Recently I had an epiphany. Not the didactic kind that you find in ancient Middle Eastern travelogues; this one was secular and made in China. I was watching a documentary on recent Chinese history and had reached the bit about The Great Leap Forward. Why do they have such ridiculous names for failure? The screen presented a wrinkled elderly gentleman sitting on a chair with tears running down his face. In spite of all the decades that had passed, he was still clearly heart broken. This ancient of the Mao generation was explaining how thirty million peasants had starved to death because those in charge had found it prudent to lie to their bosses about how much wheat a Chinese field could yield. Like Chinese whispers the exaggerations had grown exponentially as they moved closer to Beijing.
The entire country had been seduced into a premature celebration of wheat so dense that the peasants were allegedly able to walk on top of it without falling to earth. This had resulted in the total crop being seized and sent to the cities in a vain attempt to satisfy the criminally flawed statistics. The weather-beaten farmer on the screen was remembering his own family members and friends that had died excruciating deaths from starvation as a result. This was not my epiphany. I’ve lived long enough to know the Chinese have no monopoly on madness. It was the last thing he said, the tears still running down his leather cheeks that got me. He said, “It’s as if the higher up a person got, the more prone they were to telling lies.”
The whole world was suddenly laid bare to me in a shockingly simple statement. It wasn’t about individuals at all, it never had been. The insanity that we live in is merely a consequence of being human. For us to function in groups some members of our tribe must be granted more power than others. Such powers will increase until we reach the dizzy heights of government. If the ancient Chinese gentleman had it right then every rung climbed on that ladder made a person a more capable and frequent liar.
Suddenly the fog lifts and all becomes acceptance. I say acceptance because that’s the best we can do, accept. Wars, famines, elite deviance, all become inevitable. History is no longer some quaint foreign tribe to be watched in black and white. It’s not some dusty book that’s sole purpose is to give socially dysfunctional academics something to talk about at the pub. History is not our soon to be forgotten past, it’s just us. That’s why nothing ever really changes. A quick glance at the world around us, and what do we see? War, famine, beheadings, feudal lords, kleptomaniac civil servants, four year plans, five year plans, and re-branded great leaps forward.
Instead of overly complicating things and putting years of thought into developing academic ideas declaring that all the world requires is a subtle tweak here, or a blow from a hammer there, and it will somehow magically start working properly, it may instead be wise to first go back to basics. Plato suggested that democracy eventually becomes despotism. I doubt any of us would argue that fascism and communism have only proved themselves a mere excuse for totalitarianism. And there’s nothing more naughty than waking up one morning and deciding to start your own religion or empire. In short, isn’t it time that we stopped being surprised when a candidate’s altruistic intentions disappear faster than a whore’s love once the deal is done and the money has changed hands?
Let’s return to my very own Chinese philosopher’s words, “It’s as if the higher up a person got, the more prone they were to telling lies.” The solution to man’s plight might be there in that very observation. Let’s first accept that we must have a hierarchy, and that there will always be leaders. According to my recent epiphany those above us will tell lies equal in size to their place in that hierarchy scale. Shakespeare wrote over four hundred years ago, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Speaking as an underling, if Shakespeare told us how the world worked over four hundred years ago then it’s about time we at least stopped living in denial. Mind you, he also said that the first thing to do after a successful coup should be to kill all the lawyers. So perhaps we should dispense with the idea of using the Bard’s work as a vade mecum and focus on the ancient Greeks instead.
We still claim to hold the principles of the ancient Greeks in high regard. All reasonable men agree that democracy is our best option, even if they have sadly forgotten what it means. Democracy means people (demos) plus power or rule (kratia). Unfortunately our modern version of democracy is a choreographed election that simply delivers impunity from accountability and prosecution to a small group of people. This is clearly madness; perhaps it’s the nation state form of Stockholm syndrome. The politics of ancient Greece was not perfect, in fact private citizens not part of the ruling class were called idiots, and that doesn’t sound very democratic to me. Poor old Socrates was critical of Athenian hegemony and look what happened to him. I told you nothing has changed. But love them or not, we have adopted the democratic ideas of the ancient Greeks as our only way out of our madness, so we should at least try to make the most of it.
So what if we take the teachings of the ancient Greeks and marry them to the thoughts of my wise Chinese peasant? The result is a clear understanding that elite deviance kills democracy and other forms of government, and not by accident, but by the very nature of man. Yet we want democracy to work because we fear the alternatives greatly. So where does that leave us? I believe it leaves us with the conclusion that our attempts at democracy have been doomed to compromise because of a missing ingredient. Politics is the art of compromise, so when the politicians need to use glue and duct tape to hold their house of cards together it should be no surprise when the compromises arrive thick and fast. Compromised democracy is not democracy so what is needed is a rigid mechanism to protect it. Before we build this mechanism we must first consider the meaning of the word democracy again – power or rule of the people. The people can’t all rule at the same time though, that would be like a football match without a referee, where the supporters debate the rules and try and agree on decisions as the game is played. That would obviously be yet another form of madness. So what shape can democracy take if the people are to play their rightful part? Well, I have an idea. Our elected leaders won’t like it though. I don’t think they like democracy very much at all, except as a safe place for them to drink Champagne to celebrate conning us ‘idiots’ again. So here is my heresy, my revolutionary act, the moment I become an enemy of state. Not the entire state, just the nefarious few that believe they are the state.
Nations form a body or bodies of citizens that operate very much like the British legal system was designed to. They appoint juries that must be selected randomly (possibly by lottery) to oversee our elected functionaries. The members of these juries would serve no more than a year, as a form of paid national service. The task of these randomly selected citizen juries would be to study and report on the performance and behaviour of those we elect. This would not be a witch-hunt because they would not be empowered to convict. However, they would be able to pass their findings to the judiciary to pursue convictions or to the relevant political party so they can take their own action when required, and this would all be done in the public domain. I am suggesting the creation of a simple mechanism to bring accountability into our democratic aspirations. Or, to put it another way, adhering to the actual meaning of the word democracy. If such mechanisms of government are at the very foundation of what being a democracy means, and our elected leaders continue to tell us that democracy is our birthright, then what are we waiting for? So says this heretic.