What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn

Thomas Rinborough

In a recent post I considered a comment by Thomas Rainborough from the 1647 Putney Debates and explained just why it articulates a crucial point still relevant today. Rainborough was expressing an egalitarian ideal not just in terms of wealth but in terms of the election of representatives. As a recap here is the essential core of his speech:

..I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he;

All progressive contemporary thinking accepts in some form this basic idea of equality. To place the quote in a wider context you can read an expanded version of his speech on this Guardian newspaper webpage. So is there really any more we can  learn from Rainborough’s speech from over three centuries ago? I think plenty. Lets start with Rainborough’s central point of just who is eligible to vote. For much of English and British history you needed to own property before you could vote in an election. But Rainborough says:

I do think…the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them.

As the qualification for voting in elections, Rainborough was specifically detaching the requirement for possession of physical property and substituting an inalienable personal quality of every person, namely the ability to reason.  Yet today the homeless are not encouraged or given support to vote, despite expecting them to adhere to the laws passed by Parliament and Local Authorities.

Political Equality: Reality Falls Short of Expressed Values

Effective disenfranchisment of the homeless (through a mistaken perception that you need a fixed address to register) is a clear case where political process falls far short of the supposed ideal of political equality. Other examples are the introduction of Individual Voter Registration which disenfranchised up to 800,000 people in the UK along with the distortions delivered by a First Past the Post electoral system which gives disproportionate power to a minority of voters (37% at the last election). Similarly we can point to the recent US presidential election where the Electoral College system gave Donald Trump victory despite losing the popular vote.

Continue reading “What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn”

Banker Mark Carney; Secret Plans Show an Instinctive Avoidance of Accountability.

During World War II, much to the annoyance of his leader Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan insisted on holding Prime Minister Winston Churchill accountable for his actions. His reason was twofold; firstly believing that it was absurd to fight an authoritarian regime to simply abandon it at home and secondly, the belief that no matter how effective Churchill appeared to be, mistakes and inefficiencies were possible. I think Bevan was right

So the recent reports of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney holding confidential dinners with investment bankers and finance directors should ring alarm bells. The rumours of ‘secret deals’ as reported by The Independent newspaper is unacceptable. But as a banker, Mark Carney is naturally inclined to avoid accountability. Take two of the international groups which Carney is a senior member (for now),  the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) and the G20 Financial Stability Board. Neither of these bodies have any form of democratic accountability. Incredibly, the ESRB which has responsibility for avoiding another 2008-style crash is run by the European Central Bank (ECB) along with individual National Central Banks, the very people who failed to see the disaster in the first place. The ESRB, of which Carney is a Vice-Chairman, makes politically sensitive decisions and the fact that it that merely reports to the European Parliament is dangerously misrepresented as accountability. Lack of proper control means these bankers cannot practically be fired, demoted, reprimanded or subjected to a pay cut!

Make no mistake, Carney is either being disingenuous or simply naive in  claiming he is not behaving politically. The idea of an independent Bank of England is a fiction and the role of Governor in particular is highly political. But in any case the demand that banks and regulatory authorities should be independent has somehow come to imply that these bodies are unaccountable. For all the populist nonsense about him being a ‘rock star banker’ he is a public servant paid by you and me and we have a right to know what he is telling these financial special interest groups. This is especially so when his audience wield considerable influence as donors of the Conservative Party. Irrespective of the issue of Brexit the stench of oligarchy is strong and inevitably provides more fuel for extreme right wing advocates . Carney tries to dodge accountability under the guise of acting in the best interests of the nation but as Bevan would clearly have understood, this must be demonstrated openly.

Senator Bernie Sanders is Right About Oligarchy; But the Warning is Over 2 Thousand Years Old!

We humans pride ourselves on our ability to learn and adapt. So it must be a triumph of greed over intellect that well we fall into the same traps despite being warned about them for over two thousand years!!. Nowhere is this more stark than with the rise of oligarchy, the problem where a small group of people gain control of a country or an organisation. Writing as long ago as the 4th Century BC the philosopher Aristotle identified oligarchy as a deviant form of aristocracy and pointed to  two specific aspects which concern us at this time.  Firstly he regarded wealth as the important issue in the rise to prominence of a few powerful rulers.  Secondly, he regarded an oligarchy as ruling solely for its own benefit (hence deviant), disregarding the plight of the poor and dispossessed.

So its worth spending a little time finding out what we can learn from the beardy old Greek thinker. Aristotle warned that rule by the few alone (just like the rule of an absolute monarch or unrestrained democracy) is unstable and liable to collapse. In fact in America and Europe today the power of the few has grown markedly while the power of democratic forces have been consequently in decline.  In the US this is exactly the danger which former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has been warning about.  As a result, aside from the election of Trump, it has brought about an increased threat of instability and authoritarian government in almost every western country.

But we can learn a lot more from those old Greeks.  For a start, Aristotle was writing from experience of oligarchic rule which mobilised sages, poets and artists in the maintenance of their power.  Discussing public speech in a republic, Barry Strauss noted that:

The Sophists, with their corrosive relativism, taught rich and talented young greeks that power was better than truth.  Socrates [Aristotle’s illustrious predecessor] sat out the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy at the end of the Peloponnesian war’.

Who were the Sophists? They were peripatetic intellectual coaches who taught the children of wealthy ‘excellence’ in order to gain power and fame. So little difference from our modern day Eton, Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, apart from the fact that the students travel to them rather than the other way around!  Strauss’s point about corrosive relativism is telling with ancient poets and artists now being replaced by journalists, branding and PR experts employed in media outlets.  Today we call it ‘post-truth’ journalism, beloved of both the hard copy media such as The Sun newspaper and online outlets such as Breitbart. Socrates may have ‘sat out’, as Strauss puts it, the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy, but such disengagement is not advisable in the modern age or we may experience the reappearance of the find the mass slavery of his time.

In the Spirit Level book Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out how initial wealth inequalities become entrenched into a class system.  They state:

Over time,  crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity. Think for example of how the comparatively recent emergence of huge income differences in Russia will come to affect class structure.  when the children of the new Russian oligarchs have grown up in grand houses, attended private schools and travelled the world they will have developed all the cultural trappings of an upper class.

Apart from Russia, there are many examples of this happening, especially in the United States.  Already some members of the Democratic Party speak of persuading the Clinton daughter Chelsea to stand for President thus proving that at least some are intent on repeating the disaster of Hillary’s candidature. The only saving grace is that the Trump family look to be making the same mistake with daughter Ivanka raising eyebrows with her presence at some early high level meetings alongside her father. To the great surprise of almost no-one, rather than ending the Washington oligarchies, Trump is simply replacing them with new forms including his own family.

In the UK we have lived with this reciprocal arrangement of wealth and power for a long time.  The House of Lords, once the bastion of aristocratic power (though to what extent they fulfilled Aristotle’s claim of wielding power with the poor in mind is, to say the least, doubtful) is rapidly in the process of turning into a seat of oligarchic power. The fact that the transformation is not yet complete can be seen in their flat rejection of George Osborne’s punitive Tax Credit cuts.  But time is short and reform is now desperately urgent in the over bloated chamber.  The scandal of rewarding corporate donors with seats in the Lords is a well-known scandal.

So can we do anything about oligarchy as individuals. Unfortunately this is where the Greek experience can no longer help us since their solution was to apply their advice to prevent oligarchy arising in the first place and civil war is hardly a recommended remedy. But we are not powerless. Firstly, we can overcome ‘post-truth’ politics by looking at a variety of news media, combined with twitter and other online sources. Also, combine it with what you actually see in your daily life. Are people sleeping rough, what are NHS services like, and so on.  Then draw people’s attention to it.  Secondly, there is an idea gaining ground that voting changes nothing.  But tell that to Trump’s supporters! Make no mistake the current economic system was facilitated by politicians. Claiming they are powerless is a convenient distraction from this simple truth. A different system can be instigated by electing more egalitarian-minded politicians. Ownership of news media can be restricted and the rules on corporate board composition can be changed. ‘Too big to fail’ banks can be broken up. In reality it will take an international change to bring about profound and lasting improvement, but the UK with the City of London means that we can punch way above our economic weight in controlling corporations. So, whenever possible vote for a representative in any General or By-Election whom you think represents the best chance of change irrespective of their party. Vote for an individual, not a party. Finally join and support a party whose aims are to being about the end of oligarchy. Don’t be like Socrates the philosopher, don’t give up and sit this out!!

A Life to Live; Thomas Rainborough’s Quote is of Profound Importance Today

In 1647 Leveller Thomas Rainborough (1610-1648) made this statement:

…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

I consider it one of the most profound statements on political philosophy uttered in the English language. Here’s why.

Rainborough was a Colonel in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil Wars. As a leading member of the radical Levellers group he took part in the momentous 1647 Putney Debates, a series of discussions, sometimes stormy, between the grandees of the New Model Army and the Levellers regarding a new constitution for England.

Although often discussed in terms of wealth inequality, Rainborough’s choice of the phrase life to live has far greater scope and is fundamentally important today. When international bankers such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can invite Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to their events or Charles Windsor as heir to the throne can simply invite the Prime Minister of the day around for tea, ir represents an influence which the poorest he cannot even contemplate bringing to bear on the UK Government. It is true that we must beware of ascribing too much of a modern interpretation to Rainbrough’s. statement. the possibility of votes for women (poorest she!), for example, would not even have been considered at that time.

Yet as a claim for an inclusive society where decisions of the powerful can be contested his quote is as powerful as ever and entails what political thinker Philip Pettit calls the ‘eyeball’ and ‘straight talk’ tests. The eyeball test means all members of a society should be able to look each other directly in the eye as equals while the straight talk test means that we can all express our reasonable opinions to those in power without fear of recrimination. Sadly many western societies are failing these tests.

Consider, for example, the current political upheavals which politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the US attribute to the rise of oligarchical power. It has been noted that contrary to popular opinion oligarchies often control governments without the direct use of money, although they are closely connected. What initially starts as unequal wealth slowly morphs into the subtle means of control characteristic of a class system. Money buys the children of the wealthy smart new clothes, a childhood in fine homes, access to exclusive education where networks can be formed and travel across the world. This breeds confidence and slowly the class structure emerges as exists in Britain, has emerged in the United States and is now emerging in Russia. An expectation, frequently granted, of political and economic influence flows from this added confidence.

So Rainborough was absolutely correct. A life to live involves more than simply wealth inequality no matter how significant that may be.

The Perils of Big Rocks and Regressive Policies

Misogyny, racism and narcissism. So many words have been devoted to evaluating the implications for America and beyond of these undesirable aspects of the next US leader that it is pointless to add more. Instead, on the morning after the 2016 Presidential election I want to think about the implications for the hopes of those many Americans seduced by Donald Trump’s rhetoric. In particular, the few areas of policy outlined by Trump hold out little real long term hope for these people. In a previous blog I drew attention to the fact that rapidly growing wealth inequality is concentrating the control of investment potential in the hands of very few wealthy individuals and organisations. With a desperate need to democratise this potential it is difficult to see how a billionaire property developer will be keen on such a move.

This has a number of implications for two key areas which Paul Mason identified in his book Postcapitalism; climate change and the march of technology which is leading to zero-price products. As Mason cogently argues, both of these present an existential threat to the current economic system and what is needed is an urgent and radical plan for managing the transition to a new model. Trump’s position on climate change presents a danger on two fronts. Firstly he believes that climate change is an establishment hoax and intends to rip up current agreements. Secondly the autocratic nature of large investment potential means that urgent and significant resources may be denied to crucial areas of the green economy. As one simple example, consider the Middle East Sovereign Wealth Funds which are managed by members of the ruling elites with a direct interest in oil exports. Closer to home, Trump was photographed during the campaign with a placard saying Trump Digs Coal, implying the reopening of mines irrespective of whether that is for the collective good. Maybe the people of hurricane devastated New Orleans did not vote for Trump but a Mid-West turned into a barren dust bowl will do nothing for his supporters from that area.

The policy statements of Trump, including building walls along the border is regressive 20th Century politics played out on a 21st century stage. Trump has had nothing to say regarding the digital world. He can huff and puff all he likes about Trade Agreements but digital technology is transnational and the data mined from the internet is global in nature. Fail to recognize this means failing to tackle the major source of wealth distribution in the 21st century and it is doubtful whether he really understands the nature of the threat.

Finally, in these areas I have outlined it must be noted that the British Government is presenting policies equally as bad. The encouragement of fracking and the withdrawal of green funding for projects are two examples. Likewise the focus of the Governments Brexit trade push is on food, ridiculed in the Tea, Biscuits and Jam headline. While laudable, they are hardly getting to grips with the drivers of a 21st century transnational high-tech economy on which depends a prosperous future.

I completely understand the fact that Trump was a big rock hurled at the establishment by a disillusioned and fearful electorate. But the worry is that the rock will eventually rebound off the structure of contemporary economic and environmental reality. Trump’s steampunk politico-economic solutions may actually work for 4 years, but delaying the inevitable radical changes will only make the problem worse in the long term. Both the onset of climate change and the march of digital technology will not be delayed. But worryingly, the UK Government has no better plan for us.