An old Soviet joke has a wealthy American gazing up at one of the towers in the Kremlin, and at the man he can see at the top. ‘What does he do?’ he asks the guide from Intourist.
‘Ah,’ says that knowledgeable man, ‘he has extraordinary eyesight, and he sits there to tell us of the approach of Communism!’
‘I’d like to talk with him,’ says the American, and the far-sighted one is brought to earth, whereupon the American offers him $100,000 a year to come to the US and watch from another tower for the approach of democracy. The Russian refuses, and the American bids up until the Russian has refused $1m a year.
Vexed and puzzled, the American asks him why. ‘You see,’ replies the watchtower man, ‘if I come to your country I may not have that job for long – but here in the Soviet Union,’ he finishes proudly, ‘I have my job for life!’
There are many ways of interpreting that joke (and all the best jokes from the USSR were political ones), but for me the question was when we in Australia would see democracy. For many years now I have seen our country as a kind of elected oligarchy. It works quite well that way, but as I have been saying over the past couple of weeks, it’s only a democracy in comparison with straightforward dictatorships and the few remaining ‘people’s democracies’. There’s little citizen activity in politics, though a great deal in the voluntary sector.
Why not? Well, there are probably dozens of interlocking reasons. One is scale: 23 million people can’t assemble anywhere to argue things out, and electronic communication doesn’t yet enable us to do so. Perhaps it couldn’t ever do so. Another factor is wealth, because political democracy is an excellent way in which government acts to do collectively the things we need to do, but can’t do as poor individuals. Though there still are poor people, we don’t need the kind of reform measures that were needed a century ago. A lot of that has been done.
But the solutions to these problems are not seen so much these days as ‘political’ but as ‘economic’, save by those who see no remedy in economics – for them it is the problem, not the solution. We have long passed the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s, when people like J. F Kennedy, L. B. Johnson, Harold Wilson, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, Pierre Trudeau and Gough Whitlam all saw political solutions as the key to progress. Their hymn-sheet was the same; only the language and the society were different. ‘We have the knowledge (usually meaning ‘science’), the wealth and the power – we will solve the problems!’ Lyndon Johnson started a ‘war on poverty’. Today that aspiration seems vainglorious.
The urge to create a real democracy has been alive for thousands of years, and we are always vague about what it would look like in practice. In the 19th century progressives firmly believed that when every man (later, every adult) had the vote democracy would arrive. That didn’t prove to be the case. The next generation of progressives had much the same expectations for universal secondary education. More recently, feminists had similar hopes for female equality.
That far-sighted Soviet man in the watchtower might well have accepted the American offer. The approach of democracy seems a good way off to me. Just as party members in the USSR would explain that they only enjoyed ‘socialism’, a preliminary stage before real communism, I feel like explaining that we in Australia only enjoy ‘elected oligarchy’, a preliminary stage before ‘democracy’.
Unlike Marxist-Leninists, I don’t have a lot of theory to tell me what a real democracy would be like in a country like ours. But somehow I feel that it ought to be better than what we have. And I don’t blame the politicians. After all, we the citizens elected them. If we wanted something better we would have to do something about it, wouldn’t we. I don’t have a ready answer.
If you detect a certain disenchantment in this essay, put it down to 2013’s being an election year!