June 18, 2010

I Said What?

Something I was going to put in my giant portfolio but didn't. Thank Christ. Do I sound like a cock much?

Cameron’s DIY Politics

In a reversal of the Scooby-doo society, where well-meaning adolescents interfere in the lives of corrupt adults to save the day before bedtime, David Cameron wants to foster a DIY politics, without those meddling kids – the bureaucrats. Of course, without those meddlesome teenagers, the ‘criminals’ they catch – more commonly known as the electorate – would instead elect to set up Academy schools, lobby local police forces, and volunteer in the community. Or, this is the Conservative ending to the story. In actual fact – shh, don’t say this too loud – we’re already doing politics for ourselves. Every economic decision we take – which eggs to eat, which hoody to wear, which job to work – is a political action, whether we like it or not.

Come May 7th, a Tory government would cut the swathes of red tape which discourage – or actively prevent – puppy power, with a shiny blue axe, to release the inner political animal in all of us. Paperwork, however, is not the only barrier to entry; citizens running their own lives presupposes a living wage and sufficient time off work and, as the Tory emphasis has been on tearing down obstacles rather than giving people the material means to help themselves, perhaps the Big Society is a pretty way of saying ‘we have no money – good luck if you do’. One positive measure is the promise to provide local infrastructure to liaise between social enterprises and the budding public, though how central government can do this whilst cutting public spending remains to be seen. All of these problems, though, are loose grips compared to the Big Apathy which strangleholds the nation.

A myopic, armchair attitude consumes the electorate who want politics to remain an elite abstraction confined to the ivory towers of Westminster, so that they can blame incompetent, out-of-touch, homogenous politicians when something goes wrong in the same breath as they claim they are disillusioned because of a lack control over their own lives. It is a convenient double-bind. Commentators, such as Andrew Marr in his book ‘The History of Modern Britain’, have noted – often with a tut and a roll of the eyes – that shopping has overtaken politics in the collective consciousness. But shopping is politics, and the ever-increasing variety of products has given us more power over the way we live our lives than ever before. Each of us votes hundreds of times a week in pounds and pence.

Does this mean that there is no such thing as society? That solipsism and individualism prevail? That if you only buy all the right things – free-range, sustainable, second-hand – you can sleep soundly at night, treading over as many homeless men as you like, and ignoring anyone wearing an NSPCC T-shirt and wielding a clipboard? Not quite. Buying is a communal effort, even if the producers and vendors are invisible partners. For that pint of milk to be at your corner shop, cows must be farmed, drivers must deliver, and shopkeepers must sell; your participation in this process communicates something. Even the most hermitic and paranoid of us trusts and speaks to hundreds of people each day locked within the goods and services we use.

Most people believe – and want to go on believing – that consumption is a matter of personal, not political, tastes and preferences. This has led to those who act as if each of us is a mini-brand; that if we only run a slick advertising campaign, and people think we buy organic and give to charity then the odd slip can’t matter – who’s watching anyway? But it is not about what people passing in the street think of your economic choices, it is about sending a message to the Taiwanese woman who stitched your bag, the local free-range farmer who provided your eggs. One more digit on a demand list, one more bottle of milk supplied, one more small business going bust; these numbers make up your political profile, not your rantings over a pint or your position on an online compass. Recent technological advances, such as Twitter and Youtube, have given people a voice like never before, but the most receptive audience any of us will ever receive is not the friends who like our Facebook statuses, or the MPs who invite us to a monthly surgery, but the business owners who depend on our cash. It really does not matter what we say; only what we are willing to pay for, what we routinely choose to consume.

          If buying habits really are down to the individual, though, why do we care about poverty, whilst we stack our cupboards full of Chinese goods; gossip over OK magazine whilst we bemoan the effects of celebrity culture; rail against the sexualisation of children, whilst we buy the latest cute offering from Primark? For three principle reasons: there are those who, with all the will in the world, simply cannot afford not to buy the cheapest, most convenient options; there are those who, in any real sense, do not know, understand, or appreciate where their products have come from; and there are those who, either way, do not care. As the wealthiest and the most well-informed in society have the biggest purchasing power and, therefore, the most political clout, government leaders and big business owners must scrutinise their buying patterns more than anybody else. They have a responsibility to provide viable alternatives for consumers. But this must take place alongside – not instead of – individuals recognising their own role as consumers in the capitalist chain.

So where does this leave Cameron’s grand design? The Tories are right to reject Labour’s top-down authoritarianism and to place trust in people’s basic decency and rationality. Their optimistic vision for a voluntary society, though, naively underestimates the damage which an overnight, over-the-counter solution to public services will do to the most vulnerable. Neither party’s method is sustainable or fair. Whilst we roll back the state, and give citizens a real say in how their lives are run at local level, we must wake people up to the political power they already possess just by going to the supermarket. The process will be slow but, before we are ready to run our local schools or take part in weekly referenda, we must learn to vote with the cross which matters most – our purse.

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