Oct 312010
 
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First the halcyon promise.  We sort of elect a Coalition government on the basis that talking to each other is better than shouting across the debating chamber.  We then get a process where megaphone politics takes over from spin – that is to say, the blunderbuss takes over from the scalpel (here, here, here, here and here).

The consequences of this scattergun approach cannot be underestimated.  In our household, we are now pretty much running scared as my wife – who is a language assistant in several schools after seven years of hard work and long nights getting there – now faces a dramatic drop in her income with the new freedoms this interventionist government is giving to schools in order that they may impose minimum wages on their support staff.  For paradoxically, this is what we getting.  After thirteen years of New Labour, where cautious attempts to link the interests of the private sector with the public bore a curious and sometimes curate’s egg of a fruit (you will permit me this mixed metaphor I hope whilst I attempt with difficulty to understand what is happening here), we now have one of the most interfering governments in history where the only interests that matter are those of business.

Light touch regulation?  Absolutely not.  Not for the ordinary people, anyhow.  An absence of regulation for those higher up the tree and that freedom they may soon enjoy to pay a minimum of taxes will lead to far more paperwork and unhappiness lower down as means-testing, private health insurance and a whole host of other highly bureaucratised measures begin to bite.

This is not the inclusive society we were looking for all this time.  Whilst there was a delicate balance between the devil Blair and his folk chose to sup with and the poorer in society, the devil kind of paid a sort of lip service to community action, corporate social responsibility and that wider set of kindnesses that at least people like myself understand to be the moral obligation attached to having more.  But when you get welfare ministers who live like this, the floodgates which hold back manifestly immoral and wildly hypocritical behaviours – floodgates which used to make even the most thoughtless think twice – are suddenly opened for all and sundry to do what all and sundry must.

Anything now goes under this government.  Any thought, any ideal, any act, any stupidity.

An interventionist government of a most unhappy kind – and one of the clearest examples of carefully thought-out Tory statecraft we can remember.

One of the most bloody-minded too.

So in the face of such statecraft, what can we do?  Simply remember the good times and bemoan their passing?  Extract from our mix of successes and failures those bits that deserve to return and try and convince ourselves that’s all we need to do?  Or rethink entirely the situation the British people find themselves in?

For ideas such as the Big Society do need to be thought, even as we recognise the Tories are thinking them to confuse and distract.

We need to think them too, but not as a strategy to destroy the state.  No one should want that, least of all the Tories’ supporters in the City.  I wrote in an earlier post that big business depends on its ability to externalise onto the taxpayers those costs it would prefer not to suffer in order that it may pay to its shareholders those dividends they would prefer not to go without.  Big business, if it has any nous at all, will one day realise – though by then its extreme tendency to short-termism may mean it will possibly be too late – that it can’t do without a powerful state either.

No.  When I say we need the conceptual figure of a Big Society, what I’m getting at is that it provides us with a metaphor we can work on and which could lead to the better involvement of a wider society at decision-making time – that is to say, more meaningfully along the process than simple and perfunctory consultation generally presupposes at the moment.

Through the generation of new ideas and their canny implementation by people who know what they’re talking about, many previously insoluble problems have become solvable.

But only by empowering the people who know, the people who actually do the jobs in question, can we avoid the mistakes of the high-level fanatics who so love to read executive summaries and ignore the danger signs.

We must also believe that cost controls do not necessarily have to stifle a liberating capacity for innovation.  The way this government is imposing such controls is brutal, frightening, will increase levels of mental ill health amongst a broad swathe of the public and will inevitably throw more people out of work than a more considered approach would have achieved.  But it is possible – if we choose to meet and work with the like-minded over the next four years – that we can prepare the ground for the return one day of a different kind of state built, precisely I might add, on the back of such ferocious controls.  That is to say, a more responsive kind – a real servant of the people rather than the kind which fashions and then proceeds to service its own interests.

We may one day be able to work smarter without having to work harder.

*

I could even find myself signing up to the Big Society right now if I didn’t believe it just embraced a medium-term plan to divert more resources into the pockets of the Tory Party’s supporters.  Which is a pity really.  Because, deep down, I believe in the integrity of the vast majority of people in big business.

When, that is, the temptation to act otherwise isn’t allowed to balloon out of all proportion.

As a counterpoint to such thoughts, we get a call for ideas over at Labour Uncut.  I don’t like the assumption that foot soldiers and leaflet fodder have their place, mind.  In the world of ideas generation, everyone is equal.  If we haven’t learnt that lesson by now, we will never ever learn it.

If foot soldiering and leaflet delivery is a necessary part of modern politics, let everyone play their part as they would wish to do so and are capable of.  A volunteer organisation, which is what the Labour Party really is, cannot organise its people on the basis of treating them as cogs in the machinery of some gigantic corporate body.

You cannot force volunteers to do what you want them to do.  You can coax, you can persuade – but in the end, far more importantly, you must appreciate and assess them, you must support and understand them.  You must take their skillsets as they themselves present them to you – not see through the prism of your own needs a reality which does not fairly exist.

And you must be prepared to make your organisation out of their image, not impose the image you would prefer on them.

Even so, and despite some of my reservations in relation to what our leaders really think of leaflet fodder and foot soldiers, the article is definitely worth a read.

*

A busy Sunday of sifting and filtering then.

I hope, one day, we can look to the future with more hope than despair.

And also as a single nation – even when of plural interests.

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Oct 312010
 
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What an unsavoury bunch!  We have thirty-five leaders of thirty-five large companies who argue in favour of massive government cuts.  We have one large telecommunications company with a history of clever offshore tax dodges (India and Britain at the very least).

And we have a Coalition government aiming to make hollow the welfare state.  Even as private companies massage the nature of the capitalist miracle and confuse us into believing that those who truly drain the state are those in the public sector.  When, in reality, the appetite which the private sector exhibits for externalising unhappy costs (from cleaning up nuclear waste to managing risk effectively) means that the state through its taxpayers – ie through you and me – ends up paying for these nasty bits and bobs which would otherwise reduce the equity of such companies and make the aforesaid capitalist miracle a far more down-to-earth affair.

I’m not suggesting that large companies don’t provide any benefit to society.  What I am suggesting is that if they try to surf the wave of ideological imperialism our current government is generating, we will all find more reasons to examine far more closely – both inside and outside of work – their tax schemes, their structures and their ways of doing and seeing.

Boycotting the thirty-five companies mentioned above is not an entirely happy act – it will hurt the blameless workers who cannot effect real change within their companies without considerable pain in already difficult circumstances.  And this, of course, will divide the trades union movement.

No one is blameless and no one is to blame.  We all go along with inequalities at work and we are all victims of such inequalities.

But something must be done to encourage those who care to understand the complexity of economic and social relationships in modern societies that their voices are not lone ones and this does not have to be a wilderness.
____________________

Update to this post: Kate has published another article on the subject of the boycott which can be found here at Liberal Conspiracy this afternoon.  Meanwhile, a petition is gathering pace here, with a useful link to a Guardian article on the subject of Vodafone here.

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Oct 302010
 
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Externality is simply explained here on Wikipedia:

In economics, an externality (or transaction spillover) is a cost or benefit, not transmitted through prices[1], incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit. A benefit in this case is called a positive externality or external benefit, while a cost is called a negative externality or external cost.

In these cases in a competitive market, prices do not reflect the full costs or benefits of producing or consuming a product or service, producers and consumers may either not bear all of the costs or not reap all of the benefits of the economic activity, and too much or too little of the good will be produced or consumed in terms of overall costs and benefits to society. For example, manufacturing that causes air pollution imposes costs on the whole society, while fire-proofing a home improves the fire safety of neighbors. If there exist external costs such as pollution, the good will be overproduced by a competitive market, as the producer does not take into account the external costs when producing the good. If there are external benefits, such as in areas of education or public safety, too little of the good would be produced by private markets as producers and buyers do not take into account the external benefits to others. Here, overall cost and benefit to society is defined as the sum of the economic benefits and costs for all parties involved.

Many companies only function on the basis of externalising on the rest of us their most unpleasant costs.  Essentially, they get something for nothing.  No wonder they then have so much spare cash to divide up between their cuddly shareholders.  Chris has an interesting take on banks which Paul picked up on the other day:

Are UK banks worth anything at all? I’m prompted to ask by Mervyn King’s recent speech, in which he says “of the many ways of organizing banking, the worst is the one we have today.”
One remedy he discusses is a levy on banks’ profits. He likens this to a Pigou tax, which is intended to internalize the externalities generated by banking – the main externality being the risk of a crisis.

Chris’s quite radical – I might even say mind-blowing – conclusion?  As follows:

You can quibble with these numbers in all sorts of ways. One reason why King is not enthusiastic about the levy is that it is so hard to truly estimate what it should be.  (Another issue he doesn’t mention is that the incidence of the levy might not fall upon banks at all). But the fact remains. A large part of the private value of the banking sector arises solely from the fact that the costs of its activities – the risk of a crisis – are externalized. In an efficient market economy – one where private costs equal social costs – banks might not have much, if any, equity value at all.
Perhaps nationalization isn’t a wholly bad idea.

More from Chris on this latter idea in a subsequent post can be found here.

Meanwhile, all this talk of externalities does make me wonder if the success of modern capitalism isn’t an entirely hollow sham.  If a corporation’s moral responsibility is only to make profit for its shareholders, its moral imperative (whatever its marketing-speak alleges) will be to make such a profit any which way it can.  Thus, for example, we have institutions such as banks which make it their business to add value by managing risk then externalising on the backs of millions of workers who find themselves out of their jobs, out of their homes and on the streets the cost of failing to manage such risks adequately, professionally and wisely.

And if you don’t believe me, just look at what the externalising on the rest of us of the implications and costs of the banking crisis has done to my wife’s profession:

[…] Higher Level Teaching Assistants are now part of the fabric of teaching and learning in many schools and they do an excellent job supporting teaching in any number of ways. It is also worth remembering that they are excellent value in terms of the education budget as a whole. No-one could suggest that they have been over-rewarded in the past and there was no likelihood that that might happen in the future.

Now [with the latest government cutbacks] it is gone and there is a free-market. Schools can pay the national minimum wage, mess about with hours or contracts and make whatever demands they like. And, at a time of increasing unemployment, they will get away with it under the guise of making cuts. Academies and free schools can do what they like as well in terms of new contracts. It’s a real shame. Schools reflect society and transmit values to the next generation but the behaviour of the coalition and Michael Gove in this area shows their contempt for schools, society and values.

As the author of this Labour List article also points out:

The coalition doesn’t like [the idea of teaching assistants] because it doesn’t fit with their values. They want to work teachers hard and make sure they are in classrooms, as if somehow they have been sneaking out of their responsibilities by using support staff. They want parents to run their own schools and either to be set against teachers or used as a device to lever standards from outside the school. They think a voluntary system of school helpers sits much more comfortably with the big society objectives. They don’t want to see an expansion of public sector work. When you are driven by this ideology, the SSSNB is clearly a waste of time.

Consequently, in the light of such moves and in line with the philosophy of externalising your negative costs onto others, it all seems to become pretty clear: the big society idea comes out of what for most large companies run on Friedman’s unabashed principles is essentially that sop to public opinion we call corporate social responsibility.  More often that not, personal and individual acts of volunteering carried out in extreme good faith which just serve to whitewash the real business of these companies.

That is to say, the grand and shameful business of getting something for nothing.

Seen in such a light, modern capitalism isn’t a miracle at all.  It works because half of what it truly costs we already pay for as taxpayers – and now, it would seem, in an additionally burdensome manner, very soon as volunteers paradoxically compelled to volunteer.

Thus it is that the real socialist drain on society hasn’t been the public state but – rather – the private.

Which is precisely how business has got something for nothing and why the big society idea will mean more of the same.

More profit for free for those companies who can – and less free time with family and friends for the rest of us who can’t.

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Oct 302010
 
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It was a cold evening.  My wife dropped me off in front of the Tory Party’s headquarters and then I walked off in the general direction of Chester Racecourse.  The Pavilion is not an easy place to find if you’ve never been there before.  There is only one sign as far as I can see which directs you to where it is located – and that is about the size of a postage stamp and within shouting distance of the place itself.

We had to wait in the entrance whilst the organisers made “last-minute adjustments to the lighting and sound”.  Coincidentally, there was a bar at the end of the room, so someone made some extra dosh, didn’t they?

Yesterday, at the Chester Literature Festival 2010, Alastair Campbell spoke to a full and generally good-natured hall of interested and engaged Cestrians.  A gentleman called Bill – I didn’t catch his surname – made the introductions and did an excellent and savvy job of it.

The format of the event was as follows: for the first forty-five minutes or so Campbell strode the stage with magnificent aplomb, sometimes a stand-up comic, sometimes an almost Chaplinesque-like figure in his bathos and raw honesty.  Campbell is, in fact, a complex mixture of guardedness, control, anticipation and openness.  That is to say, he is a real human being with all the foibles that attend such a condition.

The second half involved a well-paced question and answer session via mobile mikes and then at the end a quick-fire shouted-out rattling through of issues.

All this time, Campbell lost none of his poise.

An English gentleman in every sense – even down to his Tuckeresque departing line, in fact.

He also made some very interesting points about the relationship between truth, fiction, political diaries and political memoirs.  He is a faithful exponent and convincing advocate of the virtues of diary-writing, having practised it since the age of ten.

There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when I seem to remember social and literary historians bemoaning the decline in letter-writing and the consequent future absence of documentary evidence that this would result in. 

Before social media came along, I would have been inclined to agree with such a position.  But initiatives such as the recent inclusion of all public Twitter feeds in the American Library of Congress mean that such infrastructures will not only help us to (in Campbell’s words) “create our own media landscapes” but also, and perhaps more importantly, allow future historians to access the real thoughts and globally shared expressions of millions of people.  With the added bonus of instantly searchable and easy-to-cross-reference content.

No.  Social media is not just a way of building Web 2.0 empires on the backs of free content.  Neither is social media just an alternative way of looking at the news.  More importantly, it will, very soon, be a radically new departure in writing history from the grassroots up.  And the implications for those who in that future hold pyramidally-located positions of power will be unpredictable, sweeping and – possibly – even scathing.

No longer will it be possible to ignore or rewrite the painful realities of millions of unemployed workers in order to push through inadequately thought-through policies on the backs of people’s forgetfulness and short-term memories.  Instead, such realities will be down in black and white for everyone to access at any time of the day or night, any place in the world.

Not just burned into the scarred and hurting folk memories of isolated communities scattered unhappily across our land.

Just consider this: would Thatcher’s legacy – in its historical context I mean – have survived for even a week the content that is now being generated via Twitter?  From a historical perspective I mean.  From the point of view of those whose job it is to set down on paper our pasts.

I don’t think so.  In such a context, 24/7 news was just the start.  360 degree perspectives such as those which are provided by social media will turn the world upside down.

Social media may be undermining steam media business models – and, given we are a materialistic society, this is what gets talked about and discussed the most.  But perhaps their truly revolutionary long-term implications lie not in their immediately obvious empowerment of individuals – thus allowing amateurs to easily voice and publish their thoughts and occurrences to a wider world – but, rather, in their growing ability to impact on how the professional writers of our history books will find themselves obliged to include the masses once more, and far more broadly, in the dynamics of history.

Amazing, isn’t it?

How capitalism’s thirst to open up new markets carries in it the seeds of its own conceptual renewal.  Or, indeed, downfall.  Depending on your point of view.

As Campbell would say, anything you read is only ever the perspective of one individual.

Even the considered and carefully written stuff.

Interesting, anyhow, as a parting shot, that an event discussing the writing of political books should come under the rubric of a literature festival.

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Oct 292010
 
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Yep.  It’s true.  Alastair Campbell is a consummate storyteller and an extraordinarily ordinary person.

I went to Chester Racecourse this evening and spent two and a half hours in his company.  The hall was packed out, the inevitable knockabout stuff was good-natured – and his honesty, even when coded, was refreshing.  His ability to turn a question around was manifest, as was his penchant for sometimes ignoring the latter half of a hostile question.  Lesson learned by at least some of those in attendance: never ask two parts to a question if there is one you’d far rather the answer to.

At one point, he said he was fully in favour of social media.  The organisers’ request for all mobile phones to be switched off before he started speaking didn’t quite embrace this enthusiasm but, nevertheless, he argued his case well.  Essentially, he said that tools such as Twitter and Facebook would allow us to create our own media landscapes, thus breaking down the power of the existing mainstream media, newspaper barons and communications empires.

I can see the virtues of this argument but still wonder if the obvious dichotomy between mainstream and social media won’t become stronger and more apparent as readers and consumers of the latter create and solidify their own contra-versions of reality and slew evermore away from the traditional media constructs and their consumers.

What will hold us together when the power of the big-time editors gives way to the multiplicities of the community?

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Oct 272010
 
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Whilst I watch the television news this evening, and see valuable minutes spent on showing us people going through security checks at airports and top-flight politicians disagreeing via soundbites on the issue of housing benefit caps, Twitter has the following video tweeting round the ether.

Almost to the very penny, it would appear that Vodafone has extracted concessions from HMRC which – had they not been extracted – would have meant the Coalition government might have needed to look for some other convincing excuse to implement its savage cuts programme.

Meanwhile, I just wonder what the long-term implications of such a disjunction between mainstream and social media will be.

I suspect they will be serious: as the cuts bite, we will see a firm compact of non-social media users – newspaper readers, radio listeners, Sky+ consumers – continuing in blithe ignorance of such memes.  On the other hand, evermore savvy and knowledgeable Twitter, Facebook and blogging aficionados will build up a fund of assumptions and ways of seeing that will bind them together in absolute identification.

Thus it will come to pass that these two groups of citizens will become strangers to each other in their own country.

This is the how.

And this manifest lack of public coincidence leads me to contemplate what is likely to become a perplexing and possibly terrifying future.  Modern Western civilisations have to date prided themselves on their ability to sustain a cohesive sense of what society means.  This would now appear to be something we must doubt and can no longer rely or depend on.

Our perception of reality – as mediated via the media we most comprehensively trust – determines how we see each other.

Those of us who follow, employ and participate in the production of social media see each other differently – more democratically perhaps, less hierarchically certainly – than those who use what I have seen John Naughton call steam media.  This affects how we understand and deposit in others the confidence and trust that makes civilisations function.

Inevitably, a gap will open up between us to such an extent that even those with the best of intentions will find it impossible to comprehend the other.  If I am right, it would be fair to say that this process has already started – in the media we use, through the cuts this awfully top-down government imposes and via the Internet and its immensely liberating freedoms.

All contradictory forces.

All leading us in different directions.

So it is that the growing inability we have to put ourselves in another’s shoes means there will come the day when it will not be your words I find resistible but simply the sound of your voice.

And that is not only how but also why we will all be strangers in our own country.

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Oct 272010
 
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George Osborne is going off his rocker.  This man is leading the country into rack and ruin and all he can think of doing is repeating himself four times in one interview – to four different questions.

I’d also like to add that George Osborne is going round the twist.  This man is pushing the country towards its worst recession in living history and all he can think of doing is saying the same thing four times in one interview – to four different questions.

What’s more, George Osborne is well on his way to being certified (just look at how those beady eyes reprise Tony Blair’s piercing royal blueness).  This man is driving the country towards the edge of an economic and social precipice and all he can think of doing is blurting out the same message four times in one interview – to four different questions.

And incidentally, George Osborne is …

Yikes.

No.

I can’t do it, I’m afraid.

Osborne must be far madder than I ever was.

Just watch this and see what I mean.  (All via Liberal Conspiracy and assorted crew members.)

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Oct 272010
 
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Here’s a splendid idea, complete with Facebook page and T-shirt.  As their tagline runs:

Five alternatives to deep cuts:

CUT LATER
CUT LESS
CUT DIFFERENT
TAX BETTER
INVEST IN GOOD STUFF

All approaches which deserve our most fulsome support.
____________________

Further reading: Paul with some more background to the delightful T-shirt in question.  :-)

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Oct 262010
 
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This sort of story – and there seem to be rather a lot of them beginning to appear at the moment – just makes me wonder a little more.  The Coalition really does want to go the whole way – whatever that might mean and wherever they may end up going.  And it doesn’t seem to care what it says any more, just so long as it makes people unsure of its true intentions for long enough to get away with what it really intends to do.

I can’t work out whether:

  1. they know what they’re doing and won’t let on, or
  2. they don’t know what they’re doing and won’t let on, or
  3. they don’t know that they don’t know what they’re doing and, of course, don’t know that they need to let on

Whatever the situation, we’re probably stuffed.  As Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling points out, self-deception is an awful state for leaders to find themselves in – not perhaps exactly for themselves but, certainly, for the rest of us:

The general phenomenon here is simply illusory superiority. Everyone likes to think they are better than average, and it is always easy to believe in things it is comfortable to believe. Self-interest breeds self-deception.
Among the likes of Clegg, though, I suspect there are two specific forms this takes.
One is a belief that one can offset one’s privilege by doing good works; noblesse oblige. This is not wholly unreasonable; the Tory lady doing charitable work is not entirely a mythical figure. In Clegg, however, it takes a warped form. He says he was “propelled forward [into politics] by idealism”. He fails to see how convenient it is that his particular form of idealism brings with it power and money.
Secondly, there’s the perception that one has merit.Toby Young writes:
The aura of privilege that surrounds the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister shouldn’t be mistaken for aristocratic hauteur. Their sense of entitlement doesn’t stem from good breeding, but from their conviction that they’re meritocrats. And in a sense they are. After all, admission to Britain’s top public schools, as well as Oxford and Cambridge, is at least partly based on merit.

This is, of course, laughable. But that’s the point. Self-deception is hugely powerful.

How have we arrived at such a frightening situation?  Our leaders generally embrace self-deception after their second term in office – not six months into their first.  So have these leaders really embraced it already?  Do they already believe they are bigger than the events they juggle so mercilessly?

Do they already believe they have the right to put theory before people?  Do they already believe they have the obligation to put an experiment before the interests of the subject?

These governors of ours are truly children of Blair.  Pressing buttons, making robotic the relationships between such alleged servants of the state and the served themselves, controlling the mass media with promises of corporate endowment … yes, the morality is non-existent.

They are in it for themselves and yet, I am sure (in some way sincerely), believe this is not so.

If only this were not the case.  If only it were quite otherwise.
____________________

Further reading: this, from John Naughton the other day, would have made interesting reading and viewing.  A little like Wallander interviewing Blair – in the nicest possible way.  At least, this is what I think John led us to believe.  I made a mental note of the link and went back to the story today to watch and learn.

I was ready to warm to Blair even as I knew I shouldn’t.

And then I discover that where the revealing video should’ve been, all we had was a black screen.  Fortunately, a bit of digging around the Internet uncovered the following code – which should now work.  Let me know if it goes offline again and I’ll do my best to update.

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Oct 252010
 
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Kate makes an impassioned appeal for common sense and coherence over at Hangbitch, published yesterday.  Meanwhile, the Guardian publishes this opinion poll today:

A majority of voters are convinced that the consequences of spending cuts will be unfair, according to a Guardian/ICM poll.

But the poll suggests there is no full-scale revolt against the coalition measures after last week’s comprehensive spending review, with Labour slipping behind the Conservatives for the first time in the Guardian polling series since July.

The Conservatives have turned a two-point deficit in the Guardian’s last ICM poll into a three-point lead, 39% to 36%. The government also retains a strong lead on economic competence.

That will come as a relief to ministers who feared the immediate political impact of the massive cuts in spending could be far worse.

Two things are clear: firstly, Britain is not France and secondly, the French will always surpass the British in their passionate expression and experience of political engagement.  We on the left may be right about what we say: the recent spending review may be the most regressive tool to have hit this country for decades, the financial services sector is taking us all for an almighty ride and the poor will suffer – as they always do – disproportionately the consequences of the errors of the rich. But being right is not enough.

Nor will it win the public over.

Winning the public over means dialogue and understanding.  It means trust.  It means engagement.

None of which a boycott of the 35 companies Kate mentions in her piece will ever achieve.

When Stuart Rose intervened in the last general election by signing a similar letter (Vince Cable apparently found the intervention “nauseating” at the time), I suggested to my wife that we should stop buying in Marks & Spencer.  Her reaction was interesting.  She idly wondered if I wasn’t heading for another nervous breakdown like the one I suffered during the lead-up to the Iraq War seven years ago.

For simply suggesting that I might wish to disengage with a corporate behemoth in a structured way, I was giving off signs of being on the verge of mental collapse.  The implications are astonishing.  But, to be honest, if today I dared to suggest a similar boycott to my work colleagues, or, indeed, to my apolitical friends and family, I can’t see the reaction being all that different.

I’m not sure exactly what’s happening, but what I suggest might be taking place is a process of normalisation, of internalisation, of a taking on board of the terrors of our time.  It would seem that certain boundaries are being moved by the regressive nature of the spending review.

Its awfulness will take time to kick in for people who do not work directly in the public sector, whilst anyone who is immediately affected will – I fear – tend to blame the economy in general and not the Coalition in particular for their condition.

Or if they blame the Coalition, they will not have the media support to allow them to voice that opinion.

The Coalition, especially the Tory part of the Coalition, have understood for a while that whilst it is absolutely essential to fight over the centre ground of British politics, it is not entirely impossible to move that centre ground to where you may feel more comfortable and at home.

I know some of you may have been unhappy with my references to the Nazis yesterday, but this process of normalisation which I fear may be on the point of happening – and which the Guardian/ICM poll mentioned above already seems to indicate is taking hold – reminds me most unhappily of that creeping process of becoming accustomed to the unacceptable that Nazi Germany exemplifies most clearly.  The horrors of National Socialism are obviously in a league of their own but this government’s penchant for propaganda, for brazenly saying one thing before an election and quite another after, is really not all that different from Herr Goebbels’ unhappy achievements in communication.  Blaming ethnic minorities for the miseries of late 1920s Germany is really not all that removed from blaming the poor for being poor in early 21st century Britain.  Especially when the poor are now so very much poorer precisely because of the actions of the rich.  The very rich, that is to say, who managed to so comprehensively mess up the delicate balances in high-rolling finance – and then had to get bailed out by governments which really couldn’t afford such benevolences.

Thus it is we have to accept that in the midst of all this horror, we didn’t keep our eye on the ball at all.  As Paul so rightly says:

The wider conservative milieu conducted an incredibly successful assault on the legitimacy of representative democracy in the closing years of the last government. One that Labour were unable to resist because it didn’t occur to many of them that it was happening. And the results have been stunning.

As a twenty-year old ultra-Thatcherite Bullingdon Club member, Osborne could never in his wildest dreams have believed that he would achieve everything he went into politics for within six months of taking office. And he would have thought you were mad if you told him he wouldn’t even need to win an election to do it!

Legitimacy.

Yep.  That’s what we need more of.

Patience, goodness, a moral high ground and political efficiency.  That is the mix we need.

In Britain, conversational politics must always be our most violent weapon.  It’s the only way to win over the British in the end.  Being so savagely unlike them never worked.  Not long-term.

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Oct 242010
 
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These two posts – here and here – are worth reading in their entirety, if you’re looking to get a feel for what’s happening to our once verdant and prosperous land.  As someone just tweeted, the following opening paragraph from the second link above puts everything in perspective:

What better way to wind down after a difficult week at the office, in which you’ve sacked 500,000 people, slashed public spending, made the poor poorer and seen your party sink in the polls, than to close your eyes, dream you’re on a far-away island (I don’t know, maybe Belize, the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands – I hear some of Clegg’s Tory chums can fill him in on that) and spin some discs…

Life in Britain can only get worse, can’t it?

It makes you think this is what it must’ve been like living under Nazi rule in a Jewish ghetto in the 1930s.  Not – I hasten to add – because I believe this government is Nazi-like in its instincts to propagandise our public discourse or document our every communication.  Whilst proposing the liquidation of 500,000 public sector jobs over a period of four years is simply an example of modern technocracy at its best – this is, after all, a duly (well, partly) elected coalition of common interests operating with the interests of everyone in the country.

No historical parallel there then.

No.  The reason I mention the ghettos (and I fervently hope that this does not make you believe I am either trivialising the awful nature of the situation then or exaggerating the government’s penchant for unkindness now) is because this fever we are beginning to labour under where we assume there will come a time when things do not get any worse – or cannot get any worse – means we are already deluding ourselves as to the full extent of the changes planned.

Cuts from above, handed down by people who only focus on high-level detail and leave the dirty dirty for their ministers and underlings to work out, are not examples of consensual politics at all.

Meanwhile, this excuse sounds familiar: the situation is so grave that uncontemplatable things suddenly become contemplatable:

Britain’s Coalition has managed the trick of blaming everything on Gordon Brown’s Government. The facts – that debt, interest rates and unemployment were low before the crash – are ignored. The themes are profligacy, fairness, inevitability and overdue reform of the public sector. Each claim is belied by the evidence, but the Coalition is undaunted. The tactic is to repeat its assertions relentlessly until, like the best of fibs, they are believed.

Mr Osborne had one. Britain, he said more than once in the Commons, was on the verge of bankruptcy before he took action. That’s not even remotely true: Britain, like most developed countries defrauded by the banks, has an uncomfortably large debt interest bill and a structural deficit. Bad enough, but not apocalyptic.

The cuts, though, are fair, they insist. Hence Nick Clegg’s remarkable claim, in an interview published yesterday, that it is “complete nonsense” to measure fairness only through the tax and benefits system. Yet he did so while arguing that the tax and benefit changes are, of course, fair.

Mr Clegg justified this fib, disputed by the non-party Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), by stating that “the richest are paying the most”. The LibDem said: “Those who say otherwise are not being very straight with people and, frankly, they are frightening people.”

By “most” he did not mean actual sums of money, of course. That would be silly. He meant that the top of the top decile, perhaps 2% of taxpayers, will surrender a larger proportion of their income than the lowest group. He forgot to say that this is only the case, among a group accustomed to ingenious tax arrangements, thanks to Labour’s imposition of a 50% rate, a move opposed vehemently by Mr Clegg’s new Conservative friends.

This other penchant for propaganda and doublespeak is really so familiar.  I wonder where – and, historically, when – I’ve heard it all before.

*

Of course, making fun of Nick Clegg must be quite easy at the moment.  And it does make me question if our politics is entirely healthy.

We seem to move in deathly consonance – like a flock of weighty birds – from one (even if hardly hapless) victim to another.  Today, it’s Clegg’s turn to get the flak; the day before yesterday we had Peter Oborne informing us that Osborne is the really bad guy and in the end Cameron might have to do something about it.

But this is all surely just one more symptom of our unfocussed state of mind.  We are lashing out according to the opportunity this interview or that presents.  We spend our mortal hours fisking the statements and moral quandaries of people who are getting away with murder.

For they are all in it together, for goodness sake.  And we know what happens when people burn their bridges.

I’m not arguing for more tribal politics when I say this.  We have more than enough of that already.  What I am trying to say is that we need to understand how we in politics, on all sides of the political debate, cannot propose leading the people of Britain again where they do not want to go.

If all we can do is spend valuable weeks and months pointing out how wrong they are and yet still find ourselves unable to show where we are right, we will have to kiss goodbye to any chance of recovering the future for an incisive left.

For what we must recognise is that each new political generation is the son and daughter of the previous.   Their envelope of action is defined by what they had to survive.  And in some way, we must accept, as harbingers of a doom we can readily predict but not now avoid (unless we are prepared to take the direct action that nations like the French are happy so to do), that part of the blame for this dreadful mess is ours and ours alone.

The Nazis came about partly because of a wider tolerance in European society to their ideas on race and how relationships between different peoples should be conducted.

We can only really begin to do something about this Coalition government when we understand we are also a part of the problem.  To some extent, they exist today because we were as we were.  Our challenge now is to show the rest of the country we are no longer the same.

There must come a time when we have to stop being so damn clever.

There must come a time when we start being a damn sight more good.
____________________

Further reading: William Keegan in today’s Observer writing about possibly the most dangerous chancellor of our lifetime.

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Oct 232010
 
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Not surprisingly it would seem, Facebook’s algorithms are there to benefit Facebook.  Read more on the brilliant experiment which uncovers the patterns that connect the content you post to your friends – or not as the case may be:

You might think you’ve shared those adorable new baby photos or the news of your big promotion with all of your friends. Yet not only does Facebook decide who will and won’t see the news, it also keeps the details of its interventions relatively discreet.

All the while, Facebook, like Google, continues to redefine “what’s important to you” as “what’s important to other people.”  […]

Or, indeed, to Facebook.

*

Wikipedia

In fact, if you think about it, the sleight of hand Facebook is performing here is pretty similar, topologically speaking, to the Coalition cuts.  Essentially, what you’re doing is setting up a skein of content which claims to be something it isn’t.  In the former case, Facebook is supposedly there to connect you with your friends but is in reality a structure to ensure fairly random and trivial Web 2.0 content remains interesting enough to keep you both on site and in sight of all those blessed advertisers.  In the latter case, George Osborne is supposedly aiming to save us from an impending and practically inevitable public bankruptcy but in reality is pushing us towards millions of very private and personal tragedies which will allow those who destroyed us in the first place to punish and blame us for the very crimes they themselves committed (original here):

[…] where, previously, neoliberals had used the crises in other political systems (state socialism, social democracy) as an opportunity to helicopter in their ‘reforms’, on this occasion they are using a crisis brought about by neoliberal policy itself to try to electro-shock the neoliberal programme back into life. I heard one buffoon on television saying that “we’ve been in denial for the last ten years”. If there’s denial, it’s happened in the last two years, and on the part of the neoliberals and their friends in the business elite, who – after demanding at gunpoint unprecedented sums of public money – are now brazenly continuing to peddle the story that they are the friend of the taxpayer and that it is welfare claimants, not them, who are the scroungers who have brought the country to the “brink of bankruptcy”.

George Osborne is not about saving the country from anything – rather, he is far more interested in inflicting as much pain as he can, where this pain falls on those broad Stakhanovite shoulders he so despises.

Similarly, Facebook is not really about getting people to make friends with each other but, rather, educating us to behave in certain ways that expose us more effectively to those business partners which fund its activities and allow it to generate its billions of dollars of profit.

We’ll see through Facebook sooner or later, though – of that I’m sure.

And maybe Facebook will then see how we’re seeing through it and adapt in time for it not to die.  That’s what large organisations tend to do these days: perpetuate themselves way beyond their initial reason for existing – do anything they need to not expire.

But the really important question is whether we can do anything about Mr Osborne – before, that is, he destroys a whole fragility of interconnected communities. 

Will there come a time when he also prefers to adapt rather than die?  Or is his political ambition so great that it goes way beyond such mortal sense and sensibility?

Here I really have no clear idea at all.

*

There is this other thought which strikes me – and perhaps even strikes fear into me.  Maybe Facebook’s virtual worlds still work as well as they do not because they have trained us to behave in certain ways but, instead, because they have been clever enough to replicate the button-pushing instincts of so many political behaviours over the last two decades – political behaviours which have accustomed us to respond, in a quite Pavlovian way, to the petty carrots and sticks of our masters and mistresses in what is arguably a terribly supine way.

In the light of such a perspective and thesis, the virtual world is not changing our real world behaviours at all – rather, more frighteningly, it is simply automating existing behaviours we have had surreptitiously slipped into our sociocultural cocktail over the years, in an almost date-rape-like fashion, by our political leaders and their parties.  As Paul suggests:

Labour’s real problems are not of a left-right nature. It’s almost a spiritual failing. We’re not that much of a good party any more, and we won’t succeed until we become one again.

“We’re not a good party any more.”   There’s a lot of truth in that statement.

The Labour Party started out as an organisation to create a better world and has become one of the biggest exponents of communalism.  This is natural in a political organisation.

Facebook started out as a group of friends using technology to have fun and has become an omniscient organisation which uses personal data to generate billions of dollars.  This is natural in a corporation.

George Osborne started out as a man who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and now wants to ensure that the issue of money becomes other people’s biggest worry.  This is natural in people who acquire power.

In this world, it is clear that intention matters more than anything else.  And the intention this world covets is the intention to do ill to the enemy.

So does no one want to be the good party Paul yearns after?

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Oct 232010
 
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Glad to hear this from Peter Oborne yesterday:

[…] George Osborne is in danger of becoming a problem which David Cameron must start to ponder.

And this today:

telegraph’s peter oborne on Today: when he saw tory/libdems cheering budget which forecast growing dole queue he felt ashamed he voted tory

We need more of this in times like these.

Why?  Well, possibly because whilst George Osborne might know what he’s doing, the rest of the country don’t want him to do it.  Perhaps my application of the theory of Gaia to the British body politic is not all that wayward an idea.

*

Further to my recent post on the Big Brother intentions of the current government which drew our attention to the fact that not only does the Coalition plan to dramatically reduce the size of the state, it also intends to dramatically reduce our levels of personal privacy (ie the Big Society = Big Cuts and Big Brother), the following excellent post from Heresy Corner was brought to my attention via Stumbling and Mumbling.

This is, in fact, a serious matter for anyone who believes in conversational politics.  If the government is proposing that our means of communication become part and parcel of their security databases, how on earth can its shakers and movers expect such innovations – where citizens are supposedly empowered by technology – to properly and fairly take off? 

Who’d want to participate in a state which required you not only to volunteer more but also allow your every email, shared link, website and contact to be registered with its snoopers in Whitehall?

I’d just repeat the conclusion of my previous post: there is no point at all in aiming to create a more libertarian-sized state where people have to fend for themselves, even where this is together, if along with such actions you factor in a state which places its subjects under even stricter levels of surveillance than are currently the case.  Firstly, it makes the ideological case even weaker – and encourages one to believe that the whole purpose of the exercise is entirely posited around bringing down the workers, rather than redimensioning the state for what are beginning to look like quite spurious benefits.  Secondly, its political incoherence is manifest – and encourages one to believe that actually George Osborne doesn’t know what he is doing.

This is an obvious case of a need to join up government – and join it up fast.

Unless, of course, it’s already joined up very nicely, ma’am.  That is to say, the Big Society is designed from the ground up to use innovatory techologies in order to allow government to track what we do with each other rather better.

In which case, it’s clearly time to mount as feisty an opposition as possible. 

As soon as possible.
____________________

Further reading: an overview of what’s currently being published on the subject of the Big Society on the Office for Public Management’s blogsite can be found here.  It’s obviously Tory-orientated – but makes interesting reading all the same.

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Oct 222010
 
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Robert Preston has a wonderful quote here – something I agree with one hundred percent:

“I am something of a parvenu, but we should welcome the iconoclastic and the unconventional. And we shouldn’t curb their enthusiasm or energy. This is what competition is all about. Yet when the upstart is too successful, somehow the old interests surface, and restrictions on growth are proposed or imposed.

“That’s an issue for my company. More important, it’s an issue for our broader society”.

So whose august company do we find ourselves in?  Why, Rupert Murdoch’s no less.

Preston’s post reveals how ways of seeing can radically separate us and make it impossible for us to coincide on anything:

[…] he still went on to say that he considers himself an arriviste, an outsider battling against powerful conservative and vested interests.

This is not a pose. He and his son James, who runs News Corp’s European and Asian operations, genuinely see themselves as true-hearted crusaders in an economic war – and not as defenders of enormous, dominant market shares in newspapers, television and other forms of communication, which is how they are widely seen by others.

And I can see it, you know.  I can understand why they see themselves in this way.

They’re brilliant editors – they really know their stuff.  If they were of a different ideology, I’d even be happy to pay to read them.  They do produce all sorts of iconoclastic stuff – from the American Weekly Standard (more here) to the newly paywalled London Times website (more here): interesting writing, top-class presentation and use of technologies – the very best of the very best.

And yet …

If we are to believe that the BBC are the entrenched old school of establishment media and News Corp the guerrilla of publishing latecomers, where does that leave everything that has been the Internet, Web 2.0, online communities and social media?

And why does Rupert Murdoch prefer to assign blogging a social rather than a professional role?

Perhaps because the revolution that is undermining his business model is that of social amateurs versus individualistic professionals – the tenets of open source software communities, in fact, where we do things for each other and exchange products and services in a social context instead of employing the traditional matrix of money to do business in a professional, and often deeply selfish, context.

Places and spaces were the community is more important than the person even as the person is reinforced by the community.

As a profoundly clever editor of reality, what Murdoch has understood truly threatens his business model long-term is not what we might assume he sees as disloyal competition – from similarly configured competitors in the industry itself who persist in distributing content without charging directly for it – but, rather, the slowburn effect of all this exchange of information, tools and technology that bloggers, Twitter and Facebook users and programmers and software engineers of all kinds freely carry out in their leisure time.

And it’s not the fact that we don’t want to pay for stuff which is terrifying these massive entrepreneurs of marvellous content such as News Corp.  It’s the fact that we may begin to get used to the idea of paying for stuff which we make ourselves.

Not free as in beer but free as in liberty

He may be right, you know.  It may be time to leave public service broadcasting behind us.  But I suspect he’s wrong when he believes his business model is at the vanguard of communication from here on in.  Technology, money and the egos which have driven traditional publishing so admirably are only half the story.  Who you bring together is just as important as how you bring them together – and with what means.  And the different forms of social media are currently proving themselves to be the publishing success stories of the early 21st century.  More words, thoughts, ideas and content are now being created by amateurs than in the entire history of professional publishing.

*

The biggest publisher of the last fifteen years of the 20th century didn’t publish magazines.  It didn’t publish newspapers.  It didn’t run TV stations.  It didn’t even make films.

It made most of its money from one product.  And the product it made most of its money from wasn’t a package of content we read from cover to cover in a monologue of strict hierarchy – that is to say, from content producer to passive reader.  Instead, it was a tool which allowed us to write, typeset, proofread and share our thoughts.  This publisher is still around and its name is Microsoft.  And the product in question is the Microsoft Office suite.

And now just about everything that product can do can be downloaded for nothing from OpenOffice.org.

So this is the scenario.  If a publisher as young as Microsoft can find its leading cash cow circumscribed by the forces of social media, online communities and the impulse to exchange products and services instead of dollars in what is little more than a decade or so, where does this leave those conceptually much older empires of publishing product like News Corp?

For News Corp is in fact, if you care to think about it, not all that far from a classic example of socialist economics at work.  Bright little iconoclasts subsidised by grand generators of cash flow.  Grand minds and thinkers subsumed beneath the weight of received opinion.  Real costs hidden from view as a centralised command and control economy functions where it functions because those at the top damn well know their stuff.

And when they don’t know their stuff you get disasters such as MySpace.

You know, Rupert and old socialism have far more in common than we may think.  Or, indeed, than he cares to admit.

The future is in the iconoclastic creators, as he quite rightly suggests.  But not whilst the relationship they must have with existing structures is that of second-class citizens.

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Oct 212010
 
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Labour List has an interesting summary of some quite familiar arguments on the subject of how ideological the Coalition cuts really are.  You can find the article here.  The summary as follows:

The truth is the Conservative Party are pursuing an ideological commitment to cutting public spending and reducing the size of the state. They are doing exactly what they came into politics for, and using the deficit created by the financial crisis as cover. From freezing child benefit to cutting social housing, this is a right wing Conservative Party pursuing a right wing ideological agenda.

The article goes on to conclude that:

The majority of people in this country voted for parties whose manifestos did not specify an immediate and drastic reduction in the long term role of government. The British people do not share the Tories’ ideological obsession with reducing the size of the state. Of course the deficit must be reduced, but it should be done so to deliver growth, not to achieve an ideology. The big question is why the Liberal Democrats are allowing themselves to be used as cover for a right wing Tory agenda.

This is pretty much the received opinion most of us on the left would be happy to subscribe to right now.  But I can’t help feeling there isn’t another side to the whole affair we would be less prepared to acknowledge – another side we would probably prefer not to contemplate.

The pendulum swings of British politics, where long-term agreement and consensual behaviours – that is to say, sustainable conversation and dialogue (exactly what Cameron promised us in the Rose Garden the day the Coalition government was launched) – do not easily find their place, don’t half make me wonder if it wouldn’t be reasonable to apply James Lovelock’s hypothesis of Gaia to what has been happening for decades here in Britain:

James Lovelock defined Gaia as:
a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet.

The hypothesis runs as follows:

The Gaia hypothesis, Gaia theory or Gaia principle is a controversial ecological hypothesis or theory proposing that the biosphere and the physical components of the Earth (atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere) are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the climatic and biogeochemical conditions on Earth in a preferred homeorhesis. Originally proposed by James Lovelock as the earth feedback hypothesis,[1] it was named the Gaia Hypothesis after the Greek primordial goddess of the Earth, at the suggestion of William Golding, Nobel prizewinner in literature and friend and neighbour of Lovelock.[2] The hypothesis is frequently described as viewing the Earth as a single organism.[3]

Let’s play a game then, shall we?  A substitution exercise of sorts.  The same passage, but with political terms many of us might be more familiar with:

The Disraeli hypothesis, Disraeli theory or Disraeli principle is a controversial political hypothesis or theory proposing that the British body politic and the sociocultural components of Britain (welfare state, public and private sectors, economic structures and international relationships) are closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the  conditions in British politics in a preferred homeorhesis. Originally proposed by Miljenko Williams as the political feedback hypothesis, it was named the Disraeli Hypothesis after the British primordial god of political endeavour, at the suggestion of Nick Robinson, Nobel prizewinner in blogging and friend and neighbour of Williams.  The hypothesis is frequently described as viewing the British body politic as a single organism.

Perhaps the most consistent expression of the Disraeli hypothesis would be the one-nation conservatism practised by Harold Macmillan and others.  (Though Robinson would probably beg to differ on this matter, as he often does on many others – partly because he’s quite possibly a card-carrying trades unionist of an utterly unconvincing nature but mainly because he’s a practising wally.)

*

Back to the serious point of the exercise, though.  Gaia – or the Disraeli theory as I have chosen to describe my alternative – is a closed system which attempts to compensate its extremes.  Perceived over rather longer stretches of time than we are accustomed to in our day-to-day lives, perhaps this is all that is happening in the pendulum politics I mentioned above.  We had thirteen years of New Labour spending – realistically speaking, as ideological as anyone on the progressive left could hope for – which the closed system I describe, only half in jest, must at some point see itself obliged to compensate for in some way or another.

In one sense, perhaps, New Labour did lose the election.  In another, perhaps, the Coalition did beat our lot back.  But not enough in either case to warrant an outright victory on any side.

It all looks pretty grim right now.  But electoral wipeout will one day affect those the system decides it has to.  And the process will continue ad infinitum.  All we must realise is that whatever we do, excess will eventually be compensated for and find its contraposition.

I have no answers here, I hasten to add.  I’m unable to draw any cogent conclusions for the moment.  I just do feel, at a very instinctive level, that if you push your luck too far – that is to say, ignore the component of good judgement Iain Martin talks about on his blog today – you will eventually find yourself paying in one way or another.  Whether your name happens to be Tony Blair or whether it happens to be David Cameron.

What’s an entirely selfish act of course, and here I am pointing my finger at George Osborne, is when you push not only your own luck but that of sixty million people.

Then a different series of pendulums within pendulums tend to operate on the individual in question.  And a generation’s hopes and aspirations are destroyed in the process.

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