Thursday, November 30, 2006

Penal Profits

Latest post from the SPGB blog, Socialism Or Your Money Back

Since 1997, the Labour government has passed over 120,000 pages of legislation. 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,' has become a favourite Blairite battlecry.

The vast bulk of this legislation comes via the Home Office, which has fashioned a total of 59 bills since 1997. Not content with the fact that 10 years in office has led Labour to introduce over 3,000 new offences, The recent Queen's Speech informed us that the Home Office believes there is not enough legislation. Five more bills were announced.

Where the hell is all of this leading?

The answer comes from this morning's Guardian. At the moment British prisons are full like never before - the highest in Europe in fact - 80,000 this week and rising! Some 8,000 new prison places are needed we are told. Will the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, cough up the requisite sum needed to incarcerate these scallywags? Not on your nelly! He obstinately refuses.

To the rescue comes the Home Office with a brilliant idea. 'Let's offer the public shares in prisons', they say. 'Get the public to invest in a company that can build jails and then rent them out!'

As the Guardian reports:
'One incentive for small investors is that the government's punitive penal policy has seen prison numbers rise relentlessly over the past 10 years and would appear to guarantee a steady stream of rental income with no apparent shortage of prison "tenants".'

Who says crime doesn't pay?
John Bissett

Socialism and Voting (2005)

From the Pathfinders Column in the June 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Would people in socialism spend all day voting on everything?
A socialist society will be one in which all people will be free to participate fully in the process of making and implementing policy.Whether decisions about constructing a new playground, the need to improve fish stocks in the North Sea, or if we should use nanobots to improve our lives, everyone everywhere will be able to voice their opinion and cast their vote. However, the practical ramifications of this democratic principle could be enormous. If people feel obliged to opine and vote on every matter of policy they would have little time to do anything else. On the other hand, leaving the decision-making process to a system of elected executive groups or councils could be seen as going against the principle of fully participatory democracy. If socialism is going to maintain the practice of inclusive decision making (which does not put big decisions in the hands of smallgroups) but without generating a crisis of choice, then a solution is required, and it seems that capitalism may have produced one in the form of 'collaborative filtering' (CF) software.

This technology is currently used on the internet where a crisis of choice already exists. Faced with a superabundance of products and services, CF helps consumers choose what to buy and navigate the huge numbers of options. It starts off by collecting data on an individual's preferences, extrapolates patterns from this and then produces recommendations based on that person's likes and dislikes. If you have already made purchases via the internet then you are probably familiar with the statement 'People who liked this product also liked . . . ', which is CF at work. As well as making recommendation on what you should buy, it also suggests what you may like to watch on telly, what concert to attend or where to go on holiday.

With suitable modification, this technology could be of use to socialism - not to help people decide what to consume, but which matters of policy to get involved in. A person's tastes, interests, skills, and academic achievements, rather than their shopping traits, could be put through the CF process and matched to appropriate areas of policy in the resulting list of recommendations. A farmer, for example, may be recommended to vote upon matters which affect him/her, and members of the local community, directly, or ofwhich s/he is likely to have some knowledge, such as increasing yields of a particular crop, the use of GM technology, or the responsible use of land by ramblers.The technology would also put them in touch with other people of similar interests so that issues can be thrashed out more fully, and may even inform them that 'People who voted on this issue also voted on . . .'

The question is, would a person be free to ignore the recommendations and vote on matters s/he has little knowledge of, or indeed not vote at all? Technology cannot resolve issues of responsibility, but any system, computer software or not, which helps reduce the potential burden of decision making to manageable levels would.

How would people vote?
The traditional image of huge crowds with their hands up in council meetings, or queues of people lining up to put a piece of paper in a box, is obviously becoming old-fashioned, even in capitalism. The UK government, along with many others, has been toying for a long time with the idea of greater public participation through e-democracy and e-voting. Many MPs already maintain websites and many more are being encouraged to interact with the public in this way.

Noting the enthusiasm of young people to use telephone and online voting in TV competitions, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister thinks e-voting could have a major effect on turn-out in the hard-to-reach youth age group. Stephen Coleman, professor of e-democracy at the Oxford Internet Institute, regards this as a dubious aim and claim, instead arguing that the relationship between MPs and people has to change throughout the period of government, not just at elections: "The relationship is changing. Politicians who don't use the internet will miss out and will eventually fall by the wayside", he said. (BBC News technology, Tues, May 17)

Even allowing that MPs take the professor's advice, it seems unlikely that an appearance of greater participation will actually translate into genuine participation, given that capitalism is only interested in giving us a say when the issue at stake doesn't really matter. Nonetheless, capitalism's drive to make its democratic forms look more participatory may be doing socialism's work for it, so that in the future the technology to debate, dispute, appeal, complain, conference and vote will all be in place - at the touch of a phone button.

Iran; Nuclear Disarmament; Cuba & Practical Socialism

Latest posts from the Socialist Party of Great Britain blog, Socialism or Your Money Back:

  • Iranian President Ahmadinejad's letter to the American people
  • Remembering CND (Confused about Nuclear Disarmament)
  • Socialists and Cuba
  • Practical Socialism
  • For more information about the SPGB - the publishers of the Socialist Standard magazine - please visit their website.