Even some of the financial press are saying the current economic & political system is unsustainable. But can ‘the left’ take the pendulum swinging back its way for granted?
I read Allister Heath’s article on big business and public trust with interest. (See the article here). What’s really interesting for me are his comments on political institutions and on accountability to the people beyond simple ‘if you don’t like our products, don’t buy them’. On the consumer spending issues, Heath notes:
“They [corporations] must learn to do their own job better, focus on simpler products, explicitly and loudly apologise for past failings and move on. If necessary, consumer bodies such as Which? should be enlisted for advice.”
The focus on simpler products resonates with a couple of blogposts I’ve made on the concept of ‘choice’. In this blogpost, for people to make an informed choice on anything I stated that people need:
- Availability & accessibility of information – & knowing where that info is
- Knowing how to use/interpret said information
- Having the time to interpret said information
For a citizen to make an informed choice time is inevitably a huge constraint. Do people feel that they have the time to real through and understand all of the information on all of the choices available to them? You could say it depends on their priorities. But not all choices on how to allocate time are financial. Think of the parents with young children. How much time they spend with their children isn’t going to be one they put a financial value on. Gas, electricity, internet/phone, TV, car insurance, home insurance – lots of things you can make choices on, but given how much ‘choice’ is out there, where do you start? When Mark Steel came to town, he had this to say on choice.
Being pro-business isn’t the same as being pro-market
Heath again makes an observation that I’ve previously written about. To make a market more efficient, governments need to ensure that the costs of production are properly reflected in the price of the goods/services sold. But for a firm to maximise profits, there is a massive incentive to externalise as many of those production costs as possible – especially in the low-paid unskilled parts of the economy. This includes poor working conditions, low wages (which get subsidised through the tax credit system or benefits), to not cleaning up environmental pollution. Thus you have a tension. Furthermore, it’s in the interests of big firms to employ lobbyists to get regulations written in a manner that suit firms & shareholders rather than citizens.
“[Citizens] also loathe seeing companies in bed with politicians. Business groups need to fight back by calling for the abolition of subsidies to business.”
Can you see that happening? This in one sense is a fallacy of composition issue. It’s also one that cuts across international boundaries, as George Monbiot’s alarming post here indicates.
“CEOs need to become happier to talk on the record to the media. Companies ought to communicate directly to the public to influence politicians”
The problem here is CEOs don’t really like the sort of scrutiny that the public gives them. We see this in the way companies are still struggling to adjust to how people are using social and digital media. They don’t like the way that people can answer back in public and en masse. They don’t like social media firestorms. I think Heath’s on the wrong track here – companies ought to communicate directly with the public, but in listening mode rather than in ‘influencing the politicians’ mode. That goes with the transparency argument too. But how transparent are firms willing to be if that transparency is going to expose weaknesses in their organisation to the public?
Yes, that ongoing issue. As far as I’m concerned, this issue is now squarely on the desks of the politicians. If The Treasury won’t table the legislation required, MPs need to get their act together collectively to crowdsource, draft and force through the legislation themselves. They won’t do that because, beyond a handful of honourable mentions, their collective independence is crushed by the structures and systems of the political parties that they are part of.
It is a major issue because we are not talking about one or two ‘bad apples’, but a culture that has reached what feels like epidemic levels in corporate Britain (and with multinationals generally). Corporation after corporation seems to be screwing the citizen three times over:
- in high prices for poor services
- in tax avoidance
- in securing concessions from ministers forming governments that too many do not pay their fair share for the upkeep for.
This was something that was brought up today in the House of Commons in a ‘Backbench Business debate on Reform and infrastructure of the water industry and consumers’ bills. Lib Dem Simon Hughes MP made a particularly strong contribution saying that the selling off of privatised utilities to private foreign owners meant that there was no shareholding mechanism to hold managers to account through UK-based AGMs. That brings us back to the point around lack of transparency and accountability mentioned earlier.
‘It’s the meejah, stupid!’
This was something that came up time-and-again at the first conference of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies – see my blog on this here. It’s important because there are a very small number of very influential media institutions. For the commercial ones, there is a massive incentive not to annoy the corporations that buy their advertising slots. At the same time, activists are beginning to target advertisers when publications do things that they don’t like. But so long as those commercial links and incentives are there, what chances are there for the financing of hard-hitting, sound, award-winning investigative journalism? That’s why a large chunk of all of this comes back down to reform of the corporate media. The problem national-level politicians have is that a number of those media corporations are now multinational with very deep pockets to make things very awkward for those that oppose them.
Something’s got to give
We then come back to the points George Monbiot made in his article here, about how some international treaties are crushing some of the democratic rights people across the world have fought for. If things continue on the unsustainable path that we’re currently on – in terms of polarisation of incomes, costs of living, continued high unemployment and poor job security, and there is no peaceful, legal democratic means of changing things, what options are people left with other than to starve?
“Yeah – bring on the revolooshun Puffles!!!”
Revolutions have this nasty historical habit of being violent and destructive things that result in people getting killed. Lots of them. Also, in the chaos of revolution there is no guarantee that what will emerge from it will be this cuddly federation of left-libertarian autonomous collectives that will nationalise lots of things make everything alright again. (I’m sort of generalising/blogging tongue-in-cheek here as you can guess). But my point is that after decades of saturation advertising in a consumerist world, those on the traditional left-wing of politics can’t expect the general public to behave in the way they sometimes say they will. You only have to look at the votes for UKIP as an alternative ‘anti-politics’ vote, and what happened during the London riots in recent years.
‘Don’t vote, it only encourages them’
The spat between Russell Brand and Robert Webb has led to much comment in political spaces about the merits of voting. It was followed up by this short piece by Labour’s Lucy Powell MP (elected on an 18% turnout), which was similar to this short piece a year before by Gloria De Piero MP. My take?
Before politicians, commentators, journalists and activists get to the bit about people voting, they/we need to engage with people on their terms through their mindset. For the past couple of years I’ve been learning this the hard way. I spent several years in civil service policy land mixing in circles that a decade ago I could have only dreamt of. Just before leaving the civil service I wanted to use social media to make an impact on social action in my home town. I assumed that rocking up with what I thought was a splendid social-media-based idea would have people flocking to it. Few did.
In that sense, I took my knowledge for granted. I assumed that people had a far better awareness and understanding of local politics, national politics and civic institutions than they actually did. I assumed they questioned everything that came out from the mainstream media, and accessed the alternative media outlets in the same way that I did. The reality was that most people were either too busy with other things and/or felt so disenfranchised and dare I say it, ‘bored’ with mainstream politics that they had disengaged completely.
With that lesson in mind, I can’t help think that the mass-broadcast nature of politics has made some of us become lazy – especially those based in institutions rather than those that pound the streets and get out and about. Far more comfortable to deal with the problems of society in a conference venue where you can dress up in a smart suit, deliver a presentation, have some Q&A and have a nice paid-for lunch afterwards. Been there, done that but never got the freebie man-bags that seemed to go with such events from the past!
We’ve got to get back to the often less-glamorous and less high-profile activities of community-based issues. And doing so in listening and analysing mode rather than rocking up in preaching ‘you must think this/you must vote for us because…’ way. That also means challenging ourselves about the systems and the processes that perhaps we’ve become used to. This struck me hard recently at a local council meeting (see here) when the prospect of getting a relatively small problem resolved could take possibly years. The expressions on the faces of the residents who turned up (and who didn’t seem to be regulars to council meetings) were ones of despair and incredulity. If it’s going to take years of hard campaigning to get a road junction realigned, why bother? By the time any action is taken they may well have moved house anyway. Which means such systems and processes bring politics (as a means of solving social problems) into disrepute.
Question is: How do we change things – but in a manner where we have much greater levels of informed consent from citizens in public policy?