On Structures

My apologies if this is not wonderfully coherent — my blood pressure has been ridiculously high for a couple of weeks, and has made me aphasic, so all the writing I’ve been doing has involved endless hunts for words that are just out of reach.

But both Trump and Brexit have me thinking a lot about a quote, from A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Now, I don’t use that quote here, as so many do, as an argument for one’s personal behaviour or activism — there, I’ve always agreed with Doctor Who that “bad laws were made to be broken”.

Rather, I’m using it as an example of how we should think about institutions. My own political activism has mostly been around structural concerns, rather than issues that directly affect people. I’ve signed petitions and marched and written to MPs and generally done the minimum necessary to be a decent human being by my own standards when it comes to things like hospital wards being short-staffed, cuts to disability benefits, and so on, but they’re not the issues where the bulk of my efforts have gone.

Rather, my efforts have been towards things like electoral reform, constitutional reform more generally, human rights law, and stopping the growth of the surveillance state.

Now, I want to make very clear that I can do that because I have the privilege to, and that I am *not* saying other people who choose different priorities are wrong to do so. But I had a very strong illustration of how few people think the way I do about these things when campaigning for the AV referendum five years ago. The question I was asked more often than any other was “will this make it more or less likely for Party X to get in?”

Now this is of course a valid concern if you’re trying to protect yourself or others from Party X. But I think that treating it as a *more* important question than “is this democratic?” or “does this make sure that minority voices have adequate representation?” or “does this minimise the power imbalances that allow the rich to distort results?” or other such questions is the wrong priority when talking about a voting system. Because if you have that priority and you don’t *completely* eradicate your opposition, eventually they’ll get into a position where they can use the same kind of tools to minimise *your* chances of winning.

Now, when terrible things happen in politics, this can seem like the worst kind of cluelessness, and I *absolutely* understand the need to focus on immediate, short-term, damage limitation. If your husband is bleeding from an artery and will bleed to death in minutes if a tourniquet isn’t applied, you want someone to apply the tourniquet, not someone to set up a think tank to publish a policy paper that suggests a better way of incentivising people to go to medical school so that in ten years time there’ll be a 3% increase in qualified doctors, thus reducing pressure on the NHS and ensuring more lives are saved. You *need* to stop the bleeding *now*.

But for too many on “my” side, the recognition that you need to stop the bleeding now is *so* important that it makes everything else seem like an utter frivolity, when it really isn’t. Yes, if your husband’s bleeding to death, you need to stop that, but once you’ve stopped it (or if you’ve lost the battle and he’s died) it’s still a good idea to also have people building hospitals so that other lives, including your own, may be saved in the future.

I’ve often been told that my concerns are too abstract, too wonkish, too disconnected from people’s lives. They are all those things, but what they’re not is unimportant. And you only need to look at the US elections to see that.

The US has “elected” a fascist even though he came second in the popular vote, because the stupid electoral college system gives vastly disproportionate weight to the votes of rural people (the same people we’re constantly told aren’t listened to *enough*), and vastly underweights those who live in cities. The party supporting that fascist have control of the US Senate because the electoral system for the Senate gives disproportionate weight to the votes of rural people. That same party also have control of the House of Representatives, because while that is *supposed* to give equal weight to every voter, it was blatantly gerrymandered after the last census.

That party also benefited from laws which prevented members of minorities from voting, and *may* also have benefited by voting machines in swing states being hacked.

This is, in short, what happens when people don’t pay enough attention to the constitutional and governmental mechanisms, and all the wonky abstract stuff. And it is something that can *only* happen when people don’t pay enough attention to those things. If the US had a functioning democratic system, it wouldn’t be going through the crisis-induced spasms it is now. And the same *definitely* goes for the UK, the only supposed “democracy” in the world to have a system that’s actually worse than the US’ (Canada’s is somewhere between the two in awfulness, but their Prime Minister has said he’s going to fix their system).

Now it’s entirely right that people right now want to mitigate the short-term problems caused by the resurgence of the hard right throughout the Western world in any way they can, and the immediate priority should be preventing immediate damage from getting any worse.

But if you, like me, are one of those who has the immense privilege to not be in immediate danger, help those who are in the way they say is most useful, but if you have any time or energy left over, please try to put it into helping to sort out systemic problems, and please don’t criticise those who prioritise those problems as being unconcerned. Many things are important, at many different levels.

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2 Responses to On Structures

  1. David Brain says:

    This is my concern too. Some years ago, I found myself unexpectedly in agreement with the President of China, when he observed that “western media democracies” were basically fucked, because we have completely lost sight of the long-term, and may even have abandoned the medium-term too.
    (I have sometimes joked that the biggest mistake the US and the UK made in the 20th Century was winning the Second World War. Because we weren’t force to rebuild our political systems in the way that most other countries had to do. So we got stuck with ones that were already out of date, and with no real way to sort it out.)

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