Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: democracy

Why Socrates Would Vote for Corbyn

I was reading Plato’s Gorgias recently and I was struck by how close this two and half thousand year old discussion was to the debate currently going on within the Labour Party. In brief, I think it is clear that Socrates would have been a Corbynista – for he advocated the need for a commitment to the principles of justice and he rejected the pragmatic need to flatter or pander to the electorate.

For those of you who have not read Gorgias I heartily recommend it. It is certainly rather funny.

It is a debate between Socrates and some of the leading teachers of rhetoric (the art of oratory) of his day. Socrates mercilessly attacks each of them and demonstrates that as the central function of oratory is to persuade others to an action which is independent of the justice of that action then the person persuaded (or the demos) has been corrupted.

The humour comes from the nearly visible eye-rolling and wry smiles you can imagine on the rhetoricians’  faces as they think to themselves that – for all the truth of Socrates’ critique – everything he says is unrealistic. People want to be flattered. We want politicians to lie to us. Justice feels far too much like hard work. Power is more important than principle.

And of course the wicked twist in this tail is that they were right. The Athenians killed Socrates for his truthfulness and his refusal to flatter them.

Today we hear that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, unpersuasive and unrealistic. He’s too principled. Far better that we accept someone to lead Labour who can ‘reach out’ to the middle and win those critical swing votes.

Is this the vapid choice that lies before us – between honest failure and the victory of the charlatan?

Well here are three reasons why I’ll back Socrates and Corbyn over the current alternative:

Truth has its own victory. We behave as if the trick to justice is to get ‘our man’ (or woman) into power. But in the process, not only do we place an unreasonable responsibility on such a candidate, we also forget that true power comes through community. As Socrates observes, the tyrant inevitably loses that which is the very best thing – friendship. The desire to gain and to keep hold of ‘power’ by tricking people into believing in you is actually the desire to take on the lonely job of manipulating others to do your will.

We commonly confuse – as Hannah Arendt observed – power and force. Control of government only gives you force; real power comes through the collective action which can also shift the will and the understanding without coercion. Offering someone control of your democratic organisation, in the hope that they can then seize power over the country, but in the name of your part, is not the meaning of democracy.

Democracy is more important than Party. Simone Weil persuasively argues we’d all be better off without the Party Machine. This is another (connected) unrealistic idea. But, even if we do not achieve that utopia, surely we must all recognise that democracy in its current form is an inevitable process of victory and defeat and that ‘our’ party cannot be right all the time. The paradox is that this also means that we should want politicians to disagree, to hold out for principles and avoid the race to the middle. It is only through this kind of democratic process that we can expect to develop and improve our society.

The fact is that we are suffering under the most extreme Right-wing Government in the developed world precisely because Labour’s long-term strategy has been to occupy the ground that is as close as possible the Tories. It is a strange form of competition to drive you to imitate your competition. In the end the result of this strategy has been to create no effective counterweight to the Rightward swing that began under Thatcher and has reached such extremes under Cameron. Debate has been stifled, interesting alternative policies are not considered and a stifling elitist consensus prevails.

In fact one of Socrates’ most powerful arguments is that these experts in rhetoric cannot even name someone whose rhetoric has left Athens in a better state than he found it. Even the greatest of Athenians found themselves attacked or exiled after their periods of leadership. As Socrates says, a true leader would not have made the people more vicious, more eager to blame and less interested in true justice. What then the legacy of the New Labour as we enter year 6 of an austerity programme condemned by the United Nations for rejecting human rights?

Argument trumps rhetoric. Modern politics has abandoned any respect for evidence, logic and the wisdom of practice. We wish to be saved from our fears and anxieties and we rush to those who promise us safety. In the end we are disappointed and in fact we knew we’d be disappointed, because we’d listened to promises that we knew lacked substance. The salesman sells and we buy, because all we are offered are competing sales pitches. We do not really believe all the rhetoric – we have just come to accept that the only choice available is to choose the best salesman, the best spin doctor.

Corbyn’s refusal to look the part, to sell himself, to use rhetoric and bombast – that’s what I love about him. I’m sure that on many matters of detail I’d disagree with him. But so what? What appeals to me is that he is offering – both within and without the Labour Party – the chance for meaningful debate.

Socrates may also have been unrealistic and there is certainly no apolitical path to justice. What I’m looking for is someone who wants to open debate – not someone with all the answers. What I’m looking for is someone who remembers that justice is never safe in the hands of the rich and powerful. What I’m looking for is someone who knows I don’t need a hero or even a leader; I just need someone who remembers that it’s ordinary people – the demos – who are the foundation of a just society.

And one last point. You may not have heard of Gorgias, but you’ve probably heard of Socrates. His ideas and his thinking survived his murder by his enemies.

Why We’re Launching the LDA for England

We are only 8 months or so away from the General Election of the 7th May 2015 and nobody knows who will win that election. However, over the last four years our Government has taught us that people with learning disabilities cannot expect things to get better on their own:

  • Benefits are being cut and sanctions are hurting and shaming people
  • Public services have been cut – 25% fewer people now get social care
  • Cuts target people with severe disabilities 6 times more than most people
  • The bedroom tax and the end of the ILF is making independent living harder 
  • Basic human and legal rights are ignored as Legal Aid is slashed
  • Thousands live in the likes of Winterbourne View instead of their own homes

The cuts and attacks have happened – not because of over-spending on disabled people – but because of bad management by Government and by the financial system. Instead of solving our real problems Government has falsely blamed disabled people for problems they did not create.

I must admit that all of this surprised me. I have no connection to any political party and, as someone who has worked in the public and voluntary sector for 25 years, mostly with people with learning disabilities, I did not expect this level of social injustice. It seems I had too much faith in the decency of the political classes and I expected a much stronger reaction from the Church, charities, the media and the general public. I just never thought things could get this bad.

We seem to be sleep-walking into injustice – how can we wake up? What can WE do?

The novelist Dorothy L Sayers wrote: “A government must be either servant or master. If you do not chivvy it, it may chivvy you.”

In modern English I guess that might translate as:

If you don’t stand up for yourself – then expect to be bossed around.

So, with colleagues, friends and other allies, we have decided to launch Learning Disability Alliance England – LDA for short.

LDA will be hosted by the Campaign for a Fair Society in England.

Our initial development group includes, people from:

  • People First England
  • Bringing Us Together
  • Housing & Support Alliance
  • The Centre for Welfare Reform

Hopefully others will join us as we grow.

We’re still at a very early stage and there’s still lots of details to work out;  but I thought it might be useful to offer some initial thinking about what we are doing and why.

First of all we want to make sure that the voice of people with learning disabilities is as loud and as powerful as possible. That’s why we are going to encourage every individual and organisation we can to join the Learning Disability Alliance.

Second we want as many people and organisations to work together as possible. The opinions of people with learning disabilities are the most important. But others can help. Families are often the key to helping people have the best life possible – they provide love, passion and support – we must listen to families too. And the voices of professionals and workers also count – they mustn’t become too loud or too important – but they still have much to say that can help.

That’s why LDA England is going to give every organisation a vote – BUT we will make sure that people with learning disabilities CANNOT be out-voted.

Third we are going to work with others. I had really hoped that perhaps some bigger alliance might emerge – women, families, disabled people, asylum seekers, the poor – they are all under attack and in an ideal world they would all work together. But this isn’t happening – so we must begin where we can and then reach out to these other groups.

There are one million people with learning disabilities in the UK. Most have family and friends, many have support from paid workers or professionals – together that’s probably about 5 million voters – 10% of the electorate.

Let’s make those votes count. Let’s chivvy back.

So this is our initial plan:

  1. Invite as many organisations as possible to join LDA
  2. Describe what’s wrong and what needs to change – develop LDA’s manifesto
  3. Listen to discussion and debate about these ideas
  4. Vote on our policies – making sure people with learning disabilities can’t be out voted
  5. Publish our own ideas, telling other voters and the politicians
  6. Test each party’s manifesto before the election and decide which best support people with learning disabilities
  7. Encourage as many as people to get out and vote

It’s going to be hard work – but we can do it. We’ve got 8 months to make sure people with learning disabilities get their voice heard and can challenge growing injustice.

Why not join us?

At the moment:

You can like our Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/LDAEngland

You can follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LDAEngland

UPDATE

You can now sign up online: www.learningdisabilityalliance.org

What Would Aristotle Make of Modern Britain?

Aristotle famously divided the forms of government into three:

  • Monarchy – rule by one
  • Aristocracy – rule by the best
  • Polity – rule by the many

Each in turn can be corrupted into:

  • Rule by a tyrant, who is concerned only with his own interests
  • Rule by oligarchs, an elite who protect their own interests
  • Rule by the mass or the mob, who look after the interests of the majority

In other words we can distinguish the structural forms of government, from their proper concern: which in all cases is a full and balanced concern for the whole community – over time – including respect for the past, as well as concern for the future.

How would Aristotle classify the modern welfare democracy of the UK today?

Structurally it is a mixed model: (1) a constitutional monarch (2) competing elites, taking turns to control a bureaucracy which is itself an elite, or transferring power to private businesses, where similar elite groups can be found (3) accountability every five years to the population through an election.

But what is the spirit of this trifold constitution? Is it properly concerned with the welfare of all and the communities well-being and continuity over time? Or is it only interested in promoting particular interests? Is it healthy or is it corrupt?

Aristotle was no fool. He would probably recognise that no society can ever manage to avoid some degree of corruption – people will just keep seeking to look after their own interests or the interests of their friends. But he would surely worry, looking at the UK today, that the direction of travel is unhealthy. The elites who run our society begin to look more and more like each other; and less and less like the rest of us. And their conception of what is good for society sounds more and more like what is good for them.

The Benign Dictatorship of Democracy

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood; it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided that they think of nothing but their rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and sub-divides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America

de Tocqueville’s critique of the growing power of central government in America in the nineteenth-century can be amplified many times in the twentieth-century, but with some new twists. For, of course democracies, are not interested in everybody’s interests to the same degree. Political leaders need votes – and some votes are more equal than other votes. For instance, in the United Kingdom successful political parties must capture the swing votes – so the interests of swing voters matter more than those of anyone else. This distorts political judgement and is particularly damaging to the interests of the poorest.

An even more fearful risk is that, when times are tough, central government will stop being benign. It may find that some people – perhaps Jews, perhaps disabled people, perhaps immigrants – can usefully be blamed for problems that central government can’t solve, perhaps even blamed for the very problems that central government itself caused.

Democracy is the only acceptable political form for citizens, but the current democratic system is failing both to treat us as citizens and our leaders seem to be losing the necessary self-discipline to ensure that hunt for power is not carried on at the expense of justice.

The Tyranny of the Medianocracy

Aristotle feared that democracy might become the rule of the mob, the demos. He saw their short-sighted, wilfulness as a threat to good order. Of course Aristotle did not know how big and powerful a state could become, nor how sophisticated the democratic process could be at refining the will of the people.

Today, at least when it comes to matters of money, the real threat to good order does not come from the rich or the poor but from the median voter. The rich, as always, can always buy themselves some power but it is the median voter – the swing voter – who holds the key to power. Typically the median voter is also the media income earner and so politicians have learnt how to bend the welfare and tax systems to ingratiate themselves with this group.

In the central distributionary matters of tax and benefit policy there are two competing tactics at play. The Right tries to find ways of making the median voter believe that they are one of the rich, but are being exploited by the poor; the Left tries to make them feel that they are one of the poor, and are being exploited by the rich. The reality is that it is the median man who is exploiting both rich and poor.

What justifies extra high tax rates for the rich? The rich must pay more in tax, of course they must, but it is more difficult to explain why they should pay at a higher rate of tax. What justifies the even higher marginal tax rates (or benefit reduction rates) faced by the poor? If high taxes create disincentives then the poor should face the lowest tax rates – not the highest.

Rationality supports neither policy. In fact both poor and rich groups are more likely to be subject to disincentive effects than are middle-earners; for they are not in the kind of steady and secure work that the typical middle-earner enjoys. It is not rationality or economics that explains the current system – but political pandering to the key voter group.

We currently live in a medianocracy and this distorts our tax, benefit and welfare systems. Constitutional government has always been justified on the basis that the rule of law must also be used to discipline the will of the people. It seems to me that we must begin to learn now what rules should discipline the welfare system. A fair welfare system would pay much more attention to ensuring that those who worst off were given the fundamental guarantees and securities that protected their active citizenship.

Democratic Welfare Reform

The struggle for democracy offers us a parallel to the struggle for welfare reform. People need more control over their own lives, within an institutional framework that creates rights and opportunties for redress. We must end the feudal assumption of the current elite that their power brings with it all the necessary authority and wisdom to rule every detail of our lives.

Democratic Welfare

The struggle for democracy offers us a parallel to the struggle for decent welfare reform. Without this struggle political systems tend to autocracy and elitism.

Welfare reform does not mean unfair cuts or mindless tinkering from Whitehall.

Welfare reform should mean helping everyone have more control over their own lives, within an institutional framework that creates universal rights and opportunities for redress. Democracies have always attempted to achieve this – not just by creating processes for collective decision-making, but also by protecting the rightful autonomy of the individual from state intrusion.

We must end the feudal assumption of the elite that their power gives them the necessary authority and wisdom to rule every detail of our lives. A decent welfare system would give:

  • Clear universal rights to income, education, healthcare and disability support
  • Maximum control for citizens
  • Positive incentives for earning and saving
  • Stronger families and communities

It took a long time, and a lot of political organisation from outside the existing political elites, to ensure universal suffrage for men and women. We cannot expect the existing system to deliver positive change on its own; we will need organisation, ideas and alliances that make sense to ordinary people.

Education, Democracy and America

In America, on the contrary, it may be said that the township was organised before the county, the county before the state, the state before the union… …The law enters into a thousand social wants that even now very inadequately felt in France.

 But it is the mandates relating to public education that the original character of American civilisation is at once placed in the clearest light. “Whereas,” says the law, “Satan, the enemy of mankind, finds his strongest weapons in the ignorance of men, and whereas it is important that the wisdom of our fathers shall not remain buried in their tombs, and whereas the education of children is one of the prime concerns of the state, with the aid of the lord…” Here follows clauses establishing schools in every township and obliging the inhabitants, under pain of heavy fines, to support them. Schools of a superior kind were founded in the same manner in the more populous districts. The municipal authorities were bound to enforce the sending of children to school by their parents; they were empowered to inflict fines upon all who refused compliance; and in the cases of continued resistance, society assumed the place of the parent, took possession of the child, and deprived the father of those natural rights which he used to so bad a purpose. The reader will undoubtedly have remarked the preamble these enactments: in America religion is the road to knowledge, and the observance of divine laws leads man to civil freedom. 

Alexis de Tocqueville from Democracy in America (1835)

de Tocqueville notices some very interesting features of the early American social and political system.

There is first the genuinely ‘federal’ character of early American political organisation. Authority is seen to lie in citizens, then towns, counties and then it moves upwards to the state and the union.

Yet he also observes that, at that time, American society was not individualistic nor anti-social. To de Tocqueville it was extraordinarily social:  the desire to do good and to attend to “social wants” is everywhere.

The paradox is that ambitious social concern combined with a federal and legalistic society lends itself quite naturally to demanding a state that can increasingly interfere with individual liberty. By the standards of the time, America was certainly a nanny socialist state. Perhaps its current liberalism is a reaction against this early enthusiasm.

However, some resolution to this paradox is found in the role played by religion in early American life. While tolerating diversity of religious practice, American society seems bound together in a shared moral concern for each other that is religious rather than liberal. However this is counter-balanced by a distinctively protestant concern for the liberty of the individual soul. The notion that any citizen can be sacrificed for the sake of the collective would be profoundly problematic for such a protestant country.

Today we are more sanguine about sacrificing the individual for the collective. Mechanisation, atomisation and the erosion of moral and religious feeling all encourages a sense that we are just all part of some vast machinery of need and production and that our role is simply to play our part and to try and squeeze out for ourselves whatever share of the social product we can manage.

If we are not careful citizenship stops being the foundation stone for a just society – instead it simply becomes a way of flattering us into accepting our role as mere subjects of the state.

© 2017 Simon Duffy

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑