People don’t believe their governments anymore. Not that governments anywhere have a history of doing much to earn the public’s trust. But allowing ourselves for a few minutes to entertain the thought that governments do in fact have our best intentions at heart, isn’t it cause for concern that growing swathes of the global population seem to be disenfranchised with the notion of government? Even excepting the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, for instance the recent death – intentionally ambiguous description – of Osama bin Laden has revealed that even the US, which historically has higher levels of trust in government than many other states is in the midst of some kind of crisis. Of course, demands to see bin Laden’s body may on one hand be an extension of the blatantly racist reactions to the Obama presidency, itself hardly a comforting thought, but they could also indicate that the level of trust in formal political institutions in that country is at an all time low.
I wasn’t around during the 1960s but I’m told it was a much simpler time, in part because governments went to greater and increasingly immoral lengths to tar and feather their opponents. The spectre of the Cold War made defining the enemy much easier, even if it raised the level of mutual suspicion to intolerable levels. Yes, governments killed and disappeared thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, around the world in the name of fighting the communist or capitalist ghosts but for the petrified general population at the receiving end of well-executed propaganda, there was at least the cold comfort of predictability, a 1984-like existence that relieved the man of the street of the burden of free thought. In this climate, if the government told you that a book was banned because the author was the enemy, you believed it mostly because no one else was telling you any different.
Today, we know that most of the ghosts that governments fight are of their own imaginations, and that is unambiguously good. ‘No taxation without representation’ has become more than the historical rallying cry of the US war of independence, and come to resonate with the aspirations of the world’s population at large. It means that governments like Museveni’s in Uganda can no longer act with wanton impunity, expecting the people of that country to simply accept it. Nonetheless, if people stop taking governments at their word then doesn’t that throw the very notion of ‘government’ into disarray? If the public question every decision taken by a government, even the most trivial, doesn’t that undercut the governments function to take decisions for the public’s own good in a timely fashion? If we, and by we I mean those who live in relatively free societies, continue to treat our governments with such heightened suspicion then don’t we risk creating an enemy that will spend more time trying to earn our trust or masquerade as doing so, than actually governing?
It seems illogical that to me government should be the enemy. Yes it’s good that we’re all questioning them more but there’s a difference between scrutiny and suspicion, and what we seem to have now is more of the latter than the former.
The modern nation state is premised on a measure of trust from the governed. We elect representatives we trust to go into parliaments or senates or congresses and deliberate on those issues that are most important with us so that we don’t have to.
When this bond of trust is broken, what we’re left with is the threat of chaos that no number of revolutions can resolve. The case of Egypt is a prime example of this. Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by one of the most potent displays of people power in recent history; a reminder to oppressed populations that the power to take back their states was truly in their hands. But what comes after a revolution? If you believe that government is a necessary part of modern social organisation then you will concede that an interim administration is necessary in order to rid the system of the remains of the previous government and maintain some sort of continuity between the old and the new administration, so that the new does not have to build from scratch. But how can an interim administration function when the people won’t even allow the smallest measure of time to elapse before change is implemented? If everyone who works for a government in a country in which the government is the largest employer, who will run the country?
My generation will probably go down in history as the one in which the idea of government was challenged and reinforced with equal gusto. On the positive side, it means that the level of public engagement has rarely been so high. On the other, it means that governments face the threat of being increasingly paralysed by antagonistic populations, and survival will begin to outweigh progress as a measure of a governments’ success. Maybe it’s time for us to take a step back and start to consider more carefully the long-term ramifications of this development.
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