October 23, 2010


Leading The Disobedient Masses

The Masses Disobey Their Leaders. Can government watchdogs control of the government? The EU’s choice: the Belgian or the Swiss pattern.

1. Reacting to a past crisis –and missing those of the future- is a damaging but understandable pattern that shapes our public life. The aftereffects of the banking and financial crisis fit the blueprint. Indeed, loose cannons, irresponsible actors and plain crooks operating due to lacking oversight, had much to do with the calamity that now effect entire economies. The reactive fashion of the moment is to create policies and government agencies to control and supervise a wide array of institutions and activities whose malfunctions are somehow related to the present’s vicissitudes.

Here one is made to wonder regarding question marks that pop up. The crisis has raised the prospect of defaults on sovereign debt while the government deficits, expressed in percentages of the GDP, are rising. One might add that this red-ink-fed humidity of the morass is growing beyond what the bailouts of troubled banks would warrant.  Such conditions make it clear that newly created watchdogs need not only to supervise reckless speculators and the snake-medicine concoctors of fraudulent investment opportunities of the private sector. The guardians to be unleashed would also have to bark an alert once governments maneuver themselves into the red zone on the dial of sanity. At this junction, we might want to ask a question. When for the last time has a state-run supervisory organ identified an impending collapse of a government? Has such an institution assigned responsibility for inefficiency to a government agency administering it? Lastly, when have such warnings led to a correction of the course steered by the vessel? 
In anticipation of the very short answer, it would seem that what we will get is more government and bureaus. They will slow down legitimate private operations without ever smelling innovative crooks or pointing to the major violator of theoretically watertight economic policies.

2. “Too big to fail” remains just what it used to be. There is only one difference. If the controls about to be put in place work according to their design, the “fail” part will be less likely to come about.

3. A prediction surfaces if one follows the way the European Union expands and operates. Alternatives emerge as the result of observations and their extrapolation. Assuming that the trend of the last years continues unchecked, the most likely result is that the EU has the choice of becoming a large Belgium. The other and less likely option is that the Union makes itself into an enhanced Switzerland.

Belgium tries to overcome diversity. On the surface, this diversity is ethnic-linguistic. In the substance, however, it grows out of public culture and is expressed through associations that are bolstered by the use of a language. The Belgian solution of holding together what appears to separate along a discernible geographic line of demarcation is by centralization. The favored tool of the endeavor of overcoming is an expensive and insensitive bureaucracy.

Both qualities are not accidental. For one thing, the administrative machine is to replace a weakening spontaneous sentiment of community. Furthermore, the bureaucracy needs to override the will of those it administers, as it does not express basic consent but is there to act as a substitute of approval. A cast worn to repair a broken bone comes to mind. It constrains temporarily to allow separated but fittings part to fuse. Whether the growing together part of the comparison fits is a good question. Meanwhile the bit about the “constraint” is, as Belgian politics seem tell us, apparently applicable.

The other choice is to pursue a pattern modeled after Switzerland’s. It has worked for centuries. Additionally, one of the world’s highest standards of living and GDP per person as well as unemployment around 3%, speak for the recipe. Four languages with their own Cantons, several religions and ways of life, and a location between great powers that had repeatedly fought each other, made the achievement anything but foreordained. Thus, we have a good example for making diversity into an asset and for allowing differences to serve as the soil in which constructive competitive conflicts thrive.

4. Numerous publications are inclined to print studies whose theme is the extremists of the right. The warning of the “danger” has a purpose. The goal of the exercise is that these rightist militants are taking control over the political process by driving out of power the decent advocates of sane consensus-seeking democracy. These uppity groupings are successfully challenging the ability of the genuine democratic parties to continue to rule undisturbed on their turf. Defeats at the polls are the evidence that the nuts are getting the upper hand against the champions of sanity. (Note the implication: the majority is dumb and votes accordingly.)The insulted zoo wardens feel improperly confined to the cage while the apes that have the keys are patrolling outside.

Here the meaning attached to the words “extremist” and “democrat” need to be explored first. For those that apply them as weapons, these terms have an intended, but to innocents not obvious, significance. Once the usage is accepted, the first half of the match for the minds -as in “hearts and minds”- is won. In this context “extremist” means everyone with the courage to call the emperor naked. He also notices the difference between the official theory of the leaders and the discernible reality experienced by the barefooted. The resulting disobedience in the face of the dictate of traditional parties and the iconized attitudes they advocate is punishable by the disapproval of the tenured opinion makers. The manipulated meaning of “democrat” is that, to be one, you must conform to standards that are set by those who attribute to themselves that right. Any party or movement that does not fit within the box provided by the establishment is “Fascist,” or “extremist,” possibly “populist” and for good measure “anti-Semitic.” Naturally, by such manicured definitions the real anti-Semites of the Left or those of Islamist providence are shrunk to be harmless “anti-Zionists”. By this trick, even parties with Jews in leadership positions, are labeled as anti-Semitic.

Possibly, the real issue, as it is unpleasant, is given the silent treatment. It is that the traditional parties of the Left and the Right, while vying with each other, are used to govern through deals among themselves. Their competition for votes that excludes fundamentals has shrunk to a ritual. An unspoken agreement to disagree, avoiding the basics and limited to details, enabled them cooperate. That to preserve the system that reduced the voters’ choice to pick anything as long as it is either “wishy” or “washy”. Some of the new movements might not be of this writer’s taste however, they share characteristics and the conditions that lead to their rise. They challenge the humdrum establishment’s basic legitimacy to rule. They also question the framework of the system within which they operated while competing on anything but the fundamentals. These challenged groupings are understandably concerned by the demands for participation in the political process by new grass root organizations. These owe their existence to a protest. It challenges the legitimacy of the system that has, until now, given established parties that had controlled public life, a protected insider status. In the light of the foregoing, the panicky reaction that cries extremism, when only a threat to continuing as before is present, is understandable.

Consciously or not, the newcomers do not strive to partake in the preservation of the political game as it is. Regarding that, their goals involve a substantial alteration. It is to change and restructure the system. That in a way that threatens to push aside traditional parties, one that questions the way they collude and which ignores the rules that governed the relationship that these forces had cultivated among themselves. This is done by refusing to participate in the cabals that regulated, beyond the verbal clashes of election campaigns, the way power and influence were divided. These intended changes in form and substance are significant. Therefore, from the point of view of the insiders’ of current governance, the departure proposed is, as they claim defensively, “radical” indeed.