Thursday, 17 February 2011

We're not out the woods yet

This afternoon - along with half a million other internet activists - I received an email from David Babbs, Executive Director at 38 Degrees, heralding the scrapping of plans to sell-off the forests. The government back down is undoubtedly a victory for people power, but anyone who thinks this is anything but a minor - albeit significant - victory can't see the wood for the trees.

As argued recently, the government is currently administering a programme of economic shock therapy. All cuts are coming simultaneously to ensure that some (relatively minor) government u-turns weaken popular resistance by pacifying protesters and secure passage for more significant (if less emotive) 'reforms'. It's like when films include extremely shocking scenes in first edits to strengthen their bargaining position with the British Board of Film Classification. Directors never intend the extreme scenes to make it to screen, but they use their omission to ensure something slightly less outrageous makes the final cut. It remains to be seen whether the cutting of Forest Dump will ensure that Saving Private Hospitals makes it to the big screen.

The issue of forests - like animals - taps into our collective consciousness and has the power to evoke unparalleled opposition and vitriol. People care deeply about the fate of a cute puppy or their local wood, but a shroud of apathy embraces millions of starving people in the developing world. The same is true of the anti-cuts movement: opposition to the forest sell-off has been monumental, but the fight to save the NHS, protect local government and stop the spread of free schools has been much less inspiring.

The reason for this lies in liberal individualism and a deep-rooted culture of self-interest and self-preservation. Saving a cat from drowning or protecting a forest are uncontroversial issues because they don't involve other people or personal sacrifice. However asking a healthy person to pay for a National Health Service predominantly used by fat people and smokers suddenly becomes controversial because there is a human element. People feel indignant about paying higher taxes to fund health, education and social security for vulnerable people who - as far as popular culture tells them - are victims of their own laziness. Liberal individualism and consumerism therefore acts to divide and alienate the population and, as a result, serves to undermine opposition to government cuts.

As David Babbs said in his email, "we've shown that if forests are under threat, people power can come to the rescue." Now the people need to come to the rescue of everything else. This triumph cannot serve to pacify the populace and we cannot rest on our collective laurels or bask in the glory of defeating the government. It must act as a catalyst to energise and unite the anti-cuts movement. This victory - along with the student movement - is a tiny acorn from which must grow a mighty oak of resistance - sturdy and immovable with roots penetrating deep into society. The battle may be won, but the war has barely begun.

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