The end of civility?

The end of civility?

I’m going to say something about fascism, by way of definition, and then something more interesting (I hope) about the place we find ourselves in.

The left tends to use the term fascist as an all-purpose insult, and that’s understandable given the history of the 20th century. Its vagueness is also understandable because fascism is not a coherent political creed. In truth it’s an incoherent creed, characterised by contradictions. It’s populist, but authoritarian, anti-Establishment, but favourable to oligarchies. It glorifies strength and power, while being rooted in weakness, a sense of helplessness in the face of things you don’t like. It doesn’t have to be racist, but usually promotes fundamentalist myths of national identity.

Donald Trump is an incoherent fascist, his appeal unequivocally to fascist mentalities. That doesn’t mean the US is about to become a fascist state (its self-image as a standard bearer for democracy is probably too important for this to happen), but fascism’s resurgence in that proudly democratic country is a mark of the serious trouble in which the West now finds itself.

Definition matters. Winston Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst of all government systems, apart from everything else. This obscures the important truth that there are many ways of thinking about democracy, and structuring it. Politicians have for some time been abusing the practical vagueness of the word to suit whatever short term points they want to score, particularly in their use of the concept of a “mandate”, so it’s not surprising that many people seem confused about how government and democracy work together. We urgently need to address that confusion.

The will of the people?

Government is a pervasive feature of human social organisation, reflecting a rational need to divide and allocate responsibilities as societies become bigger and more complex. In earlier times government tended towards autocracy, but even then depended on some form of popular assent, however passive. Since the American and French revolutions the concept of democracy has slowly taken hold, at least in the West.

Government cannot be about literally representing “the will of the people”, when many (or most) of the decisions faced by governors demand specialised knowledge and expertise. The popular assent in a democracy must include agreement that the government will make informed decisions on our behalf. On the face of it this might seem paternalistic but in truth it should be no more than a sensible division of labour.

The point of elections is to ensure that those governors remain answerable for their decisions, which in theory at least should ensure those decisions are taken in the interest of electors. Edmund Burke, still an authoritative presence in British thinking about its unwritten constitution, was very clear about the duty of MPs to act according to their best judgement, whether or not we as electors agreed with that judgement. If time proved MPs wrong, we’d have our chance to throw them out.

When we speak of our “representative democracy”, it means government which represents our interests, but not necessarily our views. It is of course unlikely that any democratic administration could last very long if it was seriously at odds with public opinion, but then it’s also long been a role of good government to lead public opinion, rather than simply following it.

The widening gulf

These assumptions went largely unchallenged until recently. They’re being challenged now for a number of reasons, including the rise of assertive individualism, but more seriously our democratic structures have failed to evolve in ways which can keep politicians properly connected to their electorates.

In the British system notably, for decades now governments have been able to secure working majorities based on a disproportionately small share of the potential vote. There’s a chicken and egg effect here, as politicians schooled in spin have focused “scientifically” on the floating voter minority with a decisive influence on actual election outcomes, encouraging in everyone else the sense that their votes really didn’t matter much, fuelling the frustration and anger that feeds fascism. The leading UK proponents of this kind of political wisdom, Tony Blair and David Cameron, learnt their arts from Bill Clinton, so maybe it’s no coincidence that our different democratic systems should be facing similar crises.

The EU referendum has highlighted a further problem. One of the reasons referendums don’t feature much in our political history is that they enshrine an all-or-nothing, yes-or-no approach to electoral responsiveness, and that’s simply not how our democracy is supposed to work. Cameron cynically deployed the referendum tactic hoping it would close down an argument he didn’t want to have with his party, but when it returned the “wrong” result, he’s been hoisted with his own petard.

The Brexit victors now say “the British people have spoken”. Really? In its own terms the referendum result was a narrow victory for leave, but what has “the British people” said? By what arithmetical ignorance does a 37 percentage equate to “the British people”? What about the Scottish people? Does it simply not matter that a much larger majority of this geographically distinct group said something different? (It matters a lot.)

Government for all

One of the most important, if largely unspoken truths of democracy, is that the system needs to have enough checks and balances to ensure we don’t have the tyranny of the majority, and that reasonable minority interests are properly accommodated. Whatever their political complexion, governments are supposed to rule on behalf of the whole country, and not just their core or floating supporters. (Even Donald Trump has gone through the conventional motions of acknowledging this in his acceptance speech.) Our democracy functions on the balanced poles of careful judgement (by governors) and accountability, the latter in place to keep those judgements careful.

It is entirely relevant not only that the referendum result was close, but that it also did not represent a sufficient proportion of the population for any government to be confident that what was “said” by that 37 per cent in June is still the case, or that it will be the case in two or three years’ time when the UK might actually be in a position to withdraw from the EU.

In this light a second referendum on the actual terms of that withdrawal is the very least a democratic government should do. Here politicians have made a further mess of things by talking loosely of mandates, but whatever mandates our electoral system offer they are never for a particular policy; an electoral mandate is a much more general consent to govern according to your political values and apparent competence.

The wrong result?

This, a little ironically, is one of the reasons why it might be legitimate to hold a referendum on a single issue which could have a huge and lasting effect on the country. But if you’re going to do this you need to frame the referendum properly. You need to set a demanding threshold for voter participation, rather than a simple majority of votes cast, because a slender majority will be too easily subject to change or malign influence (for instance the blatant lies told during the referendum campaign). Such a threshold is the norm in other countries which use referendums more often, and it was used in the UK for Scotland’s devolution (if only once, in 1979).

Without this kind of rigour the claim “the British people have spoken” becomes no more than a bit of rhetorical posturing.

Indeed the problem with the EU referendum result is not that it’s the “wrong” result, but that it has no credibility, and it should not be the electoral rock on which the future of this country is built.

(We might ask the Brexiteers why they feel free to ignore “the will of the British people” as spoken in 1975? They could sensibly answer that things have changed in forty years, and I’d agree, but if things have changed again a year from now, or two years from now, why doesn’t that matter?)

It’s not a game

That this should have happened, and that political discourse routinely confuses ideas about mandates and winning, is hardly surprising, since Clinton/Blair and all those who have followed them turned politics into a game.

Representative democracy, with its checks and balances on power, evolved as a process, and elections, though important, are only part of that process. But in our debased model they are seen as the point of the process, as in a sport.

There’s a fairly obvious, important difference, because when you win in a sport, that’s it, but when you win an election, that’s only the beginning of the next period. And yet somehow these two ideas have been confused, not least by politicians themselves, who too often seem confused themselves.

A further problem with the idea that “the British people have spoken”: it rests on an assumption about identity, when our faltering democracies are making people question an assumed identity. When regions with a distinct geography, distinct culture and even distinct legislatures find themselves at odds with the majority of a different area (for instance Scotland, or California) who can blame them for withdrawing their assent from the process that claims to govern in their interest, and has simply failed them?

Or (should you be thinking that this is just another anti-Brexit rant) why were the only people who seemed outraged by Wallonia’s refusal to accept the CETA free trade deal with Canada the EU governments and officials who had negotiated the deal? Wallonia’s stance had broad support across the populations of Europe, support which European governments felt they could ignore (because they thought they knew better, and they are probably wrong).

The CETA deal has been signed, but it still seems unlikely to be ratified as long as the unaccountable trade disputes tribunals are in place, just as the TTIP deal would have been defeated if the negotiators had persisted with it. Neoliberalism enshrined the dominance of its dubious free market dogma above any other considerations, a dogma too often pursued by European technocrats. What’s happened with CETA is a happy sign of the end of the hegemony of neoliberalism in the higher reaches of European government (nationally and within the EU). Although those governments hoped to sneak it through, however narrowly democracy finally asserted itself, which in itself should give pause to those who claim that the EU weakens democracy.

Managing conflicting interests

So let me be clear. I’m not arguing that governments are wiser than their populations, and should be allowed to get on with the job regardless of public opinion. On the contrary, if government is really about the management and reconciliation of conflicting interests (which I’d suggest is the heart of the matter), then keeping people with you, explaining what you’re trying to do, (questioning it too, which demands more thoughtfulness than blindly following focus groups) and so soliciting assent is fundamental to the functioning of democracy.

Manipulating select elements of public opinion in the short term (which is what you do if you think democracy is a game) is no substitute for this tougher work, but if you don’t put in that work you’ll be feeding the frustration and sense of disenfranchisement that breeds fascism.

This substitution of spin for engagement, and all the cynicism that underpins it, is why we are where we are in the US and the UK, and possibly the rest of Europe, with increasingly divided societies, and a resurgent, mindless nationalism.

Along the way, as so often in the work of administration, we’ve ended up confusing rules with the principles those rules were created to support. The electoral college system in the US was developed to protect the interests of smaller states, but if it’s now distorting general election outcomes it needs to be reformed. Here in the UK an increasingly fragmented cultural and economic geography is not being served by our archaic first past the post voting system.

Beyond the voting system

It’s not just a problem of electoral reform, though such reform would certainly help. The conflicting interests that produced the Brexit vote were certainly not defined by class. Although the anger of white working class men, apparently left behind by globalisation and new technology, was probably a factor (as it was in the US presidential election), most of the votes for Brexit came from older people, mostly in the relatively prosperous south, from people who too feel threatened by the rapidly changing present (it’s fair to say that their media organ the Daily Mail is an almost ceaseless howl of rage, unwarranted by reality, but that’s what happens when you feel threatened). This anxiety is a common feature of older generations, the fear that the world is changing for the worse, and certainly the speed of social and technological change in the last thirty years is unprecedented in human history, which makes such anxiety understandable, even as it may be often misplaced.

The influence of this anxiety could and should have been balanced by allowing younger people to vote in the referendum, but in any case it’s incumbent on government to give greater attention to all these constituencies, reassuring where there is ungrounded fear, but also acknowledging that the views of younger people might have a stronger claim on the future than those of us who won’t live to see it (anxiously or otherwise).

It’s not just a question of electoral reform, because the checks and balances which you need in any democratic system to ensure that governments govern in the interest of all go way beyond the voting system. They involve the role of the judiciary, the media, the relationship between free speech (highly desirable) and accountability to the truth (increasingly necessary), legislative scrutiny and devolution of powers, to name just the headline factors.I won’t presume to tell the US what to do, but here in the UK it is time to put the work into a written constitution, work which would force all these questions to the surface, and might give us a chance of coming up with some answers.

It is the surest means to address what is in effect the corruption of our political system. It is a ready means to restore an increasingly absent civility to our culture.

Sadly, that’s unlikely to happen when most of the machinery of government is tied up trying to strike a trade deal with East Timor.

If this argument makes sense to you, please share it as much as you can. It will be the last time I write about politics, at least for a while.

Crisis what crisis?

Crisis what crisis?

We are in the throes of a major crisis of political legitimacy. It’s been sparked by the Brexit vote, though its roots go much further back. The only hope of a good outcome is if we face that crisis for what it is (and right now, our politicians seem to have their heads elsewhere).

The Brexit campaigners opened this Pandora’s box with their slogan “take back control”, which in a calculated way aimed to re-direct widespread public disaffection with Westminster against Brussels. It always looked a cynically potent idea, and in England and Wales it worked. Now the hard questions obscured by the simplicity of that slogan are making themselves felt, the disaffection is likely to get worse. The promises made (yet again) can’t be fulfilled.

The democratic deficit

But we do need to look further back. Thanks to the idiosyncrasies of our first past the post voting system there has not been a parliament that’s truly representative of the popular vote for decades. For both Thatcher and Blair, falls in public support actually translated into increased majorities. Minority parties like the LibDems have been consistently under-represented. With a touch of irony, in the last election Labour was wiped out in Scotland, though the electorate was in reality much more evenly split between Labour and the SNP.

That’s ironic because Tony Blair had a golden opportunity to change things, but in the end played true to tribal form and decided to ignore the work he’d commissioned from Paddy Ashdown about alternative voting systems. This clinging to the possibility of undiluted power in government seems to be as hard wired into Labour as it is to the Conservatives. It’s a blindness that has led us directly to where we are now, with large swathes of the electorate feeling disenfranchised and ignored by the political mainstream.

Stir into this mix a disastrously conceived referendum. It’s now all too clear that Cameron never seriously considered the possibility that he might lose it, a reflection in itself of a detached arrogance widespread in the political class, an arrogance which believes you can tell any lie that suits you and you’ll fool enough of the people for enough of the time to get away from it. Ironic too that this cynicism, even more pronounced among his opponents, should have cost him the referendum and with it his political career.

False clarity

I called this a crisis of legitimacy, and that’s because it’s been driven by hard questions about the legitimacy of the referendum result. Some politicians (Tory and Labour) as usual with their own agendas, are suggesting that “the people have spoken”, as if there were nothing else to say, as if it were absolutely clear what the “people” have actually said. But we deserve a more thoughtful response than this.

At the very least we have to ask whether a result that appears to have been secured by false promises can simply be accepted (particularly as there’s no constitutional reason to do so – if it’s more a moral obligation then you could argue more convincingly that politicians have a moral obligation to reject something that’s been secured by lies, has not been thought through, and looks so obviously damaging).

While we’re at it we might also be asking what really lay behind the result. There’s little doubt that it was in part an upsurge in xenophobia, deliberately stirred by the “take back control” slogan, though less commonly noted is the truth that this xenophobia is by no means confined to working class voters blaming the hardships imposed by austerity on immigration. The bulk of the leave vote came from the south outside London, from Conservative supporters who are for the most part far more Eurosceptic (and routinely xenophobic, sometimes straightforwardly racist) than their MPs.

There’s not much that can be done about these opinions (these people will think what they want to think). The Left on the other hand seem more comfortable suggesting that an electorally-significant proportion of its traditional voters have been misled, or that the Leave vote was really a howl of protest against a remote metropolitan elite (including the once-Blairite Labour leadership), and is best addressed by opposing the austerity agenda of the government (whatever’s left of it). Although I have some sympathy with this view it is at best a half-truth.

The scary world

Another likely truth, though its significance is harder to gauge, is that we’re hearing a howl of insecurity in a world where what seemed fundamental assumptions have been displaced or withered on the vine of their own irrelevance. There’s a spectrum of loss here, from things we’re really better off without, (gender stereotyping, sexism and sexual discrimination etc) to things that might be personally catastrophic (for instance the substantial disappearance of manual work outside the construction, catering and care sectors). The speed of technology-driven change in the last twenty years is unprecedented in human history. It’s not fanciful to suggest that part of the anti-EU protest vote reflected a nostalgic longing for a mythologised past where Britain had an empire and children spent their time with skipping ropes rather than mobile phones. I’d argue that this personal experience of change is probably more significant than abstract fears about globalisation.

For a whole load of reasons then people are feeling insecure, disenfranchised, and adrift in a society which seems to be organising itself against their interests. None of this has got much to do with the functioning of the EU in relation to the UK’s democracy, but the referendum vote probably had everything to do with the general promise of control (or regaining control).

This dissatisfaction certainly needs a political answer. Theresa May is recognising this in her early statements but I wouldn’t hold my breath for any substantial change from that direction.

Mandate my arse

In any case the referendum has highlighted a mismatch in expectations of empowerment and our usually incoherent expectations of democracy. Politicians themselves are to blame for this incoherence, when they bandy around loose concepts like “mandates” in order to justify what they want to do.

For instance, only activists bother to read election manifestos. No one really votes on the basis of a whole manifesto. Key points or pledges will be pulled out and may feature in the election campaign, and may or may not be decisive, but decisions are often guided by more emotional responses. I don’t believe many people really voted for “more austerity” in the last UK election, but they did make a general (albeit misdirected) judgement about economic competence.

And yet politicians will routinely claim they have a mandate for every word in that manifesto, if it suits their current purposes. Happily in reality things are a little more complicated. Any proposed legislation will be scrutinised by cross-party committees. Good MPs will defy party lines when they believe significant minority interests are being trampled over. This is a vital part of a functioning democracy, because the alternative would be a kind of totalitarianism of technical majorities.

In a vital sense then democracy is not about following the “will of the people” (because that’s nearly always an elusive quantity). It’s about being broadly accountable to the people on whose behalf you govern. Elections tend to be based on retrospection: with reason people don’t set much store by politicians’ promises, so the future only becomes relevant when we’re unhappy with the immediate past.

Whose subsidiarity is it anyway?

It matters that we insist on this complexity at every level. So when Jeremy Corbyn says he has the support of the mass of party members that’s indisputable (it’s much more clear cut than the referendum result). But he’s being disingenuous if he’s suggesting that it’s all that matters. What’s more, suggesting that MPs themselves should only follow the will of members (let alone their constituency activists) is to ignore the necessary (and desirable) realities of democratic practice: MPs have a primary responsibility to their constituents, not to their local party.

I’m not suggesting that party members’ opinion doesn’t matter (which is why common fairness demands that Corbyn should be on any ballot for a new leader, a contest I imagine he’d win comfortably), but that other group opinion matters too, and in some cases might matter more.

A democratic result can too easily depend on how or where you draw boundaries. In front of the Brexiters is the uncomfortable reality that Scotland did not vote to leave (nor did Northern Ireland). The further irony here is that Brexit campaign was on the face of it about the surrender of national sovereignty, the fact that the UK’s interests could be sidelined by a majority vote in the councils of the EU.

In reality subsidiarity is supposed to be one of the guiding principles of the EU. It means that decisions should be left as far as possible with the authority closest to the people who will be affected by those decisions. It means for instance that the EU would not attempt to rule on road pricing in London, or for that matter constitutional relations between Scotland and England.

And yet here is a majority UK vote which would sideline the clearly articulated wishes and interests of the Scottish people, a people who are by any definition a sovereign nation. Why does this not matter to those who want to claim some kind of binding democratic legitimacy for the referendum vote? Of course if the bill which enabled the referendum had been properly thought through it would have attended to these possibilities, and defined tightly the thresholds and conditions in which a vote for such huge constitutional change could be treated as legitimate and binding. In the absence of such pre-approved definition the declaration of legitimacy becomes arbitrary, and just another political tool.

Our new prime minister says she intends to fight for Scotland’s continuing presence in the Union, while pushing Brexit forward, as if this could all be settled by an act of her will. This is what’s technically called wishful thinking, (rather like the suggestion that we can leave the EU, limit freedom of movement and still be part of the single market, technically known as a lie). Labour has hardly said anything at all (apart from the false suggestion that we have to accept the referendum and move on) but I guess it’s got other problems on its mind.

We can’t go on like this

But these stresses will not go away. In the last few days there have been cross-party proposals from the Lords for a new federal constitution in the UK, explicitly to head off the possibility of disintegration. There has been talk of a new centrist political grouping aligning MPs from across the spectrum who could make a continuing case for remaining in the EU.

But it’s no longer just about the EU. We have to become much more explicit about what we mean when we speak of our democracy, and the sources of legitimacy for the actions taken in its name. The Tories will not address this, because in the end the status quo serves them too well.

People mostly don’t get too excited about the nuances of voting systems, but they are feeling disenfranchised all the same. That’s why it’s the responsibility of politicians themselves to deal with the real causes and effects. I’m with Jeremy Corbyn (and Theresa May) when he argues that we need to change track on austerity, but to address the bitter divisions that have opened across the UK any vision of the future needs to be wrapped around concrete proposals to reinvigorate and make relevant our democracy.

That means at the very least changing our voting system. It probably means abolishing the House of Lords and attending to the distribution of power through the nations and regions of the UK. It’s going to take cross-party collaboration among the UK’s progressive groupings. These can’t be afterthoughts, any more than the looming environmental crisis can be an afterthought, though if you listen to current mainstream political discourse there’s no sign of it being treated as anything else.

Perhaps then (and only then) might we be in a position to have a sensible conversation with the rest of the EU about balancing the undoubted benefits of free trade in a single market with the need to maintain proper political accountability and legitimacy at every level.

Bombs, folly and lies

Bombs, folly and lies

Amid all the arguments about whether the UK should be bombing Syria there’s a big and critical question that’s not being asked.

The arguments for joining the bombing campaign are patently feeble; you’d have to be feeble-minded to be persuaded by them. Cameron himself at the beginning of October criticised the Russians by arguing exactly the opposite view about the likely effect of bombing on the fundamentalist lunatics. Hilary Benn also took the opposite stance only a couple of weeks ago.

I haven’t met anyone outside parliament who doesn’t understand this. I’ve seen a few comments on social media supporting the bombing. Their arguments have been pathetic, mostly along the lines of “we have to do something”; yes we do, but it’s not a binary choice between bombing and doing nothing. As I’ll suggest in a minute, this false dichotomy seems to be at the heart of what’s going on.

Not everyone in parliament can be feeble-minded. Some probably are, but not all of them. I’m not sure David Cameron actually believes in anything apart from winning the political game, but I don’t think he’s exactly feeble-minded.

So the big question is this: why if these arguments are as dumb as they clearly are, why when they’ve been ridiculed by military experts and anyone with any serious knowledge of the Syrian situation, is the government pushing this nonsense and launching such murderous action in our name? If they are not feeble-minded, then there must be a cynical calculation that enough of us are, that a majority will accept this bullshit, so the government can get on with its real agenda.

I have no insider knowledge of what that agenda might be. But we have been here before. I was never convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but to my shame I was ready to believe that Blair’s government must have known something that they could not tell us, that there must be a good reason for this apparently grievous action. It seems now that even the most paranoid conspiracy theorists were much closer to the truth, that the Iraq war was driven mostly by the financial interests of Dick Cheney and his friends (which I’m sure they’d equate, falsely, to energy security for the West), partly by the delusion within the State Department that Saddam’s fall would turn the Middle East into a network of friendly client states for the US. The present consequence of this delusion is Daesh.

Why did Blair go along with this? There are no good reasons. Really, there are none. It may have been the entrenched fear in the Foreign Office, fifty years after the event, that there should never be another Suez, that the UK should never again find itself out of step with the US. It may have been a malingering post-imperial pride. Whatever the reason, we would better have served our US ally by standing against its folly, as France did. That’s worth remembering, when we’re told that one reason for joining the bombing campaign is the need to show solidarity with our allies, including France. There is no question of appeasing Daesh, of being “terrorist sympathisers”. What matters is what will work, and even Cameron can have no illusion that stepping up the bombing via eight Tornado jets will have any helpful effect in destroying Daesh, and in the meantime innocent people will be killed, a hard fact we will hide from through the murderous euphemism of “collateral damage”.

I’m not easily sympathetic to conspiracy theories, but when we’re being asked to swallow an argument so weak, so obviously wrong, we have to ask why.

In particular we have to ask why this feeble argument has been presented as our only option, when there are some pretty obvious alternatives.
It is not controversial to suggest that rather than trying to bomb Daesh into submission, it would be more promising to starve them of resources, at the same time as working single-mindedly to unite Syria’s warring factions against them (bombing, it’s widely acknowledged, will have the opposite effect).

But this could only be done by addressing the tacit support for Daesh in the Gulf States, and maybe Turkey. That would mean upsetting nominal allies, and more importantly, key players in energy supply to the West. None of this has been properly discussed in parliament, and although I’m congenitally disposed to be suspicious of conspiracy theories, it’s hard not to conclude that the real reason for putting everything into a debate about bombing is to bury these harder questions about alternative, more effective action against Daesh, an alternative that would go against other aspects of US-led policy which have been deemed more important than removing Daesh. In a truly grim, murderous way, this bombing is a displacement activity.

Perhaps Cameron and his friends can convince themselves they they are serving deeper national interests by playing these games. The experience in Iraq tells us otherwise. Since 1945 US foreign policy has, with only a few exceptions, been an unmitigated disaster. The British record has hardly been much better.

I don’t know whether the “allied” stance on Syria is in reality being driven by power games about energy security. Perhaps it really is just incompetence and arrogance. (If Iraq is anything to go by it’s both.) But when you’re asked to believe a story which won’t stand five seconds’ scrutiny, you have to ask what’s really going on.

Whatever the truth, we can say with confidence that here is yet another lie woven into the fabric of deceit which shrouds government action, certainly here in the UK, and probably the US too. That fabric makes a mockery of democracy, the value which above all we’re supposed to be upholding and evangelising. Daesh is monstrous, but such certainty is little comfort when we’re apparently led by such knaves or fools, and probably both.

Why work for nothing? (3)

Why work for nothing? (3)

Person of Interest is on one level a slick bit of US TV pap. But it’s found itself in an interesting position in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.

The series’ premise is that after 9/11 the (US) government commissioned a system that would monitor the public and private data running across the world’s computer systems, and spot threats as they emerged. The government was only interested in terrorist threats, so the system’s genius (and billionaire) creator decided to hold on to his own version which would detect threats to ordinary people. What started out as a twist on vigilante stories has necessarily turned into an examination of surveillance, security and privacy. It’s conducted with the necessary bloodless violence and impossible glamour of mainstream entertainment, but impressively has not shied away from the difficult questions raised by its set up.

In this universe the government (particularly in the form of the NSA/Secret Service) and a commercial criminal entity with links to the Chinese are the usual bad guys, ruthless while respectively justifying their actions either by pleading the cause of national security or the new realities of power. Our heroes are somewhere in the middle, well-intentioned but increasingly struggling to contain the “machine” which once served them. Most interesting of all is a terrorist group, Vigilance, who articulate the proper concerns we should all have about the way this surveillance is pervading our lives, but who unfortunately share the ruthlessness of the government and the criminal agency: this is TV and the debate is played out with gunfights rather than reasoning.

It’s not clear at this stage (as the programme nears the end of its third series) whether in fact it’s going to have much to contribute to public debate, but perhaps the most remarkable thing about the present moment is how little the questions it raises are being discussed in any political forum, despite the renewed profile given them by Edward Snowden.

Snowden’s revelations caused most of the large data collecting businesses (Google, Microsoft etc) to discuss for a few days what kind of disclosure they would routinely have to make to the NSA. This seemed like an exercise in damage limitation, but in truth the damage was done. Google chairman Eric Schmidt, admittedly in another context, once suggested that if you had nothing to hide privacy was a non-issue, which only demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what’s at stake: nothing less than a fundamental shift in our relationship both with government and business.
We’ve also seen in the last day or so a landmark decision by the European Court against Google, asserting that whatever else it might think, Google remains subject to European privacy laws. This isn’t a simple issue: some have argued that Google searches only make it easier to find information that’s already somehow in the public domain, and that we should not have a right to mould our own public profiles. Again I think this misses the point. The way information is being collected and used is unprecedented, and we do need to have a very public debate about the limits to which it can be used.

We also need to be aware that the collection mechanisms themselves are not necessarily neutral. Jemima Kiss, commenting in The Guardian, made the point that Facebook mediates our social relations in order to extract information which might be commercially useful. This echoes Bryan Appleyard’s argument in his book The Brain is Wider than the Sky, that automated phone answering systems, with their cascades of menu choices, are designed to make us machine-readable.

We are it seems quite blithely, blindly participating in a very large experiment. Google and others are offering us a form of augmented intelligence, in return for being able to sell the same root personal or behavioural data to others, who in theory can then sell more effectively to us. In a sense we are willingly making ourselves cyborgs (albeit by carrying the technology rather than having it embedded in our bodies). For the moment I don’t doubt Google’s good intentions, but the point of the European court ruling is to insist on the maintenance of checks and balances to ensure this level of trust is not abused in the future, either commercially or by government. It would be comforting if Google seemed willing to acknowledge the viability of these concerns, rather than dismissing them.

Until recently we have acceded to the idea of government because it offered some clear benefits (security, more efficient marshalling of infrastructure resources, and so on). Government systems themselves have evolved, most obviously as democratic systems, to ensure they remain responsive to the needs and interests of the greater part of the population they exist to serve.

There’s been some discussion recently about increasing public disaffection with government, with some major business figures suggesting that this would be a good moment for business to step into the breach. That seems to me naïve about the nature of our political disaffection, let alone the capability of business organisations to adapt as they would have to in order to fill the vacuum. This naivety seems evident in the continuing argument over GM products (as in food, rather than cars). Many seem to think that it’s an argument about science, about the safety of genetically modified crops, but that’s not the point at all. It’s about whether we want to grant intellectual property in something as fundamental as grain to a commercial organisation.

In other words, do we want grant ownership of fundamental assets which until now have been held in common (even if they’ve not been free) to businesses, which as they currently conceive themselves, exist to serve the interests of a much narrower constituency than any government (ie their shareholders)? As our digital and real lives become more closely entwined, the same question must be asked of the internet and software service giants.

It’s a reflection of how far things have already gone that the answer is unlikely to be a simple yes or no, but at the very least we need to ensure that we have some options, commercial and non-commercial, in how we proceed. This is another reason why the work on open, freely licensed digital assets, is so important.

I’m aware that I haven’t really addressed the questions at the end of my last blog, but then it seemed important to say something about privacy and public interest before coming to consider the changing pressures on ownership, which all being well will be the subject of my next blog.

Age, work and wisdom

Age, work and wisdom

A few decades ago before I went to university I worked in a psychiatric hospital as a nursing assistant, keeping the mostly geriatric patients clean and fed, getting them up and putting them to bed, talking to them when we had time. I formed a good relationship with the head of nursing at the hospital, Marianne Jahn, and not long before I had to leave for college we’d stopped to chat in a corridor. Most of the patients in the hospital didn’t really have psychiatric problems, but were old and frail enough to need full time nursing and there was nowhere else for them to go. Marianne gestured at the wards and said in her German accent, (I paraphrase)

“You know this problem is only going to get worse. We’re sitting on a demographic timebomb. We have an ageing population, but pensions depend on those in work funding the retired. If you have more people retired than in work, what will happen? But the government is never going to think about it.”

She was right, and it’s only now that governments are having to pay at least some attention to the problem (there have been mavericks like Frank Field who was safely contained by putting him on an enquiry, duly buried without further action). It highlights a problem with democracy, that it’s hard for governments to inflict present pain for the sake of an uncertain (but likely) future, because there are really no votes in it. It’s also why precious little has been done about the threat of global warming.

The root of the pension problem is not in birth rates, but in longer life spans. Pensions traditionally worked on the assumption that most people would not live more than about ten years beyond their retirement at 65. Clearly that has changed, and not only are we living longer, but most are healthier for longer. Governments have finally responded by pushing the retirement age up a little, though I suspect they will still have to do more.

The implications go far beyond the economics of pensions.

I was freelance for most of the time when my own children were growing up, and so was lucky enough to play a very active role in their young lives. My wife at the time had decided she wanted to stop work and focus on the children, and she has since encountered all the usual problems surrounding an interrupted career, to the point where she felt she could only apply for much more modest admin jobs than the management development work she’d been doing before she had children.

In my own job I could see around me a prevailing managerial attitude (among men and women) that it was stupid to invest too much in women in their late 20s, because the expectation was that they would stop to have children, and not return.

I was prompted to think of all this again because the UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been sounding off about women working in the City of London (where he had a successful career before politics). He argued that if you had a career break you would lose the allegiance of the clients that made you valuable, and so it was reasonable for City firms to value women less. When asked if anything could or should be done about this Farage replied “I can’t change biology.”

We’ve been scratching around the surface of this problem, tinkering with ideas about paternal leave and so on. The problem, pace Farage, is not biology, but the fact that the social and economic burdens of having and raising children, which are important to society as a whole, are unfairly distributed, with the disbenefits particularly loaded against women. The heart of the problem then is with our expectations of what a successful working life should be like, and it’s here that it’s helpful to consider the problem alongside issues raised by an ageing population.

We need to look at more than the retirement age. We need to consider what extending working life could mean for established ideas about careers. Right now, there’s a tacit assumption that people will hit their career  peak between the ages of 30 and 50 (or thereabouts). This is of course the period when they are also most likely to have dependent children, and if you put these factors together it’s no surprise that women usually defer to the earning potential of men, because pay still favours men.

We should be challenging all these assumptions. Wouldn’t it be more rational, if we are expecting people to work from 50 to 70 or beyond, to see this later phase as the potential career peak, the point where a lifetime’s experience could be better brought to bear? Wouldn’t it be more rational to take the pressure off that 30-50 period, with a default expectation that both parents would be dividing their time more determinedly between work and childcare, and those who don’t have children, far from resenting the time away given to parents throughout that period, should be encouraged to see it as their share in the broader responsibility of bringing the next generation into this world?

It becomes clear in the light that these issues have very little to do with biology, and everything to do with cultural expectations, which can and must be changed.

Clearly there are questions here about money, about how salaries could be scaled to meet the conflicting demands of raising children while putting in fewer hours in the workplace. But these questions need to be part of a broader discussion, since it’s also clear that the current economics of a working life are not viable either.

There are other difficult questions about manual jobs, which may not be possible for people in their 60s, but then part of this restructuring will entail being more open to people changing their work in their 50s, instead of throwing them on the scrapheap if they happen to lose their jobs at that age, as happens too often now. It also means that the experience of parenthood might itself be seen as an asset to bring back to your work: it can teach you quite a lot about yourself and other people.

Business is probably not going to lead the way here because few businesses could act unilaterally to change their costs in the ways that would be necessary. We will probably need legislation to level the playing fields, but there will be direct benefits to business too, not least through having a more mature and productive labour pool, better capable of adding value to work in the face of global competition.

The next revolution

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