Thursday, 1 October 2009

"Everything is fine today - that is our illusion." - Voltaire

It is a widely promulagted fiction that Britain's political system is the fruition of centuries of linear development towards a liberal democracy: we arrogantly grant our Houses of Commons and Lords the title "The Mother of Parliaments". No gory French Revolution for us; no Latin American military juntas or Nazi dictatorship. The British people have over centuries of graceful partnership, moderation and, well, plain jolly good sense worked out the wonderful paragon of freedom and democratic practice we are today.

The truth is very different - both today and in history.

Today, we are ruled by a Government that, thanks to our voting system, holds 60% of the seats in Parliament with just 35% of the votes cast - would Mugabe have got away with this? A Government which rules as "King-in-parliament". This means that the constitutional legitimacy of the Government stems from its appointment by the monarch, the Queen, rather than by the choice of the people. We all are, in any case, subjects of the monarch. In most European countries, the Constitution establishes the rights of the citizen; in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, our rights and freedoms are granted by the Monarch, and able to be removed at any time. Unlike most Europeans, the USA and many, many others, we have no written constitution - only rules and precedents established over time, open to wide interpretation and fairly arbitrary change.( )

Surely it doesn't matter that much? It is just theory - in practice, we are free. But consider this: in the last 8 years, buoyed along by the USA after 9/11 and showing no sign of stopping, the British Government has established hundreds of new criminal offences and state powers to spy on you and arrest you for nothing more than the suspicions of some petty official.

A protest exclusion zone around Parliament has led to the arrest and prosecution of peace activists for nothing more threatening than reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq at the national Cenotaph; terrorist law has been used to confiscate green activists' toothbrushes as dangerous weapons and arrest a teenage girl for riding her horse in a suspicious manner; and notoriously, Labour Party member Walter Wolfgang survived Nazi persecution arriving in the UK in 1937 as a Jewish refugee only to end up being arrested and held by police for several hours for booing the Home Secretary during his speech at the 2005 Labour party conference. You may even now be arrested for handing out leaflets in town centres without a proper licence - in some, you cannot do it at all as many of our public spaces have been sold off to prviate landowners and, as such, are private property.

In themselves, these instances may seem obstructive and nonsensically counterproductive - the laws have even been used to spy on the incorrect use of dustbins - but the return of Binyam Mohamed from Guantanamo earlier this year to the UK reminds us of the more sinister side of this. ( ) This man was held for seven years, tortured by proxy by Pakistan and Moroccan security services using questions provided by the UK. The most damning evidence against him? That he had read a joke article by a leftwing magazine about how to make your own nuclear bomb from the contents of your kitchen cupboard - ( ). Detained without charge or trial, he is home now, a broken man. And in the UK, horrendously, a raft of people - mainly wanted by the security services in such free countries as Jordan and Algeria - are held in indefinite home arrest.

And coming soon...a national database of every email, telephone call and text message you send, preserved by the State and its tens of thousands of officials to inspect, interpret and act upon as they decide; a database of the details of every child in the UK (let's put the vulnerable at as much risk as possible!); and then the greatest of all - the National Identity Card - not compulsory, but required if you want medical treatment, social security and just about any service requiring proof of identity. The Government has already admitted the ID scheme will not work against terrorism, but is throwing up to £18 billion into it - a little know fact is that one of the the private companies bidding to be involved has on its Board the former Home Secretary who introduced the scheme - David Blunkett. ( )

The current Government claims of course that all this is simply to protect us from the allegedly innumerable threats against our peace and security; our way of life, it is said, is at threat. Yet what are we left defending when we surrender the freedoms we have fought for centuries in a matter of months?

And fought we did. Not just in the war against Hitler, which is usually meant when people say that. The fact is, we had to fight tooth and nail for our freedoms against an instransigent, often violent and oppressive state which sought to demonise, exclude and destroy any and every threat to the Establishment that runs our society. For centuries, Church and State combined to keep the Order of things intact through a mix of faith and fear. And when with the passage of time that became harder, they did not change their method, but rather refined it - controlling "freedom" of speech and arresting those too radical to be accommodated within the system.
The Magna Carta is often touted as the start of constitutional government in England; yet this was little more than a Baron's Charter. It retained the feudal order intact, while the Parliaments of de Montfort incorporated the new merchant classes into the Established way of things. These were instruments which maybe rearranged the existing order a little, allowed some "New Men" in, but ultimately left the system untouched. Even Cromwell suppressed the first socialist stirrings of the Levellers and Covenanters during our short-lived Republic and the "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 simply enshrined bigotry and hierarchy in spite of the titles given to laws such as the "Bill of Rights".

In the late 18th century, Thomas Spence emerged as a radical thinker who advocated land redistribution, freedom of the press, voting rights for men and women, and social security for those unable to work. Under slogans such as "The Land is the People's Garden", he and his supporters advocated social reform which quickly gained popularity, so much so that the Government quickly took to arresting many and closing down the pamphleteers who spread their ideas - this, a foretaste of today, was done for the sake of national security and public order, with France rather than Islam as its bogeyman. Spence himself was imprisoned several times.

After his death in 1814, Spencean societies were formed as part of a widespread, decentralised movement, with public houses as their meeting places and social and economic equality their watchwords. Government spies inflitrated them and in 1816 the authorities violently suppressed a rally and charged several leaders of the movement with high treason, with death as the penalty. Fortunately, the jury system meant they were acquitted. (The jury system is one of the few mechanisms that seems rooted in British thinking, though in recent years even this has come under threat from the current Government).

In 1819, at Peterloo in Manchester, a rally by people demanding the right to vote for Parliament (a right at that time granted to a tiny handful of the richest members of society) was charged by cavalry, killing 15 and injuring as many as 700 people. The Government followed this up by a strikingly familiar raft of new laws called the "Six Acts". These made it possible to arrest someone suspected of undertaking irregular military training; allowed homes to be searched arbitrarily for weapons; reduced the opportunities for bail; required public meetings to be registered if more than 50 people attended; imposed stiffer penalties for publishing material held to be seditious; and taxed newspapers which published opinions as well as facts. ( )

Unsuprisingly, this did nothing to reconcile the Spenceans to the Government, and during the succession crisis following the death of the King in 1820, twelve of the most radical attempted an ill-conceived plot to muder the entire Cabinet at dinner - later known to history as the Cato Street Conspiracy after the site of their shortlived base of operations. This ended in a sword and gunfight and the execution or exile of the leaders.( )( )

Over the rest of the century, trade unions, socialist societies and many religious reformers struggled hard for change - and slowly won changes, however grudgingly surrendered by the Establishment. As late as 1884 many men did not have the vote and a further 45 years (and several deaths of suffragettes) were to elapse before all women were to enjoy that right too. And every step of the way, the Establishment resisted - even when overt violence declined and political debate did become more established, the incumbent Order continued to resist any changes or challenges to how things are - even now, with the collapse of the banking system and the economy of the world in disarray, it kicks back and resists any suggestions of real, deep seated change.

So Britain remains prey to those who would limit and remove the rights we have won over centuries of struggle. And our lack of a written constiution and the fact of our Monarchy combine to make us ever more vulnerable to those who would hold our freedom in their hands, to dispense with as they please. If this is not quite entirely the intention of the current Government, what guarantee might we have of the motives of a future one, perhaps of different hue? How much easier has this Government made the path to Britain's future concentration camps?

We need a written constitution and a republic if we are to have any chance of establshing a truly fair and free society and changing the rotten core of inequality, greed, excess and waste that is at the heart of capitalism. Violence, actual and implied, has been at the heart of the struggle for rights for all for centuries - most of it instigated by the Government of the day, the agent of the status quo. Our political masters, in the Name of the King, are all-powerful, their police state mentality cleverly concealed in a cloak of liberalism. If we allow, it could soon just as easily be a shroud, a winding-sheet for democracy and freedom.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Limits to Growth = Limits to Wealth

(Right -The Desert of Capitalism: on the left in this satellite picture is Haiti, whose Government has permitted full-scale exploitation of the forests by big business. On the right, the Government of the Dominican republic has poured public funds into Eco-tourism and conservation - the results are plain to see.)

The mainstream of politics often combines its reluctant nod to the need for environmental protection with a hasty assurance that capitalism can yet deliver "green growth". Like latter day alchemists, they claim a synthesis of the free market with modern technology, and a healthy dose of genetic engineering for good measure, will somehow deliver a nirvana of never-ending increases in production and consumption and, of course, profit in a sustainable way.

This, of course, is the underlying folly of capitalism - that limitless demand can somehow be met ultimately with limitless supply. In any other realm of human activity, under any other title, the concept would be laughed out as fantasy at best, dangerous delusions at worst. But for our planet, its species mired in an unchallenged liberal economy now for over twenty years, if not much longer, capitalism is as essential as the air we breathe (or even more essential, given the damage capitalism is permitted to inflict on our air). Since Fukyama declared the end of history with the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have been left with a received wisdom and socio-political consensus that there is only one way forward: free markets, deregulated as far as possible. And through the 1990s and the start of this decade, enough crumbs fell to enough people from the Masters' tables to maintain the illusion that somehow everyone would benefit. The suffering of hundreds of millions of the poorest in all societies, their poverty - both relative and absolute - was effectively shut out of the media as effectively as the thousands of "gated communities" that have sprung up throughout the western world have physically shut out the offending sight of poor from the eyes of the rich.

Of course, we now see this Neverland unravelling before our eyes with the banking crisis and the recession. But how has it been dealt with? After all the wringing of hands, the denunciation of "greedy" bankers (as if somehow there were some who were not) and the declaration that such things could never be allowed to happen again, what do we find? A handful of bankers have departed their well-paid jobs, in nearly all cases with handsome pay offs and swollen pension pots. Even Fred Goodwin, who captained the Royal Bank to ruin, continues to pick up a pension of £342,500 plus pa, along with a seven figure lump sum, while 9,000 of his former employees have lost their jobs. At least he will be able to get the scratches on his car fixed. His worst penalty? "Blackballed" allegedly by the membership committee of Saint Andrews Golf Club - now that's capital regulating itself!

Now this past week, we are told the bankers are now returning to their old habits. Kept afloat with the hard earned money of taxpayers, after spending years themselves doing their utmost to avoid paying their personal income tax and their organisations' corporate taxes, they now feel ready to carry on as normal.

No surprise. The capitalist system has an inherent driver - it is to maximise your return for the minimum investment of effort: You want something I have. My intention becomes to find what is the absolute greatest level of value that you will surrender to me for it. There are no ethical considerations. No long term planning. No morality other than how do I extract the most wealth from you, for me. Now.

So it is little wonder that, with some signs the current downturn has flattened out, that capitalists seek to assert their normal behaviours. They have always done so in the past - why would they not now? It is, we are told, the "natural" way of doing things, so why would their nature suddenly change?

The corollary of all this though is that the concept of a "return to normal" IS unrealistic - the imbalance in wealth, globally and in the UK, is at a historic high. The gap between rich and poor has never been wider. Tiny numbers of people hold vast quantities of wealth while resources grow tight and environmental degradation impoverishes hundreds of millions - both developments driven by the voracious need of capitalism to feed the pockets of shareholders rather than the bellies of hungry children.

It is not sustainable, which is why a return to normal ways can only be a temporary phenomenon. Capitalism is driving the planet and our species to the edge. Any recovery may last a while - a year, two years, a decade even, but soon enough, the impact of passing not just peak oil but peak carbon fuel production will kick in with a thump that will bring whole economies crashing down, banks and governments with them, and social unrest, disorder, violence and war may well be the most obvious result.
There is another future: a Green one, offering redistribution of wealth, fairer societies, banks and enterprises focussed on mutual protection and community need rather than shareholder dividends and private profit. A sustainable future that has plans for the next 50 and 100 years, not the next 3 to 5 years which fit the common corporate business plans of most capitalist companies. This way recognises that there are limits to growth, there is only so much that can be extracted without needing to replenish. And this in turn leads to the point that if there are limits to growth, there need also to be limits to wealth: that a sustainable society seeking the common good has, by virtue our human condition and our planet's limits, to set a maximum level of wealth that an individual can hold, in income and in wealth. Any other way can only lead to the chaos and collapse of the capitalist scenario.

We face a choice: green and growth cannot be intertwined indefinitely; we need to learn that there are limits - to what we can have, to what we can take. Instead, we have to find how we can do more with what we have - and all the evidence points to those people who already do so have happier and healthier lives than those who are tied in, emotionally, psychologically, financial and physically, to the capitalist treadmill. If this can be translated to the whole community, if it can become the zeitgeist, the underpinning ethic of society, a transformation can begin - but it will involve hard choices and political action.

It won't be an easy option or a soft choice: I am not arguing for a touchy-feely hippy revolution.

But I AM arguing for a revolution.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Global Warming: they just don't get it.

The Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, warned this week that climate change will affect all our lives after a report stating a two degree rise in average temperature by 2040 is now unavoidable, and it could be up to eight degrees by 2080.

We are then told to plan and build better flood defences.

Read Mark Lynas' book "Six Degrees" and you will see there a grimly sober, well-sourced assessment that by six degrees, there will be nothing left to defend from rising seas.

A six degree increase across the planet will extinguish life as we know it: apart from in the polar regions (possibly not even there), the ecosystem that human and most forms of animal life depend on will have collapsed and the atmosphere will be barely breathable.

It may seem a huge change for a relatively small increase in temperature, but the biosphere that sustains life is thin in the extreme - not only is it a tiny layer between the planet and outer space; it is also sustained by an extremely precarious balance in nature. It has been disturbed naturally in the past, though the changes then have nearly always been over centuries and millenia, not the decades of the current changes.

We have it in our gift to avoid this: but if we don't change, if we don't move to a fairer society based on local, sustainable production and moderate our consumption, we face the prospect of making this the final century not only of our civilisation, but of our very species.

Mr Benn needs to think about more than flood defences.