How do we contribute to society and how do we influence the future?
There is a dangerous gap opening up between people and institutions that current forms of democratic parties and other organisations set up to channel views to those instruments of power are not able to bridge. The problem is manifold:
Political parties which dominate most democratic societies are filled with professional politicians who have little (or at best moderate) understanding of the real world outside of politics;
Civil service bodies and public sector institutions are (as they have always been) full of careerists who are no longer “tempered” by the social reality that broadly based political parties would provide;
Campaign organisations are also full of careerists who work their way up the system internally and may have little real association with society outside their own silo of interest.
Corporations (especially large, multinationals) have a tremendous power in a world dominated by numbers – growth objectives – and can fund large campaigning groups of their own.
There is no equilibrium in society although it feels like stasis has been reached. Different bodies are continually evolving as the environment changes politically and socially and economically. The problem is that entrenched interest groups (drawn from those sectors above) continuously work to make their positions more secure.
In the past, four, main sources of change were developed to open up society to change:
But, mainstream sectors have succeeded, in the main, in wrapping the first three groups into that mainstream. There is a dependency on each other and a difficulty in breaking through with new ideas and attempting to force through decisions on even the most important issues.
The global economy has exacerbated this problem – as international needs lead to massive international organisations that succeed always in taking decision-making away from the individual.
Improved communications have through history succeeded in transforming the ability of individuals to learn more and have a greater say. The printing press was followed by the telephone, which was followed by the fax machine and the mobile telephone and the internet. Mass communication is now available that provides the ability for all of us to understand more of what is being done in our name. Social systems such as Twitter enable communication in an instant; mobile telephony and digital technology allows information in microseconds. This has had repercussions in events like the Arab Spring but the rigidity of social norms fights back most often.
Society’s complex underpinning will see some new emergence develop from this – but, what is it likely to be and how can the individual become involved rather than be part of a sector that more clearly matches that of Orwell or Huxley’s nightmares?
The drift to Centralised control
Maybe it’s a natural occurrence – that as organisations develop, they coalesce and form groups and associations that begin to meld into international committees that appear completely remote from most of us.
This is certainly true of political parties, true of sports associations (like FIFA or the International Olympic Committee), true of international organisations (like the UN, WTO), major NGO’s and charities, political groupings such as the EU, international corporates (such as the banks). Most people don’t know most of these organisations and many (like FATF – the Financial Action Task Force) have for years seemingly gloried in their anonymity.
With the rise of the internet, we were meant to discover more but that same rise has meant that less spending goes into traditional media organisations like campaigning newspapers. This has meant a reduction in in-depth investigations and analysis and much-reduced investment by newspapers and other media outlets in providing the type of information we need as individuals in society to keep the massive organisations on their toes.
In a major sense, the rise of the internet has had consequences that were not envisaged and has led to a major centralization of power structures – more immune from investigation than before.
We must not be misled by the closure of the News of the World in the UK after the hacking enquiry – the NotW was a scandal rag that was part of the new world of celebrity. Its loss is not great.
The loss of whole departments where the main task was to investigate and analyse how society works (and where it does not) and the rise of the internet as a news medium (and comment in 140 characters) shows that, so far, what has emerged is leading to centralization not the reverse.
Does Centralised control matter?
Democratic society is supposed to provide individuals with the ability to influence the way our society is run. So, centralized control does affect us all. While the drive to consumerism may suggest that we would not mind if we were ruled like in China (more goods supplied to keep the population quite), I suspect that this tendency does not appeal to all of us. Centralised control does not stop at Tiananmen Square – it has no controls. “”Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” (William Pitt the Elder) is borne out through history and the idea that we can allow others complete freedom to guide us through life is obnoxious to most of us I suspect.
What are the options for decentralising?
The centralization of sectors of society needs to be continuously prodded. That can be done both internally (i.e. within those instruments of power) but mainly externally (from other organisations and / or individuals).
Working within is tough – the structures bind staff to their culture and it is very difficult to break out. A feature of British politics has been how the Liberal Party (a party for the individual within a coherent society and always opposed to centralization and totalitarianism) has become (especially since it became the Liberal Democrats) so bound up with the EU project – a centralizing force that is now seen to be breaking up.
External pressure may now be the only way to elicit change and to change the environment so that something less centralized can emerge.
The Centre for Civil Society in Australia is a good example of an organization that has been set up to prod society. www.civilsociety.org.au
The Centre for Investigative Journalism in London is another. http://www.tcij.org/
NGO’s like Global Witness are important contributors. www.globalwitness.org
All such organisations are set up to prod (some quite heavily) the existing structures – they are all dependent on external funding.
We need some creative destructionism – in the same way that Apple created new products that tore at our desire for more than pure functionality (although Apple is now part of that central structure); in the same way that Google tore into the online world and is now a core of that central structure – within the non-economic sphere, the way we live outside of numbers and products.
There are some options that remain that can assist in developing society so that we learn the lessons of the 20th Century – where communism and fascism drove the world to and then away from totalitarianism. Those lessons are now in danger of being unlearned – where the danger of unbridled centralism of society is occurring without (thankfully) war, but just the same potential results. We could wake up and find the world run from the centre. Maybe it is already and the drift to unequal wealth distribution a symptom.
That suggests more of an effort is needed to point a finger at our structures and the best way to do this is through our participation – and through some independent organisations, especially in investigative journalism, which can expose, fight for freedom of speech, help to analyse the impact of centralised decisions on society and expose fraud and corruption: many groups, many individuals wanting to open up the closed doors.
Does a tree that falls in a forest make a noise?