Brexit to nowhere? Finding hope in convivial institutions

People want control of their lives back. Given the right institutions to work with, they can care for each other and so begin to heal a divided nation.

Jacob Stringer
10 July 2016

Colin Ward: one of the quiet people who just got on with it. Some rights reserved.It appears that many people in the UK, some of them left-inclined, joined a right-driven rush to exit the EU, because they feel abandoned by the institutions that rule us.

Leave voters have reacted to this with clear anti-establishment sentiment; it is even visible in claims that we simply need ‘a change’. Voters’ services had been cut, their industries destroyed, their welfare undermined, their jobs eradicated. Many parts of the UK, and some economic classes even in wealthier parts, have felt this as a decline in their standard of living for decades, accelerated in recent years by the financial crisis and Tory cuts.

I don’t wish to downplay the racism of many who voted; it undoubtedly exists. The UK’s historical contempt for the foreigner is still with us, and has violent inclinations behind it. But we should also talk about the contempt the UK’s elite feel for ordinary people, and the fact that this has been noticed by the subjects of the contempt.

The paradox here is that those abandoned by the state appear to have voted to give the state exclusive control over their lives. I voted Remain and have struggled with the logic of this ever since the vote. Do people think an independent UK will give them more jobs? In what way can the state be ‘punished’ into behaving by giving it greater power? Yet when Leave voters feel they have given ‘one in the eye’ to the establishment, it seems that this is what they have tried to do. Only one line of thought now makes sense to me: that the same people, given the chance, would have wanted to attack all the institutions of the state, so badly have they been failed. The EU was the only ruling institution they were given the chance to attack, so they did it. No one gave us a vote on current UK state institutions. After the EU referendum, no-one would dare.

The Scots did get something of a vote on current institutions. Some independence campaigners repeatedly referred to the ‘Westmidden’ government. Many Scots voted to get rid of the heap of ordure, and that’s why the vote was too close for Cameron’s comfort. I too would have voted to be rid of Westminster given the chance. It is toxic, a historically and currently polluted and polluting institution with only a single redeeming feature that its defenders still like to boast about: that it stands between us and absolute monarchy. That’s not good enough, not by a long way.

The Westminster parliament was not set up for the benefit of the British people. It is easy to get the impression from establishment histories that it was, but this is a lie. It was set up and grew in strength as a negotiation chamber between different sections of the ruling class. Its strength has been in helping the moneyed classes to work together to increase their wealth and power. It was an institution designed to dominate the land for the benefit of a few, and its stability once it had cowed the monarch enabled it to go on to dominate other lands, first Ireland, then the rest of the world. It is one of the most enduring propagators of violence and racist wars in the history of the planet, and it still maintains this function.

Dominating others

It is the success of the campaign for universal suffrage and the temporary success of the labour movement that has made parliament seem a softer institution than it has been historically. Universal suffrage was offered to the ordinary people after many decades of campaigning. It was a victory for the people, but it was also a compromise deal, in which the ruling class felt sure – and history has proved them right – that parliament would still be theirs. Note the one Chartist demand never conceded: annual parliaments. It would have prevented the dishonest campaign followed by years of rulers doing as they wished, even if it might have reduced the stability of parliament. Universal suffrage has, sadly, not changed the fundamental nature and purpose of the Westminster parliament, which is to dominate others.

To understand both the success and failure of the labour movement, it may help to look at the distinction made by Ivan Illich between convivial or people-driven institutions and manipulative or top-down institutions. In Illich’s schema, the former encourages positive human relationships, the latter encourages consumption. As a genuine grassroots movement the trade unions, based in workplace solidarity, were originally convivial institutions. But the Labour Party quickly became a compromise between this base and a paternalistic section of the movement as represented by the Fabian Society. Once in power, with a privileged layer of professionals now in charge of most unions, it was the paternalism that came to the fore. Top-down institutions were created to alleviate poverty, turning the poor into consumers of services. This was the case with the welfare institutions and the health service, pushing out mutual aid societies – the strengthening of which Colin Ward called ‘The path not taken’, and which is still sadly untried. It was the case with school education, so often consumed but so seldom loved. It was the case in the mass-production of council housing, often lauded as one of the great successes of the paternalistic approach.

More top-down?

The welfare state prevented all notion of community control, and council housing prevented all notion of control over housing, except for a brief period when co-operative social housing was in vogue. That the poorer sections of society have not rushed to the defence of these institutions in the face of recent attacks should not surprise us. Of the great socialist-inspired institutions, perhaps only the NHS is truly loved. Even a top-down institution can be popular when it really does what people need. But witness the wrath, even hatred, when it fails to provide. This disgust at its occasional failures, such as those at Mid Staffs hospital, is now being harnessed by the Tories to help them dismantle it.

One problem with top-down, paternalist institutions – and the Labour Party have yet to realise this – is that people cannot care for each other through them, they can only passively consume services, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ through the everyday operation of the institution. The other problem is that a top-down institution can be switched off from the top, in the way a convivial institution cannot be. No genuine housing co-operative I am aware of has been ‘re-developed’ in order to raise quick cash. People will not undermine their own communities in that way. Top-down local authorities and central governments do it constantly.

The growing hatred of the British public for the institutions of the state, expressed through the Brexit vote, stems in part from the fact that the institutions are utterly beyond the control of ordinary people, they are manipulative, they give with one hand and take with the other, they abandon people on a whim. Given the option to vote to get rid of one set of these manipulative and uncaring institutions, many frustrated people voted out. Unfortunately the most dominant set of institutions in people’s lives remains, and may even be strengthened. Westminster still rules.

Labour errors

As a union member I chose to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, and have been depressed by his parliamentary party’s attacks on him. But the truth is I have been deeply unexcited by what I know of his program so far. While the re-democratisation of the Labour Party seemed a worthwhile goal, it still seems beyond anyone’s reach. In the meantime he proposes policies we have seen before, new council housing or the end of welfare sanctions, renewing manipulative institutions that nobody will love, for who can love that which controls them? I have been hoping that he would do something genuinely radical: propose new governing and public service institutions that could be more under people’s control. Some hints of this emerged during his leadership campaign, his manifestos discussing more democratic rail ownership and community energy production rather than simply re-nationalisation, but since then the discusssion has been drowned out. This is sad, because it means that Jeremy Corbyn appears committed to Labour’s previous errors and will probably lose elections because of it. It also means that nothing good can come of Brexit, and that the anger of ordinary people will increase. The racism traditionally showcased by parliament when it bombs people it does not care about will ride out on the back of this anger.

What the Leave vote shows is that people are sick of our current institutions. They are sick of being controlled and manipulated. They want institutions that care about them. Any institutions that ignore, or even capable of ignoring them, will be hacked at and reviled. The right wing, if they are allowed, will take advantage of this to drive forward further neo-liberalisation, further rolling back of the state. But that is one of the factors that led to this economic and socially divided country. The right will also continue to blame immigrants for problems they themselves have created. The current institutions allow them to do this.

Caring relationships

I believe people would respond positively to institutions they can control, that can be a channel for caring relationships, that can reflect their desires, institutions in common. Localised and cooperative public services, properly funded, are a way to move towards this, with massively improved local democracy and local economic control through regional development banks and credit cooperatives. The powers of Westminster should be dramatically weakened in favour of devolution and held in check by greater democracy. Ideas promoted by Common Weal in Scotland and Democracy Collaborative in the US can be developed further, as can ideas lying around such as Dan Hind’s proposal to democratise the BBC. If the Labour Party can offer a way forward like this, under our control, I think it can triumph against all the right wing and media attacks. If it does not, it will probably be shown the door, just as the EU has been.

The Brexiters have spoken, and even if I did not agree with their manner of expressing it, or with the poison of much of the official campaign, a lot of what they said is worth listening to. It is true they have been failed by the state, including those institutions set up by the socialism-inclined. Both parties and grassroots campaigners need to recognise this and step forward to propose alternatives. People want control of their lives back. Given the right institutions to work with, they can care for each other and so begin to heal a divided nation.

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