Milking vultures

One year ago, I posted “Upgrading democracy” where I argued it is time to renew our worst (except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…) form of government.

Being very (perhaps too) optimistic, what we are seeing in the UK, a sort of coup d’état by an obnoxious politician—a long-distance runner—, might be part of this renewal process, an inevitable step. UK’s democracy is actually a very interesting example, because it is one of the oldest living democracies in the world, and one that works without written rules.

Reacting to Boris Johnson bold manoeuvre to close British Parliament as a way to prevent the opposition to block a no deal Brexit, Laurie Macfarlane argues that, while well intended, the uproar to defend their democracy is misguided, because it is their democracy which is broken and must be repaired.

Of course Boris Johnson’s actions are undemocratic, but so is our entire system. As my colleague Adam Ramsay has argued at length, the ancient institutions of the British state are well past their sell-by date.

Opendemocracy, Now is not the time to defend Britain’s democracy – we need a democratic revolution,

it is not possible to build democratic socialism by using the institutions of the Ancient British state… in the way that it is not possible to induce a vulture to give milk”.

Neal Ascherson, as quoted by Adam Ramsay

In an article discussing how cynicism is underming democracy, The Economist makes the case that institutions in Britain or the United States will withstand the onslaught of unscrupulous politicians like Johnson or Trump.

Fortunately, there is a lot of ruin in a democracy. Neither London nor Washington is about to become Budapest. Power is more diffuse and institutions have a longer history—which will make them harder to capture than new ones in a country of 10m people. Moreover, democracies can renew themselves. American politics was coming apart in the era of the Weathermen and Watergate, but returned to health in the 1980s.

The Economist, The corrupting of democracy

It sounds like antifragility, but…

The New York Times is less optimistic and thinks that Britain’s unwritten constitution suddenly looks fragile, and that Boris Johnson, in fact, can take advantage of that fragility:

Once someone starts kicking aside the conventions and customs that shape British democracy, there are surprisingly few hard and fast checks on executive authority (…) It is only by custom that prime ministers resign after a vote of no confidence. There is no law requiring them to, and Mr. Johnson’s camp has suggested he might not.

The New York Times, Britain’s Unwritten Constitution Suddenly Looks Fragile

Knowing how to build institutions that last long enough is key for a long lasting, affluent society. Institutions are “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour.” They are the building blocks of complex societies.

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction (…) They evolve incrementally, connecting the past with the present and the future; history in consequence is largely a story of institutional evolution (North)

Douglass C. North, Institutions

To “evolve incrementally” sounds terribly well when you are talking about the big picture of history, but thinking about the present moment, what does it actually mean?

It is hard to acknowledge, but we do not have anything remotely similar to our inefficient technological innovation processes to deal with social and political change. It’s no wonder practitioners still have to study “Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook”.

At least, we have “big” data. And for the time being, UK does not appear on the radar screen.


Featured Image: Boris Johnson

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