Homage to Catatonia

Politics, Pulpit

I bet someone else has already used that title. I bet.

Headline for anyone who isn’t interested: Catalonia has just tried to declare itself independent from Spain after the Madrid government stopped it from holding a referendum on independence, which the Madrid government deemed “illegal under the Spanish constitution”.

Some officials across the EU have even said Catalonia’s declaration amounts to the destruction of the rule of law, a sentiment which is basically meaningless. If the declaration of independence has any meaning, it means that Catalonia is now a country and so is no longer subject to Spanish law. Within the new Catalonia, the rule of law would in all likelihood be satisfactorily upheld. But back to the main issue: the referendum’s legality is yet to be decided. It was put before the Supreme Court and they have until May 2018 to decide whether the Constitution allows a regional assembly to hold a referendum on regional independence from the Spanish state. The Court has also accepted the case deciding whether Catalonia’s assembly has committed “rebellion”. So no-one knows yet whether any law has been broken. I mean talking of the rule of law, I remember hearing about something similar. It goes: “innocent until proven guilty”. No? Did I just make that up?

Anyway, the Madrid government prematurely declared the referendum illegal and sent police in to break up voting. This act itself must surely be illegal. While the referendum stands on uncertain or new legal ground, the repression of innocent civilians and state officials is in a well-dug legal trench, surrounded by a concrete bunker, surrounded by a minefield, surrounded by a wasteland that’s regularly bombed: government repression is wrong. Full stop. Well known.

It’s only once the Madrid government has acted illegally that Catalonia officially abandons the law and declares independence, but even then it’s not so much an issue for forces of the Spanish State as it is for the large minority of people in Catalonia who didn’t want independence. If they, for example, openly declare allegiance to Spain against the new administration then, perhaps, the Spanish government could have a reason to send police or troops in pending the result of negotiations and any appropriate mediation by international bodies such as the EU, NATO, or the UN. Once Catalonia is a nation in its own right, it’s no longer bound by the Spanish constitution and enters a new process of awaiting international recognition, while also trying to convince dissenters not to do anything harmful to the new state. This doesn’t have to involve violence, protestation or repression. But of course it does because not enough people in Spain or Catalonia wanted independence to happen. Also I’m sure most people wouldn’t be keen on their (the Spanish national) government acting illegally in the repression of legitimate democratic forces awaiting a court date. But then I’m not Spanish so what do I know?

I’m writing here as a British citizen and I only heard about this issue – by extension – because the UK government has declared its support for Madrid and against Catalan self-determination. Which doesn’t fit what the UK stands for at all. We’re supposed to be saying to the national government “you should have let them hold a referendum and embarrass themselves with the result” and to the Catalan government “we’ll do our best to help provided that you now wait patiently for your court hearing, after which the issue will be fairly conclusively decided”. Instead, May Johnson is imploding as per usual.

So it’s important that I make a distinction between UK and Spanish politics. The main criticism that Madrid is making of the Catalan declaration of independence is that it’s unconstitutional. Spain has a written constitution. The UK doesn’t. This has always made UK politics more technically flexible, because in effect we are not bound by anything save popular perception and opinion. We claim many things with our legislation and our governmental institutions, but at their root there is no higher power than the British people. We have an (almost) all-powerful parliament, whose sole role is to represent and serve the British people in the best way possible. This could readily be extended to mean that the British Parliament should include all of the British people. In other words, full democracy is legally within our grasp and we can take it whenever we have the popular will for it. That’s the beauty of the famously obscure British legal system and that’s why when it comes to Scottish independence, we can’t say a Scottish declaration of independence is “unconstitutional”, we can only say it’s unpopular. Which is in my opinion a far more powerful thing.

It also means that, despite all of its childish tantrums around the time of the Scottish referendum, our government could never do what the Spanish government is now doing, namely: trying to charge the rebel region’s administration with treason. The Habsburgs are long gone and so, supposedly, is General Franco. So tell me exactly how do you get an elected assembly to commit treason? Well, yeah, the Spanish Supreme Court is going to tell us. It’s also going to tell us whether the referendum breached their constitution.

And I don’t take issue with the court being asked to make a decision. That’s obviously what has to happen according to the Spanish Constitution. But I can take issue with that Constitution. Having it written means that it’s (supposedly) established as a higher power than the people of Spain. The Madrid government likely believes this has been done because the people can’t rule themselves and so a strong constitution establishing strong governments must rule for them. But a constitution can’t do that any more than a king or a parliament can. There is no higher power than what people perceive to be righteous. The Spanish Constitution may be interacting with this truth, but it is not recognising the absolute application of this truth. Firstly you can’t word a constitution such that it is not contradictory or uncertain in terms, and therefore unenforceable in law. Which is why it’s better not to try. Accept that the only law that can be maintained must be popular, and govern accordingly. Even if you pretend not to sometimes.

Secondly, and because of this, a constitution is not sufficient grounds to deny people the right to be part of something else. Because it is a flawed document, limited in its application, it cannot govern the movements and behaviours of people who choose not to be members of the Spanish state. And if a whole region within the Spanish state decides not to remain a part thereof, and then successfully begins a peaceful progression into its own nationhood, there is no part of a constitution or popular opinion outside of their new nation that can legally stop them. Except…

Basically, everyone can do what they want. Nations and constitutions were established to minimise conflict and maximise peaceful co-existence. People agree to those nations and constitutions through a sort of social contract. By definition, that contract is not legal. It’s enforceable only socially – only through co-operation. And it can be torn apart by antagonism. No power decides on the status of a social contract, other than the capacity of its “signatories” to co-operate adequately to maintain the contract, sometimes through negotiation, sometimes through horrifically strict enforcement. Depends who holds the larger share of influence. And how committed people are to the overall goal of minimising violence/destruction/instability – we’re usually surprisingly well-committed to that, you’ll be glad to hear.

But what of laws? Laws are elements of the contract under the “nationhood” section that we can negotiate through representative assemblies. Or at least that’s probably the easiest way of putting them in context. They need to seem permanent and unchanging if people are going to believe in them; our administrations believe that they are necessary to minimise conflict and maximise peaceful co-existence, so we kinda accept them also on those grounds. It’s part of accepting a sovereign government in the first place. I mean you do a deal with the devil, you’re probably going to get the short straw. It’s taken a few thousand years for some nations to reach a state mockingly called “democracy”. And we’ve done damn well with that. The short straw carries on until we completely remove sovereign government. But that’s an issue for another time.

The point here is: the social contract establishes the basis for all government, and referendums on regional independence are essentially demands for a new social contract outside of the existing one. However, before citizens leave the existing contract, they remain citizens of that same contract. Which brings about the issue of referendums – each one is a step closer to the establishment of a new social order outside of the old one, but it’s only the decisive referendum that will create a good alternative. You have less than 50% support, or if you use violence, force, at any time, the new order will be based on that: and it will be weak as a result. Because when you’re talking about a whole new order, a whole new contract, 50% really isn’t enough. In fact, only 100%, unanimous approval will really do. Just because we don’t tend to get it, doesn’t stop it from being the standard. Anything less than 100% approval means people leaving, people being angry, depressed, working less, fighting eachother, harming eachother, endless echoes of social discontent. So you really want to minimise the disapproval. This actually goes for all government, all the time – not just referendums to set up new ones.

And as part of maximising approval (so as to maximise social order, therefore peaceful progression) you don’t want to deny any referendums. In Catalonia, in Scotland, heck maybe in Quebec and other places too, we’re talking about a region that’s culturally, historically, often economically and politically coherent. That’s coherent as a region, meaning it doesn’t have to fit the national agenda. In fact it probably won’t. Nations are mostly maintained by the disunity of their separate regional social orders. If you have a united region, organised, relatively uniform, we’re talking the places mentioned above, then that represents active disapproval for the national social contract. Active “rebellion” of the more subtle kind. Of course it’s not really subtle at all, it’s bare-faced and blatant in economic failure, social unrest and decline of any kind. But we’re used to thinking about rebellion only as a violent crime punishable by death or exile. Proper old-fashioned like. No, it’s much more than that. It seems unconscious or irrelevant because it’s only a bunch of individuals consciously doing it. We think “oh they don’t have an army so they don’t matter”. Wrong. Individuals are the entire content of a society. If any of them are unhappy, everyone gets hurt. Not always much, but always some. And the more people are shat on, the more they shit on everyone else. It’s a butterfly effect of shit.

So if you deny an organised group of these people the right to express their wish to form another order, you’re starting a fight with the fire-breathing lizard you’ve hand-reared from egg to man-eater these last 100 years, just after you’ve helped it have children which are now stored safely in its lair. I.e. You’re being stupid.

Taking it back to Catalonia: so long as one faction in the region is powerful enough (if that faction is supported by over half of the region) to reasonably demand a referendum, then that referendum must be called.

We’ve negotiated the 50% benchmark of minimum legitimacy that tends to apply to most if not all law. It’s long established in an expansion of what the UK calls Common Law – i.e. the law as applied by judges over multiple similar but different cases. The last judge’s ruling in a similar case becomes a legitimate legal reference point in future cases. With the 50% it’s that kinda sentiment that again the UK used to call “the man on the bus”. Basically every judge asking “what does the average guy think?”. Average tending to aim for the middle of a range of data i.e. the 50% mark. Mean – add it all up, divide it by how many there are. Median – pick the middle number in a set. Mode – what’s the most frequently occurring number. Most of what you do with averages is about getting or pleasing the most. Same here. Goes back to the ultimate goal of peaceful progression in a dangerous world. The people responsible for applying the law want to know that it fits broad public opinion. And if it doesn’t they know there will be some kind of trouble.

The present events in Spain are the direct result of the Madrid government’s refusal to co-operate not only with the Catalan separatists, but because of the 50%+ majority by which the Catalan coalition government exists, with the entire region itself. That region’s self-determination is guaranteed by the Spanish constitution. In outright denying and actively repressing their capacity to call a referendum, the Madrid government acted contrary to certain key sentiments within the constitution. Which sentiments amount to a central element of the social contract by which the entire region of Catalonia is joined to the Spanish state. It’s this action, not the Catalan separatists, that will bring this conflict to the point of violence and repression, or, potentially, Catalan independence. It’s not just a constitutional debate anymore, it’s about centuries of regional self-determination, well established as a necessary part of a united Spain. And it’s about denying the recent history of Fascism and unfettered repression.

The Spanish State has fucked up.

But then as we’ve discussed, 50% support for a 100% body of people forming a new society isn’t enough. It’s the bare minimum required for the event to happen without civil war and repression being absolutely necessary. So I’m not supporting Catalan independence here, since in my mind Catalonia doesn’t meaningfully support it yet. I’m condemning, in the most righteous terms I can muster, the Madrid government’s latest breach of Spain’s social contract. Cutting out the rights of an entire region – millions of people – will have consequences. And the UK will only lose from supporting such blatant evil.

Now, if you want the flip side of the coin, about what rebellion involves and how bad it is, well that’s another article incoming. Not only on the principles and historical tendencies surrounding revolutions and the like, but an analysis of what the Spanish Constitution gives Catalonia without it becoming a separate nation. Whoever wrote that Constitution realised separatists could be a big problem for the future of a united Spain. I’m just not sure yet whether they wrote adequate defences against that likelihood.

Voting is like being Pablo Escobar

Politics, Pulpit

…in Prison.

Sitting high up in those beautiful mountains: the nation you’ve grown up in. Safe behind the barbed-wire and concrete of newspaper opinion pieces, pub chats and online forums, surrounded by booze and a roulette of ballot counts, polls, lottery tickets, stock prices, hoping that the nation is safely yours – owned by your side – hoping that you’re safe, waiting out a sentence that’ll never end: to be this “citizen”…to live, and live in a country.

We’ve just had a General Election in the UK. Bit late then to be talking about voting?

Not at all. We’ve elected representatives incapable of forming a majority government. Many people are raising eyebrows at this and exclaiming “we’re fucked then”. They’re panicking, they’re wondering in the back of their minds “would a benevolent dictator be better?” and “Why can’t we just leave it all to the market for a change?”.

Many people don’t understand how every vote is a victory, not for democracy, but for the common people, for society. Nor do they appreciate how this vote has produced a more democratic result than most General Elections of the century-and-a-bit just gone.

Last election round, 2015, we had Russell Brand telling the nation not to vote because a vote means nothing like actually having your voice heard. He said this sort of thing for months before suddenly flinging himself in with the Ed Milliband’s Labour Party. It got a lot of people quite confused, not least because a comedian with pretty basic views on the world managed to get so much airtime around what should have been campaign season. In the end it looked more like he was just having a big and probably quite profitable joke at the nation’s expense. Brand buried any questions surrounding our voting system alongside his own chances of retaining any respect in the UK political arena.  Kinda what Trump is doing too, condemning the worth of America’s “common man” with his own brash dogma.

Which brings us – the blogging observers – to that difficult question: what’s the point of voting when every option (even not voting) is something no-one wants to choose?

Clinton the Second or a fart with hair?

Thatcher’s Sith apprentice or a 70s Socialist?

This is what gets people picking up their Plato and wishing for a Philosopher King.

This is where people heckle democracy! Well, voting was never about democracy. Not properly speaking. See we use the term “democracy” pretty casually, mainly because it helps to prevent us from becoming an actual democracy, or a series of actual democracies. I.e. a stateless collection of individuals organising themselves by mutual and unanimous consent.

No, voting is about restricting the power of an oligarchy.

I’m trying to use the term “oligarchy” without context, so meaning “rule by the few” and forget all the associations with Russia and whatever else. (Or maybe don’t, I mean they vote too for all the good it does them.) In the UK we are ruled by an oligarchy that itself technically exists under a Monarchy, but officially and unofficially the British Monarchy has become so weak that we can safely say it is just for show. Although yes the institution remains a disgusting anachronism whose removal we should use in proposing the reform of Parliament and establishment of a proper democracy.

Oligarchy: we are ruled by 650 Members of the House of Commons and a varying number of Lords. They themselves then choose at least 20 from their number (the Cabinet) to rule Parliament, and form a number of committees to make sure this other few – the Cabinet members, the Ministers – are doing their job right.

It all works very historically. We had the monarch, the monarch needed advisers and the Lords of the time wanted power, so an equivalent to the Cabinet appeared to facilitate a method of ruling that would be more or less acceptable to all concerned parties. Certainly not perfect, but given that the main concerns of the time were pleasing God and trying not to die too quickly…it made a kind of sense. Then as society developed more people had more power – money, influence, followers, respect, desire – and so more people wanted in on government. The Monarchy repeatedly proved inadequate to the task of pleasing all of these power-mongers. So the second level of Oligarchy – Parliament – was formed with the notion that it would rule on the principle of representing the common people. At the time that didn’t really include poor people or women, who at rough guess made up 80-90% of the population for most of Parliament’s history, but it was something nonetheless.

That second level is where we’re still at today: the most powerful (legally speaking) branch of our government is Parliament. But we still have the pretense of a monarch and the reality of a Council of Ruling Ministers – a Cabinet. All increasing the franchise did was extend our right to the occasional representative opinion poll beyond the 10-20%. Elections don’t give anyone else a right within government or a right to power: just some promise that they might be listened to once every three, four, five years. Basically whenever the rulers decide they’re looking a little too unpopular they agree to a reshuffle and a rethink: a General Election. The reshuffle and rethink never include the idea that maybe these sorts of people should not be leading in these sorts of numbers. Two parties, 650 elected representatives, and a small cadre to try and give directions. They do try and work out what might be beneficial for the nation, for its future, but always within the very limited boundaries of what they as individuals can command the civil service and the general population to undertake.

So we have an oligarchy whose primary motive is to try and represent the views of the population, largely (but not entirely) excluding those under 18 years of age. It’s so earnest in pursuing this motive that it bases its power off regular nationwide referendums – General Elections – which allow a particular area to decide who they want to represent them in the Oligarchy. Although the area vote is now being bought out by false promises of strong PMs and manifestos. It’s very clever. I mean governments have always tried to establish a solid power base in some sort of common good. God, for example. The perfect and all-powerful truth-giver supposedly selected every King and so they claimed to rule – for many years – by Divine Right. Something the entire population of the time could get on board with. During the Russian Revolution different leaders promised a communist heaven and, at least, that the Tsardom would end. Again, something that could sound very good to a very large number of people…until of course the office of Tsar returned under a new name with a series of dictators, from Lenin to Gorbachev. Many crimes were justified in the name of the people.

The point all along being that for people to agree with the social contract that a nation offers them, they have to believe that they are sufficiently secure, that their leaders do at least a few things that are important to them, that they have a good chance of being able to offer and receive a healthy number of goods and services. A nation isn’t something that you have to belong to. It’s something that you choose. Just because many people live their entire lives without being aware of this choice, doesn’t mean that it fails to exist. There are other countries, there are difficult ways of existing within a nation without meaningfully belonging to it. You can choose not to be part of a nation but still find yourself forced to live within it or an equivalent. But the point is: choice. Social contract. Agreements, consent. We don’t have to do what we’re told, although it often saves us from a lot of trouble if we do.

All power in human society necessarily comes from individual humans. Everything we have socially is built up on collections of individuals living as best as they can. If God exists, God does not make Parliaments nor Kings nor Referendums. People wanting to convince other people to follow them and work for them make these things. Mechanisms of organisation: ways of making disparate individuals with their own motives, preferences and purposes, do something that requires more than one person to achieve. It’s probable that in the early days of humanity’s existence, some of us realised how to utilize our emotions and animal instincts to exploit and command others. These people became champions and tribal chiefs, and the rest follows from there. Like animals we have been too busy doing the vital stuff of life – surviving, finding a measure of happiness – to spend all that much time pondering how good our organisational methods are. And even if one person works it out, how do they show all their workings to everyone else?

So…social organisation progresses at a natural speed that’s “comfortable” (an ironically uncomfortable word to use here I know) for everyone concerned. People are different, have different views, have different motivations, whereas all our major achievements are based on people working together. Voting for our oligarchy is not a bad thing, it’s the furthest the union of peoples forming British Society have come to a really efficient form of social organisation. We’re not at the best yet, we can’t have democracy yet, so this will have to do for now.

The point of my writing is that we should all be able to understand this and not be ashamed of it. We should understand why we are in this prison that we have made for ourselves, full of vices and virtues, laws and lawlessness. We’re looking – consciously or not – at the beautiful picture way down the road of achievements, healthcare, technology, learning, entertainments, all in all a more efficient, a more perfect world, and something that can only be achieved by our communal effort.

We do not need to and should not pretend that we have democracy now, or that we are at the end of history with no-where else to go. We have oligarchy, and on a separate point we have capitalism. It’s so not perfect, but as you’ve seen we do get a voice, we do get a good chance at achieving many of the things we want. There are clear benefits. This is why we want to believe the lie that we have democracy and that this voting is democracy – because what we have already really works for a significant number of people. Works, but again, isn’t quite perfect. No-one’s too keen to point that out though without knowing that the imperfect thing could become perfect: no point worrying yourself about something that’ll never happen right?

Wrong. How can we know where to go, what to do, what more efficient is, what a better purpose would be, if we’re not trying to see what’s wrong here and how we might fix it? It’s much slower to wait for reform to accidentally happen. Much better to discuss it thoroughly and openly, plan it, and then roll it out methodically and with ample consideration for the need for flexibility and change.

Earlier I wrote “this vote has produced a more democratic result than most General Elections of the century-and-a-bit just gone”.

Maybe you’ve been wanting some explanation for why I say that.

We have a hung Parliament. This is at a time when the Conservative Party is clearly struggling to remain a powerful and cohesive popular force. When the Labour Party is also collapsing under the weight of its own out-of-date and war-weary ideology. When the Liberal Democrats echoing the beautiful memory of Liberalism have been stabbed in the back by their own leaders’ decision to participate in government, and their chosen method of promising much and delivering nothing. I’m saying we have a hung Parliament at a time when the very idea of government by political party is ready to be challenged, and is simultaneously ready to collapse.

You’re probably worried that this means what…anarchy?

We’re taught to have the opposite of faith in humanity. Most of what we believe, what we hear about and find in popular culture, tells us to take a pretty hefty dose of cynicism daily. We don’t need that. We need to try – and know that we will fail but try anyway – to be neutral about ourselves. To judge on emotion, reason and motivation without emotion, without bias, simply seeking whatever most closely approximates a truth.

And the approximation following this election is that all the MPs in Parliament will be forced to engage across party lines more than has previously been the case, because the nation has little (meaningful) faith in either of the main parties, because Brexit will be happening and someone has to make it happen well, because of the questions this will raise about Ireland, because of the shit state of the NHS and the British school system, because of terrorism and our failure to adequately integrate the thousands of people from different cultures trying to become part of Britain. And all the rest. And the fact that no-one seems to properly agree on any of it.

The Parties must work together. It happened to some extent in the pre-war National Government 80 years ago. It can happen again, and much better than last time.

Why am I so happy that the parties must work together? Because they will then represent – finally, brilliantly – more than 50% of the population.

So far I’ve focussed on the term “oligarchy” because our government is by definition that, and we need to be aware of that while working on improvements to what is fundamentally a problematic mode of governance. What improvements you ask? Well, first better awareness of what our government actually is. We need informed, public, frequent discussion. Easy enough? Second: our voting system regularly allows popular government without any meaningful popular consent. This is not something I need to prove – it’s widely recognised as a feature of our electoral system, but again it’s neatly ignored. Elephant in the room.

The election has at best a 70% turnout from an electorate that’s already not the total population (think young folk, criminals, infirm…). Then a party gets into power on 30-40% of that turnout. In 2015, the Conservatives formed a majority government on 37% of a 66% turnout. That’s 11,334,920 people getting representation versus 51,846,855 people in the general population (figures based on the 2011 Census) given a government they disagree with. In 2010, it was 36% of a 65% turnout: 10,703,744 people, so what roughly a sixth of the population – 17%! – getting representation.

We don’t even give consent to our oligarchs in the most basic and unrepresentative way – with a universal vote to decide the members of a governmental institution.

Party shares.

Turnouts. 

Imagine something more proportional: every vote counting towards something, every voice being heard at least a little bit.

So maybe you’ll understand my pleasure at not having a majority government – it gives the other 83% (or more) whose vote didn’t matter a little crack in the door through which they can shout suggestions and pass insulting notes. It gives the opportunity for a cross-party group of Brexit planners and negotiators to emerge. It grants the possibility of many good co-operative and communicative developments in British politics. And there’s a slim chance that we’ll actually have demand for that.

Although I’m not sure that a proportional voting system would work that much better than what we have now. Being a democrat, I’d prefer that we just take power away from national government and get rid of political parties. Proportional voting would in all likelihood just give party voting blocks more power. We’d have more terrifying manifestos, the wording of which we cannot change, and the potential for more party leaders – not chosen by us – becoming Prime Ministers and forming governments. But, as mentioned, at least the oligarchy would be tethered by 80% or more of the population, rather than the standard 17% odd.

Government, eh? What’s it like.

I’m signing off on this one all you little Pablos hidden in your plush prisons with your big TVs and internet connections. But I’m hoping to do more in the same kinda theme, giving more explanation, more room for discussion. Headlines: “Patricide”; “How to do a democratic revolution”; “Mass consciousness and you: finding a place in the machinery of the universe” etc.