We’re all in the Roller together

The royal family seemed keen earlier this week to emphasise that the car in which Kate Middleton will travel to her wedding is the same Rolls Royce that was attacked in student protests.

No doubt this was intended as a heartwarming “good news” story, but something about it left me feeling uneasy, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what at the time:

Thinking about it further today, I think it’s the “Britain Can Take It!” tone of the coverage. We’re invited to think “Isn’t it great that those ghastly students haven’t succeeded in spoiling Kate’s special day?” At the very least, it’s hard not to see this as the royal family in some small way taking sides in a political issue.

(Not that I’m defending the students who attacked Charles and Camilla’s car. It was worse than a crime – it was a blunder, because it gave the media another excuse to focus on “violent students” rather than “violent police officers”.)

This particular story is only a straw in the wind, and I’ll cheerfully admit that I may be “over-reading” it. However, we do seem to be moving back towards a rhetoric of “the enemy within”: students, public sector workers (a.k.a. “enemies or enterprise”), lead-swinging benefit cheats, and so on.

In the light of that, it’ll be interesting to see how the phrase “we’re all in this together” develops over the next year or two. As coined by George Osborne, its avowed intent is to express how we are all one country, rich and poor, united against the common enemies of financial, economic and fiscal crisis, sharing its burdens fairly.

However, it won’t take much for it to become a slogan, not of a country united against external enemies, but of the middle and upper classes – “decent, respectable people” – united against internal enemies.

Which would at least have the benefit being more honest and accurate, given how this government has been acting to date.

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Economic democracy: one shareholder, one vote?

I’ve recently finished reading Wilf Wilde’s book Crossing the River of Fire: Mark’s Gospel and Global Capitalism, a book which – as the subtitle suggests – combines Christian theology with socialist politics/economics.

For a very brief summary of the theological perspective, see this post on my Tumblr. What I wanted to look at in this post is Wilde’s one practical proposal (in this book, at least) for reforming capitalism in Britain: changing the voting structures of existing capitalist corporations to a “one person, one vote” system, similar to that for parliamentary elections. (Though the more precise description that Wilde uses is “one beneficial owner, one vote”.)

As Wilde writes:

The proposal on capital may not sound much of a reform but it is designed to attack and subvert the legitimacy of capital and capitalist thinking. To fully implement it would destroy the concepts lying behind capital’s power over us.

He argues that, until the 1880s, the concept of using one person, one vote to elect MPs “appeared silly”:

Surely those with more property – with a greater stake in society – should have more say. …

Most of the working class and all women were still disenfranchised in Britain until 1918. So, what appears an obvious principle to us now was revolutionary until 1918…

By contrast, capitalist corporations are still run on principles pre-dating the 1832 Reform Act: the more you own, the more of a say you have.

Under Wilde’s proposals, investors in companies would still be able to buy greater or smaller stakes in companies, and thus enjoy greater or smaller gains or losses in their investments. What they would not be able to buy is greater power over those companies: any individual could buy a single share in that company and get the same voting power in it.

The only reasons for buying more than one share would be financial: to get a greater return. So pension funds (who invest primarily for a financial return rather than for control) would be affected less than someone like Rupert Murdoch.

In effect, this would turn every corporation into a mutual. We would still have a market economy (which has a number of beneficial features), but control of the surplus accumulation within that economy would no longer be concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations – or, for that matter, of “a board with a lord”, as happened under nationalisation. Rather:

the mutual corporation would … re-create a new social and democratic control form within civil society.

It’s hard to see how this could be implemented – as Wilde admits, it would go beyond “the limits of existing politics” – but the real question I’d like to pose to those reading this post is how workable it would be. What do you see as the potential pitfalls and problems with this as a concept?

A couple of thoughts I’ve had. First, there would clearly need to be similar safeguards for shareholder voting as apply to voting in parliamentary and local elections – to avoid institutional shareholders simply hoovering up individual’s votes as a block.

Second, Wilde’s proposal seems focused on the largest corporations (FTSE 100 level) where shares are more likely to be owned as an investment than as a means of direct control. But in smaller companies, the control afforded by different sizes of shareholding is often at least as important as the financial value of those shares. Smaller companies could find it hard to secure investment if investors were no longer assured of using their voting power as shareholders to protect their investment.

That said, however, this is still an intriguing proposal for economic democracy – and perhaps Wilde is right in saying that it only seems alien and dangerous to us in the same way (and for the same reasons) that political democracy seemed alien and dangerous in the days of male-landowner suffrage.

So, what do other people think of this?

Monbiot vs Marx

George Monbiot’s last two Guardian columns have been on a similar theme, as summarised in today’s piece:

[T]he government is not managing the economy for the people of this nation. It is managing it for a tiny transnational elite, a kind of global gated community. … The politicians who get to the top in these circumstances don’t just present no threat to the gated community; they actively do its bidding.

Or as he put it last week, concerning changes in corporation taxes to benefit transnational corporations:

I’ve realised that injustice of the kind described in this column is not a perversion of the system; it is the system. … Our ministers are not public servants. They work for the people who fund their parties, run the banks and own the newspapers, insulating them from democratic challenge.

I think Monbiot is right to shift the focus from “abuses” or “failures” of the economic system (language which implies that the system itself is fundamentally just and sound, or would be if properly regulated) to the inherent injustices of the system itself.  However, his rhetoric has some significant dangers in it, because it personalises what are really matters of social relations, impersonal economic forces.

Monbiot presents capitalism as a system in which a wicked “transnational elite” deliberately and maliciously sets out to oppress the rest of us. That’s an analysis which can lead as easily to fascism as to the liberal/democratic/socialist agenda which Monbiot would presumably support. “Transnational elite” is uncomfortably close to “international financiers” – and we all know what that was code for back in the last century. (Hint: try googling “transnational elite” and “zionist”. And then wash your hands.)

Blaming the individual beneficiaries of the economic system – indeed, encouraging us to hate them, the exploitative, gated-community-dwelling, political-system-perverting, Tory-party-financing bastards – is a dangerous path. As a great philosopher put it:

Beware the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will…

What’s needed is not populist rhetoric about the “global gated community”, but a greater awareness of how economic power operates, regardless of the personalities who operate it or benefit from it. Perhaps someone could suggest Monbiot adds some Marx to his reading list?

Lumping, packing and rigging: AV and boundary changes

As the House of Lords filibuster on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill continues, Sky News’s Glen O’Glaza asks:

Here, briefly, is my take on that question.

The Lib Dems want a referendum on AV, because that’s the nearest they think they can get to PR in the near future. The Tories want a reduction in seats in the Commons, because (a) they think it will weaken Labour, and (b) it will weaken the House of Commons and strengthen the executive’s grip on Parliament. Frankly, I suspect (b) is the more important reason.

(As for the professed desire to “make the system cheaper”: this is hard to reconcile, to put it politely, with packing the Lords at the same time. Not to mention being a deeply unworthy reason for such a significant constitutional change – as if the composition of the House of Commons were merely a matter of budgeting and administration. The “cost-cutting” argument is just an expedient to secure public support at a time when the Commons’ reputation is at its lowest ebb for centuries.)

So why are AV and seat reductions lumped together? Because the Tories know the referendum on AV is going to fail, but that will not affect the reduction in seats (which is not subject to a referendum). At the same time, linking the two reduces attention on the reduction in MPs’ numbers and allows the government to paint Labour as hypocritical blockers of electoral reform when they oppose the Bill.

Does that sound cynical? Maybe it is, but not as cynical as this exercise in lumping (together), packing (the Lords) and rigging (Parliament) in the first place.

Chinese education: the flip-side

There’s been a lot of coverage recently of Michael Gove’s Daily Telegraph article praising the Chinese educational system. Much of this has been critical (including this post by the Telegraph’s Shanghai correspondent) , not least because of Gove’s historically-ignorant use of the phrase “Cultural Revolution” to describe the changes he’d like to make to the UK educational system.

Sonny Leong, chair of Chinese for Labour, has written an excellent post on LabourList giving the flip side to China’s apparent high performance in maths and science education. Quite apart from the immense pressure that students are put under, leading to “high suicide rates”, this test-oriented system leads to weaknesses in other areas of educational development:

[Chinese students] are taught to memorise – parrot fashion – and regurgitate what they have studied for exams. Any analysis, discussion or exploration of other concepts or ideals are alien to their learning processes.

These students fail abysmally at non-standardised tests – open-book; open-notes; Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs); and True/False assessments. Why? Because they do not know how to pass exams that they have not practised for. Their incapability to apply knowledge acquired in a classroom to real life or non-standardised exams is a cause of concern for many parents and educators.

Students grow up lacking social interaction, interpersonal, teamwork and communicating skills because they have not been allowed to acquire or develop them. All their waking hours are spent on memorising and more memorising.

Leong continues:

As a Chinese father, I would not be happy at all in schooling my four year old daughter in Singapore or Shanghai. I wouldn’t want my child to go through the ‘pressure cooker’ educational system where she is taught just to pass exams and incapable of any further comprehension.

I’m not saying the current state of UK education is perfect, but we shouldn’t fetishise the Chinese system. Sadly, I suspect a Gradgrindian system of rote learning which crushes any “analysis, discussion or exploration of other concepts or ideals” is precisely the educational model to which many Tories aspire – for other people’s children. I’d have hoped that Michael Gove would know better, though.

Selfishness and socialism

Excellent post by Chris Dillow giving some home truths to the left on the major obstacle confronting it. As he puts it (after quoting Socrates in his support):

…a just society requires a just people. Which we don’t have.

Or to be more specific:

The brute fact is that there is no public demand for liberal socialist policies. Voters don’t want worker ownership, a citizens’ basic income, a liberal immigration policy, steeper inheritance taxes or many other items on the left’s wish list. I’ll grant that there is some demand for higher taxes on the rich, but I fear this is arises less from socialist ideals than from the same motive as hostility towards paedophiles and immigrants – a hatred of people who are different.

Of course, some reading this will disagree vehemently that Dillow’s “wish list” would represent a “just society”, but his point still stands: it’s impossible to build a society like that unless the people in it want a society like that. And, by and large, people in western societies don’t want a society like that.

As Dillow goes on to point out, it’s no use telling people that they are stupid and blinded by the capitalist media, either. So if we want to build “a significantly better world” from “the crooked timber of our own humanity”, how can we go about it? As Dillow asks:

are there any social institutions which can use people’s imperfections – their selfishness, greed and stupidity – for beneficial purposes?

Because that’s what’s needed. And the answer is not a comfortable one for the left:

[H]erein lies yet another embarrassment for much of the left. There is indeed one such institution. It’s called the market. The left – so far – has not found anything to match it.

This is similar to the late G.A. Cohen’s argument, in his book Why Not Socialism?, that socialism is unachievable (at least at present) because of the lack of mechanisms as effective as the market – though Cohen sought mechanisms that would harness people’s instincts for community and altruism rather than (as does the market) harnessing their selfish desires for public benefits.

Vince’s dance of death

Well, Vince Cable may technically still be Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, but there’s no doubt what we’ve seen today is the first stage in what promises to be the most grisly, protracted and unedifying resignation in British politics since Clare Short “wrestled with her conscience” over the Iraq invasion.

Many observers have already noted the irony of Jeremy Hunt – scourge of the BBC and advocate for “cross-media ownership” – being appointed to exercise the “quasi-judicial impartiality” required in deciding whether to allow Murdoch to take 100% ownership of BSkyB. Gosh, I wonder what decision he’ll reach, eh, kids?

But there is a difference between Hunt’s bias and that of Cable. Yes, Hunt comes to this decision with a completely biased and politically-loaded perspective, one which makes it almost inevitable he will allow Murdoch to take over BSkyB. Just as it was inevitable that he would squeeze (and will continue to squeeze) the BBC – ideally, one suspects, into non-existence.

But the point is that these are matters of political judgment and political opinion – in other words, precisely why we have elected ministers making these decisions, however much of a “quasi-judicial” element there may also be. Any such decision is a mixture of objective assessment and subjective discretion. That discretion is often very wide.

However much it sticks in our throat to see Murdoch win yet another battle, if Hunt can show that the BSkyB takeover meets the appropriate objective criteria, it is then legitimate for him to exercise his discretion as a minister according to the political convictions on which he was elected.

What it’s not legitimate for a minister to do is to start (or give the impression of starting) a personal vendetta against a particular individual or organisation. That’s why Jeremy Hunt won’t openly put the boot into the BBC per se, but will instead call for “financial responsibility” (i.e. cutting the licence fee) and “freeing up the market” (i.e. giving BSkyB free rein). And that’s why Cable was stupid and vain for expressing his agenda in personal terms, and has set back the anti-Murdoch cause irrevocably by doing so.

What Cable should have said – and what he would no doubt say he meant by what he did say – was that he had declared war on vested interests that accumulate power in a way that threatens fair competition and consumer rights within the broadcasting and media markets. Then, upon exercising his discretion, he may well – who knows? 😉 – have determined that Rupert Murdoch’s empire represented just such a vested interest whose power needed to be restricted.

Still, easy for me to say that. I don’t have two pretty Telegraph journalists sweet-talking me into saying something stupid to impress them, do I…?