The Boundary Commission for Scotland is just doing its job. The Commissioners are principled, professional people with relevant skills and knowledge. They work in accordance with strict rules with only one aim – to achieve and maintain the best possible balance among constituencies so that each and every member of the electorate has a vote of equal value. Any suggestion that they are somehow ‘directed’ by politicians towards some end favourable to particular interests is nonsense. I’m not saying anybody has suggested such a thing. Only that conspiracy theories proliferate and the recently published proposal which would see Scotland’s quota of MPs reduced from 59 to 57 is too tempting a prospect for conspiracy theorists to pass up. The proposed boundary changes may look like a deliberate disadvantaging of Scotland. But this is not an ‘attack’ on Scotland. Not directly, anyway. And certainly not by the Boundary Commission for Scotland. It’s just the system.
The reality – this applies generally and not only to parliamentary boundaries – is far scarier than any conspiracy theory. We might even theorise that the psychology of conspiracy theorising includes an element of seeking comfort in the face of perceived threat. If there’s a conspiracy then we can, at least in theory, expose the plot and identify the plotters. If there is a conspiracy then it is easy to imagine an intervention which will remove the threat. Perhaps counter-intuitively given the invariably doom-laden manner in which they are presented, supposing there to be a conspiracy relieves feelings of powerlessness.
If the threat is systemic it is beyond the reach of any intervention. We cannot combat or remove the threat. We cannot apprehend the conspirators. There are none. Nobody is responsible. Nobody is in control. We are powerless. Everybody is powerless. Everybody’s fate is in the hands of a cold, impersonal, uncaring system. That is scary. I know I’d prefer a human conspiracy to a relentless and ungovernable process.
The question that arises from all of this is why do the same sections of society always seem to benefit from this process if it is not managed to give them preference? Power accumulates. Privilege goes to the privileged. Patronage favours those whose patronage is sought. Having begets having more which becomes the having which begets yet more having. We are all, I’m sure, familiar with the old aphorism which observes that the rich get richer while the poor get whatever the person relating the aphorism considers to be the shitty end of the stick. The least imaginative version has the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. But that’s not even possible. While there is in principle, no limit to getting richer, there is a point at which being poorer becomes being dead. There is, however, little argument that the rich tend to get richer. And that over time the tendency for the rich to get richer grows stronger. The rich can now be more assured of remaining rich and getting richer than at any time in history. When was the last time a stock market crash prompted a rain of newly impoverished speculators falling from tall buildings? It doesn’t happen. Because the rich don’t just get richer. They get more secure.
The poor may stop getting poorer at the point where poverty shades into death but this is hardly a comfort to them. (Unless they have succumbed to religionism and its promises. But that’s a topic all on its own.) While they live, the poor can only get poorer. They can never feel secure even in whatever level of poverty they have reached because being poor they have no power to prevent themselves getting poorer. Even if absolute poverty is reduced, those at or near the bottom of the heap are no better off in terms of security. They are no more secure in their relatively comfortable circumstances than they were in circumstances of greater deprivation – by any objective measure. The truly rich are now so rich that security is no longer an issue for them. For the poor, insecurity is just as corrosive as ever. Possibly more so now that it is relative to something close to perfect security. Being daily reminded that there is a human condition that contrasts so starkly with one’s own condition has to hurt. Especially when you know with one of the only certainties your condition allows that the contrasting human condition is unattainable.
There is a book – long a favourite of mine – called Social Limits to Growth by Fred Hirsch which I have almost certainly mentioned before. (I think I paid 50p or maybe £1 for my copy in a shop selling remaindered books.) There is a particularly memorable passage in the book where the author responds to the idea perhaps best summed up in another of those aphorisms – the one about how a rising tide lifts all ships. The idea that the future holds something better no matter what your present circumstances. You might hear an apologist for the system say something along the lines that the poor used to struggle for bus fare and now even people considered poor might well possess a car. The thought that is intended to carry us through the daily grind is that looking to along the path leading to that shining city on a hill and seeing where the relatively rich have reached, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we too will reach that point someday. Our ship is being lifted by the same capitalist tide as theirs.
The problem with that ‘rising tide’ analogy is that if our ship is a rotting, leaky hulk that seems constantly on the verge of sinking then that’s what it will still be when the tide is fully risen. Also, the analogy assumes our hulk and the luxury yacht are alongside one another. This doesn’t seem to reflect real life. In real life it feels more as if our wee boat is below the yacht. At which point the analogy breaks.
Cars were once the exclusive province of the very rich. Now, anybody can have a car. What we can never have is the abundance of space and fuel that the rich were able to enjoy. Relatively, we are no better off.
In Fred Hirch’s metaphor for social progress and (limitless) economic growth, we are indeed all on the same path towards that shining city on the hill which represents whatever is the individual’s ‘dream’. Their perfection. But we are all using up resources as we progress along this path so that by the time we reach where those ahead of us have been those resources are seriously depleted. We can never have what they had because they’ve already had it. And more. Those at the front are actually ‘borrowing’ resources from further along the path. Which means that when we reach where they have been the resources we need are not merely depleted but in deficit. Being unable to make up this shortfall from those ahead of us un the path – only those at the front can reach forward – we can only look to find what we need from those behind us. I think you can see where this is going.
I may not have faithfully represented Fred Hirch here. I may have taken the metaphor somewhat differently to what he intended. But not massively or even significantly so. The model illustrates the observable reality of the system which rules our lives. And the inevitable fate of that system. It breaks before the analogy does.
The point I’m making here is that the message of that aphorism about the rich getting richer has a much wider relevance than just monetary wealth. Money is just a convenient way of representing power, security etc. The message is that the system favours those that the system has favoured. Nobody needs to make this so in any purposeful way. It is unlikely that anybody could direct the system even if they wanted to, had ample resources and weren’t preoccupied with day-to-day survival.
What is true of the system as a whole is also true of all the subsystems. Such as that bit involving the power relationship between Scotland and England-as-Britain. Because that bit of the system favours the latter and disfavours the former then it will inevitably tend to favour England-as-Britain and disfavour Scotland. Nobody has to conspire to make it so. Advantage accrues to advantage without any intervention. Intervention is required to prevent advantage accruing to advantage. But disadvantage is general. Meaning the disadvantaged are disadvantaged in terms of the ability to intervene in such a way as to interrupt or redirect the flow of advantage to advantage. Whatever the Boundary Commission for Scotland or anybody else does the outcome will tend to favour the most favoured party. Because being the favoured party tends to generate the conditions in which favour accrues to the favoured party.
The system is solidly entrenched. It has become so in my lifetime. I have watched it happen. Although I do not claim to have been aware of it until more recently. A system such as I have attempted to describe cannot remain invisible forever. At some point its outcomes become all to apparent. The fact that the 2008 collapse of the world’s financial system left the rich even richer is hard to ignore. Likewise, the recent pandemic. And we may confidently predict, the ‘recovery’ from the impact of the pandemic. Both will make the rich richer and leave the poor where they are. Where the system deems they belong.
Another indication of a system in which imbalance generates further imbalance is the super-rich. People like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. People who couldn’t stop getting richer even if they wanted to. People who cannot possibly become poorer. The system won’t let them. They are not in control. It’s as if their wealth creates a gravitational pull which draws in more and more money. Little escapes this gravity field. Extrapolate the effect if you wish to see how truly frightening it is that there is no conspiracy and no need for one. Then, if you’re not yet scared enough, consider that gravity implies acceleration. The tendency of all wealth, power, security etc. towards some kind of singularity is accelerating.
Can it be stopped? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I have great confidence in human ingenuity. But I’m very uncertain about whether it’s a match for the system. And I am ever mindful of the fact that it was human ingenuity which created the system in the first place. Just as it was human ingenuity which created the subsystem in which Scotland is certain to always be at a relative disadvantage. I yet cling to the hope of an intervention which might rectify this. As for the rest…?
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