By Tim Hart
The Oxfam report, published on Monday and which was presented to the World Economic Forum at Davos this week, claims that eight individuals own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. It is untenable to assert that in the Western World, or elsewhere, that democratic systems can function when there are such extreme inequalities of wealth. The starting point in building a real democracy is to admit that there is nothing of any consequence left of our democracy in the UK, or elsewhere. It is a travesty to refer to such systems as democracies when there exists such grotesque inequalities of wealth and income. It would be more appropriate to describe them as kleptocracies.
Wealth is the currency of power. Such immense power in the hands of a few means that there is very little left for the majority. Without sufficient power the citizen is impotent and democracy is meaningless.
Democracy has been whittled away to a rump of electoral voting, where there is hardly the thickness of a cigarette paper between the policies of the dominant political parties. Whenever oppositional factions surface the establishment moves quickly and remorselessly to snuff them out. Parliaments are subordinated by tyrannical governments which do the bidding of the big corporations; resulting in the pillaging of the environment, subjugation of the people, never ending war and poverty and destitution for a growing proportion of the world’s population.
People are not blind to this pernicious state of affairs. Brexit and Trump are, in part, manifestations of people’s frustration and anger at a system which treats them with contempt. Voters have shown that they would rather lob a hand grenade and blow things apart than continue under the current moribund arrangements.
There have been many failed attempts at change. Some have tried from within the existing structures of power. These are invariably ‘captured’ by the status quo and neutralised; Bernie Sanders’ fate in the recent presidential election being one such example. Some have attempted change from outside of the system and are generally cajoled or lured into the fold and similarly captured. The fate of the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon and the group which helped secure his second leadership win, Momentum, being recent examples. Those organisations which try to operate outside the mainstream find that they lack the ‘levers of power’ to have any meaningful effect. If they persist they are subject to an array of tactics, at the hands of governments and their corporate clients, in order to annihilate them; including sabotage, black propaganda, legal sanctions and state violence; such as that which was applied to the Occupy Movement and, in many countries, often manifests in the use of death squads and similarly brutal methods of state repression. There is always resort to armed insurrection and violent revolution, but given that most of the guns, literally and figuratively, are held by the state such popular revolts are unlikely to succeed. In any case, if they do, they invariably result in one venal regime being supplanted with another.
I feel that the primary task in creating real democracy is to dissipate power; a task that is never ending because power will always tend to concentrate, with its inevitable corrupting consequences. But this cannot be achieved by building large countervailing power structures in which these competing interests slog it out for dominance. This is a recipe for another world war from which a new kind of hegemony would inevitably emerge. Neither can power be dissipated from within existing structures. . Political systems are incorrigible. They are not amenable to reform.
If power is to be distributed more evenly, for the most part, it must be achieved outside of existing institutions. But not by confronting prevailing power structures, but by cutting off the oxygen upon which they rely to maintain their power. The oxygen in this context is the complicity and servitude of the public. We need to create decentralised ways of living where we have local currencies, local tax, local energy supply, local work, local food etc. The organisational form of these decentralised organisations must also be different. Simply mimicking traditional organisational structures is likely to replicate the same problems of concentrated abusive power. These localised ways of living must maintain a human scale, be participative and versatile. They should emulate the characteristics of natural systems; innovative and adaptive; better able to live in harmony with the environment upon which we depend for our survival.
Such decentralised ways of living will be difficult to create. It will mean battling against the huge centrifugal forces which are producing ever bigger mega-cities and mega-corporations and reducing everything to a monoculture through the fetishism of Globalisation.
If such human scale decentralised arrangements could be created they might be able to rekindle the more benign characteristics of human nature and suppress the rampant megalomania that persists today. Such conditions are impossible to nurture in the ubiquitous impersonal bureaucratic structures which dominate our society today. At the very least decentralised organisations would not be able to wield sufficient power to threaten the survival of our planet by nuclear war or destruction of the eco-system.
Not everything could function in a decentralised manner. Some things will have to be done centrally, either in national or international institutions. In such cases there must be rigorous democratic oversight; a characteristic which is almost non-existent in these institutions at present.
But vesting power in local communities is no guarantee that it will be exercised for the public good. We must be realistic. Our capacity for creativity as a species is increasingly eclipsed by our capacity to destroy and, for the first time in history, our destructive power is so immense that we can destroy all life on the planet. Such dangers must be counteracted by a re-assertion of the rule of law. A strong system of justice would, in its overarching characteristics, have to be centralised. But it could be administered locally by the communities which it is designed to serve. The centralised elements of such a justice system should be underpinned by a written constitution. The UK is amongst only a handful of countries that arrogantly refuses to create such a document. At the heart of justice would be the jury; the use and function of which has been deliberately obliterated in today’s courtrooms. Justice and the law could be placed at the centre of the education system. A person’s participation in justice could form the basis of citizenship.
All of which is extremely difficult to achieve. But what options do we have? Do we simply wait and watch as wealth coagulates around ever fewer people and the remnants of our democracy evaporate? To borrow a phrase from the climate scientists: when do we reach a tipping point? When do we say enough is enough?