The citizens of western democracies have a problem. We lack the powers necessary to shape our shared life. In my first three pieces for Al Jazeera this year I talked a little about three areas where this deficiency is most pressing. We don’t have sufficient control over the public subsidies for science and technology. We don’t have sufficient control over the institutions that create credit and therefore distribute demand in the economy. And we don’t have sufficient control over the communications system. This last problem is perhaps most serious. How can we begin to tackle other problems if we aren’t able to discuss them freely on the basis of accurate – or at least adequately contested – information?
The author of a major report on climate change, Nicholas Stern, recently said that the problem is much worse than he originally thought. Speaking at Davos, Stern said that “looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.” Yet debate remains muted. I am sure that the delegates at Davos made the right noises about the need to take Stern’s warnings seriously. But the media remain committed to an almost sedative approach to the issue. Serious discussion of the alternatives to climate change, and the implications for the existing structures of power, hardly ever trouble the viewing and listening public. It is as though we are being managed steadily towards a catastrophe.
New powers of oversight
Problems in the major media create a chain of corresponding problems throughout our shared life. We don’t know enough and we don’t understand what we do know. The financial sector remains a mystery. Science is dominated by the needs and preoccupations of the state and the corporation. For most of the time, this goes unremarked. There is no room for it in the endless procession of celebrity scandals and pseudo-events. When the ignorance of the public is noted, we are blamed for it. The purveyors of trivia have the nerve to complain that nobody cares about serious issues, even as they continue to treat those same issues with grotesque inadequacy. We are held responsible for the indifference that our accusers cause.
So it is clear that we need new powers of oversight and direction in the related fields of communication, subsidy and credit. But these powers will remain only theoretical as far as the majority are concerned if they are not accompanied by changes in the structure of work. At the moment, most of the population is either working or taking care of children and the rest of the household. The demands of the labour market – and the needs of the family – take up the great bulk of our energy and attention. While this remains the case, the formal addition of powers will make little difference to our ability to shape events. The exercise of power will remain in the hands of a relative handful.
“Organisations that extract wealth from their employees at the highest possible rate and hand as little as possible back to the communities in which they operate do not often inspire their workforces to greater feats of creative effort.“
Addressing this means changes in the workplace and beyond. Civic effort – the exercise of the new powers outlined above – is too important to be left to the voluntary impulse. Understanding our circumstances takes time, as does the work of changing them. And all this must be paid for. A citizen’s wage could be used to pay each adult for half a day’s work at, say, the median wage. In Britain this would amount to around £50 a week – entirely affordable once some tweaks are made to the tax regime, and useful given the current danger of debt deflation. Workers would be entitled to take time off from their jobs to work on civic matters, or they could choose to meet and deliberate in their own time. People would be free to pocket the money and do nothing. But I suspect that the great majority would take their responsibilities very seriously, once it was clear that they had the powers needed to fulfil them.
This civic work will only be possible in the context of more equitable – and therefore more efficient – employment in both the public and the private sector. Large numbers of citizens with the time to engage in matters of shared concern will want to work closely with civil servants at the local, regional and national level. There are great improvements to public services to be secured in this way. Parents at the moment have little opportunity to help out at their schools and to engage with plans for their areas. Central government and a few special interests engross the attention of local government. This need not be the case once the councils are reconfigured on more participatory lines and civil servants become accountable to the people they serve, rather than to their superiors in the hierarchy. We could tell a similar story about the institutions of national power.
The private economy too is long overdue for reform. We now know that high levels of general engagement in the governance of businesses improves productivity. This should come as no great surprise. Organisations that extract wealth from their employees at the highest possible rate and hand as little as possible back to the communities in which they operate do not often inspire their workforces to greater feats of creative effort. Why improve a business when the benefits accrue elsewhere? If we are serious about economic progress then we need to be serious about workplace democracy. There is some talk about co-determination. I would go further and argue for employee ownership and a much larger and more dynamic cooperative sector, encouraged where necessary by legislation. Again, changes to the tax regime could ensure that more businesses become the shared concerns of their workers.
Greater equality at work brings more than material benefits. Work is a kind of ongoing education. At the moment most of us learn every day that our opinions don’t matter and that we are fools if we do more than the – increasingly demanding – minimum required of us. We are exploited and our best hope of preferment lies in exploiting those around us to the satisfaction of those above us in the chain of command. So much of the modern economy is, from the perspective of the common good, demented, not least given the possibility of runaway climate change. But most of us are required to concentrate on the work we are given and are punished if we allow ourselves to consider the wider context. It is too much to expect that we can spend our working lives immersed in this swamp of self-interest and duplicity only to emerge as public-spirited and candid deliberators in our time off. Democracy in the office and the factory is a preparation for democracy in society at large.
We need new powers that reach far beyond the conventional repertoire of political rights. But we also need new economic arrangements if we are to make good use of these powers. And it is here that the cause of democracy overlaps with the cause of social movements dedicated to emancipation for marginalised and oppressed groups. For how else is equality to be established and maintained, if not through the operations of an equal citizenry?
So serious reform – reform that carries within it the seeds of further reform – works in at least two dimensions. We need new political powers to open up the closed circuits of publicity, credit, and world-changing knowledge. And we need new economic resources and conditions in order to ensure that we are all able to make good use of these new powers. Whatever you hope for, an invigorated public culture along these lines is probably a useful first step.
Dan Hind is the prize-winning author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. Last year he published two online essays, “Common Sense” and “Maximum Republic”.
Follow him on Twitter: @danhind