In the West, there’s a word that usually accompanies ‘democracy’, and that word is ‘liberal’. Liberal democracies – that’s what we have in the West. That’s liberal, as in liberty / freedom; and that’s certainly what classical liberalism stood for in its infancy. It provided the philosophical underpinning for the American and French Revolutions, and was set firmly against the undemocratic forces of monarchy, church and aristocracy. At the beginning of the 19th century, the idea that we could live in meritocracies, guided by the rule of law, elected assemblies, free speech, a free market and the stirrings of human rights for all was a powerful motivator. It was a brave new world, that had unfortunately gone sour by the end of the same century. By that time markets were certainly not free. They were dominated by enormous corporate interests and a state that supported those interests to the hilt. But liberals were still the cheerleaders of capitalism, even though the ‘free market’ hadn’t turned out quite as expected, and plutocracy had supplanted any idea of a meritocracy. And still, liberals are cheerleaders for this undemocratic system. Yes, a few can ‘rise through the ranks’ from exploited to exploiter (or well-paid facilitator); yes, there is a legal system if you can afford it; and yes, you can vote for someone to sit in parliament – but do these things mean that we have freedom and democracy?
Anyone who’s followed this blog will know that I’ve always tried to plead the case that overall control of the direction in which humanity is moving does not reside with elected governments. Power is economic, not political – you can buy power in capitalism, in other words. However, it’s becoming clearer that control doesn’t reside with the corporate or financial sectors either. Here’s an alternative perspective.
More and more, it appears that with a global capitalist economy, the concept of any individuals or institutions – whether corporate or state – being in control, doesn’t make much sense. Institutions of any flavour have to serve the economy or die, and that doesn’t really suggest control to me. Even the wealthiest corporations, banks or individuals obtained their wealth by complying with the demands of the global economy, and were rewarded accordingly.
The corporate sector and elected governments have to serve the global economy – to ‘feed the beast’ – or die. It’s like a medieval tale of a land terrorised by a dragon or a monster that has to be fed by the townspeople, perhaps with human sacrifices, to prevent some terrible revenge. Where is our knight in shining armour to slay the beast?
Proponents of the bland, the ‘mainstream’, the ‘common-sense’, but the ultimately absurd will say that democracy exists when the following boxes are ticked:
- the rule of law
- election of representatives to government
- involvement of civil society in government
- protection of human rights
Those sound like mighty fine criteria – but what if control doesn’t lie with government? What does that mean about electing representatives to it, or involvement with it? If governments aren’t in control, then that would mean that elections and all the growing fanfare around them are actually just a smoke-screen, a diversion to make us believe that we live in democracies.
The most obvious illustration of the fact that governments are not in control is that governments are national, and are therefore completely unable to exert control over institutions that are global. How do you enforce national tax laws, for example, on a company that operates in 100 countries, and is headquartered in the Cayman Islands?
Also, what does ‘protecting human rights’ really mean when, in a capitalist economy, our clothes, phones and electrical goods are made by people, many of them children, working 15-hour shifts, 7 days a week, in sweatshops with nets around them to stop people committing suicide? We all know this in the West – it’s common knowledge – but the fact that it doesn’t stop people buying those goods says a lot about our attitudes to human rights in the real world, as opposed to some fantasy land. And is it a good thing that the capitalist economy protects Westerners’ rights to eat themselves to obesity and to death, but people in other parts of the world have to watch their children starve (famine is beginning to loom again in various parts of Africa). If the corporate sector is importing food into your country from places where people are starving (which was the case throughout the Ethiopian famine in the 80s, and will be again in South Sudan, northern Nigeria and other parts of Africa), in what way does our precious ‘democracy’ preserve human rights? Which rights trump the right to live?
And what does the ‘rule of law’ mean, if any country that introduces legislation that doesn’t favour the global economy – that doesn’t feed the beast quickly enough – will have corporate banks and institutions coming down on them hard, and international investors withdrawing their money in droves, until policies are changed to soothe the beast again? Ask a Syriza supporter.
No, these simplistic descriptions of what constitutes democracy don’t make any sense in the real world. But specific individuals or corporations aren’t in control either. There isn’t a cabal of evil geniuses (or evil idiots, judging by the mess we’re in) who are pulling all the strings. We all have to serve the beast.
So in terms of direction, it doesn’t really matter who we elect. Sure, it would be nice in the UK if we could have a government that truly wanted to protect the NHS. But the beast doesn’t want the NHS, or anything like it, and so it is slowly consuming it. It would also be nice if we could have governments that were serious about protecting nature. But the beast doesn’t want us to protect nature – the beast wants to grow, and it can only grow at the expense of nature. The beast will eventually consume nature too, and us along with it. Governments can legalise gay marriage or cannabis consumption, or build walls along borders, because the beast doesn’t care about those things. What the beast really cares about is growth – about being fed – and woe betide any president or corporate CEO who doesn’t heed what the beast wants, because their careers will be over very quickly. If governments or corporations defy the beast, they are finished. Corporations and governments have to feed and serve the economy, and make it grow. If they don’t, the economy will ruin them.
I know – I’m talking as if there is no ruling class, and of course there is. Most people receive money because of the work they do; some people receive money because of what they own; and a few people control an unfeasibly huge proportion of the earth’s resources – the means of production, no less. This latter group may be the ruling class, in that they rule us; but they don’t rule the beast. They can steer the beast more than governments can, but they can’t stop feeding it. They have to use their wealth to feed the beast, or they’ll lose it. In a better system – one that rewards work rather than wealth, and that prevents such enormous accumulations of wealth in the first place, there would be no ruling class, because the conditions that allow a class to rule wouldn’t exist.
As the beast grows, nature shrivels. People are taught (by corporate media and other faithful servants of the beast) that the beast keeps us alive. But it doesn’t. Nature keeps us alive. So allowing the beast to grow at the expense of nature could be the biggest mistake that humans have ever made.
In a sane economy, you’d recognise a gap in the market locally, and decide to have a go at filling that gap, depending on the skills you have. In capitalism (far from a sane economy), companies produce as much as they possibly can, as cheaply as they possibly can given current levels of technology, of which they are at the cutting edge. So they use sweatshops, automation, tax avoidance and any other tools at their disposal to maximise output for the lowest cost. And only then do they worry about how to shift it all. This depends on enormous advertising budgets, to badger people into consuming it, and an alliance with the state, who will ignore their tax avoidance, accept corporate board positions, protect their ‘intellectual property’, provide all the infrastructure they need for distribution (that they didn’t pay tax for), plus healthcare for their employees and education for their future employers, and a state media that constantly tells us that this type of economy is good for us, and that there is no alternative.
But nature isn’t on the agenda, and we’re not supposed to question basic assumptions about the economy – because the beast controls the agenda. Our job is to focus on feeding the beast, not to worry about a shrinking nature. Listen to Radio 4, pick up the paper, turn on Newsnight – Evan Davis and John Humphries will gently explain, in their common-sense way, that we shouldn’t worry. We have targets for reducing carbon emissions don’t we, and national parks for protecting nature? Everything’s going to be OK. Let’s focus on feeding the beast – on increasing GDP and exports. To focus on anything else would make you a radical; it would marginalise you, harm your career prospects and render you irrelevant. And you wouldn’t want that, would you?
So what to do? How to stop feeding the beast? Can the beast be persuaded to go on a diet? No – no mechanism exists to do that. Can it be slayed? Where is our hero? Nowhere to be seen, it seems.
We have to kill the beast – but not with violence. We have to kill the beast by starving it. We can help do this as individuals – by finding ways to live without feeding the beast (he says, pounding the keys of a Hewlett-Packard laptop – although on Linux, in my defence, and with a will to obtain the first non-corporate laptop I can get my hands on). There are ways – but very few of us will even attempt it, and even if we spend all our money on local, organic food and craft produce, that money then enters the economy, and the beast is going to get it eventually. We could retreat to the woods, but that won’t worry the beast – there will still be enough people to feed it.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t bother about trying to live beast-free. We should, but the way to really threaten the beast is by building a new economy to provide the things that the beast currently provides – but one that doesn’t have to constantly grow. That economy is a mutualist economy, for the simple reason that there is no other idea out there that is remotely implementable. The mutualist economy is already there in miniature, operating at the margins. We need to feed it, and starve the beast.
A mutualist economy will not require constant growth, because money will not be brought into circulation with compound interest attached, and there will be no requirement to cream off profits for people who haven’t done any work for it.
More about mutualism soon.