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!!

The Government is Patronising Voters by Laying Claim to a Chartist Legacy

peoples-charter
People’s Charter 1838

On 13th September 2016 BBC Newsnight ran an item on the proposals for changes to Parliamentary constituencies issued by the Boundary Commission for England . One of the interviewees was Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution, who referred to the People’s Charter of 1838 to lend legitimacy to the proposals. During the course of the interview he made the statement:

‘The Chartists, who are heroes to some people on the Labour benches’.

Unwarranted Legitimacy

It would be positive, but possibly naïve, to think that the 19th Century Chartists should be heroes to all who claim to be democrats, meaning not only all the Labour Party but MPs of any party, including the Conservatives themselves. But there is a problem. The Chartists demand for equal sized constituencies and a much wider suffrage was an integral part of the demands for comprehensive socio-economic reforms to alleviate deprivation and oppression suffered by most working people at that time. Then, as now, political reform was was an essential corollary to social reform and it is disingenuous of Mr Skidmore to merely pluck one of the six points of the Charter and ignore the spirit of the movement behind it.

Skidmore can get away with appropriating Chartists aims for a narrow political point because of the lack of knowledge about our radical history which I posted about a few weeks ago. But it may surprise him to learn  that genuine support for Chartists and other radical groups is far from unknown within his own Conservative Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli expressed sympathy with Chartist aims and in 2013 David Skelton of the Conservative Party’s Renewal group published this call for greater education about the history of radicalism including Levellers and Suffragettes as well as Chartists.

The issues surrounding the Boundary Commission proposals which the Government is determined to pursue are complex,  including disputes over how to measure the size of a constituency.  There have been claims that it represents gerrymandering on the part of the Government but I argue that it goes much further than this, serving to distort the very nature of democratic representation while showing profound disregard for social justice. Even allowing for the shrinkage in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 the Conservatives on some estimates would have an increased majority of 22 in the Commons based on the new boundaries. This increase would serve to exacerbate an already unfair system where a Government elected by only 37% of actual voters command a disproportionate amount of power, with an even more pronounced marginalization of Green and UKIP voters To enforce these boundary changes without instituting some form of Proportional Representation as an absolute minimum is undemocratic bordering on reckless.

Political Change is Integral to Wider Social Change

The fact that systems of voting are integrally bound up with socio-economic problems was brought into focus during the Brexit vote where many disaffected people took the opportunity of registering a protest vote. But it is not the job of the Boundary Commission to take wider political factors into account. That is the job of the government and they must not dodge their responsibilities to fairness and democracy. During the 1830s the Chartists chafed against the petty pretensions of the property owning classes which aped the mores of the aristocracy, debasing workers socially as well as economically. Demands for a voice in Parliament had an egalitarian as well as an economic base.   Society has changed radically and deference to the aristocracy has declined, being replaced by the overt greed of owners such as Philip Green and Mike Ashley who debase their workers by flaunting knighthoods, peerages and gross conspicuous wealth. The malaise is now affecting public bodies as this article on the activities of Coventry University and its Vice Chancellor testify. So the sense of injustice persists and Mr Skidmore will be well advised to consider it in his plans. As Paul Mason points out in his book Postcapitalism the Chartists confronted an industrial economy trapped within an aristocratic state. Today we have a low-wage service and knowledge economy trapped within an oligarchic state. Simply manipulating the electoral system to pursue an ideal of fairness within a narrow definition will lead to further instances of protest which may make the Brexit vote appear a mere inconvenience by comparison.

As Sean Monaghan in Jacobin Magazine writes::

A renewed Chartist movement would, for starters, demand the extension of the franchise to all those who lack it. But it would also embrace one of Chartism’s seminal contributions to the history of working-class movements: the necessity of political struggle for popular emancipation.

Government Ministers would do well to remember this rather than cherry pick ideas for narrow party gain.

Theresa May Curtseying To The Queen – What a Con Trick!

May Queen Cartoon
Cartoon by Peter Brooks for the Times Newspaper

Following her (unelected) installation as leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May duly travelled to Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pictures abounded of May curtseying to the monarch which naturally gave satirists and cartoonists like Peter Brooks (whose Times cartoon appears above) a field day.  But things are not all they seem.  In many ways a curtsey or genuflection can be classed with other acts of submission including swearing an oath which I have posted about here and here.  Bending the knee is about making yourself smaller than the other person, implicitly recognising their superior status. But Brooks was not alone in pointing to the shrunken nature of British democracy which allows a new Prime Minister without a popular mandate to be appointed by a Head of State without a mandate on any kind!  An insightful comment was made by Kelly Grovier in an article on the BBC website:

Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.

This speaks to the wider issue about the secrecy which surrounds the upper echelons of government with Freedom of Information bans, secret weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and Queen and the necessity of obtaining permission from the Palace in certain circumstances to even hold a debate in the House of Commons! The message it sent to the British public was one thing, but to the rest of the world who may well view Brexit as a backward looking and isolationist act, such a picture serves to confirm an image of Britain as an out of date archaic irrelevance. Some posters on social media were quick to pick up on the symbolism and contrasted the stiff obeisance of the photograph with a picture of US President Obama fist bumping a floor cleaner as he walked past.  This reflects a totally different relationship of the Head of State to the citizenry.  There is no way anyone in Britain can truly identify with the Royals as the life experiences are totally alien. While not wishing a US style system for Britain, the fact that a Head of State drawn from the population and who shares at least some of the experiences of the people must be an essential requirement of the job.

A Deliberate Attempt to Deceive

But there are two ways in which the photograph is actually misleading.  At the end of her piece, Grovier makes a second telling  statement: In stooping low, [Theresa May] reaches high.  I have posted before on the fact that the powers of the Queen are largely wielded by the Prime minister in collaboration with her cabinet, termed a ‘disguised republic’ by Walter Bagehot.  So the curtseying picture is not representative and serves to perpetuate the myth of a Queen being above politics and ‘keeping them in control’. In reality the curtsey is almost a thank you by Theresa May for the transfer of power!

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‘Oh Dearism’; Start to Tackle it by Abolishing the Monarchy

As a Republican trying to persuade my fellow Britons of the need to remove the monarchy I sometimes encounter a kind of fatalism which says that even if we get rid of the queen we will still be controlled by rich and powerful elites essentially beyond our control. This is partly a problem of powerlessness, a kind of despairing acceptance of fate which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’. Now while I fully agree that the removal of monarchy must only be the beginning to the reform of our system, I nevertheless believe that it makes an excellent starting point. This is for a number of reasons, some constitutional and some psychological. I want to look at just two in this blog.

Firstly, the existence of a monarchy entrenches the position of a powerful political elite via the Privy Council. In fact, the system actually views the British Cabinet (supposedly our Government) as a sub-committee of the Council  (I’ve written more about these arechaic powers in this post) and we can see the importance of this to the financial elite in one example. The Crown Dependencies are managed under the auspices of the Privy Council and thus the tax havens of the British Virgin Island and the Caymen Islands to name but two are allowed to thrive. More widely the relationship between politicians and royals facilitates a taxpayer funded Prince Andrew (then supposedly a Trade Envoy) the opportunity to try and broker the selling of state assets to foreign oligarchs, thus cementing his position amongst a wider, global elite.

Continue reading “‘Oh Dearism’; Start to Tackle it by Abolishing the Monarchy”

Now More Than Ever UK Republicans Must Present a Positive Vision

In recent times republicanism in the UK has presented itself to the public consciousness as a negative concept, defined by opposition and protest rather than a vision of what it represents.  This is understandable since the central core of republicanism has largely been the pursuit of an anti-monarchy agenda.  Similarly, wider concerns have often been characterised by an oppositional stance, abolition of the House of Lords for example, or the disestablishment of the Church of England and the removal of Archbishops (Lords Spiritual) from the Upper Chamber. Like my fellow republicans I too am highly critical of the outdated unearned privilege the Royals enjoy, in part because it is much easier to say what you oppose than clearly defining what it is that you want. The problem with this approach is that it is limited and ultimately doomed to failure. If people are going to identify with a position they must be able to ‘buy into’ an idea.  We can see this elsewhere in society but most clearly in the commercial world; Samsung will attempt to sell their phones by promoting price, features, functions or quality and only obliquely refer to the competition, stopping well short of saying their competitors are rubbish. Now in the post-Brexit mess in which we find ourselves, understandably worrying to so many of our fellow citizens, UK republicans must present a positive statement of the case; we must sell them a positive vision.

History shows that an anti-monarchy message alone is insufficient

Historically the advance of republicanism has been associated with campaigns with wider currency. For example. at the high water mark of English Republicanism in the mid-seventeenth century the calls for a republic were the natural outgrowth of a campaign for the establishment of civil liberties and religious tolerance. Likewise in a second wave of republicanism in the nineteenth century, it was associated very closely with Chartism and the campaign for greater participation in political decision making, relief of grinding poverty and  the promotion of workers rights. Similarly, today republicanism is a natural corollary to many other demands which cut across party political lines (see my not just a leftist concern) and the abolition of hereditary and many other sorts of unearned privilege can be presented as an inevitable consequence of a new vision which chimes with the aspirations of young people in particular.

Promoting positive visions of Republicanism

So what are the positive message which we can promote as republicans.  There are many, but here are just a few ideas. Starting with the more narrowly focussed campaign for a change to our head of state, in some cases they are the mirror images of campaigns already mounted by the Republic campaign group. For example the campaign to end royal secrets leads more widely for a call for far greater openness in Government in general.  Republicans should overtly campaign for such a policy. On the other other hand, I know from personal experience in street and event level campaigning that the #bornEqual campaign cut through with the public and this can be followed up with similar positive visions of a republic which places the promotion of the common good as a central facet. Likewise the interconnection of individual freedom and civic participation is of overwhelming importance following a referendum campaign dominated by a few high profile individuals peddling  misinformation and outright lies.

As Republicans we must make every effort to present the positive case. The UK is passing through a tumultuous time and it is possible that as a consequence, greater intolerance and loss of liberty may be the long term outcome.  We have a message of an open and tolerant society which WILL resonate with many fellow Britons. Over the next few weeks and months in my blog I will develop further how republican ideas can be positively promoted.

BP CEO Bob Dudley Pay Increase; Flawed Ethos of Individualism

The grotesque 20% pay increase to £14 million per year awarded to BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley has surprised even business organizations such as the Institute of Directors (IoD) who now rightly fear that the government will take action on corporate governance. But this act of naked greed illustrates a number of problems with our broken socio-economic model. First lets look at the tired old excuse that has been trotted out once again for Dudley’s award by a BP spokesperson:

BP’s performance surpassed the board’s expectations on almost all of the measures that determine remuneration – and the [pay] outcome therefore reflects this.

In a nutshell here is the application of possessive individualism in a pure form – the arrogance of assuming that the individual at the top has achieved an organizational target solely on their own abilities without the help and co-operation of their staff. So they alone deserve the rewards of extra millions! But Dudley is not the only one, the attitude is endemic – just look at Martin Sorrell at WPP for another example.

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Thomas Jefferson: A Fatally Flawed Radical

Thomas Jefferson was a leader of the American Revolution, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. He became the second Vice-President (under John Adams) and the third President. He was a significant thinker and proponent of democracy and republicanism and there are many quotes expounding his ideas of liberty which resonate with us today. One I find significant is:

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Something which we can also identify with is Jefferson’s warning of the dangers of corporatism, which was sadly ignored:

I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

But the practical working out of his republicanism had a flaw which limited its application as the United States developed through the 19th Century. He was at heart an agrarian and influenced by the Country Party tradition of British politics. He saw society working best when it was a free collection of planters, small traders and smallholders which in many ways was a regressive concept harking back to a perceived agrarian golden era. Lest this be considered a criticism based on hindsight we can compare his ideas with his great friend and contemporary, Thomas Paine. Paine was an urbanite and correctly perceived that in the future land would be used for many purposes other than agriculture. Moreover republican theory would have to deal with the fast emerging capitalist culture. Paine’s solutions were very different and included, for example, the introduction of a Universal Basic Income to compensate the majority of citizens alienated from land ownership.

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