With the UK general election almost upon us, I thought I should talk about it. I am not going to tell you how to vote, or whether or not to vote. I want to talk about the poisonous mainstream media and then look at what this election isn’t, rather than what it is. I’m going to swing via an eclectic set of radical thinkers including Adam Ramsey, George Monbiot, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Ursula Le Guin and Kurdish revolutionaries in Rojava. Bear with me.
Most UK residents will have seen the horrific headlines in the Mail and Sun today attacking Miliband in a pretty ridiculous way (and the #JeSuisEd response of people eating sandwiches badly in solidarity on Twitter). As part of their campaign against Rupert Murdoch’s dominance of the UK media, Avaaz has been doing some work to combat this, collaborating with Open Democracy to track election coverage in the rightwing press. The resulting research charts a change of approach from heaping the insults on Miliband to a focus on the danger the ‘poisonous dwarf’ Nicola Sturgeon represents (yes, really). As well as smearing ‘the horror’ of any Labour/SNP based Government, the papers keep insisting the biggest party should win.
Open Democracy uses this to re-assert Adam Ramsey’s argument of weeks ago that the newspapers are ‘preparing for a coup’. (Owen Jones seems to have jumped on this bandwagon in yesterday’s Staggers, repeating what Ramsey said a while back). Essentially, the papers are trying to de-legitimise a possible Labour Government if Labour isn’t the de facto biggest party. We don’t have a proper constitution as such, but what we do have certainly doesn’t say the biggest party should automatically form a Government. Unfortunately, people don’t really understand our electoral system, and the corporate press is capitalising on this in its own interest. It’s so blatant – Murdoch literally told the Sun they need to be more negative in editorials about Labour as the party threatens the dominance of Newscorp.
So this is all pretty bad. But actually there’s a lot more missing from this election and what the papers are talking about, as George Monbiot summarises in his Guardian piece today. For example, Monbiot points out that while the UK public wants progressive taxation, for the rich to pay a greater percentage in tax than the poor, the poor currently pay more. He goes on to address the myth that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible, which is going totally unchallenged:
All major parties and media outlets are committed to never-ending economic growth, and use GDP as the primary measure of human progress. Even to question this is to place yourself outside the frame of rational political debate. To service this impossible dream we must work relentlessly, often in jobs that deliver no social utility and cause great harm.
This is absolutely correct. And pretty depressing – brings the following Chomsky quote to mind (thanks to my friend Andy for sharing this quote with Monbiot’s piece on Facebook).
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
So I would like to argue that what is not being talked about in this election is actually a lot more important. The election outcome will be a more or less pleasant shade of grey in its result (depending on your political persuasion). The real work needed to make our society sustainable and equitable is going to have to be done outside mainstream politics until this work becomes so successful that it changes politics itself.
Naomi Klein makes this the central thesis of her latest book ‘This Changes Everything’ (nice interview on the book with activist author Liam Barrington Bush here). Klein argues that we need to find a new way to live, starting locally and networking with others, decentralising power and strengthening democracy. Her book provided the inspiration for a recent London conference of the same name, which sought to start making connections between the UK climate movement and other movements for social justice (like the work of the Radical Housing Network). It was a really inspiring event – attendees joined a Facebook group and set up various working groups to try and take concrete work forwards. Hopefully just the start of something important…
Back to my thinking about what is outside the limits the system (media/ political) is imposing on our thought. We need the inspiration of big thinkers and bubbles of beauty, alternative societies that work. I’ve always loved utopian and dystopian science fiction. Such big literary imaginings free us to believe that radically different forms of human organisation are possible. I’ve just finished reading ‘The Dispossessed’ by the incredible Ursula K Le Guin (now 85 and still awesome). The book contrasts neighbouring societies on different worlds. One world is organised in a patriarchal capitalist system with yawning inequality and a decadent elite (sound familiar?). The other is an egalitarian anarcho-syndicalist world organised around the principle of mutual aid. This second world is not a wealthy world, and has many problems, but it is a beautifully imagined alternative.
These ideas aren’t just being explored in fiction. There are some incredibly inspiring alternative models already taking shape. Look at what’s happening in Rojava, in northern Syria, for example. In a sea of war and chaos, three Kurdish cantons are organising themselves “In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability.” The Charter, signed by the people in these areas and used as the basis for collective organisation and self-governance “proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society”. You can read more about it here in Ceasefire Magazine. Closer to home, there’s also the rise of Podemos in Spain, the new political party on the verge of power that has arisen out of the 15M movement, organising on the principle of radical participatory democracy. Rojava and Podemos are far from perfect, but they’re important revolutionary experiments.
On election day, I’m going to try not to get too distracted by the immediate outcome. I will obviously be happier or sadder depending on the direction things take. But for me, building a peaceful long term movement for genuine change, outside the boundaries imposed by our current system, is the really important political work. Lets not let the corporate media and broken political system stunt our imagination of what is possible.
It’s always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval… It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed.Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I’m going to go fulfil my proper function in the social organism. I’m going to go unbuild walls.
Ursula K Le Guin – The Dispossessed