A review of the book "Living Democracy" by Tim Hollo. It is a work rich in detail, but is wrong in places and biased in others.
I'm reviewing the book "Living Democracy" by Tim Hollo. Mr. Hollo looks at many things, and while I can usually see where he's coming from, I really only agree wholeheartedly about 10% of the time. He's very selective, and the tapestry he weaves has plenty of holes.
He draws on a lot of commentators and historical events. But he's cherry picking. For example, he endorses the community governance of Rojava, now called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. At other times he rails against violence, ignoring that Rojava incorporated an organised military defence. Or, that while Angela Davis said things about prisons that Hollo endorses, she also gave a tacit endorsement of violence at other times.
Normally, its fair enough to cite your references and show where your ideas come from. For Hollo though, the goal seems to be to draw from their status. He frequently goes through part of the picture and then stops suddenly. For example, he rightly talks about diggers and levellers, about the commons and the enclosures, but leaves out the Georgist perspective.
Now, when someone writes something, they can't include everything, they need to make choices. I certainly endorse Mr. Hollo's right to make his own choices. Still, it seems he has chosen to be selective rather than leaving stuff out because he is pressed for space or needs to keep things simple.
He has a biased view of history which takes him speedily to his destination, and he quotes controversial views held by one individual that nobody else in the field supports. Now, maybe they're right and everyone else is wrong, but you're given the impression it's a summary of a generally supported position. When I look at that same history, I see something very different.
Then you have Mr. Hollo's narrowness based on his own experience, much as he quotes widely otherwise. He emphasises Non-Government Organisations, or NGOs he has been directly involved in. Much there are some interesting stories, the only other NGOs he mentions seems to be ones that made an international splash. Otherwise, his focus is on groups he's been personally involved with.
It all leads to a viewpoint based on the Green pillars. However, on closer examination, there's a lot more going on. To the extent these observations point in a Green direction, they point in a lot of other directions too.
Now, Mr. Hollo is up front about his background in the Greens, and fair enough that he writes from that inspiration. But emotionally the book feels strange, because he's also trying to claim a degree of objectivity. He mentions some initiatives of the Green Institute. Now, right at the front of the book, it does mention he's an executive director of that Institute. However, when he talks about speaking at a Greens Institute meeting, he doesn't ( even in brackets ) mention that he's an executive director; you get the impression that the meeting was something the Institute did separately to him, and he just happened to be there.
So, in sum, Mr. Hollo cherry picks and is selective. It's certainly a concentrated, diverse and intriguing collection. But, it is such a tangled mixture of truths and distortions that it leaves you wondering.
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Contents
- 3. Complex systems and cooperation
- 4. Deterministic history
- 5. Anti-ecology
- 6. Nature of capitalism
- 7. Administration and abuse
- 8. Nature of economics
- 9. Violence
- 10. Indi and Teals
- 11. Steggall
- 12. Teals
- 13. Conclusion
Now, looking at early civilisation, Hollo talks of people "running away" as it developed. But, early history is of local agricultural productivity being a magnet rather than a wall. There's the early settlement of Caral in Peru. It was an open plan city without walls or defences, and was the result of an economic synergy with a local fishing community. Ancient Egypt had the fertile flooding of the Nile. Yes there were slaves, but many were prisoners of war and purchases from elsewhere rather than locals. It seems to me Egypt started as an area of local prosperity that attracted people to it.
Hollo notes that during the Paris Commune, there was disagreement about how they should be organised - centralised or distributed. Drawing from evolution and politics, Kropotkin developed ideas of mutual aid and cooperation, in contrast to social Darwinism. More recently, we've developed ideas like Group Selection, and the Price equation gives us further insights into cooperation. Here I mostly agree with Hollo. I side with left Anarchists, I challenge the goal of centralised control, and note how Anarchist Maknovists were important during the Russian revolution.
There's complexity theory. Sure, there are emergent properties, and that's interesting. But Hollo claims complexity theory is the foundation for us rebelling against oppressive authority. It seems a bit superstitious and reminiscent of popular authors hanging all sort of weird claims off the magic dust called "quantum mechanics".
First, a lot of history was not oppressive like Hollo makes out. It wasn't the only game in town. When we rebelled against oppressive authority, we rebelled against it because it was oppressive, you don't need to add extra layers.
Inheritance made sexism worse, that's a story I'm happy to endorse, much as there were societies where your adopted heirs could have a status that exceeded that of your own children. But Hollo goes out on a limb, endorsing the narrative of Marija Gimbutas' about the nature of past religions and that there was a lost civilisation was cooperative and feminine. Well, there might have been something like this, but many other anthropologists - including women - think that Gimbutas' position was way overstated. You can see details of a critique here. Hollo continues to reinforce and overstate his case.
Hollo rightly notes that Marx and others felt that history was deterministic - that society was inevitably inching towards revolution, but there was no evidence for this, and there was debate over how much active encouragement of class awareness was needed for revolution. Separately to revolution, there were other claims that history unfolded on a fixed path.
Together with Rocco, we made an analysis of the Russian Revolution on my community radio show, and concluded that it was an accident, but I do agree with some of Hollo's story.
Gramsci had a better approach, thinking that you needed active intervention for revolution. Hollo echoes David Graeber saying that history is not deterministic, and is full of playful possibilities. Into the mixture, Hollo notes that political language has been much abused, with the word "socialism" being used in so many ways as to be useless. For sure, you still have people who think you can wag a finger and claim others are "communist" and still make people rise up in disgust. OK, there's a few things I can agree with.
Along the way, Hollo talks of the problem of limitless growth and people dominating the world, all incorporated into a so-called "anti-ecological" push. While he may make some valid points, it makes your head spin. He claims Locke and other thinkers in history experienced brutality, and assumed that people needed externally applied order. Then there was a supposed push towards selfishness that drove the market. I see the story as a lot more complex, with good and bad coming out of the innovative thinking of the time. The development was a lot less narrow.
Hollo recognises the enclosure movement in contrast to the commons. The commons was well, just that - common land, available for use by everyone and not walled off for exclusive use. This was an important part of history, but Hollo overstates the case, claiming a clear thread of conflict between the commons and enclosures going back deep into history. Early on, civilisation was about the magnet of increased localised fertility, not walls. For sure, though, conflict around the diggers, levellers and the Ranters was part of the story, but only at times.
They hang the man and flog the woman That steal the goose from off the common, But let the greater villain loose That steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone When we take things we do not own But leaves the lords and ladies fine Who take things that are yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don't escape If they conspire the law to break; This must be so but they endure Those who conspire to make the law. The law locks up the man or woman Who steals the goose from off the common' And geese will still a common lack Till they go and steal it back.
There was a critique of the commons made by Garret Hardin, the so-called "Tragedy of the Commons". He said that commons were a shared resource that would inevitably be abused because everyone would grab what they could without further reflection. We've seen this happen in fisheries, both internationally and in places like Nova Scotia, Canada. That's something Hollo ignores while trying to pump up the case for the commons. Hardin was wrong too. Where you have community agreement, it is possible to effectively socially manage a commons. Hollo emphasises that Elinor Ostrom developed this viewpoint and won a Nobel Prize. I'll note that trusts, narrowly tasked, can manage a commons effectively without the need for markets or commercial property rights. Sure, Hardin was wrong to think such problems would always occur, but he did identify something that can and does happen. Hollo misses out on the bigger picture.
Supposedly this history was behind a multi faceted amalgamum, with a disconnection from the world, an endorsement of limitless growth, the extraction of resources, a takeover by enclosures as compared to the commons and an identification of humans as being selfish with no other things going on. Marx identified the metabolic rift and soil exhaustion, but this nascent identification of environmental concerns was dominated by his other thrusts. In times of plague, there was in fact a labour shortage. In the US, there was the idea of the frontier, ignoring that you're killing off or at least displacing the indigenous people and would eventually run out of frontier. The point is, the recognition that limitless growth underlay all this was a relatively recent discovery, and I disagree with Hollo here.
While there's some truth, Hollo's story seems one dimensional. Yes, commons were important, and there have been flawed critiques. At the same time, there have been pushes back. In times past in the US they were hand-wringing about "The Gilded Age". There were the hippies. In contrast to Hollo's claims that intellectual thrusts were had the goal of making us look at everything - including generosity - in selfish terms, people have and do emphasise community. More recently the middle class wrings it hands about people pursuing money at the expense of what's important in life, and you still have vestiges of the hippie approach to life, with people downshifting and making sea changes.
Going beyond the commons, there are so-called Georgist perspectives around land value taxation and a broader economic view. This shines a light on the philosophical ambiguities over just what it means for something to be valuable. It's not without its own problems, but it's still a promising way of looking at the situation, and it's conspicuously absent in Hollo's review. I've written about housing affordability, incorporating a look at the Georgist picture here
For sure, cooperative ventures can have an energy which challenges the push from the market. Here it's not so much the abuse of an existing commons so much as generating a new commons, or just new possibilities. Urban agriculture can be a good thing. Holo notes buy-nothing groups, a worthwhile initiative and something he has personally been involved with. I see the worth in repair cafes.
Hollo rightly points to how Canberra's original plan meant that suburbs were well laid out and very liveable, and that over time this original initiative was diluted. While free market apologists would claim these later developments improved affordability, Hollo does seem to make a credible point that the supposed more expensive development still yielded a better outcome overall.
However, there's another important factor in Canberra's history - how it dealt with land titles. Originally you didn't own your own title, you could only lease it from the Government. That approach was strongly Georgist, but it is strangely missing from Hollo's narrative. Sure, urban planning was good in times past, and it's sad that approach has been lost. But it wasn't the only thing going on, and Hollo again typically focuses too narrowly.
Hollo also talks about the inherent worth of the appreciation of nature. He does have a point, and it's a worthy aspiration. It's possible that you have a downwards spiral - a lack of appreciation of nature results in more social unrest and inequality, which makes us even worse off.
Considering extractivism and limitless growth, Hollo further develops his critique, criticising corporations and economics. Yes, corporate power can be ultimately self defeating and destructive, undermining its promise. Yes, the green bans were innovative. Yes, government has been subverted by resource companies. Yes, Global warming is a thing, and corporations push back like they did with smoking and cigarettes. Still, the corporate world can facilitate good. There's a conflict between innovation, wealth creation, equality and rent seeking or other abuses.
Indeed, you could cut the Gordian knot and just say it is not sustainable and stop the story there. Nevertheless, it feels like Hollo is being too simplistic.
Yes, there's lip service to consultation, with the promise being subverted. Equally, there's NIMBYism too. Pirates are broadly concerned about the problematic growth of bureaucracy. We see a great deal of bureaucratic indifference everywhere, along with the abuse of privacy, data harvesting and so on, which I won't go into here. Yes, bureaucracy around unemployment and indue and robodebt is bad. There's a problematic media commentary around "winners and losers", and sure, it would be better to emphasise how we're all in it together, but I don't think this sort of commentary is totally useless either. Hollo imagines a broader agenda trying to make us all think about being adversaries rather than cooperating.
Hollo imagines a cooperative model of democracy, that will turn things around. I hope for the best, but see more to the picture. While at times Hollo talks about the worth of diversity in political viewpoints and approaches, and for sure it is bad if economic focused views dominate, at the same time, right wing views are a part of the political landscape. Sure, let's get rid of abuses and excesses. But those right wing views will not magically disappear. I worry that open decision making will not help when there's a fundamental clash of interests. There seem to be deeper issues at work. Sure, when it is just a decision amongst many with minimum costs, sure. But I can't see that Hollo's approach will be a magic wand.
For sure, GDP is a problematic measure, and Hollo rightly puts a spotlight on it, and draws on the ideas of Kate Raworth. There's problems with economics, but equally it is a tool, and it can be useful. I've spoken about some of the abuses of GDP and other numbers from a Pirate perspective
Yes, idea of value is rubbery. There's much dodginess and arbitrariness in economics. There's the simplification of homo economicus, turning us all into selfish automatons. The issue is not whether there are simplifications, but rather whether we can still do something useful with economics in spite of them. For me that's a more interesting question, but Hollo seems to have a focus on identifying problems and then dismissing all of economics.
Hollo talks about sustainability, but in fact there's confusion between sustainability and renewable resources as compared to inter-generational equity and non-renewable resources. When it comes to things like fishing stocks, we can only remove so much in a given year. There you have the issue of sustainability. When it comes to fossil fuels, there's only so much out there, and how much we can extract in a given year depends on the size of the global economy and how it is configured. But, eventually we'll run out, or there will be greenhouse consequences. Here, it's not so much a matter of sustainable extraction, but rather intergenerational equity.
Yes, there's wealth inequality. I agree we've ended up in a strange place. There's advertising, where the competition is over the ability to manipulate rather than the quality of the product. Yes, political consultation has been subverted. You have Government herding people into a room, telling them what they're going to do, not listening, and then claiming they've "consulted". We do need to be on the lookout against language control. These are valid concerns, but Hollo's approach is a mixed bag.
There's Universal Basic Income. The Pirate Approach includes a Negative Income Tax and draw on the reality of incentives, not a bad thing in isolation, though yes sadly the idea of incentives are also used to justify some pretty regressive policies. Still, it is good to see Hollo supporting a Universal Basic Income.
Now, violence. Rather than looking at some violence as being more justifiable, Hollo seems to take a viewpoint of total purity. That any violence, whatever the origin, must necessarily corrupt everything then and ever after. This is strange given how Hollo celebrates Rojava. Even the Paris Commune needed to look at self defence.
Australian aborigines have the violent tradition of payback. Hollo endorses Indigenous views of the land owning us, and are held in contrast to western ideas about owning the land. Now it may well be that aborigines have a useful perspectives on how to relate to the land. To be sure, there have been positive initiatives like the Mt. Theo. campaign against petrol sniffing and Opal petrol. And it may well be that we need to respect this violent tradition of payback. But there's a strange blindness and selectivity in Hollo's book.
There's a lot more violence out there. Anarchists support coordinated defensive violence, much as at other times anarchists like Kropotkin and others are paraded by Hollo. Back in 2017, but there was an article in Slate, entitled Yes, What About the "Alt-Left"?, which outlined what the religiously inclined protesters were doing in response to the white nationalists in Charlottesville at the time:
Resident Rebekah Menning wrote: I stood with a group of interfaith clergy and other people of faith in a nonviolent direct action meant to keep the white nationalists from entering the park to their hate rally. We had far fewer people holding the line than we had hoped for, and frankly, it wasn't enough. No police officers in sight (that I could see from where I stood), and we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp to show that while the state permitted white nationalists to rally in hate, in the many names of God, we did not. But we didn't have to because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I've never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time. The Antifa were like angels to me in that moment.
For sure, non-violence may have been more effective at creating change. But I think you need to look at the situation before claiming a universal. Saul Alinsky, a respected US activist writing in "Rules for Radicals", suspects Mahatma Ghandi embraced non-violence because it was the most strategic thing to do at the time, not because of a deep seated conviction against violence.
For sure, there can be problems with US foreign adventures, to casually lean on violence is bad, and use of state coercive force to increase prison populations is bad, something Angela Davis notes and Hollo echoes. Still, Davis did make comments endorsing violence in particular contexts. You can hear it here.
I don't want to endorse violence, but Hollo's purity goes too far, particularly in the face of the lived experience of people whose viewpoints he otherwise endorses. If you look at the book as a whole, the way Hollo looks so selectively at violence, and writers and situations around it, it does seem inconsistent.
Now let's take a look at political developments in Australia, going back to Indi and then onto the Teals. Hollo looks at Indi as a model for cooperation driving good politics. Still, he misses a lot. Indi may have been a repudiation of Mirabella, the sitting Liberal candidate at the time, but not so much the Liberal Party or its approach more broadly, or Liberal Party values, where Hollo starts to see things in the shadows. Now, I might point out that I've reached out to Dr. Helen Haines, being happy for her to direct me to someone else in the know, but she could not find the time to answer questions from the likes of me or even pass me onto someone else. Still, I'll do my best regardless to make sense of it.
To shift people from the Liberal Party, you need both a credibility deficit and a credible alternative. Voters did not go to the greens, they went to an independent. It seems Mirabella made too many public insensitive decisions. Supporters could normally make excuses like "well she's busy", but somehow her sins could not be excused. There was perhaps a tipping point, with a sufficient number of credible stories in circulation.
These concerns would have been compatible with many Liberal Party values. Low taxation, restraining wage growth, supporting business and protecting people's asset values would still be endorsed, while other things were not delivered on, like mobile phone coverage, transport and other issues. McGowan was a local, and locally involved. Then there's climate change and same sex marriage, issues people might have thought the Liberal Party would support. Further, the Liberal party claims to endorse some positives Hollo talks about. Community involvement, though in some cases that's around church and groups like Rotary. Maybe that's how Liberal Party voters supported charities. Regardless, it's community, and there's a caricature claims that Liberals don't get community initiatives. Sure, maybe Morrison didn't. But, for all his faults, it's something Abbott did get.
Individuals may not want wealth as an indulgence, or because they're caught inside a hedonic treadmill. They may want sufficient prosperity so as to be secure against falling into poverty. It may not so much be about having a well paying job but rather whether you have a job at all. It's wrong to imagine all Liberal voters are only after excessive wealth. Previous Liberal Governments gifted land for national parks to the state government, purchased copyright on the aboriginal flag, and pushed back against patents involving the BRACA gene. And, if you believe the narrative, by supporting business, we all benefit through the provision of high quality value for money goods and services.
For sure, the Liberal Party has its own contradictions and negatives. But, nevertheless, critics like Hollo paint a caricature which ignores the reality. In the face of all the problems Hollo identifies - some which he identifies correctly - the fact remains that many people nevertheless still voted Liberal. The Liberal Party incorporates a rag-tag collection of contradictions. Different business interests - farming, mining, manufacturing, services, exports and imports. People who cherish freedom and people who favour moral or religiously based intervention into people's lives. Those endorsing religious viewpoints and those taking a secular outlook. Those who endorse a scientific viewpoint as compared to a populist one that attracts votes through dog-whisting. Most of the time you don't see these tensions, but at times they do surface.
Further, less positively and appealing to people's selfishness - the Libs help preserve your asset values, even if the less well off ultimately pay for it. At the most recent election, they spoke about life not being easy under Albanese with a dollar sign replacing the "s", illustrating that they do - deliberately and knowingly - appeal to people's selfishness.
There's a conflict between the Liberal Party pursuing these top level concerns and their ability to engage with local issues. Electors may feel they're being taken for granted. But there's a bit more to it. It's implied that focusing on the whole economy means your asset values will be protected and your interests advanced. That's supposed to be more important than the local humbug you might have to deal with. You're taking one for the team because you want to support the ideology, and that's more important. At least, that's what you're willing to do if you're a supporter.
Rolling the clock forward briefly, Frydenberg did something similar, and not wasn't really worrying about local issues. In the new politics podcast, the hosts noted that even if Frydenberg had kept his seat, rather than strutting his stuff in parliament, he would have had to run around his seat opening halls and similar to protect his much reduced margin, and been forced to live a very different political life.
It's also possible that voters will endorse the candidate rather than the Party. For Turnbull, his lower house vote was about 15% higher than the upper house vote, though certainly both were above 50%. But many people voted for Turnbull and not the Liberal Party. More recently, people supported a Liberal Party candidate not because of his party, but rather because he'd been active in the community. Who was in Government was a secondary issue - they would have voted for a sitting Labor candidate with a similar positive record. Presumably, though, they were willing to tolerate a Morrison Government - it wasn't so scary it made them vote Labor.
The party agenda and your support for the local area are important. If you have a reputation for being arrogant and abrasive, that wouldn't help. As a voter you might be vaguely supportive of Liberal Party values, so long as candidates are also polite and reasonable. Which Mirabella was not. While people sometimes talk about the general rudeness of candidates in parliament, most of the they'll look the other way for their own political party and candidate. But, if your support for a candidate and party is not rusted on, you'll be willing to jump ship.
While McGowan may have gotten her leg up by being consultatitive, Hollo overloads this observation. It was not an endorsement of the Hollo package, but rather a local response to a very particular situation. If Indi endorsed the whole Greens package, they would have voted Green rather than a nuanced independent. Further, a lot of people stuck with the Liberal Party, McGowan won by a small margin - though there was certainly a large swing behind it.
McGowan's vote increased at the next election. Rather than indicating a further ideological drift away from the Liberal Party, I think it was an endorsement her record in parliament. That's reinforced by the fact that McGowan's successor, Dr. Helen Haines, had a reduced vote when she first won the seat which increased with time. It's difficult to believe that the electorate's identification with Liberal Party values varied so strongly - it's easier to believe that the electorate liked what they saw in Dr. Haines and warmed to her.
Moving the clock forward to Zali Steggall, rather than her endorsement being a reaction to the broader set of Liberal Party policies, it was a reaction to policies around same-sex marriage and climate change, with Abbott being seen as out-of-touch on these issues. When it came to local issues, Abbott suddenly found the energy to talk about local infrastructure, but it was legitimately seen as convenient - why had he been missing in action for however many years before?
The recent ascendance of the Teals was similarly a particular reaction to current problems with the Liberal Party, not a rejection of what you might think of as residual Liberal Party values, which the Teals claimed to be better custodians of than the Liberal Party itself. And for sure, they had help from Simon Holmes a Court.
There were numerous issues with Morrison - how he dealt with bushfires, Covid, women and climate change amongst others. Some were narrowly Morrison, and some more broadly the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party hosted climate denialists and vaccine skeptics, with Morrison originally wanting to go to the footy in the face of Covid. People did not necessarily want to trash the economy in pursuit of action on climate, but with the Libs hosting climate change deniers and lacking any real action, along with a sudden about turn before the election, it was just not credible. Their line was that hydrogen will be a technological saviour, they'd preserve the economy, don't worry, trust them, it will be fine, a story reminiscent of their past narrative around so called "clean coal".
I also have my own view of tectonic shifts resulting from Covid. Yes, some people did get neurotic about it. To be sure, while I embrace the reality of the Covid threat, and the worth of lockdowns and vaccines, I also see political inconsistency together with leakage from racism and classism in terms of how the situation was dealt with, along with some naivety about how to set up quarantine for what was fundamentally a respiratory disease.
This prompted one end of the population to become paranoid about Covid. But, at the other end, there was an emerging spirit of unity - that "we're all in this together". This meant that appeals to asset values - property taxes and franking credits - had less traction. Also, banging the table about freedom of speech and the woke lefties cancelling people had close to zero traction as far as I could tell, while the Liberal Party was able to lean on this previously.
Mark Gibbons, past Pirate Party Treasurer, had a narky observation to make. A seat that went to Labor might slowly swing back to Liberal. But the seats that went Teal - well, based on past experience, once an independent develops credibility, they can become entrenched till they leave on their own terms, and their goodwill may even pass on to their nominated successor. Of course, the Teals need to develop that credibility, it's not guaranteed, but sure seems possible. So, strangely, the Libs might have been in a better position if Shorten had won the last election. They'd have Labor candidates that could have been more easily unseated over time than entrenched Teals.
So, I'll now conclude. While Hollo says a lot of interesting things, and notes the writings of a lot of interesting people, he nevertheless is very selective in what he covers and how he covers it. I certainly acknowledge he gets some strands correct, but also many wrong. And the tapestry he ultimately weaves from those strands ends up being full of holes. But, at the same time, let me celebrate that he puts things forward as he sees them. I'd never challenge his prerogative to that. Being a teensy bit narky, I'll also observe that he is lucky and privileged to have such a platform with which to put his views forward. Oh boy, to be spat at in the face! But, getting back to his book: if you do give it a read, I would suggest you consider carefully and critically what he does put forward.