The profound damage inflicted by corporate politics on British society’s well-being needs to be thoroughly understood if politics of change are to succeed, writes RABBIL SIKDAR
During the morning rush hour in London, bleak and cold and grey, everyone rushes without a second’s thought for anything else other than the job they are enslaved to. There is a competition for space on the trains so no-one misses work they can’t afford to miss. No-one spares a second’s thought for the other person. The Tube during the morning rush hour is a metaphor for dog-eat-dog individualism.
Above the streaming masses of people absorbed in their work, the shadow of skyscrapers loom over people. Locked away in the high rooms are the kind of people insulated from the grey rain, inequality and poverty that envelops millions of ordinary people.
What does politics mean for these people? It’s plausible to imagine very little. Politics is spoken in a different language today, swayed by the lure of corporate ambitions and grounded in fear by that too.
As politics has droned an endlessly in the last few years with parties swapping sides in the House of Commons but the politics remaining the same, there is little to spark even the smallest grain of hope in people. When politics comes on, channels might be switched to watch something else.
For that much we can thank New Labour. A genuine democracy requires a powerful and ideologically clear opposition to a capitalist government but that was never provided by Blair. Abdication to the market left little between them and the Tories for many people.
Watching Labour become toxically close to the super-rich gnawed at people’s insides. Democracy before meant a symbiotic relationship between people and politics — they fed off each other. The public gave the votes and in return the parties delivered the policies.
People changed politics by creating the Labour Party, the political wing of the labour movement and working interests. But when Labour decided to abandon the working-class and fully accept the underlying principles of Thatcherism, who was left speaking for the working class? And whatever the right wing says working-class politics is the basis of economic security for people. It puts investment in education, healthcare, homes and jobs instead of simply seeking to widen opportunity for the few and then desert the rest.
Apathy does nothing for democracy but everything for corporate power. The hold businesses have over society has infused the collective psyche of Britain with a weariness of political discussions, a reluctance to engage as there is little distinction between politicians.
Polished and smart, rehearsed lines, dodging questions like a bullet, democracy itself feels on the edge. Politicians hide behind a wall of vague answers and outright lies. Insulting each other for cheap political point-scoring seems to invigorate them.
But for the public it has the dulling effect on the desperate hope that something might change if they put their faith in someone. Apathy is corrosive, silently crushing forms of expression from people. Politics doesn’t address their problems anymore.
When the EU negotiates its trade pacts or when Britain signs deals with China, it means little for the ordinary family on the minimum wage or unable to get onto the housing ladder. Who speaks about low wages or the lack of affordable homes? Who understands the difficulty of paying energy bills or mortgages?
Tempting though as it is to imagine that wide inequality naturally suggests a more progressive society, it does not always fall that way. Xenophobia has risen steeply in the last few years, driven by austerity politics that have diminished people’s financial security and lowered their prospects dramatically.
Each generation is now getting poorer. Pensions are being shredded, aspiration hit with a tax in the form of tuition fees, poverty wages subsidised by in-work benefits and little done about sky-high energy bills.
At the same time, handshakes between corporate executives and politicians simply fuel the sense that democracy has slipped away from the hands of the British people, stashed now in bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. It’s untouchable and looking up at those skyscraper towers on cold grey mornings, it’s tempting to conclude that that is how most of us feel about injustice.
People cannot focus what anger they do have on politicians or bankers. But they can focus it on neighbours. Divide and rule worked for colonialism and it works for neoliberalism. Taking money from those at the bottom and transferring it to those at the top has functioned on the grounds that the poor are lazy and reckless.
Those on the left often focus on the more optimistic side of human nature — compassionate, generous, remorseful and kind. But fear and the individualistic sense for survival that it prompts lurks too. Apathy creates individualism. If people feel politics cannot serve them and they live in a time of extreme insecurity, they are likely to live for themselves and those they care about. The pull of a community lessens.
It’s something of a huge cultural shift in Britain after the collective mentality of the industrial ways has given way to a new self-orientated society.
Where the industries existed, communities worked together and built an identity. There was a sense of neighbourliness to it that isn’t there today. Instead today people barely know who their neighbours are. It’s embodied in the shift from industrialisation to the service sector where workers are treated like hens in a battery farm, sometimes isolated from other workers.
Defeating this self-orientated apathy cannot simply come from talking to a room of the converted, nor will it come from tearing Tories apart on Twitter. This isn’t just political. It’s psychological.
Convincing people that higher taxes, higher spending and opening up the borders is a good economic plan will be difficult. It might yet prove impossible.
When people say that the conditions of the 1980s are not present today they often overlook that the collective psyche of society has changed drastically too.