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Democrafatigue

It’s raining. I’m upstairs on the no. 49 to Clapham Junction in a humid breath fug. Two gents are sitting in front of me, “May 3rd. More bloody elections. Might as well move in to the voting booth I’m in there so often.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s bigger than most flats round here anyway.”

“And you get a free pencil.”

“I don’t understand why MPs can’t decide anything on their own without asking everybody to go and vote all the time.”

I groan slightly at the luxury of their Democrafatigue and they shut up. But I’m left with a couple of thoughts: Democracy’s clearly not getting the respect it used to and, it’s been over a hundred years since he was cited in the Court of Appeal but the man on the Clapham Omnibus/Routemaster is alive and well and reeking of Old Spice.

On the other hand, Democracy in the internet age seems much less robust.

For a start, the technology – a piece of paper, a pencil and a balsa wood booth – is centuries behind most other opinion collating mechanisms. According to the Office of National Statistics, “90% of men and 88% of women” and “virtually all adults aged 16 to 34 years (99%)” are internet users. Compare that to the historic high voting booth user rate of just 68.8% in the last election.

Most of the UK has access to instant polling and voting on everything from a blue/gold dress to feeding celebrities live cockroaches and they attract more voters than your average election. More people know how to use Facebook than a voting slip. If we cherish democracy, rather than just give it lip service, and expect it to be relevant, we really need to help it adapt to modern life. For my university-aged kids, visiting a school hall with makeshift booths – that don’t even take whacky photos to upload to Instagram – is akin to entering some ancient church. You go there out of respect for an historical idea but everyone knows it’s barely fit for purpose when, in their pockets, they have the ability to instantly connect to the 65 million other people who live in the UK, to say nothing of the rest of the developed world.

You might think that the enforced slow speed of our pencil and paper democracy might encourage serious contemplation of the issues being voted

Plato knew a thing or two

on but, nowadays my opinion changes seven times before breakfast. I scroll through headlines on my phone before I get dressed, listen to the radio as I shave, and before the first oat hits the bottom of my bowl I’ve encountered countless arguments and I’m ready to voice my outrage, or support, for things I had no idea existed an hour before, let alone cared about.

The system has problems. Even back in its early days, when chaps with beards were still working out how to plague generations of schoolchildren with fiendish calculations for working out hypotenuses and other tangents, Plato spotted the fundamental flaw in democracy. “The insatiable desire of [freedom],” he says in his Republic, “introduces the change in democracy, which occasions a demand for tyranny. … When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them.” Democracy, Plato argues, naturally leads to tyranny unless democratic leaders are benign. He recognised democratic voters elect personalities not policies. We vote in our image. We vote for people. Which means that the policies of those with charisma, or sheer force of personality, always trump (forgive the pun) boring people with ideas of good governance. Democracy leads to populism, populism is a cult of personality and the ultimate personality is a demagogue, a tyrant, a dictator.

Democracy is one of humanity’s most sacred memes, even Popes get elected. It’s an idea that’s been around so long you’d have thought we would have a handle on it by now. Yet it remains so nebulous Wikipedia just says “No consensus exists on how to define democracy, but legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics.” Like ‘Art’ its lack of definition is both its strength and its weakness. We can’t dismantle it but we can’t enshrine it either. It’s anything we want it to be. A chore in Clapham, a liberation in Soweto. Whether it’s to elect another bunch of narcissists into Parliament or rip away our European citizenship, it can be both inane and profound.

On Thursday 3rd of May, on the face of it, all we’re doing is electing a bunch of faceless Council bureaucrats to oversee our parking permits and deny us planning permissions for our basements. But, in reality, this is the last official democratic opportunity to put our opinion to Parliament before Brexit.

It can’t be overstated how important this local election is. If it doesn’t matter what colour of politics runs your rubbish collection, if you believe that British sense of decency and fair play means tolerance even of bally foreigners, if your life (like mine) only exists because immigrants were allowed to escape here from war-torn Europe, if you’re happy being a European, if you were born a European, if your family are European, if you have children who may need the work opportunities that a 27 country bloc can offer, if your property is losing value as London loses international significance, if you want the Troubles in Northern Ireland to never return, if you want the economy to turn around, if you want the focus of our politicians to go back to genuinely pressing domestic issues like the funding of the NHS… then only vote for a party that definitively supports a referendum on the final Brexit deal: Vote Lib Dem, Vote Green, Vote Renew, Vote Remain. Send a message and use democracy like it’s still in fashion.

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Would smell as sweet

Merry Arse. Mari-Arty. Fat Slob. Dick. Bastard. Cockroach, Arsehole. Shit. Muvverfucca. Weirdo. Lefty Loon, Twat. Complete (Emmanual) Kant. Weirdo. Disingenu. Freak. And according to one of my teachers who struggled to get beyond the 18th century: Dionysian Strumpet. But that’s enough about me, what do they call you?

It’s marvellous how one person can mean so many different things to different people but I earned each and every one of those names. I’m not exactly proud of them but at least the things I’ve done have inspired people to reach into their personal lexicons to find an appropriate way to define me, as much as my birth inspired my parents to call me something which even I am not sure how to pronounce.

But nowadays I, and I dare say you too (unless you are using this newspaper as insulation on a frosty park bench in which case I recommend the collected works of Don Grant sufficient to keep a gentleperson toasty for life), find ourselves with a name which we did nothing to earn. A name that just collects us together as one side, a contemptible enemy. For you and I, almost certainly, are the “Metropolitan Elite.” We have been united in a name, despite the fact that we have probably never met, and even if we did we might find the only thing we had in common was our desire to meet someone better looking.

“Metropolitan Elite” is just a handy term reserved for hate speech, one that smacks of exclusivity and money in a time of austerity because (a) you can afford somehow to live or work in a city and (b) that in itself makes you elite. There’s no name for the other side – The Rural Rabble? – because this collection is an illusion. Over half the country lives or works in a metropolitan area. But then “One Percenters” probably seemed a little too small, and actually elite, to explain 48% of the UK voting to Remain or the same percentage of Americans voting for Hillary.

Hate terms can, of course, be adopted and repurposed by the hatees. Rappers use the N-word as an empowered and exclusive term of brotherhood. And for the rest of us, to hear it and never wish to say it, lets us never forget where it came from; but then it perpetuation also makes it all the more attractive for white supremacists to use it as a badge of bravery, doubling down and challenging the taboo. Do I like being called “Elite”? You can bet your Top Gun I do; the OED says an “elite” is “superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” I didn’t ask to be one but if you insist…

We have been branded like very posh cattle, so would any of us adopt “Metropolitan Elite” as a badge of honour? Unless we own it and try to change its meaning it will always sound like we fret over avocado shortages at Waitrose and the dreadful accent the nanny is teaching Imogen and Hugo.

For 20th Century Marxists the “Bourgeoisie” was the collective bête noire. But the word literally means “those who live in a borough,” city dwellers or, if you prefer, “Metropolitans”. Living in a city seems to inspire a political paranoia: all those people living near each other must be colluding against the interests of the rest. Creating a collective enemy from an economic perception is an old political con. Bolsheviks inspired a poor, mainly rural, Red Army to march on Russian cities. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forced all city dwellers on long marches to start farming; declaring anybody with glasses “intellectual” and put to death. In 1918 in Russia, in 1970’s Cambodia, it didn’t end well.

Despite these examples its not an exclusively Left Wing strategy. “Metropolitan Elite” is a term bandied by Left and Right because, if you hold an extreme view, you need to create an enemy of the middle, a way to define them as a collective who mean you harm. It’s no good just going after your polar opposite, that’s just sectarianism. So for Nazis it was the Jewish conspiracy, for ISIL or Al Qaeda it’s the “Kafir,” literally anyone who does not believe the same thing.

The neatest part of political paranoia is that once you start attacking your made up enemy, you force those you’ve declared as working together to, well, work together; you create the conspiracy you made up in the first place.

Name calling is as old as the meth user Methuselah, and in the modern era of Twitter and Snapchat, limited by either number of characters or, simply, juvenile vocabulary, it is the easiest shorthand to express complex ideas. There is no room for subtlety or debate on social media. Just statements or reactions, anger or mockery, puffs or put downs.

America’s Right have forged “young liberals” into “special snowflakes”, leading what might have been disperate “snowflakes” to adopt the insult and rebut it with a “beware of avalanches” rhetoric. The Alt-Right have created their enemy, now they can start recruiting.

But even the sound of names can have an effect. Time and again, names that dominate the political narrative lead the day. Both Trumps and Clintons are types of cards, but Trumps win. “Brexit” with its novelty portmanteau, its plosive and fricative phonemes, defined the entire referendum, while “Remain” sounding weak and ineffectual was always the opposition rather than the lead. Even now the people pushing the leave campaign are “Brexiteers” sounding romantic and swashbuckling whilst “Remoaners” fail to set the agenda. Why haven’t we got Brexshits and e-Uniters at the very least?

When the political middle is given a name, forced to become a side, extremism is on the rise. And, in this climate, we need to ask whether we should adopt the names we’re called, refute them or try to ignore them? Metropolitan that’s me, Elite if you say so. But if you call us that to dismiss us, we need to stand… for something.

 

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Delete the elite?

Lent is the traditional time to deny yourself your worst habits. I thought I’d give up double entendres; but it’s so hard.
I always thought that the easiest thing to give up would be denial itself. But then, I had no idea how deeply in it I was.
Turns out that most of my life I’ve been pretending to myself that the entire western world was just like my bubble: some bad eggs but mostly full of nice, intelligent, reasonable, liberal-minded people with quasi-socialist values inspired to support egalitarian projects like paying tax, universal healthcare and legal access.
The reality is I’ve been deeper in denial than Cleopatra’s sunken barge. It was merely a fantasy. It’s just that I happened to be fortunate enough to have been born in the peace between the Second and Third World Wars. A time when our scarred societies would do almost anything to avoid future conflict: be nice to old enemies, mutually assure destruction, help the vulnerable, have faith in secular morality, set up internationalist quangos and entangle every nation in globalised co-dependency.
But, between the financial crash and the election of Trump, the veil – or burqa if you prefer less cultural appropriation in the cause of clichés – has gradually slipped from my eyes. Now it’s clear that the sort of good old-fashioned, self-centred, small-minded, nationalist fervour, that did Oswald Mosely so proud, never left us. The likes of Brexit and Trump have reawakened those who have been failed – by that lust for peace and capital – in their prospects and, possibly, in their education. What’s more, their seething anger is aimed squarely at the precepts that have provided us with security for over 70 years. At last they feel legitimised to voice long supressed bitterness and release the gobs of war.
Really. WWIII no longer seems quite as impossible as it once did. Europe divided, nationalism on the rise, bare-back horse riding bare chested muscle-flexing from expansionist Russia, a super militarised China and the chief strategist at the White House, Steve Bannon, convinced that, “We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … If (we do) not … fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity … (it) will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
The only thing more galling than some smug bastard saying “told you so” is a long line of despots, oligarchs, dictators, potentates and caliphs saying it. Transmoral types have been asserting for centuries that you cannot trust the hoi-polloi to make decisions. And we’ve known that too. Democracy in its purest sense would be mob rule, so every western democracy has been a fudge of some sort. A delicate balance between a figurehead, an elite club claiming to be the servants of the public and the public itself, who are only ever allowed to make the narrowest of democratic choices.
But our Western Spring is having its own lent, intent on purging itself of ‘experts’ and shady ‘elites’, albeit by electing blatant ones instead. We’ll have none of those secretive dark deals between oligarchs anymore, just billionaires and hatemongers openly grabbing the spoils and crying fake news whenever they’re called on it. The City wrings its hands over Brexit but how many there were willing, even bankrolling, it? With instability comes fluctuating markets, the perfect rollercoaster for those hedgefunds who would spread bet on shares dipping and rising like a window-cleaner’s sponge in a 70s sex comedy.
Clearly there are people in privileged positions who really shouldn’t be trusted. But ‘Elite’ as our hateword du jour, like all generalisations is only useful as dehumaniser. A blunt instrument in argument and claiming they’re all the same makes no sense.
History tells us we’ll never get rid of elites mainly because, when benign, the serve a vital purpose. Every revolution has simply replaced one with another. Societies need elites, and experts and specialists. In June last year we were all asked a bloody complicated question which I simply didn’t have enough facts to answer, nor did I have the time to truly examine it. But then that’s what I pay MPs to do. Now it seems that even they can’t grasp the specifics behind, or the consequences of it.
We could have done with an educated ‘elite’ that we could trust, to take the time to examine it, study it, to understand and explain, instead of undermine and exploit.
Yes, the system is broken and many ‘elites’ aren’t fit for purpose. Yes, we need to reform or exchange them. But to bundle everyone richer and more powerful than us in our social colonic is to not only throw the baby out with the bath water but the bath, chrome taps, Cranberry Lush, bath bomb and half a litre of TRESemmé as well.
But then common sense is like deodorant, the people who need it most never seem to have it.

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