The slow death of democracy is a lot like the climate crisis. It is a problem so big that we have no idea how to stop it. It may be even harder to fix than climate change. At least with climate change most of us have accepted that there is a real problem and there is public desire to address it. There seems to be no public recognition of the dire situation our democratic systems are in.
A properly functioning democracy involves the people electing representatives who have the power to change things for the better, or at the very least stop things from getting worse. Our Governments are supposed to have real authority. They generate revenues primarily from us and are supposed to use that revenue to provide services and societal necessities like policing and emergency services. They are supposed to regulate economic activity to ensure that there is some semblance of equality. Things are supposed to be ever improving and we should be able to confidently expect that our children will have better lives than we, like we have better lives than those that came before us. That expectation is now broken and with it will go real democracy.
The biggest problem now facing democracy is that those we elect no longer have the power to improve our lives. The worst thing about this is that they have given it away willingly. Sometimes simply to avoid responsibility but more often in a deliberate and calculated way. The USA is perhaps the best example. They have a national debt of over 20 trillion dollars. This is a mind boggling figure.
At the same time U.S. households hold over 98 trillion dollars in net wealth. If this was split evenly, every citizen would have some 343,000 dollars each. Except it’s not split evenly. The top 20% hold 77% of wealth. And the sovereign government of the people is broke. The problem is only going to get worse. You know it’s an issue when many of the Silicon Valley wealthy are calling for a Universal Basic Income. It will be hard to sell stuff when nobody has any money. Recessions accelerate the problem. Only the top 20% have recovered from the last one.
While the public has not fully grasped the fact that they have been robbed, they know something is wrong. Populist politics is on the rise and despite voters best intentions, those that are riding the populist wave are going to make the problem even worse. Donald Trump has no interest in fixing wealth inequality. He just wants more for himself. When somebody like him is the final roll of the democratic dice, you know the system is on its last legs.
The internet has made matters worse. It has allowed populists and bad agents to obscure what is really going on. It is now commonplace for lies to be told. The British Conservative party’s blatant misrepresentation of their twitter feed as ‘Fact Check UK’ is a good example. There was no outcry. We have come to accept dishonest tactics like this as par for the course. There is no electoral cost to dishonest tactics. But there is much to gain.
Politics is now about the division of the ever reducing slice of the wealth cake that is left to citizens. When the public is fighting over scraps it is hardly surprising that few see the bigger picture. Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ comes to mind. People don’t contemplate the bigger picture when they are struggling to pay rent or put food on the table.
Ireland has thus far avoided blatant populism in government but it is only a matter of time. Our cake is shrinking too. The rise in racism that some politicians are utilising to great effect is a sure sign. The people are fighting over the reducing cake and looking for someone to blame. ‘Foreigners’ are an easy target. The fact is that immigrants are trying to make their way in the world the same as the rest of us. The blame lies elsewhere.
Raw capitalism is a failed ideology. The belief that competition is always better is wrong. The belief that only the private sector can successfully run enterprise is wrong. Every time a profitable enterprise is given to the private sector we pay the price. When the government forgoes income like this it places a greater tax burden on citizens, or it reduces services.
We now have private operators on some profitable bus routes. The rationale behind this was that private operators would operate more efficiently and fares would reduce, thus serving the public good. The reality is that removing profitable routes from the state operator reduces their ability to provide public service routes which are loss making. The private operators have no interest in these. It also reduces the potential dividends that the state would otherwise receive. Dividends to the state reduce the tax burden on us all, and allow for better services.
Private operators also pay lower wages. This reduces the tax these workers pay to the state. These lower wages also put downward pressure on other people’s wages, again reducing the state’s tax take. The only winners here are the shareholders of the private company involved. Everybody else loses.
Our Airports are another good example. Airlines are making huge profits. The government in their wisdom insist on independent regulation of the price our largest Airport can charge. This effects what the other airports can charge. The price is ever reducing while airline profits are ever increasing. The state owns the Airport and is forgoing what would otherwise be higher dividend payments in order to enrich airline shareholders.
The Irish Government recently signed a contract that will see us spend 3 Billion Euros on the national broadband plan. This investment would be better termed a gift. We won’t own the network once its built. There are many more examples. Each with the same winner. Private company shareholders.
The only way to save real democracy is to redress the balance. Politics cannot function if Governments have no real power. We cannot allow a situation where private shareholders hold all the cards. These shareholders understandably act in their own interests, not for the public good. Legislation is needed to provide balance.
Company boards should contain stakeholders who have better motives. Elected workers should be on all boards. Local people effected by a company’s action should be on these boards. If we cannot take the wealth back from private hands then we should limit their ability to call the shots. If private companies are destined to rule the world, then that’s where democracy is needed most. Multinational companies will be a challenge but they must be tackled in the same way. It’s sad that a proposal like this is now extreme. We all live on this planet together. We will never achieve complete equality but the current situation is untenable.
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