Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Shape of Now

Let's be honest, this century has been a cluster fuck so far. It's amazing how quickly things have gone from there being a glimmer of hope to, well, what? It feels a little as if the future has been snatched away, fear and uncertainty have become commonplace. The issues seems far more writ large than they were in the past, a growing juggernaut as the past does an ugly reach around and become the future.

The century is still going through its teething problems, as all centuries have, change feels as if it is happening on a colossal scale. As is the case of the last two centuries Britain is either involved in a war or gearing up for one and there are questions over rights and responsibilities. Also, hideously familiar is the widening gap between rich and poor, yawning ever wider as if we were truly returning to the bad old days of the past. We're seeing the idea of the state changing it's relationship with us as a people, drawing back with one hand, cutting services, making information harder to find, whilst at the same time becoming ever more invasive in a (futile?) quest to measure. As ever there's a tendency to play on human fears of the things in the dark, which again, as ever, leads to legislation that feels like someone things something has to be done... this is something to let's do it (and damn anyone who gets caught in the crossfire).

Politically, we've seen a 'professionalising' of the House of Commons. What I mean by that is that we've seen the ousting of most of the working class MPs and a growing number of middle class, Oxbridge graduates, many of them from the now infamous PPE programmes. We've also seen a change in the way candidates are selected, with future MPs being parachuted in to safe seats; the march of delegates by stealth. I cannot feel that Edmund Burke would have approved.  It's ironic that at a time when we have more women MPs and strong calls for all women short lists for seats we're losing the working class representatives and seeing a narrowing of the political experience in another way. I concede that class politics hasn't been sexy since the 1980s but all the same, do we really want to solve one inequality, only to foster another?

Political rhetoric has changed too, we now have responsibilities as well as rights, with these last being left quite vague. Personally beyond obeying the law, helping the Police with inquiries (in the unlikely event that that becomes necessary) and generally keeping my nose clean I don't see what other responsibilities I have. I live in fear of the day that I'm told I'm a bad citizen if I get fat or don't have children, though that situation seems to be something that could be frighteningly close. I half expect to see both of them in the next few years.

An interesting change seems to have stolen through the political process, the idea of democracy seems to have slowly transformed into 'you can vote' whilst the long slide towards political parties simply being different faces of various forces of capitalism (yes there's a slight amount of hyperbole there but it's not such a huge stretch when the people castigating the government for overspending aren't even the World Bank or International Monetary Fund as they were in the 1970s but apparently just jumped up loan sharks). It feels like the Houses of Parliament have become irrelevant in many ways and, judging from Belgium's experience politicians are fast becoming an optional extra; something that we can actually do without. The focus is almost always on the EU, with that being the UK's favourite scapegoat, but in truth British sovereignty is eroded from all sorts of angles, the USA and international financial markets must surely stand up and take a bow.

It feels as if we have the solutions to many of the problems out there in the world, things like global warming, but not the will to apply them. I don't know if that comes from politics, economics or a mixture of both and if its a fear that pushing through change will lead to rioting or a lack of capital moving around the system (see the way that as soon as the recession hit people stopped spending and a new air of panic was suddenly on display). We also seem to be in a stage where whatever solution is accepted, there's a knock on effect. Ethanol powered cars sound great, but not if growing crops to produce the ethanol drives food prices throught the roof. There's an air of opportunity cost about the whole thing, no matter which route we travel, something is going to be adversely affected.

Here too it feels as if we are being reduced to the status of children, or mere consumers. When six companies own everything it makes a mockery of the idea of the market, or choice in the first place. Sure you can go outside the system, but we've seen what happens when that happens, the system just buys the thing you're buying and subverts it (an old story, one that can be seen in every revolutionary movement from feminism to punk rock, no matter how hard you try, sooner or later someone sells out).

So situation normal: all fucked up.

The question becomes what do we do? We can analyse the problem all we like, but how do we reclaim our democracy, how do we shape our world? We have more communication devices at our disposal than ever but we seem to fob off things like contacting our MPs, assuming that whatever response we get will be a tissue of lies. We can see the affect of social media in mobilising people from the Arab Spring or successful Twitter campaigns but, again, we seem reluctant to engage with the process. There have been reports from places like Turkey of the incredulity that grip the people there as Britain undergoes swingeing cuts to services and the erosion of freedoms. Things that would bring other countries to a standstill with demos, campaigns and maybe even riots (which I'm not condoning or encouraging) are greeted here with a sad sigh and a shrug along with a lot of complaining on the internet.

There are root and branch changes that could be made, albeit at a higher level than the one most of us have access to. Punishing MPs for non attendance at the house, forcing governments to keep amendments put in to legislation by the Commons and Lords. But at the same time, it's not going to achieve anything apart from to make people even less likely to contribute to public life or stand for Parliament. There is a problem too that most of us dwell within our 'monkey spheres', we care only about our immediate situations, families and friends (our primate troupe nature coming out to play). Asking us to vote in elections is challenge to that enough but if we moved to a situation where voting was compulsory or MPs could be sacked for not fulfilling their obligations would probably present as many problems as not feeling as anything we do can change things (plus how do we get that sort of thing onto the the statute book anyway - it's effectively asking turkeys to vote for Christmas). I certainly suspect that general election participation would plummet and in marginal seats I can see tactics developing to oust MPs midterm and then get an opposing politician in. Basically any legislation allowing people to do this would have to be so carefully worded it might not be worth the paper its printed on.

My general thing when I find something I feel strongly about is to write to my MP and in general I've not been disappointed. I take the view that she works for me; my taxes pay for her wages, her travel. As a result part of my 'responsibilities' are to keep an eye on what she does and communicate when I have problems with what's going on in public life. I have to have faith that what I say is taken on board and acted upon, no matter how much of a sop the answers from the civil service sometimes seem to be.  It's not much but it's a start. Without that communication can democracy actually work? It's very English to say that I feel that the starting point is something we need to establish before we go further. The important thing to do is to keep things moving through pressure, be that in the form of petitions, campaigns or letter writing.

After that I'm not sure what we do? What do you think?