… a few observations on the world political situation:
After the fall of the Soviet Union, toward the end of the 20th Century, the state’s assets were up for grabs. The oligarchs and their pals, and eventually Vladimir Putin, grabbed most of this wealth, by fair means or foul, and it made its way on to the western markets. The arrival of these many billion of dollars (trillions?), and the accompanying moral laxity, had a corrosive effect on the world financial system, culminating eventually in the crash of 2008. It incidentally also exacerbated economic inequality, giving rise to extreme political acts, the rise of Trump and populism being the most evident. Russia, despite it’s economy being no bigger than Spain’s, finds itself, under strong and amoral leadership in a pivotal position in world affairs. It is unrestrained by the many decades of checks and balances that even out the governance of most countries. These gradually withered over the 20th century, frozen behind the Iron Curtain, and the cynical use of unaccountable power as exercised by the likes of Putin has infected world affairs. The most pressing of these affairs is ecological, the effect of our industrial activities on the planet itself. Even this, as witnessed by Trump’s attempt to re-sile from the Paris accord, is a victim of this infection.
As the West tries to steady the boat (how long can Trump last after all?), the rise of China and the East may hopefully maintain some intelligence regarding our effect on the planet. Europe and the Western democracies are not unlike an over-fed child, waving frantically from the pram. But to whom? Who is there, apart from ourselves, to save us?
I use the influence of the collapsing Soviet system as a way to examine what I regard as the essence of politics: governance and trade. I realise that there are as many economic and historical analyses as there are fishes in the sea, all more informative and of greater authority than mine, compiled by experts in their field, who actually know their stuff. So this is more like the philosophy of politics I suppose , which even amateurs are encouraged to have a go at.
Eh bien, Governance: I have found myself recently using this word more and more, that good governance would seem essential to the successful operation of a state. And Trade might be described as the exchange of goods or ability for mutual benefit. Let us personify governance and trade, bring them down to aspects of you and I. I meet another man (I say man, but only in case sexual interaction might confuse the example); after necessary niceties such as introductions and comments on the weather, both he and I look for how we might benefit from the encounter. This is the way with social creatures. It turns out he is a joiner by trade, and I have a window needs fixing. We agree a rough price, and he arranges to come round next monday to do the work. The job is completed, and the fellow promptly paid. When I next see him in the pub, I buy him a pint, and the beginnings of a friendship are formed. So a trade has taken place, and good governance has been observed. Had I been late in paying, or the job was shoddy, then not so good … no more than a nod in the pub perhaps. I can think of no human interaction that does not involve both trust and trade, whether it be an exchange of ideas, pleasantries or goods, bound (hopefully) by good faith. Money itself is no more than a way to do the deal, a medium of exaction, and bears no more relevance than the mutual acceptance of worth. Though this might become of paramount importance in macro economics, whether you get paid in Venezuela bolivars or US dollars, it is no more than a symbol of trust, that the bearer could be paid as the note describes. However we might buttress that exchange, with legal or constitutional intent, it depends eventually on trust. However binding a constitution might seem it can always be changed; it is just an agreement between people.
As already suggested, I have found it useful to bring affairs of state – politics – down to the individual level. Is that not what we want of a human collective, a society, a state, after all, that it behaves to us as we might to others? If we set the principles of cooperation too high, we will always be disappointed in our own failure to live up to them, and be flinging ourselves in jail for the slightest misdemeanour; too low, and we may as well not bother and simply turn our back on any social endeavour. Above all however, it must be something that we all trust and agree on. I have no more moral backbone than the next man, and may he or she be free to behave however they want, as long as that does not inconvenience me. I have thought for some time however that we should judge a society by how much sin it can admit, rather than how many folk it can clap in irons for not bending the knee.
However the law has evolved, it is usually a reasonable reflection of our personal behaviour, punishing violence and dishonesty. It is how that law is observed that is the point of this essay. The essence of that law might be described within Trade, whether it favours the common man as opposed to the land owner or the inheritor of position, and this would seem to be the issue that most concerns us. Whether I sell my labour favourably or not, whether trade is fair. But for now I’d like to look at governance … of how the law, whatever it might be, is executed. We need only fear degeneracy if we doubt our own strength to resist sin
‘Whatever the law might be’ is the important qualification here. The detail of our law changes continually, and on the whole we have inherited bad as well as good, such as the presumption of inherited wealth. We are all children of history, of our legislature as well as our language, and I’d like to leave that for another conversation. Right now, it is how we respond to the laws we find ourselves with. Europe, and thereby America and the West in general is fairly law abiding; whatever we might think of our governments, on the whole we trust that they try to act in our best interests. I have just been watching a TV program about the Cold War, specifically about the nuclear race beneath the waves, and how alike the Russian seamen were to their US and British counterparts, concerned primarily for the families back home … and how close we all were to mutual annihilation. This was only in the Eighties, not that long ago. Capitalism and Socialism, both ideologies that would trumpet their good intentions for mankind came close to destroying us all … that which they were defending. Reagan and Gorbachov, Nancy and Raisa … good pals all, despite leading nations that were primed for mutual destruction. I’m sailing dangerously close here to a British sense of fair play and good manners, but I honestly suspect they would be more concerned about holding the door open for the other than pressing the red button. ‘Awfully sorry Ronald, but you know how it is’ Michail might say as he signals the attack.
Humans, we’re all so damned human! If a calamity befalls us, such as an earthquake or a tsunami we might be struck by the suffering and damage caused, but not as appalled as we might be by the callous murder of a child. It is the human intention that grips us. We might miss for generations the damage our use of plastics does to the planet, or shrug our shoulders at the mass suffering that factory farming causes, but are outraged when President Trump shoulders his way through a crowd of other national leaders for a photo opportunity. When Nicolas Maduro is filmed stuffing his face in a Turkish restaurant, it is the contrast with the empty shelves and hunger that he leaves back home in Venezuela that upsets us. Spanish flue killed about double the amount of people who died during the First World War, but it is the self inflicted wounds of conflict that we truly mourn. All are generally furious at the failure of society to punish the bankers who had reaped the benefits of our colluded greed. How little will history care about the behaviour of the few when the planet creaks beneath our collective consumption?
But this is what we are: individuals responding as we would to one another. And we should be realistic about this; it is our nature. I was rather taken with a recent article by …. in the Irish Times (?) bemoaning the UK’s chaos over Brexit, in which the author regretted the loss of the British government’s usual haughty but consistent attitude to foreign affairs. … consistency being the missing ingredient. The development from feudalism to democracy was as drawn out in the UK as in other European nations, and no less violent, and our current government has many overtones of our Common Law system, like echoes of Empire. Even the abused Irish knew where they stood with the Brits. With the City of London, and the various off shore tax havens, the residue of money dealing sticks close to the establishment. As unattractive as this may be to the republican spirit, we must admit to its global appeal. Being of the left I was quite surprised to find that the UK ranks within the top ten nations regarding corruption … that is, we score well on the Corruption Perceptions Index, not far behind New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries; a healthy GDP would seem to be a bastion against corruption. But a pure left wing perception would score the countries very differently. The link between wealth and corruption is similar, after all to the perception of criminality amongst the poor.. The ability to squirrel wealth away in some obscure Dominion means that the books are kept relatively clean; a high GDP is not the only arbiter of fairness. Is Venezuala’s current plight really due to bad government, or is it being strangled by the big powers, as its leaders claim?
(see how difficult it is to talk about governance without slipping into actual systems of government? … I keep on doing it, despite myself!)
The CPI itself is like history being written by the victors. A few years ago I read Anthony Beevor’s otherwise excellent account of the siege of Stalingrad, but got annoyed by the author’s refusal to give any credit to the Soviet state for its mobilisation of the tractor factories to produce tanks. Any success Stalin had was apparently due to the native Russian’s devotion to defending the Motherland, and in spite of the Soviet system, not because of it. Unless we are thoroughly familiar with the history our opinion is of little value. But even the most learned historian is throwing out his pearls from an unmoored boat
So how can I moor myself more securely in a discussion of good governance? At least by bringing it all down to a more personal level I am on more familiar ground. And since we can eventually only make personal judgments on global affairs this would seem legitimate. A country, like a person can behave well or badly; how we judge it is as revealing of our own wisdom and generosity of spirit as the country under consideration. There is nothing quite so galling as seeing a young conservative spouting forth, confident of his or her position, them never having experienced the crippling effects of poverty.
A friend, who likes to think about these things, asked me the other evening, if I had to decide between 3 tenders for a job, with nothing to choose between them on merit, but one were to deposit £5,000 in my account, would I look more favourably on that one? Well, yes … all things being equal. But they never are. I would refer once more to context … if someone was to try and bribe me on this issue, could I trust them? Perhaps they had already bribed the accountant, or might in the future change their quote to suit a more generous or malleable customer. Trust would seem to be the way to go, not because I’m better or more moral than the next man, but more practical in the long run. Of course, ‘the long run’ might be a luxury that someone desperate to close a deal might not be able to afford … context again. If a man fears for the safety of his family due to say gambling debts, he is unlikely to be too concerned about his Experian credit rating. Or if a whole country’s credit rating is about to be demoted by Moody’s and has to choose between settling scores that might result in violence on the streets, or reducing its carbon footprint, we should not be surprised if it is indifferent to our finger wagging if it avoids civil unrest today.
We should note that for a trade to take place, the actual political system matters little, so long as there is trust. The systems of government are not especially relevant. The shared understanding is mutual benefit … indeed, trade might be a way of establishing trust, as between an adventuring european and a native community in the eighteenth century. However that trust might be later kept or abused, the original intentions were good, and concerned with breaking the ice, in much the same way as I might strike up conversation with the joiner. The governance might be said to lie within the handshake, the rub of noses or just a look in the eye. As things progress it might take written form in a treaty, to be observed by both sides. As long as that treaty, and importantly its spirit, is observed, good governance reigns. The Cold War, perilous as the terms may have been, observed good governance. Though of opposing ideologies and the conflict of understanding, each side knew where they stood with the other. It was precisely because both Kennedy and Kruschov understood each other during the Cuban missile crisis that war was avoided. The puffs and struts of Trump and Kim leave us none the wiser as far as future action is concerned; neither are to be trusted. Fortunately they are assisted with wiser heads, and the situation is little more than a contretemps (we hope). Good governance is absent (or at least takes place behind the scenes)
Trump’s relations with the world are brash and childlike. His ‘trade wars’ hurt his own mid-west farmers most of all. China is perplexed. Who are these tariffs supposed to hurt? But lowering the bar on terms for trade are the least of the problem. His instincts for governing are crude and childish, and he tests the robustness of the very Constitution which enshrines his office
Chi, the Chinese premier has allocated himself almost unassailable power, and it remains to be seen how that allocation ends up. But the history of governance, older than even Confucius, is ingrained in the Chinese respect for authority. That it has to always fight against corruption is not necessarily the fault of the systems that have evolved
(We, the rest of the world, shake out heads in disbelief at the US’s election of such a buffoon as its leader. What were they thinking of? Or is thought the wrong word? I would contend that Trump’s most distasteful effect is that of his lax hold on governance, that his apparent stupidity appals us because he is not trustworthy. I do not mean to propose that the old ways of doing things are necessarily the best: Mao Zedong’s dismissal of Confucianism was because of the taint of privilege and heirarchy that came with it. He was himself looking for a fair and dependable system of government, and it is ironic that today’s Communist leadership in China is so keen to promote Confucius and his ideas)
And what do we have to defend ourselves from Trump’s fascistic instincts? Why, George Washington and the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution (I’m taking care to observe respect here, capitalising as respect requires). But it is the spirit of the founding fathers that is essential. The legal checks and balances that they put in place and the various systems of government that they devised mean little without the spirit of Paine and Jefferson.
In the Far East it required the poetry and philosophy of Zhu Xi to bring the spirit of Confucius back to political effect, fifteen hundred years after the sage lived, but still almost a thousand years ago. This meretricious system of examination for sorting out those most suited to public duty had been invented by Confucius, and was responsible for our own European exams (via the enthusiasm of the Jesuits). But even the best laid plans can atrophy, unless the spirit is refreshed, and Mao’s rejection of Confucius was founded itself in a spirit of egalitarianism. The Chinese systems of government had gradually become sullied with the purchase of position and preferment; the spirit of excellence had been broken by the firepower of the French and British.
(what on earth persuaded me to write about governance?? it is an incredibly boring and inedible topic. I’m reading the IMF’s Q&A article on the subject at the moment. I can understand why it’s so important to an organisation that exists to promote general goodness around the planet, but bloody hell! The poor minions and academics who have to study this stuff. No wonder the likes of Trump are so popular. A couple of pages of this stuff and i’m almost ready to overthrow the world order myself.)
What of Britain, my own culture and history? In the eighteenth century, the tussle between the French and the British was for world domination, and it was a tussle that the French, with their more impressive history, the size of their economy, standing army etc etc might have expected to win. But the timing did not favour them. Quite apart from the historical accident of naval superiority – marginal at best – the real advantage to the British was trust: the royal coffers of Louis XV were depleted by war, and capital, looking for a dependable haven, preferred more dependable Britain. The recently established Bank of England was the most visible expression of financial impartiality, but it was the Englishman’s handshake that became universally accepted as a bond to be trusted. We might cringe now at the presumption of superiority that swiftly followed, and regard with embarrassment the pride that presaged the Empire’s dissolution, but I would argue that the spirit of good governance survives independently of tumultous history.
So where did spirit of ‘decency and fair play’ originate? The Enlightenment and Reformation of Northern Europe was born of the Renaissance spirit of enquiry and discovery, which itself harked back to classical Greece and thence Rome. I’m sure if the written record was as unbroken as it had been in China, it might extend back to Sumerian times, to the first city states when man first had the problem of large scale social organisation … that issues of governance and the facilitation of trade were as paramount then as now.
The question of whether good governance depends on the system of government should also be addressed, and the fairest system of government is our holy grail these days. Which system should we choose? Does one make for better governance than another? Rather than get bogged down in such questions for now, let us return to our personal example: What are the ingredients that protect the basic contract between myself and the joiner?
That the deal is done fairly, and is understood by both parties: we might describe this as the ‘legal framework’, …. so more generally we might want GOOD LAW
… though too many scribes and too much annotation might impede the transaction, so just SUFFICIENT REGULATION
that the deal should be seen to be fair by others, so TRANSPARENCY
… which should be generally available, so an independent and robust MEDIA
should money be used, as is so often the case, a trusted bank should oversee FISCAL PROBITY
Already there are complex state functions suggested, and plenty of room for lax observance and hence corruption. And some systems of government might indeed suit fair dealing better than others. Transparency and an independent media might not be too welcome in a society ruled by a tyranny. And what if the law has developed to suit the vested interests of a powerful sector? An established bureaucracy might generate work for itself, rather than facilitate trade. And we have seen what happens to poorly regulated money markets: the greed of the trader or investor obliterates the interests of the small saver, and capital retreats to the shadows.
Is there a way to ensure good governance? Does the Constitution make the USA a fairer place than the UK, with its slowly evolved legal system of precedence? And we may throw up our hands in horror when Trump trashes the truth, but was it not the media itself, with its patrician attitude towards education and ‘knowledge’ that sowed the very seeds of Trumpism? That Hilary Clinton’s dismissal of middle America as ‘deplorables’ was a symptom of the urban elite’s snobbery? And it is the spirit of egalitarianism, born of the Revolution that is most often most often called upon now to push back the self interest of the likes of Trump.
However well argued the legal arguments may be, the demands of the neglected working class ring louder. Is this the source also of Putin’s popularity, that he invokes the pride of the Soviet working man? The media is no longer the top-down dissemination of news of yore, but is now democratised by social media into instant lateral communication. We are often appalled at the unchecked cruelty of popular opinion, but perhaps this is just us finding our voice, the novelty of swearing at full volume. So Potus tweets. I must admit to inheriting the presumptions of learned white Westerners. As Michael Heseltine said of Trump, “… God, I wouldn’t even give him house room, but as the President of the pre-eminent power on the planet we should at least invite him to visit the country” (or something like that). Perhaps I am merely appalled at his presumption, and this whole essay of ‘governance’ is just another way of expressing it.