Why is it that politicians never do what we want them to do? Why is it that they don’t behave the way we would if we were in their shoes? Why do they so infallibly do the wrong thing?
Good questions. Looking at the history books it is easy to see records of politicians who have persistently made mistakes which a three-year-old child would gape at. Of course there are politicians who have done some smart things, but at the same time, very often these smart things turned out not to be so good in the long term, or else, turned out to be less important than other things which said politicians ought to have done, but didn’t.
One easy assumption is that politicians are a bunch of crooks. Fair enough. Does that mean that only crooks ever become politicians? Or does the system which generates politicians automatically turn them into crooks? Why should the system prefer crooks, anyway? Maybe there is something wrong with this assumption, even though it is a good rule of thumb.
Another easy assumption is that the problem is one of democracy. This is a very common argument, especially coming from people, like white South Africans and their friends in other race groups, who are not specially fond of democracy. The assumption is that under democracy politicians are in thrall to the voters, who are fools. Therefore, undemocratic systems should be, thanks to their independence from the voters, much better for everybody.
This is true, at least of General Park’s dictatorship in South Korea (the phrase “good in parts” does spring to mind), although General Lon’s dictatorship in Cambodia, or even General Roh’s dictatorship in South Korea, suggest otherwise. Then there was the stupendous brilliance of the Argentinean military junta, who killed about 20 000 people in order to get rid of about 100 Monteneros, shattered the national economy and then capped their brilliance by committing suicide through invading the Falklands. Hmmm. Maybe democracy is not the source of the problem. (Mussolini is also an interesting case of a person whose incompetence was unfettered by his dictatorship.)
Then, ah, what is it?
Perhaps one needs to step back and consider how a political system works. It is relatively easy to look at a situation and say that a particular thing needs to be done, and lots and lots of people do just that. Far fewer people ask whether that particular thing can be done, or who’s going to do it or pay for it, and what will happen if it is done. This helps to explain why someone who is not responsible for doing something, can more easily declare what ought to be done than the person who is responsible, and who therefore has to ask those questions before taking action. It is easy to be right and moral when you have no restraints on you.
However, there are more restraints than the restraints of practicality. Unfortunately, there are also the restraints which arise from attaining power. The more power, often, the more dependency on those who provide the power. Therefore powerful people often plead helplessness. Sometimes, it would appear, this helplessness is assumed in order to provide an excuse for not taking action which (for whatever reason) the powerful person does not wish to take. However, this is not always the case.
Consider, for instance, Lenin. Lenin knew exactly what had to be done; seize power, fling out the bourgeoisie and thus win over the support of the proletariat who were invincible, socialize industry, and then socialize agriculture, and then communize what had been socialized, and then it would be possible to shut up shop. The Bolshevik Party boasted that it was the only party in the Russian Duma fully capable of taking power, because it knew what had to be done and how to do it.
Lenin, as some cynic (George Orwell, probably) remarked, was not trying to set up a conventional state; he wanted a Republic of the Saints, like Oliver Cromwell’s, which (that same cynic noted) was “a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials”. The only problem with Lenin’s plan was that it didn’t work. Granted, Trotsky’s Red Army was able to crush the Whites almost effortlessly — the only real obstacle to doing this being the fact that the USSR was such an enormous place, and the Whites were so scattered, that it entailed having to divide forces which Trotsky wanted to concentrate. There was no shortage of bravery among the Reds.
But bravery proved not to be enough. Lenin’s War Communism, which entailed requisitioning food and instituting forced labour, turned out to make the new Communist Party incredibly unpopular. Worse still, it didn’t work — with the Red Army busy chasing Deniken and Kolchak and trying to take Warsaw and Tbilisi and Irkutsk, there just wasn’t enough force to make the peasants hand over the food supplies they were hiding against better days, and the proletariat, quoting Lenin and Trotsky and all the other Bolsheviks with deadly effect, were out in the street complaining about Bonapartists and asking if starvation wages were what they had been fighting for, so Trotsky had to dash off to Kronstadt to crush a potentially dangerous revolt by people who, today, we should probably call Trotskyites.
Eventually, fired at from all sides, poor old Lenin had to abandon War Communism and go over to the New Economic Policy, allowing private enterprise and even seeking foreign investment (read “State Capitalism in the Transition to Socialism” if you are still under the impression that Lenin was ideologically sound). This peeved Trotsky and Stalin, the former because it wasn’t what the Marxist doctors had ordered, the latter because it gave away state power which Stalin had a shrewd idea that he could do something with. Eventually Lenin had a stroke and everything went to hell in a handbasket. And this in spite of the USSR possessing arguably the most clear-sighted and certainly the most totalitarian government in the world at the time.
What was going on was that certain interests proved more powerful than ideological concerns or central state authority. These interests were, broadly speaking, private interests — greed, self-interest and so on. However, these private interests found powerful protectors within the Politburo, people who wanted to be seen as the saviours of the Soviet Union and didn’t mind tearing up their copies of Das Kapital to do so — Bukharin, for instance.
Now, if this was happening in the revolutionary USSR, isn’t it likely that this happens on a wider and even more damaging scale in other places?
If you have risen to a position of authority, you did not do that purely because you were good-looking, a breathtaking after-dinner speaker and a terrific dancer. You did that because you had people who had reasons to support you. Now, it is possible that those people supported you out of pure altruism — they gave up their own authority to you. in recognition of what a great person you were and how much righter you were than they. It is possible, but not very likely, is it?
No, those people feel that they did you favours, and now you owe them favours. Of course they are happy to see you in a good position! Of course they support the Party and its values and beliefs, whatever those might be. But they want jobs — for themselves, for their friends, for their allies. They want some pork out of that barrel. Or they just want some part of your programme implemented with a little more enthusiasm than some other part.
The trouble is, not all those people want the same thing. Different people from different regions desire different chunks of pork. Some prefer beef, or mutton, or texturised vegetable protein. Different people with different agendas want their agendas pushed. If they don’t get their agendas, some people will fight harder than others, and some people are better organised, and some people in some categories have more intrinsic power than others. But then, sometimes these people get together. Very often they do, in fact, and then you have to please some people in great galumphing groups.
But you can’t please everybody. In a sense, you can’t please anybody, because everybody demands the impossible. What people want, politically, is basically everything. There are no superegoes in politics, unless you count the South African Treasury. It’s all id, all babies demanding unconditional access to the milk-teat, more bigger snacks now!
Does this remind you of anything? Yes — the Mafia. There’s the Godfather, judiciously deciding who will gain and who will lose from his actions. Do the protection racketeers on the waterfront get the right to demand more money, or do they have to curb their activities because they could hurt the stevedore union which pays bigger kickbacks? What do we do with people who don’t show proper respect, who won’t do as they’re told — throw a scare into them, break their fingers, or kill them, and if we kill them, do we do it in public or secretly? What does the family think? What do the cousins think? What do the other families think? Oh, and incidentally, how much do we have to pay the cops to leave us alone, and who should we allow the cops to catch so that they can pretend to be effectively fighting crime? Politics works just like that. As in grand politics, so in the Mafia, the culture of deference and restrained violence sometimes breaks down, especially when some jerk from the sticks accidentally gets made capo di tutti capa and starts throwing his weight around (think Dubya, or Dion O’Banion). It’s no wonder that Noam Chomsky has compared George Bush and Bill Clinton’s foreign policy (especially in the Middle East) with organised crime. In a sense there is no difference.
Well, there can be a difference. But then, the Mafia doesn’t have to be irredeemably destructive either. It wouldn’t have survived if everybody hated what it did. Politics functions as a way of balancing out power according to a system of supply and demand. You can’t just buy a politician — you can bribe a politician, but politicians won’t stay bribed if it isn’t in their interest to stay bribed. Instead you are best advised to both offer money, respect and power — and to threaten the loss of respect and power, which is why controlling the press is as important as controlling votes. (The least wise move which the right wing in South Africa ever made was to turn the press completely against Mbeki early in his term of office; after that, he had nothing to lose in that regard, and since the right wing had no votes and weren’t prepared to offer him money, they spent the next six years in the political wilderness until they were able to install Zuma, who was much easier to influence, control and bribe.)
Many people don’t like this. Their political theories are cut and dried and they’d like their politics just like that. They feel that it’s demeaning to play this game, because they already know that they are right and they don’t see any need to compromise with those who are wrong, and therefore doomed to hell, preferably even before they die. Therefore, they will not compromise (except with people who pretend not to be politicians, such as journalists and businesspeople). Almost by definition, the people who refuse to compromise at all are politically impotent. They represent a wonderful example, always supported by journalists and businesspeople, because the more people who refuse to compromise at all, the weaker the political system is.
Of course, compromise is potentially fatal because once you start you might never stop. But that’s another story. At its best, making politics work is all about working out how to get a coalition of interests together which supports most of what you want, and is stronger than those who want something else. It’s about organisation, bribery, patronage, deference, diplomacy and bullying and all that goes in between. It’s a fine place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.