Microchip road to real democracy

| Terry Bell
Terry Bell.

The advice of the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci constantly comes to mind these days: exercise pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will. I must admit that it has become a great deal easier over recent months to exercise pessimism of the intellect — and increasingly difficult to exercise optimism of the will to do something about changing things, domestically or globally.

The major reason is the fact that those in positions of power continue to bury their heads in the sand, constantly prophesying that the global economic crisis is over or that this or that country is leading the way to recovery. But each of these predictions is as hollow as the next because, I contend, there is no way out of the crisis, certainly not in the short to medium term. And if the system is to recover, it will only be at the most horrendous cost in terms of human suffering as well as in massive environmental despoilation.

The reason seems simple enough: a technological revolution more profound in its effects than the invention of the wheel. It is the development, improvement and increasing use of the integrated circuit: the microchip. Over the past 50 years these slivers of silicon have made possible the biggest boost to productivity ever known. Today, courtesy of a technological revolution with the microchip at its base, I cannot think of any socially necessary item, from clothing to motor vehicles to footwear, even — at least for the time being, food — that the world does not have in surplus or have the surplus capacity to produce.

This reality underlines the comment attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” If abundance is not needed or used, it rots, is discarded and is wasted.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of this technological advance can be seen in the auto industry. It is not many decades ago that thousands of men — it was mainly men — laboured on assembly lines to produce our motorised transport. Today a relative handful of workers, pressing buttons, command robots to carry out the work. It is a good example of how our political and economic system has not adapted to this new circumstance. As a result, we are in the process of making redundant most of humanity.

According to the International Labour Organisation, there are now more than 197 million men and women without work — and who will probably never work again. This is an obscene waste of human potential. But it also makes for a recipe for economic collapse since the system demands that wage labourers work in order to earn wages in order to provide a market for the goods produced.

This is inherent in the nature of a system that spread across the globe over the past five centuries. It is a system of oscillations, of booms and slumps that continued through the spread of empires and colonies, itself a usually brutal and bloody expansion that helped to grow markets as productivity improved in what gradually became a global city of competing nation-state suburbs.

Going back over more than 100 years there is a remarkable similarity in the statements of business people, economists and politicians at times of both booms and slumps. During boom times, the talk is of the system having overcome its cyclical nature; of it moving forever onward and upward with fewer and fewer regulations and restraints; above all, with no reason ever to contemplate changing it. But when crisis strikes, the tune changes to calls for more state involvement, for bailouts, infrastructure and public works programmes. At the same time, a minority, clinging with an almost religious fervour to their belief in laissez faire economics, call for the scrapping of any remaining regulations on trade and the hiring and firing of labour.

Throughout these repeated cycles, competition continues to rage between companies, corporations, and nation-states. And in order better to compete, groups of the “suburb” nations of the world city sometimes come together in blocs such as the EU, Mercosur, Nafta and, most recently, BRICS. The purpose in each case is to promote free trade and the fluid movement of goods and currencies, although not necessarily people, in the cause of either improving or salvaging the system.

But the result is merely increased wealth for a minority, a growing wage and welfare gap, and, in the absence of any clear alternative, social fragmentation. This is usually manipulated by powerful groups or individuals who, under the banner of patriotism, xenophobia or religion provide the scapegoats on whom the desperate and powerless can vent their fury and frustration. The inevitable violence, bloodshed and destruction this leads to is the only path to ultimately salvage a system that is incapable of using, to the benefit of all, the technology human ingenuity has devised.

Yet that very technology provides the means to create a viable and truly democratic alternative; an alternative that may be the only hope of ending the endless cycles of booms and slumps, of obscene wealth and the even greater obscenity of poverty and starvation in the midst of plenty. There are numerous examples throughout history of relatively egalitarian societies where groups worked co-operatively and where communities came together at regular intervals to decide on all matters concerning them.

Nobody denies that such societies existed. The common argument is that such social organisation could only occur in a village or city-state, but would be impossible in our complex, modern societies. Yet our present world — and with very good reason — is commonly referred to as a “world village”. Modern communications technology, based on that ubiquitous microchip, puts millions of citizens of countries — and wider afield — in almost instant touch with one another. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide access to millions of citizens.

Such instant communication enabled the opposition in Egypt to rally, resulting in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. It also aided the horrific spread of xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008. Almost instant communication to masses of people is, therefore, already a reality. The only question is: how can it best be used?

In the case of Egypt, the mainly young oppositionists, who rallied the masses by means of the new technology, had only one aim: to depose President Mubarak. Their efforts put millions of people onto the streets and toppled Mubarak. But that is as far as it went. Now the factional fights continue, formerly Mubarak-supporting generals remain in power and little has changed. This situation highlights the need for a positive alternative to exist at the time of rebellion, rather than mere opposition to the status quo.

In this regard, South Africa is in a possibly unique position: we have a Bill of Rights that can be interpreted as an egalitarian political programme that could be the harbinger of a truly democratic society. Crudely put, what it advocates is that all citizens should have the right to do exactly as they please, provided that, in the exercise of such right, they do not impinge on the rights of any other citizens.

This is a programme — built on the basis of the 1955 Freedom Charter — that calls for an end to exploiters and exploited; for co-operative governance rather than competitive anarchy, obviously something that cannot be achieved overnight. What it requires is that citizens who agree with the programme outlined in the Bill of Rights be marshalled to support its implementation.

The only question is how this could be done. And the answer seems quite simple: use modern, microchip-powered communications technology to link individuals and groups throughout the country to a central database as voting members of a collective of citizens. The database should be administered by people who have no political influence or control and who would act only as a “switchboard” for the transfer of information.

Such members of a “citizens’ coalition” should, ideally, have the say over who should represent them in parliament. However, while we still operate on a list system, MPs can be allocated, in accordance with the numbers of votes cast, to constituencies defined according to votes cast.

But all candidates standing on such tickets should also agree to sign contracts stating that, after being allocated to a constituency, they will be answerable to — and recallable by — that constituency. The income of all such “citizen” parliamentarians could also be decided by the vote of the citizens’ coalition members with all and any surpluses from parliamentary salaries and allowances going to constituency and communications expenses.

Communication is the essence. Because informed decisions can only be made by people who are in possession of all available information such a system would locate the decision making power with the majority of an informed population within the framework of the Bill of Rights. That certainly has to be preferable to anything else that we have at present as an apparent plethora of parties prepares to enter the 2014 election.

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