Idiots and Gangsters

And why in particular is the world’s agriculture so off-beam?


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In theory – and without too much difficulty – everyone who is liable to be born on to this Earth could be well fed, humanity could at peace, the natural world could be flourishing, and at least a fair proportion of our fellow creatures could and should be looking forward to a long and glorious future — the next million years for starters. In practice, as all the world knows, although some choose to deny it (fake news!), we and the natural world are staring Armageddon in the face.

I suggest that one prime and universal cause of all the world’s ills which doesn’t get properly aired is the sheer awfulness of governments worldwide and especially of the world’s leaders – including many whom we, people at large, have more or less freely elected. Truly dreadful governance – incompetent, morally bereft, corrupt, and often just plain wicked – should be added to the list of ills that now are so obvious to all but the wilfully blind – global warming, mass extinction, malnutrition, injustice, including or especially the vast and growing gap between rich and poor, and of course perpetual strife (racism, sexism, the injustices of social class, war). Indeed it’s a double-whammy. Bad and vicious governance is a menace in its own right and also makes it difficult or impossible to solve any of our real problems, of global warming and mass extinction and inequality and all the rest. The wrong people are thinking about the wrong things and despite lip service to democracy and some attempts to achieve it, most of us don’t get a look in.

All this raises more questions. Why do whole societies of people, millions of them, so often allow one extremely unpleasant and obviously deranged individual and his cronies to rule over them, often driving them in directions that most of them in quiet moments must find repellent? Why, even when we do have a vote, do we elect so many ghastly people? And why do billions and billions of us put up with such bad governments, whether elected or not? Why does the vast majority allow itself to be dominated by individuals who are rarely up to the task, are not always well-intentioned and sometimes by all reasonable standards are positively evil? Of course, all regimes rely in the end on their police and military, and the nastiest regimes tend to have the nastiest cops and soldiers. But cops and soldiers for the most part are ordinary people — mostly men but sometimes women or even children too — and why do ordinary people take arms against people who really are just like themselves in defence of thugs or otherwise elevated people who wouldn’t normally give them the time of day?

The UK’s present government, taken over its whole 13-year span, is surely the worst in our history – which is saying quite a lot. Brexit, of which our leaders still claim to be inordinately proud, is very obviously an open-and-shut disaster. Quite a few of the leading figures since the Tories came to power have been incompetent beyond satire, as many a satirist has lamented. Some – many? – have to various degrees been corrupt – sometimes so much so that even the Tory party has noticed and sometimes has even taken action.

And although the UK is the fifth richest country in the world (behind the US, China. Japan, and Germany, but one ahead of France), with an ever-expanding shortlist of resident or non-dom billionaires, most Brits grow steadily poorer with worse to come. All the occupations and services that make life agreeable or indeed possible are in crisis. The natural world matters too of course, and the state of our wildlife is widely agreed to be a “catastrophe”.

But the Tories put the blame for all this on (a) Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing detractors and action groups in general; (b), covid; (c) Putin; and (d) the failure of the world’s economies as a whole to “grow” at the required pace. Oh – and we mustn’t forget global warming, although we have been told many a time and oft, with breathtaking mendacity, that we, Britain, are leading the “war” against it. The response from our governments over the past 12 years including or especially Rishi Sunak’s has been to sub-contract: to refer our difficulties to ad hoc think-tanks – ostensibly “independent” although appointed and presumably briefed by government; and/or to offload our problems on to private companies (“Leave it to the corporates!” is how Prof Tim Lang summarised Britain’s food strategy). Accordingly, at least up to the time of writing (early January 2023), the government has refused to discuss the serious issues at all with any degree of seriousness (including, say, nurses’ pay). Yet the government members still draw their salaries and expenses (or at least I have heard nothing to the contrary).
Perhaps we Brits should be grateful, though, for in much of the world the leadership is even worse. Putin by any reasonable standards is insane. Xi Zinping persecutes his own people and although China already seems too big to manage he clearly has ambitions well beyond his own borders. Kim Jong-Un lives in his own world. Bolsonaro lost the latest election in Brazil but still lurks like a spider in Florida, alongside his pal Trump. Netanyahu has returned to rule Israel and plague Palestine. Assad never went away. Modi is a right-wing Hindu chauvinist in a country that has more than 200 million Muslims – only Indonesia and Pakistan has more. Iran hangs whoever dares to question the wisdom of its rulers. Myanmar under Min Aung Hlaing is too sad and desperate for words. Of the 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 10 are considered to be “free”. And so on.

So what’s gone wrong?

The reasons we allow such vile and/or inadequate people to dominate our lives are surely infinitely complex, but here is a shortlist of what seem to me to be contributory factors:

1: Leaders seem to be necessary but leadership is very difficult and very few people have what it takes.

To be fair to all those well-meaning leaders who fall short of what’s needed but aren’t actually wicked, we should acknowledge that good leadership is innately, immensely difficult. It requires intelligence (though not necessarily a dazzlingly high IQ), conscientiousness, stamina, an eye for detail, and the reconciliation of apparent opposites. In particular, the ideal leader should be humble and compassionate and yet ambitious and sometimes ruthless enough to attain power. Personal charisma helps too. Charm is an immense asset. Mussolini was a very affable host and Stalin was positively avuncular.

Perhaps what matters most of all, though, is management of people. All leaders need competent and simpatico supporters who they can trust and to whom they can delegate – but it’s hard to find the right ones. Those with true ability and creativity are always liable to question the leader and make life difficult, and are wont to gang up and stage a coup (a prime theme of Shakespeare’s history plays). Hitler solved that particular problem by assembling a gang of seriously unpleasant and ruthless but nonetheless talented allies who hated each other, and he nurtured their mutual loathing so they wouldn’t gang up against him. Weak and lazy leaders choose mediocre supporters who know they owe their position in life to the leader’s beneficence and are content to be nodding dogs. Not a ministry of all the talents as envisaged by Prime Minister William Grenville in the early 19th century but an assemblage of mediocrities. Not really what’s needed at all.

Abraham Lincoln is or was one of the few who seemed to have all the necessary qualities. He certainly had charisma. He had a face like a pagan god and was immensely tall – a whisker short of 6’4” at a time when the average Englishman was around 5’ 5”. In his stove-pipe hat he was a veritable giant. He was also a sharp lawyer with a fine line in rhetoric though he pretended for PR purposes to be a backwoodsman. Back in England his near contemporary William Gladstone also had enormous presence. He had the looks of the archetypal Victorian patriarch, radiated moral probity, and outclassed nearly everybody else in intellect and scholarship. Such presence is not vital, however – or wasn’t, before the age of television. Clement Attlee was a weed, yet kept control of a cabinet that included talents and egos as diverse and clamorous as Bevin and Morrison, Bevan, and, later, Gaitskell. All memorable. All immensely able. In truth there are still many excellent people in parliament, men and women, although those that seem most admirable rarely seem to make it right to the top.

Yet there are traps all around. As the statesman and historian Lord Acton observed at the end of the 19th century, “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And as they say in backwoods America, “Ain’t that a fact?”

2: The people who want to be leaders are often just after the power and the kudos.

The greatest problem, though, is logistic. Most people, including most of the most talented and conscientious people, just don’t want to be leaders – except perhaps of something that really matters to them and they know they can manage. Many head teachers are brilliant. So is many a ward sister. But leadership in general is a specialist pursuit and most of us have other things we’d rather do.

Ours, though, is the age of the professional politician. Some, perhaps most, choose politics as a career because they really do want to make the world a better place. Others, though, are simply attracted to power and the possibility of great wealth: the general deference; the receptions and the ceremonies; the subsidised restaurants and the ministerial car; with the ever-welcoming revolving door into the corporate and financial worlds, a haven in retirement and an escape hatch along the way. In some societies politics is seen, quite openly, as a way to fill the boots. Ideology is an add-on. But those who crave power for its own sake are the most likely to become powerful, simply because they try harder than most of us to achieve it. Yet the people who seek primarily to be powerful and to look down on the rest of us from a commanding height are not the kind of people who ought to be in charge – not, that is, if we truly wish to create a convivial and thriving world. As Jesus said, according to St Mark (10:42-44), “ … whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all”. Most people in the top jobs worldwide don’t seem to think like that.

Finally, some over-ambitious politicians like the Thatcher-wannabe Liz Truss and the University Challenge star Kwasi Kwarteng find when they do get to power that there is more to the job than they expected and that some of the people who thrust them into the hot seats were chancers with their own agendas who didn’t necessarily expect them to succeed but saw an opportunity anyway. As Machiavelli pointed out in the early 16th century, cynicism has no depths.

Again, though, we do sometimes find great leaders who are tough enough to take charge yet and retain their humanity and humility. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu (known to his friends and followers as “Arch”) and the present Dalai Lama come to mind. But they are rare indeed.

3: We are primates. We like strong leaders.

Emphatically I do not believe (and I don’t know any modern biologist who does) that everything we do is “determined” by our genes. I do think it’s obvious that our genes – our evolution – has a strong influence on our behaviour. Thus, most of us don’t sniff lampposts when we go for a walk not because our mums told us not to, or we can’t be bothered to bend down, but because we aren’t dogs, and we don’t have doggy genes, and it never occurs to us to track our fellow humans by sniffing their spoor, and if it did we probably wouldn’t get much out of it.

Similarly, I reckon, one powerful reason why we elect or put up with strong men and sometimes women in charge, even when they are obviously inept or even evil, is because we are primates and most though not quite all primates in the wild go around in groups and those groups rely for their survival on strong leaders. In truth, primate societies are immensely various – from monogamous pairs as in gibbons, to menages a trois as in some marmosets, to vast gangs as in some macaques and baboons. In most but not all groupings including gorillas and chimps, our fellow great apes, an alpha male is in charge. Clearly there’s survival value in these arrangements or they wouldn’t happen — but as Jane Goodall has pointed out, in chimp societies at least there are good leaders (caring and generous) and bad leaders (short-tempered and vicious).

I suggest that human beings have inherited the primate predilection for strong leadership, as ‘twere come what may. It is built into our biology. Thus I have heard Americans say, in the time of George W Bush, “My president right or wrong!” Such an attitude surely would go a long way to explaining why so many good Germans followed Hitler and so many good Russians seem to put up with Putin and so on and so on. Loyalty is a virtue only up to a point.

Yet all is not simple in primate societies. For as my primatological friend Jennifer Scott discovered when she studied gorillas for her PhD, if an alpha male oversteps the mark – loses his temper or punishes one of the group unfairly – then, huge and all-powerful though he is, the alpha females will send him to Coventry until he mends his ways. Similarly, Rachel Hevesi, director of Wild Futures, reports that when she ran the Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall the woolly monkeys chose a handsome and energetic young male to be their leader – but when he abused his position by bullying a baby he immediately lost all authority. He was replaced by a less charismatic but far nicer young male who was altogether more level-headed. All this is in line with the American Declaration of Independence, published in 1776, which tells us that governments are supposed to look after the people and —
“ … whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”.

We might learn a lot from gorillas and woolly monkeys.

4: Democracy is better – but democracy is v hard

Democracy is surely better than autocracy. It seems fairer – we surely should have more control of our own affairs — and, one feels, the collective wisdom of humanity ought to outweigh the cogitations and whims of individuals. But democracy is difficult. It has taken many forms, and few societies bigger than a gardening club have ever managed to be truly democratic. It doesn’t work as it should if the mechanisms are not appropriate (first past the post, PR, or something different from either?). Whatever the system, we typically find when we come to vote that it’s Hobson’s choice – “stale trifle or sweaty cheddar” as the cartoonist Wally Fawkes aka Trog once put the matter. The main contenders in the 2019 UK election were Boris and Jeremy Corbyn.

Democracy cannot work either if people do not understand what’s going on. The Brexit referendum of 2016 illustrates this perfectly. But you can’t understand if you don’t take an interest, and that takes time and effort, and as Oscar Wilde commented, “democracy takes up too many evenings”. We tend too to rely on our favoured texts to tell us what’s what – the Telegraph, Sun, Express or Mail versus the Guardian, Observer, and Mirror. These days, though, I am reliably informed, most people get most of their knowledge either from each other or from the social media. Formal education doesn’t help as much as it should. Economics courses in the world’s most prestigious centres of learning tend to nudge students towards neoliberalism. And biology seems increasingly to mean biotech.

5: We don’t believe in ourselves

For democracy to work, too, we need to believe in ourselves — to be confident that we could indeed cope if we had more power and responsibility. We also need to believe in our own and other people’s good will. We have to trust each other. But philosophers ever since Plato have been queuing up to tell us that we human beings are a feckless lot, incorrigibly self-centred, and ever-ready (as Machiavelli argued) to put the boot in if it brings advantage. The extremely influential philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously observed in the 17th century that unless we had strong and moralistic people in charge – Plato thought they should be philosophers – then we would all be at each other’s throats and that life for most us would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I suggest that at least as much evidence suggests the complete opposite. At least when disaster strikes people rally to the cause. While Putin attacks Ukraine in what seems like a gratuitous act of braggadocio and viciousness, dragging his bewildered troops in his wake, the Ukrainian people themselves are showing enormous courage of course but also compassion, as people risk their own lives to help others. When the chips are down what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” come to the surface – which shows that the better angels are very definitely present, waiting to be called upon. I reckon that all political and religious leaders should strive above all to enable and encourage the better angels of nature to come to the fore as a matter of course, and not just when the bombs are falling. But it suits governments and some kinds of religious leaders to tell us we’re a bad lot. It gives them an excuse to take charge and pretend that this is in our interest.

6: Morality is what matters most

In truth, although it’s essential to install an appropriate economy and sound governance, that is not the end of the story. What really counts is the underlying morality, centred above all on compassion, humility, and a sense of oneness with the natural world. If the moral base is strong then almost any economic or political system could operate in the world’s best interests. It is easy to make a strong moral case for Toryism or for Communism as has often been done. But neither can work if the underlying morality is not one of compassion, and lacks humility.

But I stress almost any economic or political system. Fascism for example is rooted in the idea that some individuals or groups are innately superior to others and that the favoured ones have a right and even a duty to dominate the rest, or indeed to sweep them aside if they get in the way. Those in the ascendant may feel a tremendous sense of triumph and camaraderie, at least with each other. But their philosophy nonetheless seems innately vile.

Neoliberals subvert this whole line of argument by insisting that economics should have no preconceived morality at all. Let the market be the moral arbiter, they say. What people will buy is deemed to be good, and what they choose to leave on the metaphorical shelves is ipso facto bad. The market succeeds only by satisfying people’s desires, as reflected in what they choose to buy – and so, the neolibs maintain, the market is the ultimate mechanism of democracy. But, they say, the market cannot work as it should unless it is free to do so. Outside interference from some outside moral body, government or otherwise, is anti-democratic and an assault on freedom itself. It turns out, though, after 40 years or so of neoliberal dominance, that the unfettered, “free” market, dominated as is inevitable by whoever is richest and most ruthless, is in reality at least as destructive as any invading army and probably far more so. For the value of everything including human wellbeing and the natural world is ranked according to price. What are commonly called “human values” including the bedrock principles of morality are deemed to be obsolete, defunct, and are off the table.

Indeed the neoliberal mindset is probably the main obstacle to our efforts, or the efforts at least of some people, to create a kinder and safer world. But it does make rich people richer and very rich people are powerful enough to sway governments and shape elections and even to lever their own supporters into government. Thus many of the people who now have most power in the world do not have our own interests at heart, and are content to regard the natural world as a “resource” and as real estate, lumped together as “natural capital”, to be manipulated according to the dictats of the neoliberal “free” market. These stooges “govern” only in the sense that they have power over our lives. They are beholden to their sponsors, their patrons, and have not real concern for people at large and still less for the natural world.

7: Agriculture has been sidelined

If we really wanted to create a world that was agreeable and secure we would, I suggest, focus all our efforts on agriculture. Agriculture sits right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and non-human. If we did it well we could all be well fed and our fellow creatures could sleep easy in their respective dens. If we farm inappropriately then we’ve all had our chips. If we don’t produce enough good food sustainably or distribute it fairly then people are malnourished and many starve, as is the case already, and if farming is not wildlife friendly then the cause of wildlife conservation is at least seriously compromised if not dead in the water, as again is already evident.

So governments that acknowledged the real problems of the world and seriously wanted to solve them would take agriculture very seriously, with the focus on agroecology. But governments like ours in industrial countries don’t take it seriously. However it may dress up its present policies, deep our down our government sees farming simply as “a business like any other”, and in neoliberal vein sees business simply as a way of making money, and is content to follow the guidelines of US agriculture supremo Earl Butz from the 1950s to the late ‘60s, who told farmers to “Get big or get out”. Agriculture in Britain is governed by Defra – the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Thus biosphere becomes “environment” and agriculture is just another “rural affair” along with golf, tourism, and the traditional huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’. Agricultural research has become a subset of corporate-sponsored biotech, within the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. For the most part, these past 40 years, Secretaries of State for Defra have either been old lags put out to grass, like Margaret Beckett or Owen Patterson, or young bloods supposedly on their way to supposedly better things, like David Miliband (who in truth was one of the best) or Liz Truss (who told Britain’s farmers to raise more pigs to sell to the Chinese). Now we have Thérèse Coffey who knows nothing of agriculture and, I’m told, cares less.

So it is that agricultural strategy in Britain these past N years has not been designed primarily to produce good food for everyone and to keep the natural world in good shape. Instead it has been led by the economy – which for the past 40 years has been shaped by the doctrine of neoliberalism. The kind of agriculture that results – high-input monocultures on the biggest possible scale – in structure and in much of its practice is precisely opposite to the requirements of agroecology and food sovereignty. In other words, governments are as bad as they are partly or largely because key administrative posts are allocated not in accord with what’s really needed but with what seems politically expedient at the time.

What’s to be done?

It seems to me that all attempts to analyse the world’s ills and suggest ways forward lead us back to the central point of this website: that we need nothing less than a Renaissance – to re-think everything from first principles and re-structure accordingly. Difficult though democracy undoubtedly is, the Renaissance has to be led and driven by us, people at large. And in practice we need to build the Renaissance around food and farming, beginning with small, agroecological enterprises wherever it is possible to set them up and increasing their numbers till they become the norm.

Help from government via the law and the money we pay in taxes would of course be helpful, but if governments don’t play ball, as they seem disinclined to do, we just have to go ahead anyway, roughly in the style advocated by Mahatma Gandhi as he sought to extirpate the British. Even so, life would be a great deal easier if we could install a government that really was on side. So far, however, very few if any of the 193 countries in the United Nations have managed to do this.

Perhaps if we can truly understand why good governance is so rare and why at the moment it is particularly awful that might help us to do better.

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7 responses to “Idiots and Gangsters”

  1. Robin Tudge avatar
    Robin Tudge

    Major was a good PM, startred peace in NI, got a good deal with Europe, called out the bastards in his party. But otherwise nothing happened. The economy recovered, people thought “wtf was that 80s shit?” and the Tories imploded over a half decade, proving on many fronts they weren’t needed.
    Eisenhower meanwhile, republican, patrician, war-winning general, lamented state spending on bombs as it took money from hospitals and the homeless.
    I remember my Russia students in 96 loved Yeltsin, ashe oversaw the country’s collapse,because they could say it was shit. Then in 09 in London young russians said they loved Putin, despite him already proving a murderous authoritarian chauvinist who had journalists shot in the lift, because he was a “strong man”.
    Charm, my old boss Patrick Heren, gas industry nut who assets climate change is cos of sunspots, but very charming bloke. Meanwhile, concerning charm, my old boss Patrick Heren, gas industry nut who asserts climate change is cos of sunspots, but he’s a very charming bloke.
    Minor point: I think now the UK is now the sixth largest economy, overtaken by India as its GDP expands while 100s of millions still live in rank poverty, and the current UK govt seeks to emulate precisely that.

  2. Martin Stanley avatar

    I tend to agree with you. I think we are going through tough times and a lot of people are desperate and don’t like the uncertainty so they look for simple solutions and hope for easy answers. But they delude themselves when they vote for dishonest politicians who seem to be offering them what they want to hear — though with no hope or even intention of delivering what they promise. The reality is there aren’t quick fixes to our problems and it looks like we will all be poorer and need to invest in better infrastructure and public services etc — which all costs money.

    Some politicians realise this and so have been keeping a low profile as they think that voters don’t want to hear bad news and or to pay higher taxes etc, and this has left the door open to unscrupulous individuals who will promise anything to get elected and want unfettered power with Brexit etc. These individuals are interested only in themselves and helping their friends and they blame foreigners for our problems.

    Sometimes if feels like we have gone back to the 1930s. We have a very divided society which has become polarised on many issues, and a lot of unskilled manual labour who have not benefited from globalisation. If anything they have been made worse off at the expense of improving living standards for people in Asia who are doing the manufacturing work instead. When there was a reasonable safety net and social housing, disadvantaged people were content. But as these have been chipped away over the decades society has become more polarised. The myth of cheap food is part of this toxic mix.

    If the Labour party can’t win the next election, given all the current political and social problems, then there isn’t much hope for them. I think they made a huge error of judgement in agreeing to Brexit as it was a false solution to protect job and wages. That is all past history although it may be possible to ease some trade restrictions with the EU in future. The way the Tory government has thrown around money on various things recently shows me that they don’t have the great track record for financial responsibility that they claim.

    Anyway, I’m hoping for better times. But rather than hold my breath for our politicians to sort out our problems I prefer to look at projects like Marina O’Connell’s at the Apricot Centre in Devon, and other small community projects. These are tiny in the scheme of things, but if they can be examples to enthuse others to copy them, that seems to provide some realistic hope that we can do things better.

  3. Robin Tudge avatar
    Robin Tudge


    Great stuff!

    Major was a good PM. He started the peace in Northern Ireland, got a good deal with Europe, and called out the bastards in his party. But otherwise nothing happened while he was in charge. The economy recovered, people thought “what was all that about?” and the Tories imploded over a half decade, proving on many fronts that they weren’t needed.

    Eisenhower on the other hand — Republican, patrician, war winning genera — lamented state spending on bombs as it took money away from hospitals and the homeless.

    I used to teach English in Moscow and remember that in 1996 my Russian students loved Yeltsin as he oversaw the country’s collapse, because they could say it was shit. Then in 2009 in London young Russians said they loved Putin — even though he had already proved to be a murderous authoritarian chauvinist who had journalists shot in the lift — because he was a “strong man”.

    Re charm: my old boss was a gas industry nut who asserts that climate change is cos of sunspots. But he’s a very charming bloke!!

  4. Jennifer Scott avatar
    Jennifer Scott

    Very interesting! The following thoughts came to me:

    Re: “1. Leaders seem to be necessary, but leadership is difficult..”, how to pick a good leader, and do we need one. Why do we need a “leader”? You mention that it probably dates from our primate past, but it’s worth mentioning that many hunter-gather societies did not have “leaders”. Having said that, dominance hierarchies emerged in hunter-gatherers only when resources could be defended. So this suggests there is not set way of forming societies. But when the situation requires societies with dominance hierarchies, it does seem as if some people are more predisposed to grab at power to become leaders. It’s also likely that when life gets complicated, many people prefer to leave the difficult decisions to “leaders” so they don’t have to deal with it – so, many people probably find having a leader is reassuring.

    A quick look at historical accounts of past leaders: some Roman emperors seemed amazingly skilled and strategic at ruling well while others managed somehow to bring the country to near ruin. Somehow, some had the insight to know when to make this or that move, or when to trade x with country y and not with z, or when to go to war with a neighbouring country, and when to hold back, or when to use diplomacy, etc. Under their rule, their citizens would thrive, cities would expand, there would be enough food, etc, while the opposite would happen with the hopeless rulers – makes me curious about what was it that the best leaders had that the worst leaders lacked. Same with the Egyptian Dynasties. Some were successful, some disastrous. I assume there was some training of the youngsters likely to be next in line regarding how to be a good leader, but it does seem as if some really had an intuitive sense, while others did not. Ditto with British monarchs.

    So…would you say that despotic leaders such as these have the advantage (dare I say it) in that if one happens to be a rather good one, perhaps society is much better off than an excellent democratic leader. The former are much less encumbered by all the things that you describe that keep democratic leaders from being the best leaders they can be. If a despotic leader decides that a certain action would lead to some beneficial result to their people, they just go ahead and carry it out, whereas a democratic leader has to consider all those voters who may not understand the longterm benefits, and may vote him out unless he take the more popular/less controversial (though less beneficial) decisions. Of course, the downside is that if the despotic leader is corrupt or dangerous in some way, you’re stuck with them, whereas at least with a democratically elected leader you can vote them out – though at the expense of missing out on a truly exceptional leader ever getting elected or if elected, never able to get many of their policies in place.

    So we then try to get rid of leaders – i.e., what the British and US attempted to do. Funny, then, that we’re all still so obsessed with who the US president is, or who is the Prime Minister. Maybe Colin’s right, we are biologically predisposed to having leaders after all, like our primate cousins?

    Re: “3. We are primates, we like strong leaders”: Colin is right – the dominant silverback male of each gorilla group I observed maintained their leadership position because of mutual benefit between the silverback and the adult females in the group. The interesting thing is, whereas the highest-ranking females would make sure lower-ranking females stayed in their place at other times, it took a common cause to incentivize the same females to all support each other against the more powerful male if he ever tried to exploit his position of power. So they like a strong, but democratic leader too.

    In baboons, you sometimes get baboon societies that are relatively peaceful because the females are in control. Aggression by males is not tolerated, and males can only remain if they are “nice” to the females. On the other hand, another baboon observer found that among baboons he was studying, the male dominance hierarchy was more important, and males competed to be the leader, regardless of female preference. Male aggression ruled. I seem to remember that “his” baboons lived off of a garbage pit, i.e., where resources could be defended from other groups of baboons, so maybe that accounted for the difference. But point being, social dominance patterns can be flexible in baboons as well as in humans. So, being “predisposed” to have a leader that is a dominant male is environmentally dependent (as genetic traits tend to be).

    Re: “5. We don’t believe in ourselves.” I do really think that social media has caused a lot of the problems you are describing. You mention that people need to trust each other and the system, and I think people used to be able to do this. But social media has allowed crazy ideas to spread like wildfire, and misinformation, anger and distrust to take over. I can’t see how to get to a system that you describe until we somehow manage to reign in social media and these mega-social media companies like Twitter and Facebook. Right now it seems to be heading the other way.

    I did get a bit of a jolt when Trumpism tied to overthrow all the carefully laid down government structures that had kept the US system of laws and Constitutional rights in place for all these years. Not to say there were not a lot of things wrong with the way things were before Trump, like a very unbalanced view of who gets the “Rights”, etc. I used to imagine, what we need to do is tear it all down and start again with a better system (like your renaissance idea?). But Trump came along and almost did tear it all down. Some of their ideas were idealistic, and you could see how they might have been thinking: we have really good ideas! What we need to do is destroy everything that is there now and replace it with our better idea! But when they started doing that, democracy nearly fell flat on it’s face! It was a disaster! So now I am not so sure about the “raze everything to the ground and replace it with a theory of what is better” approach. Of course, you may not be suggesting we do it that way?

    Re: 6 and 7: Morality matters most; Agriculture has been sidelined. I completely agree. What worries me is that evolutionary history again. The higher the stakes, the further people seem to get from their moral compass and acting for the good of the many. True, I have not carried out a study, but people seem particularly competitive and out for themselves during their reproductive years, and seem to come to their senses by their 50s or so, unless great riches and power is at stake, in which case they may never come to their senses. Having said that, I would argue that Colin is right – it need not be that way. It may well be context-dependent. Not all societies have been or are that way. It’s those defendable resources again. There you go, Colin, find a way to limit people’s ability to defend resources, and you’ve got the result you are looking for.

  5. Jennifer Scott avatar
    Jennifer Scott

    The news this week that the PM of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, a wonderful leader who has achieved amazing things, has decided to resign because she feels she has reached complete burnout after only 6 years as PM, made me think of Colin’s points above (Under 1.), that “we should acknowledge that good leadership is innately, immensely difficult.” It’s too bad that “…intelligence, … conscientiousness, stamina, an eye for detail, and the reconciliation of apparent opposites…humble and compassionate and yet ambitious and sometimes ruthless enough to attain power… Personal charisma…” (1. above) takes such a toll, while the ruthless leaders who generally scoff at most of that (aside from the charisma), seem to invariably have the energy to continue indefinitely (when is Putin going to keel over, for ***sake?).

    What should be done?

  6. Damon Hoppe avatar
    Damon Hoppe

    The author in the article asks “Why do whole societies of people, millions of them, so often allow one extremely unpleasant and obviously deranged individual and his cronies to rule over them…?”
    I suspect the author does not meet many people. I have the misfortune of living in a Tory safe seat and can tell you that I barely leave the house and avoid people because they are (nearly) ALL “extremely unpleasant and obviously deranged individuals” which is why they elect their fellow cronies to rule over us!!! Where are all the nice caring ‘save people and planet’ type people like us? We are a tiny, small minority and we must face this.

  7. John Harris avatar

    Lip service to democracy, indeed. But actually, it always was.

    In the case of both the American and French revolutions, the fine words of 1776 and 1785 were, in the end, much less important than the words of the eventual constitutions, (1789 and 91) which were drafted by the elites of those nations.

    In the years following the rebellions, huge distrust and fear of democracy was expressed by the leaders of American society, and in French debates of this time, the word didn’t appear once.

    Yet, only a generation before, prominent renaissance philosopher Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, of 1748 had huge influence on political thinkers everywhere, His lasting influence was his insistence on the separation of powers; that governmental power should be separated between different branches, that they should be interdependent so that one or two could not usurp the other. He also stressed that the key to effective and legitimate government was the mix of lottery and election, only the mix of the two would work.

    And he echoed a point Aristotle had made eighteen centuries earlier: saying:

    Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.

    This was all in the literature of the time. Rousseau, in The Social Contract, wrote of the use of lottery as the natural form of democracy.

    The two most important political philosophy works of the century, though very different, agreed that sortition is more democratic than election and that the way to go was to combine the two methods.

    And both revolutions were ringing with this Renaissance new age stuff; Montesquieu is said to have been the most quoted philosopher about government and politics in revolutionary America.

    But though the elite drafting the American Constitution were informed by Montesquieu’s stipulations about the separation of powers, they were very distrustful and nervous about actual democracy. Madison and others suggested that their passions need to be channelled through the wise judgement of exceptional people that had their best interests of the nation at heart.

    And they certainly weren’t going to swallow whole John Locke’s idea about all men having the right of life, liberty and estate, without some development of the idea, and so the material estate, that is, land, becomes the hopeful pursuit of happiness. Good luck.

    In the end, in France, where in the aftermath of the celebrated storming of the Bastille, every Frenchman was to be a participant in ruling France, the eventual constitution was not participatory but elective, and now but one in six Frenchman would have a vote.

    The American constitution didn’t even stipulate who was entitled to vote, leaving the question to States, who gave the vote to white landowners. And it gave equal representation in their Senate to empty states as to densely populated ones, effectively giving representation to land rather than people. 250 years later, voting rights for all have still not been established and voter suppression is openly and shamelessly pursued, and the character of democracy is clear in this country.

    So, at this revolutionary moment, a chance to start the world anew, both constitutions chose electoral representation, and chose what enlightenment philosophy of the age had identified as the aristocratic form of democracy. Our democratic traditions have been influenced by the Roman Republic, rather than the demokrataia of Athens, And in many ways our democracies resemble the Roman Republic, with the grown-ups in the Senate managing everything.

    After certain senatorial musings, it has recently been a hot discussion on the net in the USA along the theme: America is not a democracy, it’s a republic.

    Soon after those revolutions came rebellion in Belgium and their elite drafted what became an off-the-shelf set of checks and balances for nascent republics, and representative electoral democracy’s place was cemented in the world. Electional representation became what democracy meant. Even then, actual suffrage for non-land owners was the struggle of decades.

    Our political classes, our particracy, have been corrupted in the interests of a class that really see only their own immediate interests and fortunes to be made. They see virtue in doing so. They may say that it’s up to governments to set the rules, while always ensuring that the rules ensure the primacy of their interests. Our political classes are easily persuaded of something called ‘reality,’ and blinded to actual realities. It will always be the same reality.

    Tony Benn raised eyebrows and guffaws many decades ago by declaring that the point of government has become to manage populations in the interests of international capital.

    How can they look Armageddon in the face? The government will say, they’re committed to do such and such by such and such year in the future, and this X is what they’re investing, and they’ve made a legal commitment, and that will be beyond their own careers and what they’re having to manage now, while ensuring the best outcomes for their friends and supporters, and that’s all that matters, really. For, the ultra rich, it’s strange . . . there was a presenter on breakfast television this morning, who was asked what he would do with £100m, and he said, yachts, luxury cars, more yachts . . .

    Corporate power has risen to become dominant in political considerations. Ever since the East India Company insinuated corporations into existence, their lawyers have pushed and pushed until corporations now have arguably more legal rights than the human beings whose law it is. They now seem to operate in the sky miles above our heads. If, as seems inevitable, (actually, I think it happened the other day) we become entrapped in trade deals with an ISDS mechanism, potentially being sued for environmental protections which affect corporate earnings (as is happening to countries), with judgement made by secret corporate courts, our self-agency as a democracy will be further eroded. Britain has never lost one of these cases, I caught. Take back control, and give to secret corporate courts.

    We elect ghastly people because it’s ghastly people who join the ghastly party, it’s a career. People who don’t actually believe in anything except their being in power. Their role is to nourish the interests of persons of high net worth, as it’s called now, and they are well rewarded.

    They’re elected because of the blunt FPTP design coupled with a critical mass of people, distributed among the constituencies, for whom Tory policies are in their interest. They present an enduring commitment – probably the only consistent policy in two centuries – to land and the health of the property market, where health means constant price inflation. Even in covid lockdown year, when most sectors did no business at all, emergency action by the Chancellor ensured that the property (land/location) market managed to grow by 8%. People have done extremely well in this country just by owning homes, and they feel wealthy, and believe they’ve earned it. It’s become established now that raising taxes is a sure election loser. Nobody has raised income tax since Denis Healey.

    This is what Thatcher meant by a ‘property owning democracy,’ she meant a democracy whose interests are in voting Conservative, a piece of social engineering that worked a treat, fuelled by the North Sea oil bonanza and ‘selling the family silver,’ as Macmillan had it.

    As per leaders, etc., I’m halfway through The Dawn of Everything, by the sadly departed David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow. The book explores all manner of arrangements in the past. There’s very surprising evidence emerging from archaeology and research that challenge many default and familiar assumptions. Perhaps leaders are just a habit of thinking we have.

    I think charismatic leaders and the political theatre this engenders is the actual problem. Democracy is very hard because we’ve allowed elites to define it. We’ve got to stop falling for this, putting these actors on the stage with their histrionics.

    This needs to be balanced, completed, by a powerful aleatoric element. Randomly selected jurors, in a deliberative process, with expert advice, calling witnesses, collect evidence, free from corrupting influences. I can imagine this process drawing the public’s interest, and thus the public’s interest in issues, in general. It might become something big like I’m a Celebrity or something.

    As you say, we should believe in ourselves. We should believe in ourselves as we do when choosing juries to in judge people’s innocence or guilt, which is the surviving remnant of the age of sortition. Weirdly, another surviving remnant is the word ballot, which comes from ballottes, the wooden balls used in the sortition rounds of Venice’s administrative selection system.

    The Athenians, Florentines, and a host of other cities in medieval Italy and Iberia, knew very well that power corrupts, which is why they made systems expressly to avoid concentration of, or even familiarity with, power.

    The experience of the late medieval age and of insights of renaissance philosophy point to a combination of electoral and aleatoric systems, that would complement and reinforce each other, the aleatoric element would keep the elected element honest. No longer would we have to hear our leaders talk about the will of the people, for the people will be present.

    Starmer is talking about abolishing the House of Lords, this would be an opportunity to institute a series of standing popular juries, each with limited and stated duties, some to decide which the next another committee would debate, etc.. Maybe standing regional aleatoric assemblies, with 20% replacement annually.

    And these bodies to have real legislative-initiating powers. – we need to move towards a better polity, with a large, eventually perhaps majority role for the aleatoric.

    The Brexit question, were it to have been deliberatively considered by random selections of the public, calmly considering evidence from all parties, free of emotional delusions, would have come to different conclusions.

    Indeed, the deliberative process would give all rational, reasonable, fair arguments a much better chance.

    This is something of a movement and we have seen many notable examples already.

    This is something of a movement and we have seen many notable examples already. In recent years, the government granted Extinction Rebellion a citizen’s council to discuss the climate emergency. This council proposed measures which, though maybe still falling short of what’s necessary, were radical and decisive policies.

    Sortition produces an accurate picture of what the public think, when they are invited to think, than the blunt tool of elections ever could. This is what we’re always told democracy means, it’s rule by the people, we, the people, they say.

    The dismal choices of ‘stale trifle or sweaty cheddar’ – inflation or unemployment, it’s your choice – are the effects of an unsustainable system.

    A moral starting point would be the assertion that no one, who is a product of this world, has any greater claim to its land and natural provision than anyone else who is a product of the world.

    Economics, as an analytical tool, has been disabled for over a century. And economic understanding is the key material factor here in transforming negative outcomes into positive ones. Everything is getting worse because all the incentives in the world are pointing the wrong way around. It’s only by rediscovering a classical understanding of land as an economic factor, that we can limit humanity’s encroachment upon and effect on nature and start to produce positive outcomes instead of negative outcomes.

    Small, agroecological enterprises, microdiaries, struggle in our current tax and subsidy regime, and can be crowded out by agribusinesses, for whom the tax regime is very favourable. Positive outcomes are particularly assisted by a just systems of wealth distribution.

    I think the only critically acceptable society would be one transparently based on justice, where political agency is dispersed, and administration has legitimacy with the administered. And everybody’s busy and happy.

    We certainly do need a Renaissance. And the key insights we need are the ones hushed up and lost from the original Renaissance, these are the insights which fundamentally change power in the world; and this is why they were obscured.

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