The world’s a bloody mess.
And it’s all democracy’s fault, isn’t it?
This idea that democracy has failed us, that it’s broken, gains traction.
Sure, democracy is being challenged. Just in the last month Vladimir Putin banned virtual private networks used by democracy activists to evade censorship, Venezuela’s constituent assembly poll was boycotted by more than half the population, Poland’s president invoked his veto power to stop the proposed removal of judicial independence whilst American policy is invented on the fly via Twitter and Australia’s High Court is ruling on the citizenship status of Australian politicians to hold their seats. But some of these are examples of democracy at work, not examples of its sustaining injury.
But we love a crisis. We struggle to activate ourselves unless there is one.
Nevertheless, there is no question democracy is under the pump, that it needs to evolve constitutionally and politically to meet the demands of social change. But democracy is wholly dependent on human agency which means that it’s default setting is change.
Where it has suffered the most damage is in its transformation from political system to brand. This shift has been facilitated by the neo-liberal mantra that reduces any human interaction to a financial transaction. The citizen is now a ‘shareholder’, ‘a consumer’. And democracy is a time-wasting activity predicated on its four pillars – equity, freedom, representation and justice – very annoying principles that get in the way of making loads of money.
A bigger problem is that the commodification of democracy corrupts its originating principles. The export of Democracy – led by America and supported by many Western democracies – has been the pretext for too many military conflicts for anyone to see it as anything other than imperialism. This corporate attitude to democracy has rendered untold blowback on the US domestic front in the Presidency of Donald Trump. And this is where democracy’s problems have amplified. Because the blowback is mediated in the form of noise, persuasive, seductive, mesmerising noise that disables our capacity for hearing and seeing clearly.
Trump’s agency is contingent on his reshaping the American Presidency as a quadrennial long-form entertainment – a sequel to his election campaign – in which sustaining noise is the secret of success. From bombs to tweets, shouts to threats, The Apprentice President is The Noise-Machine of the Free World. Trump Time is measured in TWEETS. Trump Space is measured in REAL ESTATE. Trump Place is measured in RACE. Trump Sound is measured in DECIBELS. Trump is the singing contestant blasting his audience-voters with nazissistic songs of making America GREAT! GREAT! GREAT! EVERYTHING IS IN CAPITAL LETTERS in case we can’t hear what he’s writing.
The line that once distinguished the product and the process of a reality TV show is now blurred by febrile white noise that demands attention for its alchemy of aesthetic and affective qualities. Hypnotically irresistible for its triumphalism of base human behaviour, The Apprentice President is an off-the-charts ratings success, a kaleidoscopic cacophony of vacuity. His fellow-contestants have names like Orban, Le Pen and Wilders. And while the sound vectors of civil society in Australia are less compromised, Treasurer Scott Morrison admitted at last month’s meeting of the Federal Liberal Party Council that, ‘many Australians are turning down the volume on Canberra’s noise’.
Can we allow our minds to be changed when they are already made up?
So, what if we were to approach the democracy project in a more considered way, a quieter way. What if we were to understand what Scott Morrison is implying, that much of what we are dealing with is just noise obscuring signals. If we accept that, then we probably need to learn how to listen in a very different way, to understand that attention to tone and frequency is needed to hear the signal through the noise. We probably need to work out how to adjust our ears to tune into opinions that we don’t agree with in a way that’s different to how we receive opinions we do agree with because they’re operating on different frequencies. We then need to refine the processing of that information, so as to respond in a way that takes the discussion forward and not backwards. That’s the ambition of Practising Democracy, the second edition of the cultural provocation 2970° The Boiling Point.
Indigenous leader Kyle Slabb is delivering the opening keynote. He reckons having knowledge is one thing, retaining it requires practise. For me, it’s the same for democracy. And in both instances the idea of maintenance is implicit. By practising democracy, we retain and maintain it. That maintenance is crucial for its survival and its efficacy. But how much practice is enough? For many of us, voting at local, state and federal elections constitutes the extent of the exercise of our democratic right. We vote for people whom we entrust to retain and maintain the principles of democracy. That may have worked a generation ago but these days professional politicians are more tuned to the maintenance of power than the maintenance of democracy. Representation of the views of the citizenry has been displaced by the ambition of party politics. This is a real, unproductive dissonance that characterises the current disconnect between mainstream political culture and civil society. The marriage-equality debate is a glaring example. Kyle will propose the idea that First Nations culture provides a unique template for developing democracy that is connected, progressive and inclusive.
Chatbots, Westworld, ‘killer robots’ and the automation of the workforce are recurring themes around the agency of artificial intelligence in a future society. Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of the world’s top 100 creative geniuses, will talk to a future in which interactive robots play a crucial role in society, and the prospects for democracy if artificial intelligence develops a consciousness.
Jamila Rizvi writes a weekly column for News Limited about politics and gender and has just released her first book Not Just Lucky, which has proven to be a career manifesto for millennial women. She is also a former political adviser to the Rudd and Gillard Governments so she’s well-credentialed to talk to the role that politics and media can play in developing a progressive democracy through a feminist prism.
The closing keynote is from Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-Chief of Wikileaks and one of the world’s most controversial figures. He recently marked his fifth anniversary of asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London from where he will talk via video link about the future of democracy in the digital world. Julian will address the way in which the struggle over power and perception are being shaped by events in which he has been a major activist and protagonist.
These four speakers occupy vastly different spaces in the constellation of knowledge production and public opinion. They require us to listen in very different ways because they operate on very different frequencies and employ very different tones. From Kyle who demands the listener surrender to Time to really understand what he’s saying, to Julian who has been the subject of noise-creation as a tactic to dull his signal and who has turned the tactic back on the forces who wish to disable his agency.
Working out how to listen, process and respond to such provocations constitutes the fundamental skills of democratic practice. Working out how to shift from one discursive space to another in which our emotions, intelligence and biases are heightened is the key to its survival. Can we allow our minds to be changed when they are already made up? Can we agree to disagree and grant permission to change our minds when new information comes to light? Can we see the value of conflict in consensus?
The basic tasks for 2970° participants are provoking, listening, processing and responding, skills we need to practise for democracy to survive and thrive. Experience has told me that if these tasks operate in an environment of constructive criticism, a desire to improve the quality of language, the application of emotional intelligence and an agreement to respectfully disagree then the strength of these interactions is sustaining, inspiring, full of meaning and focussed on making a better future for the many and not just the few.
David Pledger is the Curator of 2970° The Boiling Point Practising Democracy which takes place at The Arts Centre Gold Coast from September 7-9