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Saving Democracy

John Horgan

How Democracy Ends. by David Runciman. Profile Books. 256 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-178125 9740

This book is not intended as a guide to Irish politics, but in some important respects it is as useful a road-map as we are ever likely to get. This is because it analyses the priorities and the thought processes of political activism generally with insights that are universally applicable and – perforce – radically challenging.

It is also – as someone once said about Shakespeare – full of quotations. I don’t mean that Runciman’s words have been pillaged from elsewhere, but that his gift for an insightful turn of phrase, enhanced by his lapidary use of the short sentence, creates prose that demands attention without ever lapsing into the facile or the doctrinaire. A few examples, chosen literally at random:

Twitter is not a viable way of doing politics. At best it offers a feeble imitation of democracy, in which people get to vent their frustrations without having to face up to the consequences.
All corporations have an off switch. The state knows where to find it. Or at least it used to.
The question is not whether a democratic society would embrace a nuclear apocalypse: nobody in his right mind would vote for that. It is whether a democratic society still had the power to stop it.

The relevance of the final quotation is underlined by recent disclosures about how the extraordinary power of the president of the United States has been on a number of very recent occasions secretly and indeed probably unconstitutionally subverted by some of his aides who were more alert to the possible consequences of his shoot-from-the-hip style than he is himself.

Runciman’s analysis of the ways in which societies of all kinds stumble through their decision-making processes, of the failures associated with the trend away from democracy towards “competitive authoritarianism”, and of “the myth that things always get better” is powerful. It is illuminated not only by insights garnered from his own professional work, but by a powerful and eclectic array of sources. Also useful is his five-page suggestion of sources for further reading. The entirely valid sub-text of every page is that the struggle to reform politics and society is a permanent one.

For my money, however, Runciman’s penultimate chapter, “Something better?” (note the question mark) is the key to his thinking and, like all attempted answers to complicated questions, is itself thought-provoking and eschews quick-fix solutions. In particular it underlines his thesis that we cannot go on making the same mistakes and expecting differing outcomes. Also, as he tellingly remarks (with examples), “the most radical critics of contemporary democracy offer solutions that sound more like symptoms of what has gone wrong than any possible cure”. There is, he argues, plenty of space between thinking that there is no alternative and believing that the only alternatives possible are the outrageous ones. So: what is his alternative to staring into the abyss?

Depending on the way you look at it, this is either the book’s weakest part or its most provocative. In essence, what Runciman is advising us to do is to “put our faith in the emancipatory power of machines” which, as he correctly adds, demands a huge leap of faith. He makes a good case for this solution, including strong advice to cultivate the virtues of patience and experimentation. “To get to the best possible future,” he warns us, “we may have to run the gauntlet of the worst.”

The questions that he identifies but which, perforce, are not given a schematic answer, are in themselves at the core of whatever could emerge to take the place of, or at least supplement, the old-style politics of competing and mutually exclusive worldviews. How can we engineer a political system that acknowledges failure at least as frequently as it aims at success? How can we make provision for a viable future when so many of us have so little investment in it or consciousness of our responsibilities to it – even for our children’s sakes?

If the book has a weakness it is a minor one, because it is in any case a powerful stimulus to new thinking about the need for a radical overhaul of so many representative institutions whose original energy and utility has become part-fossilised by the growth of vested interests and political inertia and/or incompetence.

Many years ago, frustrated by the stasis of our political system, I became briefly a convert to the idea of plebiscitary democracy. I abandoned the notion not long afterwards. If I had not, the ongoing fiasco of the British love affair with the simplistic referendum as an alternative to parliamentary politics would have cured this delusion. But parliamentary politics, as Runciman argues, is not, in itself, and certainly not in its present form, all that is required to help us navigate away from the abyss. “The democracy that many have grown to dislike and distrust remains a comfortable and familiar place to be, compared with the prospect of the unknown,” he writes. “This is our mid-life crisis. We may prefer to wallow in it.” I hope, for reasons that will be obvious, that his conjecture is mistaken.

At the same time it is far from clear that his preferred solution to the log-jam, which is “liberated technology”, can be any more than partial. This is partly because he has not given us a full worked-out description of what that “liberated technology” might look like, and also because the power of machines is almost always available primarily to those who pay for them, design them, own them, control the inputs, and implement policies based on a self-interested interpretation of the results the machines generate. My grandfather, who died not long after the word “computer” had begun to become familiar, and who never even owned a typewriter (although he wrote volumes) not to mention a laptop, was scornful of this new-fangled technology. “Rubbish in?” he used to comment. “Rubbish out.”

The work of Professor David Farrell here in Ireland, I think, particularly in relation to the various workshops he has organised on issues relating to constitutional change, represents at least a partial answer to some of the unsolved problems that Runciman powerfully raises. Even though these workshops were devoted primarily to issues of constitutional rather than legislative change, they also can be read as a necessary qualification of the author’s proposed but inevitably sketchy solution.

The multi-faceted need to solve the political, social and communication problems of today’s world, particularly those that generate fissiparous politics and extremism, dominates the holders and wielders of social and economic power, especially when these are in retreat, but it cannot be solved by technology alone. It is vitally important, therefore, to explore ways in which technology can be liberated from its colonisation by forms of power that are at worst malign and at best merely self-protective, so that it can become the overture to progress rather than its swan-song. In the final analysis, technology divorced from politics and given a new, Mmessianic role could become as much of a threat to democracy as the structures of political and economic accountability that are, even as we speak, decaying on the vine.

1/11/2018

John Horgan is a former journalist, politician and professor of journalism at Dublin City University. He was a member of the Seanad, Dáil and European Parliament between 1969 and 1982, and served as Ireland’s first press ombudsman from 2007 to 2014.

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