Mar 282013
 
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I wrote quite a bit, whilst it was still a buzzword worth buzzing about, on the subject of the blessed Big Society.  I even suggested at one point that it had been deliberately conceptualised to favour one self-interested section of society – those semi-retired white males and females of independent means who always seem to appear on parish and local councils – over the rest of us.

The strategy would go as follows: devolve all sorts of powers down to the localities themselves, and then make it impossible for anyone who had a life to live to be able to participate in the sudden flowering of democracy.  How easy would it then be for a certain profile of local people (a profile which, quite coincidentally, would just happen to coincide with that of Tory voters) to take charge of all things local.  How easy would it then be for them to introduce a certain ideological colour of blue to our erstwhile pleasant and very green land.

But that, now, is all behind us.  No one speaks any more of the Big Society.  It is dead.  And probably just as well.  Except that, today, I’m looking to resurrect it.

Rick writes consistently on the subject of the peak state.  This from the other day, and this from about a year ago, bear witness to the fact that the state is not the expanding universe we assumed to be the case: in this, human experience does not mimic science.  (Perhaps shortly we will discover that, in fact, our physical theories of life and everything will also need to be revisited.  Fred Hoyle may yet have the opportunity to dance joyfully on his own grave.)

Now I have no professional criteria to be able to decide if Rick is right or not – but his arguments and his evidence are hardly counter-intuitive; especially in a world where they force us to see countries as credit cards.  So for the purposes of this post, let’s assume the state has, indeed, peaked.  What, then, can we do about it?  Can we do anything at all?

Cameron is a bit of a wally, to be honest – a pretty sad man who’s managed to single-handedly misspend the tremendous trust his party placed in him just about as much as his own Chancellor has single-handedly misspent our national goodwill.

A PM, in fact, who has rapidly ended up at the fag end of his days far sooner than any of us expected.  Not so much a PM of afternoon glow as an AM of early morning hangover.

And yet for all of that, there is still something of his project which remains in my mind and makes me sad.  The Big Society’s conceptualisation was diffuse and uncertain, that is true.  But his task was almost certainly impossible, for what it would have really required to properly work would have been a revolution of a quite unconservative cut.  This is how I suggest it could have gone, in seven (possibly fascinating; definitely revealing) steps:

  1. Give everyone a basic income, as per these kinds of ideas (a kind of universal credit, in fact).
  2. Encourage people to voluntarily form local community groups around existing organs (NHS trusts; local councils; CABs etc), especially in areas of practice where they had existing knowhow or interest.
  3. In a first instance, identify roles which could be “outsourced” to citizens easily.
  4. Put into place a massive person-by-person training scheme to train people up in training others, especially in the activities to be initially “outsourced” and especially in their areas of existing knowledge.
  5. Get those with knowledge to train those with less.
  6. Suggest, with all of the above, that everyone could learn something from everyone – and everyone could teach something to everyone.
  7. Finally, call it the Big Society, as – simultaneously – you make appeals to Britain’s wartime spirit; the fact that we’re all in this together; and a mountain of other inspiring markers in the sand/soundbites/platitudes.

Any of the above ring any bells of any sort?  Well, they do to me – even though, right now, the bells toll for thee and me.

Imagine, if you will, that Cameron in particular had embarked on a far more radical plan to change the nature of the state.  If instead of just aiming to fill the pockets of his corporate sponsors by contracting its public size – with all the bitter legacy of citizen suicide, poverty, homelessness, human misery and accusations of corporate graft he’ll now be leaving behind him – he had chosen for his legacy to circulate around contracting out its services to the very people themselves.

In such a scenario, even IDS himself would be a people’s hero of very 21st century instincts, as the state was wound down, wound up and – finally – handed over to the people whom it would both begin to serve and be directly served by.

What empowering instincts these would have been.  What devolving environments these Tories would have left behind them.

And yes.  Cameron’s initial instincts (in some small way, at least; in some very private and honest place) were almost certainly these, as he fumbled, flipped and flopped with a flagship policy which utterly failed to convince absolutely anyone, precisely because his ambitions – whilst astonishing – were nowhere matched by a corresponding competence.  The Big Society could have been a far more revolutionary, lasting, One-Nation-like and truly prime ministerial narrative – capable, that is, of assuring Cameron’s place in history – than any cruel, toff-engendered, class war off Eton’s playing-fields, conducted against the lazy, shirking, chav-like inhabitants of this hoodie- and immigrant-infested land of criminal prejudice.

Almost three years after the event, we could all be in such a better place, couldn’t we?  A place of a wonderful new politics.

As it is, Cameron’s blown it – for him, of course, without a doubt; but more importantly, for the rest of us too.

A self-inflicted sucker punch of the most collateral kind.

And what’s more, not only unneeded but also gratuitously unnecessary.

So what next?  Time to get really radical?  Time to turn this world they’ve turned upside down, upside down all over again?

In a pretty unavoidable way, I think any government which follows Cameron’s (as, indeed, Rick clearly shows us) will have no alternative but to consider such alternatives.  Social-democratic and neoliberal evolution have, seriously, lost their way.  And the only choice left us, a historical Hobson’s choice if there ever was one, will be that revolution (of some kind) I allude to.

Time not to ameliorate where we can, but disrupt where we need to.

Only using very 21st century tools and mindsets to do so.


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Nov 012012
 
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If localism, as defined by this Coalition government, will end up being little more than a sop to Big Society obsessives – people who have the inclination and wherewithal to use their leisure time for local works which aim to exclude the weary strivers in society from their rightful role in participatory democracy – I do wonder if, knowing this government as we do, whether the plan isn’t to do it on the awful cheap.

And ever was it so, from the very beginning.

I’ve even begun to wonder if we couldn’t usefully redefine the concept of nationalism as localism with a budget.  Nationalism as a properly funded tool to keep transnational business forces at bay.

But that, perhaps, needs to be an idea we expand on in some other future post.

Today, however, I’d like to discuss whether the more recent behaviours at local level of the Lib Dems – or, as members of my political party often like to call them, the “Fib Dems” – have been a logical reaction to, consequence of and creation resulting from a very particular set of very real political needs.

Rodney over at his Team UK blog has just put up a new conceptualisation of what the United Kingdom now needs.  A couple of quotes below.  First, the problem as described thus:

  • Present party politics is letting us down
  • Parties are either very tribal or single issue
  • Tribal parties carry too much baggage to be reformed
  • Single issue parties are too centred on that issue
  • All this has created voter apathy, a state of vacuum
  • Something new is needed to fill the vacuum

A potential solution being:

To create a liberal-minded group sitting in the middle of the political spectrum . . .

If you talk to any group of politicians, you will find a wide range of support or opposition to certain proposals which cut right across party lines. If we assume that these people really do have the good of the country at heart, it seems to follow that they usually ignore the good of the UK for the good of their parties. If we cannot assume they have the good of the UK at heart – they shouldn’t be politicians.

This seems to echo Rob Marchant at The Centre Left (also published at Labour Uncut) (a position – by the way – which Paul has rejected quite forcefully over at Though Cowards Flinch).

What’s absolutely true is there is a massive contradiction at the very heart of national and international politics which, I would be inclined to argue, the “Fib Dems” – for quite some time and generally unthinkingly – were able to address.

Let’s take figures like our own David Cameron and, across the Atlantic, that equally curious politician Mitt Romney.  Both appear to support the narrative of small public governance, even as they describe the value of large private governance.  Our lives are being consistently ruled by such concentrations of private power – and it seems to matter little to most people that the latter vote themselves into such positions of power.  Perhaps this is because the more overtly political and allegedly democratic process involving the former doesn’t seem to have led to greater representation for voters and their families either.

Whatever the reason, the contradiction I allude to above runs as follows: across the globe, in democracies of all shapes and sizes, powerful top-down and virtually autocratic leaders tell us that – for our own benefit – government must get smaller.  Yes!  They claim to want to reduce themselves out of business, to do themselves out of a job.  And I would be fairly happy to bet that never in the entire history of humankind has a political leader ever made him- or herself irrelevant.

Yet the process continues.  Powerful and even aggressive leaders claim that what we need is more declamatory and humongous leaders to achieve a kinder and more human-sized politics.  But how on earth can that follow?  If we want a kinder and more human-sized politics, surely we need kinder and more human-sized participants in political process.  Not the Romneys nor the Camerons of this world; not the boasters nor the gloaters who proclaim their virtue and righteousness through the millions of marketing pounds and dollars which their sponsors care to raise.

A different sort of politics where, as Rodney goes on to argue, policies should:

  • be ‘doable’
  • be backed up by the best available expertise
  • be affordable
  • be enforceable (where appropriate)

Now I know for any Labour readers of this post that what I’m going to say next might stick in your craw.  But, at the risk of hurting your sensibilities at exactly the wrong moment in our political trajectory, I do wonder if English politics needed – and perhaps now needs – what the so-called “Fib Dems”, prior to the 2010 Coalition agreement, used to practise.

I do wonder if their ability to chop and change according to local proclivities and preferences is exactly what a future politics of collaboration would require us all to do.

Labour has demonised such Lib Dem practices to such an extent that it does seem the local collaboration I mention is rapidly becoming impossible.  (As a by-the-by, it’s funny that whilst this has happened, and for a number of years before, the word “collaboration” in a political and business context has lost its wartime connotations of betrayal and has reverted to what was perhaps its original meaning of “cooperation”.  There’s a lesson in that for all of us, I think.)  Such an impossibility of working with other political strands of thought does of course benefit the declamatory and humongous – but few of us appear to be thinking at all clearly enough to realise this for the moment.

My conclusion?  The “Fib Dems” came about because at local level we do need to compromise; we do need to live peaceably with our neighbours; we do need to perceive people as people rather than badges of honour fiercely worn; and we do need to understand different points of view as points of view and not tribal attachments.  That they weren’t liked by many of my party doesn’t mean they weren’t a logical development or response to very real requirements.

And it might even be my contention that we don’t just need such behaviours at local political levels; in truth, we need that redefinition of nationalism I proposed at the beginning: a localism in which “Fib Dems” clearly flourished, before their foolish and hubris-laden leap into the abyss of Tory-led power-broking; a localism with budgets, funding, community participation and – why not? – a sense of identity as well.

*

One final thought: the Lib Dems as “Fib Dems” had a purpose, place and Unique Selling Point in English politics.  Now that they have lost that purpose, place and USP, the field is wide open for something along the lines of Rodney’s “liberal-minded group sitting in the middle of the political spectrum”.

But I’d prefer, I think, before leaving it at that, to rephrase the idea just a little – a gentle and well-meant tweaking of concepts, if you like.

How about this?  A “liberal-minded group collaborating in the honestly-funded ‘nationalisms’ of local communities”.

And then out of such an accumulation of “honestly-funded ‘nationalisms’”, we could create a web of protective measures to preserve the integrity of our localities and regions.

That, I think (am beginning to feel more and more), would be a far more productive way of defending our communities from the most powerfully encroaching forces out there: from not only the most dictatorial and self-serving international politicians but also the most transnational and community-ignoring businesspeople.

No.  You’re right.  It wouldn’t be cheap.  But then was freedom ever so?


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Oct 262012
 
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I have a theory.  But before we proceed, let me lay the facts before you.

First we had Lord Bichard suggesting that pensioners might not get their full pension if they refused to sign up to voluntary work in the community:

Retired people should be encouraged to do community work such as caring for the “very old” or face losing some of their pension, a peer has suggested.

Lord Bichard, a former benefits chief, said “imaginative” ideas were needed to meet the cost of an ageing society.

And although such a move might be controversial, it would stop older people being a “burden on the state”.

Imaginative ideas, eh?  Not imaginative ideas which aim to stigmatise the elderly I hope.

Then we get Iain Duncan Smith arguing that families with more than two children should basically tell the successive ones that society doesn’t care to help them become employable workers and profitable consumers.  Talk about rubbing the runt of the litter’s nose in it:

Iain Duncan Smith told the poorest families to “cut your cloth” according to their “capabilities” and the money available.

The Work and Pensions Secretary suggested limiting benefits to the children of the unemployed as he pledged to end the “madness” of taxpayers housing large families in expensive homes.

Madness, right?  Not the kind of madness which aims to stigmatise the poor I hope.

(Oh, and if you’re interested, here’s a fact check on Duncan Smith’s declarations.  Just if, by any chance, the truth still interests you.)

Finally, tonight, and – sadly, to my mind anyhow – from the pen of Fraser Nelson, we get this absurd piece of tosh on how the charitable opposition to this Coalition’s welfare reforms is completely down to Gordon Brown’s Secret Army of Labour subversives.  Yes!!!  It’s Fifth Column time once again in our country: on this occasion, mind, this Cameron-careering juggernaut of a propaganda-driven excuse for a government aims to blame the failure of its own policies on the Machiavellian powers of a supposedly once-vanquished – as well as impotently ineffective – enemy.

Thus it is that it’s not the government which is failing to convince the country its medicine is the right and only one: instead, it’s (still) all Labour’s fault that sensible people refuse to behave insensibly.  As Nelson awfully sustains:

We saw this yesterday, when Iain Duncan Smith trailed a speech about welfare and poverty. A now familiar welcoming committee rose up early to greet him. The Child Poverty Action Group declared that there are no jobs to be had, so why punish those on welfare? A revered charity, Save the Children, has identified government cuts as a major threat to British children. Even the National Society for the Protection of Children warns that the “most vulnerable” children are “bearing the brunt” of Cameron’s cuts. And hearing them all, who would your average listener believe: a politician, or charity worker?

But these charities are not the kindly tin-rattlers they were. In 2008, Brown changed the rules so charities could join political campaigns. In theory, they could support any party – but as Brown knew, not many would use these powers to demand smaller taxes. It was a masterstroke. The charities sharpened their claws by hiring former Labour apparatchiks. Save the Children is now run by Justin Forsyth, Brown’s ex-strategy chief. The NSPCC has hired Peter Watt, a former Labour general secretary. Damian McBride is working for Cafod. Britain’s charities are nurturing a colourful, talented and efficient anti-Tory alliance.

Look.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t argue that Brown is a yesterday-politician one day and a tomorrow-politician the next.

Unless, of course, he wasn’t the yesterday-politician they so cruelly painted him out to be.

Now I hadn’t thought of that.

Had you?

A matter, perhaps, for another post.

But back to this evening’s thesis: Lord Bichard announces there’s no money for pensioners who don’t work; Iain Duncan Smith announces two kids is all you’re going to get; and Fraser Nelson announces any opposition to Cameron’s Tory-led government is an evil throwback of secretive individuals burrowing under the very transparency of parliamentary democracy itself.

And so to our theory.

Does this really not sound what a Fifth Column of insurgents – who’d taken over control of Parliament by barely legal means (say a group of politicos practised in the Goebbel-like arts of advertising) – might say of anyone else who was looking to defend democracy’s integrity?

Well, quite.  It does take a thief to catch a thief, after all.

If truth be told, I really don’t know what Nelson & Co are up to here.  From no benefits for a third child, it’s a small step to legislating against families having more than two children.  Once governments start fiddling around with such numbers and choices, the slippery slope of hubris leads them to all kinds of dreadful things.  And just remember, big families help create future workforces and consumers who consume.  Without biggish families down the line, they’ll be no one to pay the pensions.

Oh, but – bless him! – that’s where old Bichard comes in, isn’t it?  In this brave new web of Coalition policies, pensioners will end up paying for themselves.

We don’t need big families any more.  We don’t even need the poor to have families at all.  All we need is a land army of old people prepared to die on their feet and a pool of little rich kids who, with the right kind of schooling, will acquire exactly the right sort of voting habits.

This is, in fact, the Big Society by force.  People haven’t stepped forward in their droves to volunteer to make the state run for free, so now those in power have decided you will volunteer.

Or you won’t procreate.

Even when the English language and culture always taught us that both were blessed and honourable choices which humanised us.

*

So perhaps Gordon does have his Secret Army.

But in the Second World War, Western democracy couldn’t have beaten back the evil hoards if we hadn’t had our Resistance to hand.

Now could it?

The two big questions, of course, run as follows: does Nelson speak for Cameron tonight?  And does Cameron really want to frame the next three years as a war amongst the people?


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Sep 222012
 
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Sometimes, I really do hate politics.  Its belligerent language, its aggressive approach to cross-party engagement, its win-or-lose-everything way of conceptualising society’s outcomes.

On other occasions I love it.  Despite all the above, there are people and organisations out there still able to write these kinds of things:

About A Better People

Our purpose is to shed light upon the good and bad news in the world related to Human Rights, Government, and Politics and to do so through a combination of articles, opinion pieces, discussions, and solutions.

Or, indeed, these:

The purpose of 2020UK may be summed up as finding answers to the following questions:-

  • What form of governance is capable of controlling events in a world where commerce is global?
  • What sort of governance can meet the needs of our complicated and multi-layered and multi-cultural society?
  • What sort of governance can meet the desires of the majority whilst ensuring that the needs of the disadvantaged – the disabled, the sick, the old, the frail – are met?
  • What sort of governance can create enough wealth in the UK to meet those desires and needs (which, of course, includes the defence of the realm)?

And whilst I don’t necessarily share all the aims above, as indicated on previous occasions, there is clearly a thread of good faith operating here – of wanting to problem-solve the idea of a good democracy in an intelligent and 21st century way.  As I have concluded on another occasion (the bold is today’s):

“Maximising equality of voice and efficiency of outcomes.” 

As a definition of what we might term “Good Democracy”, this phrase sits marvellously well.  As a replacement for that irritatingly piebald “Good Society” which Labour has dragged out as a response to the Tories’ equally hollow “Big Society”, these two wonderful markers in the sand – equality and efficiency – could serve a refound Labour Party very effectively in the future.  They could, in fact, be our two golden rules for defining – quite objectively – whether a policy, from conceptualisation to agreement to implementation, was an example of such a Good Democracy or not.

The problem, of course, with the Big Society/Good Society dichotomy is that it allows our politicians to focus on selling the grandly marketed ends of their actions – whilst at the same time, on both sides I have to admit, making it easy for them to shy away from providing proper and concrete means which, when the time comes, are going to bear up to democratic inspection.

To be able to change the focus from the result (the Big Society/Good Society) to the tool (Good Democracy) (that is to say, the process) would be a tremendous and consensualising step forward in our body politic.

I just wonder if we’re up to the job.

As I still do wonder …

Inefficient demagoguery as per our current Coalition government – versus efficient democracy as per Peter Levine’s definition quoted above.

Can this really be the Big Choice ahead of us?  And are we sufficiently trained-up now in the business of politics and citizenry to be able to usefully tell the difference between the two?

As well as demand that our political parties offer us this alternative so we may legitimately vote on it?


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May 032012
 
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Power certainly intoxicates.  The fact that they are watching you, even more so!

Or maybe it’s just a question of that blessed evolution we call convergent.

Yesterday, barely ten hours ago in fact, I tweeted the following:

I think the UK Border Agency needs to be crowdsourced. #returnofthebigsociety #letscheckourownpassports

Today, I stumble across this intriguing post:

The Home Office has announced plans to bring in over 500 volunteers a week to reduce delays at border controls during the Games.

It was, however, posted last night about an hour before my tweet.  So maybe that’s convergent evolution after all.

Either way, social media clearly rocks.  Though perhaps not to any ordinary people’s advantage …

So is this, then, the definitively real launch of the Big Society in government?  As the above-mentioned post goes on to point out (the bold is mine):

Volunteers are being recruited from retired immigration officers along with those that have recently been made redundant and a budget of £2.5m has been made available to cover their expenses such as travel and accommodation.  [...]

An example of crowdsourcing perhaps – but not the sort that empowers the crowdsourced.

That’s the difference between the inside and the outside.

It’s also, sadly, an example of how the established elites may eventually re-establish their control over the new.


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Mar 232012
 
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Fascism has had a long and truly unpleasant 20th century history.  I mentioned the concept a couple of times recently, unsure whether I had any right to do so.  Then Paul Evans shared an image on Facebook which someone else had drawn up, and which contained the following quote by Franklin D Roosevelt:

[T]he liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.

In fact, Wikipedia on the subject of corporate capitalism goes even further back in time as it adds the following reminder to Roosevelt’s quote:

Thomas Jefferson, one of the founders of the United States democratic system, said “I hope we shall crush … in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country”.

Something which, in the light of so many recent events here in Britain (here, here and here for example), would appear to have in the end been quite beyond our collective ability to achieve.

So if we can accept Roosevelt’s definition as workable, and if we must admit the possibility that large corporations now not only have the ear of government but also constitute and occupy its very soul, its very essence, doesn’t this then mean modern Britain – especially as submitted to the levers of power which this Coalition is currently connecting to big business across the globe – is well on its way to becoming a fascist state?

Isn’t it time we stopped being so mealy-mouthed about this whole matter and fully recognised how devalued the currency of democracy has truly become?

*

What can we do about it though?  I don’t believe in violence – yet I see violence of all kinds being committed by those in power.  I don’t believe in the imposition of the thoughts of a minority over a majority – yet I see exactly this happening in the name of parliamentary debate.  I don’t believe in the inefficient shortcuts of excessively hierarchical organisation – yet the only alternative to Tory-led dictatorship seems to be a kind of leaping into the abyss of yet more “trust me with your all” progressive politics.

What I really find difficult to understand is if the grassroots is so large – for it is everyone who does not have real power at the moment – why, then, is it taking so long for us to find a way of effecting our potential?  It is clear of course, whether intentionally or not, that in everything it does this government of corporate capitalism is making it more and more difficult to have the time to organise alternatives.  From the Big Society concept itself right at the very beginning, designed to overload us active sorts with far too much business to do the job effectively, to the savage reduction in living standards of all kinds – tax credit cuts, DLA, minimum wage guarantees – as well as the constricting of access to support such as Legal Aid, there seems a clearly and intelligently thought-out strategy underlining this all which aims to make it simultaneously easier for the corporations to colonise our democracy and far more difficult for individuals to defend what are rapidly becoming spurious and even non-existent rights.

Perhaps fascism isn’t quite the word we should be using, as it has so many awful historical connotations which deserve to be separated from all the other crimes mankind has committed in the name of political ideology.  But the colonisation of democracy is surely something we can live with conceptually as a fair description of what is happening.

We have been colonised by a fleet of alien invaders: organisations which have the grand advantage of being relatively eternal compared to our own finite lives, which have access to high living standards and support from massive legal departments – and which aim to turn all public spaces into private spaces of conditional, as well as highly profitable, public use.

If that isn’t a colonisation – in Roosevelt’s terms a fascist colonisation at that – I really don’t know what is.

Our responsibility and duty to be hosts to barely symbiotic creatures.

Our destiny to forego all right to democratic representation.

To finish, then, with Wikipedia’s definition of corporate capitalism (the bold in the second paragraph is mine):

Corporate capitalism is a term used in social science and economics to describe a capitalist marketplace characterized by the dominance of hierarchicalbureaucratic corporations, which are legally required to pursue profit.

A large proportion of the economy and labour market falls within joint stock company or corporate control.[1] In the developed world, corporations dominate the marketplace, comprising 50 percent or more of all businesses. Those businesses which are not corporations contain the same bureaucratic structure of corporations, but there is usually a sole owner or group of owners who are liable to bankruptcy and criminal charges relating to their business. Corporations have limited liability and remain less regulated and accountable than sole proprietorships.

Hardly good – is it? – that our democracy should now be in the hands of organisations with limited liability, and which are less regulated and accountable than the “sole proprietorships” which were once in charge.

Democracies, in order that they function on behalf of ordinary people and voters, need real short-lived people running and controlling them – not faceless and indefinite transnational organisations.

A car crash of awful proportions awaits us I fear.  Roosevelt saw it coming in 1938.  Jefferson saw it coming as it started.

Now we have the privilege to bear witness to it in person.

I’m not looking forward to the experience at all.

Are you?


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Feb 252012
 
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I find the acronym NEET pretty insulting for a couple of reasons I will shortly explain – but for those of you late to the party, here’s a definition:

NEET is a government acronym for people currently “not in education, employment, or training“. It was first used in the United Kingdom but its use has spread to other countries, including Japan, China, and South Korea. People under the designation are called NEETs (or Neets).

In the United Kingdom, the classification comprises people aged between 16 and 24 (some 16-year-olds are still of compulsory school age); the subgroup of NEETs aged 16–18 is frequently of particular focus. In Japan, the classification comprises people aged between 15 and 34 who are unemployed, not engaged in housework, not enrolled in school or work-related training, and not seeking work. The “NEET group” is not a uniform set of individuals.

A government site on the subject under discussion can be found, at the time of writing this post, here:

At the end of 2010, 141,800 (7.3 per cent) 16- to 18-year-olds were NEET.  Rates vary considerably with age – 2.3 per cent of 16-year-olds, 6.8 per cent of 17-year-olds and 12.4 per cent of 18-year-olds. For most young people, being NEET is a temporary outcome as they move between different education and training options – surveys estimate that only 1 per cent of young people are NEET at ages 16, 17 and 18.

The characteristics of young people who are not participating are diverse, although there are some groups that are at greater risk of becoming NEET. This includes, for example, those with few or no qualifications and those with a health problem, disability or low aspirations. The Department has published research looking at the characteristics of young people who are not participating.

The government’s planned contribution to resolving the problem – remember it affects one percent of our young between the ages of sixteen and eighteen – would appear to be £126 million aimed at getting 55,000 youngsters to react thus:

Launching the project, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it would help get youngsters who are “glued to the television” into the “real world of work and learning”.  

*

“Sitting at home, sitting on the sofa, glued to the television …”

What a great way of defining a generation – pigeon-holing 55,000 young people as lazy layabouts.  As “not participating”.  As having “health problems, disability or low aspirations”.  And meanwhile, at the other end of the generational spectrum, what does the government do to re-engineer our society?

Just as importantly, however, I’m also inclined to believe that the big society idea was, as I pointed out earlier this month, designed to exclude from the start:
Trends like these – and others we may perceive – are working together hard to make our blessed Big Society nothing more than an  old boys’ network of the retired and semi-retired.  Putting people in their places and pigeon-holes is the game we’re playing now.

We are in the process of disenfranchising politically and democratically whole swathes of the population, re-engineering society’s wider expectations and leaving in the hands of both the conservative and the Conservatives amongst us the running of our schools, hospitals, local communities and neighbourhoods.

So why – whilst those with disabilities have their route to independence removed, whilst those who would work for a living must work for nothing and whilst those who would aspire to take charge of their own business futures are duly informed that, to this government, capitalism is a synonym for big business – is this Coalition able and determined to empower the conservative and Conservative semi-retired when demonisation of one sort or another is the preferred course of action for the “non-participating” young, disabled and unemployed – that is to say, the utterly different and inexplicably unaspirational?

After making DLA almost impossible to obtain, after obliging the unemployed to carry out voluntary work, after planning the break-up of the NHS for the benefit of corporate sponsors, after working to destroy the principle of Legal Aid in favour of business cronies … really, ladies and gentlemen, how do you honestly expect us to want to aspire to and participate in this hell-hole of contradictions?

*

And so it is that it does make me wonder if the Tories amongst us aren’t happier empowering a group in society they know how to control over a group in society which always, always, always manages to renew, surprise, change and re-imagine the way we do things. 

Yes.  You’ve got it.  Our government’s strategy and policies laid finally clear for all to perfectly see: pigeon-hole the unpredictable young so they become absolutely blameworthy; empower the conservative old so they become absolutely blameless; and proceed to win elections for absolutely generations to come.

*

No.  I’m not suggesting for a moment we shouldn’t empower semi-retired conservative and Conservative OAPs.  I’m just suggesting we should also choose to do the same with everyone else in society. 

And where we do not, we should question why. 

And since we are not, it’s now time to question.


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Feb 202012
 
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I mentioned my discomfort with the spreading tentacles of our democracy in a previous post.  The evidence clearly points to an unhappy reality: big business influences who wins elections these days much more than the discrete decisions of individuals.  Whether these individuals occupy posts of responsibility in political parties or simply carry out their civic duty on polling day, the final outcomes depend far more on the decisions taken in boardrooms than the minds made up in sitting-rooms.

Which is why I underline my dissatisfaction and fear of a further “democratisation” of our political system via localism agendas, referendums and other tools of the blessed Big Society (more here) – until and if we are able to remove from the equation the overwhelmingly concentrated lobbying resources of that nexus which is Big Capitalism and the Big State everywhere.

For the more of this kind of democracy we have, the worse our democratic deficit will get.

The truth of the matter being that big business has now become much more adept at politics than even our professional politicians.

And we, meanwhile, are caught in the latent crossfire.


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Feb 112012
 
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As I logged onto Twitter an hour ago, a long line of tweets came my way in which I had been included in the early hours of this morning.  Brian started the ball rolling by linking to a post of mine on the subject of what I tentatively called the “Big Agreement” – where a new contract would be drawn up between interested parties on what to do about both the “Big State” and “Big Capitalism”, neither of which were appearing to be especially relevant to a 21st century society with evermore devolving instincts.

The final tweet in the line of tweets in question was this one from Frances Coppola:

@brianfmoylan @eiohel @legalaware Big Society, Big State, Big Corporates, Big Capitalism….big is the problem

Now whilst I am inclined instinctively to agree, I do wonder if the problem is size or – on the other hand – behaviours.  After all, we do have a perfect paradigm of vastness in 21st century life which actually behaves like very small: here, I refer, of course, to the Internet and its various bits and bobs.  In essence – with its billions of pages of data and interactivity, its millions of connected servers and its ability to find and remember what’s relevant and apposite – it both acts like a human brain on a very discrete scale as well as performing the tasks of a globalised entity.

Very big then – or very small?

I’m inclined to believe it is both.

I’m not sure, therefore, that Frances is right to assume big can never act small for all our benefits.  In reality, the very fact that so much of modern lawyerly energy is being expended on trying to shoehorn the current web and Internet into the traditional business models of content industries across the world is a clear indication that the aforementioned elements of virtual communication are currently big enough to attract the attention of these corporate behemoths – but too small in some aspect or another for them to be able to fully trust the selfsame Internet’s ways of seeing and doing.

So it is that I might argue we need to examine how the web and the Internet manage to carry off this wonderful sleight of hand with such apparent aplomb.

For the experience such behaviours provide us with is surely applicable to other areas of human endeavour.

And, if only we were able to stand back and analyse with intelligence, we might take advantage greatly of such clear examples of overwhelming achievement – as we continue to strive to create more responsive public and private sectors.


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Nov 142011
 
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In order for the blessed Big Society to work, we need time to volunteer and participate.  There have always been suspicions, from the very beginning, that the concept is actually a myth and a cloak: a marketed soundbite on the one hand designed to knock those of us who believe in the state onto the ideological back foot; on the other, a sneaky way of hiding a rather more unhappy true purpose.

But I’ve always been prepared to contemplate an alternative to corporate state-ism.  Whilst the objective should be clear – a society which supports and empowers its less fortunate members at the same time as it creates opportunity for the luckier ones amongst us – the tools should always vary according to the historical moment we find ourselves in.  Volunteering, after all, is good for the soul – and where properly channelled and encouraged may engender benefits all round.

Paul has, however, uncovered this morning an extremely disagreeable pincer movement from the Tories which makes it impossible to even contemplate doing anything else but work like a slave from dawn to dusk.  In his own words:

Tory-run Wandsworth Council is proposing to evict people who don’t get a job.  The council says:
If the policy is adopted, people would be given a council home on the condition that they find work or enrol on a training course. If they fail to stick to their side of the bargain they would face the prospect of losing that home.

This comes in the context of government policy being developed to evict people if they do get a job:

The PM said fixed term contracts should be issued so that people can be evicted if they get a job or start earning more.

And whilst I am still inclined to give as much benefit of the doubt as I might manage to rustle up in the circumstances, I’m really not quite ready to roll over and think of England and its corporate sponsors.

I think the purpose of these moves is absolutely clear. Force people into wage-slave jobs and then ensure they are too fearful to protest about their state.

And by doing so, disenfranchise democratically-speaking the less connected even more than they are by ensuring they simply don’t have the time to attend key meetings and decision-making forums outside their morale-sapping jobs.

Neither the time nor, indeed, the energy.

In fact, impoverish the already poor and enrich the already rich just about sums it all up.

Is this, then, the big(-hearted) society Cameron once so proudly proclaimed?


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Nov 102011
 
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The hashtag #nov9 was used on Twitter in the days leading up to yesterday’s march in London – a march which involved students who continue to protest the tripling of tuition fees.  I spent most of yesterday working online, though did not follow this hashtag myself.

I did, however, have cause to favourite a handful of tweets which seemed particularly relevant to what appears to have become a Titanic of a country, as we lazily rearrange the green benches of Parliament whilst everything else around us collapses.

These are the tweets in question.  I’ll include the times I received them in square brackets, so you can see why they struck me as so incongruent:

RT @MissEllieMae: Protesters in an impossible catch 22: mask up and get arrested; stay uncovered and get filmed #nov9 < democracy in action [16.47]

Democracy is meant to be disruptive. That’s why the right to demonstrate is an integral part of it. We forget that at our peril. [16.57]

Bedford entrepreneur Lance Haggith is the Prime Minister’s latest #bigsociety award winner bit.ly/stCwIw [17.02]

What a joke our Govt are. Kids are protesting about being priced out of education, yet #hoc debate footballers being allowed to wear poppies [17.03]

And then, last thing at night just before I signed off, we had this one from Fraser Nelson:

@oflynnexpress afraid I am in the minority that wants to save our eu membership, albeit by renegotiating terms then holding referendum. [23.06]

A few of us might argue with the idea of a referendum – but saving EU membership, in the light of Europe’s traumas over the past two centuries, is hardly something anyone should care to disagree with.

I do wonder if the terrain we are entering is not dissimilar to the sandwich of chaos that was eventually the Weimar Republic.

Anyhow, back to the first four tweets.  I bet you can’t guess which one belonged to the Prime Minister’s office.

Or – which is what I really mean to say – I bet you can.

Whilst the majority of the people I follow seemed worried about the attack that police threats, police tactics and an overwhelming police presence may be doing to our concept of democracy, Mr Cameron is most interested in promoting the dead duck of a concept that is the Big Society – a concept I have previously argued is actually designed to exclude.

The truth of the matter is that if modern politicians were a bank, we’d have bailed them out three times already: over the first credit crunch; over MPs’ expenses; and over the ongoing saga that is the Murdochs and the spells they cast – with relatively few exceptions – on all our political class.

We pay them what we pay them – to get it right!  Failure isn’t an option, I’m afraid.  Failure is only an option for those of us who earn what our work is actually worth.  For those who earn far more than they should … well, there is really no excuse.  And allowing light-touch regulation, the expenses issue and the insidious influence of the people who work in tabloids to get as out of hand as they have all got is a clear sign we have corrupt individuals who like to game the system in their very own interests.

Which brings me to this post – which I strongly urge you to read and weep.  Is it true?  The comments below it would seem to indicate it is.

So for these CEOs, who in some cases earn 475 times what an ordinary worker takes home, the option to fail is even less appropriate than in the case of our highly-paid politicos.  And yet, as banks disintegrate and at least one of their leaders has to take time off due to the weight of his onerous responsibilities, they continue to maintain such ratios in the face of all reasonableness.

If the world is really on the edge of total upheaval, why can’t we put aside our combative ways and try and work together?  This would require a change in behaviours, of course – but, as most big companies would like to argue, surely everyone is retrainable …


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Sep 272011
 
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Our politicians talk all the time about gaining our trust.  Ed Miliband, in his speech to Labour Conference today, said the following:

The Labour Party lost trust on the economy.

And under my leadership, we will regain that trust.

I am determined to prove to you that the next Labour Government will only spend what it can afford.

That we will live within our means.

That we will manage your money properly.

As someone who believes that government can make a difference, I have a special responsibility to show you that every pound that is spent, is spent wisely.

Now maybe politicians like Mr Miliband say these things because they are perceptive and accurate in their understanding of the reality out there.  On the other hand, the more cynical amongst you will argue that they say precisely what we need to hear – precisely what politicians generally don’t allow us to do.  That is to say, they claim to aim to gain our trust and confidence because they know – exactly – they are not worthy of either.

Another part of Miliband’s speech today, though, is pertinent to the case in question – that of trust:

Take Fred Goodwin, who ran the Royal Bank of Scotland.

He was at the heart of the banking crisis.

Compare him to Sir John Rose, former Chief Executive of Rolls Royce, a great British business leader.

Creating wealth and keeping jobs in this country.

He is the true face of British business.

The vast majority of our businesses that have the right values and do the right thing.

Rooted in their communities.

Committed to their workforce.

And creating real, lasting value.

But at the time of the financial crisis, Fred Goodwin was paid over three times more than Sir John Rose.

I tell you something, Fred Goodwin shouldn’t have got that salary.

And I tell you something else:

We shouldn’t have given Sir Fred Goodwin that knighthood either.

Which is why this question occurs to me: if business wants government to deregulate its activities, and politicians understand – even if emptily – that they are obliged to gain our trust, why don’t businesspeople also feel just as obliged to convince us of their goodwill?

Why don’t businesspeople also feel just as obliged to “do the right thing” -  to do “something for something”?

Why do businesspeople – as voters – expect their governors to do what they promise but reserve a completely different set of standards for their own pecuniary behaviours? 

Why, indeed, in this Big Society environment, can’t we extend the concept of the public interest and apply it to those who work in the private sector?


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Sep 142011
 
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I’ve told the following tale before on these pages – but it bears repeating.  I once worked for a company which objectivised volunteering.  Yes.  Our yearly bonus depended, in part, on the volunteering activities we participated in during the previous twelve months.  The implications?  Well.  In a sense, volunteering became compulsory.

Meanwhile, today a fascinating article brings to my attention the following reality – when governments encourage broad participation in volunteering the effect they bring about is quite the opposite.  That is to say, volunteering is actually deterred:

“Government policy was never described as a motivating factor by the interviewees, and any influence was reported negatively,” it says.

“Imposition of government agendas and intentions on people’s existing activities, for example, was viewed as politicising their participation and was almost unanimously rejected.”

The report adds that the nature of successive governments’ involvement in encouraging volunteering has had damaging effects, but does not name any individual government.

“People’s negative reaction to the imposition of agendas that are not theirs has potentially been exacerbated by government’s encouragement of comparatively narrow, highly formalised and structured forms of participation,” it says. It cites the promotion of formal volunteering and involvement in public consultations and regeneration boards as examples of this.

And although we might argue that the Big Society aims to be more informal in its approach, the whole idea of politicising voluntary work does – in the light of this report – seem to indicate that any attempt to make voluntary work a key part of all citizens’ lives is likely to fail. 

As indeed it should. 

As indeed the attempt by the company I worked for to impose volunteering targets on all its lower-level workers also finally failed in the face of objections from the wider workforce.

Thus we can see that the Big Society proposal is not so much half-baked in its structure and overarching themes but, rather more surprisingly, in its packaging and delivery.  You’d think PR experts, of which presumably David Cameron must be counted as one, would be sensitive to the dynamics and impact of such politicisation. 

It would, however, appear that – even in this – the Coalition government exhibits no sensitivity whatsoever. 

In their mad and effervescent attempt to de-statify society before the next general election, it would seem that – through the tactics they are employing in their volunteering policy – Cameron & Co have simply made people want even less to give of their own time. 

Great achievement, guys and gals.  Great achievement.


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Sep 022011
 
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I’ve just been followed by a Rotary Club Twitter feed.  One of our dearest friends does, I believe, good works on occasions for the Rotary Club where I live.  I am minded to conclude that such activities are good for society.  And I can see where the idea of the Big Society was nurtured – even if cack-handedly.

I say cack-handedly because by prioritising so utterly private acts of charity over the state, the Tories wish to commit the same error they accuse the socialist state of perpetuating.  And it’s not true – the accusation I mean.  The Labour government created a tapestry of cooperation between private charities and state works – a Big Society in all but name; probably where the magpie Conservatives got their true inspiration.

But with the Big Society the Tories have made the strategic mistake of using the blessed concept to replace the state instead of employing it far more wisely to integrate these acts of mercy.  What they forget, in their miserable desire to eliminate all vestiges of socialist instincts from the Union, is that competition is good for everyone – even, it has to be pointed out, in the absence of any degree of self-awareness, in the case of the privatised Big Society.

If we want anything like the Big Society to work, we need to ensure that the state and private sectors compete effectively with each other.  And for that to happen, both have to be allowed to have a minimum threshold of operation.  Something which in the former case the Tories clearly do not intend to contemplate.


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Aug 112011
 
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Norman has a useful piece on triangulating, and even – quite appropriately in the circumstances – intellectually nabbing, the rights and wrongs behind the recent riots.  Well worth a read.

Meanwhile, to the extent that I can, I’ve been following the Twitterverse on the subject of some of the wilder opinions MPs have expressed at the session held in Parliament today on the same matter.  Coupled with what I was reading till far too late last night, I’ve come to the following conclusion: we are confusing the understandable instinct to deter right now with the need to properly punish long-term.  Thus it is that the Greater Manchester Police were making it clear in no uncertain terms yesterday evening that every miscreant would be caught, locked up and charged – with such an overbearing tone I began to feel mightily guilty myself.

Plenty of other people were happy with the tone used, though.  So who am I to say?  But when Mr Cameron decides today we must evict the wrongdoers from their homes, I don’t think he’s being entirely clear about his own motivations and their origin.

First, this nice paragraph from an instant analysis of the proposal itself:

We should note in passing that Grant Shapps, a housing minister whose knee is never knowingly un-jerked, has today suggested that the ‘locality’ condition should be scrapped so that those found guilty of ‘being involved in rioting’ in another area could be evicted. The trouble with that is it would simply mean being convicted of an arrestable offence, even if wholly unrelated to the home or to housing, would be a ground for eviction. That may just be a step too far for all kinds of reasons, not least Article 8. [...]

And so it is that I do rather feel that whilst the GMP has a perfect right, under the circumstances, to use any tone it might wish in order to tilt the balance of behaviours in the direction we would all prefer, and whilst – quite separately – Mr Cameron might understandably wish, by leading through overbearing threats, to remove from law-abiding neighbourhoods those anti-social elements who have caused so much trouble, I still am driven to conclude that aiming to deter demagogically after the event will always lead to the writing of bad legislation – as well as, more importantly, a cycle of poor sentencing always likely to store up for the future its own particular problems.

Those who have made the moral and individual mistake, to paraphrase Norman’s article at the top of this post, of committing these acts of aggression do – then – need to be punished, of course.  But we shouldn’t allow our own fear of not being able to achieve an immediately cost-effective peace in the streets to lead us to grandstand imperiously in the hope that such declamatory actions guarantee that peace sooner.  If, in order to effect peace, we must use impositional discourses, the society we will generate will inevitably contain future swathes of injustice.  And maybe this worst case scenario.  As I pointed out on Shuggy’s thought-provoking post:

[...] I don’t see the police as fascist by the way. As I wouldn’t see the army either. In all conflicts, the people who make up the forces of “order” are just as much at the mercy of their taskmasters (politicians) as any of the rest of us inevitably become. If we *must* go with a state where its representatives only ever choose to represent those who are already active, and the imposition of law and order rather than its consensual application is to be par for the course, then at least let us impose it efficiently. What is absolutely unacceptable is to have the worst of all possible worlds: more or less non-consensual rule coupled with inefficient public order-keeping.

But I would far rather believe that if the government is truly interested in the Big Society (of what seems like a veritable age ago now), it needs to ensure that it manages to be duly and generously big-hearted too.

Precisely when this is most difficult to sanction.

What is happening at the moment, however, where the public-order requirement to deter further criminality is blurring our ability to perceive the social requirement to be more even-handed and just than the miscreants, is not a standpoint we should happily embrace.

We shouldn’t confuse a profound belief in the importance of a just and intelligent legal system with an alleged tolerance of anti-social behaviour.  Even more importantly, we shouldn’t allow such anti-social behaviour to circumscribe our ability to construct and sustain a just and intelligent legal system.


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Jun 212011
 
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If politicians expect to get paid for participating in the democratic process, how can they possibly expect the rest of us to do it for free?  Yet, that is precisely what modern governments seem to want of us – as citizens are required to play a greater part in what is supposedly a democratic process.

And I ask the question as I muse, yet again, on the subject of the Big Society.  And it’s an important question if the aim of modern governance is not only to be far less hierarchical than it used to be but also to go beyond simply implementing the rather easier first two parts of what current models have managed to achieve to date:

According to Don Lenihan’s public engagement framework, Rethinking the Public Policy Process, citizens participate with government in three processes: consultation, deliberation, and public engagement.

The consultation process is when citizens are consulted and public opinion is collected in wikis, blogs, Facebook pages, public hearings, telephone interviews, or online surveys, to give some examples. Then, government makes a decision based on that information. Although sometimes productive, this process is not effective when we are considering highly contentious and/or complex issues.

The deliberation process is when citizens contribute to the discussion on how to proceed with what is discovered in consultation process. Participants address issues, negotiate, seek synergies and/or compromises, and arrive at strategies to proceed in light of differing opinions. Government then makes the final decision.

The public engagement process is when citizens contribute to (or even lead/facilitate) the consultation process, deliberation process, policy and legislation decisions, and/or actions to address the issue. The public and government are partners throughout the entire public engagement process.

But if the third is ever to happen, the very fact that one of the parties gets paid to get involved whilst the other has to do it out of the goodness of its socially-engaged heart is, surely, always going to distort the outcomes reached – as well as, inevitably, maintain the continuing self-interested professionalisation of what should be a democracy of equals. 

If professional politicians only ever were facilitators of the democratic process.  But it’s not going to happen whilst their livelihoods depend on such outcomes – and whilst we as voters and citizens have to use our leisure time to achieve such engagement.  If modern systems of governance contemplate involving citizens to the degree some of the above suggests, then modern systems of governance should contemplate splitting the oversight of technical issues from the representative side of politics.  In this brave new world, we won’t need our political representatives to be paid for their political activities: rather, we will expect them – as unpaid-citizen-facilitating politicos – to be in receipt only of financial state-provided resources and access to the intelligence they need to fulfil their obligations as bridges between technocratic duties and representative responsibilities.

Not paid to do a job but in receipt of resources to enable a process.

That is to say, they should engage and work with the rest of us, as equally unremunerated folk in the business of politics – on equal terms and with a coinciding objective: the truly democratic administration of society.

This, and only this, will allow anything approaching the Big Society to take off.

Anything else will be mere whitewash.


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