Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Those Meddling Kids: Thoughts on Millbank

Few people have overtly condoned the recent violence in London, but many have characterised it as a turning point or a new beginning, often in an optimistic tone. No-one wants actually name the destruction and injury as a Good Thing, but there is an undercurrent of approval in the condemnation, condemnation which one suspects may be motivated more by the requirements of good form than by genuine feeling. Someone gave the Tories a kicking, albeit in a small way, and on the whole we rather liked it. It was the MPs expenses scandal all over again: we didn’t really care about second homes, we were just angry about the banking crisis and wanted someone to get slapped.

I regret that I’m much, much too far from student politics to have any view on what led up to the events at Millbank, but those closer to the action claim that this was not the work of “the usual suspects”; so either we are faced with a genuinely new spirit of activism in the student population or a few kids who got out of hand on a trip to the big city. Listening to those interviewed by the media, it could go either way; the next few months will reveal the truth.

Which is rather the problem.

There are several factors which might have led to the galvanisation of student activism. To understand them, we have to look back to May 2001. The May Day protests in London were amongst the most violent and turbulent in a generation; certainly since the Poll Tax riots. There was talk of the police using tear gas to control the crowds, something never before considered on the UK mainland. These protests were the logical progression of anti-capitalist protests around the world, which over preceding years had grown in force and numbers and willingness to break the law.

Then came September 11, and the rules changed. Authorities throughout the world were given new powers of surveillance, arrest and detention, and the US assumed new extra-judicial powers in the form of extraordinary rendition. The chilling effect of these powers was substantial. Protesting was now a much more dangerous game, and while it would be quite wrong to say that it came to a halt, the escalation which had characterised the late 1990’s was replaced with a more sober and cautious approach.

When Blair and Bush began sabre-rattling against Saddam, there was a significant groundswell of opposition, culminating in 750,000 people (by police estimates) marching on London in February 2003. This protest was the biggest in British history and almost entirely peaceful. It accomplished nothing; and what is worse, history has proven the protesters right. Not only were those in power doing the wrong thing, they were deaf to reasoned opposition even when it had significant force of numbers.

Many progressives abandoned hope in Blair but had hopes for Brown and in 2007, we finally saw the handover of power. Here was the opportunity for Labour to reclaim its credentials as a progressive party. I don’t mean, by this, a return to the left wing policies of the 1980’s (although there were those who I think hoped Brown would take the party in that direction); rather, there was hope that what Heseltine once described as the “march of the one legged army” (“Right! Right! Right!”) would come to an end and there would be a real reinvigoration of social justice, democracy and accountability with the government genuinely standing up for those who voted for it rather than kow-towing to business and the City.

It was not to be. Compared to other world leaders, I think Brown performed admirably in the banking crisis. But the crisis itself revealed the truth, that our governments are no longer able to take effective control of the fate of their nations. If the government cannot prevent a recession which is basically due to an accounting error, what is it there for?

In short, the last ten years, for anyone who has been paying attention, have eroded confidence in the integrity and motives of our elected representatives; have eroded confidence that they listen to or even care what the people think; and have eroded confidence that they are, in the end, able to do anything but make more laws that regulate the common man and woman and don’t offend the wealthy. The only lesson one can draw is that the democratic process, up to and including peaceful protest, accomplishes nothing in the face of an increasingly impotent, plutocratic political class.

Over those ten years, two other currents have led us, I believe, to where we are. The first is the set of “laws that regulate the common man and woman”. Labour might have been short on courage and integrity but never seemed to run out of legislation, introducing over 4,000 new offences during 13 years of office. Some of those – like selling game birds killed on a Sunday – probably don’t impact the lives of many. But others – like the smoking ban – are very intrusive indeed. Over the same time as we have lost our faith in government, that same government has become more intrusive in more areas of our lives. The national identity register – now, thankfully, in abeyance at least for a while – was the natural culmination of a government that behaved like the bossy child at a birthday party, fingers in its ears, telling everyone what to do, and lying when it couldn’t get its own way.

Second, we have the presence of radicals in the body politic, and by radicals, I mean people who want to blow things up for political ends. I am emphatically not suggesting that the events at Millbank were in any way the work of Islamic (or any other) extremists. However, the presence of extremism has changed what is thinkable; the idea of using violence for political ends, while not mainstream, is no longer off the map entirely. In the long, coffee-fuelled twilights of student politics, conversations will turn to the boundaries of acceptable action, and the range of options under consideration (purely hypothetically, of course) will be rather wider than it was ten years ago.

So we have a group of people disillusioned with the political process; more open than their predecessors to the use of extreme measures; and frustrated with an increasingly invasive government. What response could one expect when they became the first people to discover, in concrete terms, just what Osborne’s ideological commitment to small government was going to mean? Of course they were going to protest, but remember, this is also a generation who knows the arrogance of power: protest all you want, governments will do as they will, justice, truth and the law be damned. We should not be surprised that a few became violent, we should be surprised that more did not.

When people say “this is just the beginning,” I take it that this is an acknowledgement that the atmosphere in this country, the zeitgeist, so to speak, is that which I have here ascribed to the student protesters. We don’t trust this government, partly because they look too much like Thatcher, but partly because we don’t really trust any of our politicians. We’ve had enough of being regulated by hypocrites and exploited by corporations, and we’re sick of the collusion between the two. We’re fed up of a conservative party that’s iconoclastic and a labour party that protects the wealthy against the worker. And we’ve learned that no amount of marching, chanting, petitioning, letter writing and flyer posting is going to make one iota of difference.

So the next group who comes to learn in specific terms what austerity means for them may well react in the same way, and perhaps with rather less good natured restraint. It seems to be the unspoken hope of more than a few on the left that this is the case. If it is, then we have some very turbulent times ahead, and the Lib Dem’s mettle will really be put to the test. Thatcher faced civil unrest with a substantial majority and a three line whip; and tories have a natural tolerance for this sort of thing. But Clegg, even now, doesn’t have control of his own party, and the Lib Dems, however great their ambition, are not made of such stern stuff. Quite how long and violent a storm they will prove willing to ride out is a rather interesting question.

But it isn’t the question that needs answering.

At the last election, the party leaders talked a lot about our politics being broken, but failed to see the actual problem (perhaps for the same sort of reason that people in Trafalgar Square can’t see England). The money wasn’t the issue in the expenses scandal: it was the culture of unaccountability, a whole system which waved through all manner of preposterous claims as perfectly acceptable because after all, it’s only the voters’ money we’re spending. Voters were apathetic not because they didn’t understand the value of voting but because they understood it all too well: all three parties had essentially the same policies, were made up of the same set of PPE graduates, and answered to the same paymasters, and whoever came to power, the results would be more of the same. The political class was good at talking and bad at listening; good at making laws, and bad at following them; good at patronising the poor, and mesmerised to the point of dogma by the wealthy who patronised them. Our politicians were out of touch with us; and worse, could not deliver the things we needed.

The roots of these problems run deep, and they will not be addressed by faint-hearted solutions. But nor will they be addressed by taking to the streets or installing an alternative government. Labour allegedly rejected an alliance with the Lib Dems to give itself time to reflect, rethink, and reposition itself. For Labour to win an election (even one forced by civil unrest) requires all these things, but if Labour is to become once again a genuinely progressive party – and by this, I mean a party which brings our laws and institutions into scrutiny, and asks whether or not they serve justice and the general good – it needs something more. It needs Big Ideas.

To see just how big, we need to understand that the particular mode of British politics we’re contending with is the consequence of Thatcher’s free market triumphalism – the belief that free market mechanisms are superior to government control. This is an orthodoxy with both moral and pragmatic support: moral, in that it supposedly maximises individual liberty, and pragmatic, in that it supposedly leads to smaller (less expensive) government. Thatcher’s desire to create unfettered markets changed the relationship of politics with the press, business and the City and in all cases gave government less power. These changes were not just a matter of legislation: they represented a new paradigm for politics, a new set of unspoken assumptions about who had the right to do what.

Yet these changes were themselves just the peroration of a much older trend, going back 250 years. We take it for granted now that labour, and the means of production, are market commodities, but this has not always been the case. Until the mid 18th century, the relationship between land and labour was one which gave most people some access to land by right, so that those whose income was derived from wage labour were in the minority. In modern terms, people were guaranteed jobs for life, and kept whatever they produced in those jobs, less various taxes and tithes. Then a series of changes allowed landlords to deny access to property, sometimes enclosing previously common land and sometimes evicting residents. Landlords could then offer exclusive access to the land to those willing to pay the highest rent, and others had to turn to wage labour. The result was that two things which had previously been the subjects of quite specific practices became market commodities, and our society was transformed into one more fundamentally dependent on the operation of markets than ever before.

The disasterous consequences of this expansion of market logic are documented in Raj Patel’s excellent book “The Value of Nothing,” and it makes harrowing reading. For present purposes, we need only understand how radical that transformation – the formation of what Polanyi calls the “Market Society” – was. Because, if we are to move forward – to truly progress rather than merely covering up the cracks – we need a transformation just as radical. We have to move beyond our love of markets on the one hand and our fetish for regulation on the other, and find new ways to co-operate, share resources and manage our lives.

There is a real hunger for these ideas, fuelled by discontent with the status quo, the perceived bankruptcy of Marxism and the quite literal bankruptcy of laissez-faire capitalism. And finer minds than mine are considering the problem. Yet it will take time for the left, as a political force, to organise itself around any sort of novel agenda, and events at Millbank suggest that the clock is ticking much faster than anyone supposed.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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