Some reflections on political strategy, anarchism and responsibility

Dorset Council have started to create a number of Executive Advisory Panels focusing on specific areas of strategic development. These cross-party groups of about eight to ten elected members will listen to reports and assess the evidence from relevant council officers and other experts, and then advise the Cabinet on ways forward. Even accepting that these panels are only advisory, i.e. that the Cabinet is free to ignore their advice, I think that they are positive development – in principle at least. However, in some areas, and the Council’s response to the climate emergency in particular, I am fearful that this process will be overly cautious and too respectful of received opinion. Rather than research and consider what is possible on existing evidence, we need to commit to the necessary radical action and then work out how to bring these commitments about. Our response to the impending climate and environmental breakdown needs to be bold and brave, not considered and measured!

I am sitting on three of these panels. Apart from the one considering the climate emergency, I am also sitting on one looking at economic development – and this poses its own dilemma. It’s probably fair to say that my own understanding of the economy and the strategy we should be developing is somewhat at odds with other members of the panel. I would, for example, fully endorse Paul Mason’s comment in this week’s New Statesman that “Few people are yet prepared to accept that, to save the planet, we have to end capitalism – and on a timescale that even an ardent Leninist might find optimistic.” Which leaves me with a problem. If I simply express such an opinion I am more than likely to be simply side-lined by other panel members, regarded as some radical pest who’s intent on disrupting the process, and not even given a chance to explain my reasoning. However, if the need for change is as urgent as I believe it to be how can I simply sit back patiently waiting for the tide to turn? Any advice on this would be gratefully received.

Talking of the climate crisis (as I inevitably am), Richard Walton, of Policy Exchange, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier in the week, claiming that Extinction Rebellion were planning an anarchist revolution. In case you are not familiarwith Policy Exchange, it’s a right-wing think-tank that supports free-market solutions to political issues. I suppose that I should thank him. Apart from giving me a good laugh, he made me aware of a potential paradox regarding anarchism. Anarchists are usually regarded as being somewhat left of centre in the political spectrum, and whilst its proponents vary quite widely in what they actually believe they generally affirm the importance of individual freedom as a basic principle, view the state as being inconsistent with individual freedom, and propose various ways of building a better society without the state (description lifted from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy). Now, if I removed the reference to anarchists and being left of centre, to what extent would that description apply to neo-liberalism?

And talking of neo-liberalism (you have to admire the sequencing here, don’t you?), a comment by Will Storr, in his book Selfie, has sent my thinking about ‘responsibility’ (the discussion topic of this week’s Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group) into a state of confusion. I have generally approached this topic from the direction of Sartre’s ‘atheistic existentialism’ which declares “that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence”. The upshot of this is that humanity is first thrown into the world, and only attempts to define itself afterwards; that there is no human nature; that “Man [sic] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” As there is no predetermined right action there is a great responsibility on individual human beings to consider what to do in any given situation – the responsibility for acting is theirs and theirs alone. To be honest, I have never given a huge amount of time to thinking through ‘responsibility’ in this context, but I have long since regarded myself as an ‘existentialist’. However, as Storr points out in relation to neo-liberalism, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘zero-hour contracts are “arrangements in which the responsibility of the employer is minimised, and that of the individual maximised”, and that there is a general sense in which workers are taking on personal responsibility for becoming better employees and better persons. I suspect that Sartre would not have approved of such an analysis, but I wonder how he would have responded?

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