Monday, July 09, 2012

Are we witnessing a new social revolution?

A fascinating and potentially powerful trend is emerging that, if allowed to develop its potential, could transform society for the better by increasing democracy and individual responsibility.

It has its roots in two things: anger with the banks and corporate greed (last month, vitriol was directed at water companies and the month before, energy companies; this week it's pharmaceuticals) and a desire to create practical alternatives at grassroots level.

Here are some recent examples of positive expressions of this trend, which, at first glance, may not seem to have much in common:
  • A report released a week ago recommending that the Labour Party adopt as policy the re-nationalisation of the rail network and its incorporation as a mutual rather like the Co-op
  • Tory MP Tim Yeo pursuing a call for personal carbon trading, saying he will trial it in his own constituency
  • Vince Cable calling for more banks to be ethical and mutual like the Co-op bank and old-fashioned building societies
  • the growth in community renewable energy co-ops.
Deep within the British psyche is a fundamental belief in fairness. We don't like to see other people getting away with things that we can't get away with, whether they are MPs fiddling expenses, or bankers, energy and water chiefs receiving unwarranted bonuses or manipulating the system.

Fairness is at the heart of all of the above proposals and ideas. They all do away with the idea of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, where a minority own and grow rich on a collectively-used resource, and replace it with collective ownership, i.e. just 'us'.

British society does not believe in revolution but in gradual reform. Rioters may express spontaneous anger to particular events, but it is the middle class in this country which has led such reforms, and it is they who are leading the above reforms.

Taking the railways back

The Rebuilding Rail report, produced by think tank Transport for Quality of Life, argues that to get the best value for money out of the rail system, which has not been achieved by privatisation, it should be re-acquired for the public, which can be done gradually without significant public expenditure, and reconstituted in a form similar to that “found in mutuals, cooperatives and not-for-profit organisations".

Its users would become members and have a vital say in the running of the network.

The report is now being considered by the Labour Party as part of its policy review. My feeling is that it is sure to be a vote winner.

Taking the air back

The idea of personal carbon allowances is to share responsibility for carbon emissions around everyone in the population. Individuals who are less profligate in their emissions are able to sell their allotted permits to those who, say, travel many air miles or otherwise emit more greenhouse gases as a result of their lifestyle.

Coca-Cola and the Carbon Trust are also investigating their feasibility.

Tim Yeo, who leads the select committee on energy and climate change, says he "wants to see personal carbon trading and I’d like Britain to be a pioneer in this. I have volunteered my own constituency as an area for a pilot scheme. I believe it could be funded entirely by the private sector so there would be no taxpayers money involved.”

Personal carbon trading has been advocated before, and rejected on a couple of grounds. I myself was part of a group advocating what I believe to be one of the most interesting of several types of PCT, called Cap and Share. When we were pushing it to ministers it was clear they didn't understand its principles and how it differed from the type of scheme being advocated by Tim Yeo.

This type of cap and share is outlined in the book Sharing for Survival, edited by Brian Davey who, like Ed Davey, hails from Nottinghamshire.

I will be suspicious of a scheme which was financed by corporations. But you never know...

Feasta is the organisation most aggressively promoting personal carbon trading in this form, along with many ideas to do with the philosophy of everyone having ownership of the commons and a new, fairer, type of capitalism.

Taking back the banks

Many individuals are choosing to move away from the high street banks following the Libor scandal and NatWest-RBS meltdown.

The Co-operative Bank has reported a 25% increase from last week in online applications to switch accounts and the Ecology Building Society and local credit unions are also benefiting from the general disillusionment with the big banks.

The ongoing banking scandals are behind Business Secretary Vince Cable's call last week for banks to adopt “different business models", and his praise for the expansion of the Co-op Bank by taking over part of the Lloyds network.

Such a thing would have been unheard of a couple of years ago.

Taking back power

What we have seen over the last few years, from one global summit to another, or from one UK government to another, is governments, corporations and their economists failing to learn from mistakes, failing to listen to public opinion and failing to come to meaningful solutions to the problems of worsening biodiversity, increasing climate change and economic chaos.

Many people are asking: what is the point in continuing with a one way dialogue and expecting change from these people?

This disillusionment is leading many individuals and civil society organisations to develop their own different agendas.

It’s not nationalisation, it’s not rampant capitalism, it’s something in between; a nineteenth century notion, in fact, being reinvented for the twenty-first century.

You can even choose to see, ironically, the real expression of localism in this trend. It is a million miles away from the fantasy localism agenda espoused by David Cameron, which has proved to be a smokescreen for cuts in funding to community-level schemes operated by local authorities and charities.

There have been such trends before. Some of them have fizzled out and some of them have led to social revolutions. It's too early yet to say what will happen with this trend. But it's an encouraging sign.

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