Thursday, 31 October 2013

Vote/Revolt? *blink cursor*

Time for the classic “this thing that lots of people like and lots of people hate, and that other thing that equally large numbers of people agree and disagree with: THEY’RE BOTH WRONG AND ONLY I KNOW THE RIGHT ANSWER”. Love that one.

Russell Brand wants a revolution, starting with people not voting. Robert Webb wants to change the political system for the better with greater engagement.

Brand pros: I loved his writing, and I’m very open to outside-the-system solutions. I do find it depressing how little your vote achieves. I do find current politics depressing and boring and I am obviously in favour of Marxist utopias.

Brand cons: Slightly insane. Unrealistic. He makes wild claims about revolution’s inevitability, like we haven’t heard those before. Needs more evidence for his views and his proposed solutions (not that he has any of the latter). In fact, I found Brand’s ideas quite unoriginal. It seemed fairly straightforwardly Marxist, which is great, but it’s not bringing anything new to the table.

Webb pros: A solid, sophisticated case for engagement, especially the very true point that the political system isn’t always entirely useless – it has been put to good effect in the past.

Webb cons: Smug and patronising. More realistic, but also not exactly promising lots of great change for the better any time soon. Inane belief that revolution always causes death camps. Praise for Orwell on this point.
Here’s my problem, and it’s cropped up before on this blog:

I love government, or at least the theory of government. It is therefore troubling for me that in practise the government has for the last few decades consisted of a spineless bunch of corporate shills.

Why do I love government? Because it represents people coming together, recognising their common work as one big happy society, our joint engagement in the common effort of improving the world, and the need to regulate this work. It is (theoretically) the best way to harness the human ability to achieve more than the sum of our parts.

What else fulfills this exact definition?


The government should be like Wikipedia, but for everything in life, not just encyclopaedia-writing. How does this relate to Messrs Brand and Webb? It both supports and undermines their views.

Wikipedia abhors voting, much like Brand. For Wikipedians, if you can’t come to a good decision that everyone agrees with through fair and rational discussion, then it’s not a decision worth coming to. Voting is crass – it suggests that some people’s views won’t be taken into account, which in turn would suggest that there is more than one group at stake. This is anathema to Wikipedia’s open-to all credo. Wikipedians see themselves as one big group, collectively working towards one big project – there’s no room for tribalism or parties. If we had this system in government, it would solve once and for all this terrible situation of multiple groups with different interests – corporate shills vs common people vs badgers.

Now, do Wikipedians actually all fit into one big happy group? No. They squabble and rant and insult each other endlessly, because they all have opposing views, just like any group of people. Plenty of Wikipedians are unhappy with decisions which are supposedly based on consensus. But what they don’t do is meet up in little conclaves, form alliances and base their strategy on things like money or staying in power. They never even meet each other.

In my view, this is so much more civilised. What government hasn’t realised yet is the very very important fact: WE HAVE THE INTERNET NOW. For me, this should be the central pillar of our Brand-Webb revolution/non-revolution.

When we invented the internet, the first thing that should have happened is the immediate sale of Parliament’s premises and offices. The palace of Westminster could have made a great party venue or museum. Politicians, like Wikipedians, should never be allowed to meet each other – that way, they’re forced to interact solely through the medium of discussion, rather than alternative media such as dinners and committee rooms and PR consultancies.

The internet also removes much of the need to have money, as it is so cheap, as well as most of the vanity issues, ie politicians seeking office because of the power-rush of sitting in front of a box with a gold mace on it. Admittedly, the mace is very cool, but this is precisely the problem. Politicians should be forced to use anonymous user names, like _cammerz01_ or millybillyband.

Thirdly, another good lesson from Wikipedia is that the people who discuss what should be done about things should not be the same people who make the decision about what’s been decided. On Wikipedia, administrators are the ones who implement decisions, but they do so based on weighing the arguments made by the mob of editors in log debates, paying special attention to how many editors support each side and to what degree. The admin themself should not get involved in the debate; they should merely end the discussion when consensus is reached (ie, when they think it’s been reached), and implement the appropriate action. And obviously, with the end of voting goes the end of whipping. How great would that be?!

So on the one hand, an internet revolution in government would be huge in scope, and would encompass massive changes to the way we’re used to doing things, just like Brand wants. But on the other hand, it’s by no means a crazed free-for-all. It still depends very much on intelligent, reasoned engagement with the system. And a system it would be, with all the glorious bureaucratic trappings. Wikipedia is MAD for bureaucracy. It absolutely loves it. Because it works. Everything still has to run by rules and codes – that’s the whole point of what consensus is trying to achieve. Bureaucracy, in its ideal form, shouldn’t weigh you down; it should make your engagement with others more efficient and productive.

Imagine if 70 million Brits engaged with a practical, work-focused bureaucracy like Wikipedia. A few thousand of those guys managed to produce an absolutely vast and revolutionarily useful resource in just a few years. Think what could be achieved. If we applied that kind of tool for good, we could end world hunger in months.

The take away message: neither voting nor revolution are good things in themselves. Voting is good because it encourages people to get involved and contribute to the work of the greater whole in which they live. Revolution is good because we have a crap system at the moment. But there’s no reason why it has to get messy or involve anything other than software development. Also, revolution shouldn't end government, as some anarcho-marxists seem to think. Government is awesome. Revolution should improve it. And if you can improve it without a revolution, then there’s no need to go to the barricades just for the sake of it.

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