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How our political system fails us

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 24 March 2009


The emerging global crisis with its varied economic and environmental dimensions clearly indicates the failure of our political system. There is virtually no genuine political leadership in relation to issues like climate change, peak oil or the economic meltdown. As a planet and as a nation, if we can’t reform politics in very quick time we will pay a very high price indeed.

Our political system, made up of the formal governing structures (laid down in the Constitution) and evolved institutional arrangements (like political parties), is still the key decision-making mechanism of society. Politics is basically the means by which power relations are negotiated, and thus how work, wealth, and everything else is distributed.

This decision-making process has been contrasted, often unfavourably, with another decision-making system called market exchange. Until recently, markets seemed in the ascendancy over governments as globalisation took hold. However, the sudden return of governments to the centre as the economic system goes into freefall, has placed politics and government back at the centre of things.

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While the success of governments in responding to the global economic meltdown is still unknown, we can already see that they have completely failed to deal with those intractable issues, global warming and fossil fuel depletion.

The way our system of politics has failed is twofold in nature. It has failed to reconstruct itself into a global system, and it has failed to renew itself to remain relevant to accelerating changes, especially in relation to technological development and environmental cost.

Human life is now global in its essentials. We have a global economy and global problems (like climate change, resource depletion, pandemics) but we do not have real global politics. Politics is still nationally based, and it is the easiest card in the pack to exploit nationalism for short-term political gain.

Moves towards a genuine global politics have in the past run up against vested interests operating at various levels And from a variety of sources. In the Cold War the existence of two militaristic super powers (the US and USSR) stymied efforts to create a true global governance system. When the Cold War ended the remaining superpower showed no real interest in creating a global political apparatus. The combination of a new American president and the rise of economic powers in what was the Third World presented new opportunities. Some form of global government could soon arise out of the existing apex organisations, like the G7 or more inclusive G20, or even that already existing model, the United Nations.

Just how such an institution could work is a difficult issue. The most populous nations, like China, India and Indonesia, might opt for simple head count democracy, while the richer nations might prefer a model based on budget contribution, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank.

And how such governmental structures would affect political debate within countries is also uncertain. Perhaps the existing political parties would form international political organisations (for example, a combination of American Democrats, European social democrats, British Labour and Australian Labor), or perhaps entirely new formations would arise functioning through communications systems like the Internet, which can so readily cross geographic boundaries.

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The other problem with politics is the way it has been gutted of serious debate. This has been in large part due to the success of an ideology that endeavours to obviate politics as such, in favour of a concept of public choice through consumption. That is, instead of decision-making through discourse we have decision-making through market activity.

This minimalist approach to politics came in the wake of the great successes of the post-war boom and was formalised in the ideology known as neo-liberalism (economic rationalism in Australia). Recently it has been undermined by the rise of concern over climate change, and specifically the concern that there are no simple market solutions to this problem, and then more lately the economic crash.

One result of the rise of this whole attitude has been a serious decline in the processes and quality of personnel in politics and government. Politics is now replete with careerists who lack the education, training, and political character to deal with issues of substance. This lack of qualifications is bolstered by a mass media incapable of dealing with any issue of substance and obsessed with personality defined in the most trivial terms.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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