A democratic society is based on the values of an open society, those nebulous things that don’t fit into a financier’s or an economist’s spreadsheet. These values provide for the trust, participation, creativity, freedom and imagination that makes the good life possible. They also provide the capacities to be resilient to future uncertainty, and to create the diversity and dynamism necessary for vibrant cultures and economies. If the technocrats think they don’t count, then wilfully destroy them in pursuit of tidy boxes, then they destroy our future.
The opposite of these democratic values – a tyrannical top-down, instructing-rather-than-listening & discussing, command & control technocratic style – leads to rigidity, Rigidity of thinking is linked to extinction in any world that has an unknowable future (like ours), which is why tyranny is always linked to hubris and the empty arrogance of Shelley’s Ozymandias whose only great works remain dead monuments in the sand (like, say, a large irrigation dam). Those mighty who think only of themselves, and only the pursuit of power, will set up the structure that see their precious regime eventually fall.
The positive democratic social attributes link with the work of Robert Putnam and others on Social Capital, who argued convincingly that if you want a strong economy, then build a strong society.
These attributes also links with the social ‘capacity’ of Practical Wisdom – Aristotle’s “phronesis” – that ability to make the right judgment in the right context at the right time. Practical wisdom is based on far more than just numbers in a list however ingeniously manipulated. It is far more demanding than the application of universally-prescribed rules and procedures, applied rigidly without consideration of context. It requires thinking people. It requires people to say that, sometimes, here, in this time and place, in this complex, the rule book does not apply. In order to achieve our desired goals I must think flexibly, adapt, cooperate, listen to the wisdom of the locals, and throw away the Standard Operating Procedures of the button-pushers and lever-pullers in the big office block.
Aristotle wrote extensively, and brilliantly, about all this. So did John Ralston Saul in his epic “Voltaire’s Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West“. If you forget Practical Wisdom and values, and especially if you take a procedural top-down view of the way life ought to work (or at least people ought to obey), then you’ll eventually stuff things up.
We have seen the very opposite of values and practical wisdom with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council’s relationship with people and problems, from the debacle with the rigidly prescribed “das ist verboten!” approach over the Twyford growers having their water cut off one week before harvest, to the “I have a (rigid) dream (about – say – a very big dam costing lots of money), and it will look good on my CV and to my voters when I cut the ribbon and say nice platitudes about ‘for-the-good-of-Hawke’s-Bay’.”
Apparently Oxymandias lives in the Bay. You can always sense Oxymandian attributes when the king is more interested in having relationships with other powers than with the people.
And then there was the related sense of a command & control society we get when we hear of Health Board CEOs actively avoiding and disrupting genuine discussion and debate around fluoride and kicking over the signs of the opposing voice. Discussion doesn’t fit well with some people, and when it doesn’t it ought to be another clear warning bell to us that something is rotten in the State of Wherever. Cultures of fear. Discussion means dissent. Do as I say! I am instructing you!
Here is your lot as a Minion to Mammon if we allow this rubbish to continue:
“My job is transactional. I am told to do a task, and I unthinkingly do it. I am there to Manage the Perception of the Greenies. Don’t inspire me to work toward an aspiration goal for the good of the region and its people now and into the future, just give me a task to do, a box to tick, an inbox to empty, a procedures manual to love & obey & care for & procreate with in order to make lots more nice little procedures, for ever and ever, til death do us part. For I know that obedience and an eye on the ticking box rather than any nebulous virtue or value-laden goal is just so much pap. Only democrats think in that space. Namby pamby undisciplined democrats!”
What, in God’s name, is going on in our society – regionally and nationally? Why are governments and corporate style ‘leaders’ apparently everywhere, practicing a form of totalitarian governance on us? Why is the only management game in town in our bigger institutions apparently ‘transactional management’ where employees are treated as contractors to perform set tasks, rather than ‘transformational management’ where people within an organisation work within a culture as an inspired team in pursuit of aspirational goals – in the case of public departments, community-agreed aspirational goals? Culture? Where the hell do you put culture in a spreadsheet or a task list? Is the humanity in a workplace necessarily reduced to instructions and the hourly wage? Is the desired corporate model a totalitarian state where only the most obsequious and power hungry should hope to rise?
Which brings me to what we all play in this encouragement of the men in tight pants and long black coats to prescribe our life and – apparently – its meaninglessness (other than to act as an unthinking cog in some hierarchical machine in order for the powerful to become ever more powerful at our expense). Our recent GCSB bill allowing the spying on citizens (that’s you and me) is just one of a number of things that suggests something is smelling rotten, and when a Prime Minister states “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” repeating the words attributed to Joseph Goebbels, ex-boss of Propaganda in the ex-Nazi party – and that PM has a background that should provide him with at least some sense of history – then you have to wonder what the hell is happening to this world we thought was free.
A quote from Henry Porter of the Guardian relates: “During the cold war, we valued freedom and privacy because we compared our lives to the tyrannical conditions in the Communist bloc. Whatever the faults of western societies, we knew we were better than those societies and we knew that we were right.
“Now we have to ask, “Are we better?” “Are we right?”
Do we want to become a tyranny of “Managing perceptions”, propaganda, serving not the people and our future but the new sociopathic elite (just another lot going back to the ancients)? Do we want to bury democracy and the fresh ideas it allows to breath? Do we want to replace it with obedience and hierarchy?
If we don’t want to live in the pages of Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave New World, then we have to get really serious about who we appoint to positions of power. That especially applies to those that will represent us, as well as our town clerks and departmental secretaries, our corporate chiefs, and our media heads.
We can at least vote for our democratic representatives, but as citizens we ought also to make demands and act as watchdogs on the corporate and bureaucratic heads to ensure that the unscrupulous do not harm our people, our land and our future. Because, given the chance, and if it serves their own purposes – whatever they may be – then they will.
Our role is to watch, think, decide and actively choose because, ultimately, we have the power.
I’ll be on the GCSB watch-list now.