It’s still only February, but we may have a winner in the Silliest Idea Proposed In A 2015 Political Column contest. Step forward Australian Herald-Sun columnist Tom Elliott with this:
There is a solution. Let’s agree on a set of truly important problems — mounting debt, population growth, lack of jobs, rising health care expenditure, inefficient welfare and an inadequate defence force — and appoint a committee of eminent and competent Australians to sort it out.
A benign dictatorship if you will.
This committee would consist of experts in their fields without political axes to grind. It’d need at least five years to complete its tasks during which time elected governments could administrate, but take no major decisions.
There is of course a giant paradox in the middle of this proposal in which he fails to actually consider by what sort of process people might come to agree what the ‘truly important problems’ are, or how they might go about appointing the ‘committee of eminent and competent Australians’ who’ll do something about these problems. One might suggest that this could be done by a process in which those who want the job of running the country set out their idea of what they think the problems are, how they’d solved them and then the public – perhaps through some kind of voting process – could choose between them.
(He also appears to believe that Britain suspended elections several years before WW2 began, but we’ll let that slide)
The thing of interest here isn’t that someone who imagines he wants a dictatorship can only express that in democratic forms, but rather the discontent with the notion of democracy itself. It’s the sort of thing that flares up occasionally, usually in late night talk and often couched in democratic terms like this. The thought is usually expressed not in needing a coup or anything as vulgar like that but as a desire for a strong leader who’ll cut through the crap and get things done (the same sort of arguments that are often used to advocate for elected Mayors in Britain). It’s the typical frustration at ‘the system’ that somehow blocks problems getting solved, coupled with a belief that all problems are easily solved by putting the right person in place to do it.
In short, and perhaps fitting more with the times, what’s proposed isn’t so much a coup as the installation of a new model of management. It’s perhaps a legacy of the cult of management that pervades so much of our modern experience, that the assumption isn’t regarded as completely laughable. We hear so much about how a change in management will supposedly rescue an organisation, that it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that the same rules must surely apply to how the country is run – bring in some ‘experts’, and they’ll magically find the answers that no one else has been able to. (I think I’m obliged by blogging law to link to Chris Dillow at this point)
However, while this is a silly column, it doesn’t mean that it’s not revealing something interesting about the state of political discourse. It shows that we’ve reached a point in the cycle where it’s acceptable to muse on whether there may be more efficient ways to run things than democracy, which is something that often follows big economic crises (see the 1970s and 1930s for more). Just as we’ve seen European governments replaced by technocrats and overseen by troikas, the notion is that the forms of democracy can stay, but the actual distribution of power will be changed completely – or, in some views, the true distribution of power will be revealed as the deep state rises and exercises its power overtly. Just as Colin Crouch argues with his idea of ‘post-democracy’, we’re not likely to see any sudden, dramatic or violent end to democracy, more a gradual whittling away as the technocrats and the managerialists take more responsibilities away from the democrats for safe keeping. We’ll still get to vote for whoever gets to tell us the bad news, but the real decisions will be made far away from us.
Does it have to be like that? No, but I’m getting the feeling that we’re going to need to begin to properly fight that vision of the future if we’re going to prevent it coming about.