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Stewart Hotston

Writing, Editing, Watching and Reading

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Politics

Democracy isn’t broken but the ships sailing on it are sinking

I’ll start this post by saying it’s not about Brexit. It’s not about the ERG’s contemptuous hankering after full throttled no holds barred capitalism to feather their already overflowing beds. It’s not about the Labour party’s utter lack of morals while in opposition – being populist and opportunistic while appearing to have no real sense of what it means to represent the people who vote for them.

Oh no. It’s about about what the hell the above means for us one year from now, five years from now and when my children are old enough to think about voting for themselves.

I contend that democracy remains one of the greatest inventions of humanity. Representative democracy across two chambers with an independent judiciary and free press puts it up there with the ECHR and the US Constitution. Human society is an amazing thing – a repository for our learning, for checks and balances which can bring benefits to everyone that no individual could ever accrue for themselves (despite what baffling morons like Ayn Rand believe).

Gav Smith recently posted how no one would ever vote for the conservatives again. He’s probably partially right. There’s a discussion there about how, even if that were the case, Labour would find it hard to win a majority. 

The question I want to ask is this: what are the current political parties for?

Labour’s history is amazing – its genesis and the ideas behind it were ground breaking and challenging to the whole of society. 

Conservatism, even if we can afford to be a bit more jaded about it also has a history well worth thinking through carefully and not dismissing out of hand. The world looked very different 50 and 100 years ago.

However, I would contend their peak impact, socially and culturally, is past. All major parties are on the decline – both in terms of membership but also because the things they care about more vociferously appear to be of decreasing relevance to people like you and me. 

Stated policies are often unachievable (despite being popular) and then abandoned. People demand honesty but then crucify those who make mistakes. Perhaps most difficult is that most people don’t belong to political parties, don’t attend meetings and don’t act on behalf of those parties even if they are members. 

However, this isn’t people’s fault. That would be to mistake parties having a god given right to exist. They don’t. Parties that don’t represent us should die. Actually, they should be taken out and shot before they start doing us harm because poorly populated parties become the province of the extremist and the incompetent – often because those two types of character find meaning and safety within the identity of political parties. 

We’ve seen, with the rise of populism (and all the incoherence associated with it), a genuine disgust over the ineffectiveness, hypocrisy and perceived corruption of the major parties. If populism tells us one thing worth knowing it’s that our major parties are dead and they just don’t know it yet. 

So back to the question – where do we go from here? With increasingly damanging and irrelevant major parties the challenge for the ordinary person is who to vote for. Do I vote for a party which doesn’t represent me (for instance, I have witnessed outright antisemitism in the labour party and more generalised classism, sexism and racism among conservatives), hold my nose and hope it is, on balance ok or is there another alternative?

I’d love to see the rise of an alternative, centrist, party. One that supported universal basic income, the rights of entrepreneurs, scientific and social innovation and the protection of our most needy. Who wouldn’t? However, of the recent attempts to see parties like this launched every one has disappeared without trace. 

We appear to be stuck with two major parties (and the SNP and LD as minorities) because the system they are a part of gives them some kind of vulcan death grip on airtime, funding and organisation. Yet I’d say there’s an equally important reason why nothing’s growing up in the middle – because we, as a society, have stopped congregating together, stopped having common enough experiences (in work especially) to provide the necessary fertile ground for a new party to emerge based on common understanding and policies. 

This leaves me bewildered. Not because I don’t understand the reasons for why we don’t appear to be able to replace our current sinking ships with something better suited to the modern society we live in but because I don’t see any way to replace them without some major upheavals in the way we live as British citizens. 

Let me put this another way. I’m a natural labour voter. In principle at least. But I can’t vote for Corbyn. I also can’t vote for a party which refuses to act as effective opposition. So who do I vote for? 

I don’t want to vote for the Conversatives for reasons I hope the utter farce they’ve made of Brexit makes obvious. Indeed, their average voter is literally not going to exist within two decades, leaving them quite literally dead in the water. 

I don’t want to vote for the Lib Dems or the Greens who are basically ideologically hollow and unforgivably naive respectively and can’t vote for the SNP (although I’m not especially happy about voting for any nationalist party). 

Let me lay out some of the issues I wish would form more substantial parts of policy:

  1. How we fund increasing social costs with an aging population while admitting this may well be a circle than can’t be squared
  2. How we look after our weakest most vulnerable people rather than assuming they’re scroungers and chancers
  3. Climate Change – God we need serious politicians on this and literally anyone other than Lord Lawson
  4. The labour market increasingly appears to be operating as a panopticon with no rights for average workers (and certainly no funding to take on abusive employers). We appear to be volunteering for this rather than challenging the rights of employers to police our morality
  5. Public space is disappearing faster than during the enclosures but we say nothing as those representing us close down our rights to congregate and travel freely with no accountability or right of challenge
  6. Law and order. Science says a lot of things about this but we’re stuck with firing world leading scientists who dare to speak the truth about drugs, incarceration and institutional racism
  7. Access to law – legal aid is a vital component of an independent judiciary. Too many people can’t access legal redress because they can’t afford to it. This MUST change. If we believe all people should be subject to the same laws we must invest in a system that allows it

There is no party focussing on this. They may have policies, I’m sure I’m going to get people mansplaining to me about the party they’re signed up to. Guys…I’m pretty smart. I’m also pretty widely read. I understand what’s being said and if you can point to where these are actually being implemented I’ll sign up. Seriously. 

The title of this post was about sinking ships. If it’s not obvious by now I think our parties are those ships and they’re doomed. yet there aren’t other ships to transfer onto. Which leaves me with a huge conundrum – democracy only works if the demos participates. Yet without a compelling set of representatives many people will opt out rather than feel compromised. They see their representatives not representing them and they feel robbed of power. This isn’t apathy – this is powerlessness. Because we’re less organised than before (even if more connected) we tend to lack the ability to challenge our representatives effectively when they stray from what we want them to reflect of our views. In a world where most of our representatives are disconnected from the challenges we face (mainly because so many of them are independently wealthy, privileged and highly educated) it’s an easy route to take to turning away from them completely. 

Can democracy reinvent itself with new, compelling, reasons to participate? I really, really hope so because right now I can’t see what comes after the current ships sink. 

My own prognoses for this would be as follows:

  1. double the number of MPs – the original number was set to be able to realistically engage with local communities. This was when the population was half the size. Ergo, more MPs actually means better representation
  2. Double their salary. Crikey – there’s just a few hundred of them. We spend more money on keeping the crinkle cut yellow buffoon safe when he comes visiting. It’s a drop in the ocean and, if we truly value democracy, we should be prepared to invest in the system that keeps it working in our favour. It would also mean that we can attract good people from backgrounds who can’t afford to give up other careers (including looking after their children) for what might be just five years in office. 
  3. Create a democratic second chamber with longer terms (say 10 or 15 years) which operates a little like the US Senate only without the gerrymandering. It has shown itself to be a very effective check and balance on the short-termism of the parliamentary executive.

I suspect the above would help only a little. The bigger issue is how we develop new parties who reflect what the majority believe and desire rather than listening to the extremes on both sides. I’m not suggesting referenda – please save me from the tyranny majority rule. I’m suggesting hoping, praying for a system where my representatives reflect my positions more than half the time rather than substantially less. 

If the above doesn’t happen a democratic deficit we’re only just now beginning to observe will grow like a disease, eating at the bones of our society until we’re left ripe for authoritarianism of one form or another and we’ll be defenceless to resist. 

Not So – How the Ants got their Queen

I’m delighted to say that I’m part of the Not So anthology of stories edited by David Thomas Moore and published by Abaddon. It is slated for release on the 18th April 2018.

The collection is, to quote an ‘Anthology of culturally diverse writers create short works in reaction to Kipling’s Just So Stories

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories was one of the first true children’s books in the English language, a timeless classic that continues to delight readers to this day. Beautiful, evocative and playful, the stories of How the Whale Got His Throat or the First Letter Written paint a magical, primal world.

It’s also deeply rooted in British colonialism. Kipling saw the Empire as a benign, civilising force, and his writing can be troubling to modern readers. Not So Stories attempts to redress the balance, bringing together new and established writers of colour from around the world to take the Just So Stories back, giving voices to cultures that were long deprived them.

My story is called How the Ants got their Queen and tracks through the rise of colonialism, its fall and what replaced it in all too many situations. I hope it’s a little gruesome, fun and snarky all in one.

Keep an eye out!

Crisis? What Crisis?

I see the words shambles, crisis, clueless, hopeless, disaster, fury, anger, not fit for purpose and half a dozen other key words in the paper most days.

I wonder what happened to create this febrile sense of disaster that seems to hover over us every time something happens that we weren’t expecting.

Don’t get me wrong, these phrases are often used for events that are, undoubtedly, tragic and demanding of our compassion and generosity.

Yet in the scheme of things we’re still here (bar the one real crisis I can see right now, which involves the US and DPRK in an increasingly worrying and shrill stand off – there’s no doubting the eventual victor but real uncertainty about the number of people who might die and the impact on relationships across dozens of allies and opponents in the wake of this being resolved).

Then I look back at history and think about the number of people who died young, the children who died before they reached the age of five. I think of the pogroms, the persecutions, the real disasters that wiped entire civilisations from the earth and I wonder why we get so incensed.

I’ve got one, really simple explanation. That we, in the rich late capitalist nations of Western Europe, North America and APAC, have never had it so good.

Until now. In the face of communities creaking from the first decline in life expectancy in  generations, in the first generation to be poorer than their parents since 1945 and with a rapidly changing tech environment that leaves people feeling quite insecure we find our expectations about what normal is to be completely skewed.

We’ve had it good – medicine, travel, food, jobs – all abundantly available within historically stable societies. This is a massive miracle cast by humanity like a spell that’s now starting to expire.

I propose that we’ve got so used to the good stuff that now we see the cracks appearing – rather than remembering the fights that had to be committed to in order to win these freedoms and luxuries, we stand around lost as to why this is happening to us. In our short termism, we lose the strength we could have in remembering just how bloody hard it was to get to this point.

I think that if we remembered how hard it was for those who were there at the time to win enfranchisement for women, rights to reproductive decision making, the end of slavery, gay equality, prohibiting discrimination based on physical identity, the gutting of the class system and LGBT rights we’d realise that those fights will never (unfortunately) be over because cultures flow like tides, responding to scarcity, the need to have identities that keep others out and certainty of material wealth over and above others.

I’m not saying we should be depressed! Far from it. I’m saying that we should smell some of the good things we’ve got going and decide if these are the things we want to leave to future generations. If they are then we need to alter what we think of as normal. Normal isn’t a state of having it good – that’s a momentary achievement we should always celebrate. Normal is fighting for what we want – collectively, constructively – and channeling some of our energy into making sure we’re ready to stand up for it. Not once, not twice, but all the time.

In some ways, I’m saying that the lethargy we feel about politics is misplaced and comes from a feeling of powerless that arises not because we’re powerless but because we’ve forgotten just how hard those who came before fought for what we’ve got.

Preach over.

Nineworlds – observations from my first con

I went to #Nineworlds this weekend just gone in Hammersmith (which is in London, UK for those of you who may be unfamiliar). It’s a fan led conference that’s deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves and how those help (or hinder) us when we try to construct our identities (whatever those might be). This could be dry, pretentious, domineering or just plain pedantic but #Nineworlds manages to engage with all of the things it cares about successfully – being witty, passionate, respectful and intelligent.

It was also very welcoming, compassionate and wonderfully cool.

I was lucky enough to be speaking on two panels; the first on how we might deal with historic texts which present us now with themes and subject matter that are difficult to reconcile with what we think of as acceptable – be that explicit/implicit racism, sexism or views on what gender identities are acceptable (or even normative). It was a really fun/deep panel and my co-panellists were interesting, from very different backgrounds to me and together I hope we managed to discuss some interesting angles on this subject – I’ve got a post on this theme coming soon and I’ll use that to re-present some of my thinking on this.

What was most wonderful about that panel though was that during the questions, one of the audience members was brave enough to challenge us on something we had been blind to – the trope of the disabled person being morally deficient and how villains were often disabled in some manner as if they deserved it and specifically because the physical circumstance tagged them as evil. That contribution meant the world to me because I was worried about the discussion being didactic and that someone could contribute as they did meant we succeeded in not speaking at the room but in talking among a community.

The other panel was on AI, Robots and the future of work – and was really an excuse to talk about all those subjects we read about weekly where another advance creates something for us to scratch our heads over – be it machine learning running data centres more efficiently, Amazon warehouses being in the dark because the robots don’t need lights or medical diagnoses being done through automated pattern spotting. And yes, we did also talk about socialist utopias, work, the price of labour and the impact of class, race and location on how we live that experience.

My favourite moments being twofold – a story that made people gasp with shock and seeing David Thomas Moore turn into Citizen Smith.

Aside from that I bundled along to a number of panels – my favourite ones being Dr Magnethands, which is a game I shall be inflicting on friends at parties and one on writing from different points of view. That latter one was the writer in me wanting to learn, wanting to see if how I approach my work makes sense and how I could be smarter about it.

Anyway, I’m now knackered, but home. So adieu to #Nineworlds and thanks again.

Oh, and particular thanks to people who shared drinks and panels with me like David Thomas Moore, Jon Oliver, Joseph Adetifa, Sasha Garwood Lloyd, Dolly Garland, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Peter Smallridge, D Franklin, Ed Boff, Sarah Groenwegen, Matthew Blakstad, Peter Ray Allison and Jeannette Ng to mention just a few. (And obvious apologies if I’ve missed you off this list – the fault is mine, not yours!)

Half Way

I’m half way through the Qilin’s Gambit. It’s come at a real pace (for me at any rate) and despite planning to story in more detail than anything I’ve ever plotted out before I’ve been surprised by two things.

The first is the politics in the story. The world is (obviously) the same as for Dreams of Darkness, it is book 2 after all. However, it features an entirely new set of characters set in a parts of our world and the Dream not seen before. Most notably the city of Kunlun (in different forms) out of Japanese and Chinese legend.

The structure of the world is such that the cultures within it are supposed to be ancient, living breathing societies and one of the main protagonists is a refugee who was once a very important person in the land he had to flee.

As a result I’ve found that my characters are very concerned with the threads and ties to their societies, their roles, their positions and the implications of their actions. It’s been a wonderful surprise to have to explore this and I hope it will be as interesting for readers as it’s been for me to write about power like this.

I guess this reprises discussions about power from the other trilogy, The Oligarchy. I know some people simply want action but for me the impact of any violence in what I’m writing takes its foundation from the groundedness of the world in which it happens.

The other surprise for me is how my female protagonists (book 1 had two male and one female. Book 2 focusses on two female and one male) are growing. I’m super conscious of trying to treat them as people with their own agency with their own battles and pasts but they’ve also surprised me in demanding that their responses are their own. To be honest it’s been a real lesson in dwelling on what they’re facing before simply letting my fingers get on and write them.

Anyway, I’m only half way, so I better get back to it…

Fiction and Lies

There comes a point when sane people should stop repeating the same mistakes again and again in the hope that this time it’ll be different. I’m watching a lot of people fall into the following trap:

X utters verifiable lie

Y shouts “That’s a lie, how could you be so dum to think we’d believe you!?”

X Ignores Y and utters verifiable lie.

Y shouts “That’s another lie. My, you’re dumb. How could you believe that? Why would you believe we’d do it. Here’s a reference that proves I’m right.”

X ignores Y and utters a verifiable lie.


If the above seems familiar to you it could be because you’re watching political and media discourse here in Europe or in the US right now.

If, like me, you’re tempted to be Y in the above dialogue, I have some advice. X is not interested in what you have to say because what you’re saying isn’t challenging them.

Lying like this in individuals is considered by most to be a symptom of mental ill health. We don’t consider people suffering from these symptoms to generally be appropriate figures for taking on responsibility (hey, the EU and the UK have entire sets of legislation designed to stop obviously dishonest people taking up roles in finance now).

They do this because there’s no other way to deal with them. You cannot reason or debate with the person whose trade is lies. You cannot shout them down and you can’t turn your back on them. It may seem that this leaves you with little that can be done.

In the ordinary scheme of things you can remove them from their position for not being fit. You can, where the law allows it and someone appropriately qualified signs off, impose a medical solution.

But you can’t give them the oxygen of debate or a sniff of public credibility. You can only call them out for lying – not debate the facts, not try to prove them liars, but simply call them for what they are. This may seem to stoop to their level but debate is fruitless in the public realm with this kind of counterparty because they aren’t telling lies because they’re mistaken or because they are wrong. They’re telling them because it’s in their interests for these lies to be what people believe. Facts are irrelevant in that moment.

Now, facts remain vital but not in the public debate. They remain vital in making decisions, in thinking about risks and in how to handle these liars in private, in places where influence can be brought to bear where ‘face’ won’t be lost.

But ultimately, you simply can’t allow liars to continue lying. And you don’t win that battle with debate. You win it with power.

That’s all very well but what when organisations become ‘mentall unwell?” What about when an organisation suffers from a psychosis which means its real ends are served by inveterate lying? The lying is not the point. It’s the ends towards which the lying is advancing the organisations goals. We must be careful of worrying about the lies and not the reasons for them.

If I think of the lies around Brexit, or Trump’s barefaced making up of a massacre this week, it’s not the lie that’s important. It’s the goal behind the lie.

How do you combat this? I can only offer some suggestions because the real test is in the application.

The first list is what we can ALL do.

  1. It’s not in protest on the streets – not yet at any rate because that should be our last resort when all other mechanisms have been denied us. As as Milan Khundera made abundantly clear – this kind of protest is, ultimately, inauthentic. It’s the equivalent of giving a beggar a few coins when really we need to challenge the entire system that brought them onto the streets in the first place.
  2. It’s in engaging with the liar’s support mechanisms. In this case with their supporters, personally and financially.
  3. It’s in encouraging those ON THE FENCE to take a stand. Because in the end when less than 70% of any electorate takes a stand then there a HUGE amount to play for.
  4. It’s in making sure that the companies we work for take a stand, that they understand that their employees have a morality that they expect them to take a stand on. Consider Uber CEO’s resignation this week from Trump’s board of advisors. It’s a pyrrhic victory, because he could have been persuaded to swing his authority around in Trump’s face rather than walking away (a pointed but ultimately short lived point of influence).
  5. It’s in convincing people to change their sources of information, in stopping them buying the news sources that tell the lies.
  6. It’s in convincing people to put their money where their mouths are and to stop buying or start buying – whatever.
  7. It’s in making sure that, every chance we get, we work to re-humanise those the lies are making into monsters. Don’t allow a single chance to go by.
  8. help the liars friends see that you’re prepared to pay a price to challenge them. Most liars get by on the basis that people only talk about them behind their backs and not to their faces. They rely on not getting challenged, on people preferring to hope that it won’t impact them until it’s all too late and they’re isolated and powerless. At which point? Well, good luck.

With the lies themselves?

  1. Call them out. Don’t let them stand. Don’t wait.
  2. Have facts but don’t think they’re going to help you in public, on the internet or anywhere where personal relationship won’t pull you through.

With the people?

  1. Be compassionate, forgiving and never step back from confrontation. It’s only with grace that we can win this sort of fight without giving up what we held as valuable in the first place. If it’s a shouting match or we fight like them (like some idiot said this week about fighting fire with fire…to which I suspect a few firefighters shook their heads) then we’ve lost already because part of their game is to make us like them because that will justify their own narrative better than any lie they could tell.
  2. Do Not close down your social circles to include ONLY those people you already agree with. They might exclude you but you shouldn’t exclude them. The world’s already divided enough and if you really consider freedom of conscience important then having people you disagree with in your life (and who aren’t family) is important. Without these links across otherwise unconnected networks things can get really bad.
  3. Don’t attack PEOPLE. Demolish arguments, call out lying for what it is the moment it starts but don’t make ad hominem attacks because then you’ve lost.
  4. Understand that people aren’t going to like you. That the point of the argument isn’t to be liked because you’re right, progressive, full of hope or just plain nice. It’s to make sure that the things you value continue to have a say in the decisions we make as a society.
  5. Finally, and this is the most important point, understand that the root of what has a lot of people shifting one way rather than another is because they have legitimate concerns. These concerns are rarely articulated for what they are. Instead of ‘how am I going to pay for cancer treatment, or help my kids, or feed myself or grow old without being in poverty,’. Rather they’re articulated as ‘why are they going to get cancer treatment? How did they help their kids when I couldn’t help mine? Why have these people prospered when I haven’t?’ The answers aren’t easy, but the questions are real, valid and call into question a lot of the easy assumptions we make about progressive, liberal capitalism. Be careful of the speck of dust in their eye when we have planks in our own.

That’s not to say we should worry about why ‘we’ lost the election rather than how to deal with an upsurge in racism. That would be to entirely miss the point. Rather I’d advocate thinking about how we can actually have a debate.

Ultimately, liars without power find it hard to step back from the brink. It may well mean power has to be applied more directly but I pray for all I’m worth it doesn’t come to that.

Democracy not what it’s cracked up to be?

I have to confess that I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed that the UK voted to leave the EU in June. I’m disappointed that the USA voted Republican across all three branches of elected government. Neither of those were my preference. Having said that, I don’t actually have a franchise in the US, but you understand my point.

I’m reading a lot of discontent from those on the sides that didn’t see their preference win out in the elections. I’m also seeing a lot of crowing from the side that did win. I don’t really want to talk about that too much – there are always bad winners and bad losers. In today’s world where so many of us simply block those we don’t agree with we live in as polarised a world as we ever have done. After all, the imprecation to never talk about politics or religion at dinner is much older than the internet so I don’t feel it’s all that smart to blame social media for giving us a megaphone for issues that we’ve always struggled to debate effectively.

It was in the 1950s that Niebuhr said that democracies had to have the consent of all the governed otherwise they become tyrannies. This has always cut both ways for a form of government that is really startlingly new and like a sheet of glass – strong in some directions, brittle in others.

The point of this post is for me to talk about democracy. Not mob rule but the type of democracies we have in the UK and the US (which although constituted very differently are both of a specific type) – that is representative democracies.

I also want to debunk a number of facile arguments made by both sides about the results.

  1. We won, get over it. The country voted our way. This is disingenuous at best and miserable at worst. Representative democracies are not mob rule, they are a way of voting in people to make the complicated social and fiscal decisions for us. They may come with ideologies that we share or dislike but in the end their job is simple enough – rule in our stead. It’s never a case that a candidate is going to agree with their entire constituency, or even those who voted for them. It is massive overreaching to claim that ‘we won, get over it’. Politics is the art of achieving the possible with an underlying aim, for most, of improving society. Whatever your view of ‘improvement’ actually is. To suggest that winning an election is akin to winning the 100m sprint is to misunderstand both races. For elections it simply means the HARD WORK STARTS NOW and part of that hard work is to represent ALL THE PEOPLE. For the 100m dash, well, you may have won, but next week there’s another race and, frankly, you’re only as good as the last one. We should NEVER assume that the story’s over just because we’ve won a stage.
  2. The world will fall apart. Look, let’s be honest here, it’s pretty unlikely. It can happen and it does happen. But it remains pretty unlikely. We can make it more likely, on which more later, but overall, we have a complex and powerful system of government which means that most excesses have been anticipated and curbed before they can be started. Sure, there are always exceptions and issues that break the rules (campaign funding) or simply can’t be contained by the rules (climate change) but these are the cutting edge of how society organises itself and we should be absolutely expecting to fight hard on these battlefronts.
  3. The result wasn’t valid because so many people didn’t vote. I’m sorry, but I don’t care about this. It’s pure speculation to suggest those uncounted masses would vote any differently than the rest of society if they did vote. In fact, statistical evidence suggests they’d vote along the lines of those who did within the margin of error. So this doesn’t invalidate the vote. Now, Clinton may have lost because she couldn’t persuade people to vote for her, but that in itself is a valid message about the candidates.
  4. Particularly for the US, more people voted for Clinton than Trump. Yes they did. So what? We all knew before the election how the electoral college system works. For goodness sakes, it’s what did for Gore. It was deliberately set up to stop mob rule and for the most part it does that job really well. It means that just because California votes overwhelmingly one way it doesn’t mean the other 49 states get overridden. It’s an excellent example of constitutional checks and balances working well.
  5. Tyranny will follow!!!1!1!111!. Tyranny can always follow. So what? Right wing ideologues, of which it’s not clear that Trump is, tend to favour liberty more than left wing populists and although they have several views with which I disagree, fascism is NOT the same as Republicanism or Conservativism. (He may be a populist buffoon but check your judgements because another blond haired politician also presents that way but is far smarter behind that guise than most people credit him for).

I hear a lot of people saying that there’s something wrong with the system, that people on the other side are stupid or ignorant or elite or liberal as if these things invalidate their views. They don’t. That’s the entire point of universal suffrage. The democratic system is NOT broken even if the sponsors of that system on all sides have had their noses bloodied this year on both sides of the Atlantic (including Germany and probably France next year). I am unconcerned about vested interests getting a punch in the face.

I have never seen people more engaged with democracy. I mentioned to someone the other day that I almost wished for the time when we could rely on feckless apathy because it was less exhausting.

Almost.

Yet the point is, our society is worth getting engaged over, getting emotional over. We should be talking, arguing and debating what we think we want from society. If we aren’t involved then that’s the real tragedy and that’s where the disasters we truly fear, the bogeymen themselves, can get their foot in the door. Political volatility has been blessed absent for the last twenty years in English speaking democracies. However, that minuscule interlude shouldn’t let us believe this is the norm.

I am proud to be part of a democracy. I am proud to be English, British, half-caste. I have views that I’ll champion but crucially, when the democracy I’m a part of chooses otherwise I will accept that decision all the while seeking to make my voice heard. Attacking the system is pointless, possibly even disastrous, because what if we succeed in truly dismantling the thing that’s kept debate and speech open in the post war period? What then? Who gets to rule then?

Get engaged in politics. Organise yourself. If you don’t like the parties on offer change them or replace them. Wars have been fought over less and we have a blessed society in which we are far from such danger. Make your voice count but talk about the right things – not the failure of your argument to persuade others, not the success of opposing points of view, nor how you couldn’t game the system but about what you believe in.

What did the Leave vote mean?

I’ve had a lot of conversations about the Leave vote, and the movement behind it, in the last few days. Most importantly, I’ve been thinking about what it means that people voted Leave. I will state here (as I’ve done elsewhere too) that I voted Remain.

I’m not so interested in the surface read – that’s pretty obvious – anti-immigration, anti-EU, pro-sovereignty, pro-democratic. Those are the arguments when they’re boiled down to two word slogans. There’s a lot to admire in the ideas behind it. Except, just like the Remain position, there’s a more fundamental set of axioms underlying these positions that I think needs explicating if we’re to i) make any sense of what’s going on and ii)learn the lessons that we could learn as a society that needs to reflect on what’s going on.

I posted elsewhere asking, a little tongue in cheek, whether the Leave campaign was really, honestly, the truly anti-colonialist outworking of the collapse of empire? Think of it like this: your world spanning empire, through which you’ve exported your own people globally, together with your language and customs ends. You bring your people home (to a greater or lesser extent) BUT the impact on the world doesn’t simply stop, everything has to readjust, find a new status quo. Part of that is a movement of people (in)directly impacted by that empire and its end. Whether it’s former underclasses or opposition or even those who benefitted from the empire’s infrastructure and presence in their native territories. This, like the empire itself, can last decades, if not longer. However, a natural part of this deflation is that those who were impacted by this process wish to make their lives at the heart of what once ruled their world. In this specific case, people want to live in the UK because of its legacy on the world. Not consciously – few people wake up and say to themselves “I know, I’ll move to the UK because of it’s legacy in the world.” Systems of the World (to borrower Neal Stephenson’s phrase) are far more subtle than that. They provide localised reasons for what people decide to do. e.g. people DO wake up and think, the UK speaks English but is more open than the US, it’s culture is one I think I understand and it’s education system is just as good, so I’ll go study there for my qualification. Which is legacy all over.

Now, if you’re the centre, then you see this deflation with various view points, but one of them is this: we no longer draw wealth into the centre the way we once did but these people still come here. This makes no sense because there is no perceived benefit from the movement of people when the financial benefits one could say used to accrue from ruling them have ended. At this point the anti-colonialist says – let’s stop these visits then.

I hasten to add that it’s just one narrative and I am not proposing it as authoritative. I am simply saying what was behind my puckish question about are Leavers properly anti-colonialist when Remainers are, by and large, not truly committed to that. I’m not going to put here why I think you could argue that Remainers lean more to pro-colonialist narratives than Leavers – they’re not really, but their arguments about empire are differently constructed although arise from the same root – legacy of empire.

What I really want to write about here is legacy.

Let’s start with a bold statement – Leaving the EU is not about the EU. It’s not about Immigration either. It is about capitalism. It is about globalisation.

so point 1. Leave voters rejected globalisation. Both its good points and its bad points.

point 2. In voting remain, voters literally stood on the other side of the coin and said the opposite.

Now, I want to understand why, on the whole, people might have adopted these positions. To do that, let’s clear out a couple of surface level counters:

  1. No, I voted to leave the EU because it’s broken/needs reforming etc.

This isn’t really true when one examines the counter-factuals to this. If asked what could be done to reform the EU to make it acceptable, the only answers that come are either – we want no push for political union or that the EU needs to end completely.

The former of these is an explicit statement that globalisation should be limited. Freedom of movement of people – that is, you and I, is a good thing for workers because we can move for better jobs. Except people don’t really want to move around and face that kind of instability. So they’d rather that the opportunities were close to them (on the whole because there are huge costs with moving, not least the social ones that only the rich can really offset). I understand this even if, in economic theory it is suboptimal. It is a specific limit on globalisation with an obvious corollary – that eventually those people who choose a life where they don’t want to move around for work are also going to want a world in where the work can’t move around so easily either because when it does it will undermine them and their ability to prosper. It’s no malicious but rather an inevitable consequence of choosing a certain kind of life. Now, that demand could be from a minority, but if asked, I would expect that most people would rather have a stable home life and a job that suited them rather than a life spent globe hopping in search of that extra dollar. And remember, I’m not talking about CEOs here. I’m talking about normal people for whom that move might eat their entire benefit arising from the move.

The latter argument is just the former pushed to its logical end.  If you see no benefit from supranational structures like the EU, then really it doesn’t justify its own existence and so should disappear. To the extent it doesn’t, and worse than that, keeps pushing an agenda that undermines your choice of life, then it is a problem not just a neutral to be lived alongside. For most there is no chance to challenge such a behemoth…well most of the time and that resentment focusses itself not on the flaws in choosing a staid lifestyle of staying in one place but on the flaws in a system that doesn’t reward, or allow for, that choice of lifestyle. Like most blame seeking it looks outwards rather than inwards (if only people read more G K Chesterton it might be different one supposes).

2. No, I voted because I want to control our borders…

This is the same as the above, but phrased in a different way. Why should someone consider free movement of people as a problem at all? Well, if one chooses a certain lifestyle and others arrive who are different, that presents an implicit threat to the way of life being sought – because they may well prosper over and above those who chose the other way of life. For example, if someone comes in with better qualifications or with more experience, that means they should get more return on their labour which then means they will prosper over those whose education stopped at 16 years of age with a glad gasp to be away from schooling forever. We may wring our hands over the failure of education or the lack of ambition or the prejudice of such circumstances but the outworking is a difference in opinion about what is appropriate a way to live. We may even say to ourselves that the less well educated deserve their lot and we shouldn’t weep over their choices. However, I think the Leave vote offers us something to learn that our Elites should really be taking notice of for its own sake (rather than as leverage to get themselves more power).

Globalisation has had very palpable benefits. These are documents everywhere, not least in our ability to eat take aways, see films, use phones and have modern medicine when we need it. However, per Joseph Stiglitz’ book “Globalisation and its discontents’ it is not as simple as that. Globalisation has also had its losers and by number there are probably more losers than beneficiaries – especially in advanced western democracies.

Income inequality in advanced capitalist societies is about as bad as its been since enfranchisement. It’s certainly much worse now than at any time since the post war settlements. There is massive evidence in the literature that inequality drives poorer outcomes for the less well off, those who have fewer opportunities. They live shorter lives and at every stage of their interaction with official infrastructure achieve poorer outcomes than their richer counterparts. These differences scale with the gap between richest and poorest. It is not cynicism on the part of the less well off to look at the rich and better educated and believe the deck is stacked against them.

When one votes against the EU, one is voting to i) punish the elites, or ii) to kick against the sticks of official infrastructure that are stacked in other people’s favour.

It may not make one’s life better but it is unlikely to make it obviously, tangibly worse. If one sees this protest as validated then it also permits one to aggressively pursue a rejection of other people’s ways of life (i.e. more racism comes out into the open as a result).

For those who don’t see the argument from the bottom of the opportunity ladder the implicit reasoning is still there – we are insulated from the impact of globalisation, we have our own networks, we can benefit with or without that specific network and, as vested interests, we may well benefit MORE without the competition represented by the other network of powers. I hesitate to use the phrase checks and balances but when multiple sets of vested interests are in peaceful competition, it is nearly always good for the majority who benefit from stability because no one ideology can ascend unchallenged.

So the lessons:

  • Globalisation has its losers, it always will but right now our society is rejecting the notion of globalisation as it’s been presented to them
  • Elites across the western world are perceived by much of the population as the enemy – they have lost legitimacy (for whatever reason – I’m not talking about why or why not)
  • The rejection has a logic to it that makes sense from its own perspective
  • It is not simply here in the UK that this movement, populist in its nature, has taken hold, but across western democracies whose polities have seen their income erode even as elites are perceived to obtain more security, more wealth and deliver fewer goods to society.

I’m not going to talk here about what Remainers might have been voting for beyond the sense that we are better off in a stronger/larger network, that multi-culturalism has brought a massive peace dividend or that the benefits from globalisation outweigh the flaws. Why? Because this is already 2,000 words long and I’ve not got the time or inclination to do that here.

What can our responses be?

  • We need to recognise that, at its heart, a rejection of globalisation as we’ve seen in the last few days comes from almost the same place as Remainers own pleas for equality of opportunity. It’s just being expressed very differently. I think, primarily because the focus is different. In accepting globalisation, Remainers calls for equality and greater justice focus on all people. Leavers start at home and want it for themselves and their own tribes in priority to others. However, the want for perceived justice is the same. Given this idea (if true at all) both sides have a common mandate to pursue a change in the economic and political order that calls for a less wealth inequality and a financial system that permits that (while not actively discouraging wealth creators from innovating and creating)
  • We need to recognise that it is not in the interest of our elites to hear that message. They will look to treat the symptoms of the problem without addressing the underlying causes. They may well control our borders but the UK will become poorer as a result. Those who voted for it will also become even poorer with access to even fewer services. However they will then have nowhere left to turn because they will have been entirely disenfranchised in favour of the elites. Arguments that it’s not about immigration or the EU will be met with suspicion – only by challenging what our politicians enact in law as normative for finance, society and politics itself, can we try to create a space where income inequality is seen as a bad thing for society and, possibly, look to create a space where it is reined in.
  • The bumps in the financial markets right now are the recognition by elites around the world that there is a massive disconnect between them and their constituents and that, at some point it won’t hold together any more.

Our job, if I can be so brassic, is to make sure we change the debate now. That we don’t let decision makers bandage up their pride, throw us a few bones and carry on as normal. If we do, the rejection of the ideals embodied in liberal postmodernity that, in my view at least, benefit mankind more than they harm, will be swallowed up in a sea of intolerance, extreme difference between the rich and the poor and a properly dysfunctional society. I don’t want my kids to live in that world.

 

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Damyanti Biswas is an author, blogger, animal-lover, spiritualist. Her work is represented by Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. When not pottering about with her plants or her aquariums, you can find her nose deep in a book, or baking up a storm.

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