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Stewart Hotston

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The problem with winning power

There’s a saying – ‘No one ever changed the world by being nice’. I don’t know how true it is, but I believe it about 60%. Certainly peaceful protest has succeeded in moving the chairs around but I’m not sure whether it’s only when peaceful protest and violent resistance meet that societies really change. You could say I’m really, truly hoping Greta Thunberg manages to inspire us Gen Xers and Millennials fulfil out duty to future generations and change the world before it gets overwhelmingly violent.

However, the above is really only by way of starting this short essay.

I’ve been pondering why it is so many of us here in the UK (and also our friends across the pond) find it hard to occupy the middle ground now.

One obvious argument from my side of the debate is that it’s fine to not discuss my future with nazis and fascists. It’s a pretty strong argument. And I also think, when faced with such extremism it’s valid to argue the call to moderation is one I should set on fire because it too is my enemy for giving space to those who won’t be satisfied until I’m no longer part of the world we currently share.

However. This doesn’t satisfy me. It might be right and it is definitely a simple argument to grasp.

yet it can’t be the whole story. Why not? Because I think we can only unravel the mess we appear to be in (or the period of enhanced and lively political engagement depending on your point of view) by understanding a little of what really constitutes it.

I know it’s trite and probably cliched to say this, but really we’re talking about power. But I don’t think what I’m about to say isn’t your normal discussion about power.

Those of you who are friends of mine on facebook will have seen me mention the work of Mary Douglas this past week. In particular books such as Natural Symbols and Purity and Danger. Much of what I want to think through here will be (inelegantly) crabbed from her thinking, so really, do yourself a favour and go read them instead of me!

Assuming you’re still here I want to think about power not in its exercise, but in what it means for communities. Power is, in most meaningful senses, about agency. It is about being able to act as one wishes. This is additionally so for communities. The big difference is that communities are made up of many people and so have sets of rules by which those people know they are a part and know they are outside. Rules of taboo, punishment, transgression etc. are all about saying who belongs and who is outside. To use the technical term, they are what defines the sectarian nature of any community.

Part of a community exercising its agency is to say ‘you are not a part of us’ or indeed to say ‘you belong here’. The interplay of the individuals own agency and that of their community is important and communities can crush those within (and without) through the means of enforcing their shared understanding of belonging. In a very real sense, to break the law (whether it’s to each coffee cremes when everyone agrees they’re an abomination or to engage in cannibalism) is to set oneself against the community.

So far so dry.

I want to briefly tie this into the superhero narrative we have and which modern western culture appears to find so appealing in the mainstream now. (and I’m a massive geek, so @ me here because I’m a big consumer/lover of this content) There’s a very common narrative that superheroes are really crypto-fascists. It’s a strong reading and one I basically support but it’s not deep enough. The problem with superheroes is that they’re basically representative in a large way of how we wish the world worked. Simplistically we wish we could, as individuals, go off and, with magical powers, fix all that’s wrong. Additionally, we tend to wish those problems could be personified and dealt with in a single struggle where it was clear what was right and what was wrong.

Apologies – I’m being overly simplistic. Yet I believe the above cod-psychology holds if we think about how communities address their concerns – and that’s through stories. We tell one another stories of how bad our enemies are, of how they’re lying, evil and happy to commit unforgivable sins. Not because we wish them ill as a primary motive but because it helps us defend our own values and helps mark them out as being separate to us, as being outside us.

For highly sectarian communities (and this is definitely a feature of the extremist politics we experience now) the barriers between being in and out are very sharp. For more moderate communities you see fuzziness, tolerance, a gradient which provides a lot of wiggle room. I think we’ll all recognise that right now, we experience both on our side and that of the other a very sharp divide. You’re either with us or against us. I’m being descriptive here rather than explicative so a little bit of the latter.

Sectarian communities are effectively defensive in nature. Their world view is one filled with insecurity and fear – fear of being corrupted, of the community failing. It can fail because of only one thing – that the outsider somehow corrupts us, that we weren’t pure enough. You’ll see this played out wherever you see ideological drives for purity – such as Momentum trying to oust the deputy leader of the Labour party or the withdrawing of the whip from 21 Tory MPs for daring to dissent. Game theory tells us those are disastrous moves BUT that’s not the rationality in play. The rationality in play behind these kinds of actions are ones designed to maintain purity, to identify and keep the corrupted outside of the community lest they corrupt us to. This drive to stave off the end of the community is built from three elements. One is agency – the community has values it wishes to actualise. The second is it feels threatened, it feels like if it loses it might disappear and this drives the third element – it believes in the story which makes it a community. These elements combine to create a set of motivations that are not those of trading power and achieving progress but of defence and survival.

People who are looking to survive will act as they deem necessary – if you believe losing the argument represents an existential threat, it becomes possible to justify any action as reasonable because to fail to take it could lead to having no life to regret sticking to ones values over. See this article in Time Magazine for a great example of a value driven community (US Evangelicalism) which has fallen into the sectarian trap of believing it’s under siege and acting defensively as a result.

This brings me to the main point of this post. Why votes and ‘opinions’ appear to have become the pivot points around which we’re building our mutual sectarianism. Led by the hard right, which is a community under deep existential threat in the West (at least), they’re acting as defensive communities – a vote like the referendum becomes not about facts but about the power it will give them to establish borders around their values. These values are shifting because they’re not that important – it’s the exercise of power in the name of survival which is important here. The actual values can be fleshed out later – do we mean full on fascism – well maybe, if that’s what served to protect ‘our way of life’. It’s also why a second referendum on Europe for the UK is irrelevant (even if legally vital) because those who won the first time around see that as the boundary which protects them. Anything to the contrary is simply another attack on them. You cannot overstate the insecurity this community feels across a whole range of social issues which crystallise around the idea of those who are outside and the pollution they bring when they are invited inside. As an aside – we can then see that many of these people aren’t ‘racist’ in the old fashioned NF/BNP/KKK sense. But they are racist because they see their identity centrally as white english speakers and the ‘other’ as outside of that. They’re just as prejudiced towards Polish people as they are Indians and Chinese.

When people get on the news and say ‘there’ll be riots if you betray 17.2 million people’ they’re not talking rationally as we understand it. They are, however, talking rationally from their point of view. THey’re expressing that their boundaries are being crossed and they will act to protect their definition of who is inside and who belongs outside. They will purify those inside who are ‘not true believers’ and they will guard the gates to stop anyone from coming inside. They’re not saying there will be riots (although there may be) – they’re saying ‘this is THIS important to me’.

I don’t know if this is particularly enlightening. I hope it is. I’m trying to say why the facts as people in my community find so important are so irrelevant to these types of community. I’m trying to say why they can’t see the legal frameworks, the four estates and our cherished checks and balances are vital to restricting magical untamed power from wrecking havoc. Why? Because, right now, they want power (their power) to wreck untamed damage on those outside their community who they perceive to be at their borders massing for invasion. To be clear I don’t mean actual invasion, I mean psychological invasion, an invasion where their myths are cast down, their narratives about how the world is and should be are shattered and replaced with new ones.

How can we talk to these people? Should we? We have to remember they have set a specific set of values as matters of purity and taboo. For many of us those items are too extreme or basic for us to often know how to tackle.

I would say this – these values bring them comfort. Othering those not like them (Remainers, poc, women with agency, foreigners, experts etc.) provide them comfort when they can actively exclude them. They already feel defensive and this act helps them feel as if their walls are impregnable. It gives them agency. Helping people exit from cults is very difficult and there’s a good JSTOR paper on how the exit process can cause more damage than healing.

If we are to tackle this, we must continue to propose our own myths, to dismantle their taboos. We don’t dismantle taboos with facts alone. It can’t be done. We can only dismantle taboos and ideas about purity by establishing our own forms of these values. This runs the risk of direct conflict as different mythic ideas clash. I think if we’re interested in establishing that racism is NOT ok then we have to accept that potential outcome.

So…to conclude. Like properly.

  • we should give up the notion that facts will convince people who are defending values
  • We MUST develop our own positive myths around why the society we want to live in is a good one and we must be prepared to defend it. i.e. we have to fight them a little on their own ground
  • We must remember that constitutional, legal and social niceties, conventions and norms are seen as contemptuous if they serve the ‘other’ for communities under siege
  • We must continue to defend the above for all the obvious reasons as well as the fact they protect us from ourselves
  • We cannot be neutral but we can also call people in these communities to their positive values – to their better natures. Almost no member of those communities sees themselves as bad people and we can use our own myths and narratives to call out those positives.
  • Attacking them, belittling them and humiliating people who feel defensive will only make them more defensive. However, when their ideas clash with mine, I must call them out but as one peer to another. We should always treat them, not necessarily with respect of their ideas but with the knowledge that their values are significant for them and we should therefore take them seriously. Seriously enough to oppose them.
  • Finally – narratives among the community of outrage are explicitly designed to build those values and to ensure emotional engagement remains high. As I’ve said elsewhere, we must develop our own myths and stories if we are going to counter these kinds of arguments. But how we build positive myths is for another day.

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. 

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