Democracy in turmoil:
Lies, exploitation, corruption, damage, division, conflict, abuse. . . .
Is that all there is? (With a nod to singer Peggy Lee.)
The primary scam of the Tory-led coalition in the UK has been to convince people of 3 things. First, that there is no other way, i.e. in this very rich country, “there is no money”, and draconian cuts are necessary and unavoidable, to pay down the national debt. Second, that there is no other way: slash and burn must be inflicted on our treasured public sector (instated by the 1945 Labour government) with greatest consequences forthe least powerful and most vulnerable in society, for example, those receiving benefits.
All this, to avoid restructuring the financial sector or recovering funds from those élites (overwhelmingly white males and their organisations), whose greed and reckless behaviour brought the economy to its knees in 2007/8.[i]
On one level, the results are now well known in terms of the bank bailouts, the depths that the global recession reached individuals in terms of house possessions and the loss of pensions, and the ongoing crisis in public borrowing. On another level, what actually happened during and leading up to that period is almost entirely unacknowledged.[ii] (Emphasis added.)
Third, in order to inculcate self blame and a sense of powerlessness in the general population, faced with the aftermath of the financial crisis (What can we do? There is nothing we can do. The government knows best, etc.) our unelected government, with no electoral mandate to dismantle welfare and the public sector, including our treasured NHS,[iii]is working fast to undermine paid employment and employment rights generally (actively creating sudden and extensive unemployment in the public sector), destroying the vestiges of collective organisation via trade unions, while replacing secure employment with temporary, part-time, project-funded, zero-hours or unpaid work, and self employment.
These three wrecking balls produce the discourse of Austerity: a polite, depoliticized term for unbridled discrimination and violence against those with no means of defending themselves. The ConDemsdemonise the latter as “scroungers” and “skivers”.[iv]This discourse is actively promulgated by the government, with consequences also for those with disabilities and for how they are perceived by others in society.[v]
These changes constitute a further attack on employees’ pay and conditions of service (e.g. the right to sick pay, holiday pay, maternity leave, pensions, etc.).This in turn has consequences for health and wellbeing and security, and the trade unions whose historical business and raison d’être have been to secure and protect those rights for their members.[vi]
While we are (almost) all negatively affected by these changes, they impact the lives and prospects of women and children, and in particular women who are single parents,[vii]more detrimentally than men.As a result, women and children are rendered more vulnerable, not just financially, but socially, personally, domesticallyand psychologically.[viii] Yet, in 2013, gender issues and gender analysis remain areas of incomprehension,denial, marginality and conflict.[ix]
the void of history and education
Today many people have no experience or understanding of collective organisation and action (demonized as “militant” and “the enemy within” by Thatcher as she faced down the miners in 1984). Neither have they been taught the history of western capitalism,[x]the trade unions and the Labour movement,[xi] women’s histories and liberation politics, nor more recent post colonial, anti-racist and LGBTQ movements, campaigns and achievements. Yet UK society has changed. The most recent annual survey by NatCen Social Research found that:
The nation has changed beyond recognition in the three decades since it first began examining society, with people now much less bound by class, gender and sexuality.[xii]
The historical movements mentioned above have made crucial contributions to the diverse, multicultural society we are today, and to legislation and practices designed to protect at-risk constituenciesin the home / caring environment, on the street and in the workplace,[xiii]for example, potential victims of racism, homophobia, misogyny, ageism, disablism, trans prejudice. These safeguards and protections are central to a democratic society that is neither authoritarian nor totalitarian, nor routinely and institutionally unjust or brutal.[xiv] But which, without our vigilance, could quickly end up as all of these.
Democracy is sustained not by the system which prescribes it, whatever that might be, but by the challenges to that system. A political system is only as good as the capacity of its critics to attack it. They are the people who enforce the checks and balances which prevent any faction – the corporations, the aristocracy, the armed forces, even, for that matter, trade unions or environment groups – from wielding excessive power.[xv]
Revisiting Monbiot’s words in 2013, 10 years after the initial publication of his book, Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain, serves to highlight the prescience and urgency of his evidence and arguments today, in the wake of the financial crash of 2007/8, the Tory-led Coalition’s Austerity measures,[xvi]and the disarray on the Left, faced with challenging the aftermath of its own neoliberal policies and practices while in government, now being given a terminal and triumphant twist by the Tories.
Incitement to fear and hatred of Others is now government policy it seems, as it uses ‘difference’ as a way to goad one stereotyped group against another: unemployed v employed; pensioners v students; old v young; ‘natives’/’Brits’ v ‘foreigners’, refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, travellers; those on benefits v those with jobs; parents v teachers; those with disabilities v the non-disabled, ‘hard-working families v non working, non families, ‘black’ v ‘white’, etc..[xvii]
Neoliberalism has combined decriminalization of the powerful and guilty (NB corporations), with criminalisation of the innocent and much less powerful (vulnerable individuals, poor populations, young people, the dispossessed, protesters, whistle-blowers).[xviii]
environmental contempt and irresponsibility
We now find in legislation and in policy, a very open admission that there is a direct relationship between the shift towards self-regulation and a neo-liberal profit-maximising agenda.[xix]
As part of this make-the-rich-richer-and-the-poor-and-middling-poorer, neoliberal deregulation, demolition and plunder have conspired to intensify, ignore and deny climate change and the swath ofsocial justice / health and well being / environmental issues and practices that require urgent (overdue) action and change.[xx]
When profits are the priority, nature (and we are also nature) becomes variously contaminated, damaged or exhausted,[xxi]and working conditions (especially in privatised, un/under-regulated industries) become ever more dangerous and toxic.[xxii]Nature and workers are rendered disposable (Francis Bacon’s [1561-1626] ‘matter’: bodies without human rights.[xxiii]).And “a properly democratic culture can hardly flourish if our workplaces are run as tyrannies”.[xxiv]
The re-imagining of social, political and environmental ethics that this crisisnow requires (an entwined project),[xxv]and democracy itself, arestalled by the unremitting greed and dominance of élite vested interests, in their efforts to maintain control, power and profit:
In the neoliberal settlement, public status belongs securely only to those who embody the logic of acquisition by force, fraud and free exchange.[xxvi]
This manly mania, this corporate culture, this criminal dominion have been costly for the rest of us. The body politic has been damaged, society rendered more fragile, and individuals commodified as active or failed consumers. We are ‘free’ to shop, but with civil and employment rights, protections and opportunities increasingly circumscribed or curtailed. And the environment slumps under the strain of the corporate capture of nature, food, populations, towns and cities.
Corporations, the contraptions we invented to serve us, are overthrowing us. They are seizing powers previously invested in government, and using them to distort public life to suit their own ends.[xxvii]
In 2013, we are further down that road than when Monbiot introduced Captive State with these words in 2000.[xxviii]
‘Business as usual’ means an avoidable catastrophe becomes a widespread and enduring disaster. Water becomes scarcer and less safe.Rainfall and floods are no longer seasonal and ‘natural’, part of nature’s cycle, but instead experienced as violent, overpowering and costly.The fertility of the land and the bee population plummets.There is a loss of habitats; species become extinct. Animals and people suffer a living hell. Communities break down and/or scatter to the winds. Individuals lose all hope and purpose, and turn against each other in violence; or give up and turn to dust. This is all happening now.
complexity, contradiction, urgency.
The obstacles are not technical, practical or financial but political, intellectual and ideological.[xxix]
And these three obstacles are fundamentally genderedpractices: they too often exemplify and promote the dominance and normalisation of patriarchal masculinity as the paradigm, the star turn.[xxx]Thesegendered obstaclesare played out in the Tory-dominated press and media, or others Tory-compliant and acquiescent to neoliberal assumptions and methods.[xxxi]
At the same time, rising and rampant income differentials, increasing poverty and hardship, and widespread, increasingly institutionalisedinequality, can be seen as neoliberal tools of social and economic control, as well as calculated consequences that reinforce social division, shame and despair, with stark consequences for (mental) health and well being amongst those most disparaged and neglected. [xxxii]
So this colourful,monetised, ‘manic’ culture does not altogether mask another side of its new ‘reality’: an apathy and/orsense of political betrayal, thathas culminated in a cynical, depoliticised public domain, where many feel that “most of our representatives have been either coopted or crushed”.[xxxiii]
Neoliberal individualism has been promoted and internalised as the only game in town, and this inculcates competitiveness, ruinous consumption and conflict. The ‘glamour’ of shopping, celebrity and consumerism come to function as benchmarks of ‘success’ and ‘sanity’.[xxxiv] It could also be argued that consumerism has ‘democratised’ access to respectability, glamour (‘femininity’) and comfort. It is powerful stuff: simultaneously seduction and affront. But we humans (given half a chance) are innately creative, and we can also educate for that, foster and develop co-creative skills together (Gove will have to step aside of course) to mitigate and replace this brutal and divisiveideology .
Richard Sennett poses the personal and politicalchallenge to us, as social beings sharing a planet, a world, and societies and communities of our own making, against the backdrop of conditions not of our own making:
We meet, we compete, I take everything, you are destroyed. Pure Hobbes. In natural ecologies the apex predator is master of the encounter, in which there is no reciprocity.. . . In human societies, winner-takes-all exchange is the logic of total war and genocide. In business, winner-takes-all is the logic of monopoly; the idea is to eliminate all competitors. About this state of affairs, let’s be as succinct as Hobbes: it should be put an end to as soon as possible.[xxxv] [Emphasis added.]
In 2013 it should also be obvious that feminist and environmental values are not optional add-ons, but intrinsic to democratic culture and the renewal of the Left in the UK. The “straight Left”[xxxvi] must at last work to develop self-reflexive gender awareness and analysis, taking on misogyny and patriarchal masculinity[xxxvii] (in addition to racism, lesbophobia, homophobia and social class prejudice), helping transform the culture and sexual politics of the Labour movement,[xxxviii]making it fit for the C21. Otherwise,the APEX predators,[xxxix]men of the Right or Left (gay or straight), will be left in control: intact and lethal. And that would be a terminal price to pay for our inability or unwillingness to build a ‘together’ and democracy sufficient to the task we now face.
[i]See Paul Mason (2010) Meltdown.The End of the Age of Greed. London, Verso.
[ii]Steve Tombs & David Whyte (2010) Regulatory surrender: death, injury and the non-enforcement of law. Liverpool, The Institute of Employment rights:see p 17 for a fuller statement of this failure to investigate and explain.
[iii]See Jacky Davis & Raymond Tallis (eds.) NHS SOS. London, Oneworld.
[iv]See Seumas Milne (09 01 2013) There is a problem with welfare, but it’s not ‘shirkers’. The Guardian.Also Val Walsh (2008)Worklessness. NERVE Issue 13: 5. Full version on http://www.catalystmedia.org.uk
[v]Frances Ryan (31 07 2013) The legacy of the Paralympic Games? Cuts, cuts, cuts. The Guardian.Also: Peter Walker & Alexandra Topping (29 08 2013) Paralymics “did not improve attitudes to disability”. The Guardian.
[vi]See Alan Bogg& K D Ewing (2013) The political attack on workplace representation – a legal response. Liverpool, The Institute of Employment Rights. Also David Renton & Anna Macey (2013) Justice Deferred: a critical guide to the Coalition’s employment tribunal reforms. Liverpool, The Institute of Employment Rights.
[vii]See Maureen Paton (06 08 2013) Who would benefit? The Guardian. “The government seems set on taking us back to an era where single mothers are penalized most. What next. . . the poor house?”
[viii] See Liz James & Jackie Patiniotis (06 2013) WomenAt the Cutting Edge: Why public sector spending cuts are a gender equality issue. Liverpool John Moores University.Also Kat Burden-Manley (20 08 2013) Sexism in an age of Austerity. http://www.leftunity.org.uk
[ix]See Sasha Deepwell (2012)Mining the Gap. Report for LWN (Liverpool Women’s Network). (Liverpool Women’s Network can be found on Facebook.)
[x]A brilliant recent guide is provided by Ha-Joon Chang, South Korean born Reader in the Political Economy of Development at the University of Cambridge (2010) 23 Things They don’t Tell You About Capitalism. London, Penguin Books. His Guardian articles since 2008 have been must-reads: critical, illuminating, humane and useful.
[xi]See Paul Mason (2008) Live Working or Die Fighting.How the Working Class Went Global.London, Vintage Books.Also Colin Firth & Anthony Amore (2013) The People Speak. Democracy is not a Spectator Sport. Edinburgh, Canongate Books.
[xii]Randeep Ramesh (10 09 2013) The way we are now: more individual, liberal and cynical.The Guardian.See also Danny Dorling (2011) So You Think You Know About Britain? London, Constable.
[xiii] See Jane Martinson (14 07 2013) Government accused of dismantling equity laws. The Guardian. See alsowww.fawcettsociety.org.uk; and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/committee; also Institute of Employment Rights newsletters.
[xiv] The wristband that memorializes the murder of young Sophie Lancaster on the street in 2008 because she looked ‘different’ due to her Goth identity, embodies these values and aspirations. It reads: SOPHIE, and stands for STAMP OUT PREJUDICE HATRED INTIMIDATION EVERYWHERE. See www.sophielancasterfoundation.com for more information.
[xv]George Monbiot (2000, reprint 2013) Captive State. The Corporate Take-over of Britain. London, Macmillan: 357.
[xvi]See Ha-Jung Chang (27 07 2013) To describe the economy as on the mend is Orwellian. The Guardian.
[xvii]See Peter Walker (22 08 2013) “Huge bias against black people” found with drugs. The Guardian.
[xviii]See Tombs & Whyte (2010): 21. Also Monbiot (2000) on the ways in which “for the past 15 years, people seeking to challenge corporate power have been increasingly regulated”: 342-348. In 2013, the situation is much worse; see footnotes i, vii and xvii above.
[xix]Tombs & Whyte (2010): 15.
[xx] See www.zerocarbonbritain.org published by CAT (The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynllith, Powys) (2013). See also http://www.stockholmresilience.org/21/research/reserch-news/3-27-2013-redefining-sustainable-develoment.html
[xxi]Richard Lacey (1991) Unfit for Human Consumption. Food in Crisis – the consequences of putting profit before safety. Bristol, The Soil Association.
[xxii] See Tombs & Whyte (2010).
[xxiii] See Carolyn Merchant (1982) The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. “Bacon frequently described matter in female imagery, as a ‘common harlot’” (Merchant: 171) and was a key figure in “the development of science as a methodology for manipulating nature” (ibid.: 186). “The new image of nature as female to be controlled and dissected through experiment legitimated the exploitation of natural resources” (ibid.: 189 ).
[xxiv]Dan Hind (2010)The Return of the Public. London, Verso: 194.
[xxv] See Susan George (2011) Whose Crisis, Whose Future? Towards a Greener,Fairer, Richer World.Cambridge, Polity Press.
[xxvi]Dan Hind (2010): 97.
[xxvii]George Monbiot (2000): 4.
[xxviii]See, for example, Jacques Peretti (29 08 2013) The Men Who Made Us Thin. BBC2programme on obesity and the food industry, and how the men of the food industry are spending millions on advertising, propaganda and lobbying, to block any regulation designed to change their behaviour and their high calorie, low nutrition, high profit products (e.g. sugary drinks). Such regulation, they argue, taking the high moral ground, would be an attack on low-income consumers: an attack on the poorest in society.
[xxix] Susan George (2011): 2. See also Andrew Cumbers (2012) Reclaiming Public Ownership. Making Space for Economic Democracy. London, ZedBooks.
[xxxi]See Dan Hind’s (2010)elegant engagement with the problem of the media, the press and democracy, and his arguments for “public commissioning” (153-174), “a public system of knowledge” (175-190) to support, embody and embolden democracy.
[xxxii]See Daniel Dorling (2011) Injustice. Why Social Inequality Persists. Bristol, The Policy Press.
[xxxiii]George Monbiot (2000): 3
[xxxiv] See Robert Peston Goes Shopping (02, 09, 16 09 2013) for an eye-popping, incisive history and analysis from the BBC News business editor. BBC2.
[xxxv]Richard Sennett (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. London, Penguin Books: 85.
[xxxvi] Peter Tatchell (07 08 2013) A book that changed me. The Gay Liberation Front Manifesto of 1971.The Guardian.
[xxxvii]See Libby Brooks (07 01 2013) We must all counter the mood music of rape culture. The Guardian. “Understandingrape as a universal also means understanding that rape culture comprises not only unambiguous misogyny . . . In the landmark text Against Our Will , Susan Brownmiller described a ‘rape-supportive culture’, a complex of beliefs that excuse, tolerate or even condone violence against women.” In the UK, in the post Saville era, evidence of this complexity and its lethal consequences for women and children continues to soar and gain traction in the mainstream as evidence, both ofthe past and the present, i.e. that society has failed to break with this past, and that the gender power relations and sexualised culture that accommodate, foster and shield misogyny and male dominance remain intact. But at least VAWG is now visible as a key unresolved issue that society and government are expected to take seriously. See Randeep Ramesh (31 08 2013) Child abuse calls rise after Saville scandal. The Guardian.Also SorayaChemaly (26 03 2013) Online threats against women aren’t trivial and don’t happen in a vacuum. Huff Post TECH. www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/the-point-of-online-haras_b_2931720.html
[xxxviii]See Val Walsh (10 10 2012) Sexism and Activism: What’s the Problem? Also (14 10 2012) Thinking Through and Beyond ‘Sexism’: Reflections on the challenge for the ‘Left’ (and willing others).togetherfornow.wordpress.com
[xxxix]Richard Sennett (2012) Ibid.‘Zero sum’ 83/85; ‘Winner-takes-all’ 85/86.
val walsh / 11 09 2013