October 22, 2017

The illusion of power

The main argument against Britain’s membership of the EEC is that it must impinge on our national sovereignty. People seem alarmed that we should be run by Brussels rather than Westminster. But is this fear justified? I do not think it is. If one considers the very important changes that have occurred in this country over the last thirty years, one finds that none were brought about by conscious decisions made at Westminster. The operative factors were of a very different order. As [Karl] Polanyi showed in his key book The Great Transformation, once a society is caught up in the market system things cease to be done because they are desirable on biological, ecological, social, or purely aesthetic grounds, but because they are ‘economic’, in other words because they best satisfy the requirements of the market.

The form of our settlements, the shape of our houses, the type of food we eat, the clothes we wear, the work we do, indeed almost every aspect of our lives, have now come to be determined by market forces. If our cities have been transformed into urban waste lands, our countryside deprived of its trees and hedgerows, and if our food has become increasingly highly processed, more devitalised and more tasteless, this is largely the result of our frenzied efforts to satisfy the exigencies of this ever more exacting task master.

The second factor that has transformed this country is the technology that has been developed so as to further increase the throughput of goods and services via the market. Technology, contrary to what we are told, is not neutral. Once a new technological invention is commercialised it must affect our society regardless of decisions taken by politicians. For instance, few things have changed society more than the invention of the motor car. Our cities have been reshaped to accommodate it. So have our lifestyles. Increased mobility has had a dramatic effect on social relations, reducing the power of the family and of the community which once effectively controlled, as they must do, the behaviour of their members. Television has had a similar effect. While the automation of our manufacturing—and increasingly of our service industries—has not only transformed the working life of a vast sector of our society but has further transformed our social structure and our lifestyles. As Mathes and Gray pointed out in The Ecologist (May 1975) the engineer has a far greater influence in shaping society than does the politician.

A third factor has been our burgeoning bureaucracy. The expansion of the market system was found to create all sorts of serious problems. As Polanyi pointed out, it transformed a settled people into a nation of ‘shiftless migrants’. People were torn away from their families and communities so as best to fulfil their economic functions wherever they happened to be required. What is more, the material benefits they derived from the market failed to compensate for the social capital of which they were thereby deprived. To internalise these social costs there grew up a vast state bureaucracy whose function was precisely to solve the problems generated by the operation of the market. As the latter expanded so was it necessary for the former to do so as well. As Galtung points out, there is a perfect symbiosis between industry and bureaucracy. Industry creates the problems, bureaucracy tries to solve them. Industry would not be tolerated if there was not a bureaucracy to fulfil this function and there would be no bureaucrats if industry did not create the problems they are engaged to solve. Today perhaps half of our GNP is spent on supporting this bureaucracy. Its effect on society is devastating. Indeed what remains of our social fabric—that which survives the destructive impact on it of the market system and of modern technology—must inevitably succumb to the possibly even more disintegrating effects of an all-pervasive bureaucracy which, by usurping all those functions that should be fulfilled at a family, community and regional level, must inevitably assure the breakdown of these essential but now redundant units of social organisation.

Our politicians at Westminster have done nothing to reverse these obviously intolerable trends. On the contrary, in order to obtain electoral support, they have done everything to accommodate them. The principal role of the Westminster parliament has been, in fact, that of a catalyst for social disintegration. When the Westminster parliament does take action, it is usually but to mask the less tolerable symptoms of the disease whose spread it is doing its utmost to accelerate.

Thus in answer to rising inflation, successive governments have adopted no more daring a policy than to set up a Price Commission, which all thinking people must realise cannot in any way contribute towards reversing the trends that are causing prices to rise. At least Mrs. Thatcher’s government has had the honesty to abolish this particular form of humbug.

When, a decade ago, environmental degradation, resulting from the consequences of our economic and bureaucratic activities, became too apparent, our government responded by changing the name of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to that of the ‘Department of the Environment’, thereby hoodwinking the public into thinking that something was really being done to preserve what remained of our devastated countryside and of our mutilated cities, and to undertake positive measures to prevent the further contamination of our rivers, our estuaries, the food we eat and the air we breathe.

Overall effective action to reverse these trends has never been undertaken.

Today, of course, our society is at a crossroads. During the next decades our society will be changed out of recognition by forces of whose very existence the government at Westminster is only beginning to be aware, forces whose effect it must be to force us in the opposite direction to that in which we have been blown by previous winds of change.

Among other things, we are now having to contest economically with an increasingly industrialised world. We know that an industrial society can survive in a non-industrial world from which it can obtain its resources and to which it can sell its manufactured goods, but there is no precedent whatsoever for an industrial society surviving in an industrialised world in which every country requires the resources it produces for its own industrial development, and is increasingly capable of producing itself those manufactured goods that Britain once provided. The problem is exacerbated by our growing inability to compete with these new industrial countries, probably because we were the first to enter the industrial game and are now bored with it. Also just as private industry generates a new set of values and social attitudes so does bureaucracy, and those that the latter generates have had time in this country to permeate all sectors of society with a disastrous effect on the spirit of enterprise required to maximise commercial competitiveness. Against these factors, the Westminster parliament has attempted to do little. On the contrary, it has proved politically expedient to encourage them and so further reduce the competitiveness of our industrial enterprises.

But even if we were as competitive as Taiwan or South Korea, this would probably have little effect in shaping our society in the next decades. The real forces from now onwards will be the growing energy and resource shortages that our wasteful industrial system has given rise to and the present translation of biological, social and ecological costs, incurred as a result of our industrial activities, into economic costs that we must find ever less possible to meet.

Our choice today, as we pointed out in our ‘Blueprint for Survival’ seven and a half years ago, is either to reduce the impact of our destructive activities on the natural systems that make up the biosphere, thereby reducing at the same time our dependence on energy and resources that cannot possibly be available i.e. bow to the forces that we cannot control; or to continue pretending that they are not operative or, more naively still, that we can control them, and thereby ‘delegate to disaster’.

If we are to adopt the first course, then it is more likely than not to be as a result of political and economic pressures exerted on us from outside this country. In this way the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forced the last Labour government to cut down on the increasing government expenditure required to finance our growing state bureaucracy. In the same way too the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is now forcing the present government to reduce our oil consumption and hence the scale of our economic activities. Perhaps the European Parliament at Strasbourg might influence us to adopt other policies that would help adapt us to world realities. On the other hand, if it is left to Westminster, we can predict, on the basis of past experience, that political expediency will remain the determining factor, and so as best to serve it, we must continue to move as we are at present, in the direction of economic and social catastrophe.


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