What does Kenya mean for democracy?

January 31, 2008

The terrible suffering unleashed by the recent elections in Kenya poses searching questions for democrats everywhere. How can this process of democracy that we laud so highly, that is supposed to insure us against the vagaries of power, have seemingly unleashed such terrible, visceral forces?

It’s a question that I haven’t yet fully understood, but I suggest a couple of opening thoughts. Firstly, that democracy is not a value. Democracy is a selection process; the liberal values of tolerance, fairness, and respect for rights that we associate with it are incidental. These are complex, organic creations, born of deeper social and intellectual forces, and whilst they complement democracies extremely well, they are neither necessary nor exclusive to them. Witness the emergence of democratic authoritarianism in Russia, and authoritarian liberalism in China, to see the disintegration of this connection. That the democratic process in Kenya could unleash intolerance, tribalism and extreme violations of rights, is no surprise if liberal values are not sustained within Kenyan political culture; instead, democracy merely exposes the societal fissures that authoritarian rule papers over.

Secondly, that democracy depends on nationalism. In a mature democracy, the losing side in an election, however viciously fought, accepts defeat in the belief that its fundamental interests are protected, whoever sits in power. Certainly, the loser knows that sinecures will be rewarded to the victor’s acolytes, but he is assured of his essential position in society, because he knows that both he and his victor believe in the same thing: the health of the nation. All sides trust that this core shared goal will be prioritised. It is this belief that ties the political community together, and mitigates the costs of defeat for losing parties. Thus elections pass without incident, and the defeated lick their wounds until their next legal opportunity to vie for power.

In a country like Kenya where nationalism is weak, and the idea of the nation ill-developed, the losers of the democratic process do not have this security. As events have shown, the primary loyalty of many Kenyans is to tribe. The whole tone of the election campaign was “now we eat”: the rewards of power will be directed to our tribe, not theirs. In this climate, why should the losers accept the result passively? What functions does this government fulfil for them that they could not fulfil themselves? A lack of underpinning nationalism increases the risks and rewards of democracy exponentially – and therefore increases the lengths to which people will go not to be the losers of the process.  



Sovereignty in a globalising world

January 31, 2008

A thought:

We live in a historically unprecedented age. In the past, sovereignty and wealth were synonymous. Sovereign control over territory meant control over productive resources, control over resources meant wealth, and wealth, in symbiosis with power, secured sovereignty.

This is no longer so; we live in an age where, for the first time, economic gain can be pursued independently of sovereignty. The key dynamics of this change are the increasing integration of states into global economic structures, and their reliance on the gains from these structures for their legitimacy.

Take the case of the South East Asian Tigers. They depend heavily on external investment, over which they have no control, and the North American market, over which they have no influence, for their economic growth, and depend on this growth for their domestic legitimacy. They are therefore takers, not makers, of the rules that most fundamentally define their political standing. This is not, by any definition, sovereignty.

And yet, they thrive. Wealth accrues whilst sovereignty wanes. This gives lie to the oft spouted claim that globalisation is undermining the position of states in the international economy. In fact, many are richer, happier and more confident than ever before; but in a Faustian twist, they may be selling their political souls to be so. 

Never has so much been written about so little that’s been read by so few

January 18, 2008

Most people would say that shitting on your own doorstep is a bad idea…but here goes anyway…

Steven Stark of the not-particularly-reputable Boston Phoenix has written a piece that (mostly) hits the target on something that’s been concerning me for a while now: internet punditry in relation to the 2008 US presidential elections. Frankly, many of Stark’s points could apply equally to the print and broadcast media (particularly in the UK, where coverage is for the most part just plain offensive to anyone with even a little in-depth knowledge of the candidates, issues and processes), but Stark is right – the sheer volume, novelty and speed of internet commentators makes them worthy of special comment.

The problem seems to be two-fold. Firstly, there simply isn’t enough ‘news’ going on (and there aren’t enough astute commentators either). Secondly, the constant need to report something drives the pundits to fixate about deeply unimportant events in an effort to sustain public interest. They may commission a new poll or sponsor a debate just so as to be able to report it. In the worst cases they simply make things up.

(a typical online pundit at work)

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A nuclear waste

January 16, 2008

The government’s own environmental advisors launched a scathing attack yesterday on the Labour’s decision to give the go-ahead to a next generation of nuclear power stations. Their objection is essentially three-pronged:

  1. The costs in terms of construction, decommissioning, waste, public funding, and missed opportunity for investment in other renewables, far outweigh the benefits in terms of clean energy
  2. In making this decision, the government has shown a dispiriting lack of environmental leadership – “a blatant failure in moral vision”, in the SDC chief economist’s words. Given the opportunity to take a strong position in favour of a progressive, low-carbon economy, it has instead stepped backwards, succumbing to pressure form big energy companies and political expediency
  3. It is using the technological “metafix” of nuclear as a fig-leaf to cover its embarrassing lack of progress on the root cause of the environmental crisis, the attitude of Western societies towards consumption

This critique makes a powerful case against the project. But behind these arguments lie deeper tendencies and failings of government which are at the core of much the current environmental inertia.

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Alistair Darling at the RSA

January 15, 2008

Saw Alistair Darling – stocky, box-suited, occasionally wry, surprisingly nervous-looking – speak at the RSA today.

Benedict Brogan has managed to draw some juice out of it, calling it “thoughtful and uncharacteristically personal”, a declaration of political independence from Number 10. I guess seasoned political observers can spot this kind of thing.

So far as I could tell, it was just the usual ideas: economic growth as a way of achieving social ends; building an entrepreneurial culture; fostering aspiration; the challenge of globalisation and climate change. We got one titbit – “in a few weeks time sustainability will be at the heart of the budget”. It was fine.


The real star of the show was Peter Riddell, who made a response. Reflecting on his 30+ years covering the Treasury, he compared Darling to Dennis Healey, his Labour predecessor as Chancellor as one. The aspirations were the same, he said, but the way of going about things had changed completely.

In the 1970s, the Treasury was solely a macroeconomic department – it didn’t even have a housing policy, let alone a child poverty one. Now, it is primarily a microeconomic department – and, through the tax credit system, a large public spender to boot.

Apparently the key turning points in this transformation were a report by Jeremy Heywood after Black Wednesday, and of course the Chancellorship of a certain G. Brown, notorious for poking his nose into everyone else’s business.

The last few years have seen a huge increase in the tendency to economise everything – education as a functional method of economic advancement; the fact that we need the Stern Report to wake us up to climate change.

I’ve always tended to attribute that to widespread social and cultural forces. Riddell gave an insight into its high political beginnings.

UPDATE: Peter Riddell’s political briefing in The Times today.

Decline and Fall of the English Murder

January 14, 2008

The front page of today’s Daily Mail asks: Why was wife killer [Garry Weddell] bailed? This is also the first day of Steve Wright’s trial for killing five prostitutes in Suffolk.

We are just as fascinated with violent and untimely death as we were in 1946, when George Orwell wrote his great essay Decline of the English Murder.

The question is: has the quality of our murders improved since then?

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The problem with automatic organ donation

January 13, 2008

BBC News: Gordon Brown says he wants a national debate on whether to change the system of organ donation. He believes thousands of lives would be saved if everyone was automatically placed on the donor register.

I see the use of default options becoming an increasingly common trend in coming years – it has already been suggested as a remedy for pensions problems, and may well end up being the way we fund our political parties.

It is undeniably effective. But I can’t help wondering if it is really the best way to go about things.

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