In his latest Common Sense episode, Dan Carlin spent some time discussing a New York Times article that linked together many of the protests and unrest that are currently infecting nations around the world.  A couple of passages in the article stood out as particularly interesting to me, especially since I spoiled my ballot in the last Canadian federal election out of disgust with the main stream parties and the system in general.

Speaking about the global protests, the Times writes:

[F]rom South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process they preside over.

They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

Voting is worthless. I have certainly felt that way for a couple of years. It seems that no matter who we elect to government, and no matter what level of government, the politicians seems more concerned about catering to corporations and special interest groups, building their own power networks, and finding a way to screw the other guy than actually responding to the needs and desires of the citizens who elected them in the first place.  Citizens, if they are thought of at all, are merely means to an end and pesky ones at that.

The Times continues:

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.

In that sense, the protest movements in democracies are not altogether unlike those that have rocked authoritarian governments this year, toppling longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Protesters have created their own political space online that is chilly, sometimes openly hostile, toward traditional institutions of the elite.

The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,” said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

How novel is that? As Dan Carlin discusses in his show, could it be that we’re rapidly approaching a point where the concept of a representative democracy is too archaic for society, and some form of radical upheaval is required to refresh and renew countries and to once again empower citizens?

It is certainly a possibility, and as more and more protests seem to break out around the developed world, it will be interesting to watch how the political landscape reacts.

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14 Responses to “Time for revolution?”

  1. The question I have is “change to *what*?”

    If the agitation leads to a more direct democracy, that’s a step backwards in my mind. Mind you, I’m sick of leaders, too, but I’m convinced that we have two big problems; a populace that votes in the jerks, and lawmakers who are above the law.

    • To what, indeed. That’s the big question, I guess.

      The NYT article hints at some new system of government based more on tools of the Internet age….. but like any political system, it’s pure theory until someone comes up with the model, irons out the details, and proves that it works.

      At this point anything is better than what we have now – representative democracy where the representatives ignore those who put them there.

    • You can’t blame the populace that votes in jerks, when their only options are jerks. There is a fundamental problem with democracy in that the vast majority of voters do not in fact make any kind of informed vote and instead simply vote for “their” party regardless, or vote based on a single “hot button” issue regardless of overall platforms. But, that’s only an issue when you’ve got real choices – something we don’t have now.

      And, no, the solution isn’t to “just run yourself” or whatever else – The only way to have a chance to grow as a viable candidate is to do so with the backing of a major party… and with very major fiscal support. Where do you get that? By selling out to corporate interests.

      You’re right, though – to what is the question? Unfortunately, anything isn’t better, there’s a LOT of worse ways things could go. Worse, it’s pretty much impossible to get everyone together behind one idea – the very nature of the protests is pretty much “Anything but this!”

    • As Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

  2. I’ve been of that view for some time too – that our democracy is pointless. We can’t choose to elect people who will actually represent us (and our interests) because there’s no way to ensure those you elect will in fact do so. Used to be the case that if someone didn’t, you’d choose not to elect them next time – but the reality is that every politician at that level is utterly uninterested in the citizen’s interests. There’s no good alternatives.

    Most of the pro-representative democracy points brought up in it’s defense are tired old sound bites with no real meaning anymore due to how utterly the system has been abused and broken.

    I’ve been following the #OccupyWallstreet protests fairly closely, as well as the other similar ones springing up around the world. I’m still dubious, though, as to what can really happen. People – particularly the younger set – are indeed disillusioned with the status quo, but what can they really do?

    Very rarely do protests actually effect meaningful change, particularly when – such as these – they don’t have a clear direction other than being a cry of discontent. The demands made are as varied as the people participating, and many are utterly unrealistic.

    Add to that how those in power, both directly in government and somewhat more indirectly as large corporations/associations, have a vested interest in keeping the system as it stands now.

    Things will have to get a lot worse before anything changes… Which is either depressing (nothing changes) or frightening (I’d hate to see things get much worse, as it’ll inevitably result in bloodshed).

  3. It is a systemic problem of democracy in general. I want to blame career politicians specifically, but what can you actually do when democracy is literally a popularity contest wherein massive amounts of (expensive) advertising is required to stand a chance of winning? And as Tesh mentions, direct democracy would be a HUGE step backwards as a frightening amount of people are total morons.

    In any case, the #OccupyWallstreet thing is less about politicians and more about the increasingly absurd wealth gap, even if the people don’t strictly realize it. In a good economy with wages growing, no one really cares about politics. In a bad economy that nevertheless sees corporations raking in record profits, people suddenly finds the time make a /concernface.

  4. I wish we could make political donations illegal. If we could find a way to keep bribery and quid pro quo out of politics it would go a long way towards fixing things. Then the politicians might actually think about the people they represent instead of thinking about themselves.

    • This, really. Assign a fixed – small – budget, don’t allow contributions at all. Classify any gifts as bribery, punishable as such.

      But, that will simply never happen. Who in their right mind would propose/vote in such a law? Given that those who are in a position to do such a thing are the people getting these contributions?

  5. I think Carlin’s right to link the protests. Many of the people protesting here in the UK see ourselves as allied to the Arab Spring and OWS.

    I think the world desperately needs a new e-democratic model. The problem with the old model is that lobbyists often work on eroding laws that are rather boring. The law protecting commodities markets against speculators – who cared about that until Goldmans and others got exemptions and food prices started skyrocketing?

    Perhaps with the internet we don’t need representatives at all. Primary legislation can be passed by massive popular e-vote. That would mean a few rocky years as people vote in poorly thought-out stuff but people would learn to be sophisticated. At least that way if someone wants to bribe the people who pass the laws they have to try to bribe all of us (and someone will no doubt expose their ulterior motive).

    • The trouble I have with massive popular vote is that it’s no better than direct democracy; it’s mob rule, this time a mob of “technocracy”, as it were. That’s great if you can mobilize a bloc of techie voters, but that’s not going to help everyone.

      • Mob rule seems preferable to the either corporate rule or plutocratic rule that we have now in most world “democracies”.

        At least the people would be involved, and politicians make at least as many boneheaded and hateful decisions as the commons would.

  6. That’s true. I often feel that voting for this or that party doesn’t make a major difference in German politics anymore. Protest actions become increasingly popular in this environment. I think this focused form of protest on a single aspect is not only increasing in Germany but many western democracies. Singular protest parties with heavy focus on one agenda (mostly focusing on things like internet laws, the environment or certain social issues) usually fail outside of their field of expertise and main interest even if they sometimes even win elections.

    For better or worse, I smell change is in the air! Something must change, as over 50% people chosing not to vote at all is alarming. <- even if you don't speak German you can see the numbers. 40-50% abstention is the norm!

    • My province just had an election, and the turnout was a measly 46%. I didn’t vote…. it felt like it didn’t matter because all of the options were equally terrible.

  7. [...] unrest.  We live in interesting times.  It will be interesting to see where things go, and just what sort of revolutions pop up.  Be prepared and pay attention.  Hopefully it’s a tempest in a teapot, but it [...]

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