The politics of decency
~ by Winton Higgins • wintonhiggins.org
The Politics of Decency (1:02:28)
The phrase, ‘the politics of decency’ occurred to me during last year’s presidential election campaign in the US. Donald Trump’s bullying behaviour – for instance, in the notorious second televised debate with Hilary Clinton – came across as dramatically indecent, even before I weighed his words (spoken and tweeted) and his alarming personal history of underhand business practices, bankruptcies, enduring mafia connections, unabashed sexual predation, and familial disruption.
His carefully selected whistle-stops during the campaign drew besotted support from all manner of low-life political movements – racists, misogynists, xenophobes, antisemites, climate-change and Holocaust deniers, gun-worshippers, and bellicose conspiracy theorists – whom the Trump campaign assiduously cultivated. Presumably these movements (grouped into today’s so-called ‘alt-right’) account for a substantial part of the 25 per cent of registered US voters who cast ballots for him.
His victory triggered exultation among similar atavistic currents around the western world, not least in the UK, Australia, France and the Netherlands. And also the Putin regime in Russia. The politics of indecency isn’t just an American problem. It’s a challenge to all of us, particularly to westerners whose socio-political heritage and way of life it now threatens.
Decency in political life
Decency is kind of an old-fashioned word with a number of facets. They include fairness, civility, honesty, integrity – ‘doing the right thing’, ‘doing one’s bit’, acting compassionately (including towards strangers in desperate straits), respecting the common good and the basic ethical principles on which social cohesion depends, and maintaining the peace. If a reliable informant tells us that so-and-so is a decent person, we get a pretty good idea of what we can expect of someone so described. But what does it mean in political terms?
In several parts of the world, the politics of decency has a long pedigree. In the ancient world, Ashoka, first emperor of India, instituted a prototype of the modern welfare state in the 3rd century BCE (and he included animal welfare in his programme). In the west, Aristotle and Seneca, among many others, thought and wrote about it too.
But if we fast forward to the late 18th century and the dawn of the industrial age in the west, we find some familiar suspects pushing the politics of decency: the early labour movements (including socialist, social democratic and labour parties), feminists, pacifists, anti-slavery campaigners, and promoters of universal suffrage.
Lest you find this list a tad left-ish, let’s consider some decidedly non-left-ish champions of political decency. In the US we’d have to include the framers of the 1787 US constitution, and one of Trump’s predecessors as leader of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln.
In Britain in the late 19th century, we’d have to include the so-called collectivist liberals or ‘new liberals’ in the Liberal Party, who dared to ask what industrialisation and the vast wealth it creates are actually for? Their answer was the very opposite of today’s neoliberal ideal: they declared that these boons should be applied to raising the physical and cultural quality of life of the entire population. Machines should displace dangerous jobs and menial drudgery. No-one should be left behind. And everyone should have a say in how the country was governed.
Last but not least, we’d have to include Pope Leo XIII, whose famous 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the mutual responsibilities of capital and labour, could well have passed for a new-liberal text. It reminds us that even some conservatives have embraced political decency (including a degree of distributive justice and social security) since time immemorial; and often that commitment to decency has sprung from a religious inspiration.
Across the board, and across time, supporters of political decency have recognised the enormous contribution that socioeconomic security makes to each person’s freedom and wellbeing.
The travails of the politics of decency
In many western countries, the politics of decency reigned from the 1940s to the 1970s. Democratic countries militarily crushed their fascist foes in world war two because their decently organised and inspired home fronts (the ultimate fronts in modern warfare) worked so much more effectively. Thereafter came the steep rise in social expenditures that eroded social inequality and social exclusion, through income-support, health and education policies in the main.
In international affairs, the Nuremberg trial of 1945–46 pioneered a new international rule of law. The most heinous crime was now identified as starting a war, closely followed by breaches of individual and collective human rights. A whole new legal and institutional framework, with the UN at its core, arose in the wake of this initiative.
Crucially, this period also saw the high tide of western democracy. According to the British sociologist Colin Crouch, real-world democracy:
thrives when there are major opportunities for the mass of ordinary people actively to participate, through discussion and autonomous organizations, in shaping the agenda of public life, and when they are actively using these opportunities.
When democracy works in this way, (as it basically did from the ’40s to the ’70s) purposive human action can assert national and social priorities, including in the distribution of wealth, income and life chances, nationally and internationally. Above all, this kind of democracy supports the politics of decency.
Unfortunately the rise of neoliberal ideology since the 1970s has eroded democracy, the whole idea of purposive human action holding sway, and with it the politics of decency. The global market and its major corporate players now decide the distribution of wealth, income and life chances – not democratic governments. No matter how high our GDPs soar, ‘budget constraints’ erode public expenditures and anything resembling a democratically workshopped national development programme inspired by common decency. The citizenry’s socio-economic security has come under continual attack, sacrificed on the altar of neo-liberal ‘flexibility’.
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, Maggie Thatcher announced that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism. In an epochal surrender, erstwhile parties of reform bowed their heads in surrender. The obvious result has been massive increase in socio-economic insecurity, inequality between countries, within countries, and within regions and cities, as Thomas Piketty has exhaustively demonstrated.
The slightly less obvious victim of the neoliberal counter-revolution has been democracy itself. As Colin Crouch argues, we now find ourselves in a post-democratic condition. What is post-democracy, then? In his words:
Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professional experts in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given them. Behind this spectacle of the electoral game, politics is really shaped by private interaction between elected governments and elites that overwhelmingly represent business interests.
Today this description fits Australian political life to a tee. Anyone following last year’s US presidential election would have witnessed another extreme case: the party conventions, for instance, were no more than choreographed hoop-la – there was no reasoned democratic conversation going on. Post-democracy has even eroded the political life of Sweden – the erstwhile heartland of the politics of decency.
Post-democracy and the politics of indecency
What has gone wrong with democracy? Well, nothing that the framers of the US constitution hadn’t already seen coming and tried to forestall. They sought to set up a polity that would empower ‘we the people’ in perpetuity, to thwart the ever-present danger of ‘tyranny’ – the capricious and ruinous rule of one individual or clique, backed up by entrenched private interests.
The framers admired the ancient Roman republic, and drew lessons from its self-destruction through military overstretch and forced capitulation of power to Julius Caesar, a populist military leader. They found the way to avert this risk in the writings of Michel de Montesquieu about the virtues of constitutional ‘moderate states’ characterised by the division of powers, ‘checks and balances’, and a robust civil society. Civil society would nurture active citizens who exercised ‘civic virtue’ in public affairs – as in Crouch’s model of real democracy.
The ascendancy of Donald Trump – poster boy for the politics of indecency – signals the defeat of the framers’ vision. Nearly half of registered voters failed to make it to the polls at all. So much for civic virtue, in a neoliberal world where real policy issues aren’t up for discussion, so there’s no incentive to participate. An antiquated electoral system delivered Trump the presidency, though he lost the popular vote by three million ballots. So much for ‘we the people’. Now in power, his avowed aim is to run his country like a business, from head office, and bypass the political process as much as possible. Post-democracy has come one step closer to tyranny.
Who did vote for Trump, apart from followers of the patently indecent movements I mentioned at the beginning? Answer: those who constitute the collateral damage of neoliberal policies – the socio-economically discarded individuals and communities. They’ve responded to their exclusion with visceral anger by voting for Trump just because he seemed to be different. He won’t do anything for them, but maybe that’s okay. They’ve already made their point, however incoherently.
The actual contents of a politics of decency are pretty straightforward. So in this talk I’ve concentrated more on the historical forces that have suppressed it since the 1970s. I’ve identified two closely related factors – the unchallenged dominance of neoliberal ideology in western political cultures and policy processes, and the shift in the actual dynamics of political life from democracy to post-democracy.
If ‘we the people’ want to once again live in decent societies, we have to retrieve our civic virtue and mobilise – in civil society, and in the political process – to haul our democracies back from the post-democratic dead. We need to make our polities once more vehicles of purposive human action, instead of mere appendages of markets and overweening private interests.
• This talk was given to One Mindful Breath & St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society in Wellington in April 2017. Winton Higgins has been a Buddhist practitioner since 1987 and a teacher of insight meditation since 1995. He has contributed to the development of a secular Buddhism internationally, and is a senior teacher for Sydney Insight Meditators and Secular Buddhism in Aotearoa New Zealand.