A Bermuda Triangle off the Black Sea

Russia, Ukraine and the Triangle of Mis-rule

 

Everyone knows of the Bermuda Triangle. Not many know of the mysterious area just off the coast of Ukraine that has also suffered a number of strange activities. Various disappearances have occurred in this area which some call the Black Sea’s Bermuda Triangle.

 

Others, not so swayed by superstition, also use a similar phrase to describe the politics of the area. In their paper, “the Black Sea and the Frontiers of Freedom”, Ronald Asmus and Bruce Jackson called that region “the Bermuda Triangle of western strategic studies”. It is an area of confusion, forever (or so it seems) bound up with the history of Russia.

 

Russia’s history is one of suffering and hardship. Its people are hardened by centuries of serfdom, relative poverty and rigid rule from the centre. It is also a history of power and control: from well before the first of the Tsars (Ivan IV) through to the Romanovs, via Lenin and the short-lived Communist regime to the present day. In the West, even after so many years, we misunderstand the core drivers behind the leadership and the people.

 

Russia changed dramatically after the 1905 Revolution and then the October Revolution of 1917 into the expensive experiment that was Communism. Marxist thought was “developed” through Lenin and Stalin into a model of dictatorship that, whilst a complete political change from before, continued the power to rule from the centre.

 

The fall of this elite in 1979 under Gorbachev was an opportunity to ally Russia with western thought on democracy and economics but the power of libertarian economics was too much. For a time, the rush for economic power was electrified across Russia as an elite (the Oligarchs) wrested the power of the economy from the State. The new gangster rule – hugely corrupt, murderous and allowing no opposition – took over from the endemically corrupt regimes that began with Stalin and his underlings.

 

Yeltsin enabled this robbery and corruption by his lethargy and inability to rule a people that prided itself on central control. The West, misunderstanding the rigours of power in Russia, stood by hoping that the new economic opportunities would, somehow, generate a desire for democracy. But, market economics does not need democracy to survive (viz. China) and the Russian economy was not becoming a market economy but a new kind of centrist yet libertarian economy: one that was predominantly corrupt (hugely corrupt) and where individual centres of economic power (whether oligarchs or regional centres) dominated. This new economy was, for a time, the true government of Russia.

 

The Triangle of Mis-Rule in Russia

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Vladimir Putin came on to the scene relatively late but enshrines the old order of (mis) rule. He made his way to the top by promising an end to economic shambles and strong centrism in terms of government. The years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin are seen by him (and many Russians) as a disaster – leading to governmental shambles, a loss of Russian honour and an economy shared out between a few ruthless gangsters.

 

Putin has worked to centralize government to himself (the new Tsar) while piecing together an economy based on market basics but which remains heavily unbalanced by corruption and key centres of economic power. This Triangle of Tsarist mis-rule, corruption and economic centres of power are not dissimilar to the pre-communist set-up. It is a reversion to the norm in Russia after communism and the Gorbachev-Yeltsin period of chaos. It is a reversion to what Russia knows best and what its people are still willing to accept – knowing that they cannot have any power of thought, that they will be ruled from the centre both in terms of economics and in terms of the way they live; knowing that corruption will endure and that they will be OK as long as they have enough to get by on and keep quiet. It is a world where the Duma has resumed its original status – merely as an organ to assist the ruler – the Tsar (Putin) – rule.

 

China and Russia – centrism and market economics

 

The world’s heartbeat of communism pulsed in Russia and China. Both countries suffered tremendously for the experiment of their own type of communism – Lenin-Stalinism or Maoism. Both have now moved towards what we perceive as market-driven economies. We (the West) think that our form of economics has won out in both countries and that democracies will automatically follow.

 

Unfortunately, both models show how market-driven economics can be developed in different ways and to suit the ruling elites.

 

China operates as a legalist society whereby the ruling elite sees itself as above the law. This is a blurring of its communist ideology whereby the state is run for the benefit of the ruling ideology. The fact that communism no longer exists means nothing: a ruling elite is considered by itself to be above the law.

 

Of course, the economy is managed very differently to how it was managed under Mao. Deng changed this to entwine market forces within a rigid centrism – made real by ownership of the banks and finance and of key industries and resources. While most pricing mechanisms are set by the market, it is massively influenced by interest rate manipulation, by endemic corruption and by key units of power in local government – and by the family-focused culture. This is a mix of market economics, centrism and Confucianism that is uniquely Chinese.

 

This is wholly different to the Russian model which is far more dominated by the strong man culture. In this way, it could be argued that there is more hope for change. The intertwining of Confucianism with the long-term centrism of Emperor rule through to the Communist rule and now the post-Communist legalism makes China’s “Civilisation State” very hard to break down. Economic change was relatively easy as this was only communist for a relatively short period. Governmental change is far harder to crack.

 

In Russia, this may be true as well but there is no equivalent of Confucianism in Russia and the state apparatus is not as broad in Russia as in China – it was destroyed under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. So, in that short period, the West hoped for real change. Now, Putin has embodied the state apparatus in himself as Tsar.

 

Ukraine – Catch a falling Tsar

 

Putin’s aspirations for a renewed Russia have seen him march into the Crimea and undermine Ukraine. Ukraine was for many years just a smaller version of Russia in Russian minds – Ukainians were termed “Little” or “Southern Russians” in the 19th Century and Stalin saw them as a tribute nation (similar to the way that China views its neighbours). The Russification began in the 1860’s and it was only the fact that Kruschev was Ukrainian that gave them a measure of independence (and Crimea) around 40 years ago.

 

But, Ukraine is similar in other ways, too. It is endemically corrupt from the top down. It is not just IKEA that has found the corruption difficult to penetrate.

 

Ukraine has seen endemic and high-scale corruption for many years. In 2006, for example, Global Witness (an anti-corruption NGO and this year’s winner of the TED award) published “It’s a Gas” – an expose of the corrupt Turkmenistan – Ukraine gas trade.

 

The report highlighted the case of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who, it claimed, syphoned off huge amounts of money from questionable business practices: money that was then funneled into Swiss Bank accounts. Lazarenko (who served time in the USA) recently had substantial assets seized in the US.

 

The Global Witness report also highlighted the barter economy which anti-corruption experts know as one of the best-known ways to hide massive money transfers illegally.

 

Yet, Lazarenko was not part of the Government clique that Ukrainians pulled down earlier this year. He was closely linked to the earlier regime of Yulia Tymoshenko (the West’s best friend) – very closely linked as an article in January showed.

 

Those in power in Ukraine followed the Russian model. Little Russians modeled themselves on Russia in many ways and this was not limited to one party or one clique. The EU desire to bring Ukraine into the EU tent was not necessarily misguided in the way that Nigel Farage would have us believe but the powerful in Ukraine are essentially part of a highly corrupt clique that dominates the country in the same way that Russia is dominated by its own corrupt. They have divided up the nation’s assets between them.

 

Tsar Gazing

 

This is one reason why Putin is keen to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s control. The horror of the break-up of the Soviet Union was bad enough but assuaged by the economic benefits that accrued to the Putin elite and the retention of power in the hands of the few. This was mirrored in Ukraine – the home of many Russians. The call to patriotism has been partly a response to the shouts for democracy but underneath is a need for Russian mores to be maintained.

 

This is the Triangle of Mis-rule: Tsarist centrism, corruption and economic centres of power that Ukraine has witnessed since it was deemed to have left Soviet control – an exact image of big brother Russia. This is why it is so difficult to break down the stranglehold. Ukraine is fixed within the Bermuda Triangle of the Black Sea.

 

The EU may well have been Tsar Gazing when it simplistically assumed that riots on the streets could topple a government in a bankrupt nation with such a history and such conventions. It appeared not to understand enough about the pull that Russia had on it: Russification going back over 150 years and a model of the economy and government that is a replica of the Russian model.

 

Breaking this down was bound to be a challenge – but it is not clear that the model is sufficiently understood even now. Many write on the endemic corruption but provide little guidance to solving it. Many write on Russification but have no answers other than a hope that “democracy” will triumph. Others write about Putin’s urge to control without too much understanding of the Russian legacy that goes back to the 15th Century.

 

Can Ukraine break free?

 

It is not just one aspect or another that has to be broken in Ukraine. They have the three corners of the Triangle of Mis-rule to break in addition to the large numbers of Russians – patriots to Russia – in their midst and the larger numbers just over the border in Russia itself.

 

This is a massive challenge and there is no rapid solution.

 

Ukraine is in a mess – as we know. It has lost the Crimea and may well lose the Eastern half of the country. It is not often stated that this may be the best medium-term solution even if it is not one that appears wholly palatable. A loss to Russia of this scale may appear too much and it is, of course, for Ukraine and others to decide. But, the devil’s triangle that operates in Russia and Ukraine is endemic to the Eastern side of the country in a way that could be shaken off more easily in the West. The unthinkable may have to be thought. Without much effort, Putin could regain the Eastern side of Ukraine and the West of Ukraine would then be welcomed into Europe.

 

It is highly likely that governments in the West are already planning for this. As ethnic Russians pore into Ukrainian security buildings, it is clear that the fight for Eastern Ukraine is in its early days. The Western half can, through massive economic help by Europe, be purged of corruption, centrist rule and economic stagnation. Without the East and as part of Europe, it can be made good. While it remains affixed to the Russianised East, it is unlikely to do so for many years.

 

Russia is likely to see eastern Ukraine back in its orbit and remain enclosed with the Triangle of Mis-rule that epitomizes both. What happens after that is something that is also, I am sure, being actively discussed in governments throughout the world.

 

The problem is that nothing will really have changed – Putin’s Russia is endemically riddled with forms of entwined government and economics that are alien to modern-day Europe and the west in general. Changing this will take a long time and Putin, a fit 61 year-old, is in no mood to give up all that Russia provides to him.

 

To an extent, the rest of the world will play a waiting game with Putin. In Ukraine, it may have to understand that Plan B (the break-up of Ukraine) is a potential and real outcome. Maybe, over time, Eastern Ukrainians, bordering an economically advancing Western Ukraine, will begin to appreciate the benefits of freedoms brought by the rule of law that is above all (including government), economic freedoms that are not concentrated in the hands of the few and democracy that can (when done properly) do away with bad government. Maybe, over greater time, Russia (and China) will adapt as well and copy not just the basics of market economics but much more.

 

For the rest of us, understanding the Triangle of Mis-rule would be a good step before the results of misunderstanding are yesterday’s news.

 

 

Antigonistically Speaking – the Permeability of Governance

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.

Permeability

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.

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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.

The Second Great Wall of China

Reading Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World” during a week when the New York Times’ website was taken offline in China after it published claims about the wealth of Wen Jiabao. News about Mr. Wen’s alleged fortune of £1.7bn was characterized by the Chinese as a “smear” and resulted in news blackout on the subject. The BBC was similarly off air for months after its detailing of the Bo Xilai case.

 

Jacques’ well-documented book shows China as a “civilization state” that the West will not be able to challenge in its essential ideals based on 2,000 years of civilization and then Confucianism. The desire of its people – massed in a vast area with one-third of the world’s population – for solid government and their Confucian appetite for family connections leads many to believe that their form of government and control is the only way for China and that the rest of the world will not be able to change it.

 

The Wall of Legalism

 

Francis Fukuyama in his excellent book “The Origins of Political Order” http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Origins-Political-Order-Revolution/dp/1846682576/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351345981&sr=8-1on focused how the origins of the rule of law was central to the proper governing of a state. Success, where no government or leader was above the law, is contrasted with such states as China, where, except for brief period, the ruling elite has been above the law.

 

Many believe that a state with Confucianism on the outside and Legalism on the inside is how China is governed today. Legalism, a creed formulated and emerging properly in the Warring States Period up to 221bc, seeks to ensure that strict laws keep dissent down and people equal. The Emperor was in place because of the law and was above it – but had to be flexible in intent to ensure that the leading cliques were satisfied.

 

Coming forward 200 years and the so-called Communist Party has assumed the role of Emperor. A Communist Party that that no longer believes in Communism but in power from the centre; that not just tolerates corruption but uses it throughout China to keep its leading cliques in check; that exports corruption to its supply-chain (its raw materials suppliers) throughout the word in order to keep them sweet; that deals harshly with any dissent and criticism; that only reacts to the worst crimes and then only when it has to (such as with Bo Xilai – who became too much of a burden).

 

Legalism as a creed best describes the current Chinese government style – no longer driven by the equality of Communism – where a ruling elite has taken over the State and drives it according to their own requirements.

 

The post-World War II political and economic direction of the West has been democracy and capitalism. Human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml has been a solid framework on which political thought has been based. The development of the European Union (notwithstanding economic upsets through the Euro) was based on this political fulcrum and a liberal economic system.

 

This post-war consensus in the West has also been the basis on which we have tried to hold the rest of the world to account – to develop democracy and capitalism on a worldwide basis.

 

No use for Wallpaper

 

Now, the western consensus is threatened by China. Having taken the economic principle of capitalism and thrown the centralized system of communism into the gutter, the Chinese are rapidly gaining economic muscle. This was not surprising once the shackles of the communist economic model was broken and Deng XiaoPing was able to redirect the Chinese to a better economic future.

 

This had already had enormous impact in China as wealth has increased and will continue to do so. But, a country with huge numbers of people but limited natural resources (apart from their own intelligence and rare earth minerals) has to then engage with the rest of the world in order to maintain that direction of travel.

 

This is now breaking down the political and governance consensus that the West has tried for the last sixty-seven years to impose. What does this mean? It means that the Chinese are overturning the route to democracy and democratic institutions. It means that elites in developing countries now have huge financial backing from the Chinese – through sales of raw materials to China and through the fact that they are witnessing another political model.

 

The West cannot wallpaper over the political cracks in the political wall. While capitalism is clearly now shown to be the best worst system of improving our material wealth, democracy is no longer the only political product on sale. After the bloody years of fighting against communism and fascism, which World War II was supposed to have won, the challenge is not so much religious fundamentalism (which we have been understandably so fearful of) but the enormous influence that China will have on a world where the most serious challenge to democracy is arising.

 

Taking a brick from the Wall

 

The battle for ideas is just starting. China needs a healthy west and a healthy India and Brazil and rest of Asia and it needs the raw materials from across the planet. Apart from the environmental catastrophes that are likely to be exacerbated by the drive for material growth (upon which the Chinese legalist approach relies in order to keep its people happy), the influence of Chinese political thought is likely to grow exponentially.

 

Recent riots in Ningbo –   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20109743 – against a chemical plant expansion and the Chinese authorities’ methods of dealing with it (which includes the hiding of road signs so that journalists won’t find their way to the riots!) are a simple sign that Tiananmen Square was by no means a low point.

 

As the world waits for the US Presidential election, a change of at least equal importance will be taking place in Beijing and no-one will know who has come out on top until the new politburo of the Chinese Communist Party is unveiled around 15 November.

 

Not that this will change anything. In the US, the economics will be substantially changed by the possible election of Romney and (Ayn Rand influenced) Paul Ryan. The political system will not change.

 

In China, nothing will change and the political, legalist system will continue internally and externally. This is a continuing challenge that is currently seen as economic but will eventually be seen as dramatically political and on a world scale. For Chinese economic growth will challenge the democratic ideals built up by the West and hard fought for by millions. It is now ranged against 2,000 years of Chinese centralism legalism.

 

How (or if) the West reacts to this will be a far bigger story than the economics – and arguments over tariffs and who owns Treasury bonds. We need to start taking the brick from the Wall before it is built around us.

Left-right, left-right: Parties and cliff edges

In the UK, Members of Parliament go back to work after the summer recess. All the talk is about Cameron’s reshuffle and leadership issues: Cameron is accused of acting like a “mouse”; Clegg’s leadership is under threat from his own party; the two Ed’s of Labour (Miliband and Balls) are said to be continuously arguing and that the phrase “two Eds are better than one” may not be true in this case.

More seriously, as the post-summer issues are traditionally short-term nonsense, last week’s Prospect Magazine has Peter Kellner (President of the pollsters, youGuv) writing an intriguing article on how the Liberal Democrats’ support has collapsed since the last General Election  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/death-by-coalition/. As a result of entering into coalition with the Conservatives, their support has gone from 24% to 10% – which would result in a fall from 57 to around 10-12 seats if an election were to be held today.

While much of Kellner’s response to the polling made good sense, one aspect of the questions his pollsters asked concerns me greatly. This aspect focuses on how much to the left or right the party is.

The concern is this: surely, this form of questioning is out of date in the realpolitik of 21st Century thinking and 21st Century politics. Surely, in an age of individualism and the lobbying by NGO’s and many one-issue organisations of one issue arguments, the left / right analogy is no longer relevant?

Is politics really about left vs right anymore?

The left and right of politics were named after where the French parties sat in the National Assembly in 1789 at the time of the revolution. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly had the “innovators” on the left, moderates in the middle and the defenders of the Constitution on the right. This became the dominant march of politics in the 20th Century. Different and violently opposed political doctrines literally fought it out on the battlefield throughout the 20th Century. Fascism and Nazi-ism on the right, Communism on the left were the extremes in the battlefields of China, Spain, Cambodia, Europe (in WWII) or wherever the post-feudal wars (those that we fought up to the end of the first world war) were fought. Innovation became muddled with socialism and communism; defenders of the constitution became muddled with economic rigour and libertarianism capitalism (never the manner of the “ancient regime”).

Right and left became doctrinal and, with the fight for the rights of labour against the owner class, the 20th Century adopted the political norm.

Is economics an argument of right and left?

Now that the 21st Century is into its twelfth year, the left / right argument appears completely out of date. Sure, there are arguments about economics that will be with us forever: from libertarian, tea party protagonists all the way to Keynesian interventionists. But, because capitalism is now the standard economic and accepted model, the battle is not right vs left in economics but which form of economic model around the capitalist norm. Arguments are much less severe in developed nations and turn on moderate changes in taxation.

Much bigger issues, such as ending tax havens, transfer pricing, corporate power, corporate governance, the role of banks, corruption and many other crucial issues are stymied as politicians argue over the short-term vote catching issues – 1p or 1c on income tax, for instance.

Is the way we are governed right vs left?

Communism or socialism now only survives on the periphery. China is not a communist state – its economics are capitalist within a statist structure and the party ensures a legalist control (it is above the law). This is not communism. Russia is now a centrally controlled capitalist enterprise (run as a large corporate machine). The rest of the world operates in a democratic to quasi-democratic state. Hereditary monarchy is now mainly for the tourists and the press (celebrities within a celebrity culture).

There is little traditional right vs left in government.

Is the environment a subject for right vs left?

Here, confusion reigns. Traditional right-wingers in the UK (from a Tory mould) can be classed as conservative when it comes to the environment. They often oppose untrammelled modernity and defend the right to conserve (as “Conservatives”). Yet, they oppose green movements because they associate them with restrictions on economic growth. Roger Scruton in “how to Think Seriously About the Planet – the case for an environmental conservativism” http://www.amazon.co.uk/Think-Seriously-About-Planet-ebook/dp/B00829L62C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346585639&sr=8-1 puts the case for the right to take back control of the agenda.

The affects of CO2 are now disputed only at the periphery but the case for changing our ways is not agreed. This is now much more about individual nations wanting their own freedom and more about the problem of worldwide agreements – not a right vs left issue at all.

Does politics need right vs left?

Less and less people vote in general elections. Maybe the reason is that the left vs right arguments that drew people’s interest and motivation are no longer prevalent. The motivation to vote for broad platforms which mainly focus on short-term issues designed to entrap voters based on their short-term economic concerns is weak. Tradition still subjects most voters to choose their party and most political parties focus on swing votes – the 2% that Romney and Obama will work to win over in the USA, for example. The 2% that means that 98% are virtually disenfranchised!

The traditional view of politics is one where political parties are formed to organize themselves so that they can attract votes from the individuals who are not organized. This is changing.

Individuals have always formed into non-political party groupings – from trades unions to employer associations, from charities to NGO’s. Many of these groups are single-issue campaigning groups or lobbyists that work hard to influence political opinion and political parties directly and via the media. These range from economic groups to environmental, from governance to charitable, health to education – the spectrum is vast.

This third sector (usually a reference to charities, but comprising all citizen action groups, from sports clubs onwards) is not primarily left of right, but single focus – taking up an issue or cause around some issues. Their influence on government is substantial. Most Government Bills are developed as a result of significant lobbying from single-issue groups. For example, the Bribery Act came into being as a direct result of such lobbying and formal meetings between Government and a diverse range of lobby groups from CBI to NGO’s.

This means that the ancient Greek form of democracy – where every individual is supposed to have an equal say in Government – which was never the norm in most democracies as political parties formed – is now fractured into more layers. Government now relies on the lobbyists and reacts more to them than the community or study groups assembled from the general populace prior to elections.

This means that the left and right of politics (already under strain anyway) are meaningless. Single-issue groups lobby on single issues and political parties, no longer fighting on the issues of left vs right, sway as they are buffeted by those who are able to articulate the issues and now the means to communicate effectively. This means that the individual voter is now even more disenfranchised as it is only a small fraction of the population that is engaged in this process – and that, even at elections, the driving force behind vote-catching is bound to short-term or lobby focused.

A new politics?

In an era of globalization and instant communications, individual nations are less able to maintain an individualist position. Nevertheless, as the Olympics and Paralympics have shown in the UK, national pride remains important and is a reason why the Eurozone crisis will endure much longer than hoped.

However, within this national pride, it is likely to be an era when individualism is also crucial. The mass movements of left vs right are no longer relevant and single issues are much stronger in motivating and exciting.

If there is any truth in this then it is interesting to note the preamble to the Liberal Democrats Federal Constitution:

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

In the nonsense over cabinet reshuffles and personalities, it is probably the case that very few even know where to look for the above statement http://www.libdems.org.uk/who_we_are.aspx  – (which is found on the Liberal Democrat website after its coalition agreement – which is all short-term).

Yet, it could be the clarion call for our age – a liberal theme that is far more “of our age” than the 20th Century arguments of right or left.

If right vs left is truly out of date, then open society, balancing liberty, equality and community, individualism cherished, developing talents, creativity and the rest within a coherent community is a proper and enticing call that should be further developed. Apart from a better focus on the environment (our natural capital) which demands more from us, the preamble is not right or left – it is also not middle ground but moves the argument away from traditional left vs right.

Citizens of the 21st Century world maybe deserve something more from our governing elites that have not moved from their 19th Century models.  How we balance our competing single issues and how citizens get to have their say in the crucial issues that determine how we spend our lives is what 21st Century politics should be about. Maybe parties like the Liberal Democrats should think of the themes that will dominate thinking in the 21st Century. Maybe that is a way to get some common ground with citizens – the voters.