This essay – yes its long- constitutes my Ladybird book on naïve politics as well as an anti-authoritarian blurt. It is also my way of working through my own ideas. I could have written it for myself and left it at that – but I would never have done that. The fact that I know twenty odd people will get it in their inbox and one or two might read a paragraph or two is enough to spur me on. Anyone who actually understands or has studied the subject will be annoyed by its foolishness – so don’t read it. To those of you that are more accepting of views based on ignorance and Utopian stupidity – read on and respond if you wish. I miss the opportunity for these kind of debates because our house, thank goodness is essentially an echo chamber. As always it is written in one long sitting that started at 4:00 am so it is no doupbt full of toypos.
My readers will know I am not a fan of authority. I hate authority of any kind (caveats to come). I admit this is childish, unreasonable and dumb. The reasons are probably historic. I think growing up in the 50 and 60’s when family and social life were confused by conflicting agendas – those who yearned for the pre war status quo and those who wanted change, had a significant part to play. I ended up caught in the middle. Now days I can actually feel my heart beating more rapidly if I find myself in a situation when someone tells me that I MUST do something. The something can be entirely reasonable but my first instinct is always to say ‘why?’ followed frequently by ‘no.’ This is not an exhibition of courage or individualism or self belief it about childish defiance. This trait is balanced by rampant cowardice. If the chips are high enough I will concur without complaint but while I am doing it I can taste sick rising in my mouth and afterwards I will fantasise about heroic defiance until I have persuaded myself that somehow or other I exhibited it.
The unimaginable Grenfell Tower tragedy has made me think about authority anew.
I once had to fill out a risk assessment detailing the risk of group of twenty year olds crossing the road. Needless to say they survived and needless to say I have dined out on this tale of excessive regulation ever since. Excessive regulation means nobody dares do anything that incurs even the slightest risk while deregulation can put people’s lives at risk. It a lose lose situation. My early career was in theatre. The theatre is quite a dangerous place I have seen fires, people fall of ladders, fall into orchestra pits and be pierced by stage swords. There are lots of rules imposed by a rigid hierarchy of managers yet I cannot remember any sick rising or questioning any of them. Stage managers were obeyed because they cared about you and they cared about the show. They weren’t acting as anonymous guardians against litigation (the primary goal of much Health and Safety legislation in other organisations I have worked in) they were ensuring no one got hurt and the curtain stayed up. They were always there on the spot to intelligently apply and relax the rules as required. Did you know that in theatre if there is a fire risk in a show a fire officer may have to be present or someone hides behind a piece of scenery with a fire extinguisher? Many a time a fire extinguisher is hidden in Jesus’s straw lined manger. The relationship between the culture of the institution, the objectives of the people involved and the purpose of the rules is glaringly obvious and we all fell into line uncomplainingly.
Because we now operate under the control of globalised, many tentacled, dehumanised corporations that are not like theatre at all, (if only they were), that relationship has been lost. Being a Health and Safety officer is a distinct profession with a set of abstract principles and rules that have to be applied. (I have a qualification in it apparently.) The manager rather than practitioner mind-set takes over and rules emerge that are at best impractical and at worst absurd. Making a decision about fire retardant cladding is more an exercise in doing what the regulations say, whether they make sense or not, rather than experiencing and empathising with the consequences of getting it wrong. Thus it goes wrong.
Which brings me to some broader points about how society should be organised and why it goes wrong.
Some sensible anarchists, (I am not one) – those that believe in the necessity for some sort of governing structure, posit that we need small groups of decision makers, that know from personal experience what they are talking about. They are invested directly in the outcomes so they will not bullshit. This structure is like the hierarchy in theatre where the crew, cast orchestra, costume makers etc as well as conductor, director and company manager are all listened to. Everybody shares a common goal because failure at any level will lead to the failure for all and the show will close. Basic bottom up collaborative governance. Authority is not distributed according to status based on power it is distributed according to expertise. Groups of democratically run councils that direct communal policies for the benefit of all is what we should aim for, so say the sensible anarchists. To achieve something like this we also need a government whose primary purpose is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to acquire influence according to their expertise thus maintaining a level playing field.
Actually I doubt whether many decent people would disagree with this. In fact some might say that our system of democracy, never mind this anarchy crap, is structured to achieve this goal. So why isn’t it working?
Well first of all (1) democracy relies on everyone having the same capacity to persuade the electorate which way to vote. Clearly this is not the case in America because of the enormous financial obligations required of anyone wishing to stand, and we are moving in the same direction in the UK. (2) Democracy relies on people telling something like the truth. I dispute the existence of indisputable truth or facts but I agree that some things at certain times and in certain places are more truthful than others. The Brexit NHS lie was an example of not telling the truth. (3) Democracy also relies on an electorate caring enough to bother to vote. People don’t vote for lots of reasons, some of which are far from noble but blaming them for not voting is like blaming those of us who cannot figure out how to hire a car without being ripped off with extra charges (yes I have been there), rather than blaming the people who run Hertz and design the contracts to be impenetrably complicated and ultimately fraudulent. Our electoral system is badly designed. People would vote if they felt it would make a difference for them and their neighbours. If they felt that a vote would mean fire resistant cladding would be fitted.
Trouble is the Establishment, and yes there still is one, doesn’t want the less powerful becoming powerful enough to start demanding their legitimate share. Their argument (aside from blatant greed and selfishness they rarely admit too) is the monetarist argument that we need vibrant entrepreneurialism and business activities in order to pay for all the benefits the populace expect. E.g. fire resistant cladding, free at the point of delivery health care and roads. They neglect however to admit that they also benefit from those services in sustaining a healthy workforce and a viable infrastructure in order to generate profit for them and their shareholders. Thus they get two bites of the cherry. Generous tax allowances that encourage the growth of their business and profits and the exploitation of the benefits of the tax paid by their workers. They can work harder and longer because they are fit enough to do so (thanks to the NHS.) On the way they can enrich their buddies working for accountancy and legal firms by paying vast consultancy fees to avoid paying the tax they rightfully owe. The Establishment wins all round.
In addition the Establishment rarely comes clean about how their profits are made. Overpriced drugs, arms sales to dodgy governments, financial scams, inducements for people to buy things they don’t need, zero hour contracts, the gig economy, bribes, corrupt deals, market manipulation the list goes on. So we have every right from both a moral and theoretical standpoint to be sceptical about the capitalist principles that inform the Establishment.
People have problems with terms like the establishment. They imagine it’s a collective term for the people who go to Glyndebourne (or worse have worked there [confession time]) or attended Eton and know which way to pass the port at the dinner table. Yes they are the establishment but it has clevery adapted (modernised) and is much broader based than that.
I like to think of it as ‘the people who own things, that other people have an equal right to own.’ So let’s face it that’s most of my readership, bar the odd hippy. Let’s forget money they own for now, which, after all is a transitory affair, let’s think about things that have always had value.
This is the Utopian bit.
(1)Land for example. Everyone has a right to occupy some space on the planet. (2) A home – somewhere you can store people. (3) Basic resources – food, water, electricity, oil and whatnot. From these absolute necessities spring additional necessities such as free education, healthcare and legal support but let us set those aside for now. So I would propose that the first job of any legitimate state, IE not one made up of vested interests, is to ensure that everyone has a fair share of these basics. The only way to do that is for the state to have ownership of these basics. But don’t freak out -of course in a world in which private ownership of fundamental necessities has gone you can go on owning private things, doing private things, thinking private thoughts, being a conservative or a socialist a Catholic or a Hindu an artist or a scientist but your influence is not modulated by your power over the basic necessities everyone needs. Variables will still exist, as every human being is unique but they will be legitimate, if you like natural, variables, not the product of geopolitics, arbitrary rules or chance. Variables resulting from natural resources will hopefully be eroded by technology. Health, age, energy, intellect, strength, personality are variables that are very difficult to mitigate against however the task of good government will be to do their best to do so.
Now none of this is new, in fact it is very old hat. Just as old hat as the traditional objections.
The first objection is that so far such a system has not worked, in fact it has led to governments of the exact opposite flavour. Despotic, cruel and corrupt. This is undoubtedly true, certainly in terms of the significant well known examples in Russia, China and North Korea, however the assumption that it will never work and therefore we should give up trying is a bit more of a stretch.
The human race has been around for about 200,000 years about 6 million if you include all our ancestors. Civilisations are known to have existed for about 6,000 years. So a history of about 100 years of experiments in giving the state control of basic necessities represents a very short amount of time in which to get things right. Given that these experiments tend to have emerged against a background of a very angry global establishment is it really unsurprising that they have gone disastrously wrong. Of course there are many examples of things going disastrously wrong under market led economies but it is undeniable that control economies have tended to lead to the rise of a corrupt controlling elite and terrible consequences for the poulace.
According to the sceptics this is due to human nature. Apparently unfettered humanity will give rise to unfettered greed and violence. Take away the kings and queens, the police and the banks and everything goes tits up until new versions of these entities arise. Where I ask is the evidence for this? Show me an example where a human society has been unfettered from which we can infer this conclusion? We are born in chains as the cliché goes. This is a cyclic argument on both sides. Without an unfettered society to experiment upon we cannot say whether a non property owning society will work, equally can an unfettered society ever arise upon which we may conduct the experiment. Thus the notion of the inhibiting properties of ‘human nature’ is mere speculation. We might get lucky and find that all the pessimistic predictions are based on flawed models. We have no way of knowing if left to our own resources we would settle down to some sort of social equilibrium, where everyone manages, imperfectly probably, to get on with everybody else and share their stuff. Of course the opposite might apply.
But let’s examine our track record. In the era of capitalism and individualism we have done many great things; controlling disease, raising GDP, sometimes avoiding wars, liberating women etc but in each case we need to add a footnote. In each case these things have been done for the benefit of some and not for others. Principally they have been done for those nations that for geopolitical reasons are fortunate. They have resources, they have influence, they have territory. For those that have none of those things then the best they can do is wait for the trickle down effect, the mantra of capitalism, that as I have said, may never come for some.
So let’s play a mind game, be optimistic and assume for a moment that unfettered humanity does not self destruct. We could even assume that government may be unnecessary in the future and pursue that as a long term goal. In the meantime we would ensure that everyone is empowered to take on the responsibilities of self-government, when it comes, by providing everybody with a fair share of critical resources. To do so we need to redistribute wealth globally and for the state to own land, homes and critical resources . By giving every one the necessities upon which to build a rewarding life we would hope to remove the compulsion to own stuff and encourage a desire to share stuff. This seems no more Utopian than the capitalist philosophy that you can buy, own and hustle your way out of the current, far from utopian, mess.