DEMOCRACY – WHO NEEDS IT? Fewer and fewer people, both at home and abroad, seem as willing as previous generations to “defend democracy”. The term itself: once generally understood as a system of government dedicated to personal liberty, the inviolability of private property, equality before the law, and majority rule; has acquired a bewildering complexity. What you were born, and where, now pose a serious challenge to democracy’s universalist claims. To be a human-being is no longer enough.
There is an irony here. The rise of democracy – to the point of becoming the ultimate constitutional goal and the accepted measure of civilised government – has for the past three centuries been driven by the steady expansion of what it means to be a human-being. If a human-being may be defined, politically, as a person whose expressed opinion is accorded a determinative influence, then their numbers have indeed been growing steadily.
Males in possession of land and/or demonstrable martial prowess were the original political humans, to whose numbers were soon added males conspicuously successful in trade and commerce. For centuries, these barons and burghers had the game pretty much to themselves. It required an epochal shift: from feudalism to capitalism; to open the ranks of political humanity to middle-class males.
Democracy was the lever by which these middle-class males gained entry to the places where decisions are made. The problem with the core principles of liberty, equality and solidarity, however, is that they are dangerously extendable. The same arguments that secured political rights for the middle classes could be mounted on behalf of the working classes. Even more worryingly, they could be extended from males to females; from the old to the young; from persons of your colour, to persons of all colours.
When Abraham Lincoln so magisterially distilled the essence of democracy to: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; the “people” he had in mind were white (and just possibly black) American males. Not included were American women of any colour, Native Americans or “Orientals”. For the next 160 years, American history would be driven by the efforts of those excluded from the definition of “the people” to be recognised as fully human beings.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the moral transgression required to drive people out of the human definition once it has been claimed and/or bestowed. The terrifying history of the Jim Crow South not only bears testimony to the level of harm that must be inflicted to enforce exclusion from the political community, but also to the disfiguring spiritual violence those responsible for such exclusion are required to inflict upon themselves. The “strange fruit” of the South describes not just the dangling bodies of lynched African Americans, but the dead eyes of the White killers who watched them die.
Recall, too, the extraordinary violence inflicted upon the Suffragettes by the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith in the years immediately preceding World War I. The forced feeding of female hunger-strikers was widely condemned as a form of politically-inspired torture. And all because an insufficient number of British parliamentarians were willing to include women within the definition of the politically human.
No such blots appear on New Zealand’s democratic escutcheon. Indeed, this country boasts one of the longest continuously operating democratic political systems on earth. Since 1867 New Zealand’s parliament has reserved seats for the country’s indigenous population. In 1879, it granted full “manhood suffrage”. In 1893 the franchise was extended to include women. In 1969, the “voting age” was lowered from 21 to 20 years-of-age. Eighteen-year-olds were enfranchised in 1974. There is even a reasonable chance that at some point in the next decade the voting age will be lowered to 16 years. New Zealand is the only self-governing country that can boast an uninterrupted period of democratic government, based on universal suffrage, lasting 128 years. Certainly, none of our “Five Eyes Partners” can say as much!
With this history, one could be forgiven for assuming that faith in democracy would be stronger in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world. There are, however, worrying signs that New Zealand’s long democratic history has produced a sense of complacency among its citizens.
For decades, New Zealanders were famed for turning out to vote in record numbers. In the 1984 snap general election, for example, a record-breaking 93.7 percent of those registered to vote cast a ballot. In the intervening three decades, however, turnout has declined, falling to just 74.2 percent in 2011. Interestingly, the extraordinary “Covid Election” of 2020 registered a sharp improvement in turnout. At 82.5 percent, it was the highest since 1999.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Maori New Zealanders evince considerably less faith in democracy than their Pakeha compatriots. Certainly it is understandable why an indigenous people comprising only 16 percent of the total population might find reasons for looking at the principle of majority rule through narrowed eyes. The so-called “tyranny of the majority” has long been cited as one of the downsides of the democratic system of government. For an indigenous culture locked into permanent minority status, the dangers of uncompromising majoritarianism loom large.
Joining these Maori sceptics of democracy are those who are simply unwilling to accept formal political equality as the be-all and end-all of human rights. These are the people who enjoy quoting the Nineteenth Century French writer, Anatole France, who famously declared that: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Or, as George Orwell slyly puts it in his political fable, Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
To be white, male, heterosexual, well-educated, and – of course – wealthy, is to enjoy a high degree of “privilege” in a culture where such distinctions are generally esteemed. Formal democratic equality, it is asserted, actually serves to mask this privilege and, by doing so, permits the disproportionate power conferred upon its possessors’ to be wielded with, if not impunity, then without serious challenge.
In its essence, this argument rejects the proposition that in a country like New Zealand all human-beings possess equal determinative influence. In effect, the possessors of privilege are said to enjoy super-human status. In short, they have the power to put their thumb on the scales of social justice, and secure for themselves an unfair share of society’s goods and services.
Democracy, as it is generally understood, is dismissed as a sham. Only when the privileges of these “supermen” are stripped from them can those who suffer from the deficiencies such inequity imposes: women, Maori, LGBTQI, the disabled; hope to enjoy the equal determinative influence they are entitled to as fully human beings.
By this reckoning, simply being human is no longer enough. True democracy cannot exist where privilege goes unchallenged and unchecked. It can only flourish where no one has to sleep under a bridge, beg in the streets, or steal bread. Where rape is unthinkable, and racism no more than an evil memory from a bitter past.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 3 May 2021.
"True democracy cannot exist where privilege goes unchallenged and unchecked. It can only flourish where no one has to sleep under a bridge, beg in the streets, or steal bread. Where rape is unthinkable, and racism no more than an evil memory from a bitter past."
Laudable but not democracy. Don't try to stretch its meaning.
Roman citizens were invested with the right to vote on the basis of their citizenship, which was arguably restricted by class - but there was some mobility. And it wasn't restricted by race. Democracy was forged in a multicultural environment where racial consciousness simply did not exist.
If people really do want separate systems based on race then perhaps we should have seperate taxation systems as well. I am happy for Maori to do what they want but they can pay for it themselves.
Here come the Sturmabteilung.
I jest, but if you were looking for a standing army the Mob would be an obvious choice.
It wasn't so long ago that conservative commentators on the site were saying that there is no racism in New Zealand, and that women's problems had all been solved. While moaning about "cancel culture" which is in fact "consequences culture" but never mind. Actually I suspect that conservatives don't actually want to get rid of cancel culture so much as control it, given the numbers of people they tend to cancel. But I can safely predict that this column will attract people who will play the race card – they always do anytime you mention Maori.
The communist organisers recruited to implement this agenda stand to be sorely disappointed.
Ultimately given the wish to even out result rather than opportunity , the government on behalf of society would have to force people to "be" equal rather than to have equal possessions . That is never going to happen. None of us is equal to any other.
But a UBI, a genuine one, unlike what the call a UBI in the UK, that put all money into circulation by an equal regular distribution sufficient for life's requirements , would be the obvious way of evening out privilege.
D J S
David Stone 20.35 The UBI pays enough to get by, and those who want a better life can go for it, and have a progressive income tax starting low at 5%, and lesser GST, say 8% so that the government doesn't draw off unreasonable amounts from those living simply and repairing stuff. Would that seem practical and worthwhile?
Cant say I disagree with your points GS, but I want to comment on cancel culture being consequence culture. These imply that the cancellers assume a power position that is absolutist. No challenge because it is one way only. Judge jury and executioner. That describes the principles that the worst state abusers of human rights work by. Tyranny. Adopting these principles has consequences too.
"Ultimately given the wish to even out result rather than opportunity"
Seriously? The number of people who want to "even out result" with regard to possessions at least, you could probably count on the fingers of one hand in this country. In a general sense anyway. But evening out the results of healthcare for instance is not necessarily a bad thing. Obviously the health system isn't working for Maori – perhaps we should take a look and find out what does work instead of complaining about "racist" policies?
James Flynn (Otago University) explained white 'Privilege'.
When you have parents who care, who feed you properly and who ensure you get a decent education, then your IQ will be higher than average.
Historically this was a product of European life - ie: white people.
With the recent exception of some Asian groups, most populations of brown/black people did not have one or more of the conditions Flynn identified.
Im proud to "suffer" from white privilege. It means I had decent parents.
Interestingly the 'Flynn' effect is slowing as solo parent numbers increase and crap food becomes more common.
Joining these Maori sceptics of democracy are those who are simply unwilling to accept formal political equality as the be-all and end-all of human rights. These are the people who enjoy quoting the Nineteenth Century French writer, Anatole France, who famously declared that: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
Then you have the problem of who speaks for minorities.
Ranginui Walker said that Polynesians had eaten their way through the ecosystem and when they got to NZ sent out an explorer who told them there was no land beyond and hence they developed sustainable practices. He says the Treaty was with "the Queens people" and that "in the end it will all be settled in the bedroom".
Paul Spoonley disagreed: Maori should have a role in "welcoming migrants". Now Arama Rata is the voice for that view (Q&A).
You have to battle openness against a cohesive national identity and empathy. In case no one has noticed the shift in politics has moved from economics to identity based politics.
I commented to a disability advocate who had cerebral palsy that we didn't need an advocate for people like him as we have plenty of empathy (felt a bit mean saying it).
Do we really know what Maori want. It is the white left who think every one is of group A, B or C and have an appropriate culture (people like Anne Milne)?
John Hurley it seems you have more defences against trying for a fairer society than are reasonable. Telling someone with cerebral palsy that society has enough empathy and they don't need advocates is horse puckey, or whatever critical word one prefers.
People who work from the bottom with an upward desire know that you if you don't ask you don't get is the way 90% of the time, and if you do get something it gets handed out by some patronising git from the middle class that demeans you and isn't of practical use. Like, say, having meeting rooms for crippled disabled many in wheelchairs, allocated on the second floor, with no lifts, and the toilets are the usual narrow style on the third floor. But they are allocated a cleaner because 'those people' deserve it, and of course the premises are always clean, tidy and unused. That is noted and registers as lack of interest by this group in meeting and that they are anti-social. And a report that mentions 'crippled' is denounced because it is 'labelling' and is too frank and direct; the term is 'differently-abled'.
When you have to deal with the kindly people of society John, you get wise to the myths and beliefs that form a pink, rose-scented fog in the heads of those with no recent experience of deprivation.
The conception of a strong treaty partnership is an exercise in romanticism. Such a scheme could never fall out of any democratic processes.
Had the settlers had there way all of maori would be incarcerated, denigrated and treated like scum. A settler treaty would contain no dividend for maori, no dividend for the land and environment being disposed and no understanding of the place for maori in a potentially wonderful Aotearoa New Zealand.
Essentially what Marxists like me have in mind is the type of romamtic pre colonial blend with twenty first century technology the kind of which the Blogger Chris Trotter specializes in, and this will require two important contingent events. One event is the penalty of Ihumatao and second a majority MMP government which makes up one half of a powerful treaty partner and maori interest the funding of which would otherwise go to the funding of settler interests, but instead will go to the forming of a reliably strong maori treaty partner. But those are the two missing pieces of the metric that allows for the idea of a strong treaty partnership.
Let's call the treaty infrastructure this romantic view of Aotearoa New Zealand with all these wonderful forms outside this majestic piece of water.
So maori required a state funded maori health organisation that pre colonial maori would have possessed. In other words state funded maori organisations is not an attempt at separatism, it is a representation of Aotearoa New Zealand and is necessary in doing the broader possibility of a romantic Aotearoa New Zealand society idea by reminding us of what New Zealand would have looked like prior to European settlement.
So I see this period of government as a potential to represent a romantic sovereign nation with all its essence associated with Te Ao Maori. Having juxtaposed a natural romantic setting of New Zealand with Maori sovereignty and acclaimed twenty first century buildings and de.elopments of the Treaty variety.
So again we have thus classic iwi maori setting against the triumphs of the twenty first century. Let's say we make it possible with big infrastructure, a national roads, rail, freight, air transport, public transport, health and education programs and make it possible with these big imposing twenty first century buildings set against the briliant unformed high quality architecture of an international standard (let's not call it maori interests and I'm saying let's not give maori any privileges that would approach tangata Te tirit because pakeha will never accept being a minority so let's call it "international standards").
Cripes, all the individuality, that lets the rich pursue ... their rule.
The rule of the people has everything to do with being on the side of the neediest, as per '35. See Biden's moves. The old coot remembers ... LBJ ... FDR. And Sanders was right about him. Whether the American people remember anything but self-absorption is another thing. On that point rests our response to the climate change crisis.
My entirely awful 5-years-older BAC brother is impressed hearing you are a christian , Chris. I communicate regularly with him though I think his ideas are death, as per Chomsky's condemnation of the Republican Party as the worst organisation in human history.
Jacinda mentioned Youtube
Paddy Gower says Youtube caused the Mosque shooting. Watching that "pseudo science" - the idea that some people are better than others; immigration, that sort of thing, cooks people's brains to the degree that they will go out and commit one of the worlds worst atrocities.
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