The Pathfinders Column from the January 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
As UK readers will recall, people in the north-west of England had an interesting time of it just before Christmas courtesy of Storm Desmond. It was quite something to see the local town centre under water, and those not actually flooded out of their houses still had the unique experience of spending two or three winter nights without heating or power. With nothing but a candle for company when it gets dark at 4pm you quickly realise just how interminably long a December night lasts. There'll be a regional baby boom next September, in all probability.
One might have thought that heating and lights would be uppermost in people's minds, and certainly it wasn't fun for those all-electric households which had only bread and cold water for dinner. But one can manage on the whole fairly well without basic amenities, so long as it's not permanent. What one can't manage without – and this is not obvious until you experience it – is information.
People were in the dark in more ways than one. No power meant no TV, no radio, no internet, and no mobile phones. It's hard to overstate, in our hyper-connected world, just how disorienting this is. It was as if a black shell of silence had descended on the area, shutting out all noise from outside. Hungry for news, or perhaps rediscovering the importance of human contact, people left their houses and poured into the city centre to find out whatever there was to find out. Every food shop was closed, and anywhere you might conceivably purchase a candle, but Claire's Accessories was incongruously open for business and so was Ann Summers. The town authorities seemed not to have quite grasped what was going on, and it did not occur to anyone to set up a central news point. On being asked for information, the duty officer in the well-lit counter booth at the central police station smiled innocently and said 'What about?'
An early rumour was that the nuclear power station had gone down. In an information vacuum every Chinese whisper is amplified to a shout of alarm. There was a rumour (rich irony) that the water was to be cut off. The bridges were closed (why?) and many roads out of town (why?). Continuing her whimsical attempt to be helpful the station duty officer enquired 'Did you want to go somewhere?'
Police officers on the street, drafted in from other counties, seemed uniformly uninformed. One directed people to walk miles to an out-of-town supermarket which was closed. Asked if he would use his radio to check what food services might be functioning, another officer simply laughed. Police radios are only for important things, apparently.
Showing more presence of mind than the constabulary, staff from the local flooded Sainsbury's began doling out free bread and a queue formed across the large car park, redolent of Soviet Russia. Similar queues grew around the few functioning public telephone boxes, anachronistic installations nobody had even noticed the day before.
It wasn't the end of the world, and people knew it, because M&S still had its Christmas lights on. There was good humour and bonhomie, and a complete lack of the sort of panic which those in charge like to pretend populations are prone to. There were jokes too. These were terrorist floods, people said. Isis have been stuffing toilet rolls into the storm drains to block them up. It's a conspiracy by the carpet firms. It's a Tory plan to turn the North-West into a London reservoir ready for the next summer drought.
But it was sobering, all the same, to realise how fragile modern society is and how we can be so easily disconnected from it, and how upon disconnection that same social reality so quickly comes to look like the dreamed 'reality' in the film The Matrix. A few nights of blacked out streets, where even the street and traffic lights don't work, is not enough time for social order to disintegrate (though there was a spike in burglaries), but it is enough time to reflect on the blinding meaninglessness of reality TV, X Factor shows, Facebook and a million other things we think are real and important and interesting.
It wasn't the end of the world, but one couldn't escape a feeling that the end of the world, if it ever came, would look something like this. People would pour out of their dark, cold houses, their phones dead and useless, suffering an almost existential crisis of ignorance, while authority figures stood around vaguely, pretending to be in charge but not much the wiser. The end of the world would not be caused by a mere power cut. But it would certainly start with one.
The acid test of a society is how it copes when things go wrong. Socialists are not inclined to be melodramatic, but we do think about the big questions, like what kind of social structures humans would need to survive into the far future. We're certainly not alone in the conviction that capitalism is spectacularly not equipped to ensure that.
It's not just the chaotic casino economics. A key problem with property-owning societies is that they form rigid vertical hierarchies whose only purpose is to preserve the status quo, and this is an intrinsic weakness because it makes those societies non-adaptive. The people trapped in them are also non-adaptive. They are not encouraged to cope in adversity, they're encouraged to be weak, to be clueless and defenceless and over-specialised, because this is what protects the hierarchy. They are trained from infant school to rely on authority, to do all that is ordered and nothing that is prohibited. All the glare and dazzle of the information society, with its 24/7 news channels and its movies and its myth-making, obscures the essential fact that the majority of people are perpetually in the dark, out in the cold and disconnected from power. For capitalism to be perpetually strong, we must be perpetually weak. This is all good for capitalism but it is a survival flaw for humans. A flaw like this killed the dinosaurs. A meteorite caused havoc and shut out the sun, but what really killed them was their inability to adapt.
This is what the authoritarian Leninist Left doesn't understand, any better than the proto-fascist right-wing. That's why socialists talk about the future society as a 'horizontal hierarchy', an organisational structure which allows a maximum diversity of skills without the coercive weight of vertical stratification. It's not just a lofty obsession with egalitarianism. Such a society, unrestricted by the steel bonds of social rank and position, would be mobile and adaptive, able to respond to changing circumstances, able to survive long term, and probably a damn sight better organised when the lights go out.