A new dark age

It is a dark age when learning is despised; when violence prowls our streets; when the cherished teachings of our wisest culture falls disused and forgotten. Apocalypses are not fashionable, though innovation and disruption are. We celebrate the piracy of wanton wealth and mock the traditionalists who sit in their cells and speak alone with their gods in the poems without which they could not love.

In the ruins of the crises of the tenth century, Western European culture was born and indeed so was the glory of Kievan Rus. Monasticism, a resurgent faith and a reform of the church, a flowering Renaissance, the emergence of order in modern government, law, conscience, mysticism and on it goes. Who will speak like Abelard and Heloise across the centuries in this new dark age?


Traditions beyond politics

For much of my life I have thought about questions of politics and government. How can government respond to any one of dozens of social issues that have occupied my professional life? What can government do? How can a policy issue be presented to political decision-makers in a way that holds their attention, if briefly, and sustains their commitment, preferably with real decisions about people, money, rules and services, and not merely the empty word-pictures of abstract change, so beloved by the consultocracy.

Recent events in my life – and perhaps the broader world, these are difficult times when we must confront moral beliefs capable of terrorist murder – have led me to doubt whether it is time to leave this field fallow for a few years. Our democratic governments are in a state of decay, with their administrative elites confused or treacherous about the purpose of democratic governing institutions. Managerialism has infected all institutions once served by a professional ethos. Political parties have lost all deep contact with vital social networks that might translate values into real political ideas, and have become patronage-ridden bureaucracies, over-stocked with networkers and advertisers, that turn political values into the degraded currency of brands. Universities lost their moral compass sometime after mass expansion and before turning education into an export industry. Their own forms of patronage persist despite mountains of managerialist rhetoric, and a sense of purpose serving the state, as perhaps imagined by von Humboldt, was long lost.

It is a grim stocktake, and perhaps it is to that other author of the ideal of intellectual life, Cardinal Newman, that I should turn to for inspiration, and in his fields of public reason on moral, religious, emotional and cultural life that I should plant my next season’s crops. So, I do find that a turn to other traditions of public and private thought are those that must sustain me over the years ahead.

The return of the venal office and tax-farmer

The French Revolution was in part a revolt against a degraded court, whose profligacy in prestige goods was in stark contrast to its bankruptcy in pursuing national prestige in war, and in part the collapse of authority of a political order, so disabling its most essential task, taxation. The crucial preliminary chapters of any good history of the Revolution are not the tart farces of Louis and Marie-Antoinette, but the complicated technicalities of Turgot and Necker, their conflicting approaches to tax administration, and the consequences for social disorder of the exemptions from taxation of the aristocrat and bourgeois venal office holder and the private acquisition of public wealth of the tax farmer.

It may seem odd in these modern times, when our technology, our digitally ubiquitous searching and our excitement about our own excitement of the future seems to make reflection on past events, not in the last century but in the one before the one before that, something of a futile indulgence, to point to lessons learned from the failures of the ancien regime. These characters, to most modern minds, are from the cryogenic caricatures of a prehistoric past. What could they have to say to us? And I respond, two characters of the ancien regime have returned as spectres of political decay in modern dress: the venal office holder and the tax-farmer.

To be continued

Political order and political decay in Australia

If there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, either aspiring or well established, it has been centred in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality basic public services like education, health and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.” Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay p 524

Governments are failing in Australia, and yet there is next to no insightful commentary on the underlying reasons why. There is much noise and puff about failings of the political class, and tiresome predictable conferences on reigniting “reform.” There is an endless circle of meaningless commentary by self-regarding journalists and panellists, who perform no useful function other than their own self-promotion.

Occasionally, there is discussion of trust, of disengagement from “mainstream” politics and the media, and of a need to establish new processes and institutions to renew democracy. Much of this material comes from former political advisers, such as Nicholas Reece and Mark Triffit, at the Melbourne School of Government. Their proposals include ideas such as participatory budgeting or new forms of media engagement. Some of this discussion receives sponsorship from wealthy patrons like the Belgiorno-Nettis family and their foundation that sponsors forms of citizen deliberation.

These ideas are worthwhile innovations, but in the end are minor changes in process, and will always be of marginal concern. They can provide for entertaining workshops now and again for people with boundless enthusiasm and restricted responsibility. But they do not offer a way to reshape the ordinary, enduring duties of governing. They do not consider the deeper institutional and cultural foundations of the problems they discern. Small changes in process will not address profound failures in political order. To rectify the course of democracy it is important to understand the roots of the decay that has taken hold in the contemporary political order.

This is the task performed by Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay. As Fukuyama indicates in the quotation above, the loss of trust and discontent with democracy is at its foundation a failure of performance: modern democratic governments are failing as political orders because they do not provide the substance of what people want. They pursue “reforms” to pander to media and elite audiences, but do not deliver the substance of what people want from their governments: real improvements in their linked lives. As Stein Ringen comments in A Nation of Devils, the best explanation for a loss of trust in governments is that governments have not acted in trustworthy ways. It is not a newly fickle public, but a long, slow decay in governing that is at the heart of our democratic disorders. It is not a failure of “reform” vision that is the problem of Australian political culture, as argued most insistently by Paul Kelly, but a betrayal of democratic substance by political elites whose careers are grounded in a new patrimonial political order.

For Fukuyama, a successful political order stands evenly on three legs: accountability, rule of law and state capability. But in contemporary democracy, this balanced order is not achieved. Most of the discussion of democratic renewal focuses on process changes in accountability, and indeed attempts to sabotage state capability, by investing new authority and resources in non-state actors, such as citizens groups, charities, social businesses, and social entrepreneurs, or democratic monitors in the form of public or private “oversight” organisations. The appeal to philanthropists and “independent” persons is evident, but these changes have minimal impact on the prime institution bonding political elites to the ordinary citizen, parliament and other forms of democratic representative assembly. Similarly, the rule of law becomes a process driven diversion – “the worship of procedure over substance is a critical source of political decay in contemporary liberal democracies” – or a game of lawyers prosecuting political elites too little and too late. The grossest example of a deformed institution of the rule of law in Australia is the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption that despite high profile indictments for minor misdemeanours has systematically failed to prevent gross, pervasive and destructive corruption in that state.

While rule of law and accountability are common themes in discussion of the ingredients of successful democracy, state capability is a more important contribution from Fukuyama. States must be effective if they are to be authoritative. If they are not authoritative, they cannot impose the democratic order on reluctant others. Democracies must project authority and command obedience – they are not a vaudeville show for gadflies and media critics. And capable states have emerged as often from authoritarian origins, as from cultures of dissidence and citizen participation. The Westminster system was the product of a tightly organised aristocratic elite opening itself to new talent from a commercial, technological elite, and preceded a significant widening of the democratic mandate. Germany is the prime example of an effective bureaucracy that worked through various forms and deformations of the rule of law and accountability. Fukuyama shows how well-functioning bureaucracy is essential to political order and democratic success. His analysis ought to underpin wide-scale institutional change in today’s bureaucracies in Australia.

It is the disease in state capability in contemporary democracy that I know best. Twenty-five years in the Victorian state government bureaucracy has given me direct experience of the decay of an institution, the¬†public service, and the deformation of a culture, an ethos of governing well. Slowly, without anyone really noticing, over the last thirty to fifty years a model of governing, rooted in economic and social developments, has emerged triumphant within its enclosed walls. But its triumph has undone state capability, entrenched an elite consultocracy – squads of advisers, job-hopping executives and consultants – through new forms of patronage and clientilism. This consultocracy is befuddled by its own rhetoric and rites. The more it talks about reform, the less it contributes to the performance of a capable state. It is the unacknowledged legislator of Australia’s political crisis of recent years. Fukuyama’s analysis of the deformation of contemporary democracy by new forms of patronage, clientilism, kinship affiliation and reciprocal altruism shows how these bureaucratic gangs have taken over and sabotaged Australian public institutions. This is the treason of the clerks.




Millennial predictions: cities will wither

Paris. London. New York. Perhaps Tokyo. Never Sao Paolo. Never Mumbai. So sings the liberal cultural fantasy of the tourist consumer who shops in the great cities of the world before returning to home base, where they gather in the inner city and try to impose their strangely rural visions of the 20 minute city on poor uncultured suburbanites.

This fantasy is insulted by Fernandez-Armesto’s scepticism about the viability of the large cities of the earth in the face of increasingly intolerable living conditions. So too the vanity of technological Utopianism: where these zealots believe there is no problem that cannot be solved without the technical application of knowledge, Fernandez-Armesto posits a likely pause or even an end to the endless technological development. There will come a time when, like all previous civilisations, there will be no answer in technology to the problems posed by human life together; when technology adoption curves will appear to be a quaint belief of ideologically incensed minds; when our culture will stutter and stumble, tired and without hope, before the challenges its elites pose for it.

Of all the marvellous technological-social inventions of humanity, cities are the most death-defying, the most exhilarating, the most fecund for the writers of speculative fiction. They have also been harbours for deep doubts, who have prowled its back lanes and slums and wondered why the cruelty of cities is not better known. ¬†Fernandez-Armesto looks out, like a wistful traveller, at the great mega-cities we have created and asks if we have made Frankenstein’s monster? Have we made a set of challenges that are beyond the range of responses our cultures are capable of?

Cities of 20 million. Commuting in crowded tin cans for 2 hours a day. Spectacular ugliness combined with inhuman splendour. Has the scale of our cities defeated us, and will we retreat into a reinvented village life, enabled by collaboration through telecommunications that he imagines. Our governments seem unable anymore to plan and think for the needs of massive cities in decades from now. Roads are built for the tolls, not for the travellers. No one builds cathedrals any more. Physical decay is accompanied by social decay. We have learnt to exploit urban property, to market liveability, but we have turned away from the fabric of shared social experiences great cities on smaller scales once gave to their cultures.

So I agree. Cities are withering before our eyes. But if only because of the numbers, an alternative way of life in the country, chatting with colleagues by Skype, will be a rare alternative. More likely violence and warlordism will stalk more cities; more likely the cultured will retreat to Lindisfarnes in the suburbs, where the gentle work of holding onto the human heritage will go on in isolation and beneath the contempt of the new power elites; unless the culture begins to build again the public goods of connected life.

Notes on the death of culture (Mario Vargas Llosa)

Mario Vargas Llosa reviews, in the overture to this work, four influential essays on the traumatic descent into death of culture, as he says, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to that term. 

First, he reviews T.S. Eliot’s Notes towards a definition of culture (1948), in which Eliot anticipates today’s burning archive: “I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.”

Then, he distances himself from George Steiner’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1971), a late reply to Eliot, haunted by the complicity of high culture with the holocaust. Steiner spoke uncertainly of the loss of the culture of the word, so personally precious to him, but now fading before the image, pop music, number and science. Steiner: “Already a dominant proportion of poetry, of religious thought, of art, has receded from personal immediacy into the keeping of the specialist.” Now the keeper and his archive burn.

Third, Guy Debord, The society of the Spectacle (1967), provides propositions that MVL incorporates into his own, and indeed the subtitle of his book, essays on spectacle and society. MVL judges Proposition 47 prescient: “the real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions.”

Fourth, two contemporary reflections on the emergence of a global democratic, market consumer or pop culture, and these provide counterpoint to MVL’s final judgement. Lipovetsky’s and Serroy’s Culture-World: response to a disoriented world and Frederic Martel’s Mainstream (2010). These works celebrate the creative industries – a ghastly term of culture bureaucrats that MVL rightly leaves in quotation marks – dedicated above all to mass production and commercial market success. But MVL does not.

While these latter authors celebrate with post-modern brio this commercial transvaluation of all values, MVL returns to and reasserts Eliot’s prophecy as a fact of today’s life.

The great majority of humanity does not engage with, produce or appreciate any form of culture other than what used to be considered by cultured people, disparagingly, as mere popular pastimes, with no links to the intellectual, artistic and literary activities that were once at the heart of culture. This former culture is now dead, although it survives in small social enclaves, without any influence on the mainstream. The essential difference between the culture of the past and the entertainment of today is that the products of the former sought to transcend mere present time, to endure, to stay alive for future generations, while the products of the latter are made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn. ( p. 20)

This death of culture creates a great trauma among the few isolated and devoted souls who keep their archives, write their sonnets, and study the word. It is a trauma that can only be healed by writing to defy death, through entering into Blanchot’s infinite conversation.