Evolution, politics and democracy  

Having lived for the vast majority of our existence as a species under a system of government which depended on a chief of some type – a tribal chief, a king or a dictator – we live now in an era in which democracy is the most widespread political system. It seems to have taken over. I am though concerned about its longevity and how firmly rooted it is.

It is worth noting that the original UN constitution made no reference to democracy until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war. It was only in 1999 that the UN’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man was modified to include:

“the right to full participation and other fundamental democratic rights and other liberties inherent in any democratic society.”

The result? Almost every government now proclaims itself to be a democracy. This is hypocrisy for many, but they think that they ought to pretend because it is the preferred international model. They can often lie with impunity because it is difficult to show that a country is not in fact a democracy. But as we know, a democracy doesn’t exist simply because there is an election from time to time. There need also to be the conditions required for a genuine form of participation in those elections. This requires not only a voting booth, but the liberty to vote against those in power without fear of the consequences – and so freedom of opinion and expression and the rule of law. Thus a country can easily say that it is democratic when in fact the real exercise of democracy is prevented in order to allow the sort of corruption which we see in Russia and various other countries at the moment.

But we can see from recent events in Western countries, even those with a strong tradition of democracy, that democracy can go wrong. Difficulties emerge in part because of the party system. A major party is resistant to the normal pressures of natural selection, even when it no longer actually responds to the wishes of the people and the circumstances of the times. This is in contrast to the position of independent MPs who are much more easily removed. Parties will have money, investments and a party structure, all there to assure the continued existence of it and its philosophy in their darkest moments. So then it has an inertia which is difficult to stop. Its self-belief creates an impression of invulnerability. In turn, this discourages the formation or the growth of other parties or the departure of its supporters to join a new party, for fear of finding themselves in the political desert. Obviously even a party (or an organisation) with a long history can finally disappear. But the process is not straightforward. Normally it follows a period of tension which stretches the elastic until it finally breaks. It is similar to the evolutionary process of ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’. Dinosaurs dominated the world for almost 200 million years until a catastrophic change in the climate suddenly removed them. In turn, this allowed some other little animals to replace them, which had not until then made much progress: primitive mammals, our ancestors. The dinosaurs never made it back.

And it might just be that we are now in a state of change in the political climate which will initiate yet another era. Recently we have seen political earthquakes in Europe. In Germany, Austria, Italy, Poland, Hungary and other countries we have seen the growth of extremist parties which, until now, were at the margins or simply did not exist. In France, miraculously, a new party of the centre won. But elsewhere the traditional parties have not succeeded in recognising and suggesting solutions for the problems perceived by the voters to be important. And so democracy suffers. It suffers because when there is not a choice which speaks to the voters, they have a tendency to lose their faith in the system and not vote, because it’s not worth the bother, or they vote for extremist parties as a protest. Disenchantment with democracy has also arrived in the UK. According to a series of surveys, the proportion of our fellow-citizens who support an authoritarian leadership of our country - a ‘strong man’ - has increased from 25% in 1999 to 50% now. Those under the age of 25 are much more critical of democracy than the corresponding age group was 20 years ago.

Supporting the idea of an authoritarian form of government indicates another element of the problem for democracy – the people and their credulity. As we have seen, when the traditional parties don’t provide policies which are attractive to the masses, it benefits the extremist parties, or as I prefer to think of them, the unrealistic parties. In Italy, for example, the extreme right wing party, the Lega, is proposing to deport 600,000 immigrants shortly after taking office. Quite how, they haven’t explained, but it gave them more votes than Berlusconi’s party. The other winner from the Italian election, M5S, Beppe Grillo’s party, considers that Italian citizens are so well informed about and engaged in political matters that they can be relied on to vote digitally from their homes in place of MPs – a sort of continuous referendum. In numerous countries in Europe, the extremist parties doing remarkably well are supporters of nationalism in a barely concealed racist form.

In the UK, we have seen a resurgence of nationalism in the form of the demand to ‘take back control’, as the answer to all of our problems. At the same time, we have a Labour Party of the extreme left.  Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are both admirers of Lenin and Trotsky and all things communist. They want to nationalise most things because they are against the profit motive, except perhaps for the sale of the vegetables grown in Jeremy’s allotment.  According to McDonnell, in an interview on the Today programme earlier this month, they would make massive ‘investments’ in infrastructure in order to achieve fairness as between the different areas of the UK.  Who would decide what this fairness consisted of in the various contexts and how much to spend in order to attain such a vague objective is not clear. 

And when the electors in the various countries realise that they’ve been duped?

But there is yet another factor when considering democracy: the European Commission. We criticise countries such as China and Russia which allow their authoritarian heads to remain in power indefinitely. It makes corruption and a complete disregard for the good of the people far more likely. But the European Commission doesn’t exist solely in order to implement the wishes of elected representatives, as would a normal bureaucracy. It proposes laws. It upholds what it defines as the values of the EU and any suggestion of change is met with resistance. It is in fact a self-perpetuating part of the government of the EU and has been in office since the beginning. And we can see from the attitude of many people in the EU that they regard it as not representing their interests and not to have democratic legitimacy.  The irony is that, at last, and in no small measure because of British efforts, the overweening power of the Commission is now being reduced - just as we're about to leave!

Perhaps we shall arrive at a stable political destination over the next few decades. It is not, though, only the destination but also the confusion during the transition which may be difficult. We shall see a variety of parties and ideas which will fight for supremacy in a form of natural selection. We cannot even be sure that our new-found democracy will continue to be the dominant system. Being nice doesn't always beat brutality in the evolutionary struggle.


22 March 2018

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