May 10, 2013

Horse 1479 - The Five Principles Which Define a Civilised Society

According to something I read recently, the five principles which define a civilised society are:
1. Freedom of Speech
2. Freedom of Religion
3. Equality Before the Law
4. Universal Franchise
5. Alleviation of Poverty

All of these I think are fair and noble causes. Especially since the ubiquitousness of the internet, the ability to speak freely (even if it is mainly drivel) has increased vastly. People are for the most part free to believe anything they wish, it's just that society in its pluralism doesn't care. Although we might complain about judges, they do their job fairly well.
As for those last two, I think that societies are making great leaps backwards; especially when it comes to the last two (I think that we have the first three pretty well much nailed).

1. Freedom of Speech
There are some places in the world where freedom of speech is an issue but not Australia. There is definitely a narrowing of media interests as old media like newspapers and television loses its effectiveness to spin a profit but the internet now has created a space where all sorts of people can yell into the void.

2. Freedom of Religion
This might sound strange to religious types but I really don't think that we have much of an issue in this country. There are discussions about issues like gay marriage, abortion, religion in schools but these are all different in nature. These are more to do with how society chooses to deal with faith and its practitioners' concerns. We don't see people arrested and thrown into prison for going to churches, mosques and temples, we don't see the confiscation of texts and we don't see meetings shut down in people's homes.
Largely religion is ignored rather than persecuted and that's largely due to society itself becoming more post-literate, more ignorant about most ideas and thoughts anyway and the ideas of religion are offensive anyway because people might have to face up to the fact that they might be held responsible for what they've done by a God/god(s) who've they've otherwise ignored.

3. Equality Before The Law
I've seen lawyers face gaol time due to tax evasion, I've seen both poor people and exceedingly rich people prosecuted because of theft, embezzlement etc. Quite frankly I don't think that the courts deal with people differently because of their position or status in life.

I think that as a society, we do pretty well when it comes to the first three. The last two are a very different story.

4. The Universal Franchise
The franchise put simply is the right to vote and have a say on how the nation is governed. The twentieth century had a lot of instances of various groups fighting very hard for their right to vote but the latter quarter of the last and the opening portion of this century, has seen the value of that vote undermined and eroded.

The first thing to remember is that politicians are simple folk. Like everyone else, they're motivated by rational self-interest. The thing is though that political parties and increasingly politicians themsel, have started to be funded from somewhere other than subscriptions and union dues. Political parties tend to be funded by interested entities like firms in the form of "donations", who wish laws and policies to be made and directed in certain ways; whilst the poor old voter, really only has a say at the ballot box once every few years. In many respects, enfranchisement itself is an irrelevancy because it's a bit like asking voters to decide between chocolate and strawberry ice cream. What's the point if the actual people shaping policy, are not the ones at the ballot box?

Governance itself in an economy where the role of government has been significantly diminished because of privatisation and deregulation, is being passed into private and mostly unelected hands. The people who control the decisions of private firms (who thanks to privatisation, now own many former state owned utilities) are those who own the most numbers of shares. Share ownership itself follows the same rules as wealth condensation and the process is sped up further by people who own shares because they control other people's money.
The increase in superannuation from 9% to 12% sounds like a noble idea on the face of it but it also helps to wrest control of governance from the hands of ordinary people and into those who control the funds. It is fund managers who control where money is invested, it is they who are able to pool vast sums of other peoples' money together and it is they who control board seats; not the people whose money it actually is.

Increasing corporate governance must invariably result in a decrease in the state's governance as an overall percentage in the economy taken as a whole and thus an erosion of the relevance of the franchise.

5. The Alleviation of Poverty
A wise man once said that "the poor will always be with you" but it appears as though some have taken this as an directive to be enforced rather than a statement of fact.
The ancient Greeks described a very distinct aspect of love with the word "agape". Agape referred to that kind of love which was mostly never going to be reciprocated, by people whom you had helped. The word in the King James Version of the bible usually ascribed here was the word "charity" which again at the time described a much broader concept than the modern use of the word, which is mainly limited to charitable not for profit organisations.
Agape usually implies improving the lot of those people who have through circumstance been left out the benefits of society. Things like unemployment benefits, public housing, public schools, state funded universities, the public hospital system etc. would have all been described by the Greeks as agape.
The mere fact that we've seen a gradual fall in public education funding (coupled with incredible increases of government funding to private schools), a rise in university fees, a dereliction of duty by government when it comes to public housing (and the subsidisation of privately owned investment housing), and a progressive defunding of public hospitals, very much proves a decease in agape by government; this is mirrored by
falling real wages except for the top 15% as paid out by firms.

In some respects, we have exported the consequences of a fall in domestic agape overseas. When that factory in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 1000 people, it very much reminded me of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City in 1911. Although we don't see industrial accidents on the same scale as we used to in the west, part of the root cause must be that we simply don't see the same level of manufacturing industry that we used to either.

Margaret Thatcher said of Simon Hughes that "he would rather the poor be poorer if the rich were less rich" but sadly and also thanks to the erosion of the franchise we are beginning to see what some economists are calling the third-worldification of western societies and this is more a case of preferring that the poor be poorer if the rich were more rich.
The ancient Greeks had four words for love but in comparison, they only really had one word for its opposite "ego", or what we might call "selfishness"; and a proliferation of ego certainly does not do anything for the alleviation of poverty but rather, accelerates its spread.

The question I suppose then is just how well are we doing in our supposed level of civilisation? Sure, technologically we're miles more advanced than even ten years ago, but is it truly more 'civil'? More than likely we'd have a passing grade but test scores in the past decade, are probably falling.

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