There is growing debate in the UK about the impending hike in energy prices. The Don’t Pay UK movement is encouraging people to pledge not to pay impossibly high demands. They point out the inequity between the profits of energy companies such as BP and the disaster that millions of people this coming winter won’t be able to afford both eating and heating. This is a realistic prediction.
Some commentators cite the similarity between the coming situation and the Poll Tax protests of 1990, but point out that the energy consumer and the utility company are bound by a private legal contract which did not apply to the Poll Tax protestors. Posts on Next Door and other neighbourhood bulletin boards often express fear that protesting will result in criminal proceedings and additional costs.
The present government, in so far as it expresses a view, says that the charges derive from international market forces over which it has no control. Government is reluctant to intervene and disrupt this ‘natural’ process. They point out, for example, that energy company profits finance pension funds. Nonetheless, the profiteering of the energy corporations is sometimes recognised even in political discourse. Andrew Neil pointed out to Rishi Sunak in his recent television interview that BP were buying back their own shares to further enrich their directors and shareholders.
What should government do? Aristotle suggested that democracy can be virtuous only when it is tempered and balanced by oligarchy. Aristotle’s preference for a mixed constitution arose from his concern for the ‘common good’. He sought to protect the common good from both the predations of the demos – the ‘men without means’ – and the oligarchy. In both the UK and the US, this balance is under threat.
UK society is a mixed Aristotelian constitution of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. The government’s role, then, is to protect the common good: not to side with the oligarchy against the demos. In a speech in 1912, Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to wrest the democratic prerogative from monopoly power: ‘If monopoly persists, monopoly will always sit at the helm of government.’ Wilson’s appeal here to the freedom of the individual man (American women didn’t gain full voting rights until 1920) draws on a traditional concept of positive freedom in a republican commonwealth. This is freedom as non-domination, described by Philip Pettit as the condition under which a person is more or less immune to interference on an arbitrary basis. Such freedom evidently cannot be pursued by individuals: it has to be guaranteed by the state.
To be unable to afford to feed one’s family and/or to heat one’s home is an extreme arbitrary interference on individual rights and freedoms. The government needs to take responsibility and, as Wilson urged, wrest the democratic prerogative from the monopoly power of corporations. If it won’t do this, the demos will refuse to pay, and civil disorder will follow.