Robin McAlpine: A vision of the future

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine found hope amid the heartache and chaos of Mexico's recent earthquake

FOR our household it's been a week with some real worries and fears. My partner Cristina is Mexican and for a number of hours after the earthquake it wasn't clear if all of her friends and extended family in Mexico were OK. After a difficult night glued to Facebook and Whatsapp, she learned they were.

But it's what happened next which lifted me.

Because, for a few days (and with Cristina's translation help – my Spanish is not good...) her Facebook feed was a little bit like a kind of pre-echo of a possible future. And for the first time in ages, it was a future in which I'd like to live.

What happened was that people all over Mexico rapidly self-organised to help those in Mexico City and other affected areas.

What happened was that people all over Mexico rapidly self-organised to help those in Mexico City and other affected areas. For example, one of Cristina's cousins (who is a chef and runs a small restaurant) filled his car not only with blankets, shovels, pick axes, medicines and food, but also with with a small team of physiotherapists, vet medics and other volunteers and drove four hours to the capital.

He is still there after more than a week, sleeping on someone's couch and working day and night, and away from his wife and son. Like him, many young people took ownership of the situation through social media and they created their own 'brigades' through Whatsapp groups, one for each collection point, hospital, shelter, etc. Some volunteers would specifically be assigned to the relentless task of updating between feeds and linking up relevant groups, but everyone helped.

Every person with a smartphone shared and retweeted. Households still with electric power in the worst affected areas ran multi-contact plugs through gaps in their windows to let anyone in need to charge their phones.

Coach operators offered free spaces to anyone travelling into the city to help. Restaurants fed victims and volunteers for free. The smallest businesses gave their full inventory up at no charge to help the rescue of survivors.

All of this happened without a second's rest; everyone – including those, like Cristina, who were geographically far away – shared the news, requests and experiences from one group to the next.

Households still with electric power in the worst affected areas ran multi-contact plugs through gaps in their windows to let anyone in need to charge their phones.

Messages would come in saying things like: "Quick! We need a chipping power drill in Avenida Coyoacán, people trapped." The messages would be passed from one group to another and volunteers like Cristina's cousin would rush there and join in the slow excavation process to get people out or to offer the transport of supplies, people and rubble.

Human chains of hundreds of individuals of all ages would work through the rain and throughout the night in silent respect and solidarity. Messengers on bikes would speed in and out of the otherwise unaccessible areas with medicines and urgent supplies.

A large army of medical and mental health professionals and students were constantly checking up on the onsite volunteers, making sure exhaustion didn't catch anyone by surprise. The most humble of people were seen contributing bags of 'tortas' and bottled water to feed those helping out.

Volunteers who had to stop to take a break were escorted out of the excavation zones through applause and cheer by paramedics and soldiers. "Vivan las valientes mujeres mexicanas!" (Long live brave Mexican women!) was chanted to a 17-year-old lassie who had to be helped out as her legs gave in after 12-hour shift... "Que vivan!" (Long may they live!) thundered thousands of voices with one breath.

So many made substantial sacrifices to help. No ulterior motive, no real personal benefit. Just sacrifice because it felt right.

Coach operators offered free spaces to anyone travelling into the city to help. Restaurants fed victims and volunteers for free.

And if you think this is all easy, cost-free virtue signalling then I suspect you've not spent an hour excavating rubble to reach a trapped young girl only to find that by the time you reached her, she'd died.

It was incredibly moving to watch; I welled up with tears many times. And what was perhaps most inspiring about it is that Mexico has lost a lot of faith in itself. A nation which was proud of its community spirit has, in recent years, felt lost to the ever-expanding violence of the drug cartels.

Again and again, Mexico has had reason to doubt itself. It runs from the arms trade which has flooded the country with weapons (to protect supply routes so the US can get its lucrative supply of narcotics) through to the economic shock of the rapid entry of predatory US corporations into the economy post-Nafta (you'll pick up a theme if you talk about Mexico much).

And then, instantly, in the face of real human need, came real human solidarity and unthinking sacrifice by person for person, stranger for stranger.

We've been looking round the world for signs of decline, of evidence that humans (not 'us', the other ones) are every bit as bad as we suspect they are. And, inevitably, we've managed to find it.

Human chains of hundreds of individuals of all ages would work through the rain and throughout the night in silent respect and solidarity.

And by 'we' I mostly mean those who benefit from believing that the world is really a kind of hell and only a Hobbesian 'firm hand' from the top will save us from that hell. Which means the powerful, the media, the bankers, the senior politicians. (Or, in shorthand, George Osborne.)

And they've succeeded. Have a look at research from Common Cause. It shows that we all tend to rate 'others' as substantially more selfish and nasty both than we are and than they themselves say they are.

After 30 years of the Daily Mail telling you that 'ordinary people' secretly think appalling things so appalling things should be normalised, we've fallen for it. And as with all kinds of confirmation bias, that means we see and connect evidence of it everywhere, and treat evidence to the contrary as the outlier.

"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" they ask. Actually, no, the properly measured evidence is that we're not. But unfortunately 'we' don't own a publishing corporation.

I've been thinking much of late about 'what's next'. The 20th century is very clearly dead, but its not obvious to me that the 21st century has really been born yet. The biggest area of change ahead for me is probably 'democracy'.

So many made substantial sacrifices to help. No ulterior motive, no real personal benefit. Just sacrifice because it felt right.

The George Osbornes of this world (supported in at least this much by most of the Guardian tribe) see the response as technocratic. We need better rulers, and we'll know democracy is fixed when we get those better rulers.

Because, fundamentally, they see democracy as a precursor to government and little more than that. Democracy is a temporary state at election time; autocracy is the natural state the rest of the time. You pick 'em then you punish 'em – and the rest of the time you shop, shop, shop. That's your role as a citizen.

But the experience of Mexico's earthquake is that, while we most certainly need a strong state infrastructure in the modern world, we can actually do and manage much more of delivering that state all by ourselves.

A way to think about this is to look at the four sectors of the economy – the state, the market, the household and the commons. (For an interesting primer, have a look at this George Monbiot column.)

The one people are least familiar with is the commons – because this is the sector which has been under almost constant attack by the market. It is a space where things are shared, not owned. Where resources are to enhance community (and the individual in community), not provide profit.

The experience of Mexico's earthquake is that, while we most certainly need a strong state infrastructure in the modern world, we can actually do and manage much more of delivering that state all by ourselves.

There has been a rising argument from both the left and from the libertarian right that we should do more through the commons. The left sees this as peer-to-peer provision of goods and services (for example, community cooperatives), the right as an alternative to an overbearing state (the 'Big Society').

I think the solution is to realise that, actually, the state IS the commons – or should be. If the state doesn't represent the shared will of all citizens, then what is it? Too often the answer is that it is the remnants of feudalism or the a source of clientelism for the powerful.

So what would a 'commons state' look like? I'll be honest, I don't really know yet. In fact, I don't think we're close enough to getting there to be sure.

There are a few aspects of that new kind of society and democracy which are good to go now, and they all revolve around participatory democracy. Common Weal has published quite a bit on this – for example, options for pioneering open government or ways to give ordinary citizens a voice in parliament.

There are others which I can see. If Uber is really about empowering sole traders (it is absolutely no such thing, but let's pretend...) then why shouldn't a democratic state conclude that this is 'core business'? I'd like to see peer-to-peer platforms of this sort become democratically-controlled means of empowering citizens to help them succeed.

What the Mexico experience is making me understand is that there is a much more fundamentally different form of the future.

If you think exploiting desperate drivers through monopoly control is the future, then I suggest you rush back to your Daily Mail right now. But if you actually believe in the individual and their right to improve their life through enterprise and hard work, then help them.

Create a state which empowers the individual to do these kinds of things – but in a way that also contributes to the greater good of society and the nation.

Replace Uber. Replace Amazon. Replace Air B'n'B. Replace TripAdvisor. And, frankly, replace Facebook and Google. Take their utopian premise and rather than allowing it to be a grubby con to take money from the average Joe and rapidly get it into the pockets of the Silicon Valley demigods, try and make it an actual utopia.

Let a small Scottish producer (or hotelier or soul trading driver or musician or whatever) sell to a national customer base – to an international customer base. But do it in the way that makes them wealthiest and stop trying to work out how much of their wealth you can topslice.

Let's treat the profits these companies make as a tax on their suppliers. And let's follow the doctrine of 'no taxation without representation'.

In it we would be connected not to create global highways where our personal wealth can flow directly to the very-much-more-wealthy-than-us, but connected to build a better community and society.

But I'm starting to realise that what I'm doing here is predicting the future as a better version of the present. What the Mexico experience is making me understand is that there is a much more fundamentally different form of the future.

In it we would be connected not to create global highways where our personal wealth can flow directly to the very-much-more-wealthy-than-us, but connected to build a better community and society.

If we (citizens) can run a major disaster rescue operation all by ourselves using our cars, our spare rooms and our willingness to chip in and buy some blankets and medicines, what else could we run?

But this is not a call for a weakening of the state – we don't need the creation of laws and regulations and infrastructure and core services moved further from democracy and closer to the market. We need the opposite – a better kind of state which works in a way that undermines the spurious free market arguments against the state.

Watching what happened in Mexico made me feel better about humankind in exactly the way the Daily Mail tries to make you feel worse about it. Somehow, of late, the state feels like it has been doing the Mail's job for it (you think that banking bailout is just going to be forgotten?).

Watching what happened in Mexico made me feel better about humankind in exactly the way the Daily Mail tries to make you feel worse about it.

We need to be radical in our thinking now. We need to think with the kind of vision of the greedy so-and-sos in Silicon Valley, but to the opposite end – innovation for everyone's benefit, not innovation for the benefit of the few at the expense of the rest.

Famously, the tech giants like to 'move fast and break stuff'. It is replacing the stuff they break which makes them rich.

Scotland, why couldn't we move fast and fix stuff? Why couldn't we be a state which innovates for the common good of its citizens? That might make us the future, not the past.

Picture courtesy of YouTube

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Comments

Nelson

Fri, 09/29/2017 - 09:25

Good article about ingrained nanny-will-take-care-of-it complacency.

Nothing about nationalism represented as an ingrained belief system - long may that continue.

florian albert

Sat, 09/30/2017 - 22:34

Robin McAlpine applauds the response of ordinary Mexicans to the recent natural disaster. There is nothing surprising in the way the Mexican people behaved. People rally round in times of adversity.
Whether this positive response will impact on Mexico's dreadful levels of violence remains to be seen.
After describing the humane response of ordinary Mexicans, what does Robin McAlpine do next?
He denounces the Daily Mail.
There is, on the left, a group whose antipathy to the Daily Mail is boundless. Then there is the general public, where large numbers of ordinary people read the Daily Mail.
Robin McAlpine will have the support of the former group. The latter group will continue to ignore him - insofar as they are even aware of his existence.

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