13th Century – Magna Carta; 21st – a new “Great Charter”?

‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

Magna carta

On 15th June, 2015, Magna Carta will be commemorated. It will be 800 years since King John of England affixed his royal seal to the document at Runnymede – alongside the Thames in southern England. Magna Carta was an agreement between King John and English nobles that sought to overturn the singular rule by a despotic monarch and set the scene for the gradualist changes that resulted in democracy.

Magna Carta emphasized the rights of the individual over the state (even if those individuals in 1215 were just a few nobles).

That fight between the state (and those who want to capture the state for themselves) and the individual is unresolved 800 years later despite successive waves of change.

While in the West we consider the balance between the State and individuals to be rational and where the rights of individuals are upheld by rules such as The Human Rights Act, there is a perpetual seeking after new balances when threats appear or when certain groups capture more of the State. In the USA, for example, this balancing resulted in the splitting of responsibility between Executive, Legislature (itself into two parts) and Judges – which Fukuyama now calls a “vetocracy” which is more and more in the pay of key sectors that know how to manipulate decisions.

More widely, nations like China and Russia have never allowed significance to a balance between the state and individual rights. China, especially, has for 2000 years emphasized rule by law rather than rule of law – where the State (or those that consider themselves to be the State) is above the law. Xi Jinping’s recent attack on corruption appears to be but the latest attempt by one person and his clique to dominate the state.

More recently, like a laser beam to the head, the murders in France of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, of a Muslim policewoman close by and, later, at a Kosher deli, have highlighted that the individual and the rights of any individual are consistently challenged by states and those purporting to act on behalf of a state (or, in this case, an entity that stood before the state or that, in some cases, acts as a state – here, a religion).

The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reminds us of the total submission of individual rights in that country beneath the rule of one family – under the aegis of the Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Individual Rights

The battle between the State (whether represented by an elite or an ideology headed by a group purportedly representing that ideology) and individuals is a battle that clearly still rages. The rights of the individual against such groups are key to the different mindsets that distinguish real freedom from all other forms of government and governance.

The spectrum is a wide one but State (with a wide definition of that word) “ownership” ranges from political or quasi-political (such as China) to dictatorial (Equitorial Guinea, Angola) to religious (ISIS) to monarchic / theocratic (Saudi Arabia) to such “democracies” where voting is rigged (such as Zimbabwe and Afghanistan) to enable elites to maintain themselves in power.

This is not a battle between different nations but one where the rights of individuals are challenged by state or state-like bodies.

Whereas we may not see the actions taken against journalists in Turkey by the Erdogan regime to be in any way similar to extreme violence as has just happened in France, it is on that spectrum. Between states that defend the rights of individuals and those which violently oppress them (and subsume them to the so-called state or a religion) lies many variations – but, all can slide in the wrong way to extremism.

The extremists who claimed to be Islamists are one extreme; Erdogan’s government is dangerously edging in that direction as freedom of the press is a crucial embodiment of individual freedom.

Corruption at the Heart

Sarah Chayes has just published “Thieves of State”. It is an extraordinary book that, through her own experiences as a journalist and then on the staff of various military commanders from the US and in places like Afghanistan, enables her to show clearly how corruption is at the heart of so many national and international upheavals. From Afghanistan to Egypt, from Tunisia to Nigeria, governance has been geared towards corruption and becomes the mechanism of government.

Sarah’s aim is to show how the corruption flow in those countries is not top-down, but bottom-up, where so-called “facilitation payments” lead up the chain to larger corruption at the top – whereby nations recast themselves as mafias but, now, emasculating nations.

She shows how Karzai was able to do this in Afghanistan; how the military do this in Egypt; why this was the norm in Tunisia.

Individualism and the right of individuals to have justice have no place in such states. The state is simply a mechanism to suck the benefits of society through corruption to a few at the top who become extremely wealthy and some further corrupt benefits to those further down to makes ends meet. The vast majority of society suffers through lack of funds and the thieving of funds meant for development – for policing, for security, for health services, for education and for the rest of what we in the West would call normality.

This is why the Arab Spring promised so much but gave so little. Only in Tunisia has the promise started to be met. The strength of people in such a country is to be applauded and the recent election of Beji Caid Essebsi in a free and open election to be warmly welcomed.

Similarly, the people of Sri Lanka made a momentous decision at the ballot box by throwing out President Rajapaska and electing Maithripala Sirisena – a man dedicated to fighting corruption and nepotism.

Yet, as Sarah Chayes has shown, outside of these countries, either corrupt states remain ruled by corrupt kleptocrats or the fight back is via religion. Boko Haram and ISIS claim to be against the ways of the West as they see it – the corruption that is embedded in Nigeria or Iraq. At this extreme, even education is seen as the mechanism by which individuals grab the capability to enter into the corrupt system. Chayes views the connivance of the USA in that corruption (she mentions the suitcases of cash that the CIA provided to Karzai as but one example) as leading to the success of terrorist organisations in gaining credibility amongst many people in countries like Iraq because they see this as the only way out of the corruption that wrecks their lives.

Working on the disease

Yet, it is 800 years since Magna Carta – an agreement between a king that believed in his own divinely-given rights as usurping all others and a group of wealthy noblemen that wished to garner some rights to themselves. From that time, many of us have progressed to where individual rights are now enshrined in law and also in practice.

Yet, as recently as the 17th Century, England was riven with corruption – it was endemic. Samuel Pepys, the renowned diarist of that time, spent six years to work corruption out of the Royal Navy – which was crumbling under the weight of bribery and nepotism – notably, the sale of position and procurement. Although Pepys was not innocent of corruption himself, as his biographer, Claire Tomalin has written, his own honesty went some way to right some wrongs. England gradually, through the 18th and 19th Centuries, eroded corruption from its core but it was not an overnight demolition. Chayes’ example of Singapore and its ability to eradicate corruption almost overnight is a good case of a small nation challenging itself and succeeding. Elsewhere, it takes longer

Chayes focuses sensibly on the role of not just organizations like the military within corrupt nations but organisations outside like the CIA in understanding the drivers against the halting the disease of corruption and the complete erosion of justice. However, as the West (via organisations like the OECD and the US FCPA) progressed after World War II to a consensus on governance and how governance would become part of the stated requirement for development assistance, this has, more recently, been unsettled by the rise of China – which has appeared to care little for such governance considerations – notably in its dealings with African states.

This unsettling of the post-WWII consensus (despite Xi Jingping’s drive to eradicate the disease in China – which many suggest is more politically motivated than anything else) is a major challenge that can be added to Sarah Chaye’s list of issues to be assessed when developing an anti-corruption programme.

A “Great Charter” for the 21st Century

Sarah Chaye’s book puts corruption at the heart of the problem that besets the world.

  • While climate change (with its own problems of solution and understanding) has been seen as a world-wide challenge that has to be resolved;
  • while health concerns are the subject of huge technological research and financial resolve;
  • while economic prosperity is the subject for everyone at all times;
  • while nature conservation and the future of human life on this planet is a central consideration of all;
  • while terrorism is dislocating masses, murdering thousands, displacing millions – often through the guise of extreme forms of religion – and requires regular government action;
  • corruption plays a role in all the world’s key areas of collapse but has far less formal acknoweldgment.

From small-scale facilitation payments to large scale national strangulation, corruption inhibits and destroys.

The world now needs a charter for the 21st Century that marries the rights of individuals and justice (started with the Magna Carta in 1215) to the rights of individuals and communities to be unhindered by corruption. We now need a formal acknowledgement of its central corrosive ability that destroys nations, destroys security and completely disallows individual and community justice to take place.

“To no one will we sell what is not ours to sell”

“From no one will we take what is not ours to take”

 

‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

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Institutionalized!

Will Self’s excellent new book “Umbrella” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Umbrella-Will-Self/dp/1408820145/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348396331&sr=8-1) brilliantly describes the torture of individuals put into “mental institutions” and how (until very recently in the UK) they were appallingly treated.

 

Old people in Care Homes have similarly been shown (one example had a miniature camera secured in the room of a care home) to have been malnourished, beaten and generally abused.

 

Maybe it is improper to use these examples of Institutions that have become uncaring and out of control to symbolize the problems faced regularly by all of us, but it is no coincidence. We have all become “Institutionalized” by the edifices that society has created to carry out the basic functions of society. This is not new. Ossification of institutions is a regular occurrence in society. The reason that monarchs are overthrown, for example, is because the institution of monarchy – the rule of society by one person or clique – becomes, eventually, intolerable to society in general.

 

Cracks in the Institutional Wall

 

We are all confronted by Institutions throughout our lives. From hospitals to school, from government departments to businesses, individuals live their lives working in and being confronted by Institutions.

 

Institutions have been defined as: “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior” (Greif, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade).

 

They provide “equilibria” to society as a method or ordering our behavior. Greif also developed notions of dynamic institutions to show how institutions change through time.

 

Common Threads’ focus is that the institutions developed in the 19th Century for politics, economics, education and other key areas of society don’t work well in the 21st Century. The aim has been to generate some discussion of where the problems may be and look at some potential solutions rather than try to develop a theoretical analysis (when this is being done elsewhere – for example, in the area of economics at ESNIE (European School on New Institutional Economics – http://esnie.org/).

 

Major economic dislocations as we have seen since 2007 in the West – the banking disasters leading to huge debt problems leading to depression in Greece and the potential for this throughout Europe – could presage major changes in the way institutions develop. Often, the cracks in the wall have to be very large before we either build a new wall or try to fill in the cracks – which is what is being done now.

 

The changes in our institutions that are being made – small changes in banking (mainly in terms of individuals) are akin to deck chairs being moved around on the Titanic. Whether in our political institutions or our economic ones (or wherever large organizations have been set up to provide societal equilibrium) the danger is that they do not change enough to enable society to prosper – rather, built on the foundations of the 19th Century, they fail to deal with the issues that face them (and us) today.

 

Building Order out of Chaos – Challenging Entropy?

 

Just like the walls of Jericho were built to keep out intruders (subject to the odd trumpet) and we build firewalls in our computer systems to keep our systems secure, society builds our Institutions also to have effective walls against change and to build ourselves a cover against the outside world. Maybe we are genetically primed – our cells work within walls that allow us to withstand the chaos that would otherwise ensue. The Second Law of Thermodynamics essentially describes entropy – the natural tendency for good energy to dissipate into bad (useless) energy. Our life on this planet is a constant grind against the power of entropy and, maybe, our desire to build this equilibrium is a natural and instinctive drive for order within chaos.

 

This natural tendency to build order exists throughout civilization and can produce stability and contentment. But, as Darwin wrote: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” (Origin of Species).

 

The key is that Institutions cannot be left to ossify but have to change to meet the changes in environment that exist externally. New order has to be developed constantly.

 

In business, in relatively free markets, businesses come and go on a regular basis. The FTSE 100 started in 1984 and today only three companies from those 100 remain in the FTSE 100 – GKN, Rolls Royce and Imperial Tobacco. This is because the FTSE 100 reconstitutes itself every three months. The Dow Jones started in 1896 – who remembers American Cotton Oil or National Lead or United States Rubber? That is not to belittle business – there is a tough economic law that works hard to reward success and punish failure. Companies that don’t work hard to change to meet the needs of the external environment simply fail. Apple is a great example of a company that was close to collapse in the 1980’s but (under Jobs) completely redirected itself so that it is now the highest valued company in the world. But, for how long? Most companies fail (70% in the first three years).

 

Taking Down the Walls

 

Within the rest of society, change is harder. In our fight against the ravages of chaos, we allow pressure to build up, often learning the wrong lessons. This so often leads to an explosion as pressure gets too much. Society is not very good at understanding where the pressure is building. We defend the status quo for too long and then find ourselves unable to contain the whirlwind that attacks us.

 

In the UK, we have prided ourselves on our ability to change gradually so as to release the pressure before it gets too much. Not since the middle of the 17th Century has England fought a Civil War. This is held up to be the result of the changing democratic scene – from Magna Carta through rule by nobles to rule by the Commons (elected nobles); constant enlargement of the vote from 1832 onwards to women in 1918 (as long as they were over 30 and lived in a decent house) to 18 year-olds in 1969.

 

The walls have been dismantled brick by brick and most democracies follow a similar path.

 

The challenge now is that, in an age where developed societies have reached a decent level of economic wealth, politicians are losing any connection with those they are supposed to represent. Only around 50% of the voting population bothers to vote in general elections. More are now linking up with one-issue groups who they believe will push agendas on their behalf rather than hope that a political party will (by the mere casting of a vote every five years) carry out a manifesto that cannot meet most aspirations.

 

This means that the one issue lobbyists are getting greater powers to influence. Their techniques and ability to make change happen is developing constantly. Originally, such groups were primarily labour organizations (Trades Unions) and, in the UK, this developed into the Labour Party. Now, there are groups within the Third Sector that campaign on any range of issues from the environment to health, from taxation to education, from peace campaigners and human rights to fox-hunting (both sides). Organized campaign groups now operate as a key part of society so that individuals are now useful only at elections.

 

This means that more Institutions have been developed to challenge the political parties (it happens throughout the world). This is not a challenge to the political process – it may even solidify it by shoring up the political process within a wall of campaigning institutions.

 

What role for Society?

 

It is in this context that several have questioned the future in which we grow Institutions to work with other Institutions to govern (or run other aspects of our lives). This response to the walls around politics and government may be a natural one but is questionable as the new Institutions (of the campaigners and lobbyers) are run by a small number of people and funded in many ways. They are not accountable in the same way as political parties are supposed to be (and continue as long as they are funded). Their funds come from a variety of sources and confusion exists amongst society in separating out charitable work from campaigning and lobbying. In the UK, there is no register of lobbying so there is no transparency that is at least attempted in the US (which has its own problems owing to funding regulations that allow companies to fund to whatever level).

 

There is a real danger that the way we are evolving the democratic process is anti-democratic. Democracy is supposed to be government by the people. We have a three-tier system now whereby professional politicians are influenced by a small number (relative to the population) of professionally-run organizations throughout a term of office – remembering the individual citizens only when elections loom.

 

Is this the best we can do?

 

Building the Walls from the Bottom Up

 

In Australia (as I have mentioned in an earlier post), The Centre for Civil Society (under Vern Hughes) – http://www.civilsociety.org.au/ – has developed some new insights and a challenge to the norm in http://www.civilsociety.org.au/CivilSocietyPolitics.htm.

 

This is worthy of investigation as one means of providing greater involvement in our own future.

 

Also critical is the use of technology. Changes in the means of communication have always brought with them the means to radically change society. The printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the TV, the computer and the internet, the mobile phone, wireless comms – all lead to more and faster information and an enabling of the individual.

 

This is a critical cause of concern for leaders of legalist states such as in China but also offers challenges (and opportunities) to so-called democracies.

 

Individuals are now empowered by technology by dis-empowered by institutions. This means that empowerment is taken up by online shopping or social networking rather much more than for social change or betterment. It means that civil society will continue to be badly served by national and international institutions that meet lobbyists in the corridors of power but are insufficiently grappling with society itself (rather the funneling through funded organizations).

 

Yet, power exists. Libya is a exciting example. Just recently, armed militia groups (a powerful central non-government organization) were ousted by people – civil society coming together to say, “thanks for toppling Gaddafi, your work is done!” In Egypt, Tahrir Square was the centre of civil society’s success to overthrow a dictator. Here, the Military Institutions delayed the correct response and we will have to wait to see if the elected President, Morsi, will serve his citizens or other Institutions (including religious).

 

Civil society (we, the people) should see the 21st Century as one where we are allowed to deliver. The forces for 19th Century equilibria often stand in the way of progress – and are standing in the way of serious climate change policies on an international scale. Institutions set up to effect change may be set up for the right reasons but we are now institutionalized and should seriously re-evaluate our reaction to the new Institutions just as we challenge the old ones. If we need a wall, then we should be blowing that trumpet to unsettle the existing ones.