Jun 202014
 
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Yesterday, I received a letter from Virgin Mobile.  It announced a 10 percent rise in my VIP 15 tariff (not sure what exactly they’ll call it now – after all, the VIP 16.50 sounds more like a high-speed bullet train for the City of London …).  I include the relevant section of the letter below, in order to evidence the fact for reasons I shall soon lay out.

Virgin Mobile's 10 percent tariff increase

As it’s an unlimited tariff on minutes, texts and Internet, and so gives good value anyhow, and as other providers have already battered my instincts to indignation into resigned submission as far as modifications of contract-phone relationships are concerned, I thought little more of it … until, that is, today.

Compare and contrast the above with the letter my wife received this morning.

Virgin Mobile's 2.5 percent tariff increase

As you can see, the offer and increase is quite different to mine.  And so – where T-Mobile and EE had gone before – Virgin Mobile followed.

I phoned them up of course, and was told the reason for the increase was that investment in new technologies was required.  When I suggested my wife would also be taking advantage of such technologies – at a cost to her of only 2.5 percent – I was informed I could have the same offer as my wife if I wanted.  This, of course, I jumped at.  I’m pretty sure the word used was “offer” too.  (Virgin Mobile could easily confirm this as the call was being recorded.)  It’s important here, because my wife pays just over five quid a month for 200 minutes, unlimited texts and 1 GB Internet.  However, the tariff she has is actually fifteen quid – the difference being a customer loyalty discount.  So when it came down to it, the hapless customer service person retracted (I think she did anyway – if someone wants to check the recording and correct my assertion, I’m happy to stand corrected) and said instead that I could have the same tariff – which is to say an undiscounted fifteen quid; just a little under what my new VIP 16.50 would be costing me but without the unlimited minutes or Internet.

Now I’m sure there are very good reasons for me being charged a 10 percent increase and my wife just 2.5 percent.  Each company, after all, has the right to set the prices they bloody well want, especially when the small print is on their side, and they choose to inform you that you can change away from the current contract or even leave them altogether.  But whatever the reasons, and however good they might be, is a man of the entrepreneurial calibre of Mr Branson really happy a company of his is sending out two completely different price increases to what are surely difficult to distinguish products and services to the very same household in a matter of a couple of days?

I dunno.  The response of the customer service person was to essentially suggest if I didn’t like it, I could lump it (though she was much politer than that).  However, if this is the attitude and behaviour of Virgin in mobile services, it’s hardly likely to infuse our confidence in its desire to expand its delivery of, say, health in the UK.  For in the latter circumstance, if for example I find myself dying from a nasty cancer and Virgin decides to up my charges mid-process by a small-printed 10, 20 or 50 percent, am I really going to be able to choose to walk away?


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Oct 292013
 
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I’ve been having a few problems recently.  Mainly as a result of my off-and-on relationship with technology.  I’ve documented them here and here, so if you want to bring yourself up to speed you might want to read these posts before we continue.

You can understand that I felt aggrieved enough with Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry for not repairing something still supposedly under guarantee.  This was the bit of their reply which most upset my sensitive soul, when I queried CPW’s initial refusal to do anything at all (the bold is mine):

The reason for this is that, upon review, your handset was missing buttons. This type of damage, regardless if it caused the fault on the device or not, invalidates the warranty and means that we cannot repair this without a charge.

As it seemed pretty clear that no other option was available to me, I didn’t reply to the email in question.  Then yesterday I got a follow-up which went as follows:

Dear Mr Williams

We have not received a response from our recent email.

If there is anything else that we can assist you with, please let me know.

If we haven’t heard from you in the next 7 days, we will close your case file down.

So that was when I found it in myself to reply.  This is what I said:

Hi

Many thanks for your follow-up.

I think your email made it very clear I have no other options in this matter.  I hardly felt a response was even expected.  However, as you have asked for one, I’d like to make it clear I will no longer be purchasing nor recommending products or services sold by CPW – either online or in its shops, either in Britain or in Spain – nor shall I be investing in any Blackberry products in the future (if, that is, the company manages to remain at all viable).  Any phone contracts I have which I suspect may benefit your group will, when they come up for renewal, be moved to other providers.

That’s about all I can do.

Your bottom lines are safe.

Kind regards,

Miljenko Williams

Meanwhile, my second major techie issue seems to rumble inconclusively on.  Last week I contacted Tesco about the failure of my two-year-old 3G Kindle’s screen.  Whilst contacting their helpline connected me directly with Amazon, I felt my contractual relationship should be with the shop I bought the product from.  Amazon offered me an upgrade I would obviously have to pay for.  My initial reaction was that I would rather it be replaced for the exact same keyboarded model.  It had been a birthday present from my eldest son and I valued the object as such.  The gentleman on the customer helpline said no similar models were made any more by Amazon, and an upgrade was the only option.

I then phoned Tesco’s helpline again, this time choosing non-Kindle options from the menu in order to speak to a Tesco person him- or herself.  And this time I pursued – as per the advice from our local store – the “electrical products out of warranty” path, where you can put in a request for a pro-rata compensation payment to be made, if the product you’re complaining about is judged to have a life expectancy beyond that which it has shown.  I was given a timeframe of 48 hours for a response, I think it was.  Unfortunately, that was last week and this is this week.

Now I’m obviously going to have to negotiate Tesco’s complex menu system all over again in order to chase the case up.  But before I do, I thought I’d put down my preferred outcome in black and white, along with a few wider observations on what corporate capitalism is doing to us all.

Kindle is a great system for binding you into Amazon’s infrastructures, that is true.  It also offers significant benefits – if, that is, you’re prepared to accept the limitations the system leads to with respect to ownership, portability of content and so forth.  But where it wins out – its ability to be accessed from a multitude of devices and allow you to pick up from where you left off absolutely anywhere – is precisely where it is damaging our previous and singularly healthy attachments to artefacts.

In the past, when we gave someone an object of certain value, this object maintained both its operational ability, its physical integrity and its sentimental value for many many years.  Out of love, out of respect and out of a generosity which characterises him, my eldest son wanted to make what he felt would be a present I would always treasure and remember him by.  And he got it right – an electronic book: something I have been fighting for and arguing in favour of for over a decade now.  What more could a loving son want to gift an aspiring editor-father than something in the very vanguard of 21st century publishing?

But now I realise, at least as per Amazon’s intentions (and possibly Tesco’s too – I have yet to find out), my treasured birthday present has become – two short years and a few months later – a mere accountant’s calculation in an upgrade path to tablet-ownership.  Yes.  Corporate capitalism, and here I mean both Amazon and Tesco, both Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry, both Apple and Samsung, as well as practically everyone and their mother, is in the process of making us about as promiscuous with our artefacts as any grasping capitalist could hope for; about as promiscuous with our objects as any Sixties’ hedonist ever was with their bodies; about as promiscuous and uncaring about the intrinsic value of what we give to another as any shallow consumer manages to be with their trashed-upon and popcorned entertainment.

To be honest, I don’t want a brand new super-duper all-colour upgrade.  That wasn’t what my dearest son gave me just over two years ago.  What I want is for the object he gave me, the very object he gave me, the very same serial-numbered present, to return to the state it was in during the summer when I was still able to finger its well-designed curves.

Yes.  It’s the object he gave me which I want to recover.  It’s his present, not your largesse, which I want to be able to remember him by.

So does no one out there, no one at all, understand in any way what I am getting at here?

Does no one else see what we are losing?

Does no one else care to care?


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Sep 212013
 
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Last night (well, early this morning), I discovered how one might be connected to two separate Skype accounts from the same Windows user on the same device at exactly the same time.  I’m currently waiting for clever bods to confirm (if confirmation’s possible) that this is a robust technique – but if it is … my, does it provide a facility I’m sure people with both personal and biz accounts have, for quite some time now, had on their rather random software wish-lists.

If you want to know more, have a look at my Twitter timeline from this morning.  In the meantime, I shall wait for any possible tests to be completed.

This kind of stuff, this random stumbling across felicitous discovery, is kind of what life – certainly my life – has periodically thrown up.  It’s the good bit about life, this – that we can reach beyond our limitations and studies and, through some kind of curious unpredictable case of intuition, add far more value to our sum of knowledge than might be reasonably expected.

We are bigger and better and kinder and brighter than the number-crunching wizards of technological capitalism might allow.

As I tweeted just now:

If we live in a history of masses where individuals have levered disproportionate control, what *is* there to do except live where one can?

And as someone else sadly observed, as a society we are capable of staying up till 2 in the morning to queue up for a new-fangled piece of technology – but, at the same bloody awful time, we do not fight for social justice.

I’ve just, myself, committed the same unhappy infraction: following a train of information-technology thought throughout the early hours of Saturday morning in order to solve a fairly irrelevant issue I’ve long had with a piece of software I regularly work with.

Instead of, that is, going to this socialist demonstration or that – or doorstepping that family or this.

It’s a tragedy, what’s happened.  Yes.  History has become of the masses, as many a Marxian I suppose would suggest was inevitable.  But a small and very focussed group of the selfish has learnt how to conduct the masses in one direction or another.  We are not as complex as we would like to presume.  Through a constant process of “message massage”, we have learnt our place in that mass is a hyper-individualised and localised one.  Paradoxically, social networks do not socialise our environment but actually, massively, serve to individualise our every instinct and impulse.

Really, social networks should be redefined: they do not socialise at all.  Rather, they are pieces of aggressively individualising software code designed specifically – quite consciously – to repeat and reproduce an atomising series of patterns of networked interactions.  We do not interact to build sharing networks with these systems at all.  Instead, we interact to build selfishness-engendering relationships where a contagion and infection of behaviours and beliefs takes place.

They don’t put us, in any way, in a social network to be social.  They put us in a social network to become antisocial.

And whilst Marxian masses were once thought bringers (where not harbingers) of inevitable history, those who still stand atop these society-defining pyramids of (globally) inefficient command and control have worked out cleverly, perhaps unintentionally but certainly convincingly, how to make the masses in question work not for that history we might have hoped for (or not, as the case may be) – but rather for their pockets ever-deepening.

We are selfish beings without a jot of altruism.  That is what we have become – or they have made us.

Your call.

Or your video-conference, as the case may be.


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Aug 162013
 
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A short and sour answer to the question posed by the title of today’s post would be: “Basically because we have very little.”

Of course, technological progress and its proponents sell themselves very well.  Like a war photographer who only wants you to see what they’re paid for you to see, the frame is positioned in order to benefit those who would have us believe in their wares.  As it is easy to measure the easily quantitative, so the qualitative in life becomes much less important.  The soft aspects of relationships, where we express emotions, feelings and love, lose their traction in a society where everything must be measured in terms of monetary transactions.

Technology is good at measuring us in terms of money.  Technology is good at measuring itself in terms of what it can achieve.

So good, in fact, its proponents seem to believe – and manage to convince us it is so – that it’s the only possible way to move forwards.

Yet even those of us less enamoured with the development throughout human history of marvellous machines various, inevitably find ourselves in our daily lives unable to resist their bewitchingly gadget-infused attractions.  From those stories of Walt Disney’s frozen brain and the overheated magnificence of William Shatner’s “Star Trek” – both populating the Sixties and Seventies of my still scientifically entranced childhood – to the overwhelming success of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, the arrival of the mobile phone, streaming Internet video and now computer spectacles we can wear and inform ourselves with wherever we go, on its own very specific terms technology does – nevertheless – represent progress.

Perhaps more now, for the majority of the population, than ever before.

Even so, myself, I’m beginning to become a little less entranced with this technology I describe – as well as the progress it supposedly represents.  There are, of course, the obvious downsides: for every computer we make, there is the pollution it generates.  For every TED talk that informs, we have pornography that exploits.  Nothing is new in such an assertion.  For what appears to have been forever, the natural equilibrium in human existence requires every good to have its contrasting and counterpointing bad.

In a sense, then, God and the Devil are hard-wired into our actions.  As, indeed, must be the idea of faith.  And in this case, a very 21st century faith.  Despite every evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe in the validity of technology and its summative progress.  All the rubbish we know more and more about – all the stats and realities which tell a quite different story – are nothing compared to our fervent attachment to the benefits of technological progress.

In fact, I’m getting to the point where I’m beginning to believe that corporate capitalism, a centralising capitalism which generates technological advances like no other in history, is driven not so much by the quest for wealth – nor even power – but, rather, by the unconscious desire to beat death.

Remember, if you will, those stories about Walt Disney’s cryogenics – and multiply them up to our days.

Yes.  If those who concentrate such wealth in order to effervescently develop more technologies, even where this is at the manifest expense of a wider societal wellbeing, continue to effervescently develop, perhaps what we have is an otherwise noble desire to beat the impending apocalypse:

[...] Jensen believes we can and should do something to prepare for the coming collapse. For Jensen, how we live now is going to determine how well we’ll do when the great factories of Guangdong fall fallow. Jensen says people should “prepare for it on a local level”, rebuild communities as much as they can, put in place alternative systems of local governance, think about their food supply.

And whilst the rest of us may soon have to get used to the idea of giving up on the future of technological progress – of giving in to this apocalypse some are beginning to speak of – maybe in some strange way the opposite has been the story of capitalism all along.  The impatience of perishable lives which recognise, subconsciously, how little they will eventually achieve.  Capitalism as a latterday manifestation of that ancient pursuit of the Holy Grail?  I shouldn’t be surprised.  Everything goes, everything is justified, any means can find their precious ends … if, that is, the precious ends involve successfully challenging an awfully Final Judgment.

Maybe, then, we need to believe in the progress of technology – in the unseemly concentration of wealth, in the considerable phallacy of top-down trickle-down economics – because all of us, somehow, somewhere and some time, have dreamt of beating our fate.

The fate of the civilisation we’ve built, first and foremost.

The fate of the species, next along the line.

Finally, the fate of the planet itself.

And all along, all our achievements only measured on their own deliberately limited terms.

Our choice in the light of the above?  Between the progress of a technology for all or the decline of a standard of living for the majority?  Is that where we are now?  Is that the crossroads?  Has capitalism finally given up on its historically implicit – even where, perhaps, disingenuous – assertion that it might, one day, beat the Final Judgment for everyone?

Yesterday, I spoke about how we, as intimate participants, were creating the conditions for capitalism’s own Achilles’ heel.  Perhaps those who run the beast have realised this and have themselves given up on any further intent at deception.  This may, after all, be not so much an apocalypse now but – instead – an apocalypse delayed.

Time to run our society down.

Capitalism’s assertion was, in any case, only a mirage all along.  And realising this is a logical consequence of universal education.  In a sense, then, capitalism’s decay is actually our fault.  In the past, its success depended so much on our faith, confidence, trust and belief – none of which, in the light of modern mindsets and behaviours, is likely to be easily deposited by us any more.

Not easily, for sure.

Not whilst we begin to acquire the tools to think with intelligence; to reach our considered conclusions carefully and firmly.

*

One final question, then – a question I ask in all good faith: can we recover that faith, confidence, trust and belief in order that we might avoid the apocalypse I have mentioned?

Oh, to believe in the onwards and upwards march of technology again.  To believe in its being shared around.  To believe in its utility for all human beings.  To believe in reciprocity and kindness.

To recover gentlemen and women as our model to follow.

If only.


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Aug 152013
 
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Some months ago, I wrote on the subject of my own experiences of mental ill health and made connections with the effect environment can have on people.  In the piece in question, I concluded thus:

Or, alternatively, enter into a completely different landscape where psychiatrists comprehend that much of what is seen as disorder is in fact reaction and adjustment by perfectly sane beings painfully hurting from painful lives?  As James observes:

Britons and Americans have exactly twice the amount of mental illness of mainland western Europeans (23% versus 11.5%). Thirty years of Thatcher and “Blatcher” turned us into a nation of “affluenza”-stricken, shop-till-you-drop, “it could be you”, credit-fuelled consumer junkies. Personal debt – a major stressor for adults – rose from £200bn in 1980 to £1,400bn in 2006. After 1979, the amount of mental illness mushroomed.

Maybe sanity, madness and the family – in its environmental and reactive emphasis – wasn’t such a wild mantra, after all. It’s an old dichotomy, of course – but no less worth revisiting for all that.

Not after the shock to the system which neoliberalism has – more than manifestly – engineered.

Today, meanwhile, this miserable piece of news flits through my timeline, as more famous celebrities from my childhood are accused of the kind of things – sexual abuse on a massive scale – which we should never ever allow anyone to forget.

This is, of course, nothing more nor less than the abuse of power (the bold is mine today):

These matters are being sold as a righteous society cleaning up after sexual perverts.  Two reactions on my part:

  1. The sexual abuse committed (or not) by those currently in the limelight is not principally a matter of sorry individuals abusing others sexually – but, rather, a question of the powerful abusing the powerless.  It is not sex which matters most here but, instead, the abuse by those at the top of our societal trees over those who find themselves almost inevitably at the bottom.
  2. Inasmuch as we are talking not about sex but – in truth – about power, the lesson we should draw is that any abuse of any power by absolutely anyone – and not just tabloidy abuse of a lascivious nature in a sexually couched transaction – is, frankly, as bad as absolutely any other.

And this abuse of power, which everyone has experienced either as abuser or abused (or even both at different times in our lives), is what capitalism – as an overarchingly invasive tool of everything we do, think and believe in – has managed to turn into an object of manipulation; has managed to encourage us to “misremember”.

It seems to me, in fact, as we see the parade of tax-avoiding and evading corporations and individuals, as the link between rights and responsibilities is destroyed for those who have most rights – the already powerful – and unremittingly tightened for those with the least – the inevitably disadvantaged – and as politicians learn to spout evermore vigorously on the weaknesses of everyone, everything and everywhere (excepting that which we are discovering on their doorsteps), so it becomes clear that people’s memories are subject to a permanent deformation which the capitalist system and its leaders in both society and business have always made their special goal.

In some cases, safely at a distance from the time of the original crimes, the people’s memories may be allowed their public space: celebrity DJs, childhood stalwarts, those who commit abuses of power of an easily revolting nature … such releases of feeling help politicians sustain the myth that they are looking primarily to protect us from the evils of our times.

David Cameron’s porn filter is one example.  My blog is blocked already by O2′s parental-control filter.  A small price to pay for a safer world, perhaps.  Or, perhaps, not.  Either way, on the back of the undoubted threat of sexual abuse, and through the long memories of the public now unleashed after so many years under a savagely suspicious control, politicians, along with their business sponsors (maybe indirectly, maybe with little absolute collusion, maybe with a full and cognisant appreciation of every single step which has been taken), are encouraging us to take the opportunity to punish one kind of abuse of power on the one hand, that of sex between individuals who do not occupy similar levels of power over each other, whilst perpetuating another kind of abuse of power on the other.

Which is to say, that of the politician and business leader over their respective constituencies.

Capitalism’s ills may primarily be economic.  Just ask any citizen with problems getting to the end of the month who lives in Greece, Spain or – indeed – Britain these days.  But capitalism’s solution will not be forged any time soon without a common agreement on the importance of maintaining the integrity of people’s memories: about what has been worked in the past; about the crimes others have committed; about the injustice of manipulating such memories.

When the practice of historical story-telling becomes a tool in the hands of those who would undermine objectivity and honesty, we truly have a corrupting system.

This is why I realise bearing witness on social media is, in a sense, a first step to forging that solution.  By denying capitalism’s abusers the opportunity to deform our memories of what has happened, or at least fighting hard to keep our memories as intact as possible, we are better placed to reform the system we all work within.  And if you feel the word is hardly “deform”, maybe the word should not be not “reform” either.  Maybe the latter action needs a far stronger terminology than that.

Whatever we do in the end, whether disruptive or simply placatory, it must be done on the basis of truth.  Capitalism, through history, has always been well-versed in moulding such appreciations to its own benefit – essentially of sustaining humongous lies.  It’s time we understood this can no longer go on.  Out of capitalism’s gadgets; despite the censorship which Western politicians like Cameron want us to sleepwalk into; although our communications will never be entirely free … even so, we have the option of constructing an alternative narrative that doesn’t need to depend on the mainstream to sustain itself.

Our truth will continue to bridge the space between people’s memories and the arrogance of a capitalism which, for far too long, has sincerely believed there is no alternative.

But arrogance is the anteroom to hubris.  And hubris, to downfall.

Even as social media – and its corresponding networks and communities – begin to construct a parallel universe.

Based – quite rightly – on everything the people refuse to forget, any longer.  Actually, on everything the people never forgot.

What’s changed then?  We don’t need, any more, the police or the justice system for the truth to come to light, to be shared, to be massively spread.  And this, precisely this, for the first time in history, is how – together – we are constructing capitalism’s Achilles’ heel.


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May 272013
 
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First let’s start out by saying the world I don’t want:

  1. I don’t want a world based on money.
  2. I don’t want a world where, instead of loving people and using things, people love things and use people.
  3. I don’t want a world where might is right.

Now let’s continue with the world I do want:

  1. I want a world based on merit.
  2. I want a world of collaboration.
  3. I want a world which views compassion and love as strengths.

Am I realistic?  Of course, I fear not.  Especially when I find myself perfectly defined here:

[...] What we’re seeing here is that Eton – the training ground for our future leaders rulers – instinctively understands the nature of power, whereas its soft left critics have always been simperingly naive about it.

And here:

A great thinker – well, greater than most on the non-Marxist left – once asked: “what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” None at all, given that they know what power is whilst the soft left is just wimperingly emotive.

So if I am not being realistic – if I am not of this world – what alternatives do I have?  What choices can I make?

I suppose I could simply say, as I observed yesterday, that “Cruel bastards need to be crushed”.  I could join the game of powerplays and give full rein (where not reign) to my toughened and life-tempered ways.  Yes.  I do have them.  I had the opportunity, at one time in my life, to observe one of the most devious men in small-town crookery anyone could possibly have encountered.  On suffering the wrong end of his charming manners, battle-hardened partners, lawyers and bankers would figuratively collapse at his feet – totally losing all intentionality and vigour as they abandoned their sticking-points with astonishing fragility.  His was the best demonstration of the nature of power – the essence of a truly Machiavellian politicking – I have ever seen in my entire life.  Bar none.

Probably why I’ve spent so much of the rest of my life simperingly and wimperingly emoting.

The alternative then?  Join a church perhaps?  Even re-engage with the one I was born into?  That wouldn’t, of course, mean disengaging with politics: almost certainly it’d mean finding oneself obliged to ignore it wherever it manifested itself.

Not an option either.

So where do I go?  What can a simperingly and wimperingly emotive lefty like myself do to remedy the situation?  Withdraw from the world?  Live in denial of all crookery?  Perhaps reject the lessons of the all-too-equally – all-too-clearly – violent Marxists?

Shut up perhaps?

Stop bearing witness to one’s emotions?

Even re-engineer them so that they might, eventually, creep conveniently away?

No.

I don’t think so.

It’s still not time to do any of the above.

I will continue to simper and wimper my emotions as I see fit.

I will continue to believe there is still a way forward for those brains on legs who don’t care to behave like grubby animals.

After all, if Marxism was made out of a reaction to capitalism, who’s to say it was ever going to be less brutish?

Perhaps that is not what it ever promised.

But, to paraphrase one of the most effective capitalists of all modern times, it’s high time we believed in better.

It’s time we moved beyond the internecine squabbles which have brought so much pain to a 20th century it would currently seem we are rewinding to; to a 19th century some of us now deeply yearn for; to an 16th century some consider our glory age; to a medieval time of tawdry hierarchy.

And if I must continue to emote in futility, it is a plague on all your houses I reserve my right to cast.

*

One final thought: we have all been blaming, to a greater or lesser degree, social democracy for the ultimate failings of our civilisations.  But what if deep down, at the root of it all, the real failure of ambition and aspiration was Marxist?

Do corrupting banking systems, credit crunches, economic fractures and social decay all now exist because Marxism was simply too timid in its sorry piggybacking onto capitalism and its ways?

In accepting the dynamics of class warfare as defining the boundaries of future action, the reductionist implications of such a dramatic ceding of terrain can hardly be underestimated.

In being excessively realistic, in being in its reach too clearly of this world, Marxism failed us precisely when we most needed it to succeed: in rethinking from utter scratch a world we should have chosen to reinvent far more fully.


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May 182013
 
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If we believe in a history of the masses – not just in one of heroes and heroines – there has to be more to what is going on between Cameron & Co and the rest of civil society than simply the bald intention to fill corporate pockets with even more dosh than they already possess.  There must be bigger movements at play here than simply stupid incompetents being stupidly incompetent.

Firstly, it would appear there is a massive battle being fought between a society of professionals on the one hand and a society of the unprofessionalised on the other.  So it is we have doctors, nurses, teachers and lawyers fighting painfully disagreeable rearguard actions with people who have few actual qualifications to be what they end up acting out: in the main, alpha businessmen and women and politicians of all colours and levels.  These latter two “professions”, if the label can (or should) be usefully applied, currently have few training paths to prepare them for the roles they carry out – supposedly on our behalf but more generally on their own.

Secondly, there does seem to be a recognition out there that specialisation – the very stuff of both charlatans and experts – may in some insidious way itself be destroying society.

In another universe then, quite parallel to Cameron & Co’s, we might appreciate the attempts of what we could charitably describe as Wannabe Renaissance Men (WRM) (there would appear to be few women, thankfully, of the same mettle) to break through the Chinese Walls of self-interested sectors.

The problem, of course, is that these WRMs I describe really aren’t.  They’re not doing what they do in order to break down barriers that divide society but, instead, in order to re-establish – using the most unpleasant methods possible – those barriers which most benefit them at a quite individual level.  It would seem they have so convinced themselves their might is right that anything can be justified – precisely and simply because of who or what originates the acts in question.  And we are so taken aback by the astonishingly unexpected nature of these acts – so massively and confusingly outside our moral scope – that we find ourselves mainly giving in:

Govt using practices we instinctively know are wrong but our inexperience of such immoral behaviour is restraining our outrage. #Disabled

Yes.  It’s possible that Cameron & Co are able to sleep at night because they truly believe themselves on a crusade against evil and interested parties.  They see themselves as cavaliers – as latterday buccaneers of magnificent breaking-the-rules ambitions – in much the same way as top-flight businesspeople often feel themselves hard-done-to by a comfort-seeking society which fails to appreciate the real emotional hardships they run the gauntlet of in their uncertain rise to the top.

No wonder these creatures all become self-seeking and selfish.

No wonder they believe we must become like them.

But, in reality, Cameron & Co are anything but Wannabe Renaissance Men – anything but the far-sighted finally able to shrug off a lazy society’s shackles and liberate a democracy of the dreadfully slumbering.

They sense something that perhaps all of us should sense, it is true, but they are utterly incapable of performing the service civilisation requires of them.  As Pope Francis mentioned the other day, their money is ruling the vast majority instead of serving the same.  And unable to reconfigure it, they have given up at the first hurdle; they have given in and become its hugely detrimental servant rather than its master.

Renaissance Men?  They wouldn’t know a flying machine if it hit them on the noggin.  They’d assume it was a brutal and violent attack by dangerously trained beings on their self-taught, unqualified and intuitive impulses.  Out of such inferiority complexes are born the actions of the essentially brutish.

So who’s lost their moral compass?  Is it ourselves – lost in a sea of society-defining media?  Is it the journalists themselves – as yet another suspiciously discrete body of professionals too?  Or is this actually a case of the pyramid so taking over everything we do, think, say and believe that a 21st century of gloriously compulsory education has only prepared us properly for outright submission?

Maybe, even, Cameron, Gove and their cohort of evil politicos are right in some of what they say – even as they wrong in most of what they do.  Specialisations are destroying society; sectors which know so much about their own workings are never going to be entirely direct about the changes which might prejudice them.

Maybe we are all Wannabe Renaissance Men (and Women, of course).

Maybe that’s the problem.

Capitalism’s ultimate revenge: the diarrhoea of an amateur democracy.

Coalition Britain, in fact – multiplied, now, a thousandfold.  And controlled by those with the biggest chips on their shoulders history has seen.

From a society of supposedly meritorious conduct, those who least deserve to be in charge are those who have most benefited from a social democracy that urged us to value citizens in terms of what they were instead of what they did.

And so it is that the moral black hole this Coalition of half-baked humans inhabits is bound to fail, time and again, to properly impact on our sense of right and wrong.

We’ve been taught for far too long that what you do isn’t what you are.

To such an extent that what they are is affected in no significant way by what they do.

And even as they lambast us for our relativistic ways, they continue to ruthlessly take full advantage of the room for manoeuvre such generous morals do allow.


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Mar 312013
 
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Just had my mind blown.  If you watch only one video this year (and I generally don’t tend to watch any online videos), then please, please watch this one.  Amazing, amazing, truly amazing stuff.


http://youtu.be/ja_kOmHBPVA

I can’t begin to communicate to you exactly how much this five minutes of historical wordplay has suddenly made me see the world in a completely different way.  Earlier in the day, I was describing how we should establish a parallel BBC (after two previous posts on similar themes), because something quite fundamental about the one we’ve got really wasn’t as it should be.  Now I see more clearly.  Uncharted waters mean legitimate and illegitimate actions are often interchangeable; cannot be easily separated; exist in the same spaces.  And the biggest uncharted waters we’ve ever faced are around us at this very moment: cyberspace; our genetic make-up as a species; the patenting of cash crops.  It’s all waiting to be “pirated” – not just by those most of us would recognise as “pirates” but – just as significantly – by those who would claim to be quite otherwise.

I never realised the term was as rich and pregnant in meaning and expansion as I now understand it to be.

*

Today has, however, been a day of many felicitous discoveries.  This one, for example, which came my way a few minutes ago via Jeff:

In 2009, at the Economics for Ecology Conference, we’d made this point:

“The prevailing economics systems in the twentieth century were capitalism and communism.  Both systems were hypothetically aimed at creating a means of providing people with comfortable, safe and secure life.

Along the way, in the process of attempting different forms of economics from capitalism to communism, we have managed to pollute and contaminate our own environment to the extent of causing environmental change to the point of quite possible catastrophe for people around the world.  Neither the capitalist system nor the communist system – nor the various fascist systems attempted in such as Germany, Spain and Italy – lived up to their promises.  Communist and fascist systems became infamous for mass murder.  The Western capitalist was less murderous. Overall, capitalism was able to produce a much larger middle class of people between rich and poor, and has gained precedence due to making safe and secure life possible for more people.   But, it’s various methods over the past 100 years left millions of people to suffer and die more indirectly than outright murder.  Those people were dismissed as relatively unimportant, mostly left to die from deprivation rather than outright execution.  In all systems, some rationale was created to either dismiss people and leave them to die, or, kill people outright.  In the end, for the victims, the result was identical.”

To conclude thus:

This is a long-term permanently sustainable program, the basis for “people-centered” economic development. Core focus is always on people and their needs, with neediest people having first priority – as contrasted with the eternal chase for financial profit and numbers where people, social benefit, and human well-being are often and routinely overlooked or ignored altogether. This is in keeping with the fundamental objectives of Marshall Plan: policy aimed at hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. This is a bottom-up approach, starting with Ukraine’s poorest and most desperate citizens, rather than a “top-down” approach that might not ever benefit them. They cannot wait, particularly children. Impedance by anyone or any group of people constitutes precisely what the original Marshall Plan was dedicated to opposing. Those who suffer most, and those in greatest need, must be helped first — not secondarily, along the way or by the way.”

And what is applicable to the Ukraine is surely becoming applicable – now – to the UK:

In a joint report, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist church, the United Reformed church and the Church of Scotland said that the “systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society” was a matter of injustice that all Christians should challenge.

How capitalism so often comes full circle.  Occasionally entrancingly; usually tryingly; sometimes cruelly.

The last being, now it would seem, our circle.

Time for us all, perhaps, in this evermore uncharted century, to understand properly what it is to be a “pirate”.

____________________

Update to this post, 1st April 2013 (and no, it’s not an April Fools’ update either!): just a quick reference to something Jeff touches on, in his piece linked to above.  In it, and speaking of a latterday Marshall plan, he mentions:

[...] the ‘tools innovations and methodologies’ available today which hadn’t existed 60 years earlier [...].

Just so the dyed-in-the-wool capitalists don’t immediately turn off this meme, then, here’s something I wrote a while ago which describes how the iPhone is a perfect argument for a planned economy.  First this:

The iPhone, perhaps the apex of all latterday manufacturing and publishing industries, is just about as planned and structured to the last detail as anything in this life could possibly be.  It’s an astonishing paradox that Apple is held up to be the paradigm of effective free-market capitalism (even when we know it isn’t free market at all) – whilst being the most control-freaking company in history.

And then this:

What iPhone really shows us, then, is the massively impact planning our whys and wherefores can have on how they turn out.  If we want to use Apple – and its huge cash mountain and its immense ability to deliver products and services people want – as an example to follow, we have to argue it has far more to do with planned economies than the supposedly libertarian, slapdash and light-touch approaches conventional neoliberalism would have us ascribing to.

Provokes trains of interesting thoughts, if nothing else.  Ones we really should have the intellectual honesty to follow.

No?


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Dec 062012
 
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The Guardian published an interesting report a couple of days ago which contained the following statistic:

Little-known fact: about one in ten US workers has ownership in the company they work for. [...]

Worker-owned capitalism to such an extent in one of the most corporate countries in the world?  Well, yes – and as it should be.  We are, after all, talking here about recovering for our own purposes the idea of corporations and their ability to organise the masses.  As Rick and Chris have both pointed out on more than one occasion, high levels of self-employment are no necessary sign of healthy and mature economies.  The latter summarises the issue thus:

[...] Four things make me side with Rick:

- Entrepreneurs are often jacks-of-all-trades. An entrepreneurial society thus doesn’t make best use of the division of labour.

- Self-employment, especially now, is a form of under-employment; people sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.

- Micro-businesses suffer from financing constraints to a greater extent than large firms do. This can prevent them reaching optimal size.

- Many of the self-employed actually want to be relatively unproductive. They see self-employment as a better way of combining work with their commitments to children or the golf course.

There are good reasons, then, why economies of entrepreneurs are often low-productivity ones. Small businesses are very often not tomorrow’s giants or job creators, but rather just mediocre plodders – if they survive at all.

But I think this probably results more from the fact that the next step after individual self-employment – which is to say, the corporatisation of self-employment as per that ten percent of US workers the Guardian mentions – is quite difficult here in the UK to get government, financial and cultural support for; quite difficult to get even a glancing acknowledgement of.

If America can do this – use the corporate structures, tools, processes and procedures to organise self-motivating worker-owned capitalism – then why can’t we?  If America can make self-employment massively efficient and creative, what’s to stop us from doing the same?

It can’t be that the existing vested interests in Britain are fiercer – after all, the US corporate behemoths of a traditional flavour often stride the world in their ability to beautifully create product and unjustly destroy competitors.  Is it – could it – actually be that in the land of entrepreneurship we are discovering that a kind of cooperative capitalism is finding a more fertile ecosystem than here in Europe?  Is it – could it – actually be that our own business infrastructures and people, from the smallest sole trader right through to the grandest blue chip, are simply not up to the challenges a properly-competitive business landscape should present for collaborative capitalism?

Is it – could it – actually be the case that who’s really got used to benefits and feathered nests is not the struggling worker on the poverty line but the reasonably well-protected managers and executives who – whilst being so distant from the production lines, processes and procedures – still take it upon themselves to take the decisions about how companies should operate?

Worker-owned corporates, then? An alternative to nurture?  I think so.  I really do.  The best of both of our worlds.


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Nov 082012
 
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I was quite shocked this morning to hear that an ex-oil executive was to become the new Archbishop of Canterbury – and wondered idly if the next Pope would be ex-CEO to some nuclear company or other.

Now I’m probably being a little unfair here: there’s no reason an experience of corporate activity can’t prepare one better for dealing with its excesses in relation to the most defenceless in society.  It may, indeed, be true that the gentleman in question has lived outside the ivory tower of religious contemplation.  Down amongst the “dirty dirty” readies us for understanding that reality which may be quite beyond the hermits.

It did make me pause for thought, though. And these are the thoughts that occurred to me.

Let’s take a look at the alleged downsides and upsides of corporate experience more generally.  First the downsides:

  • profit-driven above all – they have little sense of other values and missions that might contribute to long-term gain in society
  • selfish and highly competitive – they conceptualise life as a battle and war, where the enemy can undo one at any time
  • unfaithful to the communities that originally created them – always willing to up sticks and move if tax regimes are better elsewhere, they are generally happy to leave their origins and let them disintegrate in their absence
  • cut-throat employment and salary policies – they are not averse to playing one group of workers against another in order to better drive down the easiest costs to reduce
  • disloyal to their workforces in times of economic downturn – you’ll have spent a lifetime working unpaid extra hours, but this will mean nothing when shareholders must be placated
  • union-busting behemoths – the ultimate control freaks
  • politically illegitimate – they use their profits and massive resources to fund political campaigns in order to improve their tax regimes and reduce their liabilities to the state, even as they happily use the infrastructures such states create

The list could go on – I’m no expert, just a simple observer.  But we can get a feel for what’s going wrong in many parts of corporate-land.  And just remember: the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the English, has almost certainly experienced environments which encourage – or have encouraged – the above.

So now – weirdly and dissonantly – onto the upsides I suggest might also exist:

  • evidence-based organisations – they manage huge amounts of data and at their occasional best take logical decisions on transnational scales
  • people-focussed rather than tribal-focussed communities – though they all create the single tribe of company all must be loyal to, within that company it’s occasionally results that count more than ethnicity, sexual orientation or mother tongue: again, where it happens, it happens on a massive scale
  • specialisation – I’m in two minds about this: on the one hand, specialisation makes us necessarily better at what we do; on the other hand, it builds silos of knowledge which unhappily divide us from each other, as well as make it more difficult to identify productive connections between different fields of knowledge
  • repositories of knowhow and good practice – no, they may not always learn from what their workforces have achieved, nor always share effectively their very own intellectual property, but the knowhow and good practice is registered somewhere in their depths – and often manages to improve step-by-step how things are fashioned, engineered and implemented
  • their peaceable instincts – yes, there are many corporates involved up to the hilt not only in warlike discourses but also in war-related activities, but most – the vast majority I would say – look for stability, peace and a steady hand in our civilisations over a churning change and uncertainty: this is not a small virtue in the times we currently inhabit
  • their global perspective – where many if not most politicians turn inward on their nation-states and run their relatively parochial cliques of power with equal gobbets of gusto and reductionism, corporations by their very transnational and expansionary ambitions always turn their eyes towards the wider horizon: in a sense, we have in corporations the colonial impulses of the empires of old – yet with a far greater degree of multiplicity than was ever the case.  That convergent evolution tends to drive them to looking very similar doesn’t remove from our experience of life the reality that a carefully-woven tapestry of internationalised activity does nevertheless exist

To my closing thoughts, then.

Maybe, in corporations, we could reasonably argue that they could be a force for weird good, if only we knew how to usefully inflect their overarching motivations.  That most are generally dysfunctional legal persons at the moment is absolutely clear to me.  But that doesn’t mean the people who work in them are necessarily dysfunctional themselves.  Nor does it mean that such networks of communication and operation couldn’t, in some way, somehow, function far more societally than is the case.

For the vision, post-World War II, of a global and unitary world may – in the end – not come from the hand of politicians and their grubby attempts to covet the votes of the people.  Rather, it may come from the properly renewed forces of commerce which, learning how to be social and moral as well as determinedly commercial, acquire the ability to bring us together in one singular tribe of honest people.


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Oct 082012
 
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OK.  I’m officially getting furious at the obfuscation that’s taking place here.

Today, I stumble across this report:

The past 30 years has seen an increasing proportion of the population of total households becoming overall net recipients of the state, writes Ryan Bourne in The progressivity of UK taxes and transfers.

This has been particularly marked in the past ten years:

  • in 1979, 43.1 per cent of total households received more in benefits (including state spending on benefits in kind, such as the NHS and state education) than they paid in taxes  (including direct taxes such as income tax and indirect taxes such as VAT, fuel and alcohol duties)
  • in 2000/01, this figure was 43.8 per cent
  • in 2010/11, this figure was 53.4 per cent

Now I’ve already suggested it’s time we rebrand the term “benefits”:

“Living a life on benefits” could just as easily mean “enabling an independent life through support tools”.  So if businesses and politicians everywhere are so in thrall to the magnificent idea that is rebranding, why don’t we seriously consider rebranding the concept of “benefits”?

We could use the already mentioned “support tools”; alternatively, how about “freedom enablers” or “liberty ladders”?  We could, in fact, examine and re-engineer the underlying assumptions of a whole society – through a simple and zero-cost change of vocabulary such as the one I am proposing today.

So whilst I’m happy to take onboard the need to reorient our perceptions – “liberty ladder” does, after all, have a certain ring to it, don’t you think? – and whilst right-wing think tanks draw our attention to the rise in the number of benefit recipients, other information out there indicates there might be another side to the coin in question:

The report shows that wages have been falling sharply as a share of the national wealth since the 1970s – but it also suggests there is a huge difference between professions.

Higher earners, including barristers and medical practitioners, have seen huge rises in their income, while those in professions like bakers and truck drivers have seen their earnings actually fall in the last 30 years.

This second take on the situation goes on to point out that:

The real wages (adjusted for inflation) show that medical practitioners have seen their wages leap by 153 per cent, while bakers’ pay fell by 1 per cent. Judges, barristers and solicitors earn 114 per cent more than they did in the 70s – but forklift truck drivers earn 5 per cent less in real terms.

And:

The top 10 per cent of earners are the only group whose income has risen in line with GDP since 1978. Their pay has risen twice as fast as those on median incomes, and four times faster than the lowest 10 per cent of earners.

The report, authored by Stewart Lansley, also says there has been an increase in “bad jobs”, which offer poor wages and job security. The proportion of workers whose wages are at least a third less than the median (£11.09 an hour) has doubled in the last three decades from 12 per cent in 1977 to 22 per cent in 2009.

In the light of the above, then, it could be fair to assume that in a society we once hoped might care to care, the rise in benefits thus described in the first link isn’t so much due to a gratuitous rewarding of laziness unbound over the past three decades but – rather – as a result of the dramatic fall in wages of those condemned to barely survive.

In a society where – for such a long time – we were brought up to believe in the shared upward and onward progress of capitalism, the only upward and onward progress I can see happening right now is the growing injustice of the wages of the living dead.  Especially as this Coalition government now plans to cut the safety nets that decent wages could’ve provided all on their lonesome.

A capitalist society which refuses to contemplate social justice is serfdom by any other name.

And if it marches unthinkingly to societal breakdown, we could even accuse it of structural idiocy.


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Oct 012012
 
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You know when you’re about to be made redundant – or, alternatively (much the same thing these days), are on the point of leaving school – and they give you classes in “selling” yourself via your CV and then your presence and performance at a job interview?  Well, whilst “selling” yourself is understood in its figurative sense, I suppose even I can’t see there’s very much wrong with it.

But when it becomes literal, when “selling out” becomes the modus operandi … well that’s when we should draw a marker in the sand.

Two stories from the last decade.  First, from 2005, an example of that German drive to be efficient in everything – in this case, in relation to benefit recipients:

A 25-year-old waitress who turned down a job providing “sexual services” at a brothel in Berlin faces possible cuts to her unemployment benefit under laws introduced this year.

Prostitution was legalised in Germany just over two years ago and brothel owners – who must pay tax and employee health insurance – were granted access to official databases of jobseekers.

I find this story so hard to believe that I do question its veracity.  But it has been sitting there since 2005 – and doesn’t seem to have received any admonitions from any regulatory body.  I guess, therefore, sadly, that it must be true.

Let’s now fast forward to today.  And this time, from Scotland, this horrifying report which – if true (I’m open to all comments and corrections) – seems to indicate that the company ATOS is looking to make more profit out of its disability processes if it manages to raise the number of people processed by its systems:

Titled “Atos Risk Management Plan”, the dossier shows a predicted £40,535,679 profit from the £206million Atos contract for Scotland and northern England.

That would pay the disability living allowance of 10,851 people for a year, based on the average weekly payment of £71.84.

Atos will collect the colossal sum if they manage to put 15 per cent more people through their tests than broadly expected.

Even if the number of tests carried out is in line with predictions, they will make £28,636,419 by 2017 – enough to pay a year’s disability allowance for 7664 people.

And if they drop 15 per cent below their expected total, Atos will still be in the money, making a profit of £16,712,945.

So in less than ten years, in this European civilisation we were so proud of constructing after two world wars of terrible behaviours, we have two examples originating from three of its major players* of how this cutthroat capitalism is encouraging people and organisations to prostitute their morals.

For what else can you call it when corporate organisations – both public and private – pursue a full-scale involvement in objectivisation systems such as these: systems that so clearly prize profit over humanity?

____________________

*ATOS is a French company.


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Sep 302012
 
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Lane Kenworthy has a beautifully detailed thesis at his place today.  Feeding off a study recently published – which seems to argue, if I have understood rightly, that innovation “spillover” allows allegedly less innovative countries such as those which follow generally European models of welfare and government spending, in particular the Nordic countries, to cream off the benefits of technological development that cutthroat capitalism (read the US here) provides on behalf of the rest of the world – Kenworthy provides a fascinatingly partial rebuttal of the aforementioned argument: fascinating precisely and because of its partial nature.

Essentially, the intellectual crime we’re accused of having committed is that whilst we criticise from our social-democratic pulpits the immorality of massive income inequality which you do find in the US, even so we’re happy to take advantage of the progress which that society’s income structure supposedly enables.

Lane takes this argument apart rather convincingly.  This, for example:

[...] According to Acemoglu et al’s logic, incentives for innovation in the U.S. were weakest in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960 the top 1%’s share of pretax income had been falling steadily for several decades and had nearly reached its low point. Government spending, meanwhile, had been rising steadily and was close to its peak level. Yet there was plenty of innovation in the 1960s and 1970s, including notable advances in computers, medical technology, and others.

And this:

[...] the Nordic countries, with their low income inequality and generous safety nets, currently are among the world’s most innovative countries. The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index has consistently ranked them close to the United States in innovation. The most recent report, for 2012-13, rates Sweden as the world’s most innovative nation, followed by Finland. The U.S. ranks sixth. The 2012 WIPO-Insead Global Innovation Index ranks Sweden second and the United States tenth. Whether or not this lasts, it suggests reason to doubt that modest inequality and generous cushions are significant obstacles to innovation.

Now if you’re happy to accept that the only workable socioeconomic model left us – after the fall of Communism, the banking crises which have assailed us since 2008 and the resulting societal distress as unemployment hits record levels in countries across the world (not to mention the End of Dialectic History in general as it might be conceived) – is some form of capitalism or other, as per, for example, Ed Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” meme, then Kenworthy’s conclusion to this piece will put you in a very happy place:

We may get a test of this moderate-to-high inequality with generous cushions scenario at some point. I suspect this is where America is heading, albeit slowly. Interestingly, the Nordic countries, where the top 1%’s income share has been trending upward (see figure 10 here), might end up there first.

That is to say, the “worst” excesses of cutthroat capitalism will acquire a generous cushion (see Obamacare) just as the “best” examples of entrepreneurial welfare capitalism will acquire the extreme and so called one percent income inequalities of the former.

Is this the destiny of those who would save capitalism from itself?  To allow, even perhaps ensure, that the one percent keep their places at the high table?  Is this the beginnings of the contract with the devil which Blair, maybe necessarily, agreed on in the Nineties – and which Ed Miliband, in Britain, has so far more or less resisted in the 21st century?

I wonder.

It is, nevertheless, whether or not with the implications as described above in Miliband’s case, a fascinating thesis from Kenworthy on convergent evolution – one which clearly deserves a wider reading this side of the Atlantic.


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Sep 232012
 
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When I was a kid – growing up in a half-socialist household of Co-op dividends, milk, funeral services and shops – cradle-to-grave capitalism (perhaps paternalism would be a better way of describing it) was benevolent, attractive and comforting.

We’ve moved on a long way since then, of course – or so, at least, we think.  We now believe ourselves to be empowered consumers capable of all kinds of super-heroisms in the face of massive and practically unbridled choice.

As part of this process where the state disconnects itself from delivering society’s responsibilities, there’s been, of late, especially since the contradictions inherent in the Paralympics, a lot of stuff whirling around the involvement of companies like ATOS in the matter of disability assessments.  Many examples have sadly surfaced of people suffering the indignity of being refused disability support after proceeding with one of these assessments, only for the original decision to be overturned on final appeal.  Meanwhile, lives are degraded and sometimes permanently destroyed by merciless and bureaucratic processes.  The kind of red tape government may quite rightly be looking to remove from commerce is being reintroduced into the treatment of our most vulnerable.

There’s a lesson in that no one seems too eager to learn.

It doesn’t however appear to stop there, I’m afraid.  Two more posts today that took me by the scruff of my neck and shook me harder than I’ve been shaken for a while.

The first relates to the already-mentioned Co-operative group.  You can currently find the content here.  A flavour of the piece to follow:

Welfare campaigners have recently come across this July 2009 announcement on the Atos website.

The Co-operative Group and the Co-operative Financial Services choose Atos Healthcare

London, 22 July 2009
Atos Healthcare, the number one occupational health provider in the UK1 and a business division of Atos Origin, today announced that it has won a contract with the Co-operative Group (tCG) and Cooperative Financial Services (CFS).

Under the new contract, Atos Healthcare will provide occupational healthcare services for the 82,000 employees who serve around 10 million customers a week through food, pharmacy, travel, funeral care, motor dealerships, legal and financial services. [...]

But this is the really extraordinary bit (the bold is mine):

Atos Healthcare will provide pre-employment referrals and absence management including physiotherapy and workstation assessments to help improve employee wellbeing and reduce absence.

“Extraordinary?  How so?” you might ask.  And fairly.  I worked for a large corporation for many years which, before I entered their employ, assessed my condition of mental ill health using an external provider to establish if I was fit for the role I was being offered.  The process was absolutely confidential as far as I know; the provider was not then used for ongoing support services once you became an employee – and, in general, the Chinese walls which protected conflicts of interest were properly and sagely constructed.  So nothing wrong with that.

So what’s really extraordinary – and disturbing – about the Co-op’s relationship as described above with ATOS – if, indeed, it is true (and I’m happy to publish a rectification, if a rectification is found to be wanting) – isn’t just that a supposedly ethical bank should be using an allegedly unhappy provider of disabled services (designed and overseen – it has to be said -  by the people who half-won/half-lost the last general election).

No.  The really disturbing element of the programme and relationship as described above is that even before ATOS’s alleged behaviours came to light, the Co-op happily gave to the same provider pre-employment referral responsibilities as well as ongoing-employment support.  Talk about giving the provider an incentive not to take on people with costly and objective-denying support needs.

The situation now, of course, three years later, is that it would appear many other private-sector companies are using ATOS’s services to assess whether workers are to be considered fit to work for them.

At the same time, it has to be said, as the government is expanding ATOS’s remit to reduce the burden on the state of disability payments to people with clear and obvious needs.

*

The other story then which knocked me sideways this evening?  This one.  It allegedly lays out for all to see how pre-screening of potential employees by companies like ATOS is now also being carried out on public servants.  The questions the poster of this article posts at the end are terrifyingly clear in their implications:

There are two questions I would like to ask Atos:

Do you assess DWP & HMRC staff under the Work Capability Assessment when assessing their ability to work?

How many potential employees who are disabled end up being selected by employers after you have carried out your ‘pre- employment screening’?

My conclusion after all of this?  That avoiding conflict of interest, as a principle and ideal, no longer exists for these pseudo-public-sector services this Coalition is engineering.  Escaping all legal and direct democratic oversight, and if taken to their ultimate extreme, such moves by our government to remove public services from parliamentary and local accountability mean that eventually our politicians and business leaders, working in tandem, will have the means to hand to both declare the formerly disabled fit for work – and the resulting fit-for-work unfit to be employed.

Putting such unfortunate souls in the worst place of all.

A cradle-to-grave capitalism which may lead us directly to the grave.

As I tweeted a few minutes ago:

So companies like ATOS don’t only decide whether disabled are fit for work – they also decide whether fit-for-work are fit for work. #kafka

This, if true, if at all accurate, is a disgraceful state of affairs: a total lack of integrity in constructing the flow of information and its access; in shaping the relationships between different functions; and in fulfilling the needs and rights of democratic citizens in what should be a free and transparent market economy.

Hardly surprising for a system of government which obviously seems to believe the best way to preserve our freedoms is to take them away from us – and put them all together in an undemocratic aspic.

Talk of a nanny state.

This is the Daddy Coalition of “I know best” capitalist instincts – but at their very very worst.

Don’t you think?


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Sep 162012
 
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Yesterday, late at night (excuse the incongruences if they exist!), I suggested the following:

[...] I am a child of a technological society – and continuous improvement is the essence of my belief system.  I simply cannot accept that we can refine to a millionth degree a computer, an iPhone or a piece of civil engineering – and yet find ourselves unable to improve the 19th century boom-and-bust cycle of traditional economics.

A Facebook friend responded this morning by arguing in favour of planned economies.

Which got me thinking.

The iPhone, perhaps the apex of all latterday manufacturing and publishing industries, is just about as planned and structured to the last detail as anything in this life could possibly be.  It’s an astonishing paradox that Apple is held up to be the paradigm of effective free-market capitalism (even when we know it isn’t free market at all) – whilst being the most control-freaking company in history.

When you think about it, Apple and traditional capitalism should form an oxymoron.  There is nothing less like a light-touch free-market approach to life than the fruit of Steve Jobs’ legacy.

But instead of indulging in yet another easy bit of Apple-bashing, why don’t we choose to take our lead from it instead?  This is what I posted this morning in our favourite walled garden:

[...] We’ve spent the last fifty years refining our manufacturing ability – and have neglected (probably deliberately) to apply the same principles to our organisational structures. [...]

In essence, what’s happened is that those in charge have truly managed to deliver radical improvements in thought, manufacturing and ideas development processes but – out of unhappy self-interest or perhaps an inability to see beyond the day-to-day – have refused to apply the same ingenuities to the running of our economies and wider societies.  Why?  As I allude, I suspect a combination of self-interest and lack of foresight – the almost feudal and pyramidal system of organising almost everything in politics and society currently benefits those who could otherwise truly effect big changes if they were only prepared to use other structures.

What iPhone really shows us, then, is the massively impact planning our whys and wherefores can have on how they turn out.  If we want to use Apple – and its huge cash mountain and its immense ability to deliver products and services people want – as an example to follow, we have to argue it has far more to do with planned economies than the supposedly libertarian, slapdash and light-touch approaches conventional neoliberalism would have us ascribing to.

The iPhone an argument in favour of beginning to plan our economies all over again?  I think so.  And as I also pointed out in my Facebook response this morning:

[...] where before perhaps our analytical tools were not up to the job, I don’t think this is going to be the case today. [...]

If we are capable of sophisticating our manufacturing processes and consumer durables to such an extent as Apple’s iPhone, we can – where there’s a political and social will, of course – do the same with our societies and economies.

Is this a case of convergent evolution?  A case where the clearest example of 21st century corporate capitalism shows the way forward for a different kind of 21st century socialism?

A return to a sadly failed 20th century model of planned economies – only now, in the light of Apple’s experience, with the potential for a huge new lease of life.

I wonder.


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Sep 152012
 
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I’d really like someone who understands these things properly to be able to explain to me – properly – whether it’s an age of incongruence we’re living in or an age of incompetence.

Even the leader of our least right-wing political party embraces capitalism as the least bad system we should use to run our societies.  I’ve already explained why I think this is misjudged.  But no matter, I shan’t labour the issue.

From my position as inexpert observer I would, however, like to know why those who are running this least bad system – posited as it is on a need (as I understand it) for continually expanding markets – are instead doing everything they can to shut its good functioning down.

Such an approach – reducing consumption, reducing demand, giving more and more resources to financial institutions whilst simultaneously withdrawing them from consumers who would otherwise spend – seems quite incongruent.  And if that were really the case, I could live with it.  But I am a child of a technological society – and continuous improvement is the essence of my belief system.  I simply cannot accept that we can refine to a millionth degree a computer, an iPhone or a piece of civil engineering – and yet find ourselves unable to improve the 19th century boom-and-bust cycle of traditional economics.

If our technological society is so unable to make better such an economy, I can think of only two reasonable explanations:

  1. Rank incompetence by those who would claim to be experts in the matter.
  2. Rank inhumanity by those who would benefit directly from the matter.

Either way, we need a revolution – not a bloody revolution where kings and queens are toppled from their pedestals but an intellectual and political revolution which matches our scientific prowesses.

And which seriously takes into account the need to apply humanity’s technological wisdoms to the obviously outdated engineering of its socioeconomic structures.

That’s where the real problem lies, isn’t it?  We’re operating in the 21st century as far as our tools of monetary and economic exchange are concerned – online purchases, automatic invoicing, computers to computers … it’s all as it should be.  But as far as the tools of politics and institutional organisation are concerned, we’re still in some previous – and sorry – century of serfdom and largesse.

We’re just little kids who’ve been given machines and black boxes – gadgets which massively extend the capacity of our braincells.  But, sadly enough, and possibly tragically enough, those braincells are still operating out of a child’s mind – with all its faults.

The cruelty of the very young is not malicious but it is real.  And an iPhone makes us superman – before we are ready.


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