Earlier this week as I was typically beginning my morning by spending a couple of hours reading the local and international papers online, I read a story which got me thinking about the role of politicians in society. The story was about British parliamentarians in the House of Commons who had gone to a sitting in parliament to vote on an important budgetary vote under the influence of alcohol. The worst thing was that this binge drinking had been footed by the British taxpayer and some of these parliamentarians had been so drunk that they couldn’t even exercise their right to vote on this important issue.
I immediately began to think about our own parliamentarians here in South Africa and some of the scandals they have been involved in over the years and it dawned on me that politicians the world over are just basically the same. Whether it is a democratic system or a closed, authoritarian system it seems that politicians the world over have a tendency to abuse their position within society and to forget the responsibility that they have to account for their actions to the members of society. The questions that arose within my mind were the following: how much value do politicians actually add to society? If we were to do a cost/benefit analysis of politicians and their role in society would the benefits even outweigh the costs? Does society even need politicians in the first place? Is it possible to organize society in such a manner that the political function becomes redundant?
Now these may sound like absurd questions given how the world is structured at the moment with politics and politicians at the centre of society but as Albert Camus so eloquently put it, “the absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” Maybe we need to think of a different way to structure and organize society where there is no need for politicians and the political function because a look around the world seems to show that the contribution of politicians to a society’s well-being is often minimal when compared to the cost to society of the political function. Can we imagine and create a world without politicians in order to run society more efficiently and effectively?
In the words of Simon Bolivar, “all history indicates that gangrenous politicians will not cure themselves with palliatives.” Given this reality maybe we need to rethink some of the assumptions we have inherited and become accustomed to in terms of politics and the role of politicians in society. Can we create a post-politician society that runs efficiently and still delivers all the necessary services that are essential to society without incurring all the costs we currently incur to keep the political function at the centre of society? This may sound like a ludicrous suggestion but a study of history will show that concepts such as democracy, market capitalism, political parties, elections etc weren’t always in existence and only came into being at a certain point in history having being introduced by certain individuals or particular groups of people. As the French Philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it, “how many things we held yesterday as articles of faith which today we tell as fables.” Just because the current paradigm allows for politicians to play a central role in the organisation of society does not mean that this cannot change and that there is no better way to do things than what we are currently seeing.
How much value do politicians actually add to society? What contribution do they make which gives them so much power and makes them irreplaceable? The main problem with the current paradigm is that it purports to represent “people power” and yet if you look the world over, whatever political system is in place, you see” people of power” (politicians) being the main point of reference instead of the “power of the people” being the main reference point. This is a curious state of affairs as it is the people who pay the politicians through their taxes and yet the politicians have more power than those whom they work for. With politicians in charge is the taxpayer getting real value for money in terms of services rendered and quality of work or could there be a better way which would give us more value for money without relying on politicians? Now these are all question that I believe we need to ask ourselves as Africans if we are going to progress in the twenty first century because a glance at our post-independence history will reveal that it is African political elites who have destroyed Africa and kept her from fulfilling her immense potential. The words of Kwame Nkrumah, “seek ye first the political kingdom and all other things will be added to you, “ have proven to be a false prophecy as far as Africa is concerned. If anything it is the pursuit of the political kingdom as a means to attain “all other things” that has led to Africa being plundered by political elites for the purpose of personal gain. For too long we have looked to politicians to solve our problems and to direct society when for all intents and purposes they have been the bottleneck that has kept us from developing. We have embraced this slave mentality for too long. In the words of the American poet Ezra Pound, “a slave is one who waits for someone to come and free him.” We have waited too long and trusted too much in political messiahs when the real truth is that they are a large part of the current problem. As stated earlier this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Africa alone but one which can be seen the world over.
Can we free ourselves and come up with a new paradigm for the twenty first century, a paradigm that takes away the role of politicians? Can we as Africans take the lead in this particular conversation and be the pioneers of this new form of societal organisation? We need to ask these questions and challenge the status quo if we are going to lead the world in this century. In the words of American leadership guru John Maxwell, “the willingness to ask questions coupled with the discipline to seek out answers separates leaders from followers. Influencers question assumptions, inquire about the environment around them and probe into the future. They have an insatiable appetite to learn and they convert their knowledge to action at light speed.” Can we as Africans be the leaders, the influencers in this regard by bequeathing to the world a new way of doing things not reliant on politics and politicians but geared towards returning real power to the people and wrestling it away from parasitic political elites? As Walt Whitman, the American poet said, “A great city (nation) is that which has the greatest men and women.” In other words a great nation is built on great individual citizens, not necessarily great politicians and political leaders.
May we not continue to be like the people described by Robert Tressell in that classic novel of his, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, “it seemed that the majority had become so convinced of their own intellectual inferiority that they did not dare to rely on their own intelligence to guide them, preferring instead to resign the management of their affairs unreservedly into the hands of those who battered upon and robbed them…… they did not know the causes of their poverty, they did not want to know, they did not want to hear. All they desired was to be left alone so that they might continue to worship and follow those who took advantage of their simplicity and robbed them of the fruits of their toil, their old leaders, the fools or scoundrels who fed them with words, who had lead them into the desolation where they now seemed to be content to grind out treasure for their masters. It was as if a flock of foolish sheep placed themselves under the protection of a pack of ravenous wolves.”
It was strange to me that ordinary people looked towards governments and politicians to take them out of the mess that was the recent global economic crisis when the truth was that the crisis had been caused by the collusion between political and business elites in the first place. Too often we are just “a flock of sheep that has chosen to place itself under the protection of a pack of ravenous wolves (politicians).
We disempower ourselves by looking to politicians to come up with the solutions to most of our problems in society and they in turn exploit our naivety to promote their own personal gain. We become lazy as citizens because we leave everything in the hands of the politicians. This is a fatal mistake as politicians the world over have proven to be untrustworthy and unreliable. In South Africa everyone in society seems to look towards politicians to solve all our problems and this has crippled us as a nation. It has bred a lazy, apathetic, disempowered populace which seems incapable of doing anything for itself unless the politicians initiate and lead. This has allowed the politicians to run amok and to enrich themselves under the guise of serving the interests of the citizenry and we have no one to blame but ourselves for this state of affairs. We have given politicians the leadership role in society without questioning their effectiveness and trying to come up with a better system.
In asking all these questions and proposing that we start looking at creating a society that does not need politicians I am not in any way calling for anarchism and I am aware that I have not proposed any solutions, just posed certain questions. My aim in doing this is to do what was proposed my Michel Foucault, “the work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others, it is through the analyses he does, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as a citizen to play.)” Can we re-examine and re-evaluate the role of politicians in society? Can we come up with a different system that does away with or minimizes the role of politics and politicians in society? Can we dare to stretch our thinking, to break out of our paradigm to see if we can come up with something better and more efficient? Can we imagine a world without politicians? Can we create a world without politicians with greater efficiency, benefit and effectiveness and a lower cost to society ?