Sunday, 5 October 2014

1905 Again

"Well, we don't need's all over..."

Ruling classes:  faces change but the song remains the same
The Tory Party speaker on the Scottish referendum programme, sometime in the wee small hours of Friday 19th September, could not have been more brazen as he dismissed off hand a question about how soon the "devomax" powers promised by the Westminster leaders would be delivered following the NO vote. Subsequently, his colleagues from the Lib Dems, Labour and his own party stumbled to correct him, assuring people that of course the incredibly tight timescale would indeed be honoured.

But already it hasn't been, nor will it be. Because it was, from the start, a cynical lie. Nothing has been brought forward as promised. Each of the three parties has come up with at least one, in some cases more, sets of differing proposals, while understandably some English MPs have begun to question even more the already existing imbalance in the so called West Lothian question - whereby Scottish MPs can vote on matters affecting England when English MPs have no equivalent say on Scottish matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The whole thing is gridlocked and, as many including this blog had predicted, it is almost certain to disappear as fast as snow in summer as the political crisis moves to UKIP and the future careers of David Cameron and Ed Milband.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP has seen its membership rocket to over 60,000, so that  it is now the third largest UK party. The Scottish Greens, in less than a fortnight, saw their membership more than treble to over 6,000, while hundreds of others joined the Scottish Socialists. At the same time, the cultural movements Radical Independence, the National Collective and Common Weal continue to grow and promote a social collectivism that has become a political awakening at the grassroots unprecedented since the rise of the trade unions a hundred years ago.

Across the rest of the UK, there are similar if as yet less precipitate progressive advances - the Greens have grown by nearly 50% in the last year to over 20,000 members, while campaign groups like 38 degrees, the 999 March for the NHS and Global Justice Now mobilise thousands of people to oppose the privatisation of public health and the corporate coup d'etat promised by the TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP). Building on previous campaigns by Occupy and UKuncut, these extra-parliamentary groups are starting to shine some light on the hollow heart of our rotten, so-called democracy. Many are set to join trade unions on the TUC Day of Action on 18th October - Britain Needs A Payrise - which offers a signficant chance to put social justice back on the political agenda.

Getting equality, or inequality, back on the political agenda is key to campaigning for transition to a fairer, more sustainable society and, crucially, an economics that works for people and planet. For, just as Labour talks about squeezing public services only a tad less harshly than the Tories, and the Tories promise to cut benefits for the poorest and taxes for the richest, Britain is firmly set to move from its already appalling second to an eye-wateringly shameful first place in terms of being the most unequal society in the so-called developed world. Never has our country been wealthier; but never, possibly not even in the Middle Ages, has that wealth been more obscenely and destructively skewed into the hands of a tiny, tiny number of super-rich people.

In the latter days of the Roman Empire and the Royal Court of Versailles, the elite excluded themselves from more and more taxes while imposing ever greater burdens on the rest of society, pillaging the state for ever more destructive privileges. Now, in this century, we see the very people who offshore their accounts and avoid taxes on billions of profits from state-private contracts rewarded with garish medallions and ludicrously outdated Imperial titles, or with seats in the unelected House of Lords. (And still one of them complains their £300 a day allowance is not enough to satisfy her needs).

The corollary of this isn't about the politics of envy - although why should we not be angry about such revoltingly unequal outcomes? - but about its destructive effect on our social fabric and ordinary people's lives. As Hobbes explained four centuries ago in Leviathan and as The Spirit Level demonstrated so conclusively just 5 years ago, more unequal societies have greater violence, crime, ill health and unhappiness than those with a fairer distribution of wealth. From this, people in a poorer but more equal country like Cuba live longer and happier lives than those living in the superficially more prosperous but far more inegalitarian USA. The only response to poverty in this paradigm is seeking ever more economic growth, regardless of the often irreversible damage done to the environment and without addressing the need for fairer distribution - left unchallenged, the utter conceit of "trickledown" economics will only end when it eats itself, and all of us, in the process.

Thomas Hobbes - he "got it" back in 1651
But it seems our leaders don't get this. Referendum over, forget the crowds and forget the promises. The conventional wisdom likewise for three upcoming English by-elections, where the dangerously populist UKIP is challenging, is that protesting voters will dutifully revert to type at the General Election next May.

Our intellectually sclerotic, emotionally barren Masters may be disappointed. They may like to think that they can smuggly mouth a few platitudes like the "no more business as usual" mantra so beloved but long forgotten by errant bankers from 2009, but it seems people are listening less and less.

Possibly sensing this, their response is to look not to democracy, but to repression - with the Tories talking about powers to imprison people deemed to be anti-democratic while simultaneously proposing to abolish human rights legislation. The irony is of course lost on the dourly unimaginative Theresa May, but given that the existing Domestic Extremists register already includes thousands of people such as a Green Party Peer with no criminal record whatsoever and an 87 year old pensioner put under surveillance for going on public marches, the Establishment's definition of anti-democratic may well be very different to the common understanding of the word. Like similar American legislation, it is more likely to be used in defence of big business than any real threat to the illusion that increasingly passes for British democracy.

In 1905, facing an existential threat to his regime from the St Petersburg Soviet, a spontaneously created body of workers and soldiers, Czar Nicholas II conceded a Duma, an elected legislative parliament with near universal suffrage. The liberal parties, such as the Kadets and Octobrists, rushed to sign up, cutting the ground from under the feet of the more radical parties like the Social Revolutionaries that warned it was a ploy to buy time. The Soviet, latterly chaired by Leon Trotsky (at that time not a Bolshevik), was surrounded by Czarist troops and its leaders arrested, tried and imprisoned or exiled. Meanwhile, after reluctantly tolerating but taming the Duma for a few years, the Czar replaced it with an essentially consultative body and returned to business as usual.

We know how that turned out.

1909 Russian revolutionary view of contemporary society. Plus ca change...?

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