As a result of THAT interview by Jeremy Paxman with Russell Brand, the conversation about politics and democracy in this country has changed. That’s why I support what the comedian said, because he has done something that the politicians manifestly failed to do – engage with people. Brand clarified his comments this week saying that he was not for violent revolution e.g. destroying people and property, but a revolution of consciousness, and I agree with him there too. We need a revolution in our thinking about politics, politicians – the whole darn system. And that’s why some people… the people who either run the system already, or fully benefit from the way it is run already, decry him from the rooftops. Those are the people that don’t need or want a revolution of consciousness because… they are doing just fine.
People like Jeremy Paxman, who did go as far in an article for the Radio Times to say that, yes, Russell Brand does have a point. The point being that when it comes to a general election in 2015, we will be given the choice of the austerity crew, the put us in austerity crew, and the crew who said they wouldn’t let a whole bunch of things happen – which they have. Russell’s point is that that choice is no choice and the most powerful vote for change is not to vote. Jeremy disagrees. Russell is branded ‘destructive’ because he has the ear of the youth and they may be swayed not to vote for this great democracy of ours. But as, Eddie Mair, pointed out on Radio 4’s PM programme this afternoon – the youth don’t vote anyway. And this for me is the point. Russell Brand is not offering any particular solution, but that is not his job. I for one don’t find him any lesser of a human for not having all the answers in his dandy back pocket. He is however drawing attention to the system that fails most of us. Yes, most of us. We may not agree with the way he is doing it, by urging us not to vote, but he is highlighting the issue and that’s at least a start.
A start of a change is much-needed. Here’s why. When you listen to the defenders of our democracy, in PMs case Menzies Campbell and Margaret Hodge, both MPs, you realise those two and their ilk are never, NEVER going to come up with any kind of answer either. They’ve had the chance after all, but they have contributed to the system that exists. Take what Margaret Hodge said (and to be frank I found that way more disturbing than anything Brand has ever said). Margaret Hodge, parliamentarian, said that people engage with politics when you can effect changes in their neighbourhoods. Fair enough. So then she said she realised she could have NO EFFECT on things like social housing shortages, but she could do something about where post boxes were situated. So that’s what she effected locally and that’s why people voted for her. Are you kidding me Margaret? You are a member of parliament to change the position of post boxes??
It was, I felt, a perfect example of why the system is so broken. The people in it can’t even make real changes.
Then there was the issue of young people and non-voters. The usual line defenders of our democracy peddle is that non-voters are somehow morally reprehensible and generally lacking in decency. I don’t think that’s true and I also think that rather than blaming the electorate for their disaffection the elected should do something to make themselves more relevant. Here’s a radical idea – if you stand for election and turnout is under, say, 80% back you go to the ballot box. That’s real power to the people and it might concentrate a few minds. At the moment people don’t vote because they say they don’t think their vote makes a difference, and they are, under the current party political system, correct. Earlier in the PM show they played an interview with a political activist of fifty years. Yes, fifty years. He was a paid up member and a campaigner for fifty years and he said on the radio that he stopped. He stopped when he realised that he could not make any difference whatsoever by paying his subscriptions or voting. He said this was because the two big parties run a monopoly over politics in this country – they parachute candidates into weak constituencies and that there are over five hundred safe seats in any case. It’s by stifling any new voices locally and the monopoly that Labour and the Tories have over the safe seats that any new, creative ideas about how to do things in this country never even get to the table to be heard in the first place.
The activist is right. Russell Brand is right. The people who don’t vote are right. What we do doesn’t make much difference. But things are going to change. They are going to change because they have to. This recovery we are in? Sadly a false dawn manufactured and timed to get the Tories back in office and largely based on another housing bubble and cheap credit. Have we learned nothing? The evidence is overwhelming: the way we have lived, based on extracting the maximum profit from the earth and the people is unsustainable and a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many should be changed. That’s what Russell Brand is talking about when he talks about a revolution. That’s the change in consciousness. People are waking up. Sure, some of them are still having a bit of a yawn, but when enough of the populace wake up to how they are being manipulated, controlled and captivated by the politicians and the media, it will be game over for those people who think this democracy, the one based on a feudal society of peasants and landowners, is the best thing for our country in the 21st century. And the game will be over for MPs who think a right result is moving a post box in Barking & Dagenham.
Apologies, for any typos or grammar errors. This has all come out in rather a rush before I lose the thread.
Vive la Revolution!
Look, it’s Sunday morning, and I am not about to attempt a definition of consciousness of my own because that would be like… hard work. So, lazy like Sunday morning, let’s just use this one below as the working one, for the purposes of this morning’s post at least. I’ve lifted it directly from Wikipedia, obviously.
Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”
I was lying in bed thinking that, in the current fuss about horse meat in the food chain, do we in the West have a problem with eating animals that we commonly keep as pets – I include horses in this because as anyone has kept a horse can tell you there is plenty of time spent in that mode with them. Then I thought about the animals we have invited into our homes, or at least our lives, and I suppose the driver for the most common of these species was that they served some useful function for man. Cats catch vermin (in theory, some can be most indolent as we know), dogs can protect us, horses used to act as transport and still do in certain cultural rituals (weddings, funerals) and for recreational purposes. So then I was thinking, do we shy away from eating cats, dogs and horses not just because they are pets, but because as we have lived in close proximity with these animals that we have observed aspects of these animals’ consciousness? How much harder it is to eat an animal that you strongly suspect thinks about things. An animal that might, at some cognitive level, have an opinion if you were to entertain the notion of setting about it with a knife and fork…
So, having thought all that, I had to attempt to test the concept of animal consciousness. I can only do that through the observation of my own pets, which to me is preferable to a bunch of animals in a lab and perhaps equally empirically useful on a micro scale. All scientists have to start somewhere – Jean Piaget’s studies of his own children informed his hugely influential theory of child development, Darwin kept chickens or pigeons or something whilst writing the Origin of the Species and there will be many, many more. The first pet that sprang to mind this morning was not the dog, with whom I have the closer relationship, it was in fact the cat. The cat and I are not particularly close; mutual respect might be as far as it goes – after all I mainly buy her food. It is however the children’s father who feeds her the most important meal of the day: breakfast and based on that function I have had a chance to observe her behaviour which is as follows.
The cat likes to break her fast somewhere between 5 and 5.30 a.m. She’s greedy, what can I say? The alarm goes off about 5.30 but often he is up and about before then. The cat has developed a number of behaviours based on what I can only imagine are based on some internal concepts – probably hunger more than being able to tell the time. A hungry cat might miaow, or wait by the bowl, that would be instinct not consciousness. This cat, comes upstairs, walks into the room, walks round the bed ignoring the nearest human which is me, sits round the other side of the bed and miaows. When this does not get an immediate response she starts clawing at the sheet that covers the side of the bed. This more assertive claw-based approach normally gets her breakfast order sorted, pronto.
There are a few aspects of this behaviour that make me think she is actually not merely conditioned as per a Pavlovian dog.
1. She doesn’t always do it (fair enough maybe she’s not always hungry)
2. If the alarm does go off before she’s been in the room, she then acts as an extra get-out-of-bed alarm, miaowing away
3. That she doesn’t go straight to clawing the sheet – she tries the miaow first
None of this is conclusive though, that this particular cat has consciousness, that she is thinking about how to get the same person out of bed to feed her. It could be reasonably argued that she is simply hungry and her behaviour is driven by instinct. However, what utterly confounds this theory is what she does at weekends, when there is no alarm and no-one gets out of bed at 5.30 a.m.
On weekends she does not come in the bedroom at all. Her breakfast is served at the human’s convenience. Sometimes as late as 7.30 a.m.
For me, this knocks the behaviour based on a hunger instinct out of the water.
Whilst writing this I have been thinking too. Do we only notice a form of consciousness in animals that we closely share our lives with? If I was to share my house with a few cows would I notice some form of consciousness in them? I suspect, yes. Certainly cows that are ready to return from the field to the farm to be milked might congregate by the gate. Instinct and classical conditioning – certainly, but if we lived in closer proximity to all manner of beasts I am sure we would notice a deeper consciousness of some kind. The outstanding question for me is whether the cat’s consciousness is developed by living in close contact with humans, or whether it just gives us a better opportunity to notice it?