Citizens do have power, even though it often doesn’t feel that way

A dominant theme of our society is our frustration that politics can no longer deliver the better society we thought we wanted.   Individual governments lack the power to confront global forces, while individual consumers make choices but separate themselves from responsibility for the consequences of their choices because of the complexity of the processes involved.  In my book, Dealing with Dilemmas, I relied heavily on the work of Zygmunt Bauman to try to make sense of this (see the extended passage below).  However every now and again it is very gratifying to see that people do make a positive difference, such as the change of policy by RBS on investments in companies that might make ‘cluster bombs’ ( click here ).  Well done Amnesty and Amnesty supporters everywhere!  We all need to keep working away in little bits and pieces to build a better future and to try to understand better how our individual actions, which may appear inconsequential to us (such as banking with a particular bank), may contribute to injustice in the present and put at risk our children’s future.

I have also put the latest book by Carne Ross (see earlier blog), The Leaderless Revolution, onto my reading list.  It looks as though he has arrived at the same analysis by a different route, but also has some positive things to say about the best ways forward.

Passage from Dealing with Dilemmas:

Zygmunt Bauman (Postmodern Ethics) is one of the most insightful and lyrical of contemporary commentators on this ‘post-modern’ condition and its problems.    First of all, he argues, there is no agency capable of moving the world forward.  Before we even get to asking what is to be done, we must realise that there is no-one who can do it.  This is because we have realised the limitations of politics.  Trapped in their localities, our political institutions still endeavour to control and shape the future in an ordered way, as if their agency could have predictable effects.  However power flows across the globe uncontrollably, through consumer choice, through ideologies of difference, through transnational organisations and flows of money and markets.  The crude attempts of politicians to shape our future (war against terror, targeted reductions in hospital waiting lists…) are, in this view more notable for the unintended consequences which result than the clearly engineered outcomes which left the planners’ desks.    This is just as true of educational policies.

Second, even if there were some agency powerful enough to bring it about, we no longer have a vision of what the intended social outcome should be.  The various rationally ordered alternatives of Marx (imposed equality) and Hayeck (individual agency) are equally unpalatable.   Since we neither know what we want, nor what might help us to get there, we experience constant directionless travel.

Third, this constant movement is both individualised and deregulated:  individualised, as there is no socially agreed foundation so it is up to each individual to engage in a constant quest for something new and better; deregulated, since there is no agreed basis, other than through the market, for deciding on whether anything new is in fact an improvement.  The individualising and individualised world emphasizes choice over compromise and individual meaning over social structure.

This combination is seen by Bauman as fatal for long term consistent social progress.  Individuals operate in an insecure social world – the ‘hold on the present’, from which they could plan their future with confidence, is shaky.  Plans are therefore of necessity short-term, flexibility is highly valued, each episode must be ticked off and its value consumed at the time as it may not fit into a longer term pattern.  Sources of livelihood, partnerships of love or of common interest, professional or cultural identity, patterns of health and fitness, values worth pursuing and ways of pursuing them – all are under constant challenge and may change many times in a postmodern lifetime.   ‘In a life ruled by the precept of flexibility – life strategies, plans and desires can be but short-term.’    (Bauman The Individualised Society p113)

There is a strong line of argument that these social processes which are confusing to the individual are engendering in many citizens of mature democracies a profound pessimism about the possibilities of politics and a retreat into an individualised world, based around personal preference.   These broad social trends are represented quite clearly in the declining interest and participation in democratic politics in many developed democracies, including the UK.    If establishing a personal identity as an active citizen is hard for those who are full mature participants in the economy and society, how much harder is it for young people to establish the links between their own individual experience and the broad social, cultural and political frames within which it is constructed.   They are bombarded by conflicting messages from powerful and sophisticated modern mass media, told they will have seven changes of career within their lifetime, confused by plural value systems, challenged by the vulnerability of the increasingly fragile ‘traditional’ family life within their community.   


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