In late 2015, I began work on the book which was finally published in 2019 as 99%: Mass Impoverishment and How We Can End It.
The book’s original working title – which was deemed too cheesy for publication – was The Frog, the Elephant and the Jellyfish. Recent events in the UK have made me reflect on the three metaphors. This article explains why.
There is a minor controversy about boiling frogs. Not so much about the ethics of it, but about what actually happens. Two experiments in the 1870s suggest that if a frog is placed in a pan of cold water, and the water is heated sufficiently slowly (at a rate much less than 1°C per minute), the frog is unable to detect the change in temperature and relaxes as the water is warmed. As the temperature continues to rise, the frog quietly expires without having made any efforts to escape. Some more recent researchers cast doubt on this, but it is unclear whether they have replicated the experiment. For the sake of argument, let us assume that the early researchers were correct.
The first part of the book that became 99% makes the case that we are behaving like those frogs. Gradually, year by year, we are getting poorer and our democratic rights and safeguards are being eroded, but we have made no effort to stop it – at least not enough effort to vote-out the government which has been responsible for these outcomes.
And we are still behaving like those frogs. There are increasing signs that we are, as Ken Clarke warned us, dangerously close to dictatorship – but most people are unaware of that risk.
Let us assess how close we in the UK are to fascism. There are multiple definitions of the word, but a general agreement that in fascist countries we tend to see the following: economic policies which are far to the right; control of mass media by the ruling class; disdain for the weak and the ‘losers’ in society; and disdain even for human rights. Though there are laws, they apply in reality only to the ‘little people’; we see disdain for democracy, attempts to promote economic self-sufficiency; increased nationalism and racism; and rejection of inconvenient scientific truths. And most dangerously, we see construction of ‘enemies’ who are to be blamed for all of society’s ills; the use of police and the armed forces to retain power; fraudulent elections; and ultimately, even simply opposing the ruling party becomes illegal.
Today’s UK ticks a disturbing number of those boxes – and yet most of us remain unaware of the danger.
|Far right economically
|The Tories are now the most economically right-wing major party in the developed world
|Control of mass media
|80% of press in hands of right-wing owners; BBC under government control
|Disdain for the weak / ‘losers’
|Telegraph: 2020: “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.”2023: “It raises the question, just how much of our hard-won salaries are spent on the benefits of those who do not work?”
|Disdain for human rights
|Human Rights Bill; Dominic Raab’s confession
|Laws apply only to the little people
|Repeated breaches of laws; refusal to investigate and to cooperate with investigations; minimal penalties for ministers
|Disdain for democracy
|Elections Bill; illegal prorogation of Parliament; Judicial Reviews Bill, etc
|Significant increase in pseudo-patriotic symbolism
|Braverman’s rhetoric appears designed to appeal to racists
|Rejection of science
|Approval of new fossil fuel projects; COVID strategy
|Construction of ‘enemies’
|Branding refugees as “those who wish us harm,” critics as wokerati, Civil Servants as the Blob
|Use of police / armed forces to retain power
|Arrest of peaceful protestors now established on several fronts
|Significant distortions – but still possible to have a poor result for the government
|Opposing the ruling party is illegal
|Still legal to have opposition parties and to be publicly critical of the government
We have not noticed how dangerously warm the water is becoming.
What is it that prevents an elephant from running away from the circus? It is tethered. A metal chain is tied around the elephant’s foot and secured to a wooden peg hammered into the ground. Although removing the peg would be very difficult for a human, an adult elephant weighs around 5 tonnes and can lift a weight of around 300 kilograms. With some effort, the elephant could free itself, but it does not do so.
Why not? It is because training began when the elephant was a baby. Its trainers secured its leg with a chain, and the chain was fixed to a metal stake securely fixed into the ground. Naturally, the baby elephant tried to get away, but it could not do so; and the harder it tried, the tighter the chain would bite into its skin. Soon the baby elephant learned: trying to escape was both futile and painful. It stopped trying.
Now that the elephant is an adult, this knowledge is deeply ingrained – trying to escape is futile and painful – and it no longer tries. The mighty elephant is secured by simple wooden peg which it could remove at any time.
The second part of the book 99% is devoted to explaining how we have been trained to ‘know’ that there is no practical alternative to the situation we find ourselves in. Any problems are not caused by the government but were inevitable or caused by our ‘enemies’ (see above); and any solutions are simply unaffordable.
We have internalised a large number of myths, and this acceptance paralyses us. You have probably heard all of the following statements so many times before that they feel true to you – perhaps even unquestionably true. And yet each of the statements below is demonstrably false:
- government finances are just like household finances – and since households cannot run a deficit without going bankrupt, nor can governments;
- taxing the rich will simply hurt the poor – low tax rates will create a trickle-down effect which will enrich the whole population whereas high tax rates inevitably stifle economic growth;
- the State is slow cumbersome and inefficient and therefore unsuited to providing the products and services the population requires such as social housing – all state activities should be privatised (just look at the performance of our privatised industries to see if you believe that still);
- regulating businesses is the route to economic failure – businesses which are unregulated will naturally innovate to create the maximum benefit for society;
- money cannot just be created out of nothing.
With the training we have received, we accept that, even though we do not like the situation we find ourselves in, we simply have to live with it.
And, like the elephant, we do not free ourselves.
Immortality is elusive. People die and civilisations collapse or are overthrown – even those which believe that they will last forever. Among the longest-lasting civilisations, the Ottoman Empire and the Khmer Empire both lasted for more than 600 years, the kingdom of France endured for over 800 years and the Republic of Venice survived for 1,100 years. Most civilisations have had a much shorter life than these. Adolf Hitler’s so-called “Thousand Year Reich”, for example, lasted a mere 12 years.
As with civilisations, so with individual organisms. The oldest recorded human being died at the age of 122. Although it is hard to know precisely, it is believed that certain tortoises and whales can live to be over 200 years old, but this is still a long way from immortality.
One animal, however, does things differently. A species of jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii, first discovered in the 1880s in the Mediterranean has found the secret to immortality.
Like other jellyfish, Turritopsis dohrnii begins life as a fertilised egg which develops into a larva, known as a planula. A planula settles on the seabed and grows into a cylindrical colony of polyps. These polyps then spawn free-swimming, genetically identical medusae—the animals we recognise as jellyfish.
Unlike other jellyfish, however, the medusae of the Turritopsis dohrnii have developed a remarkable response to danger. When threatened by physical damage or starvation, they leap back in their development process, transforming themselves back into a polyp. The born-again polyp colony eventually buds and releases medusae that are genetically identical to the injured adult. This extraordinary ability to reset when things go wrong, which was first observed in the 1990s, has led Turritopsis dohrnii to be dubbed “the immortal jellyfish.”
As we wrote in 2021, it is time to change track – and very feasible to do so if we unite in demanding it:
“We should be aiming for a just, prosperous, democratic society in which everybody has the chance of a decent life. A society with secure, fairly paid jobs so that ordinary people have a reasonable expectation of being able to afford to buy themselves a flat or house. A society where people can count on being able to bring up children without fear of poverty. A society where access to healthcare is a right not a luxury. A society where the government accepts that it has responsibilities for the population as a whole and that collective action is often the only way to solve important problems (for example tackling the climate emergency or funding basic research with no immediate commercial application).
A society, above all, where each new generation has a reasonable expectation of a better life than its predecessors.”
The future of the UK as a social democracy is now in severe danger. The solution is for us to learn from the jellyfish and conduct a reset.
We have two challenges: first, we need to make sure that our government embarks upon the right track; and secondly, we need to make sure that future governments will not simply undo all the good work.
That sounds daunting. Perhaps surprisingly, it will take only five, fairly straightforward actions, to achieve both goals.
The five steps are:
- Step 1: Democratic reset
- Step 2: Fact-based policy
- Step 3: Policy for solidarity and abundance
- Step 4: Investing in the future
- Step 5: Clean-up capitalism
These are explained in detail in Chapter 15 of 99%, and briefly set out here.
Meanwhile, as voters we need:
- To make sure we will be allowed to vote under the new rules;
- To use that vote to prevent another Conservative win – even if that means voting for a party we might normally not support;
- To make as many others aware of the dangers as we can.
If you think you might like to help us, or just to keep informed, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.