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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, October 22, 2010

competing elites, confucianism and group-grid theory

Yesterday’s post made the point that the UK budget cuts of 81 billion pounds over the next 4 years are as much ideological as financial in intent. Colin Talbot’s Whitehall Watch makes two important points – first that welfare, defence and the criminal justive system have taken the brunt of the cuts rather than education or health .
And, second, the extent too which government leaders have reneged on what they promised during the April election campaign eg on student fees.
How far we need to cut is the really big issue that has been obscured by the ‘how fast’ cyclical debate and to which we still don’t have a full answer. Nick Clegg and other have been emphasising the four-year Spending Plan (up to 2014-15) only takes public spending down to 41% of GDP, the same of New Labour’s proportion in 2006. True, but that’s already 2% points below the 50-year average (43%) and more to the point the Government plans are still headed downwards after 2014-15. They are planning to cut still further in 2015-16, even after they have balanced the books, stripping out another £15bn or so of public spending and taking us down to under 40% of GDP. How much further do they want to go is the real question? Are we heading for a qualitative “rolling back of the frontiers of the state”? So far we don’t have a clear answer, but the indications suggest we are.
If so this does represent a massive change in policy for the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies. It was only three years ago that the Tories were happily signed up to matching Labour’s spending plans (then at about 41% of GDP) and the Lib Dems wanted to spend even more! No talk then about public spending “crowding out” the private sector or the state being too big. Shrinking the size of the state is a perfectly legitimate policy aim – but it is not one anyone voted for at the last Election because none of the three main parties put it forward.
The British public has never had a high opinion of its political masters – and respect sunk to a new low after the revelations of MP expense claims. Now, however, a critical link has been blown away from the chain of argument for representative democracy. When you promise several things in manifestos and campaign statements and then do the opposite only a few months later (with no changes in conditions to be able to use as justification) then you have destroyed the basis for political legitimacy. Now we have at last, in the full light of day, the Schumpeterian system of democracy – one of „competing elites”. The role of the unwashed public is simply to choose (on whatever basis – looks or trust) who will govern us – not in any way to influence what they will subsequently do. The one problem in such a political system that the elites then have no real legitimacy – ie no reason to expect us to obey them – as the French (and indeed Chinese) have long recognised with their traditions of popular mobilisation and government retreats.
Seen in this light, differences between Chinese and most western systems relate less to the operation of the formal political system than to the issue of freedom of citizen and media expression. Most European governments are coalitions of parties (in which policies are hammered out in secrecy after elections). And the monopoly Chinese communist party has 75 million members after all. Political parties are simply the mechanism for selecting leaders who then negotiate policies (within adminstrative, financial and political constraints which are fairly similar everywhere). I have to confess some growing sympathy for the Confucian idea of leadership selection discussed by Daniel A Bell – whereby they are formally groomed according to clear criteria. At the moment, political leadership is subject to the „accidental”or „fatalist” principle (to use the language of grid-group theory; for example, noone designed George W Bush – he just emerged from a tortuous process and series of accidental events! Confucianism uses a more deliberative and hierarchical process to try to select leaders who are judges to have the qualities reckoned to be needed for leadership. As someone with strong anarchistic leanings, I should be drawn more to the fatalist school – but I simply don’t like the results!
The real difference between systems seems in fact to be how openly critical the public and the media are allowed to be – and this has got 2 dimensions. First the amount of actual choice on offer in the media (very limited in the USA where all media channels are basically owned by 4 companies); and, second, the consequences of adopting dissent positions (very harsh in China).

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