Dinosaurs and dimwits

Dinosaurs and dimwits

In last Sunday’s Observer David Mitchell lambasted the looming referendum on EU membership as a failure of political leadership. He says (more or less) that issues like this are not a matter of personal preference, but demand technical knowledge and expertise. If we’re honest, while everyone might have an opinion, it’s not just a matter of opinion, and Mitchell argues that we appoint political leaders to inform themselves properly and make these decisions on our behalf.

Underpinning this argument is the point that our democracy is not designed to ensure our politicians reflect our views (which may or may not be worth reflecting); it’s to ensure that politicians remain answerable for their decisions to the electorate, and so will continue to govern in the interests of the electorate, rather than (say) their immediate friends. I imagine this is what Churchill meant when he described democracy as the least bad of the available options.

We all know that we’re not having this referendum because it’s important to where we find ourselves at this moment in the world, but because David Cameron hoped (and even this was a stupid hope) to silence the anti-EU majority in his own party. As Martin Wolf suggested recently in the FT, this is possibly the most irresponsible decision by a UK prime minister in living memory.

It strikes me that this kind of abdication of responsibility (as if the problem were too difficult to be addressed through parliament’s normal channels) reflects a much deeper and potentially more serious failure of government. The gravest issue of our time is not whether the British are European (we have been for at least 1000 years), nor whether free markets are the answer to everything (they are not), nor even the problems posed by the rise of religious fundamentalism, but whether we have been inducing a fundamental change in the Earth’s climate, and whether we can still do anything about it.

This matters because we really are facing a global catastrophe, not in my shrinking lifetime perhaps, but probably, devastatingly, within 100 years. My children’s lives are likely to be hit, and if I ever have any grandchildren they will face a very different world, a world where rising sea levels have removed substantial areas of land, where established water and food sources have been devastated and other resources, including energy, are subject to increasing constraints. It’s probably true that these effects will be felt most acutely in the developing world (which would be cause enough for action), but no one can seriously imagine Europe and the Americas will be untouched.

There are still people who want to deny the overwhelming science in play here. It would be a better world if we could simply ignore them, though tragically they have held positions of substantial influence, particularly in the US. The worst of it is that they have helped the world’s governments sit on their hands for the last 20 years, when there might still have been time to set us on a different course.

Our governments continue to pat themselves on the back over “progress”, for instance at the recent Paris summit, but they are still playing to their imaginary galleries, while the hard truth is that it’s probably too late already. Click here for some tough data. As the blog’s author David Roberts puts it “The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles humanity is in for some awful shit.”

It’s probably true that global realities have changed faster than our inter-governmental institutions, and those changing realities have highlighted increasingly pressing questions about what governments might be for. Historically that question might not have seemed so problematic. I’d argue that elites have always deliberately confused “rule” and “government” to legitimise the exercise of their power in their own interests, but as societies have grown more complex the argument has usually invoked some notion of a contract between governors and governed, so that we the people would accept the imposition of laws (and tithes) in exchange for peace, stability (and binding arbitration).

With the rise of nations, standing armies and empires through the 18th and 19th centuries, the dynastic squabbles of royal families and other leaders morphed into warfare as an extension of trade, and governments appointed themselves the guardians of a much broader concept of national interest, while the “people” dutifully lined up behind them. This murderous willy-waving reached its nadir in the 20th century and its global wars. For a while it seemed the horrors unleashed might bring “leaders” to their senses, and in this crucible both the UN and the EU were born, but in one form or another the willy waving continues to define the conduct of foreign affairs, while globalising business interests (empowered by technology) have been rewriting the rules to suit themselves (with suitable proxies in place in government to align those rules with selective national interests*).

If ever there was an issue demanding collective government action and leadership, that issue must be climate change. They’ve talked, and some have set targets, and some countries have tried to set examples, but it’s beginning to look like it’s all been too little, too late. I doubt future generations, dealing with the consequences, will judge this prevarication kindly, though ironically what’s been exposed is a fault line in the notion of popular government, democratic or not. Real leadership would have meant agreeing and imposing measures that made our lives a bit harder, for the sake of a greater good. But our leaders don’t trouble themselves with that kind of difficulty.

In my more optimistic moments I comfort myself with the thought that as and when the consequences begin to make themselves felt, they will force a shift in outlook and conduct, towards the kind of large scale co-operation and co-ordination which is the best excuse for the continuing existence of such government. In these optimistic moments too I can take comfort from the emergence at grassroots of a new communitarianism, which itself reflects a perception of the increasing failures of national governments to address what actually matters. This all looks pretty Utopian at the moment, as relatively small groups of people seek to take back some control over their lives, growing their own food, developing community energy projects and so on. Then again it hardly seems Utopian to want to step out of the fairyland in which many in our society and its politicians seem to live.

In Germany recently there were successive days when the nation’s electricity needs were supplied (and even oversupplied) entirely by renewable resources, many of them based in local communities. What may be emerging is a new relationship between large scale and local infrastructure, with consequences for political organisation too.

A commercial housing development in the Netherlands suggests how this might develop. Concepts like the ReGen village, which are moving quickly from the drawing board to practical reality, promise to redefine the relationship between local self-organised communities and larger infrastructures. It’s unlikely they could be an entirely “closed loop”; health, education, wider transport and telecommunication systems, not to mention justice, are still going to need to work on some kind of larger scale. But where government will fit in this redefined relationship is as yet an open question, particularly if coming generations are asking that question in the light of the failure of our government structures to address the most urgent issues of the day.

Then again this is me thinking in optimistic mode. If I look to present realities and the preoccupations of our politicians, it’s like watching a herd of brontosaurus turning away from that big rock falling from the sky to argue about the threat of velociraptors.

We tend to imagine the future a 100 years from now as a bit like now, but with better phones and spaceships. I doubt it’s going to be like that. I doubt our work, our leisure, or even our basic ways of eating and buying things will be the same. I doubt the way we regard or handle government will be anything like it is now. I certainly hope not.

*I don’t particularly want to blame business here. Setting aside the disastrous notions of “shareholder-led capitalism”, business people are in my experience pragmatic. You can’t expect much in the way of social vision from them, but on the whole they’d rather be part of the solution than the problem and still look to governments to provide the context in which they can be. The trouble is that governments in the last 30 years have given up on that role, because it was getting harder and harder, and short term commercial interest has filled the vacuum (inadequately of course).

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