Archive for power

Wotcha Pippa, Got an Old Motor?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by Jonathan Kent

So, Pippa Bartolotti drives a Jag!  That’s a little surprising given that she’s one of the four candidates for leader of the Green Party.  And though she expresses amazement it’s that fact that The Independent chose to lead its contest coverage on, frankly that’s hardly a surprise at all.

Journalists like nothing more than the whiff of hypocrisy especially when they smell it on one of our (would-be) elected representatives.  No matter that there’s a cogent case that a Prius is impractical, or that now Pippa has the Jag it’s more eco to run it than buy a new car.  Nope, the question is how someone who wants to front the Greens could have bought one in the first place.

Cards on the table time; I have a car.  I drive it more than I’d like to but, living in the sticks, and 2 miles from the nearest bus stop, and almost 5 from the nearest village, it’s not as easy as when I lived in London, there was a bus stop 50 yards away and I only used the car to drive back to the sticks every month or so.

I bought a second hand VW Golf 5 years ago.  It runs on diesel, and when I go past one of those rare outlets that sells the stuff, it runs on recycled biodiesel.  I like it.  I get variety.  I can smell of stir-fry, curry or fish and chips and as I go past I know I’m doing a little bit to boost sales of deep-fried food as people get a whiff.

Am I a saint?  The heck I am.  If I was saintly I’d cycle everywhere with my small son in a trailer on the back.  And if we got wiped out in the process by one of the psycho lorry drivers that uses the road between me and the station I might get an obit in Green World, while the non-green world would write me off as a selfish idiot for putting my child in harm’s way.  See; you can’t win.

But the point is this – if you espouse a principled position, as Greens try to – you can do too little and you can do too much.  Do too little and you sound like on of those old time SWP bores that used to tell women at my uni that liberation would come after the revolution.  The ones that believed them are still waiting,  It’s not good enough to say ‘well it’s not easy being green’ (though it sounds better if you sing it).  You have to make some sacrifices.

On the other hand if you really do live your ideals, as people like Brig Oubridge do – Brig who I also saw speak at university and who, as a result, I suspected was possibly the coolest person on the planet – the mainstream commentariat declare that you’re living in la-la land and couldn’t be trusted with high office.

So it’s a bit of a tightrope.  If you want guidance for how to walk that tightrope you might take a leaf out of the Caroline Lucas guide to how to do it.  Get a good haircut, choose simple, stylish but unostentatious clothes, avoid extravagance but don’t sound like you’re lecturing mum and dad Middle England to wear a hair shirt and radiate good vibes.

I’m afraid Pippa rather fell off the tightrope.

However her other point, that Greens have a rather uncomfortable relationship with business, is well made.

I became a Green, for among other reasons, because I agreed with the green critique of the consumer society.  It’s something we don’t talk about enough at the moment, but the endless cycle of creating unhappiness in order to create wants so that those wants can be filled is a cycle that has to be broken.  It’s a cycle that has enslaved us to needless labour and has turned us into a society that judges everything by its cost and values people by how much wealth they conspicuously display.

However even if we do manage to break these chains we’ll still need things and services and jobs and businesses provide all of those.

The big debate is really about two things – the scope of the state and the scope of private enterprise.

I believe strongly in limited government (as distinct from small government); that the state should be the instrument of action and not the repository of power.  It should be (with caveats) the embodiment of the popular will.  We want an NHS?  Then we mandate the state to create and run a public healthcare service free at the point of use as the most efficient way to realise our chosen collective endeavour.  Likewise all the other services we decide that we need to provide for all citizens in order to create a compassionate and civilised society.

What the state shouldn’t do is go freelancing – looking for ways to increase its scope beyond its doing what we want it to do.  I don’t want the state spending money infiltrating peaceful protest groups, or engaging in foreign wars that serve neither our interests nor the greater good of humanity.  I don’t want the state to poke its nose into my bedroom, allying itself with one religion or another or a host of other things.

Because there are about 60 million different opinions about what the state should and shouldn’t do we work out these differences through the ballot box.  It ain’t perfect but, as Churchill said, it’s the worst possible system except for all the others that human beings have tried.

So if you were to suggest that it’s the job of the state to design, build and sell us mp3 players, you might have some difficulty persuading your fellow citizens that we should take our government’s eye off the ball of more important tasks with such fripperies.

As for business, what is it’s scope?  For me the Greens’ real gripe with business is this: business has no place whatsoever co-opting power for itself.  In a democracy power belongs to all of us; one person, one vote.  Moreover if you believe in subsidiarity that power should be kept as close to the people as the people wish.  (Me, I’m happy to delegate organising rubbish collection to the council UNTIL they do something stupid and I want to stop them doing that stupid something).

But what we have now is the apparently inexorable leeching away of power from the institutions we delegate it to, to big business.  Note I don’t simply say business.

Small and medium sized businesses rarely have much, if any, power at all.  Greens are instinctively pretty sympathetic to smaller businesses and I reckon it’s because they provide goods, services and jobs without trying to set themselves up to make decisions for us for which they’re unaccountable.  Big business tries to do exactly that.

That is the big political issue of our age – the theft of power from the people (yes all the people – stockbrokers, company directors and the idle rich along with the rest of us – they all get one vote just like you and me) by big finance and big business.

If Greens used the power question as the litmus they’d be far less conflicted about their relationship with businesses.  It’s abuse of power by corporates – from bullying local authorities into approving megastores to leaning on government to drive down the minimum wage or holding a gun to our collective heads to bail them out after the financial crisis – that is at the root of it all.

If we got that power back and if we made decisions collectively, every person in this country over sixteen, in our best interests as both a whole and as a collection of 60 million individuals, we’d probably not be facing the global meltdown we all fear.

So Pippa, make smarter decisions next time you shop for a motor and start talking about the proper role of business in a greener society.


Time To Change The Game

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 14, 2011 by Jonathan Kent

Growing up, did you ever play Monopoly or Risk?  Did you ever get to a point where you simply picked up the board, chucked the pieces in the air and told everyone ‘this is a stupid game’?

I did and I feel I’ve reached the same point now with the much bigger game that we’ve been suckered into; mindless materialism. Suckered because it’s a game that creates 99 losers for every winner and for 150 years the traditional left has been playing along, simply trying to ensure that more people win.

The time has come to stop playing an unwinnable game and play a different one entirely.

Looking back 150 years to an age when working people had been driven off the land and into the cities, when live expectancy was short, when malnutrition and slum housing were rife, when education was accessible only the a minority, when social security was almost non existent and universal healthcare yet undreamed of; that early socialists saw the problem in almost purely material terms is understandable.  Confronted with such deprivation the only decent response was to feed, clothe, house, educate and cure.  There are many parts of the world where that still holds true.

But the left has moved beyond trying to meet people’s needs in order to ensure that everyone can live with dignity.  The traditional left has bought into materialism – the mindless pursuit of consumer crap – and in doing so, it has condemned millions to misery.  Misery because the material hierarchy for which they’ve signed up condemns most of them to be losers, and it’s the conscious or unconscious knowledge of this that leaves so many people in modern Western societies feeling dissatisfied, adrift and depressed.

Leftist materialism found its purest voice in New Labour.  New Labour worshipped the rich.  Blair and Mandelson embodied that final capitulation.  They didn’t just feel intensely relaxed about others getting filthy rich, they felt really very chilled out at the prospect of getting filthy rich themselves.

I’ve often wondered what the attraction is.  Of course most of us can understand why people lust after the first million or so; a nice house, a decent car, big TV, all that stuff – not having to worry about paying the bills.  But the second million?  Or the tenth?  Even the one thousandth million?

Looked at in purely quality of life terms the relationship between wealth and wellbeing rises steeply from zero but reaches a point pretty fast where it more or less flat-lines.  A BMW gets you from A to B in relative comfort (I prefer the train, so long as I can sit down and not get charged a fortune), but 5 luxury cars don’t get you there any faster or more comfortably.  The difference in wellbeing between having four homes rather than three is miniscule next to having one home rather than none.  A wardrobe full of the latest Versace dresses and no friends is a poor substitute for a chest of drawers full of hand-me-downs and a dozen people you can turn to when you’re feeling low.

A recent survey concluded that the Mexican telecoms magnate Carlos Slim is the richest man in history because his income equals that combined of more of his fellow countrymen than even legendary rich figures such as Crassus- in Slim’s case his wealth equals that of 440,000 average Mexicans.

Yet Slim doesn’t have 440,000 homes.  He doesn’t have 440,000 cars or even 440,000 fried eggs for breakfast.  The same is true of Warren Buffett, a shrewd investor but an unassuming man whose modest lifestyle belies his vast wealth.  Redistribute their capital and you don’t free up additional resources to be redistributed.  You only pump more money into the system and change the price of goods.  Take away Slim or Buffett’s fortunes and spread around their cash and you redistribute power, not least buying power, but you don’t create more stuff.

Because here’s the thing.  Past a certain point money has nothing to do with standard of living and material comfort; past a certain point it’s about status and then it’s about power.

We are, on a very important level, still the children of our animal selves – with our need to survive, reproduce and to have a place within the group.  It’s just that these days all that evolutionary programming is at work in the city rather than on the savannah.

Status and power are intimately tied up with survival and finding the best possible mate.  Our need to be valued and to be with others that are valued is as hardwired into our brains as is the need to eat, sleep and go to the toilet.

But here’s another thing – value doesn’t have to be measured in financial terms.  There are plenty of circumstances where people have won status, respect and even a more desirable mate not through being rich but through giving more – through being indispensible to the group.  When your people are starving being the person who knows how to grow food gives you a value that being able to hand out gold coins does not.

The trouble is that the left has capitulated and plays a game where value is measured in purely material terms.  As the Archbishop of York John Sentamu said the other day; “it is hard to imagine a more powerful way of telling someone that they are of little value than to pay them one-third of 1% of your salary.”  Yet even if we manage to reduce income disparities – which we most certainly should – in a world where value is ascribed in purely monetary terms, nurses, carers, teachers and so many others are never going to be paid enough to reflect their real value to us.  We have to change the game.

Just think; if we refuse to run on the materialist hamster wheel, if we refuse to coo and ooh and aah over someone’s new car, bigger house, shiny handmade kitchen and designer clothes, those things start to lose their value.

If the natural reaction to someone with five cars was ‘what a wombat’ (apologies to wombats everywhere btw) rather than ‘wow, like your cars’ the incentive to own five rapidly diminishes.  Of course if you’re reading this you’re probably the kind of person that would tell the owner of five cars that they’re a wombat (you’re so polite – I’d expected more anglo-saxon).  If we can persuade all the other people who have been conned into playing this sucker game to do the same then we’re onto something.

It’s tough.  It’s tough to tell people, especially ones you like, that you think the rubbish they buy is just that.  After all when someone has bought loads of stuff to bolster their self esteem it’s pretty crushing to be told it’s just so much tat.  Perhaps better to tell them you like them for themselves but that their tat gets in the way.

So just imagine what it would be like if we were valued for what we gave rather than what we took, not so much for financial giving as the giving of time, concern, support and love.  Imagine the sort of race that would produce to be top dog – and there would be a race because we’re programmed to want to be valued, however that value is handed out.

I’m talking about a system which creates lots of winners because that sort of value generates more value – we become valued because we give of ourselves and those we give to feel valued because they receive our love, time, concern and attention.  It’s a virtuous circle and the resources involved are infinite not scarce.  It’s a recipe for a happy, sustainable society.

It won’t be easy.  Not only have millions invested a lot of their hopes and dreams in stuff but some very big and powerful companies have invested millions (upon millions upon millions) in creating an addiction to things, anything that can be sold to them.

But we can make a start.  Let’s stop complimenting people on the stuff they’ve bought and start complimenting people on the good things they do – or just for being a good person.  A pebble rolled down a hill…

So much for financial status addiction, but as for what money buys you when you already have status – power – the answer there is hardly new.  We want democracy.  We want power to rest with the people and we want those we elect to govern on our behalf to do just that – to govern for the 100%, not just the 99% and certainly not just for the 1%.  Where corporations and the super-rich have accrued power for themselves, we want it back.  They can have their share, like the rest of us; a ballot paper, a pencil and if they want to use it – a voice.  But they don’t get to use their money to buy a megaphone to drown out the voices of the 99%.

But whatever we do we should remember this; human nature is what it is – it may not be quite a constant but it evolves at the speed at which continents drift – very slowly.  We mustn’t aspire to perfect people.  As Christopher Hitchens noted; “It is only those who hope to transform human beings who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.”  Mao and Hitler and Pol Pot all hoped to transform people and ended up slaughtering them.

Rather we should aim to improve society so that it brings out the best in people rather than the worst.  We’ve found that while greed may be a powerful force for growth, it’s also a poisonous, polluting force that corrupts those it touches and crushes those that stand in its way.  If we want a society driven by more wholesome urges; the desire to help, to care, to nurture, to discover, to create, to beautify, to understand – then we must reserve our respect and reverence for those who embody such values.

So let’s focus on needs and let’s focus on deeds and let’s stop measuring our worth by the stuff we own – as someone I once loved said to me; you don’t own your possessions, they own you.