I have been thinking a lot about Ursula K Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven over the last few weeks, a book I would highly recommend at any time but particularly at the moment. It is the story of a man, George Orr, who can change reality by dreaming. An ability that terrifies him. He is caught taking unprescribed drugs to try and prevent himself dreaming and as a result is sent for a “voluntary therapeutic treatment” with Dr William Haber, a dream specialist. Haber has built a machine called the Augmentor to make it easier for his patients to have dreams directed by him. He starts to work with Orr, becoming increasingly impatient with Orr’s version of the directions Haber is giving to his dreaming in the machine, until eventually Haber dispenses with Orr and connects himself to the machine instead.
Every time reality is changed it is as if it has always been changed. The changes become increasingly dramatic and disruptive until a peak of general insanity now referred to by all as The Break:
All over the world the various gods were being requested, more or less politely, for an explanation of what had occurred between 6.25 and 7.08 pm Pacific Standard Time.
But what the book really focuses on are George’s desperate attempts to live in this increasingly unhinged reality, as the only person (apart from Haber) aware of the abrupt changes swinging it around, and to hang onto the one person, Heather Lelache (or Andrews in the final version of reality they arrive at), he has ever loved.
One of the sentences on the last page (when he finds out that she has married) has stayed with me in particular:
He stood and endured reality.
However hilarious some of the moments of the last few days have been (and let us not forget some of the highlights here, here and here), we are all going to have to endure some significantly altered reality over the coming years as a result, from the moron risk premium to the cost of living crisis slowly rippling through all aspects of life, at a time when we already have a climate emergency and other planet-wide issues we need to be dealing with. There are many arguments to be had about the best way to tackle all of these problems, and I intend to throw myself fully into those arguments.
However, I would propose that we have to prioritise ensuring that, as a society, we never ever again let the lone mad scientist or economist or politician or former talk show host or indeed anyone else, whoever or however charismatic they are, take over sole control of the machine.
I think we need to do three things to achieve this, before we start to argue over policy:
Adopt proportional representation in parliamentary elections. We have got to broaden the support for whoever is in power, rather than stick with the current system which focuses on a tiny number of people in marginal constituencies and ignores pretty much everyone else. Make Votes Matter have agreed a cross-party document (which I have signed) called the Good Systems Agreement. This sets out the options on voting systems to replace first past the post and the best way of getting there. More about what is wrong with our current system (from the Electoral Reform Society) can be found here. Never again should there be a small cabal of people (like this weekend) deciding on who runs the country – with a steadily shrinking selectorate as their ability to achieve consensus on anything dwindles with every successive decision. We no longer have a system in the UK that can make important decisions and the answer is not more technocracy (leaving it to the so-called clever people, however foolish they may be) or plutocracy (leaving it to the rich), it is more democracy, ie including all of us in the decisions we will have to live with.
Reform media ownership and promote plurality in support of a more democratic and accountable media system. The Media Reform Coalition has produced a manifesto for a people’s media which I support: it includes proposals for an Independent Media Commons – with participatory newsrooms, community radio stations, digital innovators and cultural producers, supported by democratically-controlled public resources to tell the stories of all the UK’s communities. This will allow a much greater range of ideas to be presented to the public and discussed than the current Overton window (see below) and greatly improve our national debate about the things that matter.
Reform election finance. Recommendations for doing this were provided in the July 2021 report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, with 47 recommendations following a comparison of political and electoral finance regulation in 12 countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the USA), the majority of which are around reforms to campaign practices, meeting emerging threats around the source of donations, delivering greater transparency and enhancing compliance with election finance law.
We have big problems to solve in the UK and we need everyone to be able to contribute if we are going to solve them. However currently:
- Our votes are counted in a way which effectively wastes most of them;
- The information we receive about politics is fed to us through a very partial sieve controlled by a small unrepresentative group of people whose vested interests effectively define our Overton Window; and
- Influence and access to power often appear to go to the highest bidder rather than the best ideas.
All of this needs to change whoever is Prime Minister in the coming weeks, months and years.