Social apathy seems to have stricken developed countries. I don’t see it fit for me to criticise what others should be interested in, but if there’s something that, as a society, we should all collectively be interested in, it’s how our society is governed. This is a subject that ought to appeal to all people – from the selfless who care for those around them, to the selfish who care for themselves. From the two opposite ends of the spectrum, both Russell and Rand were interested in government, and so should all of us be. If we aren’t, we actively hand the reins to those who are, who will always use that power for the securement of their own interests – including preventing us from taking those reins back.
A lot of people feel disenfranchised with politics. People tend to feel that they are powerless, and so it feels natural to become disinterested in a system that is disinterested in them. People don’t trust politicians to do what they say, and after disappointment after disappointment, they give up. Well, to those people who feel politics isn’t interested in them: It certainly is. If those in power perceive an apathetic or tame public, they will see opportunity to take advantage of them. This is obvious; indeed, communism suffered directly from it.1
The current Conservative government in the UK is a good example. Because of the recession, measures of austerity have been put in place to reduce government spending and save money. These measures include cuts to people reliant on benefits,2 who feel that politics is an exercise in blowing into the wind, because it always takes advantage of them. Simultaneously, tax increases to the rich are continually rejected.3
The people affected by these cuts are far more numerous than those whom they benefit, but democracy is fragile, and it can be bought by those who wrangle the power and influence to do so. What matters in pseudo-democracies is not numbers – this can be a misdirection used by those in power to support their own legitimacy to hold office – what matters is who benefits from the status quo, and how able they are to defend it from changing.
As Orwell was fond of pointing out, the proletariat are the key. The lowest class in a society is always the most populous, and the highest class the least. Society always tends in this direction because those with wealth and influence naturally stand to gain by other people not having these things, and their wealth and influence provide them with the means to make this so.
Of course, a democracy where numbers don’t matter isn’t a democracy at all. What we need, therefore, if we want a democracy, is to shape the system such that numbers do matter and popular opinion does count. Even if such a system existed, however, it would not be sustainable in a culture of apathy.
Unless everyone is interested in maintaining their stake in the decisions of society, their political power will be commandeered by those who would profit from doing so. These people’s influence would expand, and we would tend back towards the hierarchical model we started with. People’s votes don’t have to be physically stolen in order to be commandeered; by being disinterested in the facts, people leave themselves open to be swayed by poor arguments given by people with vested interests. This is exactly what is happening in societies today, notably in Britain and America.4
A crude union between the rich and poor results in the world’s popular conservative parties. The rich are naturally conservative because they benefit from the status quo – it’s made them rich and influential. The poor, on the other hand, do not benefit from the status quo, and so at first glance one wonders why they would support it. The conservatives need votes to maintain their power, and being that the hierarchy of power is skewed such that only a few have power, in order to secure it they must also win the votes of others who don’t. Thus enters the peculiar arrangement between rich and poor: The rich benefit fiscally, and the poor (believe that they) benefit by seeing their values espoused by government. The poor are usually not well-educated (and it would not be in the interest of the powerful to educate them), and so are likely to hold conservative values, which are definitionally inherited from the past and therefore not derived through independent thought. Education broadens the mind, and progressive politics necessarily requires broad mindedness. In this way, the conservative parties must often act contrary to science and wisdom because they already have two higher priorities: 1., the maintenance of the status quo, and 2., the pandering to the values of the poor, who keep them in power.
The mechanism by which the conservatives maintain their power and influence is thusly the financial subjugation and limited access to education of the poor. The conservatives’ very existence relies on social apathy and the willingness of large numbers of people to remain ill-educated on the ways in which social policy can be improved by the findings of science and reason. With the US Republican party, contradiction of science is particularly apparent. The list of policies that actively rely on the absence of critical thinking is enormous: climate change denial, capital punishment, the efficacy of prison sentences as deterrents, poor investment in science, large investment in the defence budget, opposition to abortion and stem-cell research, prohibition of drugs, proliferation of guns, etc., etc.5
When one wishes to explain why conservatives continue to support these policies, one only needs to look as far as asking whom the adoption of these policies will benefit. The science is already clear in that they do not benefit the public at large. These policies do, however, either benefit the rich, pander to the values of the poor, or both. We can see, then, that social apathy is a cyclical process: the powerful promote it and the people drift into it, with no mechanism offered by which to extricate themselves.6 The people then vote for the powerful, who will continue to promote it.
The secondary factor contributing to social apathy that I made reference to earlier is a distrust of politicians. Such a circumstance arises when the system incentivises politicians towards behaviours not consistent with the public interest. In the current system, a politician is incentivised not to promote what he thinks is better for society, but rather to promote what he thinks will garner him with the most votes, in order that when he gets into power, he can put into effect what he thinks is better for society, which, due to natural levels of egocentrism, is often synonymous with what he thinks is best for himself.
The behaviour of politicians is exactly what we would expect of any person put in that situation, and thus it is the system that is at fault and not politicians individually. We can’t expect individual virtue to be the prime factor in determining whether our political system works or not – the system must be structured in such a way as to bring this quality out by default. This system can be brought into place without any particular overhauls (though some would be beneficial7), simply by reducing levels of social apathy. If voters are educated about policies, then their opinions will naturally fall more in-line with their political representatives, whom they vote for. This by itself would reduce the discrepancy between politicians’ claims versus their actual conduct.
Secondly, the cycle of social apathy would itself be broken if we could independently nudge ourselves towards that direction. One who is educated understands the value of education; one who is not does not.8 Educated parents thusly raise educated children. Education is self-perpetuating, and so it is much easier to move towards it than against it.
The conservative parties would be unable to continue to introduce policies that take advantage of their voters, who, by virtue of their education, would vigorously oppose such policies. The social hierarchy that exists under conservative governments would have its edges rounded as a direct result of the increased social mobility afforded by the increased levels of education.
If society tended towards a reduction of social apathy, a critical tipping point would be reached where these changes would happen in cascade, as the balance would be immediately shifted from conservatives to the people, who have reached an effective majority. But nudging ourselves this way isn’t easy. It would be positively blocked by the conservatives it poses a threat to. Part of the solution is technology – never before have poor people been able to access the same quality of information as rich people. All that’s required in order to become educated is to want to and to have the discipline for self-directed study. The war that must be fought, then, is on people’s attitudes.
With the Internet, any person can preach the virtue of self-education. There is no monopoly on the sources of information as existed in previous years with the media. The power of social networking has been a distinct achievement in the history of the free dissemination of information and I expect future technologies will make things even easier.
A better-educated populace would enable us to have a freer democracy. Education is a necessary component of democracy. The political punk band NOFX have a great line from their song The Idiots Are Taking Over9 – “Majority rule doesn’t work in a mental institution.” The US is probably the clearest example of a democracy in a wealthy country with poor levels of education, and it’s not pretty.
I’m an optimist – I believe we’re tending towards a more politically-engaged global society anyway. We’re definitely getting more educated, and educated people tend to become interested in things, of which politics is just one. I don’t know how far it will go, but I don’t think it’s impossible that, one day, education will be ‘cool’.
In all such communist societies, once there became no means by which the public could effect governmental change, the people were impotent and those in power duly took advantage of them. ↩
Housing benefits cuts are one such example. The housing charity Shelter explains of the changes made for 2013:
The combined effect of these benefits cuts may mean that many council tenants and housing association tenants will consider trying to move to a smaller home.
In many areas, there won’t be enough spare council or housing association properties of the right size to allow you to move. You could try to arrange a transfer or exchange locally, but may have to consider moving further away.
For example, the Republican party deals almost exclusively in mistruth, because if people knew the truth, they wouldn’t support Republican policies. Truth isn’t always profitable, but lying always is (so long as you’re believed). A recent study found that since the beginning of President Obama’s second term, Republicans have lied three times more often than Democrats. ↩
My favourite of these is the fervent belief in the teachings of Jesus and the simultaneous support of policies directly contrary to those teachings. The most stark of these is perhaps, “Turn the other cheek,” and support for the death penalty. ↩
Indeed, they do not even want to. This lends no support to the idea that we should just leave them to it, however – we should observe that those who do not know they are captive are considered the most comprehensively imprisoned, because even their mind has been captured. So it is in this case, where people should not be led astray, even if they would go willingly. ↩
The UK could get rid of the unelected House of Lords and instigate democratic unicameralism for a start. ↩