What is the problem with contemporary political debate?
There might not be a single, simple answer to this question. It could be a variety of things — some of which might be framed in several different ways — depending on what you think the purpose of political debate is. For my part, I think the problem lurks in the Outrage Economy. People don’t want to feel stupid, so public ideas have to protect the psychic construction of the self as intelligent(/commonsensical), savvy, and entitled to their opinion. So instead of having public debates where people engage with each other, we have public events where one party tries to confirm the prejudices of the audience while the other tries to outrage the audience. Because outrage is profitable, the cycle continues.
People might not agree with me on this, and that’s fine. Or they might agree with me that the Outrage Economy is a problem, but not as great a problem as something else.
This morning, ‘Open Labor’ was formed as a way to improve political discussion:
Yet the Labor Party, for all that it has achieved, has in recent years struggled to find the ideas and ideals needed to inspire Australians. The party’s structures and rules too often serve the interests of those who hold power within them, not the wider communities they purport to represent.
The disengagement of so many Australians from politics is a major problem. Yet simply retreating from the field, abandoning politics to other interests, is not an option. Without a vigorous contest of ideas and strong voice for fairness, Australia will go backwards.
Labor remains the only party that can increase social and economic opportunity, embrace diversity and manage change for the benefit of all. But the ALP needs to confront and overcome its problems if it is rediscover its purpose, regain trust and properly serve the interests of Australians. [Source]
Open Labor identifies a few (perhaps interrelated) problems with modern politics. First, the rigid power structures which suit the needs of a few party elites rather than the general electorate. Second, disengagement from politics on behalf of the electorate. Third, the limited inputs to policy development and formation.
There continue to be interesting conversations about the limits and uses of ‘open’ communities. The ideas originated in the technology sector before moving to software development and research, before spawning the crowd-sourced movement. It is, fundamentally, a process of decentralisation and a rejection of the old authority claims.
The value of ‘open’ communities emerges from being able to find expertise and skills. People often claim that ‘open’ communities don’t have barriers to participation. This isn’t strictly correct — the major barrier is that each individual has some expertise or skill to share with the others. This divides the world into those who are in or out of the ‘open’ community.
Why is this important? Because governing frameworks, standards, and compliance end up being constructed in terms of ease to the experts. ‘Here’s the standard that we’ve all agreed to use, based on what we as experts (functionally defined) believe is in our interest to use.’
Conflict within these groups is resolved through majority rule. If the majority of programmers are making software compatible with certain standards, there’s reduced benefit in fringe groups making the software compatible with other standards instead.
Open Labor seeks to transpose this culture to political discussion. It seeks to decentralise the old authority claims and reduce the barriers to policy development.
So what happens if, for whatever reason, Open Labor attracts a whole lot of people who don’t believe the climate change science? Or who believe in the benefits of regional cooperation frameworks for asylum seekers? Or who want to see less government regulation, lower taxes, and greater market freedoms? Does the group splinter, or does it agree to whatever maximises the input of both viewpoints (i.e. compromise?). What allows people to identify expertise and skill in the way we see in other ‘open’ communities?
The value of ‘open’ communities is not in the model’s ability to challenge the opinions of its participants. If the majority of people can’t win outright, the two positions being advanced are harmonised to reduce conflict.
Open Labor is banking on participants agreeing with each other on the big things, including the nature of the ALP: ‘For more than a century the ALP has represented the hopes of millions of people‘.
Open Labor is more of the same kind of political engagement that we’ve already got. People want an increased number of communication channels through which they can shout, but they don’t want anybody shouting back dissent. Disunity is anathema. Disagreement is death. Dissent must be crushed through marginalisation. Even Caucus can’t have a debate about how to vote at the UN without it leaking to the Press and looking like there’s a fracture within the ALP. It is difficult to see how Open Labor can rise above being an echo chamber for the bellyfeel intuitions of clicktivist progressives.
On the same point, there’s the question of what Open Labor will do for political leadership in Australia. The LNP just proved that you can win elections in Australia by running away from challenging the electorate. It’s current strategy is formed around the belief that voters not hearing anything from their Government is better than hearing something with which voters disagree. Thus all the pandering and secrecy.
The platform Open Labor is trying to use will do more of the same. Would a politician ever challenge the status quo of Open Labor, or is it easier just to pander to it? Will we get diversity within the progressive movement, or will the pressure to echo Open Labor’s consensus be too great? Will it create yet another mechanism for politicians to hijack the spontaneous public mood (‘khvostism’)?
Let’s put it a different way. How far do you think Simone de Beauvoir would have got circulating her ideas if she first had to convince a consensus-privileging open community?
Consensus-privileging is a fancy term for ‘mediocre’. Expect to hear the same old ideas from Open Labor. And the same old political discussion.
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