Rage Against The Rage
Power, populism and polarisation
I don’t have the energy to be angry all the time. I don’t have the time. There are things I want to be getting on with. We should be building — building new systems for support, exchange and control, building working replacements for the stupid old broken mechanisms of power and accountability. We shouldn’t have to be pouring all our energy into opposing things; there shouldn’t be so much to be angry about.
But there is so much to be angry about. We are stuck with people at the top who don’t understand the problems, or who actively benefit from them. They crashed our financial systems and instead of fixing them, took the opportunity to transfer more wealth than ever from poorer people to richer people. Our social support systems were gutted, and just when the fallout from that was reaching boiling point, Britain got distracted by this whole misconceived, theatrical and destructive Brexit project. Rather than dealing with any of our problems, the nation got pulled into a pantomime it has been trapped in ever since. Will we? Won’t we? What does it even mean? Who decides, and when? Who knows?
So I’m angry about the state of things, and I’m angry that there are so many distractions from being angry in helpful directions. The basic problem, again and again, is that a few people have claimed far too much of the power, and they are not using it well. Because wealth and institutional power are concentrated in the hands of too few people, the needs of the majority are sacrificed to the wants of the few. Almost everything that needs fixing depends on changing this dynamic: first, take the decision-making away from a tiny minority, and empower more of the people affected to influence what happens.
Workers’ rights, conservation, minority rights: all share a common underlying obstacle, the acceptance of tiny minorities wielding too much power.
We live in a world where the fundamental nature of social power has been changed by social media, but we haven’t really figured out what that means yet. We are linked together to an unprecedented degree, but what we haven’t cracked is how to work together to collectively say that something is unacceptable, however bad it’s got. At a time when the need for widespread, systemic change is urgent to prevent environmental meltdown, we need to work out how to do better with what we’ve got. Given how much the institutions underpinning modern life depend on people going along with them, it seems to me that internet-driven social movements have so far barely scratched the surface of what is possible. When we find ourselves stuck with arrangements that leave the wrong people in charge of questions of central importance for the future of humankind, we need to show that we can do better. What would it take to say ‘No More’ to systems that are set to wipe out millions of species and even more humans?
If we can’t improvise effective ways to reclaim power from those who have been hoarding so much of it, our only option seems to be to wait around for our archaic systems of representative democracy and capitalist economics to catch up with the needs of younger generations and those yet to come. It is not clear that we have the luxury of time for that, or whether existing systems even have the potential to accommodate the kinds of change that could avert the crises we face as a species and as a planet. Even if so, pushing these systems in the direction of sustainability and justice is a challenge that people have been struggling with for decades. They seem to have a way of sucking energy in unhelpful directions.
Of course, there is a word for pointing out that elites have too much power, and suggesting The People should take charge: ‘populism’. As you’ll have heard from the mainstream media, populism is bad and wrong and it’s only become popular because people are such idiots. We might suspect that the news media is so down on populism partly because it is overwhelmingly owned and controlled by members of the elite classes, but that too would be bad and wrong. Only a filthy populist would suggest such a thing. To be fair, though, populism really is a dangerous idea — just because elites do in fact have far too much power, doesn’t mean it’s unproblematic to talk about it. The problems come when you get down to who the elites actually are, what ‘The People’ means, and what it could mean to redress the distribution of power between them.
No discussion of populism is complete without talking about racism. It can be convenient for populists — especially those who are actually members of elites themselves — to blame some group of perceived outsiders, painting them as an ‘elite’ that needs to be dealt with. Hitler and many others have used Jewish people as convenient scapegoats, for example, but many different racial groups have been targeted at different times. In the slightly subtler Trumpian/Brexiteer style of populism, it’s not that outsiders are the ‘elite’ themselves, but that ‘liberal, metropolitan elites’ are to blame for letting in so many of them, and letting them take things that rightly belong to ‘The People’ (in this case, ‘the white people who aren’t foreigners’).
Not all scapegoating is populist, though. The right wing of British politics have been blaming immigrants for things forever without usually making any pretence of opposing elites, for example. Not all populism is scapegoating, either — if you blame people who actually do have too much power for using it badly, suggesting the power should be distributed more widely, that still fits the definition of populism; but scapegoating implies misplaced blame.
So the problem with populism is not that it’s wrong to complain that elites have too much power. The big danger is that the anger provoked by systemic injustice can be too readily misdirected towards the wrong groups, or simplistic solutions. With ownership of mass media, and other sources of political influence, overwhelmingly concentrated among those with great wealth and power, it should not surprise us that these platforms have been used to systematically deflect indignation towards less privileged groups. The more people focus their ire on immigrants or other disadvantaged minorities, the less there is left over for identifying genuine injustices and acting to set them right.
If we want to see a less polarised society, our only hope is to deal with the underlying polarisation: the unjust concentration of power and wealth in a tiny segment of society. As it happens, this is also our only hope of averting catastrophic climate change. To be in with a chance of achieving this, we need to rigorously call bullshit on the diversionary tactics of those who still cling onto power they have repeatedly shown us they will abuse. Don’t let go of righteous anger, but conserve your energy, and take great care over where you point your rage. When we don’t know what to do with it, anger wears us all down, and occasional explosions rarely do much good.
We need to be clear on what we are calling for, and what we seek to build. A world run for the many, not the few could be within our reach; we really can take back control, but only if we’re very clear what that means, and what it doesn’t mean. For me, it would mean broad-spectrum democratic accountability: a refusal to let people monopolise power just because they happened to get lucky, and the chance for everyone to have a say in decisions that affect them. That really shouldn’t be too much to ask, but it would mean a radical redistribution of power, and we should expect powerful people to fight against that. Try not to let the bastards grind you down, but especially don’t let them make you grind other people down. We can make things better, but we urgently have to stop people from making things worse.