Monday, January 12, 2009

Australian ‘Republicanism’ – in pursuit of a failed model?

There appears to be a strange misconception for some Australians that to be a Republican makes you somehow a ‘modern’, or even a progressive thinker. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ‘ideal’ of Republicanism is not only old fashioned, but largely discredited.

Republicanism in the ‘modern’ world, is one of the ideals of the Age of Reason, an eighteenth century development. It is in fact quite an old fashioned concept compared to the much more recent ideals of Parliamentary Democracy/Constitutional Monarchy (as practiced by Australia); or indeed of Communism, Socialism, or Fascism. Nor should it be considered naturally more desirable than any of the others named.

The romance of modern republicanism is largely attached to the revolutionary fervour, which is often mistakenly associated with the establishment of the American, French, or South American republics. Somehow this has been detached from the very similar ‘revolutions’ of the many Socialist Republics (read Soviet Socialist or People’s Republics – otherwise known as Dictatorships). In fact the common theme of each and every one of these romances, has been violence and repression. Whether you take the examples of the ‘Yellow’s, Red’s, and Black’s’ in the US Revolution – all of whom were on the British side, as were hundreds of thousands of white ‘loyalists’ who were forced to flee the country; or the ‘enemies of the people’ who were slaughtered in such vast numbers by virtually every republic you care to name from eighteenth century France to twentieth century Russia, Turkey, China, and almost anywhere in Africa ever called a republic of any sort: you would be unable to find any system of government in history which has shed more blood, and more of it’s own people’s blood, than states called Republics.

This is because Republics – particularly the overly ‘democratised’ modern versions of them – are inherently unstable, and almost inevitably collapse into chaos and/or dictatorships. Dictatorships of individuals, such as the Wiemar Republic when it voted in Adolf Hitler; or dictatorships of the all righteous ‘majority’, such as the Republics which have unloosed bloodbaths on their minority groups – from Turkey in the 20’s, to Rwanda more recently.

Here we run into the problem with Churchill’s often quoted statement that Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the other ones. (People usually forget his other quote on democracy – that the best argument against one was ten minutes conversation with the average voter.) It would be impossible to quantify the number of people who have confused the word Democracy with the concept of Republicanism. In fact democracy – from the Greek ‘demos’ which simply means rule by the many (or common), and implies ‘for the many’ – is in many ways opposed to overly democratised ‘Republicanism’, which in practical terms usually means ‘rule by the majority’, and rarely pays more than lip service to the concept of ‘for anyone other than the majority’. The Greek states were actually small enough for all the voters to gather and agree, and there were self-evident dangers in threatening any important minority in such a system, which are not so obvious at the modern ballot box.

Democracy can be an excellent component of a balanced system of government. Unfettered Democracy however – the concept that 50.01% have the right to over-rule everyone else - is one of the great evil’s of the world, and most correctly identified with the Roman concept of ‘Bread and Circuses’. Many Republicans seem appallingly enamoured of unfettered democracy.

Machiavelli wrote and excellent two page summary of the cycles of human government in his Discourses. He pointed out that there are only three basic types of government: Monarchy, Oligarchy, and Democracy. Monarchs arise when the people need good leaders to provide them with security and stability, and many early kings were chosen, or even elected, by their people. However if the positions become hereditary, there is the danger that after several generations the monarch will no longer rule for his people’s good, but for his own. In which case eventually a strong group of disaffected Oligarchs will overthrow the Monarch, and place themselves into the role of ‘protectors’ of the people (Republics like Venice and England - the English civil war; and the American, French and Russian Revolutionary wars come to mind). Eventually these Oligarchs will also become corrupt – often in much less time than a monarchy: at which the people will rebel, and usually attempt to install some sort of Democracy. Unfortunately these democracies are rarely competently organised, and usually break down into ‘Bread and Circuses’ disasters. The mess is so complete, that the people – seeking security – soon elect or follow a new Monarch (sometimes – as in the cases of Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler - called a dictator). Many of these new monarchs become hereditary (see Napoleon the Third, Kim Il-sung, and the Suharto clan amongst others), and the process begins again.

Monarchies, by their nature, can last for centuries without becoming too corrupt. Oligarchies, by their nature, might last decades. Republics, particularly those with unfettered democracy? Well a few years anyway. But all have the seeds of their own destruction embedded in the system. They are all unstable. (Indeed Mancur Olson invented the concept of the time horizon of Rulership, which makes it clear that citizens are better off with a hereditary family that thinks in centuries, rather than an oligarchy that thinks in decades, or a popularly elected official who thinks in months – often only weeks. Considering this principle, it is no wonder that hereditary government has been the dominant form for most of human history.)

Machiavelli rightly pointed out that the only system of government that was not unstable in the long term, was one which combined the strengths of each system. The long-term perspective of the Monarch, the balancing of interests of the Oligarchs, and the popular consent of the Demos. If these three are in balance, then any two of them can combine to prevent a takeover by the third.

In theory this is what happened in miniature during the English Civil War. The King looked set on the path towards European style Absolute Monarchy, until brought to heel by the English Oligarchs. Unfortunately the civil war required the oligarchs to get the support of the English, and even more importantly Scottish, commons: which threw up all sorts of Demos movements such as the New Model Army, the Presbyterians, and the Levellers. Eventually the English Republic (sorry – Commonwealth), found itself with a new Monarch/Dictator – Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector – who passed on his job to his son. Fortunately the dictatorship was overthrown by a combination of Monarchy, Oligarchy and Commons which then set up the carefully balanced Constitutional Monarchy with both Lords and Commons – the system which developed into that used by almost all stable long term democracies today.

The founding fathers of the United States designed their constitution partly by doing a careful assessment of the strengths and weaknesses, and eventual reasons for failure, of previous Republic – Oligarchic and restrictive like Sparta and Venice (still going at that stage), or so called ‘Demos’ based like Athens and Rome. They did this both because they were planning an Oligarchic and restrictive state – with no votes or even rights for yellow’s, red’s or black’s; and because they were planning a Demos with something resembling unfettered democracy - at least for white males of appropriate status and income. Being limited by a revolutionary movement which was theoretically anti-monarchical, they came up with a slightly different form, where (it appears) the Supreme Court is supposed to consider the long term; and the Congress – both Senate and Representatives – theoretically look after special interests and state rights; while the executive – the President and his appointed advisers – are the result of the say of national unfettered Demos. They made a reasonable fist of achieving something approaching a balance - save for the occasional civil war, and the ongoing ‘resistance’ of many in the south and the reservations who still claim to be conquered and second class citizens. It is true that the balance between the Monarchical, Oligarchical and Demos components is neither as neat nor as effective as Machiavelli might have preferred. But, despite increasingly absolute-monarchist behaviour by popularly elected US Presidents, nobody could really call the United States a sample of unfettered democracy.

As a sidelight here, there is an amusing episode of The West Wing where White House officials beg the Belo-Russians to go for a Constitutional Democracy, by pointing out that only four Presidential Republics have lasted more than 30 years. They then decry the number of states that have been sacrificed to the illogic of attempting to copy the US system. They recommend a Prime Minister, just to take much of the executive power OUT of the President’s hands. (They can’t go quite as far for US television as the modern crop of US Science Fiction writers – David Weber, Eric Flint, etc – who frankly recommend that a constitutional monarchy is definitely the way to go.) These ideas are, of course, a bit too advanced for the real White House, and it is a constant source of amusement to imagine how heartbreaking it must be to these writers to contrast their ideas with what is being attempted in the Iraq and Afghanistan. (If ever any country was designed for a House of Lords, it is Afghanistan, but the same could be said for a proper regional interests Senate in a multi-tribal country like Iraq).

By contrast the Australian Commonwealth has re-named its Monarch, Lords and Commons; as Governor General, Senate, and House of Representatives: but they fill the traditional functions of representing respectively the ‘long term’ perspective of the Queens representative; the ‘balancing of interests’ of the Senate (in our case both the states, as designed, and the ‘special interest parties’ as they have developed); and the ‘popular consent’ of those governed. In fact it would be fair to argue that during the only great test of the system - in the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government - it worked exactly as it should. When the house of the Demos started attempting some highly questionable legal actions – attempting to override some interests in the name of unfettered democracy; attempting to govern without legal funding; forcing unconstitutional bank loans; etc: the other two components of the system – the Senate and Governor general – combined to restrain it by… calling an election to assess whether the Demos themselves agreed with what was being done, supposedly in their name.

It is telling that many Australian Republicans seem to think that the events of 1975 are an argument in favour of Republicanism. They seem to have missed the point that A) unfettered democracy should never be allowed to over-run all other interests, and B) that when the Demos were asked to adjudicate in 1975: they agreed, and delivered an overwhelming endorsement of the principle!

Even more spurious is the mistake many people make of claiming that under a Republican system the deadlock of the Australian Senate by a state government appointing someone of a different party could not have happened. Have these people read the US constitution they admire so much? (Have they noticed a US Governor facing impeachment for selling Obama’s old Senate seat to the highest bidder!) A senate, any senate, is specifically not supposed to be just another expression of populist numbers. A senate is designed to protect the rights of whatever sub-sets they are built around. That is exactly what is supposed to happen in a federal republic. (This is exactly what good party men like Premier Bracks have attempted to undermine by making Victoria’s upper house more ‘democratic’.)

It is hard to imagine how any person, who actually considers long term consequences: could be in favour of a system that would not put a brake on the sort of activities that were being pursued by the Whitlam government. Even those who honestly believe that the Prime-Minister in question was a cross between a saint and a demi-god (I believe the correct term is ‘demagogue”), should consider the effects of parliaments which have previously bowed to such abuse of process by popular leaders – Cromwell, Robespierre, Mussolini, and Hitler come to mind. It may appear far fetched to imagine an Australian dictator – even one who may have considered himself doing it from the most noble and self sacrificing of reasons (such as did Cromwell, Robespierre, Mussolini and Hitler for instance). However the point is that the system is specifically designed to prevent such concentrations of power, for ‘good’ as well as ‘evil’ purposes. History is replete with ‘thin end of the wedge’ scenario’s.

So this leaves the basic problem with Republicanism. The only states that came close to being the unfettered, democratic republics of popular mythology; were the small and exclusive city states of Greece and Rome. The main things they had in common were a very limited body of similar and right thinking, male and property owning citizens, who could get together and agree in open assemblies. Oh, and slavery.

Modern Republics by contrast have attempted to some extent or other to expand the franchise beyond just ‘people like us’. Property franchises have been expanded or abolished; sex franchises expanded; race franchises expanded; age franchises expanded. (There are people seriously campaigning for the vote for 16 year old’s – often the same people who are pointing out that modern research shows that adolescents brains are not completely developed on the concept of consequences until they are in their twenties, and that therefore these children should not be held responsible for committing crimes until they are 21, or 25 maybe!) As a result modern republics have almost universally failed. ‘Consensus’ is rarely achievable by such disparate masses. Unfettered democracy leads to bread and circuses corruption, or to dictatorship, or both.

Consider a list of the two hundred or so Republics or Democracies established in the last quarter millenium, then write down the ones that have not collapsed in chaos; fallen to dictators; or indulged in bloody civil wars or racial cleansing. The second list will not take long to compile. Neither the United States, or France, are on it. The countries that are on it, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and a few other Commonwealth countries: as well as such constitutional monarchies as are common in Scandinavia and parts of Asia: have largely followed Machiavelli’s advice and achieved ‘balance’ in their governments – as has Switzerland, the closest thing to a long term and stable ‘republic’ on any list. Admittedly all of them have suffered in the last decades from Republican style movements that claim to want to ‘democratise’ their societies further. (Blair’s disgraceful attempt to replace the old fashioned special interests House of Lords with a democratised ‘Peers for Loans to the Labour Party’ lap dog house, being a stellar example which will probably have appalling long term effects on the rights of British citizens, as their ‘popular’ house legislates more and more restrictions on their behaviour.)

As the 1975 election, and the more recent referendum on Republicanism seem to demonstrate: the average Australian voter doesn’t want to give their supposedly ‘Demos’ house and its party machines more power. By and large we like the balance of power system inherited from the Magna Carta via the English Civil War. We certainly dislike the sort of ‘gerrymanders’ that idealistic Labour politicians invited into Queensland by their scrapping of the upper house, and the ruining of any system of ‘balance’ in that state (much to their eventual discomfort). We even have a penchant for voting a strong government in the Demos house, and then selecting a more varied group of special interest parties in the special interest house (no wonder the party machines hate it/us).

What we don’t want, don’t trust, and don’t need: is anything that weakens the beautifully balanced system we have. That includes a popularly elected President (which would destroy the ‘long term’ component of our system). Those of us who have even the slightest concept of history – and despite the damage the pro ‘reformers’ have done to the education system, that is still a handy number (perhaps boosted regularly by immigrants who have come from unstable and bloodthirsty republics and dictatorships because they value the safety and tranquillity of Australian society) - know that a Republican ‘reform’ is not the way of the future. It is the way of the past.

Traditional Republicanism is largely the failed experiment of the ancient (and modern) slavery based societies. Modern Republicanism is largely the failed Enlightenment concept of unfettered democracy, that has quite often - would it really be an exaggeration to say 'more often than not' - led to the sort of gulags and pogroms and terrors and dictatorships which have made Ghenghis Khan look like a dilettante. Let the Republican’s appeal to the ‘future’. Let them sing praises to states without monarchs or oligarchs (except of course themselves). Let them, in their wilful ignorance, believe that unfettered bread and circuses will make a better and more modern world. In fact let them continue living in cloud-cuckoo land. We, the Demos, are largely happy with our ‘old fashioned’ checks and balances.

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