Monday 11 May 2009

Review: Not Fit to Govern

Cairns journalist and media specialist, David Anthony, reviews Steve Davis' new book, Not Fit to Govern: Essays on Liberal Democracy.

His last book, Rise Like Lions, showed our economic development has been nurtured by a unique social arrangement - the Australian System - that has the potential to be a model for the global economy. The Sydney Morning Herald says Davis writes with 'courage, compassion and little regard for fallout.'

How liberal and democratic is our liberal democracy?

From the outset in his introduction to this affordable and digestible volume, Steve Davis lays it on the line.

“Representative democracy has not just outlived its usefulness, but has become a danger to the survival of humanity itself,” Davis challenges the reader in his provocative new book, Not Fit to Govern.

Ensconced in Bowen’s northern rural fringes, Davis is one of Australia’s more thoughtful, well-read and articulate political commentators of modern times.

His first book, Rise Like Lions: The Hijacking of Australian History, critiqued the revisionism required for economic fundamentalism to prevail, the “religion” – described by Kevin Rudd as neo-liberalism – that has created the international crisis that is now destroying thousands of Australian jobs.

In the collected essays of Not Fit to Govern, Davis rounds on the political system that gave succour to this virulent strain of laissez-faire and is relying on a form of neo-socialism to survive.
It is important to note that Davis is not writing with the benefit of hindsight.

Though he has added postscripts and made minor revisions, these essays all appeared in the Canberra political magazine, Voice, over the past 10 or so years.

What we can see in hindsight with these essays between two covers is that they chart the gradual decay of liberal democracy culminating in the global economic crisis.

From the Norman conquests to Proudhon’s philosophy on property to the modern-day counterculture, Davis draws from history, culture and political literature to exam their influences on our present-day political and economic structures.

As American Marxist intellectual and writer, John Howard Lawson, once wrote: “Man cannot fully master his present without reconquering his own history, repossessing the hidden heritage of the past.”

Davis’s knowledge of the past helps him to see far into the future and, like others of his intellectual stature, was able to predict the collapse of neo-liberalism.

In fact, Davis was one of the first political philosophers to question Francis Fukuyama’s ringing endorsement of neo-liberalism.

In one of his earliest essays, he wrote: “The conclusion Fukuyama drew from ‘universal theory’ was that today’s liberal democracies represent the pinnacle of human social achievement and that the present dominance of liberalism is evidence that we are witnessing the last days of social evolution.”

Hence the arrogant title of Fukyama’s famous, now infamous, work, The End of History and The Last Man.

At the height of Bush and Howard’s right-wing mania, even Fukyama drew back from his position and questioned his own conclusions. Davis isn’t just a philosopher, he is a prophet.

Questioning representative democracy itself, the foundation of Australian democracy, Davis asks us to question our political system.

On the surface, we are a democracy, one of the best in the world. But are we as good as we think we are? The majority of Australians want us out of Afghanistan. Their voices are not being heard. A troop surge has been announced against the wishes of the majority of Australians and Americans.

In a particularly provocative essay, A Brief Encounter with Liberty, Davis is relentless. He lists common critiques of the former Soviet Union and asks us if it is so different in Australia today. For example, we condemned the Soviets for jailing dissidents. Yet the Howard Government supported the detention without charge of an Australian in a gulag on Guantanamo Bay.

We condemned the Soviets for repressing independent trade unions, but our governments have gradually neutralised these “significant vehicles for popular dissent”.

We condemned the one-party state. Yet American presidential candidates from smaller parties are excluded from debate and, in Australia, smaller parties are not recognised as official parties and are not recognised on ballot papers.

Criticism of media control in the old Soviet Union is laughable and hypocritical.

“The steady move by governments in general to assume centralised control of all aspects of social life, coupled with the steady erosion of freedoms, will lead, if unchecked, to a totalitarian world,” Davis warns.

One is reminded here of Melbourne lawyer Ted Hill’s observation in his 1977 political tract, The Great Cause of Australian Independence, that “the parliamentary election only confirms multinational, monopoly capitalist ownership of the means of production and ownership of the coercive state apparatus”.

Davis offers an alternative – a structure that is “decentralised, regional and local in its operations, and therefore far more likely to be immune to those outside interests that might try to commandeer it. In short, a structure owned and operated by its constituents.”

This is not especially radical stuff. Jim Cairns and Mark Latham saw the hope of our democracy resting in the empowerment families and communities.

Whether or not you agree with Steve Davis, his cases are informed and well-argued and deserve to be debated more broadly. What a shame he wasn’t asked to participate in the 20/20 Ideas Summit.
Not Fit to Govern: Essays on Liberal Democracy
by Steve Davis
Publisher: Ginninderra Press, 2009
Price: $18 (softcover)
ISBN 978 1 74027 541 5

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KitchenSlut said...

What a dismally blinkered pessimistic obsessively ideological position.

Great Stuff!

David Anthony said...

Steve Davis's provocative opinions in "Not Fit to Govern" encourage debate and comment. I enjoy a good argument with a book I don't agree with.
I look forward to listening to opinions of sensible conservative or right-wing commentators rather than the illogical ravings of Piers Ackerman or Andrew Bolt.
I'm not that blinkered I can't learn from them whether I agree with them or not.
I recently bought the DVD of the classic American film, "The Birth of a Nation" that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan in the 19th century. It is a dangerously racist film and was highly objectionable even at the time it was made in 1915. I had seen a condensed version of this three-hour-plus film 30 years ago and knew what to expect.
But it is brilliantly breathtaking visual storytelling and the three hours pass very quickly.
I found myself yelling angrily at my television screen and flinging the DVD case across the room (well, OK, I had a couple of beers). I knew much of the Reconstruction scenes featuring black-dominating legislatures and heroic Klansman to be illogical fabrictions of director D.W. Griffith and the original novelist Rev. Thomas Dixon.
Afterwards, I felt like I had done half-a-round with Muhammad Ali.
I used to advocate a public burning of all prints of this film. Today I think it should be compulsory viewing, not only for would-be filmmakers, but for people seeking insights into sensibilities that existed (and still exist) in America

Syd Walker said...


I enjoyed your review and introduction to Steve Davis, whose work I hadn't come across before. He appears to hold many concerns I share.

I also enjoyed the video linked to by Kitchenslut. I hadn't encountered Alex Tabarrok before, either.

I thought the two views make a very interesting contrast. I think they potentially complement each other, but in the glimpses I've just had, they barely intersect.

I tend to agree with Tabarrok that globaliation is a more or less irrestible force - and the 'solution' of heading the other way towards a more decentalized world and economy is likely. Nor is it necessarily desirable. In that sense, I think Steve Davis's apparent recipe for a better future is improbable at best.

However, i do think Davis is spot on in his scepticism about western parliamentary democracies and our illusion of a 'free' mass media.

Tabarrok doesn't mention the world's severe ecological problems in the video. I presume he deals with that crucial topic elsewhere? If not, his rosy vision of the future is based on partial understanding of reality. Ecologically unsustainable economic growth cannot be continued indefinitiely. It doesn't matter how rich we count ourselves in dollar terms if we wreck the biosphere - we can't buy another one.

The integrated market model must therefore be modified so there's smarter, smaller loops between production , consumption and the re-use of resources. Trade for the sake of moving things around is ecologically dangerous.

We therefore need, IMO, a mix of global and sub-global solutions. More regionalisation must have a very large role to play in the future - but regionalisation that's integrated into a global whole.

We must also get a handle on plutocrats, the misnamed 'intelligence services' and the military industrial complex. These are relatively new and enormously powerful forces, which have the potential to wreck any chance of a better future for all - and don't necessarily seek that outcome.