There are four underlying principles without which democracy cannot function. These are representation, transparency, accountability and education. Imagine a four-legged table. It is strong and stable but take one leg out and it can collapse at any moment. The same applies to democracy.
‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government’
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments exist to serve the people. In a democracy, the political system allows all citizens or residents of a country to take part in its political life. Voting is the most obvious means of representation but other means include petitions and ballot initiatives, community forums such as council meetings or actions such as strikes and demonstrations.
Democracy can take two forms: direct, when people vote directly for the laws of the country, and representative, when people elect representatives to legislate on their behalf. All democracies today are representative. This form of government is preferred in countries where the great number of people makes direct democracy difficult to implement.
Representative democracy involves indirect decision-making or agency
Agency is a relationship between principals, the citizens, and their agents, the representatives they elect. Political decision-making requires a combination of knowledge-in politics, history and philosophy, as well as strong moral values and reasoning capacities. Citizens transfer their political power to representatives because they are more skilled at making political decisions.
Political representatives are the guardians of the moral principles shared by the people and are expected to act with integrity in the interest of their constituents. Failure to uphold their political and moral obligations can see them removed from office. In practice though, citizens have little to no practical authority over their representatives, other than not re-electing them.
Transparency is a prerequisite for accountability
Transparency means public access to information such as records, statements, public investments or business deals and live broadcast of government meetings. The idea behind transparency is to prevent fraud and corruption and keep tabs on political representatives. Citizens can’t hold their representatives accountable if they are unable to assess their performance.
Physical or digital access to information alone is only half of the transparency principle. Citizens must be able to navigate through the political language and understand what they read. This is achieved through user-friendly government websites and by simplifying bills, agreements and treaties. The opposite of transparency is secrecy, hence its importance as a fundamental principle of democracy.
Political institutions are extensions of the moral beliefs of the citizens of a country
Democratic accountability is a three-way relationship. Elected representatives are supposed to answer to the people while citizens are expected to abide by the law. I would argue that the third and most important relationship is that citizens are accountable to their co-citizens in sharing the responsibility of electing representatives and voting the laws.
The role of a democratic citizen comes with demands and expectations called civic duties, in line with the four pillars of democracy. These include supporting fair and democratic policies while opposing and removing unjust ones. Staying informed and reviewing one's political opinions periodically. Last, holding political representatives and the government accountable for their actions.
Education is the cure for society’s ills
Education is the overlooked pillar of democracy. Democracy without education leads to populism, or believing in what the majority believes. In a democracy, it is the role of the government to educate its citizens when they are not ‘enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion’, said Thomas Jefferson, author of the United States Declaration of Independence.
The most significant example in recent years is the Brexit referendum. British citizens were asked to choose between staying in the European Union or seceding. How many voters do you think had any knowledge of the European Union, its institutions or the influence of European treaties on British politics? The Brexit campaign was an embarrassing spectacle of misinformation from both sides fueled by the medias.
Moral responsibility cannot be outsourced
One limit to agency is that not everything can be passed onto political representatives. Moral responsibility cannot be outsourced. There are limits to transparency and accountability too. Public disclosure of sensitive information such as war strategies can threaten a country’s national security. Excessive control and monitoring can be counterproductive and hinder a government’s activities.
Economic inequalities distort political representation. Democracy requires the separation of economic and political powers to work best. Yet, when material wealth equals political power, citizens’ political authority is greatly unequal. In his book Unequal Democracy, political scientist Larry Bartels demonstrates how the poorest third of Americans are virtually not represented politically.
Important decisions are not taken by the people
Our mistake is to take democracy for granted. The rise of populism and global rates of abstentionism, particularly among young voters, are failures of democracy. A democracy exists only when the majority of its citizens play their part. When enough citizens default on their civic duties, we are left with a democracy in name only. An empty shell.
What does have a light side, a dark side, and grants its users powerful abilities? Capitalism. The dominant economic system of the last two centuries. Some extol its virtues, others make it the root of all evil, all with equal passion. In this week's blog we explore what defines capitalism: the good, the bad, and the ugly truth.
Capital and private property are the yin and the yang of capitalism
At the core of capitalism is the capital, an investment made in pursue of a profit, a gain superior to the original investment. Capital also refers to the means of production: the factories, machines and tools bought with the investors’ contribution. A business is profitable when the sale of a product or service generates more money than it costs to produce. This profit goes back to the owners of the capital because they took the risk of investing in the first place and deserve a reward. Profit can also be reinvested so that the business can increase production or expand its activities.
The second aspect at the core of capitalism is private property. There is no capitalism without private property. Private property is an unnatural concept created by man in order to facilitate trade. This is where the state or government comes into play by guaranteeing private property rights through a legal system financed by taxes. 'Theft is only punished because it violates the right of property, but this right is itself nothing in origin but theft', said radical French Enlightenment writer Marquis de Sade.
Lifting people out of poverty
Before capitalism was feudalism, a rural society where wealth came from the land. The aim of production was consumption, as opposed to accumulation. What was produced went to the workers and the state or church. Transformations in agriculture, advances in the methods of production and trade led to the industrial revolution and capitalism developed in parallel.
Industrialisation and urbanisation have reduced the proportion of the world population living in absolute poverty, that is with less than $2 a day. Today, 8% of people still live in absolute poverty, mainly in rural Africa, and half of the world population is middle class or upper class, according to the World Data Lab.
Capitalism as a medium for democracy and innovation
Capitalism has been a medium for democracy. Economic success gave early capitalists a share of the political power. Workers followed suit and organised themselves politically under trade unions. Trade unions managed to regulate working conditions, increase wages and living standards. With the support of unions, political parties achieved social reforms such as the universal suffrage and helped establish welfare states in most modern capitalist countries.
Competition is what drives businesses to innovate. Most innovations and new technologies have a positive impact on society. This is what Adam Smith, the ‘father’ of modern economics, refers to as the ‘invisible hand’ of capitalism. Yet, in most cases the benefit to society is a consequence of the capital owners' self-interests and their pursue of profits, not their initial objective.
Rising inequalities, the threat to democracy and the worsening of working conditions
The pursue of profit leads to the accumulation of capital. The more capital, the more profit. The first consequence of the accumulation of capital is the uneven distribution of wealth. Uneven distribution of wealth creates inequalities with economic and social implications such as mass migration, limited access to health and education or increase in violent crimes.
The second consequence of the accumulation of capital is the accumulation of power. The more capital one possesses, the more influence one yields over the economic and political institutions that are supposed to reduce inequalities. This contrasts with the democratic principle of one person, one vote, regardless of how much capital one possesses. Ultimately, the pursue of profit encourages the people with capital to challenge democracy when it interferes with their own interests.
In the last 40 years, liberal economic policies have led to monopolies and oligopolies. Living standards are now stagnating, working conditions have deteriorated and workers' bargaining power is extinct. As countries industrialised, people became richer and consumption increased. The result of which is a society based on mass production and mass consumption, and catastrophic environmental damage.
Zero-growth capitalism and workers cooperatives
The capitalist principles of competition and accumulation have pervaded all aspects of everyday life. Similar to investors pursuing the accumulation of capital, people seek the accumulation of material goods. Competition-or the pursuit of performance-starts as early as primary school and continues at work and in our social and personal life.
Some of the features associated with capitalism, such as growth or stock exchanges, are not necessary for it to exist. A growing number of economists are promoting the benefits of 'zero-growth capitalism' or 'steady-state economy'. However, nonconformist theories are voiced out when they challenge the dominant economic ideas. Socialist alternatives are equally met with strong resistance.
Cooperatives or workers' owned businesses reconcile capitalism and democracy. The power of making decisions no longer resides into the private hands of the capital owners. The workers can decide what to produce, how to produce it, at what cost, and what to do with profits. There are currently 2,000 cooperatives and mutual enterprises in Australia.
Nobody gets rich with their own money
Therein lies the paradox of capitalism in its current form: because a business is profitable does not mean its activity is beneficial to society. Inversely, an activity that is beneficial to society may not be profitable. Indicators of economic success alone are not enough to measure the impact of economic activities on society and their benefit to the global community. Lasting economic activities should be the ones that answer a need for society and lead to social progress.
Capitalism is a spectrum and depends on the society within which it evolves. When left to its own devices, capitalism creates inequalities, hinders social progress and silences democracy. Should we fail to acknowledge our current economic system's shortcomings and, most importantly, addressing them, then the shroud of the dark side will inevitably fall upon us all.
As a French national, making fun of Americans is as much a hobby as defending the constitution's second amendment is for them. America is a paradox. A nation of contradictions more so than any other country, equally capable of the greatest deeds such as sending a man to the moon and the worst such as sending children to detention camps. I have lived in Australia for almost a decade. To me, Australia is what the United States should have been: the land of opportunities.
Throughout the course of the 20th century, the United states became the first economic, military and cultural power in the world. They were the first nation with nuclear power and Hollywood became the cultural centre of the world. They were decisive in the two world wars and helped rebuild Europe afterwards. The Marshall Plan, though, was as much about rebuilding Europe as it was about exporting American culture and boosting their own economy.
I feel a great disturbance in the Force
Many tensions in the world today are the results of American politics. US politicians have more influence on international politics than any other countries’. Yet their deep misunderstanding of the world history has led to a succession of political blunders, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. The arbitrary decision by the United States and the Soviet Union to divide Korea in half-without consulting the Koreans-led to the Korean war (1950) and the situation we experience today. Their involvement in the Vietnam civil war-which they had no business in-led to the Vietnam war (1965).
In 1991, the United States rejected Mikhaïl Gorbachev’s plea for help at the London G7 summit, only seeing in Russia the loser of the Cold War. This was the closest America and Russia had ever been to reconciliation. The military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s have left the two countries in a state of limbo since then. The invasions of Iraq (1993, 2003) or Afghanistan (2001) and the interventions in Libya (2011) and Syria (2014) have shattered the stability in the Middle-East region. The Iranian nuclear deal is the latest example to date. After breaking the Iranian nuclear deal, the American president now threatens to sanction the countries that continue to commerce with Iran.
There's nothing more expensive for an arms dealer than peace
European countries are constantly submitted to America’s blackmail. Defense budgets are a striking example. US politicians keep pushing European countries to increase their defense budgets, using the Russian 'threat' and the ‘war on terrorism’ as excuses. To put things into perspective, Russia’s military budget is equivalent to the budget of France alone and air pollution kills two hundred times more people than terrorism every year, making it a much more serious threat. Who does the ‘war on terror’ or the threat of future conflicts benefit but the world’s largest arms dealer, the United States?
Increasing military exports is one of the American president's pillars for economic growth. Where do half of the weapons the United States export go to? The Middle-East. Bingo. The United States are a mission to defend, or impose-depending on which side of the bomb a population finds itself-their values to the rest of the world. This dates back to the 19th century and the philosophy of the manifest destiny-or American imperialism-and has intensified since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Alice in Blunderland
At home, the United States are a mess: according to the latest census and OECD figures, half a million Americans are homeless and more than 13% live in relative poverty. No universal healthcare system, mass shootings, a 2008 financial crisis they are responsible for and the second largest polluting country in the world. The United States are in no position to give any lessons in foreign or domestic politics.
In 2014, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser raised the alarm in his book Dangerous Allies. Blindly following the United States has cost Australia hundreds of lives in the Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan wars. The Australian governments that agreed to take part in the conflicts at the time bear the entire responsibility of these deaths. 'Political outcomes can rarely be achieved by military means.'
A bull in a china shop
The 21st century will be China's, for better or worse. Xi Jinping doesn't hide his ambitions. America no longer is the great benevolent power it once was. Its influence has become toxic and threatens global peace and diplomacy. The trade war underway between the United States and China might trigger a new economic crisis. Australia could find itself caught in the middle unless the question of its strategic independence is put back on the agenda. I will conclude with a quote from American stand up comedian Rich Hall: ‘Never underestimate America’s ability to make the wrong choice at the right time.’
The European Union as we know it today started almost 70 years ago as a cartel of coal and steel producers from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. There have been different names over the years and twenty-two countries have joined the European Union since its creation. The single market was created to allow capital, goods, services and people to move freely and the common Euro currency was introduced to stabilise prices in the Eurozone.
The 7 crystal balls
The European Union is made up of 7 institutions: the European Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union, the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank and the European Court of Auditors. The only European institution whose members are democratically elected is the European Parliament. Elections take place every 5 years, however turnout has been historically low at less than 50% for the last 20 years.
The main role of any parliament is to make laws. Yet the European Parliament does not have such power. Legislative power - the power to make laws - is in the hands of the European Commission. The European Parliament is a parliament in name only. Members of the other European institutions are designated by their respective governments and approved by the Parliament, except for the European Council whose members are the heads of states or governments.
One ring to rule them all
Over time, the European Union took over the national sovereignty of its member countries through the cunning use of treaties. The Maastricht Treaty (1992) took away the right of member countries to borrow money directly from their central banks at a low or nil rate and imposed neoliberal policies to all member countries. Other treaties such as the Stability and Growth Pact (1998) or the Fiscal Compact (2012) imposed European economic directives to all members and gave the European Union the power to veto any fiscal policies of any member country.
One-way democracy is not democracy
There is no way for ordinary people to vote against European policies. Yet, when a country disagrees with the European Union, their decision is systematically overturned. The examples of the French, Dutch, Greek and British referendums speak for themselves. ‘There can be no democratic choice against European treaties’ said Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, following the result of the Greek referendum about the EU's proposed bailout plan. The Greeks voted against Brussels' austerity measures and ended up with an even harsher deal than what they were negotiating before the referendum.
In 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected by referendum the proposal of a European Constitution. Two years later, the Treaty of Lisbon - a rebadged European Constitution - was signed by both countries. Other countries such as Denmark (1992) or Ireland (2008) held referendums twice until the result was is favour of the European Union. Democratic decisions are OK as long as they don’t interfere with the EU’s agenda. The European Union crucified Greece as a warning to the other countries and is trying to do the same with the United Kingdom.
Something is rotten in the state of Europe
In addition to an absence of democracy, there is a lack of transparency and non-accountability from the European institutions. The Eurogroup, a shadow institution of finance ministers, meet behind closed doors to discuss trade deals that undermine safety and environmental standards such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
There's also the question of the EU's imperial ambitions behind the creation of a European army and its interference in foreign countries' political affairs such as Venezuela's. Last but not least, the European Union - via its Central Bank - has proven its incompetence in managing the Euro debt crisis. To put it into the words of Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister: ‘The European Central Bank lent the biggest amount of money in the history of capitalism to the most bankrupt state in Europe.’ I couldn’t have said it better.
The European Union is on the brink of disintegration, as can be seen with the rise of nationalism and far-right political groups or the Brexit in the UK and the yellow vests movement in France. I wrote about the yellow vests a few months ago. The main demand of the protesters is citizens' initiated referendums, which is a means of direct democracy. French citizens could submit or repeal a law proposal, modify the constitution or remove any politician from office.
French President Emmanuel Macron said during an interview on the BBC that French people would probably vote to leave the EU as well if there was a referendum. This is precisely why he won't grant the yellow vests the means to make democratic choices that would endanger the European Union further. The definition of a democracy is governance of the people, by the people, for the people. A definition that clearly does not apply to the European Union.
No light at the end of the tunnel
There’s a crisis of democracy, or lack thereof, in the way the European Union is run and the way it operates, which leans more towards that of a mafia than a democracy. The European Union restricts the freedom and liberties of its member countries at the expense of the people. Competition between member countries associated with privatisation and austerity policies have resulted in more social injustice and the impoverishment of the people.
Reforming the European Union is impossible. The probability of 28 governments from all sides of the political spectrum agreeing to reform the European Union couldn't be closer to zero. Take it apart and rebuild as new. I will conclude with a quote from British political economy professor Mark Blyth: 'At the end of the day, if the European Union is not improving the lives of the majority of the people, what is it for?'
I recently had a chat with a friend who had been looking for a job for several months. He had finally found one and it was full-time, well paid and didn’t require any particular skills. Good on you Michael! When I asked him how difficult his job was, he replied that the only difficult aspect of the job was to get the job. ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, he added. This wasn’t the first time I heard that saying but on this occasion I began to reflect upon it.
‘I have a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career.'
‘What you know’ refers to your skills and competences. It is your TAFE certificate, your university degree or simply your experience in a particular occupation. As a parent, you tell your kids that if they work hard at school they will be rewarded with a good job and a comfortable life. As a student, you invest a tremendous amount of time and money in acquiring advanced degrees or qualifications for the same reasons.
The idea that all your hard work can come undone because you simply don't know 'the right people' is unfair and frustrating. The sad reality is that we live in a system that doesn't reward the hard-working and deserving people, but those who are cunning and who are not afraid of stamping on ethics and their own principles. But this is for another blog.
Networking is not a crime
‘Who you know’ refers to your network. Networking means building and nurturing a group of people, acquaintances, former colleagues or people working in the same industry for the purpose of mutual benefits. Sometimes connections happen naturally, as part of your work. Sometimes you have to give luck a nudge, by attending events or introducing yourself to the right people. Building a strong network takes time and effort, and it is crucial if you hope to succeed.
Social networking is another form of networking. Platforms like Linkedin or Facebook have made networking easier and can be of great help, in particular if you're an introverted person. The motivational speaker Jim Rohn said that ‘you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with’. While I don’t agree with his statement, I do believe you should surround yourself with people who pull you up instead of dragging you down.
Inequality of opportunities
’It’s not what you know, it's who you know’ implies a hierarchy between your skills and your network, in which the latter tramples the former. When I go to the dentist or when I hire a plumber, I search for the best I can find - or that I can afford, not the most popular. These sometimes go hand in hand, yet I always look for the one who knows his or her stuff. Call me an idealist, but I believe a job should always go to the most suited applicant, regardless of who they know or any other factor such as age, ethnicity, gender or even handicap.
More importantly, it also implies there are people in positions for which they are not suitably qualified or that they didn’t necessarily deserve. Politics is a great example. How on earth did Melissa Price become Minister for the Environment? I know I will probably take some heat for picking on her. She popped up on my social media feed one day so I listened out of curiosity and, oh boy, is she clueless! The time has come to wrap up this week's blog as I'm starting to digress. If you made it to the end, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to read my work.
This blog follows my previous one about the yellow vests movement in France. If you haven’t read it yet, I invite you to do so as it is clear and complete. One idea broadly supported by the yellow vests movement is citizens’ initiated referendums. Public referendums are a means of direct democracy. I thought I should elaborate on democracy before moving on.
Direct democracy versus representative democracy
Direct democracy is a form of government in which people vote directly on the laws of a country. They can submit proposals to public referendums and revoke their representatives when they cease to act in the general interest. Direct democracy works best in smaller countries or at a local level. Representative democracy is a form of government in which people elect representatives who will legislate on their behalf. All democracies today are representative. This form of government is preferred in countries where the great number of people makes direct democracy difficult to implement.
The social contract and the drift towards authoritarianism
The social contract is a philosophical and political theory that is the basis for representative democracy. People accept to give up some of their rights to their representatives - or government, who will legislate on their behalf in order to guarantee their rights and liberties. John Locke, a 17th century English philosopher whose ideas influenced the Enlightenment period, was one of the pioneers of the social contract theory.
When the government and elected representatives can no longer guarantee people’s rights and liberties, the social contract is broken. When democracy fades away, we drift into ‘soft’ authoritarianism. John Locke argues that when this happens, people are no longer bound to the social contract and have the right to take action to replace the representatives or the government in power.
The example of the Athenian democracy
The Greek city-state of Athens became the first democracy in the 5th century BC. Citizens - which didn’t include slaves, women, and men who hadn’t accomplished their military service - were allowed to take part to popular assemblies during which they could debate and vote on every single issue affecting the city. Athens’ direct form of democracy was groundbreaking in the sense that it involved ‘normal people’ in the decision-making process of their city. Unfortunately Athens’ democracy was short-lived and the city fell under Macedonian rule less than 200 years later.
Democracy needs education to work
There was however one limitation to Athenian democracy: education, or lack thereof. Many officials in Athens managed to talk their way into positions of power without the proper knowledge to perform their duties. Socrates, a Greek philosopher who experienced Athenian democracy, criticised and exposed some of these demagogues in public. He would be sentenced to death for it.
Democracy without education leads to populism. This is one of the reasons why we are seeing extreme political groups gaining popularity across the world. Education is the cure for society’s ills and it should be the priority of any government that claims to act in the interest of its citizens. One can argue that most governments today are better off with a dumbed down population.
You may disagree with my following statement but to me, voting should be a privilege, not a right. Giving voting rights to uneducated or uninformed people is like playing Russian roulette. Some thinkers have formulated the idea of a voting licence, similar to driving. While I'm not entirely sold on the idea, I do think we need to open the debate on the importance of education for democracy.
The example of workers cooperatives
A workers’ cooperative is a business that is owned and controlled by its employees. No more middlemen, or stakeholders, to pull the workers' strings. Workers cooperatives are true democratic workplaces. Employees decide on their working conditions, what they produce and how they produce it. They decide what to do with profits, they elect their leaders and they have the power to revoke them.
The side effects of having a business owned by its workers is that better working conditions produce happier workers, which in turn drives productivity up. So far, the data available has shown that workers’ cooperatives are beneficial for local economies, have a higher success rate than standard business structures and are less affected by economic downturns.
I hope you now have a better understanding of the origins of democracy, its different forms and why it is worth fighting for. I welcome any comments or ideas and if you made it to this final sentence, I greatly appreciate your taking the time to read my work.
Unless you live in a cave, you are probably aware of the yellow vests movement that has been shaking France for the last three months. Protesters identify themselves as the « yellow vests », from the high-visibility jacket French drivers are required to carry in their vehicles. What was supposed to be a one-day rally is turning into the most significant social protest of the decade. How has the country of human rights come to this?
The context of the 2017 presidential election
The 2017 French presidential election was somewhat chaotic. The first stage of the election saw centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron get 24% of the votes before proceeding to the second stage, when he got 44% of the votes and became president. People who didn’t vote for him either voted for his opponent, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, or cast a blank vote, or abstained from voting. Whichever way you look at it, the majority of voters did not want him as their president. Though Emmanuel Macron was elected according to the French direct ballot system, many people question his legitimacy.
Evil Robin Hood
Since his election, Emmanuel Macron has abolished the wealth tax, reformed the labour laws and increased taxes on pensions to offer businesses tax breaks in an effort to boost employment. He is taking from the needy to give to the wealthy, like an evil Robin Hood. While most foreign medias have been praising his style and his reforms, Emmanuel Macron has reached the status of most unpopular president in the history of the country.
The yellow vests movement started following the government’s decision to increase fuel taxes, and diesel in particular. The increase was supposed to finance environment-friendly initiatives. The first problem is that it was the government itself that encouraged people to buy diesel cars in the early 2000’s. At the time, diesel vehicles were thought to be better for the environment. The second problem is that due to unaffordable housing prices, many people moved to the outskirts of the big cities or to the countryside and rely on their cars to go to work.
The tipping point
This was the last straw. With the fuel tax, Emmanuel Macron opened Pandora’s box and let out the repressed anger from decades of political and economic reforms that have pushed the working class, pensioners and students closer to poverty. The word spread out on social media for weeks before the first protest on November 17th. There was a second weekend of protests, and a third. It has now been twelve weeks since the first yellow vests took to the streets.
Citizens' initiated referendums
The demands of the protesters moved from the fuel tax repeal to an all-out anti-government protest over wages and a call for direct democracy in the decision-making process, as opposed to representative democracy. One idea broadly supported by the yellow vests is the citizens’ initiated referendum. Upon gathering enough signatures or supporters, citizens of a country can submit or repeal a law proposal, modify the constitution or remove any politician from office. Citizens’ initiated referendums are already used in the United States, Italy or Switzerland.
Among the protesters’ demands are the increase of the minimum wage, the indexation of wages on the rate of inflation, the inclusion of the citizens’ initiated referendum in the constitution, the control of housing prices, a fairer tax system, a minimum pension, retirement at sixty, the end of privileges for politicians, a ban on the sale of national assets to foreign countries or the human treatment of asylum seekers.
V for Violence
The yellow vests protests have been a display of unprecedented police brutality. To this day, eleven protesters have died, two-thousand have been reported injured and sixty of them have suffered crippling injuries such as the loss of fingers, an eye or a hand. There have been scenes of extreme violence from some protesters too. Still, the government's choice to resort exclusively to force over any attempts at a dialogue has been greatly criticised. Amnesty International and the European Commission for Human Rights have expressed their concerns and have urged the French government to explore peaceful avenues in an effort to prevent further casualties.
We need a resolution
After one month of protests, Emmanuel Macron announced the repeal of the fuel tax and an 8% increase of the minimum wage, in a vain effort to put an end to the protests. His refusal to reinstate the wealth tax, one of the symbols of the protesters' anger, highlights the rift between the people and their representatives. Emmanuel Macron and his government are hoping to see the movement lose momentum and eventually die. The yellow vests already have a foot in the door, but they need more support if they hope to achieve anything significant.
The yellow vests movement is now expanding beyond France's borders, as far as Australia. However, in some countries the only similarity with the French movement is the colour of the protesters' vests, not the ideas or the message behind them. The yellow vests movement is a crisis of democracy, or lack thereof. Giving people what they want, to be heard, would cost the French president his term, as would maintaining his political agenda. Emmanuel Macron can leave with his head up or risk losing it altogether.
'Tonight, I’ll be eating spaghetti carbonara with fried onions and diced pancetta from Luigi’s Mansion in Fremantle. Ding-dong!’
Everybody has seen at least one of these spots for Uber Eats on TV. My favourite is Boy George’s, I laugh every time. The hand you see handing over the food at the end of the commercial belongs to one of Uber’s delivery drivers. Uber calls them their ‘partners’ (understand employees with no social benefits). This delivery driver is a worker of the gig economy.
Disclaimer here: I already picked on Uber in my second blog post Lessons we can learn from Blade Runner 2049. I’m using the example of Uber again because of the abundance of information available about the company. Unfortunately, most of it came to light following the numerous scandals Uber got themselves into.
What is the gig economy and how does it work?
The gig economy refers to a type of employment based on a succession of short-term contracts or projects. Most industries have been affected by it: transport, healthcare, hospitality, professional services, and even the public sector. Online platforms such as Uber, Airtasker or Airbnb have been a massive hit with consumers. And for good reasons. They're cheap, convenient and easy to use.
The main appeal of the gig economy is the false promise of flexibility. ‘Be your own boss’, ‘work when you want, as much as you want’, ‘unlimited earning potential’ blah blah blah. The 'flexibility' really is for the employer, not the worker. I got lured into this myself when I started working as a personal trainer in a big gym. But this story is for another day.
Uber's business model is an abomination
Most people probably ignore how Uber manages to offer transportation services so much cheaper than taxis. Uber’s business model relies on cutting costs and exploiting taxation loopholes as much as they can in order to slash their prices and kill all competition. All the risks and running costs are passed onto the drivers, who are hired as subcontractors.
Because gig workers are considered self-employed, they are not entitled to social benefits such as holiday or sick leave and superannuation. Workers are paid per ‘gig’, or job, no matter how long it takes them to do the task. Unions representation is a problem too, as the status of gig workers is a grey area that needs to be clearly defined.
On a platform like Airtasker, workers bid against each other to get jobs, most of the time based on the cost of the service provided. Which as a result brings the cost of labour significantly down as most of the time whoever is the cheapest gets the job. The result of this race to the bottom is that it keeps wages down.
Back to the future
Uber started to operate in Australia in late 2012 without any licence. To make things worse, thanks to a clever tax scheme, Uber is paying virtually no taxes in Australia. In 2015, Uber was legalised in all states except Northern Territory (it happened last year), and the Australian Taxation Office decided that all drivers should pay GST from the first dollar they earn. For the sake of comparison, if you had started your own business in 2012 without any licence and had paid the same amount of taxes that Uber did, you'd most likely be in prison by 2015. This is called a double standard.
Where the gig economy has been the most disruptive is in going backwards on decades of struggle for fair wages and workers’ rights and entitlements. An increasing number of companies are hiring people on a subcontractor employment basis so they don’t have to pay for entitlements such as holiday leave or superannuation. The gig economy is here and it's here to stay.
The government turned a blind eye because Uber was ‘creating’ jobs. Insecure and underpaid jobs. One of the government’s roles is to set the rules for its economy and to ensure workers are treated fairly. By failing to respond to the changes happening to the work place, the government is responsible for the precarious situation so many workers find themselves in.
Between the gig economy and the casualisation of work, full-time employment and the benefits that go with it may one day be a thing of the past. Ask yourself if this is what you want for your kids when they grow up. Remember that when you take an Uber or when you order food through Uber Eats, you are supporting their exploitative practices with your own money. So tonight, after you've read the usual bedtime story, tell your kids to start saving for retirement right now. Just in case.
Blade Runner 2049 is a science-fiction movie that follows the story of agent K, a Los Angeles police officer whose task is to track down rogue replicants. Replicants are mass-produced bioengineered humans that are used as slave labour workers. It is the sequel of the original Blade Runner movie that came out in 1982. As the name suggests, the story takes place in 2049.
The movie offers a very pessimistic vision of the future, or a dystopia (as opposed to a utopia). It shows us what the world could look like if some of the problems we are facing now get worse. It addresses the issues of over-reliance on technology, the impact of man on the environment, overpopulation in urban areas and corporate power over democratic governments.
Overpopulation and unaffordable housing
The Los Angeles of 2049 is an overpopulated urban area made of giant buildings as far as the eye can see. There are no parks or any green spaces and the few animals we see are replicants, or artificial animals. It is a place where concrete has taken over nature. It is a society in which a full-time worker can only afford a tiny apartment in a dodgy neighbourhood.
The main character K (Ryan Gosling) lives in a apartment so small that it looks more like a prison cell than a proper apartment. One can’t help but wonder if this is what unaffordable housing will lead to in the future. In addition to house prices, low wages growth and an increasing job insecurity, owning a house will soon become the realm of science-fiction too.
Technology doesn’t necessarily mean progress
The society of Blade Runner 2049 relies heavily on technology, such as flying cars or holographic female companions. The main character K shares his life with a hologram named Joi. Joi is an artificially intelligent product whose purpose is to bring consumers happiness and companionship. There is a sense throughout the movie that technology has become toxic. To the environment first, and to the people who have become addicted to it, as seen in the main character K’s addiction to his holographic girlfriend.
Technology doesn’t necessarily mean progress. The mistake is to believe that because a new technology is available we should always use it. However we should carefully weigh the pros and cons of using a new technology and consider its long-term impact on employment, the environment and society in general. If a technology allows us to do the same amount of work with half the number of employees but puts millions of people out of work, should we use it? If a technology allows us to be more productive at the expense of the environment, should we use it?
Uber is today’s Wallace Corporation
Too many companies try to squeeze every single drop of life out of their employees in exchange of a minimum wage or questionable employments contracts. In Blade Runner 2049, the Wallace Corporation is the company that manufactures the replicants (the artificial humans) and uses them as slave labour workers. When a replicant rebels against the corporation, they are ‘dealt with’ (tracked down and killed) by the police.
A company like Uber is the Wallace Corporation of today. Their ‘partners’ as Uber calls them (understand employees with no social benefits) work for crumbs and can have their contracts cancelled at any time. An increasing number of companies are hiring people on a subcontractor employment basis because they don’t have to pay for entitlements such as holiday leave or superannuation.
Because something is legal doesn’t mean it is ethical
It is no secret, Uber’s ultimate goal is to get rid of all drivers and use self-driving vehicles instead. Removing the human factor altogether will reduce costs and increase profits. Which raises the question of ethics in business. Are employees considered assets that need to be looked after or overheads that need to be reduced to the minimum? With great power comes great responsibility. The growing power of corporations over governments gives them the responsibility to adopt ethical practices such as looking after their employees and the environment.
Blade Runner 2049 was released last year, 35 years after the original Blade Runner movie. The same issues are addressed in both movies, and the idea that in another 35 years we may still be facing the same problems is a great cause for concern to me. As a conclusion, let’s take a minute and reflect on this quote from the movie: ‘Every leap of civilisation was built off the back of a disposable workforce.’
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