Post Two: The wider power inequalities undermining democratic politics in the UK
This is the second of a three-part blog about deconstructing and (re?)constructing democracy in the UK. In my previous post, I set out to deconstruct UK democracy by showing just how undemocratic our political system. I tried to show how undemocratic our electoral system, party system, and legislative bodies are, and argued that the UK’s system should be considered a polyarchy rather than a democracy. In this second post, I take aim at the wider social context, revealing the extreme concentrations of land, wealth, and what I will call ‘symbolic power’ shaping our society and rendering economic democracy and social justice an increasingly distant dream. However, there is much cause for hope for the future. In the final post, I will report back from a public participatory event I am running at the West Oxford Community Centre (at 7.30pm on Weds, 6th May) where hopefully local people will come together to discuss ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how can we start to build it?’ So, going beyond the immediate political system now, we need to also consider the broader power dynamics that render the UK increasingly unequal and undemocratic.
(1) Land and housing
There is perhaps nothing more fundamental to human society than the land we live on. Gradually over centuries, through the process of what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ and what David Harvey has called a continued process of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ – the ‘enclosures’ in England, the ‘clearances’ in Scotland – what has emerged is a preposterously unequal system of land ownership. In the UK, it is estimated that around 6,000 families own as much as two-thirds of our land.
To give an example of landed interest and political power, consider the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP is massive – around €55billion or 43% of the EU’s total budget! Under the CAP, farmers receive subsidies paid per hectare of land. Huge UK landowners are benefiting to the tune of millions each year. Many of these Lords may well be anti-European, but will they also push to end their CAP subsidies?
What about housing? We have one hell of a housing crisis at present. Landlords are raking it in! In Oxford, some individuals own over one hundred properties. They don’t need much capital because the banks will lend them much more since the rents more than cover the mortgage payments. The situation is fundamentally one of demand hugely outstripping supply. Linking it back to our political system, in the House of Commons, whereas only around 1% of all UK citizens are landlords, almost 25% of MPs are landlords!
In all the furore about housing and the dangers of immigration into an overcrowded Britain, when do we ever hear about the obscene concentration of land and now housing by the superrich, most of whom have direct or indirect political power? Very rarely is the answer. Unsurprisingly, the only party advocating policies to tax land, scrap Right to Buy, and build large numbers of social housing is the one major English party not funded by wealthy, land and property-owning donors – the Green Party.
(2) Financial power
The other day, I was wiping my three year-old son’s backside when he suddenly took offence to my sullied hand being in close proximity to his body! This is quite analogous to what we have collectively experienced in recent years. The financial capitalists made the mess (2008 Financial Crisis); our ruling class told us to clean up the mess (austerity/cuts); and then used the media to cast those cleaning it up as lazy parasites (‘shirkers’, ‘scroungers’). Of course, at the same time, they have encouraged us all, in turn, to pass the shit downwards onto economic migrants and refugees.
Such a phenomenon could only be achievable in a society in which financial and economic power was incredibly concentrated. And this, indeed, is the situation we have. Scandal after scandal has emerged in recent years: sub-prime mortgage bundling; LIBOR-rigging; PPI-misselling; and, the one yet to be fully exposed, hugely inflated money management fees. The City of London is a gargantuan parasite, sucking money and life itself from us all. And, yet, the bankers keep getting bigger bonuses; our government defends it against calls for bonus caps; and Quantitative Easing has made the richest people in our country, in the world, twice as rich again in just the past few years.
Unsurprisingly, again, we see how leading financial figures are the major donors to the Conservative Party, and some also support the Labour Party. We see how key financial figures are knighted or appointed as party-loyal Lords. We see how the state bodies designed to regulate and constrain the power of financial and other forms of capital have been captured by financial and other corporate interests. The most obvious example here is the HMRC (UK tax-collection agency)…
(3) Supra-democratic power
The terrifying domination of financial capital’s power goes way beyond direct relations of personal influence, political positions, or state capture. More fundamentally and perniciously, we are enslaved by the financial markets themselves. In our society, the term ‘the markets’ is presented as some almost autonomous, naturalised, all-powerful deity. This god-figure sets the very parameters of the possible – the doable, the thinkable – and governments or political figures deign to cross it expose themselves to its venomous wrath. When ‘the markets’ attacks national sovereign bond interest rates or currencies, it has very material consequences for ordinary people, making or breaking economies and, by extension, human lives. Yet, ‘the markets’ is totally supra-democratic. It sits above our political system, suffocating our political sovereignty and our political imaginations. We are beholden to the God of the Markets. Think of it like this…
When governments issue bonds in order to borrow on international capital markets they effectively make promises to those who buy their bonds, saying ‘I promise to pay you the bond-holder £x plus a certain amount of interest after x years’. When political parties run for elections they also make promises to citizens, saying ‘if you vote for us, we will do x and y’. We have financial promises to bond-holders and political promises to voters. What demonstrates the unambiguous superior power of ‘the markets’, of finance capital is that, while political promises to us the citizens are routinely broken, financial promises to bond-holders are considered sacrosanct. The Markets 1 Democracy 0!1
Recently, Russell Brand has declared his faith in Ed Miliband, expressing his belief that Ed will ‘listen to us’. Call me a cynic, but I suspect if Ed gets into No.10 then his democratic promises to listen to us will soon be cast aside after just one significant FTSE100 slide or fall in the Pound’s exchange rate or yield on Gilts (UK government bonds). Then ‘The Markets’ will assert its supra-democratic power in no uncertain terms and Ed, pushed by the Party’s Blairite right, will largely capitulate. Hope I’m wrong!
I want to cover just one further insidiously powerful form of extra-democratic power: that of the free-trade international treaty. How many of you reading this have heard of ‘TTIP’ (Transatlantic Treaty on International Property)? Well, TTIP is being pushed through largely surreptiously and extra-democratically and is being spuriously sold as a catalyst for huge growth in trade and jobs. In reality, it constitutes yet another brick in the anti/supra-democratic wall that has been constructed over recent decades as part of the ‘globalisation’ project. The economically devastating reality of global free trade is well documented: think deindustrialisation in Europe and North America and the devastation of emerging infant industries in many parts of the Third World. However, as free trade principles have become secured in international trade law (while rich countries themselves systematically flout them), the focus of these treaties has moved on to protecting intellectual property, essentially stifling innovation by prolonging patent lives and allowing multi-national corporations to colonise human (i.e. collective) knowledge and even natural entities. So, soon after our so-called ‘democratic’ electoral process is over, further swathes of our economic sovereignty will be put beyond our political control by the passing of TTIP. Very few people realise, alas, that this is happening. Put simply, TTIP is about pushing more power for corporations, weaker environmental regulations, and weaker rights for workers.
The Conservatives, UKIP, and Labour talk about national sovereignty with regard to the influx of poor people. They might mention the supra-democratic nature of much of the EU or, more specifically, the European Commission, but they say virtually nothing of the systematic removal of sovereignty over key things like industrial, trade, and scientific policy – areas that hold the key to potentially reviving our economy and society. They say nothing because the elites that run these parties support and push through these developments for the benefit of their backers.
(4) Symbolic power
By now you’re probably thinking something like ‘how the hell can they get away with this?’ One key way to respond is to use a concept of power that goes way beyond a crude notion of using force to make people do things. That is not power; that is violence. That cannot last long. Yes, power is fundamentally about material relations, but it is equally necessary for those with material power to make others believe that the world they experience is actually just and, even better, totally natural and unchangeable. Power is, therefore, about producing ideology – a coherent world-view of the nature of reality, society, human beings, and their motives – and inculcating that through all of a society’s institutions of cultural production and reproduction i.e. the media, the arts, schools, universities, within communities and families, and even within our own minds and bodies themselves. The ‘hegemonic’ position of what is called ‘neo-liberalism’ has been constructed, developed, enforced, imposed, disseminated over decades through all these social institutions and more.
It was the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase ‘symbolic power’ to describe the social power to make meaning, to shape reality itself, through words, symbols, and images in our society. When we try to use this concept to ask ‘Who has the symbolic power in our society today?’, we begin to see the power of a media industry controlled by a small super-wealthy global elite dominating output; we see a global network of ‘independent’ think-tanks and foundations set up with MNCs and US state funds in order to promote neoliberal ideology and educate and support subsequent generations of elites; we see the power to set school and university course curricula set by the same elites. All of this has drastically curtailed the space for critique and alternative ideological visions in our society. It is not always so straight-forwardly sinister. We imbibe this ideology. It becomes our natural reality to the extent that we cannot even see it. It is the air we breathe. We ourselves invariably and inadvertently reproduce it when we make art, write, even speak. From this perspective, power is also not just imposed from above, but it also flows through us. We aren’t just objects of power; we are its subjects too. This insight comes primarily from the work of French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault…
The first step to winning our democracy
I’ve gone on too long and covered too little. I’m kind of ashamed that I’ve not even covered institutions or structures that preserve male, white, heterosexual structures of dominance and privilege. I will address this in a future post. I’m sure I’ve also omitted other ‘supra-democratic’ institutions too. Forgive me…
So, what’s the first step to winning our democracy? I guess it’s simply this: to stick two fingers right up at Margaret Thatcher and her ‘TINA’ (There is No Alternative) doctrine. There are infinite alternatives and the only limits to these alternatives are our collective imagination and determination. This involves recognising that the world runs the way it does for political, not natural, reasons and that we can change things, radically for the better. So many people already have begun!
So, on to tomorrow evening’s event and a chance, hopefully, to experience the raw excitement one feels when human beings come together to speak, to share, to act – to experience the thrill of real democracy.
Thanks for reading!
1This is a point highlighted by David Graeber.