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This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, May 14, 2021

Those Clever Romans – the tactical Playbook of the Corporate Elites

That’s half a dozen posts I’ve done in a row on the apparent increased divisiveness in our societies – without any real attempt at either explanation or prescription. Indeed the blog’s focus on political frustration can be traced back to the first mention of the pending election in Bulgaria at the beginning of April. The posts since then have argued that -

- few (if any) societies can any longer claim to be democratic

- we need, very loudly, to be exposing such claims to be the falsehoods they are

- a better vision of democracy needs to be articulated

- pressure groups should coalesce around the demand for citizen juries – initially at a municipal level to demonstrate their benefits

- political parties no longer serve any useful purpose

- we should be insisting that governments start focusing on the big issues - which governments currently seem incapable of even attempting to deal with

- using citizen juries

- governments, in other words, should govern

So let me try to pull the posts together by questioning the way the media has placed the issue of political polarisation on the agenda. It’s clear that social media have increased the rancour of the tone of conversations - - certainly since Twitter started in 2006.

But can we really blame the social media for the strong and sustained political divisions? The fact that 70% of US Republican party members still cannot accept the validity of Jo Biden’s victory in the 2020 Presidential elections certainly indicates not just a very significant shift in the US political mood but a major question about the resilience and legitimacy of that country’s basic political system. This may or may not be part of “American exceptionalism” but is certainly very serious.

But the wider populist backlash against elite rule is part of something much deeper – and was there for anyone with any sensitivity to see some 20 years ago. I don’t profess to have any particular skills of foresight but in 2001 I drafted a short note which forms the first seven pages of this longer paper (written a decade later). I summarised the basic message at the time thus

·       The “mixed economy” which existed from 1950-1980 was an effective system for the West.

·       It worked because power was diffused. Each type of power – economic (companies/banks etc), political (citizens and workers) and legal/admin/military (the state) – balanced the other. None was dominant.

·       deindustrialisation has, however, now undermined the power which working class people were able to exercise in that period through votes and unions

·       a thought system has developed which justifies corporate greed and the privileging (through tax breaks and favourable legislation) of the large international company

·       All political parties and most media have been captured by that thought system which now rules the world

·       People have, as a result, become cynical and apathetic

·       Privatisation is a disaster – inflicting costs on the public and transferring wealth to the few

·       Two elements of the “balanced system” (Political and legal power) are now supine before the third (corporate and media power). The balance is broken and the dominant power ruthless in its exploitation of its new freedom

·       It is very difficult to see a “countervailing power” which would make these corporate elites pull back from the disasters they are inflicting on us

·       Social protest is marginalized - not least by the combination of the media and an Orwellian “security state” ready to act against “dissidence”

·       But the beliefs which lie at the dark heart of the neo-liberal project need more detailed exposure

·       as well as its continued efforts to undermine what little is left of state power

·       We need to be willing to express more vehemently the arguments against privatisation - existing and proposed

·       to feel less ashamed about arguing for “the commons” and for things like cooperatives and social enterprise (inasmuch as such endeavours are allowed) 

But the elite - and the media which services their interests - noticed something was wrong only when Brexit and Trump triumphed – 5 years ago. But that was simply the point at which the dam broke – the pressure had been building up for much longer.

If we really want to understand what is going on we have to go much further back – not just 20 years but probably at least 50 years – as Anthony Barnett, for one, most recently argued in his extended essay “Out of the Belly of Hell” (2020)

The demos have been giving the Elites a clear warning – “your social model sucks”. Some may not like some aspects of what the crowd is saying – for example the border restrictions….but we ignore its message at our peril. So far I don’t see a very credible Elite response. Indeed, the response so far reminds me of nothing less than that of the clever Romans who gave the world Bread and Circuses. Governments throughout the world have a common way of dealing with a problem – which runs like this –

-       Deny the problem

-       Rubbish the critics

-       Blame the victim

-       Marginalise the issue – concede a little by suggesting that the problem was caused by “just a few bad pennies”

-       set up an Inquiry

-       But ensure (by its composition and direction) that it goes nowhere

-       Compartmentalise the responsibility – to confuse

-       Sacrifice a few lambs

-       Bring on the games and spectacle

-       clowns and jesters

-       Feed the dogs with scraps

-       Starve any programme conceded of serious funds

-       Take the credit for any eventual concession that there was indeed a problem

Suggested Background Reading

We are so  swamped with books these days that someone like me can offer only what catches his eye. But the OECD, Lakoff and Tarrow are significant sources which should be taken seriously!

Catching the Deliberative Wave (OECD 2020) Executive summary of recent important book Innovate Citizen Participation and new democratic institutions - catching the Deliberative Wave which tries to help the global elite make sense of the latest challenge to their rule

Macron’s Grand Debat; useful article about the French approach

citizen jury experience (2016) german; rather academic

Creating Freedom – the lottery of birth, the illusion of consent, the fight for freedom Raoul Martinez (2016) Fascinating book which starts from the proposition that the current failure of our social systems must lead us to question our foundational beliefs

Can Democracy be Saved?  - participation, deliberation and social movements; Donatella Della Porta (2013)  Too much of the discussion on democracy is conducted by anglo-saxon political scientists. Here an Italian sociologist makes the connection to the social movement literature

The New Machiavelli – how to wield power in the modern world ; Jonathan Powell (2011) Tony Bliar’s Chief of Staff does some musing about the government class thinking

Moral politics – how conservatives and liberals think; George Lakoff (1996) an important psychologist sets out our tribal thinking

Power in movement – social movement and contentious politics; Sydney Tarrow (2011 edition – first in 1994) one of the key writers in this field

Metaphors we live By  George Lakoff (1980) our very words betray us

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