what you get here

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!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hollowing out of democracy


Finance kills creativity in more senses than one. I’ve been worrying about the euro in recent days – talking to the bank, switching currencies, contemplating (with inflation risks) going back into investments since the minimal return on money in banks means that my assets bleed. It’s all vivid proof that money does not make you happy – it makes you worry. What makes me really angry is that, unlike a lot of people whose assets are the result largely of the property inflation, mine have been earned by the sweat of my brow. And were all at risk for a few hours 2 years ago when the Royal Bank of Scotland tottered on the brink of collapse. And still we are incapable of building back into place a banking system which both protects the savings of ordinary people and puts their money to productive use. When I spoke to my bank they sent me a prospectus for a fund which would have tied my money up for almost 5 years – subject to conditions which could have wiped out the minimal benefits I might have received (‘we reserve the right to change these conditions….”). Admittedly one of the funds offered was an environmental one (alternative power) but a closer examination revealed it was the big global players whose claims to environmental commitment are egenrally highly suspect and who often wipe out the real, smaller national players (there was no german company in the list). And another list I was sent invited me to put my money into agrobusiness and timber – the real criminals. So nothing has changed. And the behaviour of governments to the wikileaks has again confirmed the lack of any liberal principles there – with politicians and bureaucrats alike threatening companies who might have the most miimal link with Wikileaks. I should really boycott Amazon (who have still not solved my problem anyway) and Mastercard! A Guardian article expressed it well -
What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and UK in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and UK in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through. And when, finally, the veil of secrecy is lifted, their reflex reaction is to kill the messenger.
As Simon Jenkins put it recently in the Guardian, "Disclosure is messy and tests moral and legal boundaries. It is often irresponsible and usually embarrassing. But it is all that is left when regulation does nothing, politicians are cowed, lawyers fall silent and audit is polluted. Accountability can only default to disclosure." What we are hearing from the enraged officialdom of our democracies is mostly the petulant screaming of emperors whose clothes have been shredded by the net.
Which brings us back to the larger significance of this controversy. The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. It has been comical watching them and their agencies stomp about the net like maddened, half-blind giants trying to whack a mole. It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies – with the exception of Twitter, so far – bending to their will.
But politicians now face an agonising dilemma. The old, mole-whacking approach won't work. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables – and probably of much else besides – are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies like BitTorrent. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world, with all that implies in terms of their future behaviour; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.
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I've used the word "hollowing out" myself on a recent post of our democratic system - so clearly we are going to see more of this analysis.
The painting is another Bosch - this time "Death of a Miser" which fits nicely not only with the first part of the post but with Julian Barnes' latest romp - Nothing to be Frightened of - which I've just finished and highly recommend. A wry, reflective book which I would put up there with Tobias Jones' Utopian Dreams and Michael Foley's Age of Absurdity.

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