Now don’t stop reading yet! I’m quite happy that these practices have gone by the wayside. What I want to bring back is what ended up abolishing them.
The Industrial Revolution was an absolute orgy of free markets and lassaiz faire capitalism. Business interests like the East India Co. spurred on rapid global expansion of the British Empire and laid waste to the environment while exploiting not only foreign peoples but native women and children as well.
It was the era of Individualism, where enterprising, intelligent, hard working (and lucky) folks faced almost no political or social roadblocks to wealth and success. It all came with a hefty price, though. For one, the competition between European nations to industrialize and compete economically (mostly with Britain) resulted in World War I. But beyond that, unimpeded business endeavors caused what we call the tragedy of the commons, where individuals pursuing their own self-interest destroyed public or shared land and resources.
In response, the British government and its people called for some trusted body to investigate a hairy situation and find out not only what a sensible course of action might be, but what the people themselves wanted to see. These investigations became known as Royal Commissions. (A little personal side-note—you can read about one of my ancestors, Patience Kershaw, testifying before the Ashley Mines Commission in 1842, telling her story of dragging buckets of coal through tunnels on her hands and knees six days a week for 12-hour days.)
As the Empire broke apart, Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand took up the practice of Royal Commissions, and most Western countries had their own versions as well.
Now, on to the point. A few blogs back, I advocated for a more rational and truth-oriented approach in politics as we move forward into a new phase. It’s obvious to most that politics has become absolute madness in so many ways, with a corollary being the decline in Royal Commissions and public inquiry in non-Commonwealth countries, such as the United States. For example, if you take a look at this list of Australian Royal Commissions from 1900-present, you’ll notice that between 1900 and 1950, there were 85 Royal Commissions. Between 1950 and 2000, there were just 39. Since the turn of the century, there have only been six.
This decline is disturbing. Commissions such as these are powerful tools for the betterment of society. They operate independent of any branch of government or political party, they are given wide powers to investigate into matters often off-limits to journalists or even law enforcement and their recommendations are, more often than not, passed into law eventually.
Nowadays, bureaucrats and politicians seem to have a rabid case of commission-phobia. You’ll notice, for example, that after campaigning to close Guantanamo Bay and halt what many consider inhumane interrogation tactics in 2008, President Obama pushed aside the formation of a commission into interrogation tactics in 2009. And when the NSA scandal broke—a perfect time for a commission inquiry into surveillance practices—an investigation was initiated, but it was filled with Democratic Party insiders rather than being a formal commission, or at all independent for that matter.
Commissions are merely an outward expression of something deeper. It’s not inquiries or reviews that have politicians scared—they are perfectly capable of fixing or tampering with these. It’s that formal commissions’ independence allowed them to not be fiddled or tampered with in their search for truth and it’s truth that strikes fear into the hearts of every modern politician.
And it’s not even wishy-washy philosophical truth. It’s simple questions like:
Is it true that 2/3 of those killed during drone campaigns are civilians, yes or no?
Did banks and corporations who agreed to repay their money from the bail-outs within a certain period of time do so, yes or no?
The problem is, we’re not going backwards in our political development and the emergence of rationalism came out of the excesses of the Industrial Revolution and Individualism. That time is passed. Now we have to deal with the excesses of financial manipulation and corporatism with government suppression of civil liberties. The pressures here are growing.
However, we must start to imagine, and see the seedlings of a future political era molded by new communication technology and increased participation of the masses. It will be the age of mass opinion, of the crowd and all that comes with it. In a sense, it could be considered the opposite of rationalism. Crowds are not known for being rational and/or intelligent.
Nevertheless, we can absorb and utilize useful features of previous political eras. So while rationalism in this sense might not be the defining feature of politics, it can still exist and be influential. Current sentiments toward politicians show that we don’t trust them at all—and for good reason. But, if the crowd’s opinion is that independent commissions and other truth-seeking bodies are valuable, we could enjoy the best of both worlds.