Time to sideline government and just build the new society

We have more power than we think - but we're held back by our obsession with the State.

Duncan Thorp
13 July 2015
Anti-austerity march

Like it or not, this government is not going away. Flickr/Rowan Gillette-Fussell. Some rights reserved.

Protest is a good thing. People making their voices freely heard on our streets, out in the open, is vital, as we seek to build real democracy and popular empowerment across Scotland and Britain.

With this in mind should we then welcome an apparent upsurge in political activism and the revival of protest? A Scotland reinvigorated by the independence referendum and people across the UK more engaged and angry against Tory austerity and reactionary politics?

Well, yes and no. Yes because the issues are vitally important but no because none of this protest will solve anything. The brutal elephant in the room is that the British Conservative Government will continue for at least 5 years (and probably longer), it will likely not be brought down, it will not concede and it will not go away. Conservative policies implemented in full. Stronger than ever. Guaranteed, whether you like it or not.

The broad anti-austerity movements, the trade unions and others, are prime examples of this anti-conservative sentiment. But it’s a seemingly growing protest movement that will change close to zero on austerity, privatisation and cuts. Yes, expressing opposition is important but what of the actual practical outcome of all this? You guessed it: austerity, privatisation and cuts.

Confused about the State

Here lies the core problem. Progressive people are absolutely obsessed with The Government and the processes of The State. The State is often seen as the enemy while paradoxically there’s a desire to empower this rigid, highly centralised institution to deliver health, water, railways etc. There’s a mythical “one day we’ll seize The State and then...” mentality. But that day may never come. Despair and hopelessness when The Government is the wrong one is fed by this Statist obsession. The opposition is not articulating clear, viable alternatives. A position of “no change” is not an alternative. It’s kind of getting boring.

But there is another way. In fact there are many ways to bypass government, ignore it, mitigate it, sideline it – and more importantly build the alternative right now. We don’t need to wait for revolution day. We can simply go ahead and build a new, better, highly localised society of inclusion, co-operation, autonomy, sustainable living and equality, in fact unrestrained by government interference. 

Sounds too good to be true? Not at all. Let’s pretend (in a sense) that The Government doesn’t exist. Let’s start with your money. How many people who complain about big banks, corruption and banking scandals still use them? There are now countless alternatives across the UK, from Triodos Bank and Ecology Building Society to your local, professional credit unionsPensions can be switched to ethical alternatives too. Invest in local Community Shares schemes or set one up and get involved in social investment

Contact banks and investors and tell them you want ethical products (or set up your own), consistently lobby your elected representatives that they need to do more to change our monetary and financial system in the interests of people and planet. How many people actually try and convince their friends, family and colleague to switch banks? Imagine a society where most people switch to the ever-growing alternatives. Dodgy banks would simply wither away. Divest your money now. Give money to charities too. No government need be involved with much of this.

Our power

Related to this is consumer power when it comes to goods and services. Where do you shop? We shut down dodgy corporations not just with protest but by not using them. There are countless ethical shopping choices in the UK and beyond. Don’t mindlessly buy the latest product for the sake of it; reject consumerism, materialism and corporations. But when you do shop then choose ethical, local, organicFairtradeFair taxsocial enterprisescommunity-owned businesses and co-operatives, like Dig-In Bruntsfield and Social Bite in Edinburgh. Don’t want to feed shareholder profits? Then use Suma and Scotmid. Need a new mobile phone? Buy the ethical FairphoneClothesCleaning? Compare everything using Ethical Consumer Magazine. Help others do it too – particularly those who can’t afford some of the alternatives.

These consumer choices on a mass scale are essential. Consumers build or destroy markets. But in case you’re thinking that’s not enough this is only one part of the jigsaw to build a new, sustainable and fair society today and to end our addiction to The Government. We can also choose to build resilience, shared economies and new, local communities at a neighbourhood level.

Local, community-owned Development Trusts and community owned businesses are powerful examples, operating successfully across the UK. Like Fintry Development Trust and the community-owned Isle of Gigha, alongside many others.

Co-operative and community ownership of food (more), landenergy and housing, in particular, is increasing. There are long established, world-leading examples like the impressive Mondragon Corporation, a huge worker co-operative in Spain. We can live in and set up housing associations and housing co-operatives, like the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative or in bigger, national providers like Link Housing Ltd

These are all practical, successful examples of autonomous organisations that exist in the real world. They are largely free of State interference. But we need to think radically about such things as welfare too. We need to rediscover mutual aid. What does “social security” really mean? We know welfare cuts are hurting people who are often least able to defend themselves from government bullying. But apart from protesting with the latest “anti” or “no” campaign, what are we doing for our own neighbours? We need neighbourhood welfare and community healthcare, based on prevention and intervention. We need to start caring for the people who live in and near where we live. A local welfare fund could be set up by those who can afford it, helping those on low incomes reduce reliance on The State, linking this in with local health and well-being projects. Funding is available for local empowerment projects from many sources.

But what about national public services, things that perhaps need to exist on a bigger scale, like railways or police? How do we democratise (and also localise) these and take them away from top-down government control?

In policing we need local, we need face-to-face and we need accountable. Neighbourhood police officers should be elected by the communities they serve, with a dedicated officer for every broad neighbourhood. We need to get rid of centralisation in all public services. Partnership working between the public and social sectors is part of the solution.

There’s a persistent issue with how progressive people define so-called “public” ownership. For example, when campaigning for the railways to be brought back into “public hands”, what we’re effectively saying is that State officials based in an office in London and the UK Government are best placed to run trains. Simply because they won’t be trying to make profits. Seriously? Is that really a better way to deliver good public transport and investment? Even taking into account under-investment, the old top-down, centralised British Rail was not a golden era.

Empowering the “public”

What we know as “public” ownership (or nationalisation) is not public ownership at all, it’s State ownership. One of the reasons it’s so easy for governments to privatise is because, we, the public, have no voice and no control of so-called “publically-owned” services. We feel no sense of ownership at all. There were no mass street protests to save the Royal Mail because we didn’t own it in the first place. “Our NHS” is no such thing, now or in the past. 

We need more intrepreneurs in the public sector. Clinging on to public services as rigid, unchanging entities, is not an option. Far better to have a fully integrated railway enterprise, run as an authentic worker co-operative, with no shareholders. It could be open to (non-political) public elections for key positions. We, the public, could have a genuine voice in running the railways, with local, empowered committees, people being selected random “Jury Service” style to make big decisions. And no this wouldn’t mean bureaucracy, it would mean streamlined, informed decisions, with fewer mistakes and wasted taxpayers’ money. All this outside of direct government control.

The alternatives to State ownership are already happening – but not in a good way. Remote, unaccountable and unresponsive corporations, that legally exist to deliver maximum shareholder profit, are the reality. This is privatisation by the front door, it is socialism for big business – driven hard by political-economic interests at the top. The response, so far, seems to be weak, incoherent and status quo-supporting protest. It’s not working.

Underpinning all this is the key messages – both what we communicate and how we communicate it effectively to mass audiences. Be aware of information sources and lobbying interests in the mainstream media. Cheap, sustainable and accessible technology is essential. Democratic, balanced and accountable media must be at the very foundation. Scotland has a new, energised and emerging grassroots media, much (but not all) of this is related to the 2014 independence referendum. Common SpaceThe FerretNews Scotland and others, and of course mass access to social, user-led media, are exciting. Information is flowing so support alternative media. (Don’t forget to use the charitable Firefox (from Mozilla) as your web browser and Startpage as your private search engine, rather than a corporate surveillance engine).

All these good, positive developments are happening across Scotland, the UK and abroad. They succeed and they work. We just need to raise their profile, focus our attention on building them, developing them right now and helping others understand the benefits for all of us. Our guiding principles should be positive, empowering, highly localised, inclusive, healthy, green and sustainable, with a reconnection with the natural world.

The State is paternalistic, by its very nature authoritarian, you could say the ultimate patriarchy. We should stop looking upwards to it in order to find some weird salvation, like it’s a secular god. The State and The Government are part of the problem – they’re not where the solutions will be found.

New strategies

We need new ways forward instead of a core strategy summarised as “No”. A new society won’t be born with opposition alone (and a resulting vacuum when the old order falls). Let’s drop the sectarian labels while we’re at it. Left wing and right wing are about which side of a chair people sat on in 18th century France. It’s not progressive to bring everything back to meaningless labels; we can do better than that in 2015.

Don’t just choose the negative “anti” campaigns. Work now to improve things, whether it’s making equality and human rights a reality for everyone, taking part in co-operative, social enterprise development, localised welfare innovation or sustainable technology solutions or early interventions to help the most vulnerable (more accurately known as resilient people).

There are many autonomous organisations and resources that are part of the bigger picture to improve society. Join, create, donate, build, support, campaign, spread the news online, at meetings, at events and to people from all walks of life. Don’t wait around for The Government, it’s time to do it for ourselves.


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