On Saturday 21 June, 50,000 people marched in central London against the coalition’s austerity measures. Gathering before the Houses of Parliament, speakers such as Russell Brand addressed them, stating: “the people of this building… do not represent us, they represent their friends in big business. It’s time for us to take back our power.”
You’d be forgiven for not knowing about this - the media largely ignored it. The Guardian was the only newspaper to pay much attention to the demonstration. The BBC, despite having thousands of placards sailing past the windows of its new broadcasting house, required 24 hours and thousands of complaints to publish 50 words about the topic. And what about The Sun - our country’s most beloved newspaper? Well, it decided to focus on “the England player that sent a Playboy twin saucy texts hours before their world cup exit.”
Whether it’s because of the right-wing nature of our media, or corruption, or simply the fact that it (arguably) wasn’t a very big demonstration (twice the number of people attended Comic con - a comic book convention - last week), the reason for the lack of mass media attention is beside the point.
The point is, the anti-austerity, revolutionary mood is growing – but not fast enough, and not in the right form. UKIP is providing a vehicle for people’s anger towards the state, convincing them that – in the words of journalist Owen Jones at Parliament Square on Saturday – “Polish fruit pickers and Nigerian nurses” are to blame, rather than “the bankers and tax avoiders who plunged us into this economic disaster.”
And let’s be clear – things aren’t exactly that great at the moment, as I argued in my last article. The electorate is increasingly disillusioned with politicians, who are leaving celebrities to fill the void. People feel disconnected, seeing little point in voting, left in the dark about how change can occur. What can they do about poverty, which is hitting twice as many British households as thirty years ago? What is the visible alternative to austerity – a growing beast that is bleeding council budgets dry, feeding the wealthy, tearing chunks out of public services, and has caused – among many other things - 70 council-funded children's centres to close each year since 2010.
This is what Saturday’s demonstration was all about. While the media stayed quiet, the country sat still, and inequality continued to soar, they marched on Westminster – edging as close to the beast as they could. Collective action is the only hope.
However, they knew that putting an end to austerity wouldn’t be enough. Indeed, how exactly do we tackle debt and the deficit if government spending is raised?
We need a new revolution, according to John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. Coinciding with recent events is the arrival of their new book, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State. Disillusionment and inequality are interlinked issues, as we’ve seen. In order to kill two birds with one stone, a fundamental shift in capitalism is desperately needed, according to the authors. To assess the reasons for this, we need to take a wider, historical perspective.
The Western state has been through “three and a half great revolutions” in modern times, Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue. The first came in the 1600s as Europe’s princes created centralised states that turned into trading empires. The second began with the French and American revolutions, replacing “regal patronage systems with more meritocratic and accountable government”. Next came “the invention of the modern welfare state”, which has continued since World War II, bar the half-revolution of Thatcher and Reagan’s attempts to limit its growth.
The consequence of these revolutions? State spending has risen from an average of 10% in the West to 47%, as politicians have given us more of what we demand – “more education, more healthcare, more pensions, more benefits.” The subsequent increasing dependence on the state and lack of self-reliance has made the system unsustainable however. Debt has mushroomed, with austerity the result. Inevitably, this has affected only the most reliant on public services – the poorest.
So here we are in 2014, scraping through another crisis and yet more social unrest. Current policies are only benefiting the minority, and are certainly not winning the Conservatives much support. But is there a pro-austerity, anti-revolutionary solution? A rise in the minimum wage, perhaps. However, this is unlikely to happen. Although it would help the working poor and stop the taxpayer effectively subsidizing them through benefits, the Conservatives fear it would raise unemployment and cause another collapse. Businesses may cut their workforces if they had to pay them more, and Cameron’s corporate confidants certainly wouldn’t be happy.
Curiously, a more radical change makes more sense, according to the authors, not least because the problem is global. Political alienation, inequality and over-spending aren’t confined to the UK. With western governments burdened by debt, GDP growth stagnating in the G7 and radical parties gaining momentum across Europe, may a fourth revolution be on the cards?
This would not be a shift to socialism. This isn’t a radical left-wing idea. Micklethwait and Wooldridge agree that our current situation is unsustainable, a ‘political earthquake’ is indeed happening, and we’re still feeling the effects of one of the deepest recessions in history. We need to “revive the spirit of democracy,” say the authors. This means lightening the burden on the state and removing the drag of entitlement to cut the deficit. But this has to be done by freeing ourselves from the grip of tax-dodging, multinational corporations and ensuring that the burden of austerity falls into the hands of those best equipped to deal with it – the richest.
A revolution requires a realization of who really caused the 2008 crisis (the over privileged bankers and tax-dodging multinationals) and who is really suffering for it (everyone else). The People’s Assembly hopes that twice as many Britons wake up and take part in the next demonstration in October. And if the BBC won’t tell us what’s going on, awareness needs to spread through social media and word of mouth.
The 50,000 that marched on London last weekend may not have agreed with all of the points raised by Micklethwait and Wooldridge. For instance, the idea of the reliance on the state being so integral to our economic troubles. But the majority of ideas are shared, and a powerful statement has been made. They have testified that what is necessary is a fundamental redistribution of power and wealth – not just the end of austerity.
By Jacob Montgomery