Last Sunday, I got up early and trooped off to do a panel on "free will" at the Battle of Ideas, the big annual shin dig of the Institute of Ideas (IoI). Yes, no one made me. But instead of lying in like a normal person, I did it because I was interested in the issue and doing panels makes me think about what I’m going to say – even if that’s not always obvious when I say things. I was also nosey about the event, its scale and the people it attracted. And I wanted to know what had happened to the slightly strange bunch who had migrated - or not - from the Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP ) of my student youth – to the IoI.
I laughed when I entered the cinema auditorium at the Barbican. The last time I'd been in the room with my wife to watch a film, she took her coat off to hang it on the seat in front, not realising a man was sitting there. He was like a budgie in a cage at bedtime. It suddenly went even darker. My wife didn’t realise her error and I giggled in nervous horror as the rather befuddled man just sat there for some time. Surely the room couldn’t be as much fun again. Sadly it wasn’t quite.
The panel had a philosopher, a psychologist/scientist, a sociologist and me. There was never going to be agreement on whether we had free will from such a wide-ranging panel. And there wasn’t. I never was much good at philosophy, too abstract and too clever for me, and how the brain works just feels too remote – it just works - and I should have been interested in the sociologist but she was from Canterbury University, the hot bed of the IoI/RCP, and so we got a freedom from regulation line they always trot (stop it) out. It’s like the thinking person's Jeremy Clarkson. Get rid of all these silly, nannying regulations and let people be grown ups. Somehow that’s supposed to kick-off a revolution!
I decided to pick on the audience and tell them they were a bunch of turbo-consuming drones. That always goes down well with highly intellectual, confident and articulate groups who also bother to get up on a Sunday morning and certainly don’t want to pay to be offended. It always amazes me that people who make meticulous selections about exactly what they wear – a very certain shirt and a very certain pair of glasses – then claim they are not shopping donkeys following a very particular organic carrot dangled before their nose – refuse to accept the consumerisation of society and their lives. Anyway, enough of my sub-Bauman, its all just like The Matrix, rants and back to the IoI/RCP and what it says about the political mood.
They claimed that as many as 2,000 people trooped through the Barbican over the weekend of the event. There were a huge array of panels, battles and sponsors. Surely they couldn’t all be part of the Trotskyite conspiracy (of which you can read more in the LRB)? They certainly could not. But the fact that a small and impressively well organised group could mount such a sustained intellectual endeavour – even for highly dubious and nefarious ends – holds an intriguing mirror up to the rest of us. And maybe one more useful than found in a budgie cage that only lets us talk to ourselves.
People want ideas, they want to be heard, challenged and confirmed. They want to speak out. From ideas festivals and book festivals across the country – debate is raging. My next outing is to Frome for an Independence Day event about the threatened domination of a proud and diverse town centre by a supermarket behemoth (the rant will start again). So I go back, as I seem to again and again, to the disconnect between all this energy (even when it's obviously daft) and vitality and the political parties that just seem to be drying up (an honourable exception would seem to be Tim Montgomerie over at Conservative Home, who bursts with ideas, resources and right-wing optimism). I don’t know what the 200 or so in the room left thinking, but it certainly wasn’t that any mainstream, that is non-Trosykyite, party had any interest in debates about free will or much intellectual debate at all really.
The "cant live with them, cant live without them" ambivalence towards party politics will rumble awkwardly, infuriatingly and creatively on. How can parties lead and listen, link the desirable to the feasible, be in power and not just office? And how can groups outside become more political by joining the dots between our desire for equality and our need for democracy and sustainability? Can anyone address the causes and not just symptoms of world in which the planet burns and the poor get poorer? This is where we should be having the real battle of ideas.
PS I did another meeting in the week, this time in Liverpool for Compass, the organisation I chair. It was on co-operatives and what we hoped to be their second coming. It was fantastic. The audience knew far more than me, John Goodman from Cooperatives UK was informative and humble and there was a brilliant bit when one participant admitted to being a member of both the Labour Party and the Green Party – grounds for expulsion from either, or both if they found out at the same time. But it was a logical step – they believed that both parties were necessary and alone both insufficient. It’s a pointer to the future that people create for themselves, rather than fit any last century mould.
Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.