you’ve got a shot at actually exercising some power.

Spend millions on attack ads against a policy that might cost your industry a few per cent? Done deal.

Buying your way into the presence of a prime minister or treasurer, or hiring ex-politicians as go-betweens is probably a more effective strategy for getting yourself heard than a strongly-worded letter.

The mention of attack ads should remind us that political parties, special interest groups and corporations spend a lot of money to convince us to think and behave in certain ways. Advertising, especially in conjunction with other media, seems to be pretty effective.

In any case, you can’t learn or emulate what you can’t see. If the average voter wants to run an ad, they need to convince a bunch of other people to chip in the required money. If you’re a mining magnate or media tycoon, it’s a snap.

The power of an emotional brand

Psychology can explain what makes some content "viral" and how people do certain things to send signals about their identity. Big businesses and politicians alike know this stuff too. Most people are ill-equipped to recognise when they are doing something because everyone else is doing it or that they believe something simply because a perceived enemy doesn’t. The marketing of political ideas can be like the marketing of any brand, in that the aim is to get you to make an emotional rather than a rational choice.

In the market, there isn’t a more literal expression of power than the ability to buy what you want. The less money you have the more your purchasing power is focussed on necessity than desire. Renters intend to keep a roof over their heads, those with home loans aim to pay them off (eventually). As we’ve seen though from recent news, people with the capacity to buy real-estate outright have a greater range of choices.

Our politicians have been exercising this choice to buy investment properties. Our 226 federal politicians own a startling 524 properties between them.

It’s not just direct purchasing power, though. Say you want to buy TV series on Blu-ray that isn’t available in Australia. The more money you have, the easier it is for you to get around this by getting it shipped from overseas, or investing in a VPN that allows you to bypass geocoding. Being less wealthy means you either go without or resort to online piracy.

There are also things you can buy, but it’s against the law to do so. Sometimes there’s good reason for this, sometimes it’s irrational prohibition-style moralising. Either way, wealth allows individuals greater ability to purchase black-market goods & services.

Most importantly, serious money can help insulate people against the consequences of breaking the law. The lower your socioeconomic status, the more likely it is that you’ll end up in trouble for purchasing or possessing illicit drugs.

For the truly rich and powerful, it’s less likely that they’ll even come to the attention of the police in the first place. Local market availability and governing laws are much smaller obstacles for some people than others.

You can’t always get what you want

When it comes to being able to get what you want – this ability to ‘produce intended effects’ – it’s painfully clear that there is a vast gulf dividing Australian society into haves and have-nots.

On the political stage, voter intention is largely ignored or circumvented, but not so much if you’re a major political donor or corporate lobbyist. Our naïve consumption of media, and lack of resilience against marketing techniques, manipulates and manufactures much of what we think we want in the first place.

Wealth, either institutional or individual, makes it much easier to get what you want — to produce an intended effect. That is, to actually exercise any power. Up until recently, at least, we told egalitarian stories about ourselves: "Jack’s as good as his master", a "fair go for all" and so on. But it’s simply not true. Jack might have the same moral value as his master, but he’ll never have even a tenth of the opportunity to get what he wants.

Average people, by themselves or as a group, as protesters, voters, amateur lobbyists or consumers, have relatively little capacity to achieve their intentions. It’s time people realised this and started thinking about whether they are okay with it or not.

You can follow Dr Samuel Douglas on Twitter @BeachPhilosophy.

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