Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and the failures of democracy

After the Brexit debacle, it was only to be expected that China's most nationalistic newspaper wouldn't miss the chance to jump on the bandwagon.

The Global Times has attracted international attention with an editorial in its English edition which gloats that Europe and Britain are in decline and are unable to solve their problems through their democratic systems. But less attention has been given to an editorial published by the paper's Chinese edition, according to which the EU referendum shows that "Western-style democracy" is no longer working.

The editorial is entitled "Western-style democracy's willfulness raises doubts". The term I translate as "wilfulness", 任性, could also be rendered as unruliness or doing things on a whim.

The article starts off with some pretty reasonable statements about how a European Union without Britain will be "more inward-looking, conservative and focused around the continent", and this will be "bad for Europe and bad for the world" (although this comes from the most inveterate supporters of policies which continue to make China inward-looking and conservative).

It then turns into an attack on democracy, or rather, "Western democracy". Why is it that this year's EU referendum and last year's Scottish referendum could take place, and what seemed unthinkable could become so possible, alarming everyone? According to the piece, the answer is the "wilfulness of democracy" (the word used in Chinese is 任性, same as in the headline).

The author of the editorial then relates a parliamentary sitting which he witnessed in Norway, in which there were only 13 MPs in attendance in a parliament with 169 seats, and uses this as an example of the flaws of democracies, where even members of parliament take their duties so light-heartedly. I have no idea whether the author realizes that Norway was held up as an ideal by the Leave camp during the Brexit debate.

The article then goes on to claim that democracy is "a conquest of human political civilization", but it is a pity that it has now become a game that anyone can tamper with. Europe's constant referendums show that democracy is also being kidnapped by nationalism and populism, and that the system is losing its resilience as it has to deal with the negative effects of globalization. After quoting from Han Feizi, in order to predictably cloack itself in the mantel of China's "5000 years of history", the editorial concludes that "in terms of productivity, China has already won. In terms of resilience, China will yet win."

It would be easy to dismiss the paper's nationalistic ramblings, or to think up possible counter-arguments and point out all the problems of Chinese authoritarianism. It is true, on the other hand, that in a country like China where the desirability of democracy is still a matter of serious doubt and debate, the EU referendum might seem to some like an excellent example of democracy's inherent flaws.

Those who voted for Britain to leave the EU were overwhelmingly the elderly, the less educated and the less well-off in England and Wales. A momentous decision, which will have consequences most of these people cannot even conceive of, was taken because of marginalized and frustrated people emotionally blaming the EU for complex phenomena they don't really understand, and using the referendum as an occasion to show their distaste of the metropolitan elite.

Frustration with immigration and the increasing multiculturalism of British society were also a clear motivation behind the leave vote, even though stepping out of the EU is going to do little to nothing to reduce immigration to Britain.

In the meantime, these people have quite possibly condemned their country to eventual break up, since a second referendum on Scotland's independence is now looming on the horizon. Even Northern Ireland's peace agreement is threatened. As a historian said the other day, Britain, the country which colonized half the world, has committed national suicide because of the fantasy that it is being colonized by others. And all this because of a 4% difference in the vote.

When you look at this scenario, it is easy to see how the Chinese elite's professed ideal of a group of wise, enlightened, forward-looking leaders governing their country according to a long-term plan, without having to constantly bend to the will of the ignorant, easily misled masses, might seem like a better alternative.

The concept of voting is indeed problematic on a theoretical level, and the concept of referendums even more so: giving every single person the same power to decide on an issue on which most people simply don't have similar levels of expertise and understanding may not lead to the best outcomes.

But in the end of the day, the problem with diatribes against democracy like the one in the Global Times is that they always stop at the issue of general elections, without looking at all of the other institutions and values that underpin democracy: separation of powers, the rule of law, independent institutions supervising each other, freedom of speech. Only focusing on elections and the unpatable results they can throw up due to the ignorance of the average voter is missing the point.

If China could find a way to implement a system which didn't include giving every last fool the possibility to vote and make decisions on crucial issues, but which protected all of the other rights which people in democratic countries take for granted, then I am sure most of the world would be ready to accept its system as legitimate. Unfortunately however, this is just not the case at the moment.

In any case, I do hope that Britain doesn't seriously decide to hold the referendum on the EU again, and that the British parliament doesn't refuse to implement the referendum's results (amazingly, according to British law they have the right to do this). If similar courses of action were followed, then Britain really would become the world's laughing stock, and its democracy would rightly be derided as a joke.


Richard said...

I'm in Oxford at the moment and seems the overwhelming majority of students and academics here want to ignore the referendum because it didn't produce the right result. I hope they don't succeed - would be a dangerous precedent for the UK.

Ji Xiang said...

Yes I hope so too. It would also highlight the lack of real democratic guarantees within the British legal framework. In normal democracies, a referendum's results have legal value, and the government is bound to implement them. In Britain they don't.

What else can you expect from a country which doesn't even have a constitution, except for the Magna Carta which doesn't count? Having gradually evolved from an absolute monarchy into a democracy, many democratic norms were not turned into law, but just became accepted practice.

Meursault said...

"less educated"
"consequences most of these people cannot even conceive of"
"complex phenomena they don't really understand"
"these people have quite possibly condemned their country"
"every last fool"

You come across as an insufferable snob with a very high opinion of yourself. "These people" who you disparage so easily have real lives and real concerns that should not be dismissed by some bedroom blogger.

There are plenty of people much more intelligent than you who agree with Brexit. Here is Nassim Nicholas Taleb on why he feels smaller local government is more efficient and less fragile:

"The most stable country in the history of mankind, and probably the most boring, by the way, is Switzerland. It's not even a city-state environment; it's a municipal state. Most decisions are made at the local level, which allows for distributed errors that don't adversely affect the wider system. Meanwhile, people want a united Europe, more alignment, and look at the problems. The solution is right in the middle of Europe -- Switzerland. It's not united! It doesn't have a Brussels! It doesn't need one.
The European Union is a horrible, stupid project. The idea that unification would create an economy that could compete with China and be more like the United States is pure garbage. What ruined China, throughout history, is the top-down state. What made Europe great was the diversity: political and economic. Having the same currency, the euro, was a terrible idea. It encouraged everyone to borrow to the hilt."

Whilst I am quoting Taleb, I would say this other quote from him is an apt description of the attitude you display in your post:

"What's a IYI?

Intellectual Yet Idiot: semi-erudite bureaucrat who thinks he is an erudite; pathologizes others for doing things he doesn't understand not realizing it is his understanding that may be limited; imparts normative ideas to others: thinks people should act according to their best interests *and* he knows their interests, particularly if they are uneducated "red necks" or English non-crisp-vowel class.

"More socially: subscribes to the New Yorker; never curses on twitter; speaks of "equality of races" and "economic equality" but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver; has considered voting for Tony Blair; has attended more than 1 TEDx talks and watched more than 2 TED talks; will vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable; has The Black Swan on his shelves but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence; is member of a club to get traveling privileges; if social scientist uses statistics without knowing how they are derived; when in the UK goes to literary festivals; drinks red wine with steak (never white); used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed; takes statins because his doctor told him so; fails to understand ergodicity and when explained forgets about it soon later; doesn't use Yiddish words; studies grammar before speaking a language; has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen; has never read Frederic Dard, Michael Oakeshot, John Gray, or Joseph De Maistre; has never gotten drunk with Russians and went breaking glasses; doesn't know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba; doesn't know that there is no difference between "pseudointellectual" and "intellectual"; has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past 5 years; knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation.

"But a much easier marker: doesn't deadlift."

Ji Xiang said...


What a needlessly offensive comment.

You could have made the point more nicely, but you had to be insulting.

I think your quote by Nassim Nicholas Taleb about "pseudo-intellectuals" is actually pretty stupid, but in any case I would not recognise myself in virtually any of the points, except perhaps that I have never gotten drunk with Russians and gone breaking glasses, something I am pretty proud of. If this guy thinks that the difference between a pseudo-intellectual and an intellectual is that one has tenor and one doesn't, then perhaps he is the real snob.

I also think someone who spends this much time and thought crafting insulting replies on someone else's blog has no right to go calling anyone else a "bedroom-blogger". I'd rather be a bedroom blogger than a bedroom commenter on other people's blogs.

Getting to the point: it is a simple fact that those who voted in favour of Brexit are on average less educated, as well as older, then those who voted to remain. There are numerous studies that have shown this. Of course people without a degree aren't necessarily less intelligent, less informed or less sensible than people with one, but I think it can be said that on average (and it's only on average) they are at the very least less informed about international affairs. They are also likely to have lower incomes, and feel more alienated from the political and cultural elite of their country. Of course they have real lives with real concerns, but it is a simple fact that their frustration at their real concerns can be misdirected at the wrong target, especially with some pushing by the media and people like Nigel Farage.

The people's frustrations have long been directed at immigration (of course there may be legitimate reasons to want to limit immigration, but most complaints against immigrants are unfair and derive from a gut feeling of "us vs. them"). And in the run up to the referendum, the EU became the new target of ordinary people's resentment and frustration at "the system". The fact that millions started looking up what the EU is hours after the end of the referendum, and that now many Leave voters are regretting their decision, only reinforces my point.

The debate on whether the EU is a good idea or not is one I will not get into here, but "getting our country back" is a fantasy, and it is often coded language for "kicking out the foreigners". It is a simple fact that most of those who voted Leave, and indeed most of the population as a whole, have very vague ideas about what the EU is, what it does, how it works, and how it influences Britain, let alone how leaving it will affect the economy. And yet, the entire population has been called to decide whether to leave it. That is the problem with referendums.

Meursault said...

On the contrary, it didn't take me long at all to craft that reply, as it was copied and pasted from Nasdim Taleb.

There you go again calling people who disagree with you "stupid".

You really should try some deadlifts.

Bill Chapman said...

Dankon pro via blogo. Your correspondent Richard is wrong. The referendum was a poll about what people think, and it gave a result showing a divided nation - divided in all sorts of way. The referendum was merely advisorty, and, in deciding how to proceed, the British government should take both sides into account. I would prefer to remain firmly inside the EU, but I would be happy with some sort of Associate Member status.

justrecently said...

Jixiang, I'd just ignore Meursault until he's learned some manners. No use to hope, but it's for him to make the necessary efforts.

OK, let's turn to stuff that matters now. :-)

As for the referendum, it's been called "revolution" and what have you. Well, if this is a revolution, it's not a revolution led the people in the street, but by Mr Murdoch & Cie. Personally, I wouldn't trust that kind of revolution.

But then, it depends how big one wants to see the event. I think it's been said before in this thread - this was no binding referendum. The people gave their opinion. If the EU isn't stupid, they should be prepared to negotiate with London before Article 50 is activated, and the British people should look at the negotiated draft.

After that, let them have their final say - bindingly. And then, it would be time for Article 50.

Because democracy does matter. Deep inside, China's "elites" understand that. Every democratically-elected head of state or government, no matter how small his country may be, speaks with more moral authority than China's leaders.

Ji Xiang said...


thanks for the support!

You're right that the referndum wasn't binding, but the problem is that this wasn't clearly explained to the public before the referendum. Still if they did things the way you say, it might not look too bad. I'm pretty sure the public wouldn't vote to leave the EU a second time.

Democracy clearly does matter, and it comes with a whole package. Referendums are just a small part of the package, but they can be a problematic part. At the very least, a 60% majority should be required to change the status quo. These decisions are too important to be decided by 52% of the vote.