Month: May 2019
Originally posted on Medium as Jago Couch on Aug 22, 2015. It’s potentially confusing for me to criticize something as “undemocratic”, which is why I didn’t post it here, but the argument of the post is relevant to my recent posts so I now prefer to have it here to refer to.
We’ve all had our laugh at the Labour party’s leadership election, but it’s time to get serious.
“Internal party democracy” is deeply stupid. You could even say it is undemocratic.
The purpose of a party is to provide a choice — one among several — to voters in public elections.
If every party stands for “whatever its members say”, and each party’s membership is open, then there is no reason to expect the parties to differ from each other. No choice would be provided at the public elections.
Not only at the level of voting, but at the level of support (funding, campaigning), each individual can choose which party, if any, is theirs. But that choice can only be made sensibly if the citizen can tell what a party stands for, and what it is likely to stand for in future. To have value, a party has to stand for something specific and reasonably constant. This goal is not consistent with internal democracy.
The ideal organisational form for a party is for it to be run by a small self-selecting clique. That provides both consistency and the possibility of gradual adaptation to changing circumstances. A fixed constitution is not likely to work, and if it did work would completely freeze the party, making it unable to adapt. Any other arrangement (including single-person control) will produce unpredictable changes in position, reducing the value of supporting the party.
Note I’m not arguing against parties having large membership, or against the membership having influence. I am arguing that ordinary potential party members have *greater* influence by being able to join a party with a consistent predictable position, than by having a vote that can be overwhelmed by random motivated entryists. Because membership in a party is and should be voluntary, it is a case where influence should be entirely exerted through the force of “exit”, rather than “voice”. It is better to be a member of a party that is controlled by a small self-selecting clique whose opinions you know and agree with, than to be a member of one which is controlled by a vote of thousands of members, including yourself.
The Labour Party organisation is attempting to be reasonable about choosing which new members should be able to vote, but it is impossible because there is no rationale for allowing any of them to vote at all. If it’s legitimate for a member to change the direction of a party, then it’s legitimate to join the party in order to change its direction.
This contradiction has been brought to a head by Labour’s introduction of very low subscription fees to join as a voting “supporter”, but charging more is not an absolute defence against hostile entryism. It just postpones things until there’s an election which is close enough, and for high enough stakes to make an attack viable. Of course, the internet makes organising such an attack as easy as creating a hashtag.
It’s a very common trope, on left and right, that the voters are being denied their influence and that democracy is on the decline.
I’m pretty sure the reverse is true: the Western democracies are becoming more democratic as the unprincipled exceptions and institutional arrangements that limited the influence of the voters are eroded.
In particular, the things that are pointed at as undemocratic, such as the attempt to remove Trump, and the failure to execute Brexit, are the second line of defence after democracy has blasted through the barriers that used to exist. Trump could not have made it to the presidential election a decade ago, and though there has always been a majority or close to for leaving the EU, only in 2016 did that become a possibility.
Meta: I’ve decided once again to try to put minor observations on the blog, rather than leaving them in twitter conversations. If you are using a feed reader and liked the old very-low-volume feed, switch to https://blog.anomalyuk.party/category/main/feed and I’ll keep “minis” like this out of the “main” category.
I had to explain again in response to a comment on my “Decline of Conspiracy” post that, no, the Cathedral is not a conspiracy. It makes more sense to say that the Cathedral is the opposite of a conspiracy. It is what you get when there are no conspiracies 1.
The word “conspiracy” is basically clickbait, but I’m going to stick with it anyway. Be aware, though, that I don’t mean anything really weird by it. The management of any company is a conspiracy, in that the members discuss plans in private and only publicise them if it is advantageous for them to do so 2. @drethlin pointed out on twitter that HBO were able to keep the secret of the ending of Game of Thrones for months, despite hundreds of people needing to know it to make the episode.
In this sense, conspiracies are normal and common, though not quite as common as they used to be. That was my argument in the earlier piece: that as recently as a decade or so ago, a political party (or at least a faction within it) could agree an agenda in private and make confidential plans to pursue that agenda. That capability seems, since then, to have been lost. The key debates between leading politicians of the same party over what goals should be pursued and what means should be employed to pursue them are carried out in public.
I stand by that point. But on reflection I think it’s a much bigger deal. This is a recent development in a much longer trend. As I wrote yesterday in a comment, the Cathedral is defined by its lack of secrecy. The distinctive role of the universities and the press is to inform the public, and to do so with authoritative status. It is not defined by its ideology. However, its ideological direction is a predictable consequence of its transparency. A public competition for admiration causes a movement to the extreme: the most attractive position is the one just slightly more extreme than the others 3. This is the “holiness spiral”
The breakdown of conspiracy, then, is not just a phenomenon of the last decade that has given us Trump and so on. It is the root cause of the political direction of the last few centuries.
What is the cause of the breakdown of conspiracy? If I had to guess and point at one thing it would be protestantism. That, after all, was largely a move to remove the secrecy from religion 4. Once democracy got going, that removed much more secrecy. But it’s still an ongoing process: democracy until recently was mediated by non-public formal and informal institutions. The opening of the guilds can be seen as part of the same trend. Many of the things I have written about in the past may be related — the decline in personal loyalty, for example.
That produces a feedback loop — a belief in equality and openness brings more decision-making into the public sphere, which leads to holiness spirals, which leads to ever increasing belief in equality and openness. But it seems to me that the openness comes first, and the ideology results from it. The Cathedral is a sociological construct, not an ideological one.
Openness has benefits, of course. The advance of knowledge, and of commerce, were made possible or accelerated by the decline of secrecy. But it’s still useful to keep secrets.
Restating the “decline of conspiracy” argument in this context: until recently, the Cathedral, being fundamentally transparent, was subject to the peacock’s-tail type holiness spiral5 as defined above. Through democracy it caused politics to follow. However, the actual powers of the state were immediately in the hands of the civil service and political parties, who were not transparent, and exerted a moderating influence. There were self-perpetuating groups of powerful people — conspiracies — who could limit the choices open to the electorate and therefore slow the long-term political trends driven by the Cathedral. Today, as a result of internal democracy in political parties (particularly in the UK, a very recent development), and of unmediated channels of communication, those conspiracies have been broken open. A politician today is fundamentally in the same business as a journalist or a professor — he is competing for status by means of public statements. The internal debates of political parties are now public debates. In the past, in order to become a politician, other politicians had to accept you. Now you can be a TV star or a newspaper columnist today, and be a politician tomorrow. The incumbents can’t quietly agree to stop you, any more than they could quietly agree to have pizza for lunch.
- related: Personal and Collective Power, on coordination problems