Does technology ultimately militate against democracy? Ed West looks beyond the Arab Spring to ask if democratic representation was fundamentally a product of the industrial era. Is it becoming obsolete as new technology makes large swathes of the population economically irrelevant?
Democracy is in retreat. In Greece and Italy, respectively Western civilisation’s cradle and nursery, democratic politicians have been replaced by technocrats at the behest of a European Union that has now removed any veneer of democracy. While the Arab world has risen against the sometimes bland and sometimes eccentric – but always brutal – dictators of the second world, only the most green-gilled of commentators would bet on democratic outcomes in any country. The world’s second largest economy is now an autocracy, and is steadily building a stable of similarly-minded clients across Africa.
It is common at this point to invoke the name of Francis Fukuyama, who must rue the day he wrote The End of History, which goes to show that one can produce a lifetime of incredible work but get one thing wrong and that’s what the first four pages of a Google search of your name will show.
And yet Fukuyama’s critics may be as mistaken as he was: they assume that his dream of democracy spreading across vast swathes of Africa and Asia did not materialise because those countries have failed to reach the level of economic and cultural development necessary for liberal democracies. And yet, what if economic, cultural and technological development did not in themselves ensure democracy? What if the technology of the twenty-first century was to lead away from people power? It is perfectly feasible. Indeed, it seems to be happening.
In Athens, a city now ruled by the inappropriately named Mr Papademos, democracy emerged in the fifth century BC not because of philosophical appeals to the wisdom of the demos – most intelligent Greeks despised ‘the people’ – but because the sea-based Athenian Empire needed poor Athenian men to row the triremes that ruled the waves. Athens’ might depended on working-class men, and so the working class was given a say in government.
In Britain, where democracy emerged between 1837 and 1918, there was a philosophical justification for the change, both from the liberal tradition of John Locke and the radical Thomas Paine. (But both of them having more impact on the British colonies. At the birth of American independence 70 per cent of adult males in Massachusetts had the vote, compared to three per cent in Britain.)
Yet, like the poor Athenians who muscled their way to a vote, it was a question of power for the British too. The English Revolution, during which the House of Commons wrested power from the monarch and aristocracy, reflected a change in the balance of power and money and the rise of a non-aristocratic middle class that was clearly visible by the mid-fifteenth century and whose emergence accelerated in the following century, especially in Puritan-dominated East Anglia, Kent and London.
Likewise, the development of full democracy two centuries later came about because the British working classes, as well as being large in number and potentially dangerous, were economically necessary. With the development of the more radical, unskilled trades unions, the working class could bring the country down with, or without, the ballot box. During the 1926 General Strike, there was genuine fear that strikers could topple the country; middle class students volunteered to perform vital services as a patriotic duty.
How times have changed. Today, more than ever, British culture is immersed in the ideology of equality: the Marxist fantasy that equality of outcome can be achieved between individuals and groups is more popular than ever, despite being ever more detached from scientific reality. Yet, paradoxically, recent technological advance has made society radically more unequal. A general strike today by manual workers would be inconceivable, not least because manufacturing jobs have dropped from 50 per cent of the workforce in the early twentieth century to 12 per cent today (although output has increased). Manual jobs can be done far more cheaply overseas, or by robots.
This has hugely reduced the political power of working-class men, whose economic position has drastically declined in the last 40 years, especially since women and ethnic minorities have replaced them as the chief client of Left-wing politics. This is no coincidence: technology has created a labour market more female-friendly, while the importation of workers from the developing world has brought social costs borne almost entirely by the increasingly powerless and irrelevant working class. Needless to say, the wealthy have felt the benefit as wages at the bottom are kept stubbornly low.
Old manufacturing jobs have been replaced by unskilled service jobs, which are less well-paid and often part-time, and in which men have no advantage over women. No wonder, then, that in Britain the low-skilled young are five times as likely to be unemployed as the highly-skilled, and that this ratio has increased markedly in two decades. Where there is power, it is with Unite and Unison, unions that represent female-dominated public sector industries.
There are still good jobs out there, of course, but they increasingly require a level of intelligence that most jobs in the mid-twentieth century did not. The problem with this is that many people are not intelligent: as Daniel Knowles recently pointed out in the Telegraph, our greatest social problem is that “there are no jobs for the dim”. The August 2011 riots in London, if they meant anything, were essentially an uprising of the stupid against a society which now punishes stupidity, thanks to the relentless pace of technological innovation.
Inequality levels have been increasing at a steady pace for over three decades now, and the number of conservatives who shrug their shoulders at this fact is shrinking every year. After all, who wants to live in a gated community nervously watching out for hooded youths every time you leave the house?
For men below a certain intelligence, there is now no hope of acquiring a decent income, nor of ever supporting a family without the state’s help, so it is entirely rational that they instead turn to crime or listlessness. And it is entirely understandable why so few vote. People tend not to vote when they feel powerless; a subconscious recognition, perhaps, that they are not worthy to take part in the democratic process.
Even the panacea of National Service would not solve the crisis, because the Army no longer needs muscle like it used to. Historically, there has always been a link between fighting power and political power: British democracy was fully realised in 1918 after the working classes had proved themselves vital to the war effort. Unpopular and unwinnable foreign adventures aside, there may no longer be a need for a 190,000-strong British military – historically, a small figure.
In 1948 and 1967, Israel desperately needed fighting men to ensure its survival. Today, the country does not require young Jewish men good at firing rifles, but technology experts, such as those who set back the Iranian nuclear programme two years with a computer virus. The irony is that many Israelis once despised the Yiddish-speaking Diaspora Jews as weak and over-intellectual, in comparison to the rugged Hebrew warriors of the desert; now, Israel’s greatest warriors sit with their eyes pressed against a computer screen.
If geeks are the new heroes, it is perhaps not surprising that their status has changed. As American commentator Steve Sailer has pointed out, American culture has become infinitely more nerd-friendly: computer geeks who would once have been beaten up at school on a daily basis are now… sexy. Forty years ago, Carnaby Street was the coolest place in London; now it’s Old Street, the centre of Silicon Roundabout.
So if, as it seems from developments in the West, full democracy was a product of the industrial age, will it fade away as the new information age highlights natural inequalities? People have assumed that China will eventually democratise, because capitalism and democracy go hand in hand, but that is not necessarily the case. China may well become some sort of oligarch-democracy, with only professionals being given the franchise.
What does this signify? That technology in the twenty-first century is mitigating against democracy and egalitarianism, having shifted the dynamic between brains and brawn in favour of a privileged minority.