SPEAKING FREELY Steering our way to the future
By Jan Krikke
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
"In a democracy", Aristotle said, "the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme." The Greek sage would not recognize modern democracy. Since the 1980s, the poor have lost out to the rich in nearly all democracies. A majority of voters consistently elects political parties pursuing policies that lead to greater inequality. China, meanwhile, is planning ahead.
Democracy in Thailand, Egypt, Venezuela and even the in the EU and the US is producing disgruntled electorates. Conventional
wisdom has it that democracy has been corrupted by money, cronyism and special interest groups. Take money out of politics and reign in the lobbyists, the thinking goes, and things will improve. But the problems with modern democracy go beyond money and corruption.
In nearly all democracies, the electorate has allowed the political class to hijack the democratic process. Professional politicians rather than voters set the agenda. Just ask a typical voter to list the five biggest problems facing the country and what should be done about them and he will likely scratch his head. The majority of voters relies on the political class to define political issues and articulate government policy.
In the second half of the 20th century, with booming economies and economic surpluses, it was mostly smooth sailing for most democracies. But this century will not be democratic business as usual. The reason? China. In barely 40 years China transformed itself from en economic backwater to the world's second-largest economy while lifting several hundred million people out of poverty.
The opening of China, a US initiative to counter the Soviet Union, has been a mixed blessing for the rest of the world. In the past 25 years, multinational corporations made out like bandits by investing in China but millions of workers in the West lost their jobs or had their wages reduced. And more is to come. China today is where Japan was in the early 1980s, when Japanese manufacturers laid waste to large sections of the Western automobile and electronics industry. Expect China to have five time the impact of Japan, and probably for longer.
China is planning (and "planning" is the operative word) to double its per capita GDP by 2020, making it the world's biggest economy. Some economist believe the Chinese economy will be twice the size of the US economy within two decades. For the first time in more than 200 years, the world's leading nation will be a non-Western country. We can only speculate on China's impact on the international system, but it will no doubt challenge some long-held economic, social and cultural assumptions about the world.
China modernized by learning from the West without embracing liberal democracy. Its "socialist market economy" is similar to the model used by Japan and the Asian "tigers", but within a communist political superstructure. The latter is a modern version of China's ancient "statism" and can't be duplicated elsewhere. But the world can learn from a specific Chinese trait that is both ancient and highly topical: the art of planning.
Elections in liberal democracies are typically personality-driven affairs dominated by rival political machines offering high-minded platforms full of "election promises". The programs typically lack a detailed road map and do not define a broader plan for the country. The Soviet Union gave "state planning" a bad name but China combined this old communist stalwart with a limited market economy to create the second most powerful economy in the world.
China's current (12th) Five Year Plan illustrates the point. It sets measurable targets for the country: Growth of the service sector to 47% of gross domestic product; reduction of water consumption by 11% ; an increase in the minimum wage of 13% ; the construction or renovation of 36 million apartments for low-income families, etc. Not all targets will be met, but there is a clearly defined road map. This in contrast with the typical "election promises" in most democracies. They not only lack a road map but even a destination. (Not surprisingly, nearly 80% of the voters in the US believe the country is going in the wrong direction. The figures in most EU democracies won't be much better.)
The political class of liberal democracies has few ideas - or incentives - for transforming the political system, but growing pressure from the electorate will ultimately force the issue. Cyber-activists worldwide are pushing for more voter control on governments. The Australian political party Senator Online wants direct cyber-democracy that lets voters decide how parliamentarians vote on all bills. Sweden's Aktiv Demokrati wants an open source wiki-platform to let voters contribute directly to the formulation and implementation of public policy.
Ubiquitous access to the Internet has made participatory democracy possible, but to be effective, "planning" must take center stage. Let voters express themselves by listing their top five concerns for the country (i.e. inequality, education, environment, etc.), and let anyone - individuals, unions, political parties, business associations, universities - formulate concrete plans with goals and budgets for the next five or ten years that reflect voter priorities. Let voters decide on the best plan and let them vote for a head of government who assembles a cabinet to execute the plan.
Having voters decide on a plan would instantly lead to the democracy envisioned by Aristotle, where the votes of the rich and the poor carry the same weight. It would also please Norbert Wiener, the spiritual father of cybernetics. Named after the Greek "kybernetes", meaning pilot or steersman, cybernetics is used in technologies such as the automatic pilot in aircraft and is based on a three-step process: plan, quantify and steer. Planning defines where you want to go, quantifying defines the parameters to get there, and steering is guiding the process to its predefined target. In fact, the five-year plans executed by the technocratic Chinese government are based on the very same principle.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Jan Krikke is a former Asia correspondent for various media and author of The Corridor of Space (Olive Press).