Guest post: A History Lesson

At the UK UNCUT protests on 26 February, a ‘Big Society School’ was set up inside and outside several banks in central London. Around 100 people, many of them wearing school uniform attended lessons, including an economics lecture by Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation and a maths class by John Christensen from the Tax Justice Network. The history lesson, written up below, was given by Tim Gee, the co-editor of Political Dynamite. His first book, ‘Counterpower’ will be released in October.

A year before his tragic death, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King gave a speech in which he spoke of the human tragedy of the Vietnam War and the deleterious effect it had on funding for the poverty programme at home. But he also spoke more philosophically, declaring:

“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

His words are as relevant today as they were then.

Banks like RBS-Natwest represent the ‘thing oriented’ society – the promotion of profits regardless of the social costs. We have heard of the role of RBS-Natwest in the financial crisis that in turn precipitated the cuts. But they are contributing to another crisis that is even bigger – the climate crisis.

Since being bailed out by us, RBS has provided nearly 13 billion pounds to fossil fuels companies, including for the Canadian Tar Sands. The Tar Sands project is the most ecologically destructive industrial project on the planet. It is causing the razing of rainforest, the pollution of rivers and the displacement of indigenous people. The refining process is at least three times as energy intensive as conventional oil. At a time that we need to keep oil in the ground, this is devastating. This is an example of the ‘thing oriented’ society at its very worst.

So what is a ‘person oriented society’? At the very least it must involve every human having access to the basics that they need. In the old days we might have proposed to produce as much as possible and either redistribute it, or let it trickle down to the poor. In the context of climate change that is no longer an option. We need to produce less and distribute it further.

Doing this is not complex or new. A library is a perfect example of us producing less of something and distributing it further. Yet it is libraries that this Government is seeking to close.

Another example of the ‘person oriented society’ is the free provision of public services to those in need. However the current Government is trying to commodify what should not be commodified by making these things available to buy and sell.

King teaches us that “There is nothing essentially wrong with power; the problem is that in America power is unevenly distributed”. Power is unevenly distributed today too, but on the global scale – between the financial sector and the rest of us. But we have power too. Indeed in theory no system of rule can survive without co-operation of the many. Therefore every injustice can in theory be defeated. We are about turning that theory in to practice. And there are case studies we can learn from:

On 1 February 1960, four black students in North Carolina decided to disregard the unjust laws of segregation by the simple act of a sit-in at a whites-only lunch counter. As the tactic was repeated over and over, it led to the desegregation of the lunch counters. The movement carried on – occupying libraries, art galleries and parks. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act mandated desegregation in public accommodations in the United States.

Today we are taking a leaf prom their book. Like the civil rights movement before us we are non-violently intervening in the cogs of injustice. We are continuing Martin Luther King’s call for a ‘person oriented’ society rather than a ‘thing oriented’ society’. And just as the civil rights movement before us changed America, we are seeking to change Britain. In the light of the recent emergence of US Uncut, Canada Uncut and France Uncut, I hope that eventually we can change the world.