Economy, Democracy, History
An extract from an ongoing, good-natured debate amongst members of Occupy Economics. A number of people thought this email, by Tom Lines, was worth sharing:
The archaic methods both of Parliament and elections need to be completely overhauled, but I think the problems of our society run an awful lot deeper than this allows for.
The essential problems are ones of power (who has it and how they maintain it) and at the opposite end, possibly cultural issues of why people at the other end have effectively given up on asserting their own interests – and potential power – instead.
The first is about corporate power, the umbilical links between the City and the British state (Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands is an eye-opener on that), and the way that ‘There Is No Alternative’ has been rammed home for decades by the bullying corporate media, passively reinforced by the BBC. That is all basic stuff for anyone in Occupy. But I leave it at that: the solutions required are political, and not technocratic fixes like full-reserve banking or year-round referenda. (Big changes are needed in the banking and electoral systems for sure, but I think they are of a secondary order.)
Little attention is paid to the other end of the social scale, but I think it is fundamental. E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class is another remarkable book, relating how that class made itself through a long process of experience and gradual
self-organisation in the first half of the 19th century. It was not an automatic or inevitable consequence of industrial exploitation.
But over the last 60 years, that has been almost entirely lost. The Attlee government was able to do what it did (and receive in recompense a vote in absolute numbers in the 1951 election which was not equalled for 40 years – and not matched by the Tory ‘winners’ in 1951 itself) only because of the autonomous institutions that the working class had created and controlled, as counterweights to the controlling power of capital. One by one, these have been picked apart. First there were the friendly societies, displaced with the best will in the world by a centralised, bureaucratic welfare state; then the trade unions, effectively destroyed in the 1980s; and the Labour Party itself, which long ago ceased to be the ‘people’s party’. Maybe the Coop movement still exists to some extent, but in the 1940s it was the biggest retailing organisation in the country; not now! The non-conformist churches no longer carry the weight they had. When these thoughts first occurred to me, it seemed the only such institution that remained was football: and how much of its traditional base has
Looking at recent protests around the world, I am struck by how much they are of people with educated, liberal opinions, not ‘working’ people. That is as true of Occupy as of the current protest in the Ukraine and the ‘revolution’ in Egypt – which ended up siding with a military coup and renewed repression.
I don’t have any solutions to propose, other than continuing with defensive campaigns on things like the EU-US negotiations, which would only reinforce the power structure. I sometimes think the answer is something like the ‘Narodniks’ in Russia in the late 19th century, who went into the villages to assist, educate and mobilise the rural majority after the emancipation of the serfs. It worked in Russia in preparing ground for the Revolution – during which the only nationwide election was actually won by the Narodniks’ successor parties. (They lacked the ruthlessness of the Bolsheviks, who closed down the resulting Constituent Assembly after one day.) But in a modern context that concept seems horribly patronising.
I thought things would open up after the 2008 crash, and hopefully they still will in the long run; but for now Cameron and Osborne have used it with extraordinary success to reinforce neo-liberal messages. However, politics must have seemed just as hopeless during the 10 years after the 1929 crash, but the 1930s laid the groundwork for the advances that were achieved after 1945. And something similar has happened in Latin America since the dark days of the continent’s imposed austerity in the 1980s and 1990s. So I keep my fingers crossed that over here, a later change in political will and perceptions will arise from nothing worse (!) than another financial crash, and not an equivalent of the Second World War.