Category Archives: politics

Can ‘the centre’ hold?

This week’s Conservative Party Conference saw Theresa May attempting the fascinating manoeuvre of claiming the ‘centre ground’ by combining far-right xenophobia with economics seemingly slightly to the left of Labour under Ed Miliband.

The whole concept of the centre ground has always been questionable, and perhaps May’s surreal yet straight-faced take on it will help put the idea to rest. When Jeremy Corbyn was first standing for Labour leader last year, there was a lot of talk about how Labour can only win by claiming the centre ground, but very little analysis of what the phrase was actually supposed to mean. You might assume that it would be some kind of averaging of the political views of everyone in the country, but apparently advocating for nationalised railways and public services is ‘far left’ even though the majority of people in the country support it, so that can’t be it.

It seems, instead, to be something more like a triangulation of the views acceptable to the big media outlets. Take the average of the ideas of the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Times and the Sun, and you have the officially approved centre ground, more or less. While there’s no denying that chasing this worked rather well for Tony Blair, there are a few problems with this as a long-term strategy for a party of the left. One is of course that most media outlets are controlled by a small number of very rich people, all invested in making life easier for very rich people. Another problem, perhaps more fundamental but also related to the right-wing tendencies of the mass media, is that the Tories have historically had very little interest in chasing after the centre ground.

The Tories, instead, constantly push their perspective, working to demonise groups that it is convenient for them to demonise and to normalise measures that would once have been seen as absurdly right-wing. In other words, their strategy is to pull the ‘centre ground’ towards them. When Labour fails to make strong counter-arguments, they are reduced to chasing the centre ground as it recedes ever towards the right, in the direction of removing support for those who need it and blaming less-privileged groups for the problems in society.

Whatever else May’s Conservatives have done, they have spectacularly pulled the rug out from under the self-proclaimed ‘moderates‘ of Labour’s right wing. By cementing their long-term scapegoating of migrant populations with the kind of xenophobic rhetoric and policies that have historians shifting uneasily in their seats, they have shown up the folly of ‘taking people’s concerns about immigration seriously’ by promising controls on immigration and so on, rather than persistently, forcefully pointing out that most of those concerns are based on falsehoods pushed by right-wing media and politicians, and that the things people are blaming on migration are almost all the result of economic mismanagement.

You can’t out-xenophobe Ukip, unless you’re prepared to become May and Rudd’s Conservatives. People who are convinced their problems are caused by immigrants will just vote for the parties they believe are genuinely opposed to immigrants, not a party that promises controls but looks like it’s pandering. It remains to be seen whether they can be convinced that problems like overstretched public services and depressed wages can be solved through social democratic policies by a government that actually wants to solve those problems, but Labour’s alternative strategy has been an unmitigated disaster, so it’s probably worth trying.

The new economic direction that May and Hammond are taking the Conservatives in exposes the folly of Labour’s right wing from the other direction. Eds Miliband and Balls had five years in which to point out that the economic crash was caused (indirectly) by deregulation that the Tories were at least as keen on as Labour at the time, and absolutely nothing to do with Labour ‘over-spending’. They had five years to make the case that austerity was a political choice, pushing the damaging consequences of the financial crash on those least able to afford it while letting those responsible off the hook; to point out that it was having the opposite effect from what George Osborne was claiming it was supposed to, and that a wide array of mainstream economists agreed it was a terrible idea. Instead, they broadly agreed with the Tories about economic policy, promising just a bit less austerity if they were elected.

Now even the Tories have at last disowned Osborne’s disastrous economic strategy, after six years of ballooning debt, falling wages, stagnant productivity and the slowest economic recovery for almost a hundred years. Remember, this is a strategy that Balls almost entirely went along with – although to be fair, some of the changes Hammond is making are in line with the tweaks Balls wanted to make. Other changes are more in line with John McDonnell’s approach. Osborne’s strategy was always going to come crashing down sooner or later – yet Corbyn’s competitors in last year’s leadership election were united in believing that Labour lost under Miliband and Balls by being too far to the left.

Labour failed as an opposition in the last parliament, by missing almost every opportunity they had to oppose. They allowed the Tories and right-wing commentators to shape the debate about migration, about economics, about welfare and more. Some in the party still see hope for its future in chasing after a ‘centre ground’ framed by the right: they still think it is safer to pander to fears about immigration, rather than allaying them with facts and promises of much-needed investment; they still see neoliberalism as the only economic philosophy that stands a hope, even as its failures become ever more painfully apparent. However difficult the Labour Party’s position is right now,  such an approach is simply untenable. Those in the party have a choice of uniting in opposition to every destructive, divisive thing the Tories stand for, or chasing a strategy of attempted moderation that hasn’t won them an election or an argument in more than a decade.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

The A Word

The A Word is a beautifully shot, dramatic and deeply problematic BBC series about the family of an autistic child. That description might give you a clue what makes it so problematic: despite the autism theme, it’s really not about the autistic kid, Joe, at all. Joe himself is played quite convincingly by 5-year-old Max Vento, but the character is extremely thinly drawn. He’s autistic. He likes music, and music facts. That’s all you need to know; it’s all the viewer ever gets to know, really.

So the drama is all about the effects of Joe’s autism on his family, including two uncles and a grandfather. More specifically, it’s almost all about the arguments that stem from or in some way relate to the realisation that the kid is autistic, and that’s a lot of arguments. They also manage to find quite a few other things to argue about, though. It’s been suggested that the ‘a word’ of the title is not ‘autism’, as we might first assume, but ‘arguing’.

The parents are presented as deeply ignorant of autism in the beginning, but very willing to learn. That could have been a nice setup for a series designed partly to help the viewer learn about autism, but it wasn’t. Though the parents do have some educational chats with specialists and each other, they’re pretty light on detail, and they include some fairly questionable stuff.

So the series isn’t a helpful educational resource on autism in any straightforward sense. Where it might have some value is as an extended game of Bad Autism Parenting Bingo: they do practically everything that parents of autistic children (and adults) should never do. They neglect their other child; they talk about Joe in front of him, as if he’s not there; they argue, often about Joe, where either or both children can hear them; they attempt to bully professionals into providing the help they think they need; they avoid disclosing Joe’s autism to his school, although it must already be perfectly obvious he’s not like his classmates; they force him to take part in activities he clearly has no interest in; and they jump on any sign of ‘normality’ and refuse to let it go, because they remain convinced throughout that autism is something laid over the top of Joe’s inner self, rather than accepting it as a fundamental part of who he is.

Unfortunately there is no sign that the writer of the show, Peter Bowker, realises this is what they are doing. It seems more like he wanted the parents to seem flawed, but loving and well-intentioned, which is fine – but I worry that many viewers will watch without realising the magnitude of the mistakes they are constantly making.

Having said all this, there is quite a bit about the series that I appreciated. It’s set among the rugged hills of the Lake District, and filmed to make the most of it. Doubtless the Cumbria Tourism board were delighted. The acting is mostly strong, with Christopher Eccleston excellent as ever, as Joe’s grandfather – who I read as being quite clearly aspie himself, something I was genuinely surprised the series never explored. Some of the characters were just about likeable enough for me to care about the drama they kept inflicting on each other.

Unfortunately the shallow treatment of autism really lets The A Word down. Right up to the last episode I kept hoping that at least one of the parents would come to accept or at least understand that their son just is autistic – that’s who he is, it’s not something he has, and certainly not something he suffers from. If the parents’ total failure to grasp this wasn’t bad enough, it’s also suggested that he’ll always be heavily stigmatised, and there’s no point hoping for acceptance in our society. In a world populated by people like this show’s writer, perhaps such pessimism is justified.

However, the BBC has commissioned a second series, and maybe it will partially redeem itself yet. Certainly the National Autistic Society keenly collected feedback on series 1, and Bowker is on record as saying that series 2 will be “both about being the family with a child that is different in a small community as well as being a part of the wider ‘autism community’ and all that this entails”. The fact he said ‘autism community’ rather than ‘autistic community’ rings some alarm bells, but if the series does acknowledge that there is such a thing as an autistic community, it will be breaking new ground. While more and more autistic characters have been making their way into TV and film, they are almost always shown as isolated; the fact that groups of autistic people can and do get together to share experiences and socialise is very rarely mentioned.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

A Coup without a Clue

Jeremy Corbyn (photo CC by Plashing Vole
Jeremy Corbyn speaks (photo CC by Plashing Vole)

Here’s the thing about Corbyn: as far as I can tell, his analysis of what’s gone so wrong with British politics, and specifically the Labour Party, is absolutely spot on. So are his prescriptions for how to fix it. None of the attacks he’s faced have addressed these. None of his attackers have ever put forward anything approaching an alternative vision, or even a serious critique of Corbyn’s analysis or policy programme. Whether this implies a total acceptance of the status quo, or simply a failure of imagination, I’m not sure.

I’d be interested in reading such a critique, or about a significantly different, plausible left-wing policy programme. Maybe he’s missed something, you know? Maybe I’ve missed something too.

I’ve seen some criticisms from Greens, of course – Corbyn’s default assumptions tend a little bit towards the statist, although McDonnell’s actual economic policies push strongly towards decentralisation; maybe he slightly understates the importance of the environment; that kind of thing. But I’ve seen very little from Labour that really goes beyond ‘BOO, UNELECTABLE’.

That’s just not good enough. Millions of people in the UK (the DK, I should say) are impoverished, disempowered, alienated from the political and economic systems, and hopeless about them. The vote to leave the EU is widely and, I think, rightly, seen as a symptom of this.

That makes the right wing of the Labour Party far more culpable for the way that vote went than Corbyn’s supposedly lacklustre campaigning. They’ve let the working classes down for decades by refusing to foster hope for anything better than what we’ve got, or to rebuild institutions that would allow us greater control of our own lives.

This lecture from a few weeks ago (available as a podcast and a transcript) is the clearest expression I’ve encountered of exactly where Corbyn’s coming from. Given the time and space, he is capable of expressing himself very compellingly. I’d be interested if anyone could articulate where they think he’s going wrong – in terms of ideas, rather than just delivery.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

The Greens and the Left

tippingpointahead-sign-readyThis is a guest post from my brother Leo Murray, creator of the climate change animation Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip and various others. We’re in broad agreement about most things.

Interesting times! Today, Green Party membership has overtaken both UKIP and the Lib Dems (editor’s note: this was first written on the 16th of January; four days later the total membership figure for UK Green parties is now over 53,000 and rising):

Greens:    44,713
UKIP:        41,943
Lib Dems: 44,526

You may well have noticed David Cameron’s recently announced cynical position on the TV debates, which is obviously about ensuring that if he has to contend with UKIP then Labour should have to contend with Greens.

There are some very interesting implications from all of this. The Tories have recognised the opportunity the rise of UKIP represents for their own agenda, and leveraged it to shift the middle ground of political discourse in the UK over to the right.

Meanwhile the Labour party, having now only really a barely recognisable semblance of left wing politics or representing labour (= workers) following their total acquiescence to neoliberal economic doctrine under Tony Blair, have had the opposite reaction to the rise in popularity of the Greens – they are shitting themselves, and acutely aware that the Green Party are basically embarrassing them on a daily basis by being proper socialists, and showing up Labour as the rootless flunkies of neoliberal capital interests that they have become.

Unlike the Tories, whose core agenda of dismantling the welfare state, advancing corporate power and protecting capital and elite interests remains unchanged, and have hence been able to use UKIP to help advance this agenda, Labour (at least, the Labour high command, notwithstanding questions about Miliband himself) no longer have any agenda at the core to advance.

Consequently, Labour have entirely missed the opportunity to use Green support (including in Parliament itself via Caroline Lucas) to move the middle ground of political debate to the left. I don’t think they ever saw it as an opportunity! Instead of welcoming a Green voice in the Commons as an ally in the same broad agenda, Labour have chosen to throw everything they have at un-seating Caroline Lucas from Brighton – it’s one of their top target seats! Not a Tory seat, not a Lib Dem seat, but the only serving MP to the left of Labour. They’ve also appointed Sadiq Khan to mount a fightback against the Green vote, and this week got Miliband to sign a letter to broadcasters – an identical letter to the one written by Nigel Farage – saying the TV debates should go ahead with or without Cameron, with no mention of the Green Party.

BUT because of the way politics works here, Labour do recognise the threat the Greens pose to their vote share, and it is already forcing them to make concessions to scramble to hold onto the left wing voter base in the UK.

It is also the case that the BBC and others’ position on the TV debates is starting to look increasingly perverse and untenable now that the Greens actually have more party members than either UKIP or LibDems, both of whom feature heavily in this stuff.
SO
There are some vital tactical considerations for everyone involved in the struggle for social and environmental justice in the UK at this critical juncture. Whether or not you regard the Green Party as an effective vehicle for change here in more general terms (the jury is out – perfectly legitimate to think not!), if there was ever a moment to actually sign up to join the Green Party, it is right now. Even for those of us who are wholly committed to anarchist principles and ideals, there are extremely good tactical reasons for believing that simply adding your name to the Green Party membership at this particular moment in time will help undermine our enemies and take us closer to the kind of world we are working towards creating. And quite apart from all of the party and Westminster political implications of all this, there is a brilliant opportunity here to change popular perceptions of the political makeup of British society.

Leo’s conclusion is that as many people as possible on the British left should be joining the Greens (or Scottish Greens). I would also add to that if you disagree with their characterisation of the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Greens as ‘minor parties’, it would be worth responding to the OfCom consultation on their official guidelines and the BBC’s draft guidelines on electoral coverage. You might also like to contact other media companies directly to protest the exclusion of Greens and other relatively radical voices from debates and coverage.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

To Vote, Or Not To Vote

MPs debate Queen’s Speech
Count the women! Spot the non-white people! Guess how many of those pictured are millionaires! Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

The House of Commons is hopelessly unrepresentative of the population of the UK, both politically and demographically. It has been dominated from its inception by wealthy older white men belonging to one of two or three political parties, and the policies of those parties have converged in recent decades on a so-called ‘centre ground’ which is in many ways far to the right of popular opinion, and which takes for granted a set of economic assumptions which are at best questionable, and at worst both harmful and evidently false.

Although I am focusing on the UK here, the same points can be made in a disturbingly large number of other countries.

So I have a fair bit of sympathy with lines like  ‘don’t vote, engage with politics‘ and ‘if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it‘. I can see why people would want no part in a system there is so much wrong with, and far too many people mistake turning up at a ballot box every few years for meaningful democratic engagement. However, none of this is a good argument for abstention in national elections. Don’t fall for the lazy lie that politicians are all the same, and don’t lose sight of the fact that sometimes they achieve tremendous things like founding the NHS, or exceptionally bad things like starting wars of aggression. We have a shared responsibility for holding them to account for their wrongs, and letting them know what we think they should be doing.

Unless you’re a rich white man, the fact you can vote at all is probably thanks to direct action. There are at least three important lessons in this, the first of which you will doubtless have heard many times before, although it is probably the weakest: (1) Many people have thought it was worth fighting extremely hard for voting rights; (2) Direct action can fundamentally change the way society is run, especially when it forces those with the most power to sit up and take notice; (3) Extending the franchise beyond rich white males is clearly no guarantee that the main power structures will not continue to be dominated by them.

Abstention does not imply apathy, but it is far too easily mistaken for it. Only 44% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2010 UK General Election, and the politicians know it. Turning up to vote is not just a way of expressing approval for a particular party or candidate, or disapproval for others. It is a plea for you, and your demographics, to be represented – a message that you won’t just go along with whatever happens, and that elected politicians stand to gain something from taking you into consideration. This works even if you spoil your ballot paper or vote Monster Raving Loony Party, though I would encourage you to rule out the existence of a serious party worth voting for first.

Don’t be put off by the apparent improbability of your preferred candidate winning – there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. When victories like Caroline Lucas’s win for the Green Party in 2010 do come along, it’s possible largely because enough people in previous elections refused to vote for ‘the lesser of two evils‘ to convince much of the rest of the population that it might be worth  doing the same. In recent years, Spain has seen the decades-old dominance of its electoral system by two parties abruptly ended by the rise of Podemos, a new party formed as a result of the Indignados movement that presaged Occupy. In Greece, the ascent of left-wing Syriza has gone some way towards counter-balancing the simultaneous rise of the far right, and may yet see the country find a way out of its current difficulties that works for most of its people and not just its wealthiest. Long-standing political assumptions are often shakier than they look, and profound changes can take place in a surprisingly short time when people get together and demand them.

Britain is not being run well, and that is largely because we have collectively been letting our rulers get away with it for far too long. Voting is a painfully weak mechanism for holding them to account; it’s not enough, but it’s something.  The UK parliament has great power over our lives, for both good and ill, and we have some power to steer it. Huge gains were made for the people of Britain in the decades after the Second World War, which thirty-five years of neoliberal rule have still not fully undone. We can do much better than this, if we’re prepared to fight for it on multiple fronts. If not, we should expect to see it get much worse yet for most of us.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

On Democracy and Hope

The atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum was electric.
The atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum was electric.

On the 18th of September, 1.6 million people in Scotland voted to break away from the United Kingdom. When asked, about three quarters cited dissatisfaction with Westminster politics as one of their main reasons for voting Yes to independence. No big surprise there: just a quarter of the population here is happy with how the current government is running the country, and our electoral system keeps electing tory governments in spite of how the Scottish population votes.

Evidently, we felt that being shot of the political system we’re saddled with, once and for all, was worth all of the economic and social risks and costs associated with breaking up a country and starting many of its institutions from scratch. That means a lot – independence was never going to be easy, and change is almost always scary.

Democracy cairn
Still, the dream of democracy lives on.

But this is a country where less than a fifth of the population trusts politicians to tell the truth, where the electoral system is set up in such a way that politicians can safely ignore the wishes of the great majority of its citizens if it garners favour with the few who live in ‘swing seats’, and where it has been widely taken for granted that a vote for anyone but the two or three main parties is a ‘wasted’ vote, since the first-past-the-post system makes it so unlikely anyone else will be elected. Less than two thirds of the country even bothered to vote in the 2010 general election; of those who did, most voted against the Conservatives. Only 36% voted for them, country-wide, and only 16.7% in Scotland – far, far behind the 45% who went for Scottish independence, although the media’s been describing that as an ‘overwhelming defeat’. Even if you add up all the Scottish votes for both of the parties ruling us from Westminster, it only comes to 878,326 – not much more than half of the 1,617,989 who voted for independence. It is pretty clear that the Westminster system does not deliver governments, or policies, that most of us particularly want to vote for.

I say all this not to suggest that we were robbed, although some demographics, particularly on social media, were so pro-Yes that many people were genuinely shocked by the result. My point is that this level of engagement is extraordinary in British politics, and we must not allow it to be a one-off.

Less than 64% of people in Scotland voted at all in the last General Election, and only 39.1% in the latest round of council elections. We are very used to politicians and the media bemoaning this as ‘voter apathy‘, as if people didn’t vote because they don’t care, but the 85% turnout for the referendum suggests that overwhelmingly, people will turn out to vote if we think our vote will make a difference. The referendum didn’t just get people voting – it got us debating, researching and imagining. We started taking seriously the idea that that we could help shape the future of our country, and probably should.

Sarah Beatty-Smith, Edinburgh Co-convenor, at Edinburgh Greens
The first post-referendum Edinburgh branch meeting of the Scottish Green Party had to shift to a bigger venue to accommodate all the new members, but then that one filled up too so we had to split up and also fill the original venue.

In light of that, it makes perfect sense that the SNP and the Scottish Greens have both seen massive surges in membership since the referendum, with both parties more than quadrupling their numbers in the space of less than a month. All of that energy, all of that creativity and hope  had to go somewhere – and it was hardly going to go to the big Westminster parties, who all opposed independence with such inspiring slogans as ‘IT’S NOT WORTH THE RISK.’ The ‘Better Together’ campaign started out with that nice, cuddly title, but it turned out to be almost the only glimmer of positivity in a campaign overwhelmingly focused on killing aspirations and playing up fears.

We might object that there are also some fairly alarming risks associated with being ruled by a parliament elected through a hopelessly undemocratic system, dominated by three parties who still take broadly neoliberal economic assumptions for granted in spite of all the evidence against them, most of whose MPs come from profoundly privileged backgrounds and won’t challenge the great transfer of wealth from poor to rich that they like to call ‘austerity’. But these are familiar risks. Better the devil you know, right?

So most of us voted against Scotland becoming an independent country. This was always the likeliest result, whatever social media might have led us to believe – change really is scary, and before the referendum campaign started, the polls showed overwhelming opposition to independence. Factor in all three of the biggest parties currently in Westminster, along with almost the entire mainstream media and several large corporations working to convince us the economy would be terribly imperilled by independence, and scoring as much as 45% of the vote looks like a remarkable achievement.

Independence, for now, cannot be our route to a more just and democratic society. But for many of us it was always a means to an end, not the ultimate prize. We will not stop fighting for more power to be in the hands of the people who are most affected by it; we will not stop fighting for accountability in government, for a fairer economy, for a system and a public discourse which acknowledge that a better world is possible.

Because here’s the thing: with enough of us fighting for it, a better world really is unmistakeably possible. If we don’t keep fighting for it, a much worse world seems pretty much inevitable.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

On Independence

I’m not a nationalist. I thought I should get that out of the way at the start. I don’t think nation states are a good thing to base political structures around, and I was raised to view expressions of patriotism with deep suspicion. What I am is a localist, or a decentralist. Concentrations of power breed corruption and indifference, and they cannot help but disempower individuals and communities. There may be justifications for that, but the presumption should always be in favour of decisions being made as close as possible to the people affected by them.

So I would want to hear some good reasons why it was a good idea for Scotland to be ruled from Westminster before I’d accept that it should be. I have never really heard any*. The closest I’ve known anyone to come up with is that it’s just so much easier staying with the status quo, and radical change is so unpredictable. It would be, and it is. But the status quo is a train wreck, and profound change is the only thing that can get us out of it, however scary that might be.

As an experiment in representative democracy, the parliament at Westminster is a failure. That is, it is neither representative, nor democratic. The British public is overwhelmingly to the left of the main, supposedly left-wing opposition party’s policies on a wide range of issues, and the Scottish public is in many ways well to the left of that. But the mainstream of Westminster politics has an incredible momentum to it, largely thanks to the idiocy of our first-past-the-post electoral system, and Labour is too timid and seemingly too unimaginative to oppose any but the very worst aspects of austerity and capitalist economics. The Green Party is far bolder, constantly pushing for genuine, positive change with well-thought out economic policies, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities that Left Unity, or one of those other attempts at grand unification of the left might get somewhere some time, but the system is stacked against them, and the mainstream media make it even harder.

For a long time, my biggest misgiving about Scotland breaking away from the rest of Britain was that it would shift Westminster’s centre of political gravity even further to the right, removing a huge chunk of the support that the Labour Party has been able to take for granted. I don’t worry about that so much any more, because Labour have done so little to justify it in the last twenty years; if losing the Scottish vote helps jolt them out of their complacency, it might even work out for the best for the rest of the UK, too.

The Scottish independence vote is an opportunity for the people of Scotland not to be ruled by tories ever again, unless its population somehow drifts incredibly much further to the right. It’s also the only chance we’re likely to get, any time soon, to experiment with genuinely different ways of doing things. Maybe those experiments will be abject failures, but so is the political economy we’ve inherited – and either way, it’s about time the people of Scotland got the chance to fail, or succeed, on our own terms.

* The strongest argument I’ve heard for a No vote, in fact, is that the deal currently on the table gives insufficient economic independence to Scotland, leaving control of the currency in the hands of Westminster and the bank of England.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Our Chief Mistakes

And How to Fix Them

Sometimes I like to imagine that people in general are capable of being swayed by strong arguments, and changing their behaviour when it becomes clear they have been making a terrible mistake. In that spirit, here is a list of things that Western society is clearly getting wrong, and strategies for correcting our errors.

This list is not exhaustive, of course. I am focusing here on our political economy, rather than democratic reform or aspects of social justice that go well beyond that, partly because many of the problems in those arenas are fed by economic inequality, but mainly because they bring in thornier questions with less clear resolutions.  I want to stick to a few things which are generally taken for granted by our politicians and mainstream media outlets, even though they are evidently wrong, and fixable. The fact they are taken for granted might have to do with the dominance of vested interests, inertia or sheer incompetence, but in the end, it goes on because we have been letting them get away with peddling this rubbish.

1. Money and markets can never measure the value of everything.

Photo by David Muir.

Markets are reasonably good at assessing the value of certain types of goods, in relatively equal societies. Unfortunately they are hopeless at taking account of any value or cost which cannot be easily tied to a monetary transaction. In highly unequal societies, they also skew priorities radically towards the very rich. Meanwhile, maximising profits often means artificially restricting access to good things. The more we marketise, the more this happens.

These simple, inescapable truths make the entire neoliberal project, which seeks to make markets the arbiter of all things, destructive, inefficient and ultimately futile.  Neoliberalism remains a central assumption of our political discourse not because it makes sense, but through the prominence of voices pushing it forwards, and the historical defeat of Communism, wrongly seen as its main ideological competition.

We can and must get past this by insisting on the importance of things which cannot be monetised without destroying or degrading them, and acknowledging the logical limits of markets.

2. There is no excuse for companies making profit their sole aim.

It’s not even good capitalism. If the only choice we had was between shareholder returns trumping all other considerations, or else state control of everything, it might make sense to choose the former. In fact, however, there are many other possibilities.

There is a strong case to be made for insisting that private corporations make something other than profit their central goal – providing the best possible services in their field, for example – and instituting independent oversight to make them accountable for pursuing that goal.

There is an even stronger case for encouraging the growth of cooperatives. Evidence shows that they employ more people, make them more satisfied, and have more space for ethical considerations alongside financial ones. They are also inherently far more democratic.

In particular, when it comes to natural monopolies – transport networks, distribution networks for power, water and so on – normal market principles like competition simply do not work. At best, regulators can try to bodge them back into place. It is beyond eccentric to expect companies in such positions to do a good job of serving the public as a side-effect of the pursuit of profit, especially given almost all experiences of privatisation to date.

3. GDP growth is a lousy measure of the health of an economy.

Gross Domestic Product is a convenient measure of the size of an economy, but as a proxy for the well-being or even the wealth of a population, its use is indefensible, and not only because of the inability of money to assess value.  Relatedly, limitless growth of GDP is clearly impossible, yet the assumption that it is necessary goes on underlying the political and economic narratives put forward by politicians and the media.

An income-adjusted figure might be a great deal more useful. Recognising the obvious fact that £1000 makes a lot more difference to someone earning £10,000 a year than it does to someone who already makes £1,000,000 suggests a straightforward but revolutionary modification of GDP: weigh changes in income in inverse proportion to their starting point. This would still leave out all the non-monetary aspects of a real economy, but it would at least give us a reasonable starting point. Other approaches to measuring the success of an economy include ‘Gross National Happiness‘ and other efforts to measure well-being, as well as direct measures of inequality.

4. The dole as we know it is unavoidably counterproductive.

Our current system makes payments conditional on claimants regularly jumping through humiliating hoops, and not benefiting from part-time work. It doesn’t need to.

An unconditional basic income, or Citizen’s Income, paid to everyone regardless of circumstances, would almost certainly be vastly more efficient. It would save on administration and lead to more productive work being done, by making the price of employing people more closely reflect its objective cost. Unfortunately, it would be quite a radical break from the way things are done now, and our politicians have become terrified of doing  or even suggesting anything radical at all, however clearly sensible. This would, of course,  be less of a problem if the status quo wasn’t manifestly broken.

All of this naturally leads on to the even bigger question of what we should do about the failings of representative democracy and existing structures of media ownership and control – but as I said at the beginning, I wanted to focus for now on things which are clearly fixable.

We can get onto the thornier questions later…

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather