Preoccupying: Dan Hind

June 6, 2012

Dan Hind is the author of ‘Return of the Public‘ and ‘The Threat to Reason‘ and a member of Tax Justice Network. In his latest work, ‘Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly and the Future of Liberty‘, Dan posits the end of an era dominated by markets and experts, suggesting public assemblies and open, non-teleological discussions as a possible way forward. The OT asked Dan about public assemblies, ‘voter apathy’ and rise of mental health problems in today’s society.

Occupied Times: You open Common Sense with emphasis on the notion that 2012 will be crucial for the future direction of the world. Why is this?

Dan Hind: Late in 2010 I had a strong sense that something had finally started in the UK – that some kind of limit had been reached, in terms of what governments could get away with. Over the following year that ebbed and flowed, but by the end of 2011 it was clear that action by citizens could change things. In the Middle East there were obvious breakthroughs. Here the impact of the occupations was more subtle, and would be denied by mainstream politicians. But nevertheless things had changed. Above all, the numbers of people involved in direct action, and in creating an alternative to austerity, had increased hugely.

If we build on last year, then our impact – on public discussion, at first, but later on the structure of politics and the economy – could be very profound. If we turn out to be as serious and committed as the people who occupied Tahrir Square, then that would make a difference, for our societies and for the wider world. If, as our critics insist, we are just mucking about, then that too will be important. But not in a good way.

OT: You’re hinting at the difficulties in comparing events in the Middle East with Europe or the US. Late in 2010, the UK saw the first wave of massive student protests, while the Egyptian people, for example, were still under the yoke of a brutal dictator. How much do you realistically think these distinct movements have inspired each other?

DH: Well, we have to be careful about the ways in which they are distinct. The Middle East is not the same as Europe or North America, of course, and we should avoid facile comparisons. But if we want to understand either situation we have to appreciate the connections, too. The campaign to topple Mubarak has many roots, but an important one was the opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq. A lot of people involved in Occupy became political at the same time, for the same reason. Similarly, the uprisings in the Middle East are rejections of a particularly nasty model of globalisation, where a small political elite collaborate with offshore interests to generate, and then appropriate, huge profits. It should be familiar to us, because it is very similar to what we have here. Like I say, there are differences, and the differences are important.

As for inspiration, that’s hard to quantify. But the sense that different societies and countries have been learning from each other is palpable. What’s happening in Quebec at the moment draws from the tactics of popular struggle in Chile. But Canadians are also fighting for similar things. These places are not the same. But people everywhere can take courage from what other people have fought for, and have achieved.

OT: After George Galloway’s by-election win in Bradford you wrote that it represented a change in voter patterns, and suggested it was protest voting. Do you think we saw more of this in the recent local elections?

DH: Well, the Bradford result was an extraordinary rejection of the mainstream options. If you don’t like the Conservatives you are supposed to vote Labour, or, if you are feeling particularly daring, the Liberal Democrats. To some extent that has broken down. The established parties are still in a strong position – the electoral system makes it punishingly difficult to break through from outside. But citizens, if they assemble and debate, can put pressure on the professionals in a way that hasn’t been possible for a long time, perhaps since the creation of modern party politics.

The local election turnout – 32% – was partly down to the low status of local government in England and Wales. Starting with Thatcher, the centre has stripped councils of powers and initiative. But still, this was very low by historical standards. The parties can’t convince 68% of  voters to participate. This creates a space in electoral politics. What we do about that is an important question.

OT: This is something we’re very interested in. We often hear about “voter apathy” which seems like a loaded term in that it places blame on the voter, rather than politicians. Julian Assange has said  “I believe that people are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic.” Do you agree that the 68% of non-voters are indeed powerless, or does it say something about the alienating nature of mainstream politics?

DH: If lots of people vote, the political class congratulate themselves: high levels of participation mean that people are happy with the system. If lots of people don’t vote, the political class congratulate themselves: low levels of participation mean that people are happy with the system.

That tells you something about the political class, of course. It also tells you something about voting.

The solution, it seems to me, is that we assemble and debate as citizens, at arm’s length from the political parties. Let them speak, certainly, but on the same terms as everyone else. If people gather to debate, then they gain an independent power. They learn about each other, and about themselves, through the act of collective assertion: “We live in this place, and we have a right to decide how it is run. And we’ll decide how we relate to electoral politics and on what terms.”

If assemblies become big enough, they become able to alter electoral results – but that’s only one of the things they can do. They first become schools for the exercise of power in the present, and so they become a device for dispelling apathy. Democracy isn’t about getting our team elected. It is about making the institutions of power subordinate to a sovereign public. And in current conditions that means assembly by any and all means possible.

OT: You have been keen to touch on the increase in mental health problems in recent times. Do you believe that a more equal, inclusive and collective society, like the one you envisage in Common Sense, would result in less mental illness?

DH: I think it would, yes. The evidence for this view is very strong. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s book,The Spirit Level, makes it clear that in wealthy countries economic inequality correlates closely with reported levels of distress. Unequal societies have more mental illness than equal ones.

And we can see why that might be. Inequality makes people anxious – and setbacks and disappointments become far more serious in unequal societies. Not getting a promotion in Britain is much more serious than in Finland, say. And unequal societies become increasingly poisonous, as those with wealth and power use both to justify themselves and to denigrate others.

Here’s the thing: a lot of people felt enormous relief when they met others at occupations, where there was a clear commitment to equality. Now I am not saying that the occupations were a utopia, but there were obvious benefits in being able to talk openly about matters of common concern. That tells us something about the communications system, about the
information environment in its broadest sense on which most of us depend.

We are encouraged to think that our state of mind is our individual responsibility. But we are deeply sensitive to what the surrounding culture tells us. If the culture is telling us that we have no value or voice if we aren’t rich, that has an effect. Let’s say that depression and anxiety are mental illnesses. But they are communicable diseases.

Political life isn’t all we need as humans. But then neither is Vitamin D.

OT: In what sense would you say the information environment is a factor behind the issue of mental health in our society? How can we hope to change this environment?

DH: The communications sector reproduces the dominant views in society. In a highly unequal society it reproduces the views of a small number of people, but represents its ideas and assumptions as common sense, as what everybody sensible thinks. In such circumstances, most people’s opinions and ideas are denigrated – presented back to them as marginal or weird. The majority is urged to see itself as abnormal, defective even.

The public culture, the information environment, tells us that we aren’t capable of self-government, that the world is too complicated for us to understand. It tells us that it is up to us as individuals to strive to improve our circumstances. It tells us that political action, in the broad sense of collective deliberation and assertion, is unnecessary or impossible.

How can we change this. Well, we can start to communicate among ourselves, through assembly online and in the world. And we can demand changes to the structure of communications. There are lots of ways we can do that. The most important thing is that we understand that the established media outlets are political institutions; they are constitutionally significant, and as such they must be made answerable to us as a deliberating public. That’s the idea I explore in The Return of the Public. Change the mainstream of the media, and you make other changes possible. It isn’t something that the governing interests want to talk about, precisely because it is so easy to do and so difficult to argue against.

Media reform isn’t the obvious place to start. But it is the right place to start, if you are interested in democratising the country.

OT: The General Assembly and other organising methods associated with the global Occupy movement (and previous movements) have received positive comment from yourself and others. What do you think has been the success of direct, non-hierarchical organisational process?

DH: Well, they’ve given people a chance to speak in a context where there is a reasonable expectation that they will be heard. That’s a great achievement. They’ve created a public culture. They motivate people to learn, and to share information and ideas. They have already provided an education in politics, in a culture where political understanding is very tightly controlled, where the very idea of politics has been radically distorted.

The process meant that people could work out what they thought about an issue, and find out what other people thought too. It made people comprehensible to one another as public beings. It didn’t change everything overnight, but why should it? It is a start. Those involved are, I hope, more confident about asserting themselves as citizens. I hope that they have more faith in other people, too.

OT: Is there a danger that assembly movements could end up being dominated by participants with similar motivations to parliamentary politicians, or do you believe they can genuinely shift power into the hands of the people?

Ambition, the desire for praise and status – these are part of what we are. Not everyone craves power, and not to the same extent. But it’s part of life. The occupation at St Paul’s didn’t become a playground for charismatic leaders, for the most part I think because everyone else didn’t want that. I don’t think domination is an imminent problem, as long as the emphasis is on equality in debate as an organizing ideal.

A group of people becoming a public is what matters. If assemblies can register parliamentary power, without being entranced by it, then so much the better. As for whether we can genuinely shift power into the hands of the people, we have no choice; we have to. There isn’t someone far away who understands things and has our best interests at heart. All we have is who we are, we have to make the best of that.

OT: In Common Sense you say, “Nothing can be swept away while most consider it inevitable or natural. Yet nothing can long survive if it is thought absurd.” How can groups like Occupy, which have already recognised the absurdity of the present system, help to change the “Common Sense” of the status quo?

DH: I think the main thing is to share the method of assembly, and use it intelligently, so that more people see what can be done with it, how flexible it is – and how it can create a great power.

It takes a degree of skill and experience. I couldn’t do it. But there are more people, thanks to Occupy, who can. Generalise the condition of assembly, that was the phrase.

You don’t need to give people more and more information, I don’t think, or enlighten them in some simple sense. Each of us needs to be in a context where it is possible – safe and socially appropriate – to consider the full significance of what we all know, pretty much, but most of us can’t bring ourselves to think about. We can’t get rid of something that we can’t look at steadily.

Once we’ve taken stock, we can decide what else we need to know, and what we need to do. To fully appreciate the absurdity of something, you have to gain a degree of power, I think.

OT: Since the onset of the Occupy movement, these methods of assembly have gone through changes leading to distinctions; for example with Occupy London sticking to the ‘consensus model’ on all decision-making, but Occupy Wall Street moving to relative majority voting on some issues. If, as you suggest, progress can be made in the sharing of methods of assembly, how can we determine what methods are correct?

DH: There’s no one right way, I don’t think.

We aren’t going to be able to achieve perfect consensus about everything. The advantage of seeking consensus in the way the occupations did is that it helps us to understand more clearly where and how we do differ. Though we have much more in common than we would ever guess from the way we are usually described in the media, we are not going to stop disagreeing. For one thing, the beneficiaries of the current system aren’t all going to see reason and accept the case for reform or revolution. The 99% are going to have to outvote the 1% on some things.

And the need for experimentation and adaptation goes beyond consensus versus majority voting. For example, I think face to face deliberation is very important. It encourages us in the full sense of the word, when we meet and discover that we aren’t a mob, or an apathetic mass, when we find that we are capable of exercising power, regulating ourselves, and so on. There’s something at stake when we meet. It feels like something is happening, for a very good reason. Something is happening, something is changing in the world, even if it is only our immediate circumstances. On the other hand, technology can save time, and can be used to circumvent an unreformed media.

There are lots of different approaches to take. People can disagree on what to do in different circumstances. But it is important that we try different things and learn from our mistakes, which will be numerous.


Follow Dan Hind on Twitter: @danhind