The Courtesans of Democracy


— 张祜

On The Terrace of Assembled Angels

Sun shines over the slanting roof
Red blossoms welcome the dawn dew
Last night the Emperor selected a new girl
Her smile sneaks past the curtain
— Zhang Hu

This is a peculiar Australian election, one with an unusually febrile and brittle political class visibly unable to deal with a moment of tangible success and prosperity. As a nation, we are in a rare economic position to make strategic policy decisions on, say, climate change, or labour market liberalization. Our leadership has chosen to celebrate this by smearing itself with pork fat and staging a cream pie wrestling match in a giant circus ring.

Years ago on South Sea Republic we used to kick around an idea of government design patterns – recurring structures seen in recognisable forms wherever government is found. It’s a concept that is not exactly new to statecraft, but the format is, originating from architects like Christopher Alexander but finding perhaps most of its popularity in software engineering.

One pattern I thought worthwhile, but never wrote up, was Courtesan / Eunuch. Eunuchs and imperial courtesans are specialist professions to serve the executive, and have an explicit role in preserving the imperial mandate. In dynastic systems, this is usually based on genetic membership of the royal line. Loosely generalising from the Chinese and Ottoman imperial courts, you therefore have a harem to propagate the line, expanding the odds of a continued mandate beyond a few royal princesses. You also have eunuchs to manage access to the harem and minimise risk of other men’s sperm getting access to them.

The Chinese imperial system was established on a public philosophical basis of the Mandate of Heaven. And its true that this accommodated dynastic change, but the usual transition was expected to follow heredity. For an established dynasty, the Emperor had his mandate by virtue of being the Son of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven was not a simplistic doctrine of absolute power, either; it represented caring governance of the land and its people.

The specialists who formed the eunuch and courtesan classes included humanity’s usual mix of the brilliant and the venal. They provided a valuable service to many emperors, and I suspect sometimes a welcome buffer against the stultifying rituals of the scholar-bureaucracy. The power of these groups would wax and wane, but when the opportunities arose, clever courtesans and eunuchs could wield a great deal of formal and informal power. Indeed, since the civil service scholars hated having their power usurped in this way, there are plenty of detailed accounts of when and how it went wrong, and corrupt eunuchs and power mad courtesans, like Yang Guifei (杨贵妃), are a recurring theme in Chinese history. Another example is Suleyman’s consort Ruxanna, celebrated by poets throughout the ages.

Though we shouldn’t forget the scholars’ partisanship in this matter, they could have a point. Confined to the inner court for much of their life, prevented from formal training in matters of government, people from this class had little experience, sympathy or exposure to the broader country. When they reached exalted positions, they were prone to seeing government entirely through the lens of court or harem politics. How else to explain the spectacular devotion to face of someone like the Empress-Dowager Cixi (慈禧), who while China was being sliced up by colonial powers, spent fortunes rebuilding the Summer Palace rather than the Qing army? Or her eunuchs who spent the Navy budget building a spectacular marble boat on the lake of that same palace? There is an interesting revisionist view that Cixi was a Chinese patriot. She stayed on top of the Chinese court for 47 years, so she certainly couldn’t have been an idiot. But she must have had a spectacularly skewed view, in which appearances of courtly grandeur were paramount, to allow these decisions to happen.

Or to restate in another way: eunuchs and courtesans running the show were a good indicator the government had become detached from reality and ideologically inbred. The consensus reality of the court was fractured from the agricultural and economic realities on which it relied. This could happen even if these classes just did their job of preserving the mandate of the government.

Australian democracy is a far healthier system to live under than the imperial China mandarinate. Yet democratic leaders still rule according to a philosophical mandate, and they have professional specialists to protect and cultivate it. This is the spin doctor, servant to the executive, guardian of the flame of popular and electoral approval.

Again, in itself this is no bad thing. Democracy would hardly be worth the name if government ignored the people. The recent and unusual palace coup in the Labor party has thrown light on how the lens of opinion polls and focus groups distort the world for those that live in the scented garden of the spin doctor harem.

The courtesan here is not our historic first female prime minister. We are not quite at that stage of political inbreeding. Ms Gillard has trodden the unoriginal and traditional path of lawyer turned lawmaker. It’s people like the bumbling backroom eunuchs of the NSW Right, Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib. These are the movers who knifed the bureaucratic Rudd when he lost popularity for reneging on a pledge they advised him to renounce – around action on climate change. They have been playing the same game with NSW premiers for the last few years; three so far in just this parliament.

The theory here seems to combine admiring the power of our TV-age obsession with a party figurehead with disdain for the actual role of a leader. When this is overlaid with an imagined mastery of targeting key marginal seats without having any strategic direction, you get a content-free election like this one, which hasn’t even succeeded in making Labor popular, and even required Rudd had to be bizarrely resurrected to salvage the party’s chances in Queensland.

Both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull owed some of their appeal to their advocacy of strategic policy changes, and to their backgrounds at least slightly outside the official finishing school for politicians. This school is a matter of advancing from university through staffer roles and think tanks until landing a seat in parliament. And yet neither the diplomat or the merchant quite had the partyroom skills to stay in the leadership position.

Under pressure from the electorate it serves, our inbred contemporary political class tries to renew itself from related social groups by bringing them into the system. It then kneecaps those recruits for not having sufficient political skill, but crawls back to them for forgiveness afterwards. Devotion to tomorrow’s opinion poll numbers instead of the next decade’s policy is like living in a cruel casino of popular whim, which doesn’t even pay out very well, because people care about next year more than tomorrow. And when you spend too much time with the courtesans of democracy, you end up fucked.

3 thoughts on “The Courtesans of Democracy

  1. Admit it — you wrote that entire post just to set up the final sentence. :)

    I agree that Australia is in a near unprecedented window to safely consider the long-term development of the country, but the window itself is a generation long. We have, on the up side, what America has (with its social security and healthcare spending) on the down side: the knowledge that the big thinking can probably be put off another year without incurring any real damage to the long term health of the country.

    Perhaps I’m showing my biases, but I believe that a) Turnbull was rolled primarily for ideological, not poll-based, reasons; b) Rudd was ejected for almost exactly the opposite reasons; and c) both decisions were made using the correct logic.

    I prefered and continue to prefer Turnbull over Abbot, but that doesn’t matter here: an opposition must stand on it’s principles and their fight was genuinely one of principles. At the time, the Copenhagen conference was still upcoming and — I believe — the Australian people’s opinions on combating climate change were up in the air. Had Turnbull won and the ETS become a reality, public opinion would have come down in favour of it, even with the disappointment of the climate change conference.

    On Rudd, I have arrived at the same decision that I did about Gordon Brown: An extraordinarily gifted bureaucrat, superbly well suited to heading any number of major government portfolios, but a spectacularly poor leader. I’ve no idea if Gillard is any better, but Rudd was dying up there. In addition to all the guff about firm resolve and an eye to the future (of the country, not one’s reputation) 15 years hence, a good leader must present well, must speak well and must rally (the people) well. Rudd failed in those last three and so, to my mind, wasn’t up to the task.

  2. Hah – well it is a meandering post but that sentence did motivate me to finish it …

    Turnbull didn’t ever do well in preferred PM. These were still the glory days of Rudd’s stratospheric approval ratings. I’m sure that was not too far from the partyroom’s mind. Turnbull was lousy at running the partyroom – all the inside commentary said he ran the party like a CEO instead of a political leader. He never seemed to get the hang of cultivating the support of nominal juniors – not something you get a lot of practice at an investment bank I suspect.

    That said I think you are right that the sparking event was a hard faction of scientifically ignorant whackjobs in the Liberals. Beyond celebrating the retirement of Nick Minchin, I still cannot fully internalize that the conservative side of politics so thoroughly eschewing individual responsibility, good stewardship and a scientific view on reality. They had a climate change policy of substance at the 2007 election, so I fall back on the view that for most of the party political expediency was the main motivation.

    On climate change the polling has supported concrete action for some time, though the resolution has been breaking down in the absence of leadership and as climate whackjobs have taken firmer hold in the coalition. And also, as you say, while the leadership China and India decided they could use Copenhagen as a chance to smack the rich world about a bit instead of fixing the problem.

    I think it is clear that Rudd lacked the skills to manage the partyroom, and it seems both Gillard and Abbott do have them, as politician’s politicians. I thought about mentioning in this post the two doctors that never became Australian PM – Hewson and Evatt. In Australia neither the system nor the electorate usually welcomes technocrats. I didn’t ever see Rudd as dead meat in the way the commentariat did. And I think a lot of people who follow politics less were probably blindsided by it.

    If you look at the history of his fall, though, it all started from the whiteanting of the strategic policy platform. You have two major swerves – kicking the ETS into touch, instead of bringing it to the next term, and an exceptionally hamfisted sell of a this mining royalty scheme. It was when the government stopped looking like it could run the country that the polling turned.

    Writing this on election night, I suspect a hung parliament is the best result. Both parties offered variations on do nothing, so now the electorate asked them to do nothing for a few years.

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