Monday, 7 November 2011

Enough with the violence already

So much going on: the world economy struggling, the European project in jeopardy, the UK experiencing cuts, unemployment and inflation. OccupyEverywhere in cities around the world, Greek politics demonstrating the full complexities of democracy, events in the Middle East and North Africa sending ripples of unfathomable consequence around the globe. What to think? What to say?

Somehow the threat of disorder both lurks and looms, above and beneath and around. The OECD and the ILO warn of “
social unrest”; the protests in Italy and Spain spawn flame and violence; the British riots of the summer, recreational though they may have been, had a weirdly similar underpinning: there’s stuff that people want – money, jobs, shoes – and the people are angry. If they can’t get what they want, and if the people in positions of leadership seem unable to explain, then elemental forces move from simmer to boil.

The state will respond, as it always does. Bring out the water cannon! Bring out the plastic bullets! Bring out the tanks, the machine guns! Choose your country, choose your weapons. Think of Syria and, as Bon Geldof and Midge Ure once put it: “Tonight, thank god it’s them instead of you.”

The propensity of a state to resort to violence is an enormously complex issue: history, culture, economics, leadership, politics, all are in play. The ability of a state to perpetrate violence upon its citizens, on the other hand, is a little less complex: it can only be done if the state has the necessary resources. If you are really intent on suppressing a belligerent populace, you will need guns, ammunition, vehicles, aeroplanes and so forth. Someone, somewhere, will need to have made these things and sold them to you.

How do I feel about the fact that the UK is one of the
world’s leading producers of military hardware, with a track record of having sold such hardware to some of the world’s most unpleasant regimes, regimes with little or no regard for democracy, civil rights or basic human dignity?

I found out how I feel when I had the privilege of hearing Will Self’s
recent broadcast about the arms trade on Radio 4. In ten minutes, and without descending into his occasional trap of vocabularian excess, Self blended argument, fact and anecdote with moral outrage to produce a truly compelling case: this is not something a genuinely civilised country should be doing.

This struck me as relevant to Enough in two powerful ways. First, a genuinely sustainable economy is not merely one that delivers human well-being within environmental limits. It is also an economy in which ethical considerations are a central and integrated component. A sustainable economy is not an economy that depends on the production of materiel for use in the violent suppression of citizens. Anywhere.

Second, the resolution of this situation is an illustration of the adaptive, evolutionary principles that characterise the operation of the social construct called ‘an economy’. We cannot simply wave a magic wand and make it go away. But we can change the fitness landscape and accelerate its withering. We need to say: from April 2020, Britain will no longer export weapons. Period. Not ‘no longer export weapons to evil regimes’ or somesuch; but ‘no longer export weapons’.

The precision of the date, and its distance, are important. We draw a very firm line in the sand, and stand back. The adaptive forces will do their work. BAE Systems? Invent a new widget. Switch to the manufacture of machine tools. Start making high-tech health equipment. Whatever. I don’t mind. But you’ve got a decade. Get your R&D bods on the case, right now. If you’re really as world class and fabulous as you say you are, you should be able to do that.

There’s some details we’d need to sort out, of course: maybe some tax breaks for non-military R&D for a few years, maybe some collaboration on the modification of apprenticeships, that sort of thing, but the big picture is simple, and it applies in the case of any transformative effort that a government might wish to take.

We’ve done it before, after all: clean air, lead in petrol, that sort of thing. Set the rules for the new landscape, provide a long enough horizon, and let creative, adaptive forces do their thing.

No weapons. Imagine how good it would feel to know that we were making the world a better place.

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