Let the Good Times Roll

wildeThe trouble with democracy is that sometimes it throws up a result you don’t like. I watched the election until dawn, obviously I have my own thoughts and views on what happened, I don’t need to rehearse these here. I will say that it’s important that you actually do vote, whenever you can – democracy is a muscle, if you don’t use it it dies. We are all passionate and contra Yeats that’s sometimes a good thing.

That is not the view of Giles Fraser though, who in the Guardian declares that he feels ‘ashamed to be English. Ashamed to belong to a country that has clearly identified itself as insular, self-absorbed and apparently caring so little for the most vulnerable people among us.’

And he goes on to say this:

The utterly miserable thought strikes me that Russell Brand just might have been right. What difference did my vote make? Why indeed do people vote, and care so passionately about voting, particularly in constituencies in which voting one way or the other won’t make a blind bit of difference? And why do the poor vote when, by voting, they merely give legitimacy to a system that connives with their oppression and alienation?

Fraser’s theory is that people vote on their self interest, at the expense of the common welfare: we ‘want to present to the nice polling man as socially inclusive, but who, in the privacy of the booth, tick the box of our own self-interest.’ This hurts the vulnerable among us, because more people vote for selfish reasons than for altruistic reasons, and so the results lead to government for the selfish people at the expense of the vulnerable people. And so, Fraser asks: ‘Did we just vote for our own narrow concerns and sod the rest?’

The schema is full of holes. Many wealthy people have altruistic concerns about social welfare and vote accordingly. Many people with low incomes and miserable lives don’t vote for social welfare type candidates. And we can argue also with Fraser’s point that when the oppressed vote, ‘they merely give legitimacy to a system that connives with their oppression and alienation.’ For isn’t it in the best interest of the oppressed that they vote and campaign and get organised so that they can beat the system at its own game? Russell Brand was wrong because he told people not to vote and specifically he encouraged young people not to vote when it’s not just in their own interest that the 18-30 group vote but because they are our future. We need them to keep parliamentary democracy in business.

Any crime writer will tell you that human motivation is complex. How do the thoughts and intuitions inside us translate into a world that we create? We can all be selfish and acquisitive, we can also exercise compassion. As Oscar Wilde said, people ‘find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this.’ To explain the world in terms of motivation is… difficult. Marxists and hypercapitalists tried to predict the future in terms of pure self interest but the results weren’t great. Wilde believed that the big revolution would free the individual from ‘the sordid necessity of living for others’ and ‘would be of value simple because it will lead to Individualism.’

Reformers of Fraser’s worldview would recoil from this because they equate individualism with greed. The backlash against the Enlightenment came from this. Communal dissent is great: individual dissent, not so great. An organised demonstration against the government is fine but a man who writes a book dissenting against powerful belief systems can’t blame anyone else for the death threats in his morning mail. Positive change will come from benign communal authority.

But self interest is not always about greed. People have individual passions and creativities, which can’t be said to impact on anyone else in a negative way. The man enjoying a hike in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales can be said to be selfish, but it’s not a selfishness that hurts anyone. Why do the poor vote? Fraser asks. They vote because they want bread on the table but they also want to be able to live freely and express themselves. The free country is not a perfect world. But social welfare doesn’t thrive under despotisms. North Korea is not known for its credit union programmes and third sector networking. There’s no benign state out there that will save us and people know that. People don’t like being told what to say and do. People want bread but they also want freedom: what Wilde called ‘the true pleasure and joy of living.’

A politician might call this impractical. But as dear Oscar also said: ‘This is perfectly true. It is impractical, and it goes against human nature. That is why it is worth carrying out’.



One Response to “Let the Good Times Roll”

  1. Paul Murdoch Says:

    Been reading The Soul of Man under Socialism? Love it. The best thing about it is it’s exactly what you’d think and even hope it would be. It’s actually full of what I can only describe of wisdom. But it’s not exactly Socialism is it? Never quite follows through on the necessary ramifications.

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