In a world too confused by the economic rise of China to question whether democracy will ultimately produce the best results for humankind; in a world where fighting between Sunni and Shia, between secular and religious, between Dinga and Machar dominates the news as much as Catholic and Protestant did in the UK not that long ago; in a world where the after-effects of the Arab Spring result in a literal chaos; in a world where street demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere have threatened the rule of “law” – we need to question how our political institutions work and whether they are robust and durable enough to withstand the constant pressure that we put them under. In a “global” environment, in the so-called “west”, we should also question what political systems we are operating under – as we fit perilously into local, national, regional and global systems.
Around 441BC, Sophocles wrote Antigone http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antigone -a Greek tragedy that, as a school kid, I could immediately appreciate – not through the tragic figure of Creon but through Antigone herself. She dared to push against the tyrannical rule of a king at a time when no-one else, let alone a woman, would dare to do so and lost her life as a result. Opposing the law that Creon laid down was, in her view, proper if that law was wrong – if it was tyrannical. I liked that as a pupil in a school where teachers could appear to be on the wrong side of tyranny.
In nearly 2,500 years since Sophocles wrote Antigone, humans have learned and unlearned the story many times. Because we focus on economics so much (i.e. how we generate wealth) we seem no longer sure whether there are other questions that we should be asking. As 2014 gets under way, maybe we should be questioning what the world needs in order to be Antigonistic – being able to prod the rule of law when that law or the implementation of that law is wrong and to understand where it is impossible to do so.
This is not just an argument for democracy but for a system of government and implementation that is permeable – allowing for change. We also should be asking how we fit into the various levels of government – local, national, regional and global.
It is also worth looking at how we understand where the permeability does not exist at all and where gentle prodding is not likely to succeed – for it is there that fractures happen.
It is the ability of our human systems to be permeable (in normal times) that enables them to evolve as our needs change. It means that old-fashioned notions can be changed and that structures which are worn-out can be thrown away. When permeability does not exist, then tyranny wins out.
The permeability of authority is applicable to any organization or structure: from corporate to national government and beyond. In the 21st Century, as communication systems and capabilities continue to rise, how such structures take in information and change is a critical factor for our social existence.
The change in governmental structures from strong individuals (appointed by the gods) through the tyrannies of dictators and various forms of democracy can be seen in their permeability to new thoughts and to absorb the thoughts of others.
God-given rights to rule (whether Charles I of England or Louis XIV of France) were thought of as indisputable in the same way that the earth was thought of as flat. Such rights were disposed of in the 20th Century by political “truths” such as communism or fascism. These “truths” swapped god-appointed rulers for political dictators. Elsewhere, the “big man” tradition as shown by Idi Amin in Uganda or dos Santos in Angola is similarly impermeable to change or outside thought.
In China, the story of impermeability is writ large. The civilization state (Martin Jacques) has evolved at the top from god-appointed rule to political dictat but the impermeability remains. Whether the excuse is heavenly authority or communist or legalism, the ability of that nation’s leadership to restrict change through the impermeability of its structures remains.
The Permeability Grid
Any organization can be assessed as somewhere on the grid of permeability. At its worst extreme today, North Korea stands out – completely impermeable to any thought of change or even discussion, it embodies the lunacy of not just tyranny but of the inability to listen to any reason. This is not just about governing but also about the basic rights of its people. North Korea would get 0 on the scale of impermeability.
Of course, moving too far towards complete permeability is towards chaos. The other extreme (100 on the scale) would be where every thought is taken on board and acted on. This represents an organization that has no control – which some would find enjoyable even if chaotic – but often leads to mayhem. An example of this may be Waterworld or some other dystopian view of the future, but the tendency here is that it leads towards strong group asserting themselves and veering back towards 0.
The balance between tyranny and chaos is commonly held to be democracy and open societies where the key parameters of society allow and enable freedom of thought and opinion with individual and group rights yet within structures that avoid chaos. This is not at the centre politically but may well be at the centre in terms of permeability.
This grid works in a similar way to complexity theory – the way that complex adaptive systems work. The tyrannies occupy the areas of stasis at the opposite end to chaos. In the middle, where real evolution happens, stands the “edge of chaos” – it is reasonable to assume that the best democratic, open societies or organisations exist here or should have ambition to do so. It is at the edge of chaos that real permeability exists – the ability of groups of people to listen, understand and adjust. This is where evolution happens without revolution.
The Common Threads blog has been all about how we are mired in rigid 19th Century establishments – even in democratic nations like the USA and the UK. There are a myriad of examples. Humans have evolved many ways to do itself down and ruling elites, wherever they are, enforce lack of permeability through many devices. Even in supposedly open societies like the USA and UK, rigidity seems to be the natural default mechanism. This leads to poor voter turnout and reactions to Edward Snowden as we have recently seen.
Of course, these can be considered minor against other nations which vary from terror to corruption. South Africa, for example, has moved decidedly from one extreme – the tyranny of apartheid (terror) – but is in danger of side-stepping back into chaos.
Mandela shined a light into the darkness
The worldwide sadness that accompanies the death of a great man or woman shines some light into the cavernous darkness of those who do not live by the same high principles. This has been the case with the death of Madiba as was witnessed by the South Africa’s President Zuma when he rose to speak in front of his subjects in the memorial event in Johannesburg.
Jacob Zuma has been accused of corruption – millions of Rands of government money allegedly spent on his own property – an excess now termed Nkandlagate after the name of the region. The Guardian reported on this in November.
Yet, both fought the tyranny of apartheid – where a dictatorship of a minority (mainly of whites over blacks) could have been fractured by conflict but was changed by an eventual collapse of belief by the majority (under pressure from the rest of the world and its own black population) and nurtured to a peaceful outcome by Mandela.
Nelson Mandela was not one to overtly criticize those in the ANC that committed corruption. The ANC was his “home” but Mandela’s spirit of understanding and compassion must have been stretched to the limit when seeing his ANC brothers and sisters involved in enriching themselves at the expense of the mass of poor people in his country.
Andrew Feinstein, a former South African MP and ANC member, has written vividly on the post-Mandela corruption in South Africa in his book: “After the Party”
Lighting up the shadows
Under Nelson Mandela’s giant shadow, there lies a worldwide web of corruption that is not just within the borders of his home country. As the boos rang out to embarrass Jacob Zuma, the question is whether they sounded loud enough to make a difference. Can the moments of reflection on Nelson Mandela’s life shine a light into the shadow so that those who see the problem act on it?
Throughout the world, corruption exists in many forms. The recent edition of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index showed that South Africa ranked 72nd (along with Brazil) out of 177 nations evaluated. Jacob Zuma and his compatriates may have corruption issues but there are (according to the Index) 105 countries in a worse state.
Nigeria – which is 144th on the 2013 list – has just recently seen a letter from the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria being sent to the President asserting that $50 billion of oil revenues has gone missing – representing 70% of the value of such revenues since 2012. Mr Sanusi’s letter calls for immediate audits of the oil accounts.
Whether or not the revenues have been misappropriated, the fact that the Governor of the Central Bank believes that they may have, this points to a society that is prone to corruption – and it is known to be on a grand scale.
Corruption can be seen as the brother of tyranny. Instead of terror, it provides a method of keeping the population quiet. Zimbabwe’s use of income from the Marange diamond fields ensures that the political leadership there is relatively secure and that real democracy / open society cannot permeate.
Angola is another example where Sonangol (the State Oil business) serves to ensure that oil revenues find their right place in the hands of the President and his family and retinues.
In both, terror accompanies the corruption of the resource curse and shows the methodology of keeping stasis – maximising the chances of ruling elites clinging to power and power over the resources of a nation.
How Do we Want to Live?
The rise of China and our continued reliance on economic growth / GDP as the only measure of our success as humans should give us pause – where “us” includes the Chinese as much as anyone else. If those of us in the democracies of the world believe that open societies are important, how important are they to us? How do they compare with a bit more GDP (knowing how unreliable GDP is anyway as a measure of wealth) and how unreliable is it to see economics as the foundation for the quality of our lives? How threatened are we by the non-democratic regimes elsewhere? Does China’s economic success of the past thirty years) threaten their internal structures or the rest of the world’s? Should we react to other nations’ lack of permeability – statis enforced by terror or corruption or legalism?
Common Threads has been about the impermeability of our legal, political, economic and social structures and changes needed in nations like the UK and USA. With the global economy upon us and with world-wide challenges such as climate change and resource scarcity; with G8 and G20 providing economic mechanisms for mutual dialogue; with Arab nations struggling to maintain the Arab Spring against the drive to stasis in places like Egypt and chaos as in Syria and Libya – how hard should we be pushing the “edge of chaos” – democracy – as the right answer throughout the world, knowing that this may cause us economic harm if the Chinese government, for example, don’t like what we say?
Is the alternative to motivating others to our ideals the fear that we could fall into the trap of impermeable extremism (as Golden Dawn in Greece would extol) or even the trap of Tea Party / Ayn Rand rigidity? China, Angola and many other states need an Antigone but it has to be more than brave students at Tiananmen Square. Antigonism will only work when our governments are brave enough to extol our open government world-wide.