Saturday, 20 August 2011

A Manifesto for Social Evolution in the UK: Part 1.

"Those who make peaceful evolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
What Kennedy meant to say...

I had wanted to write about the punitive sentencing that occurred in the wake of the riots, yet the more I thought about it, the more depressed I became.  The issues were so clear to the non-ideologically bound that they had already all been said.  So, in an attempt to get ahead of the curve, I figured someone had better make a start putting forward some solutions...  

This is not about left and right. This is not about socialist or capitalist.  This, a manifesto for reform for the institutions of the UK, is an attempt to derive solutions to our growing malaise from the philosophy of cultural evolution and complex systems.  Over the coming two weeks I will review, using a framework derived from cultural evolution, each of our public institutions and sectors of society that I see as being in need of urgent evolution, lest they lose all significance and authority to the new generation: the police, the justice system, education, housing, employment, the economy, foreign policy and state governance.  Often the foundations upon which they are based centuries old, using misguided concepts often much older still.  In a time of globalisation and exponentially growing communication technology, we must bring them up to date if we are to expect them to remain relevant to 21st century identities.  If they are not, they risk losing all authority and right of representation, with potentially disastrous consequences if resisted.  

I just want to finish my introduction with this:  I do not see it as my job to describe a utopia before demanding people adhere to it.  If that's your impression, then you've misunderstood.  Evolution happens a step at a time, by definition.  I'm just aiming to point out the bleeding obvious to those that are blinded by walled identities in the here and now... it's for tomorrows generation to pick up the ball and keep heading in the right direction.  All we have to do is leave the world slightly better than we found it.

First up, law and order.

The Police

Firstly, I'd just like to say that I once seriously considered becoming a police officer (and still would, should they significantly change).  There is something noble in principle about protecting people... so long as by 'people' you mean 'everyone', equally.  The list of grievances justifiably held against the police grows by the day; deaths, cover-ups, obfuscation, lie after lie.  The fact that most coppers are probably honest, hard-working people is simply not a satisfactory defence.

The police represent one of the most closed institutional systems in the country.  Their shared language, uniform, privileged position of power, procedures etc, combine with the situational pressures of conflict to bond the group together (much like the army).   As such, it has always been seen as a virtue to stick up for your colleagues no matter what; conversely, the conflict inherent in grassing on a fellow cop has been staple diet for cops shows to the point of cliche.   This level of tribalism might have been sustainable once, but no longer.  It is simply not possible to maintain that level of corruption, that many deaths in custody with seeming immunity, the brazen politicisation... not when every citizen has a camera in their pocket.  Such a closed system evolves slowly, if at all.  The police may be independent in name, but their remit is determined by government, not the people*.  As such, it is the poor who represent the police's 'other', those who transgress capitalism's norms, be it in their dress, their disdain for greed or their misfortune to have been born into a class forgot.  While it remains this way, there will always be incidents that continue to decay what little remains of a reputation they have

In such a situation, assuming the majority of police officers are honest people, we should expect to see officers speaking up, denouncing those shown to have defiled their position in the name of the people.  I'd certainly like to think that at least one of them had got to know some of these youths to the point of empathy, and then on to questioning their own actions publicly.  That this hasn't happened is telling, and in a large way makes each and every one of them an enabler.  This is why I couldn't be a police officer; at the very best I would never get promoted, at worst who knows?

They need opening up.  All data must be on-line.  Civil rights groups, lawyers and the public should be the ones to hold the police to account, people whose identity allows them to do the job that needs to be done.  Clearly the IPCC is far too close to be considered impartial; certainly their record is pretty pathetic.  The anger felt by thousands when they think of the name Ian Tomlinson, to cite but one person, simply cannot be undone.  It is there in the cynicism greeting each report of a new death at the hands of the police, in the resigned sorrow for the latest family to get lied to and dicked about after losing a loved one.  The public must be allowed to video police actions and record conversations if they so wish (not least because technology will soon be doing that for some 24/7 anyway).  I would go further and consider helmet-cams for armed response units that upload to independent servers... the first public inquiry avoided would ensure they pay for themselves pretty quick.  If the police don't like the idea, perhaps they should stop routinely covering shit up?

The police must be seen to be about more than simply stopping criminality.  Combine probation and front-line duties, let those on the street get to know these kids in deeper and more constructive contexts than stop-and-searches.  Government must give police greater support by increasing investment in youth clubs and groups who do great work like Connexions instead of seeing youth related services as an easy target for slashing budgets.

And the most painful thing?  When officers and politicians admit the police were corrupt once and yet insist that things have changed.  As if they would even know.

The Justice System

An activist awaits trial.  They know, their friends know and their lawyers know that whether they get off or get sent down depends largely on whether Judge A or Judge B is appointed to the case.  If you think this is an exaggeration then congratulations to you; you are lucky (or submissive) enough to have not experienced the pleasure of finding out the limitations of 'universal' law.  This alone says all that needs to be said about the problem inherent in our justice system: that power is too  to ensure objective, consistent application of law.  It is also too concentrated in it's identity (rich, largely male, largely white); an identity far too exclusively intertwined with other rich white guys in the police, the government and business boardrooms to ensure equal representation for the whole population. 

A dangerous number of people now view the justice system, correctly as it happens, as representing the power of wealth; a number that is only going to rise as communication technologies advance.  This is because of the inherent contradiction between the underlying capitalist assumptions of national courts and the multinational, globalised culture we now inhabit.  Do not preach to us about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights only to throw those who embody it's spirit in jail for having the temerity to disrupt a British company turning a profit.  

What I wouldn't encourage is a radical overhaul.  For all it's faults, our system in the UK has built within it mechanisms that allow for evolution of law.  It may be slow to do so, often to the point of exasperation (see: Drug Reform), but there is much that can be done without risk of evolutionary over-reach (otherwise known as revolution).  As with all institutions, transparency, open data and an acceptance of new communication technologies must be a basic starting point, including easily searchable and mashable data records from individual judges to national statistics.  Law cannot remain cloaked in legalese and expect people to feel represented.  Activists must be allowed to speak their cause when in court for non-violent direct action and, if shown to adhere to international humanitarian law, they must trump issues of purely economic or political interest.  How else do we avoid another Diego Garcia or West Papua?

Finally, the one thing you absolutely must not do, under any circumstances, is allow criminal minds to congregate in a culturally closed system, away from society, for any length of time.


Seriously, of all the flaws in our institutions, none compare to the prison system for sheer misguidedness.  If you were to look at humans as they truly are, a complex system governed by cultural evolution, then prison is the complete opposite of what is needed.  At the heart of this misunderstanding is an immature concept of justice as retribution, of responsibility lying absolutely in Judeo-Christian notions of the soul and free will.  Instead, it is simply a mechanism for providing feedback to the system, issuing formalised judgements of  collective will in order to influence the community as a whole.  By shutting these people away, we are merely hiding from ourselves evidence of our collective failure, or, more likely given its power, the failure of authority.  
Restorative justice is exactly what cultural evolution demands, offenders being made to see the damage they have done and, where possible, meet the victims themselves.  It would take a much bigger budget than such measures have now, but it must be considerably cheaper than housing them in criminal finishing schools and tarring them with further non-constructive social stigma? We need a serious reappraisal of the fundamental nature of law and justice; who it represents, it's necessary limitations and most importantly of all its need to be grounded in universality and objective fact.  Do not hope for progress while bankers, arms dealers and corrupt officials act with seeming impunity while thousands are criminalised for smoking a natural substance often less harmful (certainly to others) than the champagne they so lovingly hold as a mark of sophistication.

On Monday: Education and Housing...

* No, they are not the same thing. See: Government, coming soon


Matthew Dickinson said...

As I was reading this, I couldn't help, but think of Marcus Brigstocke's introduction to his 'Planet Cordruoy' show: 'If you object to any of the content of this film, then... good. It would be creepy and wrong if anyone agreed with all of it, and anyway to say "I don't agree" is a freedom we should all exercise. It shows we're thinking.'
I won't say much in praise for fear of being wrong and creepy :P
Of course the theme running through your comments on policing and justice are the need for greater gathering of, distribution and access to evidence. The increase in these things is why trust is starting (if that's not an understatement) to crumble.

I don't know enough about the justice system, do judge have to record their justification for sentences as some kind of check? Do you think juries should have more say in the sentence? Should they be given a choice between say the average sentence for the crime, a lenient one, or a harsher one?

Ben King said...

Having never experienced jury courts I don't really feel I can comment. Certainly, from a cultural evolution point of view, a dozen random people is better than one rich white guy (generalisation, but you get the point).

Ideally civil society would have more input in the system feedback we call justice. If perpetrators feel they are being tried and condemned from start to finish by people they do not identify with in anyway (quite the opposite) we cannot seriously expect their morals to kick in and any good be done.