Robin McAlpine – 17th March, 2022
There were some comments following last week’s article on St Fittick’s Park suggesting that in writing that ‘the rich never lose’, it was too negative about the ability to beat power and money in politics and society. Was it too negative and how is it possible to beat power?
First of all, do the rich ever lose? The case for ‘yes’ was made by citing the defeat of fracking in Scotland. Fracking was indeed banned, but the Scottish Government avoided the ban for a full five years even in the face of a very powerful campaign (they kept the door open with a moratorium). The horrible events in Ukraine are being used to push every scheme by the petrochemical industry, including fracking. It may be too early to assume it is definitely dead-dead.
Because even when the rich lose, often they don’t lose for long. And the fracking example is noted in particular because of how rare it is – coming up with other examples of big-monied vested interests losing in Scotland is not easy. Multinational energy companies get an inexplicable price cap on an ‘auction’ to get the commercial benefit of offshore wind.
Very powerful property developers can overturn planning officials rejecting a god-awfully ugly hotel in the middle of Edinburgh. Land owners need not fear meaningful land reform in Scotland. When Covid hits and the Scottish Government can either side with commercial landlords or vulnerable tenants, the landlords win. There must be dozens of examples of the powerful getting what they want for each example of them not getting what they want.
So is this just a defeatist cry of despair, a resignation to living in a kind of oligarchy? No, it was only a statement of current reality. Right now, in the Scotland we are in, under the conditions that exist, the rich really don’t lose very often. It most certainly doesn’t mean they can’t lose, that they are undefeatable. It doesn’t mean change isn’t possible, only that it isn’t happening.
The good news is that turning that around is nothing like as difficult as it seems. A government with any sense could have got a much better deal out of the crazy ScotWind ‘auction’; a government with a public energy company could have captured all the benefit.
If the SNP and Tory elected officials in Edinburgh had simply accepted the strong advice of their own planning professionals there would be no Golden Shite Hotel in Edinburgh. Common Weal and the New Economics Foundation have shown comprehensively that the Scottish Government has all the powers it needs to enact major land reform but chooses not to use those powers. This is even more the case in the tenants-or-landlords issue – the Scottish Government actively chose to side with the landlords.
In every one of these cases it is easy to see how it could all have played out entirely differently, how the interests of the many could easily have been served at the expense of not kow-towing to the interests of the few.
And in all of these cases there is a unifying feature which explains how the challenge to power could have been achieved and why that challenge didn’t happen – it is democracy. If you try to beat wealthy interests ‘through the market’ or with direct protest they will almost always defeat you because they have the market dominance and associated resources to win.
A really important case study is to look at the history of the many uprisings against ‘the enclosures’ in England. This was the process of common land being taken by the rich with ordinary people then excluded from land they had previously had a right to. From the 13th to 19th centuries there were massive ‘peasant revolts’, many proportionately bigger and more sustained than almost anything in recent times.
There were good things that came out of these protests, but the Levellers, the Diggers and the peasants didn’t win – and the rich didn’t lose. It has only really been with the arrival of democracy that there has been a reliable and consistent route to convert public anger into public power.
Because what defeats power is – power. In war, in commerce, in parliaments, in trade union disputes, what defeats power is power. There are two main kinds of power that people who are not wealthy and connected have. One of those is mutualism, creating a critical mass which enables them to fight back. This is the model that trade unions use – one worker can’t take on a corporation, but all of the workers in the corporation can take them on together.
Sadly mutualism has been under attack since Thatcher. Trade unions were legislated against, mutual commercial operations (like building societies) which are supposed to act for their members were demutualised and turned into big businesses working for their shareholders, mass-membership political parties became captured by a small professional class of politician.
The other power ordinary people have is democracy. This is an important and often-missed point – democracy is there to serve only one interest, the interests of citizens. This concept has been eroded enormously, especially in America where the so-called Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court gave big money interests the ability to openly influence politics as if they were actual citizens.
But even in the UK where money has been kept out of democracy to a much greater degree (at least in principle), the problem is much the same. Democracies have become about the interplay of financial interests and these have become a proxy for ‘the public good’. How many times have we been told that the interests of citizens can only be met by pandering to the interests of corporations?
Here is the really encouraging thing though – the rich’s grip on power is always tenuous in a democracy if those elected have the courage to challenge them. If the rich (including properly-rich individuals and big business) were to form a party expressly to progress their interests, it would have no chance of being elected.
This is not a purely statist model. One of the most effective ways that citizens can influence society is through protest, but it is the politicians much more than the corporations who are susceptible to the anger of citizens. Protest is how we force democracy to implement change.
Another way to let people change society through democracy is to decentralise it. When democracy is centralised politicians become a proxy for ‘us’. When democracy is returned to communities, it is ‘us’ who make the decisions ourselves.
Another way is through participatory democracy – had ordinary people and not just vested interests been involved in devising the policies discussed above, those policies would have looked a lot different. A second Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland would be genuinely transformative.
There is far too much to cover in an article of this size and there are lots of other things that people can do in the face of power. One of the most important is ‘alternative building’, creating new things that reject the structures and models the powerful create. But while these can offer some people some alternatives, they don’t actually defeat the rich.
In the end, why do the rich in Scotland always win? Because we have a very particular set of circumstances. The people who would be most likely to press politicians to bring change are also largely supporters of independence. They are stuck – the only vehicle they can see which is likely to deliver independence is also a vehicle the rich have identified as being very happy to deliver the outcomes they want.
Frankly, if the dissidents in Scotland keep holding their wheesht in the name of the cause of independence, and so allow this current Scottish Government and its many agencies to behave as they did over ScotWind or St Fittick’s Park, the route between the power to change society and the will to change it is severed.
It is not even nearly inevitable the rich will win. It’s just that right now in Scotland they always do. And until there is enough build-up of pressure to say ‘enough now, do something different’, they’ll keep winning.
Providing positive, constructive alternatives to the status quo is what Common Weal is about and it is what we will keep doing. But if we spend months running a campaign to get the party of government to support a National Energy Company, then government says ‘no’ and its party members accept that, we can only move on to the next thing and hope that this time, some time, the ideas will happen and the change will come.
The only promise we can really make is that we have not stopped trying and we will not stop trying. This Scotland is not inevitable. But let’s not pretend that this Scotland isn’t the Scotland we currently have.