The Beige Dictatorship

I can’t stand beige politics. Let me explain. Our electoral system is such that people cannot be themselves as politicians, they instead are the politicians that polling and focus groups tell them to be. In a word they are beige.

I have been saying this for a long time. Our politicians have become cerebral, thinking issues through, doing what focus groups think is right rather than what is actually right for the country.

It isn’t a secret that I like gut or visceral politicians, and the blood and guts that results from that.

Blogging is funny, when I start thinking about an issue or a idea often along comes a post somewhere else that helps to cement my thinking. This is the case with the issue of beige politics, and coincidentally it is also the term used. Charlie Stross explains.

Firstly the set up:

Here’s a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what’s happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There’s a hidden failure mode, we’ve landed in it, and we probably won’t be able to vote ourselves out of it.

Representative democratic government is theoretically supposed to deliver certain benefits:

  • Firstly, it legitimizes principled, peaceful opposition within the constitutional framework; we have multiple parties, and the party in power doesn’t simply round up the opposition and have them thrown in a GULAG. They concede that the opposition may disagree with the party in power on precisely how the state must operate, but agree that it should operate: the difference is a civilized argument over details, not a knife-fight with totalitarian enemies.
  • Secondly, it provides for an organized, peaceful succession mechanism. When a governing faction becomes unpopular, it can be voted out of office, and will go peacefully, knowing that eventually their successors will become unpopular in turn, and there’ll be another chance to take a bite of the apple. (Totalitarian governments tend to hang on until people start shooting at them, with a variety results we’ve recently had a refresher course in — Libya, Syria, Egypt, Iran.)

But. But.

What if the channels through which concerned people of goodwill who want to make things better enter the political process and run for election are fundamentally flawed?

I think representative democracy is flawed. 

Our representative systems almost all run on a party system; even pure PR systems like that of Israel rely on a party list. (I could take out Israeli citizenship and run for the Knesset, but I’d be running as “the Charlie Stross Party”, not as myself: if I was a runaway success I’d need to find some extra representatives to tag along on my coat-tails.) Parties are bureaucratic institutions with the usual power dynamic of self-preservation, as per Michels’s iron law of oligarchy: the purpose of the organization is to (a) continue to exist, and (b) to gain and hold power. We can see this in Scotland with the SNP (Scottish National Party) — originally founded with the goal of obtaining independence for Scotland and then disbanding, the disbanding bit is now nowhere to be seen in their constitution.

We see this with political parties under MMP. We voted in MMP and threw out FPP, I didn’t but you know what I mean, precisely because people felt that they had lost control of the political process and it no longer represented them. What we got was just more of the same, but now it is even harder to get rid of dud politicians.The political parties have got more powerful not less. But not all of the political party…witness the troubles that Labour is now facing where the parliamentary wing are ignoring the wishes of the membership.

Per Michels, political parties have an unspoken survival drive. And they act as filters on the pool of available candidates. You can’t easily run for election — especially at national level — unless you get a party’s support, with the activists and election agents and assistance and funding that goes with it. (Or you can, but you then have to build your own machinery.) Existing incumbent representatives have an incentive to weed out potential candidates who are loose cannons and might jeopardize their ability to win re-election and maintain a career. Parties therefore tend to be self-stabilizing.

We are starting to see this develop. Mark my words, in coming years there will be increasing calls for state funding of political parties…that way the party hierarchy can maintain power over the system without having the annoyance of having to appeal to a mass membership.

The emergence of a class of political apparatchik in our democracies is almost inevitable. I was particularly struck by this at the CREATe conference, which was launched by a cookie-cutter junior minister from Westminster: aged 33, worked in politics since leaving university, married to another MP, clearly focused on a political career path. She was a liberal democrat, but from her demeanour, speech, and behaviour there was nothing to distinguish her from a conservative, labour, or other front-rank party MP. The senior minister from Holyrood was a little bit less plasticky, slightly more authentic — he had a Glaswegian accent! And was a member of the SNP! — but he was still one of a kind: a neatly-coiffured representative of the administrative senior management class, who could have passed for a CEO or senior bank manager.

Chris Hipkins, Grant Robertson, Darren Hughes, Jacinda Ardern…and that is just Labour.

Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. They have done so by converging on a common set of policies that do not serve the public interest, but minimize the risk of the parties losing the corporate funding they require in order to achieve re-election. And in so doing, they have broken the “peaceful succession when enough people get pissed off” mechanism that prevents revolutions.

National has this problem too…the hierarchy moves to constantly stamp out anyone who differs in opinion on issues like candidate selection and training. The Board of National is stuck in a morass of mediocrity and as a result are also stuck in patch protection. The time is fast approaching where there will be a sea change and unless parties embrace change then they will simply get rolled aside. Labour are feeling this now, National are about 5 years away from their sea change.

[T]he future isn’t a boot stamping on a human face, forever. It’s a person in a beige business outfit advocating beige policies that nobody wants (but nobody can quite articulate a coherent alternative to) with a false mandate obtained by performing rituals of representative democracy that offer as much actual choice as a Stalinist one-party state. And resistance is futile, because if you succeed in overthrowing the beige dictatorship, you will become that which you opposed.

It isn’t just national level politics, look at the morass of Auckland where a sallow, beige politician is currently running the city.


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  • Pete George

    There’s a simple reason for all of this – we keep leaving it to politicians to give us better democracy. They are mainly interested in giving themselves more power and they use and abuse democracy accordingly. The electoral rules get decided by politicians, Parties find ways of taking advantage of them, for funding, for self promotion, for election – and they have now even hijacked Citizen Initated Referenda process (that was useless for citizens anyway).

    Don’t expect the MMP review and the constitutional review to make much difference.

    And I think there is a simple remedy. People who want more democracy and better democratic processes need to do it themselves, not through the politicians but despite the politicians.

    I have ideas for how this can be done, a two level approach. The first level is a democratically run people’s lobby group, the second level is a means of guaging public opinion on important issues.

    I don’t want to be too specific because I invite other ideas and opinions. Who’s interested in being involved?

  • Pingback: Making democracy work « Your NZ()

  • Andrei

    I see the original post comes from an Englishman, who will be soon enough living under Sharia after the beige brigade have squirmed their last on pales,

    Actually we all know democracy is well and truely broken and soon enough the governed will become ungovernable without tyranny

  • blazer

    expediency is the name of the game.The Hollow Men a good reference point for the political machinations and their primary drivers.Wall St runs american politics…backing both contenders.Ron Paul had the commonsense answers and he was sidelined by MSM.

  • Greatly important post Cam.

    I said similar a little while back here:

    Some of us will continue to repeat this
    message for decades and Team Blue and Team Red and Team Green will do nothing –
    because the public has been infantilised. We’re talking PROSPERITY here, while
    the public wants its egalitarian race to the bottom.

    And this from:

    The only proper Constitution would be one that respects property rights. We
    have gone so far from this ideal that it has become revolutionary, or ‘extreme’
    to propose this. It would be a revolution having such a Constitution. Living
    standards for all [except scum who will not look after themselves] would
    sky-rocket, in comparison to their decades-long stagnation.

    You know what respecting property rights means? Why it is revolutionary? It
    requires the dismantling of the welfare state. And NO POLITICIAN CAN PROPOSE
    THIS because the system of MMP has guaranteed failure built-in.

    Democracy itself is, by design, doomed.

    The only true fix is for enough people in positions of influence –
    businesses, academics – discover laissez-faire capitalism.

    Everyone here will be repeating these same complaints in fifty years’ time
    unless this is done.


    “What revolutionary constitutional property rights are you suggesting

    One example is to abolish the Resource Management Act. It is essentially
    communistic. Nobody owns property when regulations over-rule.

    Taxation is an obvious ongoing theft. As are all government duties on fuel,
    food & drink.

    The reserve bank should go, and banks would set their rates as the market
    prices signal. This works, central planning can not possibly work, and is why
    we have boom and bust cycles.

    The great beast requires a course of slow starvation until it dies.

    The ideal is that government gets itself OUT of economics and concentrates
    on its core legitimate functions.

    Every dollar spent by government is money that could have gone into
    productive use.

    And don’t listen to any politician who says the market doesn’t work. For
    example the housing market and whether, if left alone (laissez-faire), would it
    cure demand/supply issues? A truly free market would, because of the correct
    pricing signals to indicate where capital needs to be ‘allocated.’ By private
    companies, of course.

    • Been there done that – it was called 19th Century Britain and Classic Liberalism. It failed rather spectacularly with harsh booms and busts as well as some rather appalling conditions that stemmed from the initial stages of the industrial revolution.

      As a result the State began to intervene and Social Liberalism came about and lasted with us until Muldoon (maximum state intervention for NZ) then Rogernomics, Thatcherism and Reaganism – the neo liberal agenda came about and failed just recently.

      Now for NZ we have swung back to Social Conservatism – Big State-ism last seen in the Muldoon (Super Minister Joyce?) and we need to kick it back to social liberalism.

      You will get your property rights you want but The Common Good and basic state safety net will be around

      Why? Because even I know (unless your pride gets in the way) would ask the State for a hand if you really did hit tits arse rock bottom

    • Polish Pride

      spoken like a typical liberal blinded buy your very own liberal policies that do nothing more than ensure you remain a slave to the system till the day you die. In short no imagination whatsoever. your version of property rights will not solve the problems it will only over time exacerbate them. There are people in this world that already have all the freedom they want and need. They have trillions and still they want more. I have looked long and hard at liberalism it is very short sighted and completely ignores many things common for all humanity. It speaks of freedom but doesn’t understand true freedom. In fact it is happy to deny access to anyone to many things that make New Zealand, well New Zealand based on ownership. Under liberal policy if someone owns a lake or a park or a mountain they can charge you what ever they like or even deny you access to it. It is not freedom it is the opposite of freedom. Should there be property ownership and rights yes, but they should end at the end of ones home and section. Something that in a truely free and just society everyone would have.

      If you want true freedom have a system that recognizes the common needs of everyone and ensures that they are met – They are after all needs.
      Have a system that is designed to work for the people in it rather than the people having to work for the system.
      Automate roles where ever possible i.e. have the goal of your system be to free as many people as possible from having to work. That is true freedom.
      Have the system aim to have people pursue things that they are passionate about and give them the resources to do so. That is true freedom
      Have the system geared towards people spending time with the people that are important to them.
      The resources are there for all of this. Make them available for everyone That is true freedom for all.
      If your arguement is that the resources aren’t available – think of a television – do you have one? does your neighbour? do your friends? Now think of everyone in this country having one. Now think of all the televsions in stores where you live in all the different shops waiting to be sold. Now think of all The televisions in New Zealand waiting to be sold. Now around the world waiting to be sold. Now do the same with cars. Now do the same with every single product you can think of. Now when your done with that add in the effects of the profit motive and planned obsolescence.
      If you want true freedom you need to start looking somewhere else other than liberalism.