Let’s set democracy free – to change us

by | 8 Apr 2024

It seems like every message in our society is there to turn us into a pliant consumer. What if we used our democracy to change the story we're telling ourselves?

First published by Common Weal

I was almost an engineer. My dad was an engineer and I was brought up with the importance of having a bit of an engineering brain drilled into me. It was only in my last year at high school, just before submitting my UCAS form, that I switched from electronic engineering to humanities.

What this has not done is change my view one bit of the merits of an engineering brain. Whenever I come across a problem I still go through the steps my dad encouraged me to take (start at the beginning, look at the first component…). In fact I do hope you can see this in my approach to political analysis as well.

Thus it was that I was the happiest dad on the evening of Easter Sunday, not just because we had a lovely trip over to Douglas (and what a sausage roll!) but because when we got home we watched The Martian. It is a film I love; no baddies, no-one gets punched, everything is solved by science. And my kids loved it too.

“I’m taking physics and chemistry” said my newly-eleven-year-old. My 15-year-old is taking Biology and thinking about crashing a higher in chemistry. She’s thinking about it more now. A genuine thanks for that, Matt Damon.

There is a reason I raise this. In the battle for our minds, the wrong people are winning. The right wants to increase your level of hate. The liberals want to get you to resign yourself to the current state of affairs give or take a little tweak. They are united in their belief that consumption and fast profit are your primary goal in life.

This is because the right actually believes in this anarchic world where the powerful are unconstrained and the liberals are bought and paid for. This is the reality; one lot wants to drill all the oil available out of a kind of contempt, the other because the oil companies bankroll them.

So they are both wedded to the ‘bigger, faster’ model of the world, and neither of them wants to challenge vested interests, so the rest of us are basically collateral damage. They backfill their morality elsewhere, the right with populism, the liberals with identity politics. Both succeed in creating a morality that exempts (or actually benefits) the powerful.

For most of the 20th century there was a political battle for our minds. Both sides wanted to change us as people, to shape how we saw the world. By the end of the century politics had converged on a different ideal – it wasn’t politics or democracy that should shape humanity, it was commerce.

You see, one way or the other we’re all socially engineered. I know this term is the absolute pinnacle of anti-left tabloid vocabulary from the 1980s, but it isn’t an unfair description. The question isn’t whether it is good or bad because it is ever-present, the question is who is doing it and to what end?

Laws are social engineering (think of blasphemy laws and work backwards), physical infrastructure is social engineering (think either of the civic public space of the Victorian era or the property boom of the post-Thatcher years), education is social engineering. Thatcher was honest about it – she said, openly, that economics was a means to change people.

What we don’t accept enough is how much she won, overwhelmingly so. She changed us all. Her era left us persuaded that it is morally indefensible for politics to interfere with our belief system but that commercial companies doing it is wonderful. We absorb this, and assume that it is OK for big business to mould us in their image, but not democracy.

It always strikes me as significant that I can’t think of a single politicians in the UK who has ever said ‘stop shopping people and go out and be with each other, get exercise, do interesting things’

So in reality this is almost certainly the most socially-engineered society in history. It might not look like it because that social engineering has massively fragmented, but if you think about how many voices in the 1400s or the 1950s were telling you what god wanted you to do and how many voices there are now telling you what to buy, how to dress, where to go, what to value, how to be happy, who to hate, what to believe in, you’ll get the idea.

Social engineering is carried out by the most powerful in our society, and the most powerful in our society are no longer driven by any sense of underlying morality. Say what you want about some mad Minister from the Wee Free church hollering at people for dancing on a Sunday, he actually believed he was fighting for a moral cause.

Our leading social engineers now behave like sociopaths. They do not care at all about morality, they care about what they can take from you. In the end that is the dominant view of our age – neoliberal capitalism, a philosophy which states that the ability to take away the most possible of your money is the best possible thing for you.

Now let me give you an ‘insider tip that they don’t want you to know about which will change your life in only three minutes’; someone taking all your money away isn’t actually good for you in any way at all. But the ideology states otherwise, and all aspects of our society are bought in.

Commerce, politics and the media merge into a seamless system of social engineering. It always strikes me as significant that I can’t think of a single politicians in the UK who has ever said ‘stop shopping people and go out and be with each other, get exercise, do interesting things – you don’t need to spend money’. That is arguably as controversial a viewpoint as there is in UK politics.

And now the ability to socially engineer has been kind of democratised, and not necessarily for the better. It is a world of weirdness to me that (for example) some people online seem actively determined to persuade other people that they are suffering acute mental health problems. One of the strange features of hyper-liberal-individualism is a weird desire to justify your own being by seeking to make others be more like you.

There are times that it seems like no-one isn’t telling you to do something that, one way or the other, they see as being in their own interests. Of course, almost all of the things I’ve described above are hellishly bad for people’s mental health.

And the consequences go well beyond that. In any given ideology there is a hierarchy of some sort and you inevitably make heroes of those at the top of hierarchies as you evangelise that ideology. The social media influencer is the crossing point of all of this. They are making fast cash (the goal of neoliberalism) by socially engineering other people like them on behalf of extremely powerful corporations. The number of schoolchildren who want to be ‘influencers’ would make you cry.

What if democracy was seen as a process where the punters could elect people with the power and clout to balance and control the overwhelming influence of the rich and powerful – instead of enacting their will for them?

Which brings me back to Matt Damon and his shitey potatoes. When we finished the film my son ran upstairs and started experimenting with growing a potato. He did this with the energy and gusto he usually reserves for playing out the most recent fight between Iron Man and Thanos. It lifted my heart. I realised how few films we’d seen weren’t resolved through violence or greed.

So what if we as a society decide that punching, self harm, fetishising poor mental health, having all your money taken away from you and trying to make fast cash by conning other gullible people over diet pills are actually utterly awful ways to go about living your life? I mean, they’re all actively bad for you and others.

What if ‘go on, you’re worth it’ meant not ‘so eat this sugary shit’ but ‘so look after yourself, eat well and enjoy time with your family’? What if encouraging a rash purchase someone doesn’t need is considered a really crappy thing to do to them? What if we looked at an engineer repairing a bridge we need to get to work and thought ‘brilliant – what a hero’?

Or, to put it more simply, what if democracy was seen as a process where the punters could elect people with the power and clout to balance and control the overwhelming influence of the rich and powerful – instead of enacting their will for them?

If my kids can watch one film that bucks the trend of what every other film has taught them and get excited about making water from rocket fuel, what could we do if we redirected our society away from the dead end in which it finds itself and reminded itself that there is more to life than sugar and self-regard? What if politics was about creating an environment in which kids weren’t suffering the biggest drop in mental health in recorded history?

It’s a lovely thought, but we don’t have that politics. I have become increasingly and unapologetically convinced that it is time for a debate about how politics should shape us as people. I don’t mean identity politics, which is about something else altogether. I am thinking about a wider debate on public morality and what we value in our society. 

Because we’re clearly not getting it right. We leave it to the rich as if they know better, but they simply don’t. After 50 years of leaving it to them, is this a better world? Really? What if we had the courage to ask what we want to be as a society and who we want to be as members of that society? And what if what we want had some actual sway and weight? That’s not where we are.

So for now I’ll keep an eye on my sons’ tattie in the hope that that two hour film might actually germinate something of value. I am left simply to imagine what it would be like if one film in which our hero thinks his way out of trouble gently and without anger wasn’t such an exception to every other lesson our society teaches us. Because this society is proving to be a terrible teacher.

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