The internet has the potential to make our current political process obsolete. A review of “The End of Politics” by British politician Douglas Carswell shows how connectedness provides a significant opportunity to reshape the political process, and in some cases completely undermine government, for the good.
I think I can help you tackle this thought-provoking book. First of all, the title misleads. Enchanting though the idea will sound to many people, this is not about the end of politics. It is, after all, written by a Member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell (Con., Clacton) and he is fascinated by the subject. There’ll always be politics, he is saying, but not as we know it.
Second, you don’t really need to read the first half. It is essentially a passionately expressed set of arguments about why our current political arrangements do not work. It is good stuff, but there is plenty of it in the more independent-minded newspapers most days. The important bit is Part Two, beginning on page 145 and running for a modest 119 pages. It is called “The Birth of iDemocracy”.
Mr Carswell resembles those old barometers in which, in bad weather (Part One), a man with a mackintosh, an umbrella and a scowl comes out of the house. In good weather (Part Two), he pops out wearing a white suit, a straw hat and a broad smile. What makes him happy is the feeling that the digital revolution can restore to the people the power which, in the early days of the universal franchise, they possessed – and much, much more. He believes that the digital revolution has at last harnessed technology to express the “collective brain” of humanity. We develop our collective intelligence by exchanging the properties of our individual ones.
Throughout history, we have been impeded in doing this by physical barriers, such as distance, and by artificial ones, such as priesthoods of bureaucrats and experts. Today, i-this and e-that are cutting out these middlemen. He quotes the internet sage, Clay Shirky: “Here comes everybody”. Mr Carswell directs magnificent scorn at the aides to David Cameron who briefed the media that the Prime Minister now has an iPad app which will allow him, at a stroke of his finger, “to judge the success or failure of ministers with reference to performance-related data”.
The effect of the digital revolution is exactly the opposite of what the aides imagine. Far from now being able to survey everything, always, like God, the Prime Minister – any prime minister – is now in an unprecedentedly weak position in relation to the average citizen: “Digital technology is starting to allow us to choose for ourselves things that until recently Digital Dave and Co decided for us.”
A non-physical business, for instance, can often decide pretty freely where, for the purposes of taxation, it wants to live. Naturally, it will choose benign jurisdictions. Governments can try to ban it from doing so, but they will either fail, or find that they are cutting off their nose to spite their face. The very idea of a “tax base”, on which treasuries depend, wobbles when so much value lies in intellectual property and intellectual property is mobile. So taxes need to be flatter to keep their revenues up. If they are flatter, they will be paid by more people.
Therefore it becomes much harder for government to grow, since most people do not want to pay more.