September 2012

Editorial By Tom McGuire

Written by Tom McGuire

In democratic societies like New Zealand, it is taken for granted that every few years we get to participate in the elaborate ritual of deciding who will rule over us untial the decision process repeats itself. But it wasn’t always like this, and in many places is still not. Dictatorships, juntas, oneparty states and tribal fiefdoms are going strong, and collectively outnumber the world’s democracies. While immersed in a particular political system, it is hard to imagine how things could be any different. But go back several hundred years, and the change is phenomenal. Women’s voting rights, greater employee protections and a far more inclusive approach to ethnic diversity are just a few of the radical differences in New Zealand alone.

The frequent collapse of political systems around the world demonstrates the fragility of power. Fiji, although ostensibly a democratic state (with elections on hold for now), has been plagued by coups and power grabs for decades. And recent events in the Middle East show that so-called “strongman” regimes are only as strong as the tolerance levels of their people. It takes very little to ignite a revolution these days, and only a soothsayer could anticipate what that crucial moment is (an innocent child shot in the street? Crippling food taxes?) which inexorably moves a ruler from throne to guillotine.

The old Chinese proverb “may you live in interesting times” is widely considered a curse, and such times as we live in now are surely interesting (and painful) to more than a few. In such periods of change, it is useful to look afresh at the ideals which shape the world we live in. These ideals have their origin in the human mind, and are ultimately traceable to a small handful of people. Some of the more influential of these figures are covered in this issue. They are sometimes quirky characters, making a big splash during their lives whose ripple effect we are still experiencing.

Mostly commonly known today through catchy one-liners such as “I may not agree with what you say, but....” (Voltaire), they were met in their day by derision or even persecution by some but excited enthusiasm by others. (Thomas Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” might seem like
tame words now, but war has been waged over them). Their ideas about the role of government and the rights of human beings have helped to shape our current political reality. To see where we are today, it helps to look at ourselves as their intellectual heirs, even if we are not directly conscious of this.

Rulers and governments have an air of impenetrability about them, but they are actually in a precarious position. The sovereign is outnumbered by their subjects, which almost always puts the ruler at a disadvantage in terms of sheer physical power. The ruler’s power consists in convincing other people not to exercise theirs. Most people are quite easy to persuade, and there is always a bit of give and take. If there is adequate security and people’s material needs are met, we are likely to think the ruler is doing a great job and not seek to exercise our collective power over the ruler, which was there all along but subdued by complacency or forgetfulness.

Political philosophers are able to justify or critique the concentration of power into the hands of a ruler, setting out the right conditions under which the people should allow this to happen. They tell a story about when state power is legitimate and when it is not. Anyone who holds consistent political views accepts such a story, even if their political activism is limited to griping about city rates increases to a stranger they just met at the bus stop, or chiming in with suggestions about Syria during the nightly news. One of these legitimising stories we tell ourselves is about the social contract, for which we ought to thank the French thinker Rousseau. I don’t know anyone who signed a contract saying that they were to pay taxes and obey the law. But of course, it’s meant to be more implicit than that. We can’t help but take from society unless we live alone in the mountains (in which case we are a law unto ourselves). I was born in a state hospital, given public schooling and so forth. Now I am obligated to do my bit in return. I think at the end of the day, it’s a fancy way of talking about the ‘give and take’ that most people accept is part and parcel of living in a community. Opponents of the idea say there’s something fishy about a contract you cannot refuse to enter into, but I suppose there’s always the mountains.

When reading these classical theorists today, they often come across as a little quaint. In Rousseau’s case his social contract idea is still widely regarded, but his notion of a benevolent dictator not quite so popular. Rousseau and rival theorist Hobbes both referred to a “state of nature” before the advent of government which could well have existed only in their imaginations. Rousseau romanticised it as savagely noble, while Hobbes thought it “nasty, brutish and short”. If you’ve ever been accused of acting in a Machiavellian fashion, you’ll soon know why by reading the somewhat tragic story of the man for whom power was the true goal of politics, and goodness an afterthought. Would anyone who has spent serious time observing politicians (who are perhaps as entertaining as circus performers, though more dangerous) deny that The Prince is apt in its cold, calculated portrayal of the ‘dirty business’?

For those who are aspiring to be active citizens, understanding how past ideas shape the present could help us to re-imagine better ways of living, creating and working together now and in the future. Enjoy this issue, and keep thinking deeply.