Resources and Relationships; Of Twitter, Coffee Bars and Mountains

Among the factors which make us free citizens, our rights and responsibilities are of primary importance. There are others of course, but these lie at the heart of citizenship and how it is exercised.  Since Christmas I have been exploring ideas of the Commons and how many of the concepts dovetail with my Republican (European, not GOP!) aims and ideals. I have put the details of some of the books I have been working with on my Books/Articles page if you want to explore further.

Mulling over some of the concepts in a coffee bar last week some ideas prompted by my surroundings sprang to mind  Significantly, the coffee bar seemed to occupy an intermediate position between Twitter and a mountain (OK, if you would be so kind to stick with me!). Secondly, the analogies seemed particularly apt for the situations we find ourselves facing in 2017.  Let me start with Twitter.

The idea of a Commons relies on two features. Firstly a resource or group of resources which all the members of a community can freely access, modify and use. Secondly, a set of relationships between the participants in a Commons which may be overtly or covertly agreed.  Despite outward appearances, considered in these terms Twitter falls way short of a Commons, in fact almost the complete opposite! Firstly the participants of which I am one have no control over the platform. It could be simply closed at the whim of the owners. Secondly we have almost no control over the rules of transaction and Twitter is notorious for simply amending the application to suit their own corporate goals. Finally like many people I have been suspended (for a week) without any means of appeal and no explanation. So much for freely accessible resources. Likewise, there are almost no rules governing the relationship between the participants with the well-documented episodes of threats and abuse an ever present reality. So Twitter is really a public space rather than a Commons. This, as I have discovered, is an important distinction.

What about the coffee bar, my ‘intermediate environment’.  True, the participants do not control the space and it could be closed at the whim of the owner.  But at least getting suspended (barred) is slightly less arbitrary in that I could demand an explanation and lodge some sort of appeal!  What about the relationships? Within the space of the bar people congregate in groups comprising family members, friends or work colleagues.  The rules of the relationship change from group to group but they are there.  Again it’s not perfect as the environment is still at the mercy from ant-social behaviour by external agents. So, again, better but not perfect.

Lastly, the mountain analogy.  I am no mountaineer but was intrigued by an explanation given by Jacques Paysan in an essay entitled My Rocky Road to the Commons (it can be found in the excellent book The Wealth of the Commons, details again on the Books/Articles page).  I grew up in a South Wales valley and mountains (though ones I could walk in!) remain important to me which is why I found Paysan’s idea intriguing. Firstly the mountain is there as a resource for all. No one can be said to ‘own’ Everest or El Capitan in the private sense.  So they exist as a resource freely accessible by climbers (barring wars, etc).  Importantly, in addition to barriers imposed by equipment and ability, the climbers adhere to a common set of rules for using and developing the resource. As Paysan points out, without this community relationship between climbers there is no Commons, merely a very high lump of rock! There are codes of conduct, rules of climbing, taking care of the routes and drawing sketches. Paysan does say there there is occasionally conflict, but that is true of any community and, again, rules need to exist for its resolution..

I am finding new ideas about an old concept a stimulating experience. I have not even begun to think seriously about its relationship to Republicanism but  it is providing me with new perspectives on the idea of citizenship as an expression of the rights and responsibilities necessary for the good management  of an open society.

British Republicanism Must Stop Defining Itself By What It Is Not

In an earlier post I pointed to the fact that in popular consciousness at least modern British Republicanism has a habit of defining itself in terms of not being Monarchism.  It was not always so, as in past centuries republicans tended to argue their anti-monarchy stance as a natural outcome of their positive beliefs in causes such as the Sovereignty of Parliament in the Seventeenth Century and Chartism or Socialism in the Nineteenth, to mention but two. A brief look at the Home Page of Republic campaign highlights the problem, with one of the main images actually displaying the Windsor clan in Parliament in all its finery (as of 3rd October)  – as if they needed publicity from Republicans!  Whilst fully supporting the drive to highlight the iniquities of our current archaic system there needs to be a positive message for success.

One thing I point out to non-Republicans is that I am an anti-monarchist because I am a Republican and not the other way around.  So what are the fundamental tenets of Republicanism which I advocate?  Here is the briefest of outlines for the main points:

  1. Popular Sovereignty. This means that we all have a stake in the laws and policies which our Government makes. I touched on this issue in a blog post dealing with the ‘taking back control’ rhetoric during the Brexit campaign.  Likewise the boundary changes supported by the Government serve to take even more power away from the ordinary voter.
  2. The Common Good,  A society is healthy when the institutions and economic system is arranged to promote the good of everyone in society. At present this is clearly not the case with a dysfunctional system being kept afloat with vast sums of created money which serves to only inflate asset prices for the wealthy.  There are alternative ways of rebalancing the economy away from elites such as democratising the control of capital.
  3. Liberty.  This is closely bound up with the first two points.  We can only be free when there is no possibility of being subject to the arbitrary will of another person or an organisation. Without the means of controlling our lawmakers we cannot be said to be truly free. Likewise an economic system which increasingly serves to trap people in zero-hours contracts and poverty wages with little means of escape, giving employers disproportionate powers.  This also results in millions of people being dependant on the state (thus sacrificing more freedom) to supplement their income. I consider it is the state’s responsibility to enhance the freedom of its citizens, not collude in its suppression!
  4. Civic Participation. It is the duty of the state to encourage as many of its participants as possible to take part in decision making.  But the way our system has evolved actively serves to prevent participation. There is a widespread feeling of being powerless in the face of major political power blocks and large corporations which is damaging our society.

This is clearly a broad brush assertion of principles and in some cases politically contentious in a party sense. But for me each of these four points stand in opposition to hereditary privilege.  To take an example from each. Popular Sovereignty. The residual power of monarchy such as Queens and Prince’s Consent (to prevent debate in the House of Commons) is simply unacceptable. The Common Good. The Windsors possess or otherwise control large assets with the power to seize the mineral wealth under people’s homes or come to advantageous tax arrangements with HMRC! Liberty. Though not used since 1707, Royal Assent to bills must go, as must immunity for the Head of State from legal action.  Civic Participation.  Monarchy actively promotes an outsider, voyeuristic attitude to public life rather than promoting and welcoming input from people.

It is true that many of these issues afflict other parts of our system and consequentially I am in favour of wholesale changes such as reform of the House of Lords, to name but one.  But ultimately it is my belief that mere anti-monarchism will not get the job done.  Republicans need to sell a vision of a society to our fellow citizens which makes abolition not merely desirable but natural and unavoidable!