Breaking the Circulation of Elites and The Myth of Our Democracy

Originally published in OpenDemocracy.org on 23rd January 2018.

Brexit and Trump represent the rotation of an elite guard. In 2018, we must move toward breaking this elite guard and building a people’s guard of meaningful, participatory democracy.

The under acknowledged reality of the EU Referendum is that the Remain and Leave campaigns were commandeered by and fought largely between two factions of a competing hegemonic elite. That is, those aligned with a more internationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Cameron, Blair, Clegg et al.) and those aligned with a more nationalist business-oriented elite (e.g. Farage. Johnson, Gove et al.). Broadly speaking, while one faction sought to exploit sentiments of liberalism and pluralism to win votes, the other sought to exploit nationalism and division.

The Circulation of Elites

Perhaps the best theoretical understanding of what’s happened, and this applies to Trump in the US as well, comes from the work of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. Pareto established the theory of the ‘circulation of elites’, in which he proposed that a minority will always dominate over the majority, and that history is just the story of one elite replacing another.

For Pareto there were two types of elite rulers: ‘foxes’ and ‘lions’. As historian Hugo Drochon writes, foxes are Machiavellian and dominate mainly by ‘deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force’. Lions, on the other hand, are conservative and emphasise ‘unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes’. In our modern context, we may regard the foxes as the Camerons, Blairs and Cleggs of our world, and the lions as the Trumps and Farages. While one elite never truly eliminates the other, history is the perpetual ‘slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again’, as Drochon writes.

The Myth of our Democracy

The contemporary relevance of Pareto’s theory is clear. The past two years have seen the lions replace the foxes as the dominant ruling elite. However, amongst all of the elite squabbling there has been one very crucial voice missing: the voice of the people. Now of course we’ve seen plenty of public opinion polls, interviews with the public and questions and comments from average Joes on debate shows. However, the problem is that none of these channels of communication are exemplary of meaningful political participation. Moreover, polls, interviews and debate shows are structurally biased, often following the format of elites responding to the latest stats, questions or comments from the public. They do not facilitate actual meaningful public engagement, discussion and ultimately participation in decision-making. Thus, while the public was invited to tick a box and vote for one of two options, serious debate and decision-making regarding the EU Referendum and now Brexit was, and remains, the preserve of an elite few.

This lack of democratic participation is not just an issue surrounding the EU Referendum and Brexit, however. It is a systemic, structural issue plaguing our society. Indeed, contrary to popular assumptions, we do not live in a democracy, not in any meaningful sense of the word. In fact, our electoral system, that is, our system of representative democracy, was never designed to be truly democratic; it was in fact designed to limit democracy. The result is that significant policy rarely corresponds to popular will, and the level of popular participation in policy-making is extremely limited. Generally, the public is excluded from big decisions and policy is overwhelmingly dictated from above by a centralised few in Westminster, some elected, many unelected, who are themselves overwhelmed and co-opted by private interests. Moreover, as government research has itself revealed, a large portion of our public servants form a close-knit community of highly privileged elites, many of them millionaires who harbour personal ties and a revolving door relationship to the private sector. While elections are held, governments fall and a degree of free speech exists, the collective will of the population is mostly ignored. ‘Post-democracy’ is the term coined by the British sociologist and political scientist Professor Colin Crouch to describe this state of affairs.

A People’s Participatory Democracy

This is the reality of our so-called democracy, and this is exactly why we are in desperate need of real democracy: the meaningful participation of the citizenry in the construction of policy at all levels, including national, regional and local. And yes, this includes the democratisation of the workplace – worker ownership, the election of managers, votes on pay, etc. No serious individual believes that if people had the means to participate they would construct a society that facilitates and exacerbates gross inequality, low wages, precarious employment, mass debt, child, adult and pensioner poverty, homelessness, environmental breakdown and perpetual warfare. When you give people the ability to participate in policy-making, to affect change in ways that better their own lives and the lives of their children, then they will generally grasp at it.

For most of our history the vast majority lacked the franchise, and as a result were neglected by elites and had to accept their conditions. With the acquisition of the franchise, however, they were able to demand better conditions and so increase their living standards. As these achievements have stagnated and in many ways regressed over the past thirty-five years, the time has now come – in fact it is long overdue – for the public to demand even greater franchise. In the words of the founding members of Momentum, the UK’s foremost democratic movement right now:

We need to build grassroots power now: the ability for ordinary people to influence and change the world in their interests, through their own institutions. This means developing processes of collective organising that are directed and controlled by those directly affected by decisions. We must maximise people’s participation, agency and empowerment in systems affecting their lives.

Beyond Brexit and Trump, if we are to have any chance of pulling ourselves out of the myriad of messes we now find ourselves in, then breaking the circulation of elites and advancing real participatory democracy must be the imperative. That our democracy is undemocratic is perhaps one of our biggest unkept secrets that we never talk about, and it is high time we elevate the discussion of it into the mainstream.

C

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The British Elite’s Unquestioning Acceptance of Questionable Claims

This article was published in the Morning Star on 25th April 2017. See here.

Despite a distinct absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media declared Assad guilty of chemical weapons use and Trump justified in using air strikes earlier this month

On April 4 2017, reports came from the community of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians in an airstrike.

Two days later, on April 6, the Trump administration broke international law by unilaterally launching its own airstrike, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at the very airbase from which Assad was said to have launched his strike from.

Trump declared: ‘there can be no dispute that [Assad] used banned chemical weapons’.

The Pentagon reiterated, saying that the US response was ‘in retaliation for the regime of Bashar Assad using nerve agents to attack his own people’.

Unsurprisingly, the British government quickly announced its full support for ‘the US action’ which it said was ‘an appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack launched by the Syrian regime’.

Thereafter, virtually the entire political and media establishment in both the US and Britain (and beyond) aligned itself with the US government.

Conservatives praised Trump for his ‘presidential’ response, while liberals who’ve spent months deriding him as an incredulous fool and a dire threat to democracy applauded him. Remarkably, only one out of 46 major editorial newspapers in the US opposed his airstrikes, while in the UK, as professor of journalism Roy Greenslade observed, the most ‘identifiable theme in almost every leading article and commentary’, from both liberal and right-leaning publications, was: ‘Well done Donald’.

Lack of Evidence

Given the near unanimous support for Trump’s airstrikes from all these apparently clever people, one might be forgiven for thinking it was a foregone conclusion that Assad had used chemical weapons and that the US response was therefore justified.

However, the reality is quite different. Aside from the genuinely horrific reports, pictures and videos of victims that came through from Khan Sheikhoun, which prove nothing about who was responsible, no evidence was presented proving Assad was behind the use of chemical weapons, and still none has been presented to this day.

This was pointed out immediately after the events by a number of very credible sources, including Scott Ritter and Hans Blix – both former chief UN weapons inspectors to Iraq – and the former British ambassador to Syria Sir Peter Ford.

Despite this absence of evidence, virtually the entire British media and political elite declared Assad guilty. No enquiry, no questioning of the Trump administration’s official narrative – just pure acceptance of the casus belli.

Legitimate Questions

While the Assad regime is most certainly deplorable, there is, contrary to the mainstream narrative, good reason to believe that it wasn’t responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, and that Russia and Syria’s explanation – that Syrian jets struck a rebel warehouse containing bombs and other toxic substances – may have some legitimacy.

For starters, consider the sources. The reports emanating from Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, which blamed Assad for the attack and which Western media reported widely, came largely from pro-rebel sources – namely, the White Helmets, an organisation with proven ties to Jihadist rebels, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Nusra Front.

Verifying any of those sources as ‘independent’ so soon after the attacks would have been very difficult given that the region is occupied by jihadists (yes, the same ‘terrorists’ we’re supposed to be at war with) who’ve been at the center of the anti-Assad movement in Syria since 2011.

As journalist John Wight wrote: ‘No Western journalist or news crew would dare set foot there, or indeed in any part of opposition-controlled Syria, knowing that as soon as they did they would be kidnapped and butchered’.

Then consider the timing. Why on Earth would Assad risk provoking international outrage by using chemical weapons against the rebels when he was already beating them with conventional ones?

Furthermore, why would he do it just days after the US announced that removing him was no longer their priority, and days before the European Union was set to hold its important doner conference in Brussels on the future of Syria? It would be an act of complete and utter political and diplomatic self-harm.

If anything, Assad had much to lose from committing a chemical attack, while the rebels had everything to gain from its provocation of foreign US intervention against him.

Then there were the inconsistencies with the reports coming out of the rebel-held region. For example, it was reported by Kareem Shaheen in the Guardian that all that remained amongst the rubble was ‘a faint stench that tingles the nostrils and a small green fragment from the rocket’.

Yet, as the BBC reported: ‘Sarin is almost impossible to detect because it is a clear, colourless and tasteless liquid that has no odour in its purest form’.

More questions lay around the lack of protective clothing worn by the White Helmets in the images being fed to Western media.

As former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Scott Ritter observed, if military grade Sarin was used, as reports were claiming, ‘the rescuers would themselves have become victims’. While there were some accounts of this, they were, as Ritter notes, at the site of the attack where claims of a ‘pungent smelling’ chemical were made.

Herd Mentality

Remarkably, in the face of these legitimate questions, virtually the entire British media and political elite willingly chose to accept the reports of possible Al-Qaeda affiliates and the assertions of the Trump administration, which based its own evidence on the same questionable reports.

We know this because on Tuesday April 11 the White House released a declassified intelligence report outlining why it believed Assad was responsible for the chemical attack.

To the White House’s own admission, the report cited a  ‘wide body of open-source material’ and ‘social media accounts’ from inside the rebel-held region, including footage from the White Helmets.

Reviewing the report and alleged evidence against Assad, weapons scientist and professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Theodore Postol said that it ‘contains absolutely no evidence [emphasis added] that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft’.

He added: ‘I believe it can be shown, without doubt, that the document does not provide any evidence whatsoever that the US government has concrete knowledge that the government of Syria was the source of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun’.

In a subsequent and more detailed review of the report, Postol concludes that it ‘contains unambiguous evidence’ that the White House made ‘false and misleading claims that could not possibly have been accepted in any professional review by impartial intelligence experts’.

This of course adds credence to the claims that Syrian jets, using conventional weapons, may have struck a rebel warehouse containing toxic substances.

As Jerry Smith, former UN weapons inspector in Syria and the official who led the UN-backed operation to remove Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013-14, said to Channel 4 news: ‘if it is Sarin that was stored there and conventional munitions were used, there is every possibility that some of those [chemical] munitions were not consumed and that the Sarin liquid was ejected and could well have affected the population’.

Certainly, it’s not inconceivable that the rebels were storing – or that they even planted – chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun in anticipation of the Assad regime bombing the location.

Reports that rebel groups were in possession of and had used chemical weapons in Syria were confirmed back in 2013 by UN special investigator Carla del Ponte.

As a leading member of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria in 2013 that was investigating alleged chemical weapons usage by Assad, del Ponte stated that ‘we have no indication at all [emphasis added] that the Syria government had used chemical weapons’.

To the contrary, she added, it appeared that chemical weapons were ‘used by the rebels’. It’s also worth pointing out here that the oftcited example given by media personnel and politicians that Assad previously used chemical weapons against civilians in Ghouta, Damascus in 2013 is also unproven.

While confirming unequivocally that chemical weapons were used, the subsequent UN investigation into the allegations produced NO evidence that it was Assad who used them, and thus DID NOT conclude such a thing.

This point is highly significant given that so many prominent media and political figures falsely hold up Ghouta as an incontrovertible example of Assad having used chemical weapons in the past.

Intellectual Timidity

Let’s be clear, Assad is a despicable dictator. No moral human can defend him or his regime. But this is no reason to abandon rational thought and to cease asking challenging questions about the reasons for bombing an already war-torn country.

While Assad may indeed be behind the use of chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun, the evidence thus far is flimsy and open to reasonable doubt, something shamefully not reflected in the mainstream.

Has the experience of Iraq taught us nothing?! Indeed, the failure of our political and media elite to ask the simplest of questions regarding the narratives that came from both Idlib province and the Trump administration (which are still being reiterated) betrays the obvious fact that they are utterly incapable of independent critical thought.

As the former chief UN weapons inspector to Iraq Hans Blix asked following Trump’s airstrikes: ‘If you had a murder and you strongly suspect one fellow, do you go to judgment and execution straight away?’

No, of course you don’t. Yet this is exactly what our highly educated cultural and political opinion leaders have done – they’ve gone straight to judgement off of the fanciful claims of the US government and dubious sources without any critical analysis of the evidence – or lack of – in front of them. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?

C

 

Inequality: When the Masters Propel us Further into Class Conflict

This article was published at opendemocracy.org on 20 January 2017. See here.

Aristotle once explained that if wealth ever became too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute that wealth.

This week, Oxfam released its annual briefing paper on the state of inequality in the world. The conclusions are as per usual: inequality continues to skyrocket (eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world) while the incomes of the world’s poorest remain either stagnant or have decreased. The reasons (again, as per usual) include a blend of crony capitalism, tax dodging and corporate/financial lobbying of governments for favourable treatment. And, of course, the entire process is driven by the innate necessity of capitalist organisations and their managers to maximise profits, no matter what the negative effects on populations and planet.

It brings to mind the eighteenth century dictum of Adam Smith, the man regarded as the father of modern economics. He wrote: ‘All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind’ (The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Books I – III). Exploring the unequal economic relationship between Britain and its colonies, he observed how the ‘merchants and manufacturers’ (not the ‘natives’ and ‘savages’ being exploited) were the ‘principle architects’ of the system and thus ensured their interests were ‘most peculiarly attended to’, however ‘grievous’ the effects on others (Books IV – V).

While many aspects of life have obviously improved since Smith was writing, it warrants stressing that despite a brief period of rising economic equality in the post-war period (known affectionately as the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’), we’ve now reverted back to levels of inequality resembling the pre-WWI era (I’ve written about this reversion here). As the Oxfam report stresses: ‘we are living in the age of the super-rich, a second ‘gilded age’ in which a glittering surface masks social problems and corruption’. So what can we expect in the future? Quite worryingly, the answer is probably a lot more social and political disorder.

Brexit and Trump – more of same

It’s worth remembering that this  ‘glittering surface’ masking the reality that Oxfam refers to is exactly what led to Brexit and Trump last year. To be more specific, the populations of two of the most advanced nations were sick of mainstream political and public figures, themselves economically secure and thus largely removed from the struggles of everyday folk, who were incessantly sprinkling glitter over the obvious injustices being committed and telling people over and again that everything was going to be okay, when it wasn’t. Why, Oxfam asks, should populations trust those who’ve delivered them ‘wage stagnation, insecure jobs and a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots?’. In this context, Trump and Brexit are perfectly understandable reactions to a flawed and elitist system.

But aside from the frightening reality of opportunistic, ego-driven individuals like Trump and Farage now being at the forefront of mainstream politics, an equally frightening consideration is what the popular reaction of the genuinely sincere and downtrodden Brexit and Trump voters will be once they realise they were duped by what was merely a different shade of glitter. Certainly, Trump’s appointment of Adam Smith’s modern-day ‘merchants and manufacturers’ – that is, bankers and billionaires – to his administration betrays the obvious fact that, as Bloomberg news put it, ‘Wall Street wins again’. Inequality will most certainly continue to rise under Trump and glitter will continue to be sprinkled, only this time it’ll fall from Trump Tower instead of the White House.

Then there’s Theresa May, the captain of the Farage-built Brexit ship. This self-styled merchant of UK business has set sail (or should I say sale) to make the UK the most ‘passionate, consistent and convincing global advocate of free trade’. Her International Trade Secretary even cited Adam Smith in his speech to back up his post-Brexit economic plans (he of course omitted the ‘vile maxim’). The problem here is that there are virtually no examples in the historical record where so-called ‘free trade’ policies (which aren’t actually free and have little to do with trade) have contributed to significant economic development, stability and income growth – especially not in the poorer countries. As a briefing paper published by Global Justice in November 2016 put it: the ‘extreme version of free trade’ that Theresa May’s government is pursuing has ‘deeply worrying implications for the battle against poverty, inequality, climate change and war’.

To conclude, it’s worth recalling here the observations of Aristotle way back in the 4th-century BC. In his classic work Politics, he explained how in a meaningful democracy the sovereignty resides with the public, and if the wealth and resources in that democracy ever become too skewed into the hands of too few people, then the majority might well exercise their ‘numerical superiority’ to redistribute the wealth and property of the rich in a more egalitarian fashion. He regarded such expropriation as unjust and argued that in order to avoid it and preserve democracy it would be necessary to eliminate poverty by establishing what in modern terms we call a welfare system: taxes would be collected and distributed to sustain relative equality and help with the acquisition of property for those struggling to attain it. Such provisions, Aristotle concluded, would be the only way to ensure the ‘support of the populous’ for elected leaders.

Indeed, as we continue to see inequality rise over the coming years, we should be under no illusion that the already fragile support for our elected leaders will correspondingly dwindle. As this happens, it will become increasingly likely that populations will find themselves ever more compelled to demonstrate their ‘numerical superiority’ over their vile masters. As history shows, greater inequality is a surefire recipe for further and more intense class conflict.

C