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“The inflexibility of the laws can, in some circumstances, make them dangerous and cause the ruin of a state in a crisis. If the danger is such that the machinery of the laws is an obstacle, then a dictator is appointed, who silences the laws.”

 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

 

We may well wonder whether Rousseau is stating a fact here or being prescriptive, if indeed he discerned any difference between the two. Popularly viewed as the Father of the French Revolution, and hence a progenitor of European liberty, equality and fraternity, Rousseau is often mistakenly regarded as a proponent of democracy, which he indeed viewed as a perfect system of governance but, he stressed, one that would only work for a perfect society, a society he characterized, inter alia, as “one of gods, not men.” He was in fact an advocate of the simple life, an existence close to nature, in tune with natural cycles and the land. It resembles Gandhi’s vision of an India consisting of villages engaged in rural tasks and farming. These prescriptions for harmonious societies would seem to conflict and contrast with Plato’s Republic, which is distinctly a city-state, yet they all flounder on the concept of democracy, its meaning and function. For Plato, democracy – from demos, loosely ‘the people’ – is undesirable inasmuch as it results in mob rule. He charts four stages of rule: timocracy (rule by property-owners), oligarchy, democracy, and finally tyranny. By ‘tyranny’ he means essentially what Rousseau means by ‘dictator’, the not necessarily bad rule of a strong central figure, who steps in to correct the chaos of mob rule and unite the state. In the tribal or kinship-based societies of Africa, Melanesia and elsewhere, this is the “Big Man”, a perceived natural leader chosen for the position, not born to it. In post-republican Rome such a government was symbolized by the fasces, the commonly-displayed image of an axe bound around by sticks, origin of the word ‘fascism’. We have become so accustomed to thinking of democracy as good and, largely thanks to Nazism, fascism being bad that we now seem to be incapable of an objective view of either.

 

I will limit this mainly to the Canadian situation for brevity’s sake and because it’s where I live. What is democracy in Canada? Well, it’s a vote for everyone of age, a vote they can cast basically for one of three political parties, the winner forming a government, often with a majority in the House of Commons that allows them to enact whatever legislation or reforms they have promised from their electoral platform. The party with the next most votes gets to form an official opposition, and generally spends the next four years decrying everything the government does. The third party, nominally socialistic in ideology, and usually the New Democratic Party, has the luxury of criticizing both parties and proposing reforms it will rarely if ever be called upon to put in place, which creates a tendency towards the impractical if not the downright fanciful, and always prohibitively expensive. While the two main parties present themselves as dramatically divergent in ideology and outlook, citizens are forced to concede that when it comes to actual government there is very little difference between them, and certainly scant difference in the public effects of their rule. Taxes remain far too high; the cost of living steadily increases. Those who can tolerate the schoolyard cacophony of tuning into parliamentary shenanigans are frequently forced to admit the experience is far from salutary and often close to embarrassing. The time and vast amounts of money taken up by committees and commissions – the answers to all government dilemmas – is dishearteningly wasteful, as are the billions apportioned to boondoggles, foreign aid – when aid is needed at home — the military, and countless other dubious enterprises over which the average citizen, who finances them, has no say whatsoever. Ruling parties often come a cropper with corruption scandals, but are rarely called to account for them in any meaningful way, beyond, that is, being short of votes in the next election.

 

What is it that makes up a voter’s mind about which party to vote for? True, there are people who rather inanely and illogically always vote for the same party, presumably wantonly ignorant or uncaring of the position taken on current issues. Perhaps sadder still are those multitudes who vote for a leader they imagine to be attractive or personable, as if a seemingly nice guy or gal cannot fail to be a great Prime Minister. Then there are all those whose vote is based on some envisaged personal gain: Pot will be legal: daycare will be free. And so on. Besides the first group, whose opinion was concretized somehow in a distant era, all of these decisions are based on media coverage in some way, or perhaps we ought to call it media manipulation. The grating shallowness and vacuity of many voters is frequently highlighted by man-on-the-street interviews, where you hear either the repetition of some party boast or slogan, or else mind-boggling nonsense usually addressing the interviewee’s pet peeve. And it is the amassing, measuring and categorizing of such peeves that parties scrutinize avidly for new avenues of vote-trawling. 49 percent think there’s too much immigration? Well, maybe we should say there is too much? Or should we say there’s not enough? What do the 51 percent think? It has nothing to do with the issue itself; it is simply about the votes. This is what Plato means by mob rule, the dictatorship of uneducated masses whose vote is obtained by the chanting of shibboleths: the swamp will be drained; tax dollars will be used to benefit tax payers; economic equality will be striven for; et cetera.

 

Should everyone have the right to vote? Yes, but only if they can prove they know why they’re voting and what for. I proposed a voters’ test years ago, to be howled at: fascist, elitist, and so on. I propose it again. What is wrong with a simple test that proves you understand the issues at stake and the positions taken by standing parties? It strikes me that the only possible objections would be from parties now unable to bamboozle, wheedle and con votes out of a vast chunk of the electorate whose uninformed vote is no more meaningful than the yells of a hockey crowd. But the elected government will place inestimable importance on those votes, proclaiming them as the mandate to do whatever it was they promised to do – although the outcome is rarely anything like the promo for it, and, no matter what happens, the rich will get richer, the poor sink slowly, and everyone else will struggle to remain above water. The rule of law is a boon trumpeted far and wide, but justice is far from just. To the well-off, a hundred-dollar speeding ticket is nothing; to the poor it is a day’s wages, the difference between surviving and suffering a little. This is not remotely just. Nor is a system that makes justice a commodity you can buy: the rich man or the corporation with lawyers on staff or retainer can tie up someone of modest means in a lawsuit that will either bankrupt them or impel them to abandon a civil action that may be just and honorable. The same is true for criminal cases: the person who can afford a good lawyer usually gets a far better result. Our prisons are full of poor people. It is said that anyone can run for political office, but those who have explored the possibility discover you need far more than good will to succeed at this: you need money. Little wonder that the ruling elites of whatever stripe, most but not all of them, come from affluent backgrounds, and some are multimillionaires. Many are lawyers, who earn a thousand dollars an hour or more, and are also trained to present right as wrong, or wrong as negligible. Without inherited wealth it is difficult, but admittedly not impossible, to thrive in business. Big corporations receive government funds – tax dollars – that are frequently spent on giving top executives annual bonuses amounting sometimes to a lifetime’s earnings for the average worker, who is taxed mercilessly on a pittance, and then taxed whenever she or he buys or sells anything, seeks licenses or permits, and in many more insidious ways. In return we get the system, its laws and police, who are surprisingly unhelpful if you ever need their help, and intolerably rude if you fall foul of them in your vehicle. Then there is the health care, which private insurance has to fund anyway for those expecting top-notch care, and which in some provinces is scandalously bad. The inequities go on, and on.   Is this the democracy promised in its brochures? No wonder the young are not voting in ever-increasing numbers. They see through the charade, realize it is merely a performance called Democracy and designed to create an impression that we have one, as if changing parties every four years were the very soul spinning there in the body politic, new brooms sweeping clean, a change finally arrived, the nation great again. Could a business operate on such lines, the owner and employees gone every four years? Perhaps it could, but the real question is why would it run that way, considering the expense involved and an incoming staff, even a chief, with little or no experience of the work? In fact government ministries rely totally on a formidable excess of civil servants who are permanent, unelected and ready to work for whichever government comes next, no matter if they find its stated policies detestable or conducive. The ruling party is then, in very real terms, a façade designed to promote a certain image with its specific message or messages intended to create for citizens the illusion that these people are different. Millions are spent on marketing, branding, psychological studies, niche identification and the innumerable vagaries of leading-edge advertising in order to conceive, shape and create such illusions. Nowhere is more being spent now than on the political weaponization of social media and the Internet. The news that Russia was doing this at home and in our home ought to have galvanized some dog-hole in CSIS rather than, as was the case, setting lightbulbs ablaze inside the brains of campaign managers and strategists, who immediately asked, “Wow, well how is that done, eh?” This, instead of drafting legislation to stop abuses and nail the perpetrators. The circus will now be a CGI show, hard to tell from the real thing, and sending you – just you – news morsels it just knows you’ll adore, because you’ve clicked like thirty times on this or that. They’re vampires of attention, because once they have yours – with some trifle or innocent vice – you’re their creature, moving up to the next level. With referenda like Brexit or Catalan independence, the fear is that an organization on the lines of Cambridge Analytica will be able to sway the vote by fair means or foul. The 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty – to be clear, the dismantling of Canada – was very close indeed. A digital push and the minority becomes a majority. In the recent Quebec election, an extraordinarily large percentage of the electorate was still undecided who to vote for a day before the election. These are voters easily lured by misleading promises or unwarranted warnings.

 

Why hold elections every four years? It is the performance of that drama created so you will know beyond all doubt you dwell in a democracy, one which has of late taken to US-style braggadocio in trumpeting “the greatest country on earth” and seizing on those spurious statisticians who announce “Canada: best country on earth to live for vegetarian flautists and ballerinas of larger body-type.” Statistics, as we know, can be manipulated to show any result desired of them.  A poll or a chart is not, I’m afraid, going to give you even the faintest glimpse of what really goes on in the halls, amphitheaters, chambers, back rooms, cabinets, weekends on the links or in Bermuda, and in the many late night bars where big decisions are made. There is so much for the enterprising investigative journalist here, but who will print it? Objectivity is vanishing fast from the media, so unless a voter is willing to research a bit independently her or his vote may well soon be yet another commodity bought by those who can afford it. Democracy is no longer what it ought to be and is far from democratic. Is it time to change the system to one where there are no parties or leaders, just elected (and thoroughly vetted) experts running the nation for the nation?

 

Regarding Rousseau’s opening quote: One instantly thinks of Doug Ford’s move to shrink town hall. If I trusted Ford and believed his motives were purely altruistic, I’d have to concede that smaller government is a good thing, a thing to aspire to everywhere. But the whole Ford family is too hand-in-glove with big business to be trusted, no matter how much ‘populist sloganeering goes on. What is wrong with big business and a thriving economy, you ask. Nothing inherently, but a corporation is legally bound to make decisions benefitting its shareholders, and legally not allowed to make decisions which will reduce profits. Such restrictions particularly affect environmental issues. A costly waste disposal system that will greatly benefit the environment and is not mandated by law will not be built because its price will reduce profits. Capitalism is a fine way to create and expand a business, but to keep the share price and dividends growing profits must increase quarterly, no matter how this increase is achieved. Lay-offs, reduced quality of manufactures, and other cost-cutting measures often result from this, and as a long-term principle it has obvious problems. Such huge concerns contribute much and in many ways, not all of them legal, to political campaigns. This is not done from sheer altruism of course, and what these companies want in return are a myriad of things only governments can do, from rezoning land to acquiring permits and licenses for all manner of activities. Needless to say, some of these perquisites will not be in the public’s best interests. While Ottawa or Toronto is not infested with lobbyists for vested interests the way Washington is, Canadian politics is far from free of them. The health of the economy is always presented as something of unquestioned good for all citizens, but this is not necessarily so. The increasing privatization of major utilities is provably not in the best interests of anyone, except perhaps the new owners. Such concerns should all be state-owned since they are so vital to the welfare of all. I would include internet service providers in this group too, since the internet is no longer a luxury toy and indispensable to all, rich or poor, young or old. If any of our governments had a real concern for our well-being they would have nationalized all such utilities and operated them on a not-for-profit basis. Instead all have perpetuated the lie that nationalized industries are always badly run and costly. Ontario Hydro users can attest to this falsity, now paying some of the highest rates in Canada for a second-rate, callous and avaricious service. In short, democracy has failed us and continues to fail, continuing also to masquerade as something it is decidedly not. As we watch the steady decline and fall of America, riven by corporate greed and corruption, along with a broken political system, we ought to give serious consideration, we the people, to taking back our governance before it is too late. Revolutions must be planned carefully, to make sure that what replaces the old is not worse than it was. This requires prolonged study and the good will of all concerned; but I believe it is possible in this country, more than most in the West, to evolve a planning committee dedicated to a reasoned approach to replacing what is crumbling and atavistic with something that fully reflects the decency and egalitarianism of the public, while not exploiting the ignorance of some. Change is not just another slogan; it is a viable possibility with an intelligent population such as ours. A better society can only come into being through will, effort and a clear perception that what we currently have is collapsing and, if people of good will do not participate in the transformation, will be co opted by far darker forces, ones whose best interests are their own. I’d be interested in hearing arguments against this modest proposal and for the current system.

 

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