Sunday 17 January 2021

A Syntocracy

by Thomas Scarborough

Leonardo da Vinci wrote, ‘Realise that everything connects to everything else.’ In recent decades, this has become increasingly important. We have come to see, in fact, that it is vital to humanity’s survival. With this in mind, the chief end of political systems ought to be the healthy inter-relatedness of all things.

Democracy is often said to be the best available political system. It is, to put it too simply, a system of government by the whole (eligible) population. Even in non-democratic states, governments typically give some approval to the idea.

In terms of the healthy inter-relatedness of all things, democracy goes some way to guaranteeing this. In a democracy, one elects those persons to democratic office who are broadly representative of the people—so that, when they assemble, they may (ideally) bring all of society into healthy relation.

We need democracy as a political system, therefore, not merely for the sake of popular sovereignty, or political accountability, or individual rights, or a host of other things which populate descriptions of democracy. We need it first because, properly conceived, democracy is important to the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. If a political system fails to achieve this, then we are all imperilled.

However, when we think on democracy in these terms, it has, at the same time, some serious shortcomings.

While democracy rightly guarantees a broad participation in the national debate, it does not deliberately prioritise broad and healthy relations in society: for instance, between rich and poor, the built and natural environments, or the present and the future. One sees major imbalances in such areas the world over, and these are potentially disastrous to all.

Democracy as a political system has in many places failed to create an egalitarian society, preserve the whole over the parts, prevent environmental crisis, or create social cohesion. All these things, and more, speak of defective arrangements of our world, where the healthy inter-relatedness of all things ought to be the without-which-not. As humanity’s influence on the planet grows, we are no longer able to absorb such mistakes.

Not only this. In a democratic state, people are often prioritised over the healthy inter-relatedness of all things—and so democracy, too, is prone to the weaknesses one typically associates with people: populism, personal loyalties, polarisation, fleeting fears, vested interests, prejudices, and short-sighted thinking, among other things. For good or for bad, democracy is a people-focused enterprise.

Which then is it to be? Is supreme power vested in the people, or is it, so to speak, vested in relations between things?

The goal of democracy must be, not democracy as an end in itself, but the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. While democracy means ‘power to the people’, such power must be vested not merely in the people, but in the arrangement of society. Further, the law code which a democracy produces, which is the complete system of laws, needs to be developed to prioritise the inter-relatedness of all things.

While such an idea has much in common with with democracy, it differs in principle from the democracy that we know. For the sake of a name, we shall call this form of government a ‘syntocracy’—from the Greek and Latin syn, ‘together with’, and the Greek krites, ‘power’—a form of government in which all things are brought together in balanced relation, through the people.

Syntocracy rests, therefore, on relations which are balanced and broad. This simple principle shifts the emphasis of democracy as we now know it, and potentially transforms our political life.

Image credit: VA Network for Democracy and Environmental Rights.


Keith said...

Concerning the point, Thomas, about democracy being ‘a system of government by the whole (eligible) population’:

To my mind, the exposed underbelly of democracy becomes all the more apparent when large cohorts of citizens begin to seethe over feeling disenfranchised. When, that is, they don’t see their lot as integral to ‘the whole’.

The greatest danger to democracy stems, I propose, from a growing number of people seeing themselves as alienated and marginalised across political, economic, cultural, and social fronts: a forbidding sense of being voiceless, powerless, and inconsequential as the nation goes about the business of sorting out its priorities and way ahead.

That’s when fissures start to show. And in turn, that’s when citizens are the most vulnerable to the disinformation, scheming, and specious promises amplified by guileful orators-cum-demagogic populists. I wonder if such outcomes might ever inhibit the ‘inter-relatedness of all things’.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I'll reply to this in three steps.

1. I think it is clear that democracy is both capable of failing and has failed in major areas, dangerously, the world over. We think (for example) of fires in the Amazon, the explotation of African resources, or the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs last year. Many such events were not flashes in the pan, but regular symptioms of democracy as we know it.

2. One need not alienate an electorate through shifting from democracy to syntocracy (the priority of a healthy relatedness of all things). Democracies have already shown their ability to absorb major changes, in such a way that the door was closed to the past, Examaples are the abolition of slavery and child labour, freedom of religion, and fundamental equality laws.

3. A key to such a shift would be political education. People need to know what to anticipate with the process. Living in South Africa, I was surprised by the extent to which the citizenry absorbed changes and challenges during the 'revolution' of 1994, I think because they were well educated as to what to expect and why. This creates political legitimacy.

Martin Cohen said...

I read Thomas' essay as very much a continuation of Plato's debates in the Republic, where he is highly sceptical of democracy, and says it invariably degenerates into er... Trumpism.

The idea Plato offers is that of enlightened leaders - the famous Guardians - in place of the elected ones. We might say however, that the approach could be that of government constrained by a wise constitution - setting out general principles. The idea that government should seek some sort of 'compromise' between factions, which seems to be suggested by the blog towards the end, is not in the same spirit at all. I agree with Plato, I think we should aim higher in our political dreams.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Martin. The thrust of my post is that the focus needs to be different. The focus of democracy is not necessarily the healthy relatedness of all things, or a healthy balance between all things. In fact it often seems to tend in the opposite direction. Enlightened leaders, I think, would not necessarily imply the healthy relatedness of all things, or suitable contact with society for a healthy relatedness to exist in society. Plato's philosopher-kings are described as being monastic. And what is enlightened? Might I suggest Old-Etonians? The philosopher-kings were, however, appointed to safeguard the Polity. In other words, Plato might not have been talking about philosopher-kings at all in a sense. Polity had the priority, which could suggest syntocracy?

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