Democracy? You’re Standing in It

7 November 2008

Or the Illusion of Representation

Scottish Parliament - debating chamber, by Daveybot, with Creative Commons licenceDemocracy is the point at which freedom concedes to the majority, when the power to effect change is harnessed by the need to protect social mores. As a sort of rolling compromise, reassessed daily, reconfigured through political decisions quite removed from the experience of the general populace, it’s bound to disappoint. Those charged with representing the electorate, however it might be formed, are at best tangential in their politicking, presuming that their decisions are feasible for society as a whole. This somewhat shaky concept rests on the settled ground of the convention that once every certain number of years, or in an otherwise defined period, public participation determines the composition of the legislature.

In other words, we hold elections and hope for the best.

But what happens if public participation, as represented by votes cast, falls below a critical level? Can we still claim to have a democracy when insufficient electors determine who will lead and legislate? To what extent should representative democracy actually involve direct representation through election? Determining the threshold below which we might be able to say that a country has only a democratic façade could hardly be a straightforward task, given the many permutations of representative democracy around the world. Without considering gerrymanders or other electoral systems that restrict voting rights, how do we determine whether a democracy is, in fact, democratic by the standards I’ve set?

What immediately springs to mind is measuring the turnout of registered voters, but few countries make voting compulsory, so the extent to which those eligible actually bother to register will vary from country to country. The voting age also differs between countries, so pools of eligible electors won’t be directly comparable either. My initial guess is that an appropriate measure would be the number of people who voted as a percentage of the total population, on the presumption that democracies – Western representative democracies at least – have similar percentages of non-eligible voters, with a possibly higher than average non-voting prison population in the United States but similar percentages of underaged populace in most countries (only 7 countries have a voting age of 16, with most of the rest set at 18 and two at 25).

365-268, by sallyrye, with Creative Commons licenceNow this is by no means a precise measure, but it will allow me to discuss something curious about the presidential election in the United States this week. With the world almost literally watching, Barack Obama won an impressive victory. He’s an impressive man; I hope my children watch him as they grow older and realise that someone born of two cultures into a world of discrimination can excel, and do so based on convictions rather than malice. And we can all only hope that his politics are more representative of America’s aspirations than those of his predecessor. But it might be hard to tell.

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Who’s Responsible?

18 September 2008

Thoughts on a Local Hero

Responsibility and conformity are far too often confused. We tend to think of the responsible person as the one who smooths over trouble, avoids unnecessary repercussions and – by and large – supports the status quo. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Responsibility is about understanding the scope of a situation and acting in such a way that a defined set of beneficiaries – regardless of how small or large – do in fact benefit, or at the very worst don’t suffer unduly. Whether the status quo is maintained or mauled is well and truly beside the point.

What’s necessary is a clear understanding of the people to whom you are responsible, what they want and need, and what you can deliver them, in all likelihood. Nothing of this suggests that a responsible person should avoid change or risk. But still we imagine that a responsible father or a responsible citizen should never dream of struggling against authority. And we are so very wrong. It is well within my capacity as a responsible father to act against a government, thereby ensuring, or helping to ensure, that my children need not endure racism or other forms of discrimination, to ensure that they gain the full benefit of the law as it applies to them in its many forms.

But what about the responsible citizen? I would wager no small amount that civic instruction never encourages resistance to state power, never understands the necessity of questioning how that power is channelled towards the populace. The good citizen is the compliant citizen, the complacent citizen. Or so it would seem. But there is another model, the citizen activist, although it wouldn’t be difficult to brush aside many such people as ineffectual. You know, the always protesting type, the politicised refusenik. Still, there is one responsible person who can make a difference, who is always looking to a future of change  – but first allow me to set the scene.

In Hong Kong conformance means short hair and a career structure, a suit and a fist full of business cards. But that doesn’t mean that everyone toes the line. Jeans, t-shirts and deliberately bad haircuts are common, and despite what the stereotype might convey, not many people are really interested in careers. They’re just interested in getting by. One of the city’s true charms is that non-conformance is very much possible, in public life as in private.

Still, Hong Kong is perpetually trying to adjust to one of the least conformist though most responsible activists in its midst. On many levels Leung Kwok-hung is a typically disruptive anarchist – a self-confessed Trotskyite who has been at the throat of authority since the Maoist riots against the British in the late 1960s. In his first term as a Legislative Council member he continually disrupted proceedings, entirely failed to comply with the dress code (his somewhat cringe-worthy trademark is a Che Guevara t-shirt) and spent significant amounts of time either under arrest or in court for various protests. His nickname is Long Hair, and although it’s an accurate description – he refuses to cut it until the mainland government apologises for the Tiananmen Square massacre – it’s not difficult to detect the opprobrium therein

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So You Think You Want a Revolution?

30 August 2008

The Misbehaving Middle Classes and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

Revolutions are rarely what they seem. Forget streets awash with slogan cant and fists clenched in undiminished rage. Ignore pundits who proclaim the death of hope as wayward regimes slide beneath the waterlines of hubris. Revolutions move, change, retreat and advance. They’re about people doing things beyond the norm, when the status quo no longer holds sway. Revolutionaries might well be ideologues, or keepers of the faith, but within the chaos of change they haven’t really got a clue. Revolutions fail because all things fail – that’s preordained – but their dynamics catch everyone by surprise. Take the time to read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and you’ll ask yourself not so much what you’ve learned about the act of revolution, but how much you’ve cast aside.

What does Satrapi’s graphic novel, re-released to accompany the film of the same name, tell us about this weighty matter, this thing we call revolution? How can a mere comic book speak of concerns more significant than teenage angst and passing fancy? By combining two earlier volumes of black and white simplicity, by illustrating with an economy of effort that balances a density of dialogue, it gives us tumultuous change through the eyes of a girl who grows into a woman, and grows apart. By casting herself as the main character Satrapi tells us that revolutions are not simply events, they’re intensely personal. And by their very nature they’re built on middle class misbehaviour, with the bourgeoisie struggling to retrieve a relinquished past that they might or might not really understand.

At one level a simple account of teenage rebellion, along with premonition and consequence, Satrapi’s narrative also slaloms across her more impressive family history. Her grandfather was a prince of Persia, her uncle imprisoned by the second Shah of Iran and again after the Shah fled, she a teenage brat packed off to Austria after radical Islamists captured the post-revolution state and made of it a doctrinaire training camp for martyrs in the war against Iraq. To mention, without that sort of reflection, that her parents were committed Marxists who lost their rebellion and chose quietude over death would have been to offer a sanitised middle-class soap opera. Instead we are given pathos in the repudiation of action to ensure that young Marji might know freedom elsewhere.

Even after the girl slinks back from Austria, a whiney, unlikeable adolescent stumbling into adulthood, it is to her parents’ home she returns. And it is they who refrain from condemning the calamity of her marriage, her many mistakes. When Marji finally leaves for France as an adult her personal revolution is complete. She has returned to her origin and gained the freedom to move out again. All the while her parents, and her almost ever-present grandmother, counterbalance the changefulness of the Iranian regime. They offer freedom and growth, they give their daughter the chance to learn for herself, while the regime constrains, deforms, murders.

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You Will Believe!

17 August 2008

The Economist on Marx

Every publication needs a conceit, a sort of literary attitude that extends across issues, separates believers from the heathen, occasionally flows into a full article, but more often manifests in a well-placed quip or a scornful remark. Wired has its peccadillo for predication, and the New Yorker its disdain for the drudge of popular culture. The Economist is a little more sophisticated, but no less enthusiastic in its construction of a bête noire. It has Karl Marx, and it just won’t let go.

Consider last week’s issue of the magazine. Buried in a leader on the failed intellectual “heirs” of Russian literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the grand old rag of English conservatism slipped in a warning that “ideas should not be suppressed, but nor should they be worshipped”. In the context of the article that wasn’t a particularly significant statement – the problem of co-opted intellectuals, of ideas held rigidly in place and manipulated by the state, was its central theme. So why bother to distil the argument into a single sentence at all? Because it set up a strained comparison of Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalised condemnation of Soviet excess, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Communist Manifesto.

Of course Karl Marx and Manifesto co-author Friedrich Engels weren’t named in the article, all the better to maintain Solzhenitsyn’s status as a “great man” and underscore his well-known opposition to Marxism. But more than a simple genre-hop in pursuit of easy political points, the comparison pointed back to a long-term illogic in the magazine’s stance towards communism in general and Marx in particular. An illogic, I should add, that is very likely to comfort its core of conservative readers.

The article mentioned that “in 1848 two well-meaning intellectuals published another powerful indictment of a system, and their ‘Communist Manifesto’ went on to enslave half of mankind”. In the broadest possible sense, taking the words not at their literal meaning but as a loose pointer towards a series of documented historical events, you could say – on the balance of probabilities – that this is an adequate observation.

But if you think in more precise terms, the statement is clearly illogical. A book enslaved half of mankind? No, a political system did, or might have done depending on how you define ‘enslave’. And when you consider how that political system – wherever it was localised after the Bolshevik revolution – started at precisely the point at which the Communist Manifesto ended, with the dissolution of the old state, then the argument is little more than wasted ink.

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City of Silence

26 July 2008

In Hong Kong, Who Speaks to the Unspoken?

There has long been a crucial link between politics and the mass media that plays out in the background of our lives. Leaving aside self-congratulatory accounts of the so-called ‘fourth estate’, the media communicates what politicians want known. Occasional exposés break this comfortable relationship, but even in criticising government action, the media more often than not barely scrape the surface of the issues behind political decisions. The focus remains on the head of the body politic, not the organs that make it function. So it comes as little surprise that media commentary on the Hong Kong government’s decision to suspend a levy placed on the employers of foreign domestic helpers completely misses the point.

First, a little background. Following the economic downturn generated by the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, during 2003 the local government decided to reduce the minimum wage payable to foreign domestic helpers – mainly Indonesians and Filipinos – and tax their employers to the tune of HK$400 a month. You might not see the immediate logic in this, until you realise that the euphemistically named ‘levy’, promoted as a way of collecting funds to help retrain locals disadvantaged by economic restructuring, was meant as a disincentive. Hire a foreign maid and pay for it. The operative word here is foreign; the idea was to have employers hire local helpers. Given the draconian conditions and low pay involved, few took up the offer.

In fact, the much vaunted multi-billion dollar retraining slush fund seems never to have been touched. With every request for information about it the government slides almost effortlessly toward another topic. The media doesn’t press too hard, so the issue fades until the government stumbles in one of its convoluted populist gestures. That happened recently when, as part of hastily assembled package to limit the effects of inflation, the government proposed a suspension of the levy for two years.

Given that the suspension applies to all contracts initiated within the period, it seems like a reasonable saving, until you realise that the HK$9,600 saved over the two years would be barely a few months’ lunch money for many employers, and hardly an amount substantial enough to somehow, miraculously, mitigate against inflation. As the package of ‘relief’ measures includes no incentives for saving, any money retained will most likely go to increased consumption.

Hey, presto! More inflation.

And what about the intended recipients of this ill-judged largesse? Well, some of them just can’t wait until September, when the suspension was first slated to start, and have started giving their maids notice – although in my neighbourhood some helpers have already been summarily dismissed. It would be entirely reasonable to ask why, and the tortured logic behind it is that the employers can save money now by dismissing their helpers and re-hiring, or hiring again, when the suspension comes into effect. Aside from the fact that this is completely illogical – the employers will save the entire amount when they renew the two-year contract anyway – it shows a callous disregard for the helpers themselves.

So, is the media focusing on this breach of human decency? No, not at all – and that observation covers both the English and Chinese language press. Typically, the coverage is mentioning the situation and interviewing NGOs that help maids, and the ever quote-worthy head of the foreign domestic helper employer group. But no-one has bothered to interview a single helper. The English language dailies could easily do that, given that most Filipino domestic helpers here, at least, have a better command of English than some of the reporters. But not a word.

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In Civitas, Servitude

8 June 2008

On the Implications of Citizenship

Loyalty conflict, by beta karel, with Creative Commons licence Who wants to be a citizen? That’s an important question because most people are never asked. They’re born into the role and it could well mean very little to them in their daily lives. Sure, many people apply for citizenship, even hold dual citizenship and are expected to walk away from something to prove their complete or provisional loyalty. But most of us simply think of citizenship as an ideal and the citizen as someone lodged between a role model and a relic, depending on the point of view. Still, we keep talking about responsibility to this country or that, and the dubious ‘fact’ that rights bring with them duties. These are traces of citizenship buried within our perceptions of the world. But do we want them, and even more importantly do we need them?

My answer is no.

In a previous post I made clear my position on citizenship. With its links to civility, in its attachment to the status quo at some level or another, the very notion is a curb on dissent. You could counter that the idea of ‘social citizenship’ actively encourages change with its focus on equal rights and opportunities. But even if that focus leads to activism, it is a form of activism that carries with it an implicit allegiance to equality as a new status quo, another way of dressing up the body politic.

Throughout its history the seemingly natural concept of the ‘citizen’ has always shifted attention away from the implications of citizenship. The English word derives from the Latin ‘civitas’, which denotes place of residence and political affiliation together. A citizen was originally a product of a city-state – Rome principally, but also the Greek city states before it. The city created the citizen, gave him rights above others and responsibilities in government. In the shift to democracy and other modern forms of governance the word has never lost that dual designation of person-place.

What unites us is greater than what divides, by seriykotik1970, with Creative Commons licenceSo can we ever be citizens of the world, as some people like to declare themselves? Yes, of course, but there will always be a tension between the place of origin and the place of domicile. Those who hold citizenship in one country and live in another generally lack rights of some kind. I’ve met Filipinos who have lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years but have no legal right to reside here longer than the term of their current labour contract.

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On Playing Politics

4 June 2008

The Case for Grass-Roots Ideology

365.035, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licencePolitics is all too often seen as a dirty game, an exclusive sport with privileged winners and disappointed, disenfranchised losers. If we think of formal politics we imagine the accumulation of power and influence, the control of society. That certainly happens, but politicians don’t get their way without networking, convincing, demonstrating and deterring. Even in societies that lack democracy there is still a great deal of these things going on. I’ve written about this before, labelling it populist governance here in Hong Kong – the pseudo participatory politics that happens when choices are limited. Not much changes, but formal politics is often more about activity than substance.

And then there are the reactions to situations in which not much is happening – grass-roots politics most people call it. For some, working at the social rather than institutional level is what really matters. Forming alliances where and when you can to support a cause seems pragmatic – we don’t all need to be career politicians. But even then the very notion that attention might focus on just the wrong aspect of an event is frowned upon.

Someone is always ready to claim that someone else is ‘twisting’ a situation for their own gain.

Negative Revolution, by Grim Reaper With A Lawnmower, with Creative Commons licenceRecently, an accusation of playing politics was levelled against some of the people concerned with the wider implications of the mysterious disappearance and death of Vicky Flores here in Hong Kong. When I mentioned this to James Rice, a fellow member of the Justice for Vicky concern group, a former lawyer and currently an Assistant Professor in philosophy, he said quite enthusiastically, “guilty as charged!”

What does it mean when we play politics – who really stands to gain? Many times corruption and the naked abuse of power answer that question with ease. But returning to the grass roots, down closer to the dirt of life, there really isn’t much to gain personally from entering the game. It takes up a great deal of time, effort, energy and often money for little reward. In steering a limited issue toward a broader focus, by showing that one event has a context people should care about, the grass-roots player is necessarily ideological, but rarely partisan.

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