Posts Tagged ‘democratic deficit’

On frustration

March 13, 2019

Warning: politics ahead!

No-one now living in Britain can avoid the utter chaos surrounding the Brexit negotiations and manoeuvrings; it really does feel as if the lunatics are running the asylum at the moment. I’ve been clear enough in a number of posts about what I think of the whole business, and what I really want to happen. And, as someone who thinks a lot about politics and the state of the world, I’ve tried to make sense of what is really going on…

It is evident that millions were persuaded to vote to ‘take back control’; it is evident that millions wanted to give politicians of all hues a good kicking. And the desires of those millions appear to have been hijacked by cynical populists. It is worth looking at what lies behind the wish to ‘take back control’. It is clear that larger organisations: multi-national businesses, and also the European Union, exert rather more control over our lives than the national and local governments which we elect. Multi-national businesses find it relatively easy to hide behind a smokescreen, as well as producing the shiny-shiny stuff that they then make us covet through advertising; the nasty bureaucrats of Brussels are a much easier and more visible target who have given us what? – a court of human rights, better working conditions, environmental protection and I don’t know what else. But they have also facilitated – no, wholeheartedly embraced – neo-liberalism and globalism, and helped multinationals trample on us in all sorts of other ways… even if the European project survives, surely it has to change in response to the concerns of so many.

‘Taking back control’ is a nice, and meaningless form of words: ordinary people don’t have and never have had any power other than through withdrawing their labour, and those politicians urging us to take back control have been at the forefront of limiting ordinary people’s right to strike.

Giving politicians a good kicking seems to me a laudable aim at the moment: in my time I have gradually seen the notion of public service demeaned and denigrated, insulted and diminished, and not just by those of a Thatcherite persuasion, but by many who should know better. Too many politicians are now mere venal careerists with their snouts in the trough – and I’m not just referring to my own country although that is the one I know best. And yet, the opportunities for giving those politicians a meaningful kicking are non-existent, particularly in our antediluvian electoral system. Cue the populists and faragists and other mischief-makers who exploit popular frustrations, but have no solutions to offer and are merely edging their snouts nearer the trough…

The right wing are making hay at the moment, unsurprisingly, because it’s always easier to shout abuse, find scapegoats and cause trouble than it is to come up with clear and feasible ideas that might make a real difference. The left has undergone a crisis over the last twenty or thirty years, as a result of the deliberate unleashing and encouraging of selfishness during the Thatcherite era; it cannot counter the waves of shiny-shiny stuff everyone is supposed to be able to buy now that they pay far less in tax and are therefore so much more in control of ‘their’ money. The left does not seem to be able to find an analysis that will allow it to propose a society that takes care of all of its members, nor to convince people that if they want good quality public services, pensions, social care and the like then it does have to be paid for, and that it is worth paying for. Meanwhile some died-in-the-wool dreamers of a new Jerusalem want everything to get far worse so that they can then make it better?

The final elephant in the room behind our Brexit chaos is of course immigration, and refugees, and it’s here that the real nastiness comes out of the woodwork. We could go a very long way towards diminishing the numbers of refugees and their desire to come to the West by not creating the conditions that make them leave their homelands in the first place – by not attacking their countries, fighting our wars in their countries, selling weapons to them and other countries who fight wars in their countries. Immigration is a rather more difficult issue. It’s easy enough to demonstrate factually the economic benefits of immigration. But when people in small towns feel as if there are too many non-natives around, what can we say? There is surely added pressure on jobs, schools and health services: here, neo-liberalism, austerity and the long-cultivated unwillingness to pay taxes are largely to blame. It ought to be possible to encourage greater integration of immigrants, but we are a small island, a much smaller country than Germany or France. And would we not have a better chance of addressing such issues working together with our European neighbours? It is also clear – although not widely known – that current European legislation would allow us here in Britain to do much that we have been told we need to ‘take back control’ in order to do.

Where I’ve got to is my usual paralysed understanding of the issues and what is going on, coupled with the inability to do anything, or to see a way out of the mess.

Robert & Edward Skidelsky: How Much Is Enough?

February 1, 2014

9780241953891A serious read, here, on a topic which exercises my mind a lot: how do we try and make a more sensible and fairer world? Though I have to admit, it feels largely academic now, as I’m hardly likely to get to live an a better, fairer world now, whereas I felt rather more radical and even revolutionary in my younger years.

The Skidelskys’ detailed review of economists and economic history leads to a summary of how we are all now stuck and embedded in a capitalist society from which there seems to be no escape. Adam Smith once described capitalism as “wrapping up selfishness in impartiality“, which I think is an excellent summary. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘stationary state’, which I’d not come across before, the idea being that development and wealth reaches a point at which we decide to stop, rather than go further, and instead focus on different things, and the Skidelskys explore what thinkers through the ages have meant by a ‘good life’. As public life has been moved out of the sphere of morality, there is no longer any distinction between needs and wants, between necessities and luxuries, no clear idea of what constitutes ‘enough’, leading to the disappearance of the idea of avarice, which was the subject of much moral stricture in the past. The key period seems to have been the Thatcher/Reagan years, when the restraints on individual greed were cast aside.

When I was much younger, economists wrote about how the working week was going to be reduced drastically as technology increasingly made our lives easier, and we would have so much more time for leisure; this hasn’t happened, and people seem to have to work harder than ever before. Meanwhile, leisure activities are made increasingly expensive as we are persuaded we need so many expensive gadgets and so much kit in order to pursue even the simplest activity, such as walking in the countryside. Thus, profit can be made from those at leisure, just as much as from those working…

The key word in the book, as it has been for me for a long while, is ‘enough’. Modern capitalism convinces us that there never can be enough: this is a twentieth century development. Our material wants, apparently, “know no natural bounds”, and the concept ‘enough’ has no application to money, if you think about it, as opposed to actual goods.

For me, the central point is that currently everything is totally focused on individual choice and individual freedom, forgetting that we are by nature a social species: individual autonomy should be merely one good among all the others, rather than the sole determinant.

There is a very interesting and thought-provoking chapter on environmentalism, which has me questioning some long-held beliefs, but when the authors come to discussing the issue of happiness, I think they are chasing the wrong hare, and really believe that we need to examine the question of contentment instead; I don’t think the difference is merely semantic.

When it comes to suggestions for what should actually be done, the book is at its thinnest: there are some ideas, including the notion of taxing consumption rather than income, which bears scrutiny. What needs to be done as a matter of urgency, it seems to me, is to address the question of democratic deficit: the idea that people have given up on politics and politicians because these are seen as having no power to effect change, given that business and corporations rule the world and dictate to governments.

In the end, the book is a provocative and stimulating read, which will probably be sidelined and ignored.

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