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There is a disagreeable logic to the march of increasingly further-to-far-right-wing parties across Europe, even across the world. It is that after two decades and more of right-wing populist leaders – Putin, Modi, Trump, Johnson, Orbán, Erdogan, Bolsanaro, Morrison – the entire political playing field has been shifted rightwards.
It is no surprise to find Labour’s Keir Starmer occupying territory that the Tories’ Ted Heath would have found comfortable 50 years ago.
Consequently, the parties of the right and their leaders – Le Pen in France, Meloni in Italy, Weidel in Germany, the new governments of Sweden and Greece – should seem natural to enough voters (those short-termist ‘fast thinkers’ as Daniel Kahneman calls them) to be elected by them.
In significant part, this right-ward inclination of politics and government results from the symbiosis of two factors: the way that the economic structure of the world sequesters ever more of the world’s wealth into fewer and fewer bank accounts; and the way that the wealth thus sequestered buys more and more political influence – and of course, of the wealth-sequestering-friendly type.
It does this by buying up newspapers and television channels, funding ‘think tanks’ (ideology-injecting influencers), donating to politicians and political parties, and using the leverage thus literally bought to boost or threaten its way into control of policy.
The process was less obvious, a little more subtle, in the past – except in the US, where political office from the presidency downwards is quite openly purchased by the highest bidder; by the huge sums provided by supporters, interest groups, superPACS and corporations. Here in the UK, as a result of Brexit and Boris Johnson, the already increasingly threadbare mask of corruption has now slipped entirely.
Both the US and the UK have an electoral system – ‘First Past the Post’ – which makes buying a government easier. Because the balance of power between the two-party binary is easier to upset with cash spent in the right amounts at the right point in the political cycle.
In Europe, matters are more insidious – except in blatantly gerrymandered cases like Hungary – because most governments are coalitions; but the leading parties in coalitions can become so with the same kind of backing.
However allergic one is to conspiracy theories, it has to be acknowledged that there is an internationale of the Right (the recent ‘National Conservatism’ Conference in London was funded by the Washington-based Edmund Burke Foundation), which in a way is no surprise because, after all, there was a public internationale of the Left from the 19th through more than half of the 20th Centuries. And there is no reason why political movements should not make common cause across borders.
Citing the ‘Steve Bannon playbook’ in connection with Donald Trump’s electoral success in 2016 and Bannon’s subsequent founding of the anti-EU ‘The Movement’ based in Brussels, is all of a piece. Thus it is that, in general, the effective marriage – more accurately: the hermaphroditism – of big money and right-wingery is having a lot of success.
The unpalatable feature of right-wing political attitudes is that they aim to make society a department store, in which citizens – reconfigured as ‘customers’ – have to buy their education, health, drinking water, social security, indeed all their basic needs and goods, from private profit-motivated providers.
The idea that a society should provide for its members’ basic needs and goods out of a mutually and cooperatively constituted common purse, in order to make society a more decent and equitable place, is anathema to the right.
The tug-of-war between these attitudes reached a sort of equilibrium, in Europe at least, in the second half of the 20th Century, in the recognition that there are some things which should be left to the market – and some things that justice and decency require should be made possible by sharing resources.
That equilibrium is now being busily upset in the UK, unleashed from the justice and decency agenda by Brexit, into the worst excesses of the US model of anarcho-capitalism; and the right everywhere has the same aims.
In the interests of equity, it must be acknowledged that further-to-far-left politics also seeks to upset the equilibrium, though in the opposite direction: by making the state the sole provider of all things and not just the basic needs and goods. In practice, this resulted (think of the USSR and the states of the Soviet bloc) in the whole state and all its citizens becoming the private property of The Party, existing for its sole profit – the profit mainly in the form of power, though money considerations were not entirely absent from the minds of some apparatchiks.
The underlying cancer in all this is that governments of all stripes have, in the evolution of constitutions and systems in most of the world since the late 18th Century, become a matter of politics. Governments are run by political parties and for political interests.
You might think this is a ‘duh!’ remark. But think about it. Think about it, and you see how godawful it is. Government should be a service to all in society, not just or mainly to those who voted for the party currently in control of government, or its donors, or in furtherance of a partisan ideology.
It should exist to take all needs and interests into account, and to act to protect and further them. It should be as dispassionate, rational, fair-minded, considered and responsible as it is possible for the best-intentioned to be. It should be transparent in its work and fully accountable to all the people. It is not there to rule but to serve.
Is such a utopian ideal remotely achievable? And surely, you will say, must there not be debate about choices, about how resources are to be allocated, about the national direction of travel – in other words: political debate?
The respective answers are ‘no’ and ‘yes’, with important qualifications, which deal with the inevitable objection that technocratic government would be worse than political government because faceless technocracy would (as the Frankfurt School always argued) become malign, oppressive and coercive, given its required utilitarian response to the messiness of herding cats.
So, no, utopian ideals are not achievable – though oddly, the politics of right and left alike purport to aim for them. But rational and well-functioning approximations to them are indeed achievable.
Imagine this: in a proportional system of election, the people who offer themselves as candidates are thoroughly scrutinised by voters for their suitability – just as a candidate for a position of responsibility in a hospital, the army or a bank is scrutinised.
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The candidates can only serve one term in the legislature (politics is not a career). If party arm-twisting efforts survive this latter provision, it is outlawed: those elected serve the people, not a party line.
The executive is not drawn from the legislature but is constituted of well-qualified people fully answerable to the legislature. A clear, consistent constitution specifies the duties, powers and limits on powers of everyone in legislature and executive. As Livy put it in Book II of Ab Urbe Condita, government is by laws not by men. And by law, legislature and executive are tasked with serving the interests of the people, as far as possible on the basis of well-researched and considered fact.
Such a government would never in a million years have considered Brexit.
And, yes, there must be ‘political debate’: the public conversation in press and pub, candidates on the hustings, ideas, visions, proposals, discussion, argument – for the sound of democracy is tumult, whereas the sound of tyranny is silence – are essential.
But a proportionally-elected legislature will reflect much of the diversity of interests and desires in society, and by the filtering effect for which it explicitly exists (representatives are there to get the facts, debate them and make decisions – for which they will be held accountable – as plenipotentiaries of voters) the proposals advanced by the executive will be subject to the tendencies of the political debate that the make-up of the legislature manifests.
That is how representative democracy under a good constitution should be. This is not utopian: this is possible. While ‘the government’ is a thing political parties fight each other to own and control, government proper will remain a mere dream. It is time for radical change.
AC Grayling is a philosopher, Master of the New College of the Humanities, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College at Oxford University. The full case for the ideas in this article can be found in his book ‘The Good State’