This decade will be historically important. It will mark a turning point. The days when inequality didn’t matter, because the pile of crumbs could keep being added to are over. As resources become more scarce, how they are divided up becomes increasingly important.
Throughout much of my life, politicians have bemoaned lack of engagement by the community at large. There are, in my opinion two distinct and quite different reasons for this lack of public involvement in politics. The first is that everything was fine. Apathy can be a pretty good sign that there isn’t a fat lot going wrong. It’s when people are really fed up that they start to become vocal. The other reason is rather more negative. People don’t engage because the system doesn’t allow for that engagement to be meaningful. The terms of the engagement, the methods, the agenda, the options are all set.
Communciation has been linked with giant leaps forward before. The printed word was responsible for spreading ideas far more widely than previously possible. The internet has developed so that it is now widely available. It can be used instantly, and in different ways, including via the phones people carry in their pockets. Social media including Facebook and Twitter increase the possibilities for rapid interaction. All of this means that it is far more difficult to hide the truth. When Liam Fox tried to hold out, it wasn’t just the Labour Party and the press who were going to seal his fate, but a myriad of others who read, and were outraged, and would add bits to the jigsaw until enough of truth was out there that the stench could not be ignored.
When the mainstream media tries to present the occupy movement as a small bunch of anti-capitalist lefties on the verge of turning nasty at any moment, we can turn easily to other sources that tell a different story – one of mass protest, peaceful protest, widespread and justifiable anger with corporate greed, a world distorted by the profit motive, inequality that leaves many in dire circumstances while the rich party. As alternative media becomes more widely available and respectable alternative outlets grow (such as the Real News Network) there are clear consequences for the mainstream. Firstly they cannot ignore issues once their exposure reaches a certain level. So reports get through even if they are played down, at least initially. Secondly, those who spout rubbish get exposed. This is the beginning and much more change will come. Exciting new developments will push forward the boundaries of how direct democracy can work, models to enable collaborative decisions and collaborative investments as well as enabling much more collaborative work. There is something else that was very important about how the internet came to us. It was free. Thank you Tim Berners-Lee. Imagine how much better the world could be if Pfizer took the same approach.
Back to main point of this post. We have seen an enormous concentration of wealth and there are enormous challenges ahead. Many resources are becoming scarce. We will be moving from a situation where we get ticked off about how much the gas and electricity bills have gone up, to one where there are serious issues about being able to obtain and afford the power to keep warm and to cook. The supply of food around the world will become more and more difficult to sustain and that will translate into big changes in the cost and availability of food here too. When the challenges get this fundamental, then how resources are distributed has very different connotations to the ones they have had over the last century. Of course there may be wonderful new inventions that up our game to a point where once again concerns about inequality can rumble away at the bottom of the agenda, but right now the signs are not looking too great – and the prospects for finding those new inventions look much more likely to be successfully and sustainably introduced if they come through a model that has sustainability not profit as its key principle. Can capitalism do that?
If we roll back time just 150 years we find a social order in which most of us doffed our caps to a ruling elite. It is only since then, that ordinary people have been lifted out of real hardship – in having even the basics for a good life in this country. This has coincided with a period of abundant energy and, largely because of that energy, considerable and consistent economic growth. Even with these good times on their side, people had to fight hard, for decent wages, for votes, for public services, reasonable working hours, health and safety, and of course free healthcare.
Now we are surrounded by people boasting of working so hard that they never get home before ten at night, outcompeting each other to work harder, longer, faster for less. We complain about faceless bureaucrats doing non-jobs and health and safety gone mad. We get upset about people with no work, living off the state; or a woman whose children have left home having more rooms in her social rented property (her family home) than she needs. In the meantime, we allow corporations to stash their profits in tax havens; our politicians to allow their political and business interests to ‘blur’; and we continue to admire the cult of celebrity.
In this decade we will make a choice. We will either wake up, as the Occupy movement would like us to, or we will leave it too late, so the return to serfdom becomes unstoppable.