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Failing forward

Published: 
Sunday, July 22, 2018

Mariano Rajoy’s parting as Prime Minister of Spain is another bead in a chaplet of political crisis in Europe, further unsettling markets already wrong-footed by failed attempts to form a government in Italy three months after a national election.

Earlier, Germany’s election produced an awkward result that left Angela Merkel’s two-party conservative bloc seeking a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens.

The combination of ideologically disparate parties hadn’t been tried before in a national government and came to nothing at one time when the Free Democrats walked out of talks. Prime Minister Theresa May of Great Britain suffered a major setback in a tumultuous snap election three years ahead of time, losing her overall majority in Parliament and throwing her government into uncertainty at the edge of scheduled negotiations over withdrawing from the European Union.|

Queens Counsel Mia Amor Mottley recently captured all 30 seats in the Barbados parliament, creating for the first time in the region a situation where there loomed the possibility of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition being faceless for the first time. History is replete with unpleasant echoes of earlier instances of democratic failure stemming from a deep mistrust of mainstream institutions. It might be reasoned that instances like the ascension of Macron in France are fashionable inside societies that are fundamentally different from ours. But, it is the differences that matter more than the similarities. We live in a networked-world and this affords no guarantee that democracies in the region will not eventually fail. They will, and perhaps far from following the patterns of military interventions as in Syria or the collapse of the rule of law as in Egypt, it is likely that democracy in the 21st century will die in ways that are unfamiliar to us. Perhaps democracy will be hollowed out by the drivers of technological progress and social division that we don’t understand or never attempt to resist.

In former colonies, there is a relish to unravel how Westminster and Whitehall work. The larger question that looms ominously over former plantation societies, however, is whether democracy works at all. In these tumultuous times, there is the twin temptation to deal with all the uncertainty that entangles our heels either by searching for historical precedence or to assume that we are facing a future that is entirely novel. The second is more alluring as it compels us to consider what it means for democracies to fail forwards —tumbling forwards into the unknown.

The Caribbean may not be informing its worries enough about technology and how it will change what we are and how we live. Instead, it may be informing too much of its decisions by a preponderance of histories and old politics. In the eAge, algorithms are automating inequality. Are computers gender-neutral and colour-blind? These weapons of math destruction use algorithms on inputted data on age, ethnicity, gender, home address, religion, income and memberships.

Carnegie Mellon researchers found that Google’s algorithms showed an advertisement for high-income jobs to men much more often than it showed it to women. The Federal Trade Commission noticed that advertisers are able to target people who live in low-income neighbourhoods with high-interest loans. Not everyone fares the same when targeted by digital-decision-making-systems like Obama Health Care. We all inhabit this new regime of digital data but we don’t all inhabit it equally. Opaque Mathematical Models now micromanage the global economy by optimising millions of people thereby exacerbating inequality to the detriment of those on the edge of society. Democracies may not implode, but they may simply fade away or be flattened by the rise of intelligent machines, technological progress and social division.

The Chinese experiment with authoritarian capitalism is seductive to those who believe that economic expansion is the aim of development. Government by experts, ‘the rule of the knowers’ or ‘the epistocracy’ of Plato is upheld by those who see citizens as incapable of thinking, but intellectuals are just as prone to errors as the crowd. Term-politicians are unable to tackle existential threats to humanity like climate change because thinking about the end of the world is too much for democracy to cope with. The internet, far from being the elixir of democratic accountability and engagement that utopians once imagined, has actually poisoned the well.

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