When the government fears the people, you have liberty. When the people fear the government, you have tyranny ~ Thomas Jefferson (1743 –1826)
Understanding an institution requires an examination of its roots. The governments of the nation states we know today are the direct descendents of monarchies. And even if those monarchies are overthrown by revolution, the new governments inherit their structure. They work the levers of power using the pattern set by their predecessors. Soviet Russia had a powerful secret police system because the Tsars bequeathed it one. In turn, modern Russia has a powerful internal security service because it never gave up the one left by the Communists. But this is straying from my subject.
Monarchies developed to protect those who lived in their sphere of influence. Have no doubts – people in those days needed protection from ubiquitous marauders. And it was good to have a local strong man providing this protection. But the local strong man required funds to fight off the predators and he exacted tribute in money, kind and service in order to do so. This set him up rather well with lands and fortresses and debts of duty, so he continued to demand money even when there was no external threat. There were local criminals to keep under control and natural paranoia has always been easy to exploit.
Death and Taxes
The tribute is still paid today. It is known as tax and, along with death (a very appropriate pairing), is the only inevitability in life.
The structure developed by these strong men and imposed on their vassals –now known as government – has many similarities to the protection rackets operated by organised criminal gangs.
If you are shocked by this analogy, think a bit harder. Pay your taxes or we will bankrupt you, and maybe even lock you up. Pensioners feeling the injustice of paying council tax at a level they cannot afford, have been thrown in prison. Obey our rules or you will be sorry.
But, you respond, aren't taxes are used to help the poor and the weak? Yes they are – but Mafia families also help out their own when it suits them. It helps to maintain their power.
The dynastic wars fought throughout Europe up to the start of the 20th century can easily be seen as the wars of rival criminal gangs squabbling over territory. The nobility were the "made men" of their era and they behaved appropriately. Imagine what Al Capone would have said if his henchmen told him they had "whacked" a usurped rival (suspected of buggery) by sticking a red hot poker up his arse. Now you have the idea, just keep looking for parallels. You will find many.
It is important to realise that a well-ordered society does need protection. It needs a tough champion to keep order. Look at what happened in Yugoslavia when the strong man disappeared. The country quickly fell into a turf war masterminded by very unpleasant war lords – no more unpleasant than medieval kings with their purges and witch-hunts, but very nasty and very up to date. Again, we have no shortage of examples.
If we look at the terror tactics used by dictators such as Saddam Hussein, we are again reminded of a Mafia family – or even the Doge's Venice. Saddam's supporters were forced into a loyalty coupled with brutality by being constantly watched. They were threatened with becoming victims themselves if they failed to be vicious enough to others.
But what has this to do with democracy, you may ask? It is all about power.
As Churchill famously wrote, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." And the problem with democracy, especially representative democracy as practiced in Europe and America, is that it is not very good. And it is not very good because it attracts into government those people who have a taste for power – just the kind of people who are attracted by the idea of running a protection racket. It makes them feel important and gives them control over other people's lives. With the process of democracy, they can achieve power without risking their own skins. But they do share at least one characteristic with the monarchs of old. In order to be successful, they must be completely ruthless. Why? Because they have chosen to inhabit a world where ruthlessness is the only indispensible quality.
The advantage democracy has over other forms of government is that, when operating well, it allows power to be transferred easily from one politician to another. The innocent population no longer gets killed in the cross fire.
Killed in the cross fire
But this does not happen infallibly. At one extreme, democracy is distorted by elections being rigged; or oppositions banned; or constitutions changed or suspended when a leader, drunk on power, refuses to give it up. More commonly, gerrymandering is used to limit the power of the electorate. And unwillingness to give up power is very common. Edna Healy has described the "horse's eye look" that prime ministers get when their power is waning but they do not want to abandon the top job.
The drug of being Capo di tutti capi is both powerful and addictive. It is only the strength invested in the democratic process, and the guarantees of civil liberties, that protects us from those we need to be our leaders. We must defend the structures that have been put into place to mitigate the efforts of politicians to impose their will on the population. We must resist their unfettered use of the new Panopticon. We must ensure they understand that their mandate is limited, that they will always be scrutinized and held to account.
Most people don't seek power. They don't want to interfere in other people's lives. So how is it that politicians find it so easy to whip up a mob and let them loose on their enemies? To stir up hatred against a group of outsiders? To create a new order of demons? A subject for future examination.
This discussion continues at https://www.thinkhard.org/2007/09/the-political-a.html