What if Russia’s invasion of Crimea is really a post-democracy problem?

The Crimea crisis may feel like a throwback to the Cold War, but it’s actually reflective of 21st century democracy.

ImageDemocracy is defined as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” Despotism is “the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way.”

A child denied any access to sweeties, despite abject pleas to the contrary, is experiencing despotism. A child offered a choice of two sweeties, but not one of the fifty they actually wanted, is experiencing democracy.

History is messy.

Wars, migration, climate change and politics cause people to either move or be moved. Borders stray. Resources are discovered and trigger vicious scrambles for control.

Democracy is not just about representation within the borders of a sovereign state, but also the ability of sovereign states to influence each other using soft power; the hold they have over sections of other independent nations’ people.

The Cold War introduced us to the realisation that our technology had advanced so far that hot wars would be extremely destructive and best avoided. Not that this has stopped internal conflicts, of those in power against their own people.

It has long been supposed that deeper democracy leads to greater stability and better protection for minorities. But majorities turn. That is fuelling political rebellion.

In 2013 the world was treated to the spectacle of the world’s richest nation refusing to pass a budget to run itself as politicians squabbled. In other parts of the democratic world, coalition governments are the norm and gridlock is unexceptional.

In a hard-hitting review of the state of democracy, The Economist ponders “What has gone wrong with democracy?

Blame China, is one suggestion. By showing that consistent and significant economic growth is possible even in an authoritarian dictatorship, they broke the idea that only democracies could deliver wealth to their people.

Blame America, is another. By demonstrating the complete chaos and entrenched rage that attends its democratic institutions it has done tremendous harm to the idea of democratic rights.

And so we come to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as hard power confronts the soft power of the EU and the US. The Russians claim they are righting an historic wrong when Khrushchev, the USSR’s then Supreme Soviet, drunkenly gave Crimea to Ukraine. It didn’t matter at the time. The USSR was expected to last forever.

Ukraine has struggled ever since the collapse of Communism. Democracy attempted to reconcile two groups of people that live quite separately.

Democracy, as it is normally practiced, is a winner-takes-all affair. The winners get to govern and the losers have to sit in opposition until the next election and then try again.

That’s fine for many issues, but what happens when compromise is not possible? Then the country becomes unstable as different legislatures implement wildly see-sawing policies. Now abortion is legal. Now it isn’t. Now we speak only Ukrainian. Now only Russian.

If you’re an entrenched minority then sometimes the only way out is secession or conflict.

But we’re not only individual states.

On 8 March 2014 Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 vanished. Over an area of 2.96 million square miles, 20 aircraft and ships from seven nations – Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States – are searching. The Malaysian authorities are leading, but with support from the FBI, Interpol and numerous international agencies. As the search has focused further south, key work is being led by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

It’s a large and complex undertaking. But it is mostly a Chinese and Malaysian affair. Something both China and Malaysia are struggling with.

This is a tragic but entirely self-contained event. It will not spread. Whatever disaster has happened is over but families demand answers and the two governments – neither of whom are used to offering any soft-political services – are struggling.

Sobbing family members have been dragged out of press conferences. China is massively ticked off with Malaysia’s poor organisation. Indeed, China seems to be trying to find the airplane – not so much to help the families – as to try and do so before the Australians do. They’re treating it like a competition they have to win.

This type of disaster is exactly the reason that multilateral organisations – like ASEAN, or the UN – were developed. Ways in which governments can meet and coordinate in complex, multi-party events that affect numerous nations.

China, however, has been treating such diplomacy as situations to be dominated. Their nine-dashed line imposes their idea of their borders on the rest of the nations who share the South China Sea, taking land from countries as diverse as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Far from winning friends in the region, China is alienating everyone. Russia, by spurning the EU, seems to believe it will never be in a position where it needs anyone else.

Democracy is really a problem of multiply spinning wheels within wheels.

Even as countries have to negotiate with each other, they have to negotiate with their own citizens. As within nations, so between them: the biggest and strongest win and dominate over the rest.

What happens, though, when demands fragment?

Economic diversity and growing global wealth has actually been about increasing specialisation. We have more choice than at any time in human history.

In October 2004, Chris Anderson – then editor of Wired – wrote an article on The Long Tail. In the usual slightly breathless, oddly techno-patronising tones typical to Wired, he declared,

“For too long we’ve been suffering the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator fare, subjected to brain-dead summer blockbusters and manufactured pop. Why? Economics. Many of our assumptions about popular taste are actually artifacts of poor supply-and-demand matching – a market response to inefficient distribution.”

Anderson’s solution is that online services can aggregate rare and unusual preferences distributed over the entire world and serve those interests to make money.

Social media has permitted conversations between groups of people who would normally completely fail to fit in (Furries are always a good example). Unsurprisingly, politicians haven’t liked this very much and are split between embarrassing themselves or banning it.

What happens when free-market economics creates services like Kickstarter which significantly reduce the risk of new product development and aggregate Long Tail demand to create even more product diversity? What happens when new approaches to publishing spawn over 80,000 fan-created Harry Potter stories?

Free choice, and free markets, are creating an astonishing range of choice. You may not like it, but it exists.

Now compare that to the choice offered by the main political parties? How is it even possible for standard democracy to keep up? But think of the alternative; how would a mass of special-interest parties get anything done? Well, we can look to the European Parliament for an example of that. Badly.

China’s approach “works” simply by denying anyone a choice. The US is becoming more unhinged by trying to offer the idea that everyone can have their needs catered to through a political process only designed to offer a narrow palate.

Some needs are mutually exclusive. Should a private company be forced to sell to customers they don’t like for ideological reasons? Should religious doctors be required to perform abortions? Does giving some people opt-outs from mainstream rules subvert democracy?

What happens when such opt-outs result in real harm to other people? A good example is the growing number of people who have convinced themselves that vaccines are harmful. Measles outbreaks – so 18th century – are happening again as a result.

And when you translate these local conflicts to international disasters – like climate disruption or disease outbreaks or missing airplanes – how do we find any way to cooperate?

Crimea may feel very like the Cold War, but – with minority language rights and demands to be treated differently – this also feels very much a function of the present.

The matter, for quieter days and quieter minds, is how one reconciles the vast array of choice that the average person now commands with the limitations of the state to offer such nuanced services customised to each citizen.

In a world where I want 50,000 different things before breakfast it is unsurprising that democratic parties – only able to offer five or six different things – don’t appear very different from autocracies offering no choice at all.

It isn’t that democracy has broken. It is that politicians need to find a different way to give citizens the freedom to get what they want without getting in each other’s way.

Money for food, not a ham sandwich. That way the Muslims can buy Halaal, and the children get sweeties.

Of course, we want a lot more than that. Some of the things we want would harm us. Some are so expensive that everyone has to pay a little bit if we are all to get that level of choice. Politicians need to seek to enable citizens to pursue their own interests and not specify both the interests and the solutions. None of this will be easy but this is post-democracy and things will be unstable.

Here’s hoping they figure it out. That’s what we elect them for after all.