Thursday, 31 October 2013

A better way to revolution

I suggested a few days ago that urging people not to vote might not be the most effective way to bring about fundamental political change.

You may remember that I took issue with what a certain celebrated actor and comedian had to say on the subject. I have no desire to cross swords with him again, for the simple reason that he has far too many admirers, and many of them have already been in touch to let me know what they think of my temerity in daring to contradict him.

So here are my thoughts on some other ways of acting politically without necessarily having to faff about putting a mark on a ballot paper next to the name of someone for whom you may have nothing but contempt. My slogan for today (yes, I know it's not original) is: Think Big, Act Small.  

For example:

1. If fat-cat, bonus-grabbing bankers make your blood boil, move your account to a building society or credit union. It's not difficult, and think what a difference it would make if millions did the same.

2. If you see red every time you hear of a multi-national corporation sliding out of paying UK taxes by all manner of clever-accountant-jiggery-pokery, buy your coffee, or do your online shopping or searches, using someone else's product. It's not difficult, and think what a difference, etc.

3. If you lie awake at night worrying about the way we're destroying the planet, do more walking, or cycling, or buy a low-emission car. It's not difficult, etc.

4. If you hate the way agri-business has poisoned the countryside with pesticides and nearly killed off all the bees, plant some flowers. If you don't have a garden, get a window box. It's not, etc.

5. If you loathe homogenised, plastic-packed, tasteless supermarket food, flown in from the other side of the world, shop at a farmer's market or local grocery store instead.

I could go on. The point is simply this: if you don't think voting in elections makes any difference (I disagree, but let's not reopen that argument), do something else. And when you've done it, encourage others to do the same -- and then get them to encourage others as well. Successful revolutions are born from a combination of anger, passion, and courage, plus two more essential ingredients: a lot of organisation and hard work.

What struck me most about the huge, and unprecedented, response to what I wrote last week was how many people feel totally powerless in a world where power seems to belong only to a very rich elite who have a stranglehold on the world in which we live.

Nothing will change, I was told again and again and again, until everything changes, until the entire political system is brought crashing to its knees and replaced with something -- anything -- that offers more hope and more power to more people.

I think that is a profoundly mistaken view. To take just one example: campaigners in Lewisham, in south London, mounted a hugely successful action to prevent cut-backs in services at their local hospital. This week, they won a major victory in the court of appeal: they made a difference, they forced a rethink, they demonstrated that a local community, acting together, can have real power.

Now multiply one local hospital campaign by one coffee retailer boycott by one switch-your-bank-account movement and -- see what's happening? Lots of little changes begin to look like a much bigger change. You could even call it a revolution, people taking back the power that is rightfully theirs.

Perhaps collecting signatures and organising online petitions isn't as exciting as rioting in the streets, smashing shop windows, or lobbing half bricks at police officers. But nor do people get killed, or livelihoods destroyed, or homes burnt to the ground. To glorify, as he-who-shall-not-be-named did last week, "the London rioters [and] the certainty and willingness to die of religious fundamentalists" -- even "the twinkling mischief of the trickster" -- sorry, that's not being brave, or funny, it's plain wicked.

I have never believed that voting on its own is enough to bring about significant political change. But that's not a reason for not voting -- it's a reason for going to the ballot box as part of a much broader political engagement. This debate, in its way, is part of that engagement.

One final thought for you: I came in for a lot of stick last week as a representative of the mainstream media, which are apparently responsible for wholescale lying, covering-up and generally toadying to the powers-that-be.

All I ask is that you consider who, for example, disclosed the scandal of MPs' expenses fiddles (Daily Telegraph); who uncovered the appalling scale of media phone-hacking (The Guardian); and who campaigned relentlessly to get to the bottom of what happened at Hillsborough (Daily Mirror). In fact, I suspect that most of the things that make you most angry about the world we live in are things you learnt about from the mainstream media.

So in the week that saw the adoption of a controversial Royal Charter to oversee the way the press are regulated, it's worth remembering why a free press has been regarded for so long as an essential ingredient in a free society.

In the words of the American founding father Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the US declaration of independence: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."


Anonymous said...

Well, this is the best of Lustig!

Jonathan said...

Yes, the Telegraph *disclosed* the info about MPs' expenses, but they didn't actually *discover* it - they just agreed to buy it from a bloke who'd stolen it. I don't feel it was the triumph of investigative reporting the media make it out to be. The info was simply handed to a paper which had done nothing to earn it.

dceilar said...

Another excellent thought provoking article Robin.

In a contradictory way I agree with both Brand and yourself. As a communist-anarchist I agree with the maxim that if voting changed anything they'd abolish it as all it does is maintain the status quo and give the elite legitimacy to their illegitimate claims to rule.

However, I am fully aware of our working class history and of the struggle and sacrifices ordinary people made to elicit change.

I always vote for that reason. I may just spoil my paper writing 'none of the above' or vote for a candidate that comes close enough to the opinions of my own (who as a consequence has no chance of retaining their deposit), and hell, I even voted Labour a couple of times to keep the Tory candidate out!

Yet Brand is right, my vote is a waste of time. Perhaps if we had greater devolution to local government or regions and/or the choice of 'None of the above' was an option on each ballot paper - if the 'None' votes are the winners then the election for that constituency is re-run until someone wins? Then the apathetic really will have no-one to blame but themselves.

Ramesh Gundapaneni said...

A revolution just to oppose someone or thing is not sufficient to bring a good democratic change. People resorting to resolution should be able to know what they want for the society rather that just revolting against bad rulers. It is not surprising to note the failure of arab spring that happened in some arab countries. Ever wondered why arab spring did not take off in countries like saudi Arabia?

Unknown said...

Robin, your suggestions for taking political action are perfectly feasible but, for me, lack the 'solidarity factor' that left-wing politics used to have. Thatcherism & its aftermath have atomised us into individuals with largely illusory 'choices'; politics has been consumerised into a classless affair in which we are encouraged to pick and choose from among a range of policy or personal attributes. I can't help but feel this diverts - is intended to divert? - our attention from the obvious fact that we still have a huge amount in common, that the vast majority of us belong to a working class, a class of people without significant inherited wealth, whose only income is from paid work and who would benefit enormously from political unity. But this is a hugely unpopular view, not least among the workers themselves, many of whom prefer to see themselves as middle-class individualists, and kid themselves they have political power via individual engagement with 'the market'. At most, we wield minor economic power; I can't help feeling that true political power lies some way beyond consumer goods.

Douglas Carnall, @juliuzbeezer said...

Brand's call to abandon voting altogether is ahistorical and ignorant. But he is right that the current system is failing badly to deliver necessary changes.
A 're-open nominations' option on the ballot paper, single transferable voting, and voter recall of representatives are all vital democratic elements currently missing from the English system: implementing them would be a good start as the country continues its painfully slow march towards democracy.
Compulsory brain transplants for electors in 'safe seats' might be seen as a more controversial measure, but as it seems they'd currently vote for a donkey wearing the right colour of rosette, there seems little option. If other, less drastic, measures might work (better education?) by all means give them try, but from where I'm sitting mass brain surgery looks like the more effective recommendation.

Richard Lloyd said...

While the consumer boycotts Lustig is suggesting are all very well it's hardly, er, a new paradigm.

And somewhat on a par with suggesting everybody start meditating.

Personally I feel the way forward is building up social capital in our communities where we live. Supporting local community centres, engaging in local politics and perhaps investing cash in community initiatives rather than anonymous banks and mutual funds.

As it happens a local housing co-op near where I live is raising funds to start investing in new properties, issuing shares in their non-profit company. I hope Robin won't mind them getting a plug:

(I have no connection to the project other than knowing a couple of the people involved)

It strikes me this sort of thing is going on up and down the country, from community pubs in rural villages to drug rehab projects in the inner cities. As well as boycotting bad stuff there's lots of good things going on for people to support.

Bob Thomas said...

Local action may result in small, temporary victories, buy this just delays the inevitable. No service can withstand the inherent drive for profit of the capitalist system. All concessions won by the working class are eventually eroded, as businesses strive to remain competitive. The only way to achieve permanent improvements is to overthrow the current profit based system with a system where the needs of society come first, with free access to the worlds resources for everyone.