GUEST BLOG: Douglas Renwick – What is our Political System?



In the standard textbooks in political science it’s asserted that the western nations live in ‘liberal democracies’.  If we look at how the term ‘liberal democracy’ is defined, I cannot see how this argument can be true.

Liberal Democracy is defined by political scientists as a society where people have an equal say in making decisions that affect them, and that people are the best judges of their own interest. Looking at the first of these principles, recent research refutes any claim that people have an equal say in the USA. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page show that overwhelmingly, the rich get what policies they want. They conclude that “Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.” And that “economic elites stand out as quite influential in the making of U.S. public policy.” The study looked at almost 2000 policies over a 21 year time period. There is no similar study done in NZ, unfortunately. But given that we have undergone similar policy changes, though not nearly as extreme as the US, it should not surprise anyone if similar results were found.


What about the claim that our society is one where we value people being the best judges of their own interest? Any look at our society will show that we live in one where the elite try extremely hard to dissuade people of the notion that they are best judges of their own interest. There is plenty of evidence for this, it can be seen through advertising, and new heights in rhetoric and public relations in political campaigns to convince people to vote, buy, or make decisions against their own interest.

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This form of public relations, or propaganda as it was called in less euphemistic days, has always received great endorsement as a cultural value in our society throughout its history. One of the founders of western propaganda, Edward Bernays, defined democracy quite differently to those in academia, saying that ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the opinions of the masses was an important element in democratic society.’ With political scientist Harold Lasswell in the 1920’s endorsing it as a technique to control the public mind.  In today’s time, it has become so engrained and normal, that politicians now win awards for their manipulation of the public. Namely in Obamas hope and change campaign in 2008, where he won an award for being the best marketer of the year. This was also true for Don Brash’s award winning billboard campaign in the 2005 campaign, which the NZ herald praised it as “elegant and humorous”.  If you take a look at the recent Green Party co-leader James Shaw, there have also been those on the left, namely Chris Trotter that has compared his skill in rhetoric to Obamas. In New Zealand, the politician Richard Prebble also expressed contempt for the idea that people are the best judges of their own interest, when there was 90% public opposition for the privatization of telecom during the 1990s, noting that “New Zealanders should be proud to have a government strong enough to resist a pressure group of such proportions.”

So I conclude here that our society does not meet the necessary and sufficient conditions that are considered ‘liberal democratic’ by the standards of political science. But this is true not only by the standards of modern political science but by the standards of many philosophers through history. Aristotle, for example, defined democracy as when “the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.” Thomas Jefferson also noted that a country is only democratic when people not only vote for representatives but when they are also a “participator in the affairs of government.”

As for Liberalism, the views of what is now called classical liberalism are mostly forgotten and misrepresented in contemporary political thought. A good example is one of the favorite philosophers of the NZ elite; F.A Hayek, who claimed to base his ideas on classical liberalism. But, from I’ve read of classical liberalism, the ideas presented were quite anti-capitalist by principle. If we take Kant’s political writings, he defines the difference between an artificer who is his own master, and does work that he is able to sell to someone else later on, which is different from what he calls a laborer, who allows others to make use of him, and therefore is not a citizen. One of Hayek’s favorite philosophers Wilhelm Von Humboldt expressed similar views in the Limits of State Action, saying that ‘the laborer who tends a garden is perhaps in a truer sense its owner, than the listless voluptuary who enjoys its fruits.’ Similar views were also put forth in Karl Marx’s theories of workers alienation, and have been kept alive by 20th century philosophers Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky, who revived these ideas in his essay called “Government in the Future”.

Coming back to what’s taught in schools, if the studies done by Gilens and Page are accepted, political scientists should not disregard their own research and should teach students that their society is a plutocracy, and if this research holds true for our own society, then we should also teach this elementary truth. That is, if they want to live up to the standards of rationality. I myself have not yet seen enough evidence to come to any conclusion on what NZ’s political system is, yet given we have undergone policy changes that have made the rich incredibly wealthy, while real wages have stagnated, it would not surprise me if research was conducted to give overwhelming evidence that we live in a plutocracy.

The method of hiding elementary truths is seen as a form of political indoctrination when it’s observed in ‘enemy’ countries, but it is never observed as a form of indoctrination in the country you live in. Principles don’t apply here. For example, everyone could see that the public in Leninist Russia overwhelmingly believed they lived a socialist society because of their doctrinal system.  Before Lenin’s tyranny was established, socialism meant workers having control over the means of production. But everyone outside the country could see that it was a tyranny, and that control over the means of production was not worker controlled but centralized under the command of the vanguard. One could ask if Russians would have benefitted if their school system put forth some elementary truths, that their society was a tyranny.

In the same way that Lenin tried to exploit the term socialism in an effort to present his society as fair and just, we can trace back the roots of how this was done in western society with the term ‘democracy’. David Graeber makes a reference to this in his book called ‘The Democracy Project’. Noting that elites despised democracy in the early 19th century, but when the US president Andrew Jackson saw that this political ideal appealed to the masses, he exploited this as a form of modern day marketing strategy using it in his campaign, claiming to be a democrat, and winning his election, which made such an impression that the other elites quickly copied his strategy.

I think almost everyone nowadays would agree that teaching these elementary truths would have had a liberatory effect. But then again, our school system is not designed for the purpose of liberation. As the treasury put it clearly and explicitly in their 1987 document ‘Government Management’, “Historically universities may have acted as a key source of free information and discussion on political and other sensitive issues. In the information age this is no longer the case.”



“Douglas Renwick is a young adult studying mathematics and philosophy at Victoria University. In matters of politics and economics he is entirely self educated. His political goal is to defend humans from the massive assault on rationality led by corporate and state institutions.”



  1. This is one of the best commentaries I’ve read in quite some time. The term “Plutocracy” is as much an accusation as a description of a political system in the minds of the wealthy elite, which is why control of information through media and education is essential in confining the debate spectrum. Hopefully some reading this will gain some insight into why increasing numbers decline to vote.

  2. These arguments are very contradictory – apparently “the elite” work very hard to dupe and indoctrinate the rest of us while simultaneously being “listless voluptuaries”. It is also completely false to equate classical liberalism with anti-capitalism by taking a few lines out of context. Jefferson is not the best person to quote regarding democracy given his ownership of hundreds of slaves.

    Also, the vast majority of Soviet citizens completely rejected the state indoctrination they were subjected to by their education system – they just pretended to go along with it due to the harsh punishments if they didn’t. When these were removed, the system immediately collapsed. Not that what replaced it is much better.

    Is modern politics a battle of lying propagandists trying to hoodwink the voters, or are the public simply provided a smorgasbord of alternative policies and freely make their choice? Your answer to that question may depend on your level of cynicism, and whether your preferred party won the last election.

    • Well, i never said the elite worked hard but i’m sure many of them probably do, except for the ones born into wealth. Their work happens to be much more pleasurable than the work done by wage slaves in china. From what i gathered from reading the classical liberal texts, (and that quote included),all them favored worker autonomy, which is highly anti-capitalist in principle, so i don’t see how its taken out of context, that was the common opinion of classical liberals back then.

      I would agree that neither Jefferson and Aristotle are experts on democracy, (Aristotle was in favor of slavery too). I am showing how the concept has changed over time.

      I’m sure you are right about Soviet Russia, this is something i don’t know much about. i have always suspected that the western propaganda system is much superior to that of totalitarian states. Would you have any recommended reading on Russian public opinion during that time?

      As for your last question, the answer depends not on cynicism but from looking at the history of western propaganda and checking weather people like me or Chomsky or others who write about it are correct.

      • Classical liberals may have waxed lyrical about yeoman farmers and independent artisans, but in the context of small government and free markets. Far from being anti-capitalists, they effectively invented it.

        I think you have to be very cynical to believe that the only reason right wing parties win elections is because the majority of the population are too thick to see through their lies and propaganda and time after time vote against their own interests (or don’t vote at all.)

        • I don’t think the population is ‘thick’. I think the mass media are the thick ones, or most of them. Or perhaps they are just cowards. It has to be either of those. Anyway, they can learn things just like anyone else.

          Looking back on my own past propaganda has worked well on me in a lot of ways. it works on everyone to some extent. A lot of the reason it works is because people don’t have time to devote to questioning it, and combating it. And the people who do get into positions to question it, say professors and journalists, get into that position because they obey doctrines. Journalists don’t have their job for very long if they start being honest. That can be demonstrated by looking at history. Part of how journalists are controlled so easily is they work in a precarious environment. The financial institutions that run the media make their money from cutting down on journalists, and when you work in that environment you just learn to obey.

          As for right wing parties, you misrepresent me here. i vote left as most poor people do, but i don’t have any great expectations out of it. It’s just something i do without caring too much, then i go on to more important things. The policies are not that different between the greens, labour and national. They have all made themselves quite clear on this actually, they are pro-business. Their policies would be considered well to the right of any party 35+ years ago as well. And all of these parties use rhetoric to try and win elections. But propaganda extends to more than just political parties. The media demonize the poor and over-report on crime, and in school, certain things that a society would really want to know are suppressed. Particularly in neoclassical economics, they don’t teach economic history for example even though it is important for understanding economic development in the third world.

          So propaganda extends to every major institution, or anyone with great wealth. Anyone with enough money can buy a PR person, or start a foundation to spread influence of their political ideals.

          Again, your wrong about the classical liberals, or at least the ones i read. If you mean the ones that came later, in the 19th century. Sure i can easily believe they would be pro-capitalist, but i haven’t read much of their work. But if you read the earlier ones like Adam Smith for example, he is very anti-capitalist. He points out how he thinks division of labour is degrading to human beings.

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