Sign of the times

Sign of the times

There is a post box at the end of our drive and it a worrisome sign of the times. We placed it there because we are becoming more afraid about the unfolding coronavirus pandemic. As country after country introduces measures to try and contain and, after this fails, delay the spread of covid19 it has become clear that “social distancing” is one of the principle steps which needs to be considered. This is both for the safety of those vulnerable to the worse outcomes from Covid19 and also for the population as a whole, as it would tend to slow down and hamper transmission of the virus. As we are both elderly, and have some additional risk factors, we have decided to start social distancing now rather then waiting to be advised to do this by the government. The government has different priorities to ourselves; in addition to public safety they also have consider the economic impact of their advice – my consumer spending during visits to town might help keep the local economy floating but I am not sure that the risk-benefit ratio in this is truly in my favour.

It is unusual to feel worried. I am usually rather phlegmatic and not prone to anxiety. Although I recognise I have a tendency to pessimism I don’t recall being a gloomy about the immediate future as I do at present. However, this is a little like Pascal’s Wager; if my foreboding is correct I’ll be glad I took the steps I have, if I am shown to be wrong (and life returns quickly to normal) then I will have lost a little face and suffered a little embarrassment but little else. Indeed it is possible there may be some minor benefits from this changed behaviour.

We already live a life at some considerable distance socially form others. We live in a rural area and have few amenities where large groups gather. Our outside entertainment is infrequent (trips to the pub, the theatre, the cinema, etc) and even if we have to keep this up for a long time I don’t think we won’t be able to cope. Many of the things people are advised to give up (holidays, nightclubs, sporting events) are things we do not do in any event as we have livestock which keeps us homebound.

Our day-to-day contact with our neighbours and friends is something much more important and something we could not do without for a long period of time. Thankfully, about half of this socialising occurs, in any event, outdoors in the fields or the woods. Public Health England state the virus can be spread when people have ‘close sustained contact’ with people who are not infected, which typically means ‘spending more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person.’ So we still should be able to keep in contact with our neighbours and be ready to help each other as needed.

Our new post box was another attempt at social distancing,. Usually we keep out gates and doors open. We encourage people to enter and visit and usually this means we see people every day. Closing our gates is a way of alerting others to the changes we are trying. However, this could prove a great pain in the neck for our postman who’d have to get out of his van to open and close gates were he delivering mail. To avoid this we hung the mailbox. Each time I see it, it will remind me of what I am missing – conversations with friends. This is why I see it as a sign of the times and so depressing.

I said, like Pascal’s wager, there might be some benefits. There is one I can see already. We have changed our shopping habits. Instead of visits to the shops when we wish anything we are now only going infrequently and with definite purpose . There will be no shopping for fun. I think I’ll be better mentally for this and, if not, I’ll be better off financially.

Perhaps on a larger scale there will be the benefit that people will see the dangers of overconsumption and globalisation that these viral pandemics reveal. When the conquistadors brought influenza, diphtheria and measles to the new world they killed countess native Americans who had no natural immunity. The mass travel brought the danger. Again in 1918, with the demobbing of troops after the war, the mass travel brought a tide of death on its heels with the Spanish Flu. If you cast your mind back to the SARS epidemic I’m sure you’ll recall the men in hazmat suits at international airports trying to stop the spread of this outbreak, again mass transit proving the vector.

Our globalised world with long supply chains has allowed us to benefit from cheap goods from all around the globe. At the same time it has damaged our abilities to live in localities with any degree of self sufficiency. The food, the goods, the culture and the people that we have on our doorsteps is no longer adequate. We have become accustomed to much more and need and demand ever more. Hand in hand with this we have seen our levels of consumption spiral ever upward.

Some fear that this may be The end of the world as we know it. I don’t. If this is the end of a world which squanders resources and pollutes without care I will be happy to see it gone. I used to worry that this overconsumption and waste could be the end of the planet. It may be that I was worrying heedlessly. All this globalisation may not be the end of the planet, it may just be the end of us.

Purple Prose?

Our present political life is seriously damaged. Many people are now looking for the centre having found that the main parties have migrated away from them to the edges. Life on the edge has damaged our mainstream parties. The Labour Party has become increasingly censorious and illiberal seeing a need for the state to increasingly intervene in the lives of us all. Further, following the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it has developed nasty antisemitic traits in response to the problems in the middle east. The Tories on the right, on the other hand, have seen its perfectly correct support for freedom of speech and individual liberty used as a cover by racists and bigots (people less concerned with the right of free expression than pleased with the opportunity to say hateful and spiteful things under the cover of free speech). Neither of the main parties now are without problems and I am sure that many, like myself, find themselves politically homeless.

You can find the centre by going left from the right-hand side or by heading right from the left-hand side. However, the centre is distinct from both of its containing edges. I am not sure if these movements from the two sides will ever find the middle but it was in the hope that they may that I read the flowing two books over the last month or so. From the Left there is “Blue Labour: Forging a new politics” and on the right we have “Red Tory : How the left and right have broken Britain and how we can fix it“. I read these in that order, Blue then Red, although this is the reverse order in which they were published. There was five years between the books; Red Tory was published 2010 and Blue Labour in 2015 but despite this they tackle largely the same themes.

The similarity of the books is the most striking aspect; large aspects of either book could be transposed into the other with little upset whatsoever. Both are aware that the traditional working class has been abandoned by the main parties and we have a major problem of an large portion of our population in the post-industrial areas feeling alienated and ignored. They both also recognise the increasing disengagement of this group, who feel and behave as disenfranchised, and the danger that this poses to our society through the mechanism of populist parties from both extremes.

Both books see the need to review our approach to nationalism. Both feel patriotism and nationalism can act a valuable bulwark against the problems of globalisation. Both books promote the nation state and internationalism as the antidote to the excesses of global capitalism. On the left by limiting the powers of the state and corporations, and on the right by limiting the excesses of the market when corrupted by monopolies, cartels and state intervention. Both agree – ‘smaller is better’.

The fate of the family is prominent in both books and both are alarmed by the damage that has been done to it. Blue Labour views the family as a basic building block of society which is particularly important to the poor and working as it provides the best support and safety They bemoan the weakening of the family in pursuit of greater economic productivity and also express concerns that the traditions of mutual support and communalism which grew in the working class movements are declining (Trade unions, mutual societies, building societies, friendly societiesare all examples of working class organisations). The Red Tory also worries that these aspects of our society are changing, and fears that welfarism is replacing mutualism with the consequent risks of dependency and loss of autonomy.

Both books see the increasing inequality in our society as a major threat to our future. We are splitting into a society of “haves” and “owes”; the rich are becoming much richer and the poor are increasingly in debt. So even though we have more possessions it is hard to see that we are that much richer. As Red Tory reminded us of Belloc’s view :-

“For to own something on credit I not to own it at all, and since no security of tenure is available by rent, those who seek some primary foundation or asset in the world have little choice but to buy into a form of ownership that converts its possessor into a debtor”

Red Tory pp49

The housing bubble that first burst in 2008 has left most of us in debt and working to serve this. All members of the family now have to work in the market, there is no room or members to stay at home and care for others, and despite this increased work we are not wealthier. The cheap goods that capitalism generates a little but increasing debt wipes this out and adds to the growing inequality. This has worsened since the mid-70’s and the boom years of Thatcher and Blair :-

Little wonder then that the golden age for waged workers in the OECD was not in this recent allegedly great age of prosperity, but between 1945 and 1973, when they gained the greatest percentage share of GDP for their labour and enjoyed greater real purchasing power

Red Tory, pp 49

It is interesting to note that both books have strong religious influences. Blue Labour has a number of essays by prominent Christian thinkers and an introduction by Rowan Williams the prior Archbishop of Canterbury. Red Tory is written by an author who is an Anglican theologian as well as political theorist. There are shades of “distributionism“, in both books, as they try to find a path to more widely distribute assets between us all and steer a way between socialism and capitalism. There are perhaps modern echoes of the “Three Acres and a cow” proposed by G.K. Chesterton.

Both books are worth reading and I hope will have influence on their respective groups. I found the “Red Tory” more readable than “Blue Labour” as it was written by a single author and was consequently more consistent and coherent. But the ideas in both, on the need to curb increasing inequality, to promote society and constrain the state, and to use nations and locality to limit the influence of global capital, are well addressed in both books.

Worldwide Confusion

Worldwide Confusion

Humpty Dumpty, in ‘Through the Looking Glass” said, in a rather scornful voice “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less‘. I fear that many of us follow his advice and use words in ways that can be rather idiosyncratic. As individuals this may be only a minor problem and our friends and acquaintances  get to know our foibles and may even adopt them. However, sometimes this use of language can be quite deliberate and designed to confuse or obfuscate. I think this latter misuse of the language is occurring with the words ‘globalism‘ and ‘internationalism‘.

Internationalism has a long history and it is a word close to the hearts of those who are on the left of the political spectrum. Indeed “L’Internationale‘, written by the anarchist Eugene Pottier,  is the anthem or hymn of the communist, socialist and anarchist movements. This song took its name from the first congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 called the First International. In this sense internationalism meant cooperative actions between national groups; a recognition that there could be common aims and mutual advantage when groups worked across national boundaries. In essence, it is a recognition that there are many things which we hold in common because we are human which cross national boundaries (in this case the class struggle). To be an internationalist was to promote working across these boundaries for the common good.

Globalisation, on the other hand, is a word with a shorter history, possibly dating back to 1991, and is a word more closely related to those on the right of the political spectrum. This word relates to the application of power, influence or money on a world-wide basis, operating above and outwith national boundaries. This is the world of corporations which have a global presence but no national home. Globalisation started with the deregulation of banks and financial institutions. This freed them from National regulations which allowed them to amass great wealth and power unfettered by Governments’ wishes. These global corporations have been able to develop impact all over the globe but now have nowhere that they can be held accountable.

It is the misuse of the two terms that causes so many problems. The left and progressive wings of politics have fallen for the idea that globalisation is akin to internationalism and has taken this view to its heart. This is attested to in slogans such as “no borders” and “no human is illegal”. These are on the surface benign and welcome statements. But if we look deeper, it is clear that these are slogans which support globalisation which requires  free-movement of capital and labour and finds borders irksome at best. Karl Marx, himself, was well aware that free movement of labour was a useful way in which workers’ power and workers’ wages could be kept in check and wrote about this in relation to the migration of workers between Ireland and mainland Britain.

There is another aspect in which globalisation can pose a threat which internationalism avoids and this is in the area of welfare provision. Most developed countries have some form of welfare state. This can vary widely in the extent and depth of its provision but all of them rest on a similar principle. This principle is of a community grouping together to look after one and other;  to ensure in times of illness, or hardship, we are able to care for our fellow citizens. These are like clubs, we all pay in so that should misfortune arise we may benefit. But like clubs there needs to be a definition of membership, we need to feel that we are contributing to support our fellows. This is where nations prove useful. In a nation we all pay in our dues (personal taxes or corporate taxes) and can use the services when needed.  At a national level, even if there is no kinship, we can feel some relationship to our fellow citizens and feel a link between our inputs into the system and those who are benefitting from it.

Steffan Mau of the University of Bremen, in 2007,  suggested :-

“the nation state became one of the most important organizational entities for social solidarity…because it provided the fundamentals of a political identity and social morals, which legitimately guaranteed the establishment of social security and transfer systems”

This is a major problem for those on the left of the political spectrum. If we want welfare states then we need to promote the nation as a unit of manageable size to allow people to care for each other. Nationalism, in this sense, has little to do with any perceived superiority of one nation over another. It is simple a way to break the economy down into manageable chunks. This ensures that there is a link between the payers and the benefactors of welfare provision. Without this link it is unlikely that welfare systems can flourish. This is an areas where, as E.F. Schmacher might have said “Small is Beautiful

Finally, if those on the left, wish to control the influence of global corporations, then they need nation states. Global corporations have capital and investments across the globe which move, as required, to maximise their returns and to minimise their exposure to risk. This means they can avoid, to a large extent, paying taxes and contributing to welfare schemes. They can also avoid listening to national governments’ concerns and decline to follow any legislation their citizenry might enact. International companies will operate in a number of countries but have a base where they hold their assets and investments. They have a national base where they can be taxed and regulated and thus they can, in part, be held to account and obliged to pay their dues.

If we want to limit the increasing centralisation of power and the wealth then we need to oppose globalisation and promote internationalism. The borders of the nation will provide the shelter so that  we can work cooperatively for own commonweal, and, across these borders, we will work cooperatively  for the commonwealth of nations to tackle problems that face us all. In the future our nation states may be found to be too large and we may feel that we need smaller, more human sized, communities (like the canton, the commune or kibbutz) but, for now, they will act as our starting point to wrestle back power from a global elite.