12 min read

This is how the system eats us

A non-specific cautionary tale about your favourite political party
This is how the system eats us

Chapter 1: Formation

Once upon a time, there was a movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system.

It doesn’t matter exactly where or when this was or will be, or what they called themselves. It might have been in Mexico City fifty years ago, or in Barcelona in the year 2045, or in Auckland just last week. The point is that they were motivated by good intentions and noble goals – standing up for oppressed workers, protecting the environment, ensuring everyone had access to food and housing and healthcare – you get the idea.

I think the movement started with a shearers’ strike or a forest blockade or something like that, but it grew much broader.

Alongside the protest marches and blockades and strikes, alongside the unions and the activist networks, the movement decided to form a political party (or maybe it was an unofficial grouping of ‘independent’ candidates – same thing really) so they could contest elections.

The party was intended from the outset as a democratic project. Different members had slightly different ideas about what that meant, and exactly what the purpose was, but it didn’t seem to matter too much. There were conferences and committees and policy working groups, and (in theory at least) everyone involved had an equal say in what the party stood for and how it should wield power.

Most members didn’t care much who the party actually nominated as election candidates, because no-one thought they’d win. And even if they did somehow win, they decided it didn’t matter that the majority of the elected candidates would be middle-class able-bodied white people, because of course everyone who was a member was still getting an equal say (in theory at least).

At first, the party was unpopular, and didn’t win many votes. After all, the system was stacked against new, small parties – particularly the ones that didn’t want to take money from big business and were supportive of activism and deep social change. But the members of this particular political movement did an unusually good job of grassroots campaigning and winning over more people, and eventually, after much work and great personal sacrifice, they won a few seats.

Chapter 2: Lots to do!

The movement’s newly elected representatives suddenly found that they were very busy. They didn’t have enough time for all the movement’s branch meetings and policy workshops, but they still went along when they could.

They now had thousands of constituents who wanted to talk to them and get their help with all sorts of things. Some of these noble representatives spent a lot of time helping individuals navigate flawed systems and challenge personal injustices, which felt meaningful and important, even though it also meant they had less time to work towards deeper systemic change.

Occasionally, even though they were heavily outnumbered, the elected representatives found that how they voted in the parliament/council/grand assembly, or how they used their position within the machinery of government, had a significant impact in whatever country or city or region they lived in.

They certainly didn’t have the power to change everything – or indeed, very much at all – but from time to time, they had a decisive say in whether a certain project was allocated funding, or a certain law was passed.

Of course, at those crucial moments, when they had to make the BIG DECISION, they didn’t have time to follow their movement’s usual slow, complex democratic processes for reaching a position on anything.

And they certainly didn’t have time to hear from everybody they represented. How could they? There were thousands of people in their electorate! Tens of thousands! All with their own opinions and agendas and misunderstandings about what the decision actually was.

Understandably, these noble, well-intentioned politicians didn’t have time to listen in detail to absolutely everyone. So how did they make up their minds...?

The laziest ones just listened to media commentary, and intuited a general vibe based on whoever made the time to reach out and contact them (most people in the politicians’ electorate didn’t actually even know their representative’s name, let alone closely follow the work they did, so when five hundred people wrote to them about something, it felt like a big deal, even though it was still only a very small proportion of the people in their electorate).

Some of the politicians listened to friends and family – the people they were socially connected to, who they shared a drink with after a long day at work.

Most of the politicians took lots of advice from their political staffers (who were also very busy people who didn’t have time to hear from everyone in the electorate), or from senior public servants who wrote briefing documents and seemed confident that they knew much more about the decision than everyone else.

They listened a little bit to the academics and subject-matter ‘experts’ (at least, the ones who used the same jargon as them) and to the NGOs who had the resources and connections to get meetings with them. And they listened to other members of their political movement – especially the ones who had worked the hardest to help them get elected – if they could make time for the branch meetings.

Of course, none of them took advice from big business CEOs, industry lobbyists, conservative think tanks or the wealthier donors who helped finance their campaigns, because they were 'good' politicians who put people before profit etc. (Some of the NGOs, academic experts, friends, family members or political staffers perhaps were being indirectly influenced by big business lobbyists and conservative think tanks, but it was hard to keep track of that, and who could say for sure?)

The hardest-working politicians went a step further, organising surveys or community forums or even doorknocking voters to find out what they thought. It was hard to go into enough detail about the ins and outs of the BIG DECISION in a simple survey or a 10-minute conversation or even a 1-hour forum, but at least they were reaching more people. They couldn’t share enough information or have particularly deep discussions about all the strategic pros and cons, but at least they were getting more feedback.

There were ever so many people to listen to!

But at the end of the day, the people who mattered most were the other politicians, because they were the ones who were actually voting.

So after taking in all that feedback, the politicians from the movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system sat down in a room together and decided in private what they would do.

Chapter 3: Secret meetings with other politicians

Some of the politicians had strong opinions of their own. Others didn’t care as much about that particular decision, and were happy to go with the flow (as long as they felt they wouldn’t lose too many votes over it). After a few hours of debate and discussion (which they all agreed must be kept confidential for the sake of presenting a UNIFIED FRONT), a decision was announced!

Some of the other movement members didn’t like these secret meetings very much, and talked about it at length at the conferences and policy working group meetings.

But the politicians and their staffers felt they had spent more time thinking about the BIG DECISION than other volunteers. And anyway, there wasn’t really time to hear from all the party members, so it didn’t seem particularly fair to only pay attention to the ones who had time to harangue them or attend the long, arduous party meetings.

In all of this, some important critiques were overlooked. Some perspectives – particularly those of the most marginalised members of society – were overshadowed or forgotten or drowned out under the weight of information from the surveys and forums and NGO stakeholder meetings and media opinion pieces.

But anyway, they made the decision, and some people were happy about it and others weren’t but that’s-the-reality-of-politics-you-can’t-please-everyone-and-you’re-damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t!

So things went on like this, and each election, the party/movement/grouping of semi-independent candidates grew. Sometimes they lost a seat or two. Sometimes they won several all at once.

And as the party grew, there were of course more politicians and more political staffers, all of whom were busy and stressed, and who obviously still didn’t have time to talk to everyone in their electorates.

Because they had more seats, it became more common for the politicians to get to make BIG DECISIONS about whether to support a certain project or law. Sometimes, they even had enough clout to put forward proposals of their own.

Each of these decisions – defining the finicky details of a change they were proposing, or voting on a project or law that another party was proposing – carried the same challenges…

How can we make sure we’re hearing a wide range of perspectives?
Which arguments should we give the most weight to?
How do we know what the majority of our voters want?
Can we be confident the people we’re taking advice from haven’t been sucked in by big business spin and propaganda?

Eventually, they were making two or three BIG DECISIONS every month! There wasn’t time to read all the expert opinion pieces or meet with all the stakeholders or even chat about all the decisions over beers with friends at the end of a long week.

More people were annoyed with them about one decision or another, which made them worried they might lose seats – then they wouldn’t be able to make BIG DECISIONS at all!

The time-poor politicians started to rely more on the advice of senior public servants, because they didn’t have time to talk to anyone else directly.

Now the public service was ‘consulting’ the public on the politicians’ behalf and telling them what the people wanted (at least, what the small percentage of people who participate in government consultations wanted). It seemed like the way the government consultation surveys and submission processes were written and structured was presupposing that the entire system more-or-less worked fine and only needed some minor tweaks. The politicians weren’t really sure whether they could rely on the results of these consultations or not.

The movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system set up more volunteer committees to try to advise the politicians, and ensure that amid all the competing voices, the politicians were also still paying some attention to their own supporters. But everyone was very busy. In some cases, the only people who had time to volunteer on the committees advising the politicians were the political staffers who were already being paid to advise the politicians.

Chapter 4: We know best

By this point, some of the politicians and staffers had gotten quite accustomed to being politicians and staffers. It wasn’t just that they liked the generous pay and the sense of importance. They also understood (instinctively, if not consciously) that they would now have less power and influence over BIG DECISIONS if they gave up their roles. It wasn’t like the movement’s early days when everyone had an equal say. If you were a politician or staffer, you had a lot more influence than most other movement members.

This, of course, meant some of the movement politicians were increasingly worried that other members from their own party might soon try to replace them as representatives. Other movement politicians (who, remember, were all fundamentally still selfless and well-intentioned) were also worried about losing their seats to politicians from different parties.

They worried that if they were no longer in power, they would no longer be able to influence BIG DECISIONS to serve the long-term public interest...

“If I’m in this role to uphold the public interest, then logically it’s in the long-term public interest for me to remain in power, so therefore it’s in the public interest for me to do whatever it takes to stay in power.”

Staffers and politicians started throwing around phrases like “that’s too politically sensitive” and “ah but the editors of <insert conservative media from the country in question> will have a field day with that!” No-one ever said aloud “Our wealthier donors might not like that," but some of them were quietly thinking it.

Phrases like “We can’t go into the details but you’ll just have to trust us” also started becoming more common, and sometimes, when challenged directly, the politicians even said things along the lines of “Well we know more about this than you do.” This was disconcerting, because the movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system used to get very angry when other politicians from the BAD OLD BIG BUSINESS PARTY said the same thing.

When the movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system first started contesting elections, there’d been lots of talk about term limits and other checks and balances so that no-one who became a politician would wield too much power and risk becoming corrupted. It was widely understood that unlike all the other parties, their politicians would step down after one or two terms and give someone else a go, rather than holding onto a safe seat for decades and accruing too much power.

But because some people were annoyed at the party for some of the decisions its politicians had made, and because the politicians liked being the ones making decisions, and because voters tended to prefer voting for people they already knew and trusted, the politicians (and their senior staffers) decided it was just smarter and safer not to step down, and to hang on for at least one more election, rather than giving up their seat to someone less ‘experienced’ who might risk losing it.

Remember! These were all good people with noble intentions. None of the politicians or staffers were taking bribes under the table, or giving special treatment to property developers or mining companies. Heck, their party didn’t even take donations from big corporations!

Now that the party had more politicians, and there were more BIG DECISIONS to be made, each politician was spending more and more of their time talking to their staffers, and to other politicians, and to other politicians’ staffers, and less time talking to anyone else.

Decisions were still being made by the politicians in private meetings. There was less time for anyone else – including party members and supporters – to try to influence those decisions, and it wasn’t even clear what the best way to influence them was.

Sometimes the politicians announced they’d made a BIG DECISION before anyone else even knew it was up for discussion.

Chapter 5: We have to hold on to power

Often the toughest part of these BIG DECISIONS was choosing whether to settle for minor reforms, or to advocate for bigger changes and risk electoral backlash. They were hard choices, particularly because any minor reforms were often overshadowed by the overarching system’s relentless violence and destruction – stuff that the politicians from the movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system still didn’t have much power over.

Of course, because the politicians and staffers in these private meetings considered that it was in the public interest for them to keep their jobs, whenever they were making these decisions, they tended to give a lot more weight to the risk of a short-term backlash, whether that was from swing voters in marginal seats, or from the mainstream media, or from whichever interest group people seemed to listen to a lot.

They wouldn’t have been able to tell you exactly how much weight they were giving to the perceived risk of hypothetical short-term political backlash, but it was definitely on their minds. Sometimes, ‘not pissing off privileged swing voters’ was the only thing on their minds.

This meant that the politicians kept implementing and settling for minor reforms to the current system, even as it continued to destroy the environment and exploit the poorest and most marginalised groups at an accelerating rate.

Even when it was obvious that the vast majority of voters across the country/city/region in question wanted a really big change, the politicians tended to settle for the tiny crumbs offered by the BAD OLD BIG BUSINESS PARTIES, compromising significantly rather than holding out for a better offer.

In these moments, it was very hard for anyone else in the party to know for sure whether the politicians were making good decisions, because of the whole secret-meetings-behind-closed-doors thing.

The political party of the movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system went on like this for a while, always promising its supporters that 'soon' they would win enough seats and they wouldn’t have to make so many difficult decisions in secret, because they would be able to implement their entire policy platform.

But when, after many years, the party had finally won enough seats to govern outright, without needing to negotiate with anyone from the other parties, they found that the pattern and culture of politicians making BIG DECISIONS by themselves had become deeply entrenched. And the fear of losing seats meant that the politicians STILL gave more weight to the perceived risk of short-term political backlash from those who profited from the injustices of the current system, than to the need to support deep system change.

A lot of members felt conflicted about this. Their party already controlled well over 50% of the seats in the parliament/council/grand assembly. How many more seats did they have to win before they could start implementing all the changes the party wanted to make? 60%? 75%? 90%?

The party had become so big and so centralised now, that the politicians felt that even if they wanted to include more of their supporters in BIG DECISIONS, they weren’t sure it was logistically possible (this was arguably a cop-out, because running big surveys and plebiscites was actually pretty cheap and simple, but they preferred to spend their money on campaign flyers and fridge magnets that would support their re-election prospects).

At least (they told themselves) the politicians from the movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system were still objectively better than the politicians from the BAD OLD BIG BUSINESS PARTY. But nowadays it was hard to say exactly how much better they were.

From time to time, other activist groups or smaller political parties would point out that the politicians from the movement of people who were trying to change an unjust system were now in fact maintaining and upholding the system, rather than transforming it.

But the movement members were very defensive about that kind of critique.

Maybe that’s because deep down, they secretly suspected it might be true.


Ok I hope that wasn't too depressing. But it's important we think critically about these recurring patterns if we are to have any serious hope of changing the world for the better. If you want to read more commentary unpacking the above issues and how we should collectively respond, please sign up for a subscription to my monthly newsletter.