Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Trinity For Unity?

With a year to Jersey's next election, the politically interested are once again turning their mind to the island's remarkable lack of formal political parties.

Eight years ago, the 2005 election saw a surge of interest in party politics. The Centre Party, who were actually staunchly right-wing, but just not of the Establishment, soon vanished, while the Jersey Democratic Alliance nearly settled into becoming a permanent institution, taking several years to fade away after an unsustainably vigorous start. The Establishment politicians, for their part, did not see the need to set up a formal party to promote their own side, but they made it clear that there was a considerable amount of teamwork between those who intended to be working together when elected or re-elected.

Several more years of drifting in the same direction have kept those who are content with it from wanting to be any more politically active than they were. However, those, who are are discontented with various aspects of Jersey's current government, are beginning to feel the lack of formal vehicles to express their grievances and, one day, possibly implement solutions.

To topple, or even constrain, the established clique of ethically challenged cynics will require all who are not positively with them to unite against them. Saying that much is facile, but the first challenge is in how to unite them in a manner that is both flexible enough to accommodate internal dissensions without schism, and strong enough to maintain a cohesive direction. The Jersey Democratic Alliance was initially founded with the intention to be a very broad group, hence the name of Alliance. However, the centre-right element soon found themselves uncomfortable with the dominance of more left-wing thinkers, by both work rate and intellectual power, and baled out. The centre-left element bled away more slowly over the next five years, and, since the left-wing remainder became, in effect, the Jersey Labour Party, it has done nothing, if it even continues to exist at all. If practical lessons can be learned and applied from the JDA experience, though, then it was not all in vain.

To form a party, there has to be a nucleus of people agreed on a series of policies that they either desire, or at least assent to for the sake of their colleagues' desires, and motivated to pursue them. They can then recruit the uncommittedly sympathetic as rank-and-file members, and market the policies to the relatively apolitical general public as something worth voting for, come election time. Now, it seems to me that there are more than one tenable set of policies that could be pursued, according to taste and conscience. Therefore, there should be different nuclei of supporters around the different visions. The consequence of that, in turn, is a multi-party system.

A multi-party system, though, does not in itself unite the opposition, so much as formalise its divisions. Thus, to actually achieve anything, the parties must form coalitions to implement the overlaps on their policy lists, which will probably be quite substantial. Many things that should be either done or undone remain good or bad in capitalist, social democratic and socialist societies alike, and the parties can agree to do that much together. In a simple two-party system, cross-party agreements do not happen as often as they should, as tactical gaming tends to displace political integrity, but, with four-plus parties, dirty players can just get frozen out and marginalised.

If Jersey is to succeed in achieving the degree of political health most comparable jurisdictions enjoy, we need more than a party. We need a diversity of parties, and we need formal inter-party structures in turn. I envisage something like this as the way forward:

Four to six smallish parties, perhaps representing left, centre-left, centre-right and right on the traditional socio-economic continuum, and maybe green and libertarian taking other priorities, would make the basis. Most people, who would be activists at all, could find something for them amongst that selection.

Pairs or trios of parties with substantially overlapping aims would then have coalition agreements to work together on these shared aims and co-operate electorally. Certainly there is scope and even need for such a coalition between a leftist party and any centre-left and green party that may also form, and other parties will probably want to make similar connections.

All parties would benefit from also having an association of Jersey political parties, strictly concerned with the general promotion and support of party politics, and neutral as to what its constituent parties' politics may be. This could be used to both make general recruitment drives to encourage the public to work for their political beliefs, whatever they may be, and as a lobby group, to discourage The States from further measures to restrict the formation and growth of political parties.

The detailed picture of what emerges would have to depend on how many people actually care enough about what policies. There is a threshold of 20 signatories required under Jersey Law to found a party in the first place, and, given our firmly entrenched tradition of political apathy, some of the parties that could have been might not find them.

Anyway, I see the way to mount an effective challenge to the Establishment clique as not a simple unity of opposition, but a trinity of such left-wingers as there are in Jersey in one party, non-socialist liberals like myself in another, and a formal joint project of the two parties to organise a coalition in pursuit of the two parties shared objectives.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Rebranding Anarchy

Once upon a time, when the world was much emptier of people than it is now, the few humans that did live in it formed little tribal groups. To this day, on the very margins of Earth's habitable space, a minute fraction of humanity still live in the old way, even if their traditional opportunism means saying Yes to Industrial Man's steel knives and machine-woven cotton clothes. In some places, the tribes are firmly egalitarian, to the point of lynching megalomaniacs, while others adopt an authoritarian order, so it is no longer possible to be sure what the natural order of human nature might have been: Perhaps just to do things differently from the next tribe for the sake of difference. A nomad's life in a wilderness needs no government, however, little though governments laying claim to the nomads' wildernesses may like it.

The apparent freedom of the tribal nomad may appeal to a contemporary urban wage-slave. Nevertheless, those who once lived, or still live, the life tend to find a great deal of constraint on their freedom in practice. They may contentedly accept the strict, inflexibly rule-bound social codes of tribal life as the way things ought to be, but the shadow darkening the edges of all their lives is that of food insecurity. Failure to find or catch enough to eat means immediate misery and immanent extinction, so all their lives must revolve around sourcing the next meal.

Planting crops was a massive game-changer. Suddenly, by taking possession of the land and tending it, a sufficiency and even surplus of food freed at least some of the people, some of the time, for the myriad of other activities that make civilised life so much more satisfying for those who live it. However, to make it worth the farmers' while to feed the rest, they needed reciprocal benefits, at least indirectly, such as protection and craftsman-made goods. It was more practical and reliable to actively organise this new social order than to gamble on spontaneous emergence. And so, hierarchical government evolved to fill the niche.

For thousands of years, the existence of governments has served most of their people well most of the time. Of course, there are countless examples of corrupt or incompetent governments visiting disaster upon their unfortunate citizens, instead. That may be so, but, on reflection, it is plain that the problems are with the corruption and incompetence, not the intrinsic existence of government.

Anyone who fancies themself a realist would endorse the old proverb, that you can't please all of the people all of the time. Thus, some are discontented, and some of them in turn come to believe the remedy to their grievances would be to abolish any government. Therefore, the extreme position for any rebel, egalitarian or other shade of left-winger has always been anarchy. Anarchy may sound attractive, no state to boss you around and tax your money, but pragmatists don't usually fancy the consequences of the power vacuum, unless they themselves feel equipped to become one of the robber barons filling it.

While civilisation is dependent on government, there is a very broad range of tenable opinions as to how much governments should do to deliver civilisation's benefits to their citizens. There is also an equally broad range of opinions on what the reciprocal relationship of the citizen towards the state should be. Moreover, amongst those who are much bigger on feeling than thinking, the same person's opinions on the two may not even be compatible.

Those of us, who have had the benefit of growing up in a secure and prosperous civilised country, develop a sense of entitlement to the liberties civilisation and wealth make possible. A tribal goatherd will usually accept his destiny as the way his life was always going to be, and the only thing it could be, while anyone in a position to be reading this will have their brain washed with the idea that they could have been anything they wanted to be, and, if it didn't happen, they couldn't have tried hard enough. This individualistic and self-directed view of life naturally impinges on how we feel about our reciprocal duties towards the state that nurtures us. So, often the self-made take the background for their own struggle to succeed for granted, and overlook the importance of the physical and social infrastructure that enabled them to achieve.

A worse consequence of denying the contribution of humanity in general to one's own successes, is that it leads one to correspondingly overestimate the contribution the unsuccessful make to their own misfortune. Instead of the able seeing a duty to help arrange the world so that the less able have opportunities to contribute to the satisfaction of themselves and others, the relatively successful sometimes fall into an attitude that their good fortune proves they must deserve it, and so the unfortunate must deserve to be unfortunate, too. Sure enough, some indeed do get the lives they deserve, but I would challenge the generality of the rule.

However, if you have made the error of not reckoning the common goods you built our life on, and judge others' efforts purely by what they get to show for them, you can convince yourself that not only do you never need any help, but anyone who does, cannot deserve to get it, and least of all at your expense. This then provides a moral framework to call for a descent into anarchy, so that the clever and the strong may be relieved of the duty to support the stupid and the weak as their fellow humans. This brand of anarchism is rather unattractive to people of integrity, when spelled out, so, it has become fashionable to pass it off as libertarianism, instead.

Really, libertarianism is as much a triage to spare government or society the trouble of unnecessary intervention, as it is an assertion of the right of an individual to be as free in how they choose to live, as can be accommodated by the reciprocal freedom of others. However, once you distort the morality with the idea that needing help forfeits the right to it, it simply becomes a shallow rebranding of an exceptionally vicious and degenerate variety of anarchism, for a generation raised to distrust the old tag.

Let us lay this nonsense to rest. Humankind's heritage and destiny has been and will always be to be a social animal. An occasional castaway may have to go feral, and, more commonly and dangerously, some go feral in the midst of human society, from flaws in the brain denying them the crucial part of human nature that links the individual into their group. But in the main, all of our busy life is just expansion and refinement of life in a troop of monkeys. Doing your fair share, one way or another, does not make you a victim of a confidence trick; it is not only your moral duty, but your biological purpose. It is how we function, as a species. The confidence trick is the one that tells you to abjure your humanity and go your own way with no more than a parting sneer for those you owed. The “Libertarian” anarchists pitch their corrupting manipulations shrewdly, but look through the emotive style to the harsh, inhuman, even sub-simian substance, and reject it. It would make a lesser human of you, should you swallow the bait.