The Pragmatism of principle
Democracy has been having a rough time of it. I should know, I have been having to do an awful lot of defending antiquated liberal ideals since moving East. Unsurprising really within the context of this region, and with the population of this island where I currently stay rightly proud of the achievements of the last 50 years wit a system that values collective advancement over messy individualism (as an aside…people always say ‘stay’, they never ask me how long I have ‘lived’ here… but that is another piece yet to be written about what it feels like to be a guest, and how certain experiences have made me even more determined to welcome migrants of all varieties… I mean, free movement of capital for the rich should also mean free movement of labour for rest? Fair’s fair? Anyway, for another day)
Apologies for students of political theory… and to anyone who is taking these assumptions as read…great, but I have been having to do a lot of arguing from first principles….
The argument that I am perpetually rebutting is primarily the one known as ‘Freedom of Speech won’t feed my children’. There are a number of variants on this including the ‘isn’t America, the land of the free, a joke’ version (thanks to The Don for turning that one up to 11, though the perpetual filibustering and shutdowns haven’t helped) where I have to explain there are other democracies. Or the sub-argument ‘its just plain rude’ so you shouldn’t be allowed’, which means I need to roll out – ‘who decides the moral arbiter?’ But mostly its ‘500 million Chinese Citizens can’t be wrong’ thesis. And it’s a powerful one. But it has its limitations. Massive fucking dangerous limits actually. Yes, moving fast, breaking things and people might be excusable to some when it is lifting millions out of poverty ( and even I am not convinced about that). Democracy and its accouterments – Civil Society as I will call it- are an albatross round the neck of progress and many I speak to call me out for indulging in principles – as if it is some kind of decadent degenerate luxury. And trying to apply it all round the world is simply putting a brake on the progress of the rest of the world that was exploited rather than exploiting…my lofty words lack that most crucial of elements. Pragmatism.
Personally though, i disagree with that…
Strong leadership can divine some general will, bring about progress and benefit everyone. Strong leaders now best and can chart a course. Everyone benefits.
There is a catch 22 here and that is that in an uncivil society, the only opinions aired and voices amplified are those who are on the ‘winning side’. That may be most people initially as a population is moved beyond subsistence level existence, but as the growth shifts the question from ‘how much is there’ to ‘who gets what and when’ (the very bread and butter of politics) then top-down decision making becomes more contentious. Without channels to hold those making these decisions accountable or to hear about, let alone directly from, those who might be losing out in the process, people might get lost or left behind… or worse.
The top-down power structures that allow a vast nation like China’s rapid growth may be effective at increasing GDP by building bridges and dams, but more contentious decisions centrally made and then imposed raise dangerous questions.
If my own desire to enshrine the rights if the individual within the group are seen as detrimental, that means that someone else gets to decide what can or cant be done with someone. Essentially there is an implicit inequality-, an object-subject divide, or better put, an acknowledgment that some animals are more equal than others. Which is fine, if you are a ‘winner’ in this arrangement. Or if all the farm needs right now is more hay. But what happens when needs become wants, and demands more diverse? Conveniently without these individual freedoms of a proper civil society there is little word from those who lost out. So when your home is deemed in the way of a major project, or your opinions deemed to undermine the program, you shouldn’t be surprised if you property or your person disappears. Now I personally have less interest in property rights, but I am still as vigorously inclined to defend them.
Without enshrining the rights of and equality amongst, individuals how do we decide who makes the decisions for the ‘greater good’? For every Lee Kwan Yew, there is a Marcos or a Mugabe lurking. This is not to say that there is any comparison between these figures, but if we do not start building a society through a mutuality of individuals, then we are subject to the whims of whoever is as the top. They might be a visionary who brings prosperity; they may be a demagogue who brings genocide and misery. Most likely, they will be, like the rest of us, fallible, well-meaning and human. Which leaves us at the mercy of their mistakes.
Individual rights aren’t a highfalutin ideal that is a nice to have for overdeveloped, pampered nations. They are not a luxury, they are a necessity; they should be applauded for their pragmatism. Rather than hope or presume that one individual or body of individuals can look out for everyone’s interests in an enlightened, dispassionate, practical and considered way. Now if enshrining them means I get to depict of describe in great detail lurid, imaginary anal sex between political leaders that is an unfortunate side effect. But you may hate what I say, but you should probably defend to your death my right to say it. Not for my sake, but for your own.
Now no doubt, there is an element of justifiable resistance to anyone coming from outside and saying this is how you should run your affairs, particularly when for many rapidly growing states in Asia this advice comes through the distorting filter of the past atrocities of Colonialism. But these ideas need to be seen through the lens of humanity, rather than hemispheres. Rapid growth means that the questions of who gets what are getting more and more significant and strong leadership is likely to increasingly create winners and losers as the importance of absolute poverty decreases and relativity comes to the fore. Telling this world that some opinions are more valid than others will become increasingly difficult. We can see the weak signals of the practical limitations of strong governments in increasingly complex scenarios in the way they deal with (or rather fail to deal with) minority groups.
The rhetoric of lifting millions out of poverty still rings true as there are millions more to lift. In that sense it is not mere rhetoric, but reality. But looking forwards, the importance of this will only decrease and there is a need to anticipate the next challenges- an ever more varied and diffuse set of desires and demands from an ever-more informed and ambitious populace. Suddenly it becomes less and less practical to say ‘I’ or ‘we’ know best. Individual rights may mean messy discussions and longer timeframes to ‘get things done’ but starting from these basic principles is the most practical way to deal with the reality that life is for your population can no longer simply be measured in industrial output.
Someone pass the KY jelly, because Civil Society, in its truest sense, is a necessity we must afford…