Category Archives: Politics & Society

Tax: can we find someone to blame?

If you’re a regular reader, you may know that I work in Luxembourg, and in tax. To many, those key words are enough to see dollar signs rolling in front of your eyes. So when the ‘LuxLeaks’ scandal broke out, it provided justification to many around the world: “those quasi-tax haven countries are unjust”; “they cheat”; “they’re becoming more and more powerful”; “they’re being utilised more and more by an increasingly wealthy elite to evade tax”. Do you think that’s true? Then did you also think the same about Panama?

A journalist organisation recently unleashed nearly 40 years of a Panamanian law firm’s records, which exemplifies how many prominent political figures and wealthy people have used offshore bank accounts to conceal assets. The Prime Minister of Iceland lost his job over the scandal. But it’s also tarnished the reputation of more than 140 other politicians and public officials from around the world – Ukraine, Argentina, Russia, China, Britain, and many others.

Some people ask so what? They quote Judge Learned Hand:

“Over and over again courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging one’s affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everybody does so, rich or poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands: taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant.”

It’s a great quote, since it unveils the hypocrisy of many critics. Yes, people do make voluntary donations to the state. But they’re the minority. Most people use every available legal tool to lessen their tax burden, and if they had the wealth to invest somewhere with less tax, would do so in a heartbeat. What’s more, capitalism encourages people to do whatever is legally permissible in order to maximise their capital assets. Thus within the rules of the game, it is not only perfectly reasonable, but more than that positive, to see people increasing their wealth with tax. Is there someone to blame?

Let’s take the example of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s late father. As a multi-millionaire stockbroker, he registered his own investment fund in Panama, and personally managed it until his death. Through this fund, the elder Cameron was a client of Mossack Fonseca – the Panamanian law firm in question. And even the fund’s prospectus explicitly stated that the fund intended to remain resident outside of the UK for tax purposes. So did the elder Cameron do wrong by using taxes to maximise his capital within a system called capitalism? Or is that system at fault?

Richard Hay, a specialist legal counsel to various British offshore centres, summarises the question well:

“There’s no surprise that criminals carry on activities in financial centres, because that’s where the money is. The real question is whether it is systemic.”

One of the main reasons why this story in Panama has attracted such attention is the widespread assumption that such criminal, or at least borderline criminal, activity is widespread. Although Mossack Fonseca itself claims that it applied all KYC (Know Your Customer) and AML (Anti-Money Laundering) due diligence procedures, the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) reported that many banks, law firms and third parties involved in the transactions referred to failed to adhere to legal requirements. In other words, they did not carry out sufficient due diligence to ensure that their clients weren’t involved in criminal enterprises, tax evasion (illegal), or political corruption. Some of the documents even show that intermediaries deliberately acted to conceal certain transactions.

As a FATCA and CRS specialist, it’s my job to put due diligence procedures in place, and ensure they’re 2016-04-28 (2)implemented. So I have sufficient insight into this world to understand that it is not only possible, but indeed highly probable that sufficient due diligence was not carried out. Yet please don’t read any sort of conspiracy into what I say. It’s great that more focus is being given to the issues at hand in the press, and by politicians. But international cooperation on this matter is already getting better at a break-neck pace, and has has been for many years – especially following the 07/08 financial crisis. Indeed you need only take a random snippet from the FATF recommendations (international standards on combatting money laundering and the financing of terrorism and proliferation) to have a guess at how many institutions around the world will/will not be able to accord with such requirements in the next couple of years:

“Financial institutions should be required to maintain, for at least five years, all necessary records on transactions, both domestic and international, to enable them to comply swiftly with information requests from the competent authorities.”

Given the number and complexity of new laws and regulations that companies need to comply with, and the fact that none of the due diligence work is funded by governments, it’s no wonder that application varies from one institution to the next. And can individual countries even monitor all the data that’s currently being requested? Of course they can’t!!

Therefore, although responsible individuals always have to take blame, I have to say that the ultimate fault, or problem, lies with the system itself. Yes, the days when secrecy was one of the main selling points for ‘tax havens’ is fast becoming history. But nonetheless the lack of a truly global tax organisation – similar to the WTO, but for tax purposes – is a significant hindrance to any truly synchronised efforts at tackling tax evasion. Such a tax organisation (and no the OECD does not, and cannot fill this requirement) would bring FATCA, CRS, UK CDOT, BEPS, and perhaps even model tax conventions, and bilateral tax agreements under its umbrella. With such oversight it could easily replace many of the complicated requirements with a simpler, and at the same time more rigorous, set of compliance requirements. But more than that, it could work towards rebalancing the existing inequities of the international tax system, which presently give huge bias to certain countries (and not just tax havens).

Are we giving up on democracy?

Erdogan, President of a nation that is moving closer to its democratic allies, recently declared that phrases such as “democracy, freedom and the rule of law” have no value in Turkey today. Recep-Tayyip-Erdogan-speech.jpgIt’s not  the first time he’s declared that he doesn’t mind being non-democratic if it achieves his goals. It’s hardly even newsworthy anymore, given that his reforms have already undermined democracy. But he’s not alone. Russia, Hungary, China, Poland, Thailand, Ecuador, Senegal, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania… The list goes on and on. All of these countries’ political elites are challenging democracy. In fact concerns about democratic backsliding have been present ever since the mid-nineties. Today, there is almost no debate left that democracy is being challenged by authoritarianism. Yet perhaps more worrying is that these challenges are not limited to the peripheries – countries where democracy is only one or two generations old.

In developed, western, liberal, democratic economies, the elites have more deeply vested interests in the existing status quo. So it’s perhaps understandable how little serious analysis exists in these countries. However, millennials (people born from the early eighties to the late nineties), and perhaps even more strongly Generation Z (those who are still teenagers today), have worse career prospects than their parents. It is a fact that these generations seem to be well aware of. Indeed, of 42 nations surveyed by the WHO, the life satisfaction of those aged 11-15 had gone down everywhere! Furthermore, those who polled as being the least happy were all in Europe: Macedonian, Polish, and British teens had the lowest happiness levels. But it’s not restricted to Europe either (see the number of Americans open to non-democratic rule in the chart on the right). As an extreme example of changing sentiments, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a staggering 17% of high school students have seriously considered killing themselves!

As a millennial myself, I find it bizarre that I am at once continually shocked by such news, and yet at the same time in agreement with many of those surveyed. I am extremely pro-democracy. But I do not believe that democracy is headed in the right direction. I do not believe that what most people think of as democracy (an election, even with Proportional Representation) reflects the ideal type of democracy (no I don’t mean direct democracy, so please don’t comment about it). And I share the cynicism of those surveyed when it comes to the levels of trust we can vest in established institutions, be they corporate, or governmental. I too, was raised with the idea that I could achieve what I wanted if I worked hard enough for it. As an adult, it doesn’t take long to find out how relative that notion truly is. Are Generation Z finding out these harsh truths earlier? Or are they being extremified, and indoctrinated by media-friendly clips, which only show one small piece of the puzzle? Regardless, these generations are extremely unhappy with democracy today.

With such dissatisfaction, when voters feel lonely, oppressed by the day to day necessities of life, and alienated by politically correct politicians and executives who seem more machine-like than authentic; is it not natural to see a lurch towards populism? In populists such as Italy’s Berlusconi, America’s Donald Trump, Turkey’s Erdogan, and many others, people often see someone who is authentic. Take Trump for example. His language is every day. He says whatever comes into his head, just as if he were sat in the pub talking with his mates. Whatever the reason for it, it’s worrying to see such a lurch from democracy to populism, and for a myriad number of reasons. It evidences our growing frustration with a political system that we don’t perceive to have delivered. In demonstrating that populism has such potential, it further undermines our faith in the political system as we know it. And perhaps worst of all, because the present political system is identified in peoples’ minds with democracy, and its challenges are coming from populist and authoritarian sources as opposed to reformists; it leads people away from identification with democracy.

A recent Guardian article cited several surveys showing that, for example, only 42% of Australian 18- to 29-year-olds thought democracy was “the most preferable form of government”, compared with 65% of those aged 30 or above. A recent poll in Canada found that less than 50% of young adults favour democracy. Having followed such polls for several years now, I can certainly notice a trend. But where will it lead? Are we giving up on democracy? Or are we simply, and finally, casting off that arrogance that once saw us declare that our political and economic systems heralded an ‘end of history’? For now, the verdict is out.

Why did Labour lose the 2015 General Election?

They were neck and neck until the very night of the elections. The polls had us all convinced that there would be no majority government, and yet here we are. The 56th Parliament of the United Kingdom has 1 UKIP MP, 1 Green MP, 1 independent MP, 2 UUP MPs, 3 SDLP MPs, 3 Plaid Cymru MPs, 4 Sinn Féin MPs, 8 Liberal Democrat MPs, 8 DUP MPs, 56 SNP MPs, 232 Labour MPs, and majority of 330 Conservative MPs (as well as the speaker, who officially has no ties to any party). Parties such as the Greens and UKIP were defeated by the electoral system, media biases, and the current party funding setup. But the real surprises were for the Liberal Democrats to go from 57 seats to 8, the SNP to go from 6 seats to 56, and Labour to go from 258 seats to 232. Based on the fact that in 1997 Labour held 419 seats, and in 2005 they still retained 356 seats, it has been a great shock to many political commentators to see their vote fall even further. Why did it happen?

The thinking that caused Labour to lose in 2015 is the same thinking that characterizes the current leadership contest: one size fits all. The dominant opinion post election has been that Labour needs to move right, and re-occupy the centre ground. The Telegraph says that Ed Miliband was the wrong leader, who didn’t place enough emphasis on deficit reduction, and sat too far to the left. The Independent argued that Labour moved too far to the left. The BBC’s focus is also on business policies and the economy. Peter Mandelson in the NY Times, argued that more practicalities were called for, and that people viewed Labour’s message as a kind of ideological vendetta, which not only sought to turn inequalities into class war, but also conflicted with the ‘one nation’ sound-bite. Even the Guardian pulls it down to the twin factors of leadership and economic management. Indeed, the idea that Labour’s loss stemmed from fiscal laxity is supported by the fact that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls lost his seat in the election.

There are some disagreements to this analysis. Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the trade union Unite, and one of Labour’s biggest financial donors, says that Labour’s message was simply too incoherent and confusing. However, Labour’s biggest losses were a) from the SNP, further to the left, b) from UKIP, way to the right, and c) from the Greens, to the left. One thing ties these parties together, and it’s nothing to do with left or right wing politics! Indeed, many of those who pursued economic voting in 2015 (voting for the party most likely to guarantee economic stability) in fact voted Labour in 2010 for exactly the same reason.

It’s the feeling that politicians care about them first and foremost (or rather the lack of that feeling) which really lost Labour the election. Indeed, it is the very same reason that trust in politics is completely shot.

clip_image002As a long term trend, UK party membership has significantly fallen from 2000 to 2010 (despite the current post election surge in membership for Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties).

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Perceptions about standards of conduct in UK public institutions from 2004 to 2010 have fallen greatly.

 

 

Public trust in politicians is at such a low level, that more than three quarters of Britons don’t trust them to tell the truth.

 

 

 

 

According to research conducted by Democracy Index and Democratic Audit, voter-representative relationships are in a terrible state:

“Less than one fifth of west Europeans trust political parties and only about one third trust their governments and parliaments […] If there is a breakdown of trust, we should expect this to be at the national level.” (Democracy Index 2013, p17-19)

“Public faith in democratic institutions is decaying, and reforms aimed at restoring public confidence in democratic arrangements have tended to prove, at best, ineffectual and, in several cases, counter-productive” (Democratic Audit, p9)

Of course these points are all true for the Conservatives as well. So it would be easy to put everything down to the populist messages of the Conservatives on immigration, the EU, and on jobs, combined with the constant scaremongering that defined the election. But if Labour learns this message, it will not win a mandate for fundamental change, because Britons are not all the same, and one size does not fit all. The truth is that politics is first and foremost about relationships. It’s localized, and winning messages are based more on market research than ideological starting positions. Scottish Labour feels like a member of Labour. The perception was that when Scots voted for devolution, they simply wanted Scottish Labour to work more closely with Labour in Westminster. They didn’t. They wanted someone to put them first. The SNP feels like the party of Scotland, and so voters feel like politicians are coming to them, actively forging strong relationships, and then standing up for those relationships, and the concerns that are brought to their attention through those relationships, in Westminster.

Inclusive democracy was at the very heart of this election, and yet almost no-one seems to realize it. If Labour transitions from a majoritarian system of democracy, whereby it targets certain demographics, to an inclusive model of democracy based on the principle that relationships should be forged with all people, and all people should have the right, through such powerful messages as grassroots democracy, digital democracy  and economic democracy, then Labour will win. If they stick with majoritarian democracy, Labour is doomed.

Process versus Principle: Why can’t I vote for my beliefs?

“It’s ironic isn’t it?” Phil asked me.

I raised my eyebrow in question.

“We live in an economy designed for choice and yet the choices we make in politics are those nobody wants to take – least of all, the young.”

Phil Badger is standing in the 2015 General Election in Lewisham Deptford, for Democratic Reform. He is a Goldsmith’s Politics graduate who works at the Royal British Legion, and is standing for democracy, social justice, jobs, and affordable housing. He is the candidate I choose.

Why?

When I asked Phil to tell me more, I expected the standard argument of every politician – a justification of his own opinion, with reference to a couple of well-known supporters. Instead, Phil answered with a question – “why can’t I vote for what I believe in?”

On the campaign trail residents asked an equivalent question – can they really vote for what they believe in? We found that people often search for the best funded candidate; those people who are backed by the biggest celebrities, and are most likely to win. Yet it is well documented that politicians have lower transaction costs in representing people like-minded people. By electing the elite, and the vested interests, we perpetuate our existing problems, and make the prospect of genuine reform more unlikely. These problems lie at the heart of democracy’s present weakness, and Phil’s identification of them ensures that he prioritises constituents over vested interests.

As Phil said, irony is everywhere in British politics. Whether it be the difference between equality in principle and practice, the sometimes absurd assumptions of the political elite, the difference between our reputation for corruption and the media reports, or simply those actions and policies which contradict one another – if British politics were a mug, it would be overflowing with oxymora. Phillip’s most unique selling points are his ambitions to localise politics, increase transparency and autonomy, and open Parliament enough to provide all people with opportunities to propose ideas. Indeed, Democratic Reform’s manifesto speaks of such decentralisation that we create “modern Greek city state[s].” Furthermore, Phil’s website shows that he practices what he preaches in putting everything online. Arguably, such practices will challenge oxymoronic political language.

We are among those countries with a claim to be the birthplace of modern democracy, and yet only 44% of 18-24 year olds felt inspired to vote in 2010. Voting apathy, a trend that may have been further induced by Russell Brand’s call to boycott the 2015 election, is not an idle concern. Indeed, non-voters have been increasing in number since the mid-nineties.

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Since 2003, Freedom House has ranked the UK at a level that cannot improve in political right and/or civil liberties. Yet, combine the pessimism and low voter turnout with the way our electoral system (First Past The Post) works (not to mention recent changes to the registration process, which further reduce the number of registered young voters), and we have an almost inevitable result that 2015 MPs will have no mandate to govern the young.

Of course a Democratic Reformist government would implement Proportional Representation, and massive constitutional reforms designed to bring process and principles in line. Yet even without such reform, global expectations and hopes may be of influence. India’s Aam Aadmi Party was founded in late 2012, and based on an anti-corruption campaign, won 67 out of 70 seats in the 2014 Delhi elections. Likewise, Spain’s Podemos Party is founded up on anti-corruption and inequality. Founded in 2014, this party is already Spain’s second largest party in members.

Imagine if that happened in the UK. Imagine what would happen if the non-voters voted. Imagine what would happen if voters put principles before process. That could happen by voting for Phil. He is passionate about electoral, political, and socio-economic reform. He wants a top-down system to be renegotiated. He wants the young to become active, and he wants to engage in a continual conversation with voters – not just during the election.

Phil’s ability to assess different opportunities, make judgements, and choose the best timing to act, gives me hope that such imaginations could bear fruit. In fact, responses on the campaign trail are quite unusually positive. So perhaps hope is on our side. The question is, will the young act on Phil’s vision for democracy? Or will they act on Russell Brand’s vision for a revolution?

Alternatives to Neoliberalism

The Financial Crisis of 07/08, followed by the ensuing ‘Great Recession’, has hugely undermined faith in Neoliberalism. As Colin Crouch argued in his 2011 book “The Strange Non-Death of Neo-liberalism”, it seems that in many ways neoliberalism is actually stronger than before the crisis. Indeed, the main groups attracting protest votes are very much neoliberal, and heavily influenced by the neoconservative (the two ideologies often go hand in hand) scepticism about the stability of multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. Yet 2011 was also “the year of the protestor” thanks in large part to people’s frustration with its dominance. Moreover, if you listen to the left then No Alternative to Neoliberalismneoliberalism might be in for a fall. Even mainstream (left wing) opposition groups (e.g. Labour in the UK and Die Linke in Germany) now voice their opposition.

But what are the alternatives? After all, when the UK Labour Party was in power between 1997-2010 it governed from within the neoliberal consensus, and its elite became more as opposed to less convinced in the truth behind that consensus as time went on.

To answer this question first let us define neoliberalism. Essentially, it is a political and economic ideology very close in thought to classical liberalism. Andrew Heywood’s “Key Concepts in Politics” defines it as an ideology of the “new right”. It uses models based on the rationality of markets and individuals, places faith in the capitalist economic structure, and espouses a limited role for the state given the capitalist market’s natural tendencies towards long term growth, and the balance of supply and demand. In terms of policy it emerges as a preference for privatisation, de-regulation, low taxes, and anti-welfarism (e.g. austerity cuts to public spending and benefits).

The espoused alternatives are commonly thought to be some sort of mix or variety of Mercantilism (whereby the state makes all economic decisions) and/or Socialism (whereby control is collectively managed without regard to socio-economic differences). However applications of these alternatives don’t take the big picture into account. And in this sense it is right that they are heavily critiqued. Neo-liberalism is the antithesis of the collectivisation and nationalisation seen in the USSR, and perhaps also an echo of the corporatist third way first employed in fascist Italy. To oppose it by lurching back towards the USSR’s tactics is ultimate folly, since the same reasons why we rejected that path in the first place still stand today.

Instead of choosing between letting the state dominate the economy, and letting private capital holding elites dominate the economy; we should be looking for a third choice – and a novel one! There are plenty of new ideas out there without us constantly looking back to the twentieth century. Moreover, it’s no wonder neo-liberals have found it simple to convince people of the economic strengths of their model. Capital holding elites, and especially since the so-called “managerial revolution” and the rising strength of managers and corporations, give high priority to increasing the amount of capital. Indeed the dominant model of corporate governance around the world is that which has one prime goal: maximising shareholder value. States don’t seek the same thing, and so it’s no wonder why people have become convinced that neoliberalism is a necessary evil to keep our economies strong. But answers are out there. The German model of Corporate Governance for example, also empowers the workers, and gives them say over corporate governance. So should we all seek to copy Germany? No.

Solutions must always be adopted, and tailored, relative to local demand. But the German model of corporate governance does carry the seeds of an interesting idea. It recognises that there are other stakeholders besides state and economic elites, and it also recognises that empowering other stakeholders can potentially regulate the excessive short-termism and risk-taking that especially ambitious managers, are often willing to take.

capitalism-is-not-democracySo what would the optimal solution be for Europe? Simple. The neoliberal consensus, which has been growing since the time of Reagan and Thatcher, has reversed our prior agreement that capitalism must conform to democracy as opposed to it being the other way around. To reassert democratic control, we must seek to empower all stakeholders in the economic system (e.g. consumers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, neighbours, and the broader public). Rather than socialism or capitalism, this would be an economic democracy; a model and an ideology that has thus far been unrealised in practice, and should reflect the new counter-argument to the modern neo-liberal consensus.

Why is Democratic Participation in Decline?

People are in widespread disagreement about the extent, or pace of change, of democratic participation today. But consensus in the West agrees that voter turnout has fallen steeply, and participation in all things other than single issues has fallen alongside it.

Voter Turnout

The chart to the left is from “The Decline of Party Identifications”, in Russell J. Dalton and Martin P. Wattenberg (eds.), Parties without Partisans: Political Change in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p 73.

Even Professor Mark Franklin, who tends to be sceptical about the significance of this set of data, nonetheless calculates a decline in turnout of 5.4% over 23 democracies. For more information see p163 of ‘The dynamics of electoral participation’, in LeDuc, Lawrence, Niemi, Richard G., Norris, Pippa, eds., Comparing Democracies 2: New Challenges in the Study of Elections and Voting (Thousand Oaks ; London : Sage, 2002).

In other words consensus shows a steadily declining rate of engagement with the formal, country wide votes for parties, Members of Parliament and Presidents. And of course this strikes many people as odd. How can we be less engaged when we’re more educated than ever before, and have technological know-how to allow voting over the internet or via satellite?

Below, I discuss a few different reasons (in no order), grouped for your ease into those causes associated with the voter and society, the political establishment, and the political and economic system at large.

Causes Associated with the Voter and Society

Lack of Knowledge

This one is usually dismissed without thought. People are more educated than ever before. They have more access to the news, as well as social, political and economic information, than ever before. And yet, people also have more access to other information too. And, they’re expected to be more productive than ever before. So although in the past it might have been difficult to get information, it’s possible that we are simply so bombarded with information today that we cannot act on it all, and consequently don’t believe we have enough information or knowledge to vote.

Contentment

You’ve all heard the quote “they’ve never had it so good”. But more than a simple elitist perception, the idea that people don’t vote because they’d be happy either way does have some grounding in literature. After the end of the Cold War Fukuyama wrote in ‘The End of History’ that we have found our perfect system of governance. And speaking economically, we have obtained a degree of productivity in many countries that, if we weren’t worried by comparisons with other countries, would enable us to cover our basic needs for survival many times over, and also allow us to spend a majority of our time at leisure. Therefore some argue that people don’t vote because they’d be content with any result. Given that this leisure filled world isn’t a reality however, and it’s human nature to always want more, this argument stands on very shaky ground.

Civic Culture

Arguments harkening back to a lost golden age are usually very weak. But there has nevertheless been a shift in values since the 60s and 70s when this decline in political engagement started. Community cohesion and unity is lower in almost all countries throughout the west. The strength of ‘individualism’ has grown. People can’t remember the struggles that women and working class men had to go through to get the vote. Membership of religious organisations and trade unions have declined. And discussing a vote today is more likely to see you labelled a geek than it is win you respect for completion of your civic duties.

Pragmatism

Aristotle taught that the true nature of a thing was in its potential; both the potential to change, and the potential to become something else. Given the Aristotelian philosophical dominance over western civilisation in a great deal of the centuries since, it is no wonder that the idea of democracy gained ground. Yet ironically, the first signs of democracy coincided with the period when Aristotelian ideas were being repudiated, and the foundations of modern day pragmatism were being laid e.g. Machiavelli.

Historically, and currently too, we tend to focus more on people than decisions. And this isn’t entirely a bad thing. People and relationships are always at least 50% of any job. But nonetheless, one of my first pieces of advice to the Democratic Reform Party after taking my position as an advisor to them early this year was to focus on the decision making process. In other words I said that we should think first (I stress first, as it is not always prudent to think this way) in an Aristotelian manner, about the potential for change as opposed to thinking in a pragmatic manner about the end results. But this isn’t as radical as it sounds. The UK has held two referenda on the decision making process over a very short period of time recently – on the electoral system first, and then secondly on Scottish independence. However AV in particular failed to engage. And where Scottish independence engaged it didn’t do so on rational grounds about which outcome would be best for decision making, but rather on the nationalist argument, and on fears related to the economic outcome.

In other words, is one reason why we see less engagement today that people care less about the process, and more about the end results?

Post-Modernism

The advance of post-modernism has been cited by some as a cause, such as for example Ronald Inglehart. Inglehart went so far as to correlate the degree of focus on survival or well-being as a function of GNP per capita. Historical focuses on survival as a political matter makes things like the health service key matters of importance to the voter. Yet when wealth reaches a certain level people can become much more de-constructive about all the multitudes of political issues which affect not only short term survival such as health-care, but also long term well-being (and survival) e.g. the environment and working time directives.

Post-Modern Values   Political Engagement

Although it might not sound very post-modern to be simply talking about wealth, Inglehart also linked the subjectivism of post-modernism to the individualism encouraged by modern-day consumer capitalism.

An increasingly post-modern society is one that is increasingly suspicious of reason, and particularly ideological reasoning behind actions. Even if politicians speak the truth; how can they possibly speak the “whole truth” without re-living their entire experience word for word? It might not be intentional even. We tend to believe that people stand to be elected for good reasons. And yet there is an entirely different culture in the halls of power. And what people hear in those halls will unwittingly affect what they say, and do not say, when speaking to the electorate. In other words post-modernism could be seen to breed individualism and distrust in the political and civic institutions in which people need to have some element of trust if they are to vote.

Decline of Class Tensions

It’s very hard to get someone passionately for something unless part of that passion stems from a stance against something else. Many parties are created on class lines, especially in the two party system, where the left party represents the working class people and the right party represents the middle and upper class people. But Professor Franklin (ibid) sees a decline in class tensions, of labour vs. capital interests, and thus of the debate on the welfare state. As a consequence voters may be less passionate about what debates take place.

Diversification in Identification

Linked to the possible decline of class tensions is the growing complexity of personal identity. Think about the stereotypical 1950s housewife. She worked hard at home, took the children to school, went to church, and engaged in local civic activities when possible. Between this local affiliation and her family’s socio-economic status i.e. class, it’s quite simple to see why this stereotypical person would very rarely have been a swing voter. She identified with few things, which were easy to embody within one party. But what about the stereotypical housewife of 2014? When I googled it it came up with the tv show ‘Desperate Housewives’. But a few hits down and I came up with a gem.

“Being a housewife or stay at home mom puts you in one of the most controversial professions today. Society’s views of us fluctuate so wildly it’s impossible to keep up. On one hand we are valuable members of society who are strengthening family ties. On the other we are old fashioned and outdated, possibly lazy, responsible for thwarting the efforts of women who work outside the home and insulting the memory of those who worked so hard to obtain equal rights for women.” (http://apriljharris.com/2013/08/are-you-a-professional-housewife/)

As this quote shows, far from living in a stereotyped world of their own making, even society at large struggles to pin a single identity on housewives or househusbands today. Those who live up to some sort of stereotype themselves are simply bringing back antiquated views from the 50s.

People today are more educated, and more sceptical, than ever before. But this doesn’t mean less identities. It means more. Just think about online identities. There have been several high profile acts of online bullying in recent years, by people who don’t display any bullying tendencies in ‘normal’ life, because they create new identities for themselves online. And as people look less at the class affiliations, and start thinking about policies more and more, they come to realise that they don’t agree with any party entirely. That was actually my first shock in politics. I went to volunteer with the Lib Dems when I was 17, and I said that I was still undecided about whether to help or not because I didn’t agree with everything the Lib Dems propose. I expected the answer “well what don’t you agree with? We’ll discuss it.” But instead, I got “neither do I”. Parties have always been coalitions of different politicians. But they would like to present a single, collective identity that their voters, as one collective body, can identify with. Unfortunately, that becomes more difficult every year.

For me this growing complexity in identity is one of the most convincing arguments. Although participation with generalist parties has declined, participation with specialist political organisations, lobbies, and movements has massively increased. Think about Occupy and the protests against the Iraq War in 2003. And think about all the small, single issue political parties which have increasing support.

Causes Associated with the Political Establishment

A Plague on All Your Houses

The anti-establishment feelings are present almost everywhere, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. This explanation sees all political parties grouped under one heading as a scapegoat. But more than this, despite the fact that involvement in non-party affiliated political action has actually increased; when asked, people report less interest in politics almost everywhere. Trust in politicians has declined to staggering levels.

Failure to Adapt

Societies have undergone enormous changes in the past few decades. Yet political parties look quite comparable to those which existed in the 60s and 70s. In the words of P.Norris:

“In conditions of greater security, Inglehart theorizes, public concern about the material issues of unemployment, health care and housing no longer takes priority. Instead, in post-industrial societies, the public has given increasingly higher priority to quality-of-life issues, individual autonomy and self-expression.” (Pippa Norris, Electoral Engineering: Voting Rules and Political Behavior (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p 19.)

It takes an incredible degree of bravery to shift so radically in focus, especially when most of those people who communicate with their representatives are those who believe that the right things are being discussed, and think that they can shape the outcome in some way. How is one to know when those who hold the new, post-modern values are in the majority? When you’re talking about something so deep, polls really don’t cut it.

What results from the knowledge of such changes is often more in the way of rhetoric than action. For example UK Prime Minister David Cameron often talks (or at least talked at the beginning of his term) about social wellbeing, and yet his actions, and even his rhetoric when he is seriously proposing something, is all geared towards improving economic productivity. This isn’t an uncommon thing to happen however. Societies and polities are often slow to adapt to one another, and rhetoric without action helps change the values of others around them, and thus facilitate a slow and steady shift over a generation or two.

Causes Associated with the Dominant Political and Economic System

Market Conformist Democracy and not Democracy Conformist Markets

Is it any wonder why the only countries which seem partly able to duck these international trends are those countries least associated with neo-liberalism e.g. Denmark, Sweden and Iceland? In 2011 Professor Colin Crouch wrote ‘The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism’, in which he argued that although the recession proved several staggering deficiencies in the logic of Neo-Liberalism, mainstream parties fear to reject it.

Tony Blair famously said that winning in politics was about capturing the centre ground. And the next time his party was out of government it was replaced by one in which both the Chancellor and Prime Minister adhered to Blair’s teaching with a vehemence akin to religion. In fact both supposedly kept a copy of Blair’s autobiography on their bed-stands for months. But was Blair really finding a universal truth of politics, un-realised for thousands of years? Or was he accepting the neo-liberal dominance of politics in the world today?

The words “market conformist democracy” were spoken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and commented upon in Professor Wolfgang Merkel’s 2014 article on the contradictions of capitalism and democracy. He said he believed that Merkel must have made a mistake to say that democracy should conform to the markets, and not the other way around – a kind of Freudian slip from someone who accepts the neo-liberal consensus. But then Professor Merkel also went on to argue that this consensus, which emerged around the 60s and 70s, especially with Thatcher and Reagan, has broken the delicate balance between capitalism and democracy, which do after all have opposing goals. Perhaps we’re seeing less engagement because democracy is so far in decline that capitalism has effectively defeated it. Perhaps all we have left is the Schumpeterian democracy i.e. nothing more than a legitimation of government through a choice of leaders once every few years.

Lack of Choice

A truly values led-democracy, based not on a belief that democratic decisions are effective, but rather a belief in the people, would not be a permanent democracy. Rather, there would be an entrenched part of the constitution, which would say that every generation there would be a referendum on which type of government should be employed e.g. Oligarchy, Theocracy, Elected Dictatorship, Geniocracy, etc. This is actually a system I would very much like to see researched, and maybe even employed (depending on the electoral system used to decide the winner, and the safeguards designed to ensure that the generational referenda were always maintained). But it would be misleading to say that the form of government is the only area of agreement within the main parties of government today. There is also widespread agreement on neo-liberal tools, capitalism, the use of oligarchic components in representative democracy, and most tellingly, even on the way that decisions are formulated. For example in the UK, although Members of Parliament technically have the power to propose new laws, almost all proposals come from those few people in Cabinet who have practically no time to think upon, or research new ideas. The only party which proposed alternatives to such a system of decision making is the Democratic Reform Party.

So is this the reason? Are mainstream parties converging in ideology? There is evidence from the Comparative Manifestos Project (http://www.wzb.eu/en/research/dynamics-of-political-systems/democracy-and-democratization/projects/the-manifesto-project) that this isn’t the case, and choice is still as present as ever.

Globalisation

Why vote for those who have almost no power over the things that you really want to change?

Despite the fact that globalisation is responsible for increasing powers as well as reducing them, the view that politicians no longer have any real power is very popular. And it’s not just about international political and economic bodies like the EU, international free trade associations, the UN, the WTO, the WB and the IMF. It’s also about the growing strength of multi-national corporations, and even rich individuals. France is a perfect example. When President Hollande tried to buck the trend and increase tax on the rich, he was seriously hurt by a number of high profile people leaving the country. The power of these economic figure-heads can be seen in the media too. It would be reasonable to think that media intending to maximise sales would attack the actions of these rich emigrants fleeing the country to avoid taxes that the people gave their government a mandate to impose. And yet the attacks hit Hollande even worse, for this educated economist was labelled as someone with absolutely no idea about the real world of economics.

Lack of Time

One result of increased education may be that people begin to understand how complicated many legislative decisions actually are. When you have a full time job, a commute and a family to look after, it’s a struggle to have a hobby or to ever see your friends. Where does the time for civic duties come from? Some companies talk about letting people have time off to fulfil said duties. But such talk is almost always nonsense. Bosses frown if you ask. The work culture usually sees it as bunking off. And what happens to your work when you go away? Likely, you have to do overtime later.

In times gone by there was great speculation that increased productivity would leave us able to work less, and enjoy more leisure. But sadly, the truth is entirely the opposite, and France is just one example of a country which may soon be forced to increase the number of hours worked.

Irrationality of Representative Democracy

Individual voting is often explained by reference to the rational choice equation. Yet the problem with this is that this equation suggests voting is usually irrational. And so it may be. When you reach a size of several million one vote is a drop in the ocean. It’s like your chances of winning the Euromillions, but without the potential for winning anything personally, and with the possibility of taking a lot more of your time to know who’s who and what they stand for. In other words voting is a collective activity for the collective benefit. Individuals, as part of that collective, will benefit from the electoral outcome whether or not they vote.

So why, under this explanation, would people ever have voted? This could be explained with reference to novelty of universal suffrage, which initially caused excitement during the period 1893 to today, when universal suffrage has still yet to spread to places like the Vatican City, Brunei, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Indeed Switzerland only granted universal suffrage in the cantonal elections in 1990. The UK only lowered the voting age to 18 in 1969. And issues such as when migrants should be able to vote or stand for election, and whether children should be able to vote, are still widely discussed. So in terms of the evolution of our political systems universal suffrage is a blip on the radar. Will we stop voting when we get bored?

Conclusion

So why is democratic participation in decline? The answer clearly depends from country to country, region to region, interest group to interest group, and issue to issue. But keep in mind that this is a simple blog post, not a well researched piece. I’m well aware that I missed other causes I didn’t have time to delve into. And with such a multitude of reasons the most obvious conclusion is that pieces written by authors blaming one or two factors are either attempts to mislead the reader, or attempts to mislead themselves.

Nonetheless, what do you think are the big causes? Why do you think democratic participation is in decline?

Does Everyone Deserve Freedom?

Aristotle once wrote that there are such things as “natural slaves” (he said that slavery can only be justified with tell me what to donatural slaves, and not those who desire to make their own choices and pursue their own goals), and I have often said that in reality there are few people who want nothing more than to be told what to do (discounting those who prefer being told what to do simply because they have had to grow accustomed to it). And yet I cannot help but think that it depends on how this concept is interpreted.

In theory we could one day realize that complete economic freedom which we seem to be striving towards i.e. freedom from the necessity of human economic productivity, whereby machines would do all of our work. But how would human society respond? Some people would excel in such a world of freedom. They would become happier, more learned, more creative, more physically active, more charitable, and more socially productive. However, it seems quite likely that most would completely flounder.

How many people are socially productive in the spare time? How many people want to be if given the choice? Would Man as a Thinking Creaturea world of academics, sportspeople, artists, writers etc realistically come to pass? Or would we have a world of Hedonists, bent more towards personal short term pleasure than anything else? Combined with the forces of conservativism, which would remind people about how big a cause of depression economic unemployment has been, jobs may continue to exist solely for creative reasons, and the peer pressure for people to get an economic as opposed to social job may in fact stay.

Just as children need rules, do some adults need to be controlled (I’m not talking about criminals here, or the extent to which freedom for one person can restrict the freedom of another so please don’t open this topic in the reply)?aristotle_on_slavery Perhaps you think that we all need to be controlled, and that our efforts to ask for guidance from God(s) are just an example of this. In other words, in a world of economic freedom:

  1. Would all people (as a collective) be happier with freedom?
  2. Would they be happier if all people still had to work, but a reduced number of hours?
  3. Or would they be happier if people could obtain freedom in order to pursue socially productive, but not personally productive, goals?

P.S. To see some other recent blog posts about freedom please see the below:

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