Human societies have always been shaped by conflict between ruled and rulers. Rome fought slave and tribal revolts as often as foreign wars. Feudal Kings needed the Church to mediate the demands of their serfs and armored knights to put down rebellions.
Capitalism produced a wholly new set of social movements. Whereas the pre-capitalist Wars of the Three Kingdoms (the proper name of the “English Civil War”, acknowledging the vital role played by Scotland and Ireland) were fought for reform of the Church, from the late 18th century on movements emerged demanding higher wages, safer working conditions, shorter hours, and political democracy. Economics supplanted religion as the mediator of class conflict.
From these movements came trade unions, cooperatives, building societies, and the ideologies of Socialism and Communism. Even fascism, being a reaction against Communism, was ultimately caused by these movements. From living standards to geopolitics, labour movements shaped everything in the 20th century.
Today we find ourselves at a juncture. Actually-existing Communism is defeated and discredited. Trade unions are weak and largely confined to the public sector. Even the Mary Barbour-descended Scottish tenants’ movement, which beat the landlords in 1918 and by the 1970s was replacing Council ownership with tenant’s management cooperatives, met a sticky end at the hands of the McConnell government.
This isn’t just the story of Thatcher beating the miners. 30 years have passed since then, trade unions have declined across the developed world, and we have been left with no champion to oppose a aggressive new right wing politics. Increasingly, the manufacturing jobs that first created trade unions, Socialism and all that will disappear. Even intellectual labourers are seeing their jobs turned into production lines, then automated. Bank clerk used to be a good job – today you’ll be on a zero hours contract in a call centre, thanks to computer software. The situation has seemed increasingly hopeless.
But in 2014, right here in Scotland, amidst the smoldering ruins of Labour’s old-style centralist social democratic project, a flower bloomed. Activists have been trying to empower citizens through social media since the early days of the internet, but in the Scottish independence referendum political social media finally became a mass phenomenon. Yes activists took to adding everyone they could as Facebook friends, especially those with Yes twibbons, but also unconvinced citizens. This created a dense news distribution network that reaches hundreds of thousands of Scots.
In combination with high quality crowdfunded news and comment websites this allows a far wider range of perspectives to reach the public. The centre of politics has shifted away from the narrow politics of the media and political classes, and towards the broad left wing politics of the Scottish people.
Humans are driven to conform, and good thing too, or there could be no society. Unfortunately, when we watch television news, our views are shifted because a wide variety of people are presented agreeing with ruling class viewpoints. We feel an urge to agree, just as we would if all our friends shared a point of view.
Social media has inverted that pyramid, to great upset from journalists. Now they have to face the views of thousands of (often angry) ordinary people, and once a dense network such as Scotland’s politicised Facebook users is formed, we can establish our own social consensus without being trapped in an ideological spectrum where Ed Miliband is considered dangerously left-wing.
We have to build institutions that serve the same function to us as trade unions did to the labour movement, which learned the hard way that it needed permanent institutions and financing. Perhaps reformed unions, or reformed political parties, can be the vehicles we need. Perhaps it will be something new. We’ll find out by building it.