‘Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.’

So Jimmy Reid told the world in his famous Rectorial address. In 1972. And how true are those words today? “In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon”.

These circles continue to treat this ailment as new. It is, surely, over this problem that the charming Marice Glasman puzzles when he ponder on Blue Labour. It’s towards this analysis that the loud-mouthed Philip Blond staggers when he ends up at “Red Tory”. In the first episode of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis discussed attempts by the right to end this alienation with the forces of individualism and of technology. In Spain, people are trying to solve it with the arguments of the left and the power of the street. Alienation is indeed the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem today.

There is, for example, a myth that people are apathetic. They are not. To be apathetic is to be sociopathic – it is to refuse to care for those around you or for how to improve their lot. People are not apathetic. They are alienated. They do not believe that the decision making powers granted to them truly empower them to make real decisions. The neo-liberal right would have us believe that we all see ourselves as individuals, cut off from the world, that there is no such thing as society. They have convinced us that our collective failure to engage with the power structures they have built is evidence that our fellow humans are uncaring, callous, selfish. This is a lie. Talk to people and you find the opposite is true. We love each other. We stand up for each other. We care about each other’s futures. But we are alienated from the decisions that are made about our communities – about each other. We do not believe that the choices which impact on each other are choices that we make. They are made in a far away place by people over whom we have little control.

Both Philip Blond and Maurice Glasman seem to accurately identify the need to help people gain more power to take decisions in their lives. But for me, both make a mistake. They fail to accurately name the problem they seek to address as ‘alienation’. And so they fail to understand its cause. And so they fail to prioritise their solutions.

The programmes of the Red Tory and of Blue Labour are, at their core, very similar. Both believe that the state has become too abstract. Both would rather see our love for one another mediated not by distant bureaucracies, but through local institutions that are a part of our daily lives. This idea has long been a part of Green thinking too. In a sense.

It is because I agree that we are alienated from a distant state that I support massive devolution of powers to the most local level possible. It is as a part of that process that I support independence for Scotland. Our state does not have too many powers, but our nation is too big.

But I think that the failure to identify the problem we face as one of alienation means that both Red Tories, and, to a lesser extent Blue Labour, fail to identify its cause. Because while we are alienated from decisions made on our behalf by the state, we don’t even understand the choices made on our behalf by businesses to be decisions. We are not alienated from them, we are entirely severed.

And it is these organisations who make the most important decisions in our lives. It is the market that now defines how much rent we pay, how much our bills are, and how much we earn. It is our employers who tell us what to do day to day. It is supermarkets who have replaced myriad local shop keepers with some control of their destiny with check-out jobs with none. While we may be removed from decisions made over how we run our hospitals and schools, for most people, our daily experience is more defined by our alienation from decisions made by those who now peer down on us from the towering heights of our less and less equal economy.

And so by focusing on the alienation from the state, we are distracted by the low hanging fruit. We should be fetching a ladder to climb the tree. In choosing to dismantle our government based public services before taking control of the decisions made for us by behemoth corporations, we risk allowing those megaliths to swoop down like vultures and pluck those low hanging fruit from our hands. Co-operatively owned locally run public services are in many cases a good idea. But why would you start with them? Public services are at least vaguely democratic already.

What’s much more important is to recognise the extent to which our alienation is a product of corporate power and of privatisation. Reid describes later in the talk how powers were handed from local government to parliament, and from parliament to the executive. The next stage in this process was that the executive handed these powers on once more – to private companies. Fewer and fewer decisions about our lives were made by those we chose. The market replaced elections as the decision making process for our society. Voter turnout tumbled. Our Parliamentary system is highly flawed. But it at least operates on one person one vote. Under today’s corporate control, power is allocated on another basis: one pound, one vote.

So, let’s stop pretending these questions are new. As Jimmy Reid told us, the problem is alienation. It has been with us a while now. It won’t be solved until we take democratic control of the major decisions of our life. Sure, we can and should ensure that the decisions currently made by the state are handed to the most appropriate level. But we must get our priorities right. If alienation is the problem, and it is, then we must look to solve that bulk of alienation which comes not from the distance of the state, but from the dismantling of our democracy. Or, as Jimmy Reid put it:

“Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people. This is not simply an economic matter. In essence it is an ethical and moral question, for whoever takes the important economic decisions in society ipso facto determines the social priorities of that society.”

Indeed.

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.