The next revolution

I found a link on Facebook (via the US “liberal” site Upworthy) which promoted something called “The Story of Solutions”, advocating the importance of redefining our social goals, abandoning mindless growth, substituting “more” with “better”. I shared the link, emphasising what I think is true – that while the group’s argument for small local and sustainable enterprise might seem idealistic, what we’re doing right now is even more so, resting on an assumption of infinite resources and capacity to consume.

The link provoked some discussion, mostly about the relative power of corporations compared to governments, with implications for the functioning of democracy. I added the following comment (or at least this is a slightly edited version, edited to make sense without the context of that particular discussion).

The bosses of the “big six” energy companies in the UK have been called to a parliamentary select committee to explain why a rise in wholesale prices of around four per cent requires a hike in consumer prices of nearly 10 per cent – but the government has already claimed there is nothing it can do about prices, while opposition leader Ed Milliband’s suggestion that the energy “market” was not working in the consumer interest (an indisputable fact) was howled down by the political and media establishment as a dangerous return to “70s socialism”. That’s all rubbish of course. Energy is not a normal market. Everyone needs it, but supply is limited. That supply also depends on an infrastructure that can only be efficient as a monopoly. The excuse for letting the private sector manage all this is that it gives easier access to the capital needed to maintain that infrastructure – but capital is the real commodity here, and should be the cheapest element in the equation. Instead what is effectively a private monopoly is being exploited to move huge amounts of money from the whole population into the hands of the already-privileged few – the management of the big six, and the fund managers who are the majority shareholders in this plunder. David Cameron and his friends claimed that Milliband was threatening the energy security of the country, but actually it was the head of one of the six who made the direct threat, saying that if a government tried to control what his business did he would cut off supply. These people are not fit to be the stewards of what until Margaret Thatcher was considered a strategic public asset. Corporations cannot be trusted to act in the public interest – they consider themselves only indirectly answerable to that public interest and historically have done everything they possibly can to insulate themselves from that heat. And it’s corporations who are calling the shots, either because in the case of this government, they are all part of the same club, or because those corporations have an economic power that no government seems able to resist. There’s plenty of reason to think that the baleful influence of the myopic financial sector (let’s call it the City of London) has created a hopelessly fragile economy in the UK, but like the banks themselves, exposed by the crisis of 2008, it has become too big to fail, or even mess with. The City is like a functioning alcoholic … it keeps going but only by fuelling the disease. How we get out of this I don’t know, and like any rehab it’s not going to be painless, but sooner or later it’s got to be done, and maybe it has to start with a more intelligent (and rational) public discussion about the possible relationships between public and private sectors.

Having said this, it strikes me that a pressing further question is whether the tensions now forcing themselves into the public gaze will just die down again, or whether the confidence of the Establishment (in the UK and globally) that it can maintain business as usual, will in fact bring on the revolution it thinks is not going to happen.

I’m not suggesting that there will be blood on the streets (though there may be some civil unrest, or even uncivil unrest), but I’m wondering whether in the next twenty years we might see radical social change to match the huge technological changes of the last twenty years.

We tend to think of revolution as the forcible overthrow of a government, but what we’re seeing is a fast-growing (and well-founded) disillusion with the power of democracy to deliver government in the public interest. It’s well-founded because government after government, regardless of its apparent ideology, has failed to do anything but tinker around the edges of the major issues we face: most obviously unsustainable environmental practices, but also (and these are just the headlines) an utter failure to reshape education in a post-industrial world where information technology has changed the rules; the problems of underfunded pensions and inadequate care in the face of an ageing population; a consistent loading of the balance between individual liberty and individual security to favour Establishment over public interest; and not least the increasingly grotesque relationship between public institutions and private power, which among other things has led to a dangerous widening of the wealth gap between ordinary people and the economic elite (even the IMF has documented the damaging effects of such inequality on national economic performance). Behind this too are some pretty pressing questions about the role of nations in a world made apparently borderless by technology (though some borders remain very real).

In the UK certainly this failure has been mirrored by the collapse of meaningful political discussion. Politicians have become slaves to the soundbite, so petrified by the possible disapproval of the likes of the Daily Mail or Sun (mouthpieces themselves for powerful vested corporate interest) that they have given up on the idea of arguing to shape public opinion, in the process abandoning any pretentions to real leadership.

There are real differences between the political parties, but there is a widespread perception, also grounded in reality, that once in “power” they will all go down the same well marked ruts. Here is the context in which this week’s BBC interview with Russell Brand has gone viral on YouTube, with Brand articulating an increasingly compelling rationale for a refusal to participate in established political systems (which with increasing brazenness are serving the interests only of a very small elite).

As Brand himself admitted, he hardly has a thought-through alternative, and that may be because the problem is too big for a wholesale answer. Churchill once remarked that democracy is the least bad of the possible options for government, and that remains true: while democracy as it has evolved in the West is very clearly failing in its central purpose of ensuring that governments work in the interests of all they claim to govern, the traditional alternatives still seem worse.

And maybe this is why the revolution is happening elsewhere, in the kind of small scale independent localism urged on us by The Story of Solutions, a localism that turns away from the deadening hand of both governments and corporations. It’s happening through people building their own networks which operate beyond the normal spheres of corporations and governments, feeling out the possibility of reclaiming the power of numbers from those corporations and governments.

We shouldn’t be naive about this. Any of these new networks are still entwined with (and to some extent depend on) both corporations and government. This can’t be about creating a world where corporate or governmental power doesn’t exist. But perhaps, just perhaps, it’s about reasserting the force of leadership, about retaking control, about refusing as individuals the false, self-serving choices offered to us by those corporations and their lapdog politicians. In the end we are still going to need global power to address global problems, but it may be that the way that power is configured and channelled will be radically different from the past. We have to live in that hope, because the powers that be are offering no hope whatsoever, their heads firmly buried in their piles of penthouse cocaine (ok that’s a cheap jibe, but it has enough truth to be worth saying).

You can find the Story of Solutions video here

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