Apr 042013
 
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I already wrote, a while ago now, on the subject of singular ways of doing things and planned economies in general.  First this, on the Google self-driving car project:

In the face of a wider defeat of Communism, Soviet socialism initially decided to turn in on itself.  Is this now happening at the hands of Google and wider movements towards automation in the US?

I then go on to develop the idea, concluding in the following way:

This is the End of History coming back to bite us in the backside.  As Communism/one-country socialism collapsed in its grandly political structures, and for a while there was little else we could do but argue the battle was dusted and done, even so it would appear that its instincts were continuing to work away at its evermore grand and commercial manifestations.

The monolithic state which hopes to re-engineer everyone in a one-best-way mindset, whilst disparaged and in the process of being dismantled by capitalist evangelicals almost everywhere, is suddenly reappearing in Google’s corporately admirable attempts: attempts where it looks to automate dangerous processes such as the freedom to kill people with cars out of the frame of everyday living.

The American Dream without the freedom to choose between life and death?  Whatever next my friend?

Prior to this piece, and as linked to within the quote above, I also suggested we could see the iPhone as a perfect argument in favour of planned economies:

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.

I then went on to argue the following:

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.

Then more recently, in a series of posts which started with this one, I suggested we might create a parallel series of institutions, by most importantly recovering the positive values we might associate with the concept of “revolution”:

[...] Revolution is a dangerous and difficult word.  It connotes all kinds of disruption, violence and bloodshed.  From the French to the Bolsheviks to the coarsely violent recriminatory ends of the Spanish Civil War, the Balkan Conflict and even our experience with Iraq, revolution has no happy memories for history.  At least, for the history they teach us.

Yet I wonder if revolution must always be like that.  We could define revolution in a different way.  Disruptive, yes – it would have to remain so.  But not necessarily unseamless in its implementation. [...]

I go on to expand the idea thus:

Of course, any revolution of the old-style Bolshevik kind would, in a modern world, be almost certainly doomed to failure.  Modern society requires complex specialisms to function, and such complex specialisms would almost certainly not happily function under the kind of coercion a traditional revolution would require.  Too many tenuous threads of communication would break down under the brute force of full-throated change.

And yet, even so, I find myself coming back to 1950s Japan.  Within twenty years of losing a war at the final hands of two nuclear bombs, the Japanese car industry had effected a revolution of its own.  Non-violent, intellectual, process-driven and intelligent – all these things and more as per Deming’s philosophies and mindsets.

A revolution of a disruptive nature which, nevertheless, was not bloody.

And so we come to the present.  Over at El País today (in Spanish here; robot English translation here), we get a fascinating report on a Bill and Melinda Gates gathering in Seattle, where the headline idea is “‘Positive disruption’ as a driver for global change”.  This fits very nicely, at least from a conceptual – even if not institutional – point of view, with some of the ideas I’ve been mulling over above.  Though, to be honest, I think I’m looking for even more disruption when I say, as I did in my first Revolution ’13 piece, that:

[...] We could design, from the ground upwards, a parallel set of institutions which would, like the design of a Japanese car’s dashboard unit, only ever be included in a new model when entirely ready.  In so doing, and through accessible and inclusive techniques such as crowdsourcing – even where this might necessarily involve only the crowdsourced input of a hierarchy of predisposed specialists – we could avoid the biggest danger of disruptive revolution: the non-collaboration of key workers.

In such a way, key workers and process-owners who had crossed the line – and had effectively become criminals too big to jail (the money-laundering cases which have come to light in important banking communities come to mind here) – would no longer be able to hold a wider society to ransom.  The gradually more expert revolution-engendering structures would one day not only reach but outdo the efficacy of their corrupted compatriots.

At which point substitution could take place.

Either way, it’s clear that social-democratic and neoliberal evolutions have really rather had their day.  And to be honest, it’s the planned and statist Communism of the 20th century – though with a Deming-like participative twist – which has won the battles thus far.  The only difference from the 1950s is that the secrecy, fear and closed nature of its environments now find their location in transnational corporations – sometimes, psychotically fearful of each other; at other times, in consumer-prejudicing cahoots.  So it is that Orwell’s “1984” did finally come true in one important respect – that is to say, in the sense of shifting international alliances, where histories and relationships are continually written and rewritten.  Where he went wrong was in conceptualising its happening between nation-states of a dictatorial cut.  In truth, right now, for most people out there, what corporations do with each other has far more impact on their daily existences than what simple little and relatively powerless countries ever manage to effect.

Which, if you’ve cared to follow me to here, brings me to my final point.  I would like to suggest that democracy, right now, is set up to fail.  Whilst business has successfully moved on from democracy’s ideological rejection of 20th century Communism and all its tenets – examples as already mentioned range from Google’s anti-American self-driving instincts to Apple’s anti-American centrally planned economy – democracy itself is mortally hidebound by its utter inability to contemplate a retread of a Soviet-style revolution.

All this time we’ve been saying that it’s business which should be more like democracy when, in reality, what we may have had is a democracy which business has fashioned to divide, conquer and keep meek.

Set up to fail, then?  Is that a fair assertion?  Have now-Communist-like businesspeople – now-Communist-like at least in their tools of choice – deliberately made democratic practitioners everywhere so terrified of committing the same revolutionary and disruptive acts that out of this conceptual cul-de-sac no Western democracy anywhere will ever manage to emerge?

Maybe not.  Maybe so.  Maybe, on reflection, we should park the possible reasons for why we’ve arrived at this place for just a few gentle moments.

For there may be a much bigger goal on the horizon.  If we can convince the businesspeople who have already embraced this revised version of 20th century Communism I describe above to contemplate facilitating a similar move in our democratic institutions and environments, perhaps the “positive disruption” that I find myself voicing and calling for – in the same curious company today as Bill and Melinda Gates – can find a broader range of adepts and enthusiasts out there, and much sooner than we think.

As well as end up helping to save from global disintegration not only our species but also the democratic instincts which have so ennobled its political practice.


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Mar 032013
 
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This post is about two tweets which came my way yesterday.  Both speak of the importance of personal responsibility.  The first describes its reach in private industry (in this case, I believe in relation to a recent story on the freemium app industry):

Companies are made of people, and people have a responsibility for their actions, inc. developing (potentially) exploitative freemium games

The second, which came my way hot on the heels of the first, said much the same thing – only, this time, in the context of the NHS (the Mid-Staffordshire scandal comes immediately to mind):

The best managers help clinical staff treat according to need and make patients healthier, not enforce NHS policy whatever the consequences

Meanwhile, in an oxymoron-like diatribe of the weakest kind against everything and anything New Labour ever did, David Cameron has this to say in today’s Sunday Telegraph:

That is what everything this Government does comes back to: the future. We are looking at the horizon, not tomorrow’s headlines; doing what’s right for the long-term. Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher said that we should be “in the business of planting trees, for our children and grandchildren, or we have no business to be in politics at all”.

I couldn’t agree more. In 30 years’ time, I want people to be able to look back at this government and see that we paid down our debts, helped create millions of jobs, sorted out welfare, made our schools world-beating and built homes for a generation.

Doing this kind of work might not earn you popularity points in by-elections, but it’s what I’m in politics for: making the country we love as great as it can be.

I haven’t heard that “planting trees” metaphor for really quite a while.  I suppose we’ll have Michael Gove telling us next that we should all write a novel before we die.

I’m also just a little puzzled – maybe out of technical ignorance – as to why he says “paid down our debts” instead of “paid off“.  Unless, of course, he means that it’s going to be the little people at the bottom of the pile who’ll always end up saving the Tories from their economic selves.

But perhaps this is all just a little too nitpicking on my part.

In truth, it’s always going to be the people who make a difference to any society.  Politicians of the kind who tend to rule us prefer to ignore this.  If they didn’t, they’d have to engage us in their processes – they’d have to get us involved and actively participating.  Far easier to blame an anonymous public-sector bureaucracy – and shift the responsibility stealthily onto equally anonymous private-sector equivalents – than to admit that the root of all our problems lies not in our systems but their application.

It’s not so much a new education system we need – it’s more a system teachers and students know how to work with.

It’s not so much a new legal system we need – it’s more a system whose costs victims and other participants don’t have to fear.

It’s not so much a new health system we need – it’s more a system which provides support as and when a person becomes a patient in need.

The Welfare State is the way to make our society less inhumane.  It’s in our grasp – but it is a choice.  We can spend considerable resource on allowing the fortunate to further concentrate their good fortune – or we can deliberately decide to give the less fortunate the consideration, charity and kindness most belief systems have tended to argue should be made forthcoming.

But what we have to accept is that, either way, it’s a choice.  If we choose to fashion a world where we must walk on the other side of the road from that homeless man who dies at the doorstep of a bungalow, we can.  We will do so, I am sure, in order that ambitious alpha men and women can – amongst the disasters they also commit – achieve what they undoubtedly do.  And this is clearly an act of socioeconomic decision-making at the highest level, committed by coherent men and women.  It is a freely-taken decision. It is an unforced decision to let some people live better at the expense of others.  It is a statistical calculation of risks that approves of achievement at the very top, even as it judges society will not rise up in arms and disintegrate as a result of the anonymous homeless dying distastefully in the streets.

If, on the other hand, we opt to help such homeless people – if our goal is to create a socioeconomic environment where this kind of action is prioritised over other, more aggressively innovative, behaviours – we may create, again entirely consciously and deliberately, a society where survival is ameliorated for a far greater number of our souls here on earth, even as achievement measured objectively loses its bleeding edges.

And either way, to come back to the original set of choices, and whether politicians like it or not, if anything turns out right, it’ll come down not to systems they proudly and powerfully announce but, rather, to their humane application – or otherwise – by people who look and act and feel like you and me.

That personal responsibility.

That core humanity.

That attachment to caring at an individual level for each and every relationship.

That love, even.

That kindness, generously imparted.

Far more important for a classroom than this textbook or that is the mind that plans the lesson around a book and the hands that clutch its spine.

For the funny thing about Cameron’s oxymoron of a weak diatribe is that there was very little in it I found myself fiercely disagreeing with.  Oh, yes.  Those silly sentences on immigration.  The daftness around welfare.  But in reality, the poor man knows exactly what we need to do.  Like when he says, almost pleadingly (the bold is mine):

These are not claims or promises: they are facts. We are turning the tide on years of decline — and building a Britain for those who work hard and want to get on. And we need to go further. We need to get more houses built. We need to build new roads and railways and energy connections. Some reading this may not like that; but as I have made clear, this is not a popularity contest but a battle for Britain’s future.

The problem isn’t the words, David.  The problem is the people.

In fact, the problem – more widely expressed – is your, and your professional class’s, attitude to people in general.  The fact is that systems, for high-flying politicians, are like electromagnets of recent generation: when you have the opportunity to choose between getting people voluntarily onside or creating a foolproof system designed to cage them into a certain set of behaviours, you can guarantee any minister worth their caviar will be pulled inexorably in the direction of implementing a brand-new system over convincing ordinary people to work better with an existing one.

I really do sometimes get the feeling that Cameron and some of his cohort are locked painfully into the wrong party of UKIP-incubating MPs and hangers-on.  If only he, and perhaps they, had chosen Labour, we could right now be facing another decade of government.

Maybe I should now spoil this post for you (or, alternatively, not) by saying how very much that idea makes me shudder.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t.

*

They say familiarity may breed contempt.

I’m inclined, however, to believe that being a politician (of empire-building instincts, at least) makes one contemptuous of the familiar.

In this, both One Nation Labour and the more traditional Conservative impulses, which Cameron has appealed to in his text today, have aimed to reassure potential voters in a time of utter uncertainty that being British, in itself, is quite enough to be getting on with.

But in the end, they are all just words – both Cameron’s and Miliband’s, I’m afraid.

In a sense, I get the feeling that our politicians are likely to be as lost here as the rest of us.  And in this realisation (as Poirot might suggest!), I find the future most terrifying.

Where ordinary people would be the real solution, our leaders are now only able to work with systems.

The systems have taken over to such an extent that these ordinary people I mention truly have no impact whatsoever on the results – even as they end up shouldering all the blood-spattered blame.

The personal responsibility which I started this post with is impossible to properly engineer or encourage.  We spend our time terrified of the juggernaut-like mechanisms that threaten to bury our professional futures in a careering disgrace.  We hide, like frightened rabbits, from the oncoming lights which should illuminate – but which, in the end, serve only to make the shadows evermore powerful.

Yes.  It’s the people, stupid.

And our leaders are too stupid to realise it.


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Aug 212012
 
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It’s curious that for such a supposedly voluble and open-minded part of the political spectrum as the left, so many taboos – both of dogma as well as more emotional – should prevent us from discussing freely all alternatives.  If New Labour contributed anything positive to the political process – even where not practice – it was in its pick-and-mix approach to ideas.  That it went too far – and perhaps deliberately detached itself from its origins – shouldn’t blind us to the fact that open-mindedness is generally an intellectual virtue.

I am minded to consider the issue in the light of this interesting Compass email I received a few minutes ago:

Hi –

We all know there are issues the left find it hard to talk about – immigration, crime and punishment, why people seem to be more sceptical of the state than the market, limits to economic growth, patriotism, faith and population have all fell into this category at one time or another.

Sometimes it’s because we think some issues are already given too much attention, other times it’s because we’re scared of saying the wrong thing, sometimes we think the conversation takes place on the right’s terms and not ours.

Whatever the reasons we don’t want to ignore these issues any longer. In the autumn Compass will publish a series of short articles on the ‘elephants left in the room’ and I want you to help. We want to know what issues you think are being ignored by the left and most importantly why and how we should respond to them.

Please send us an article of up to a 1,000 words which focuses on the issue you think is the most important elephant in the room for the left. We’ll publish all the best entries on the Compass website and I will pick my top three to be published in the final document.

The deadline for entries is September 17th 2012

Send entries to info@compassonline.org.uk

There shouldn’t be any issues that we can’t talk about. If we don’t have the right answers yet then we have to work out the right ones through dialogue and debate. If we feel that we don’t have the right language then we must discover it. If we are not addressing the issues that people care about then we can never be successful as a movement.

Thanks for your help with this.

Let’s get the elephants out of the room.

Lisa

Lisa Nandy MP

My reaction to the above?  I think it’s an excellent idea.  In my case, my biggest worry is the creeping private fascism – to paraphrase Roosevelt (more here) – that appears now, more and more, to be afflicting our Western societies.  No longer would it seem that government’s goal is to stand as mediator between markets, business, societies and ordinary people.  Instead, a brutalised and corrupted version of capitalism – in its most extreme corporate manifestation – is destroying all the virtues of self-alignment and control that a truly free market would contribute.

And if the left must be honest with itself, this has happened under nominally left-wing regimes just as much as we could argue it is due to the casual – and lately well-documented evil inefficiencies – of the right.

Anyhow, if I can get all that down in a rather less aggressive way than is my wont, I may yet participate in what looks like a much-needed initiative.

Recover the breath of intellectual fresh air of early New Labour times – without sanctioning its supping-with-the-devil instincts to champagne-and-canapé its short cuts to the political top.


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Aug 172012
 
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There’s a fascinating interview in the Guardian today with the screenwriter and director of the latest Bourne film.  This is the paragraph that really catches my eye on what the auteur in question really thinks on the subject of corporations (the bold is mine):

“It’s not good for landlords to not live in the neighbourhood. That’s the problem with corporations – there’s no one home. You have this shell that is unaccountable. And yet at the same time there is somebody that sits in a dispatch office and says: I know that truckload of products is defective but I have to meet my quota.’ That’s the moment when the human leakage sets in. I’m not sure we’re evolutionarily ready to have corporations; I’m not sure they’re a weapon we deserve.

This is an extraordinary take on the problems we’re all having with the figure of corporate bodies – whether, that is, we work in them, work under them, work despite them or work against them.

Is perhaps the problem here that 21st century corporate figures will become, shortly down the line, the next Darwinian level up from human beings themselves?  And are we currently suffering from the anteroom of that gear shift – where corporations are creating themselves on the backs of human beings, despite the latter’s congenital inability to be moral in moments of great temptation?

That is to say, it’s not corporate bodies which pose the greatest problems; it’s not even systemic abuse caused by environments which predispose us to doing evil.  Rather, it’s our own humanity which leads us to take an unjustifiable and inappropriate advantage of the grand power that corporations are in theory able to afford us.

The corporations aren’t blundering elephantine destroyers, after all.  Instead, it is ourselves who find we are not up to the challenges of working together with another species: a species which has come to replace us in all its organisational flair.

Maybe the best corporations are the ants of this century: equipped with a merciless ability to disregard all personal consequences alongside an organic capacity to learn from individual mistakes.

So will we end up being replaced by automated corporates which replace our sinful selves with algorithms and computed exchanges?  It’s a possibility, I’m sure.  But it would be a negation of what it is to be human. The right to make mistakes; the liberty to pick and choose.  This is what makes us what we have been.

Curious, then, how we all feared that a dehumanisation as mentioned above would finally come from the mid-20th century Communist states – only for corporate capitalism to demonstrate that it is far more suited to the task of gutting our most precious freedoms.

Evolution doesn’t always mean life gets better.

Certainly not for the species being replaced.

And anyone who tries to tell you that survival of the fittest is the way forward probably has a very good reason for doing so.

Very good, that is, in the sense of very bad.


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Jul 312012
 
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Matt tweets sentiments today I’m sure we all can sympathise with:

People still miss the point about the NHS. The point is: should people make a profit from healthcare? Should life and health be a market? No

But whilst sympathy is easy, agreement is not so simple.

Since its creation, and via their hierarchically differentiated salaries, GPs, consultants, surgeons, nurses, cleaners, ambulance drivers, managers and receptionists have all made a profit from the NHS.  Many have chosen their roles as vocations: none could have worked for nothing.

And do we really think those who have supplied blood plasma, oxygen, sterile products of all sorts, medicines, bandages, syringes, hospital furniture, light bulbs, signs, telephone and communications infrastructures, sandwiches, food in general and a whole host of other products and services were not, in reality, motivated by the incentive of the market in order to make as fast a buck as possible for their shareholders?

Back to Matt’s tweet, then: “Should people make a profit from healthcare?” he asks.  The answer is: “Of course.”  And before this awful Coalition government, and maybe before New Labour, we didn’t mind when they did.

So what’s changed?

I think it has something to do with what I alluded to the other day.  It has become all too self-evident that government is no longer the caped crusader and protector between naked capitalism and the rest of society.  Whilst we trusted that the game between governors and corporate capitalists involved some kind of give and take on both sides, we were prepared to contemplate situations and structures that perhaps were a little unwise and risk-ridden on our part.  But that silent social contract between a society which created infrastructures on the one hand and a large corporate base which generated employment on the other has been splintering for more or less a decade now.  And when that corporate base showed that – despite all the favours society had paid it – it was manifestly unable any more to fulfil its unwritten social responsibilities, we began to suspect – and understand far more clearly – that we had been much more than a little unwise in our even-handedness; much more than a little risk-ridden in the way we had chosen to keep our eyes wide shut.

As long as key public services remain free at point-of-use, we should not mind that private companies tender competitively for public provision.  But when corporations accustomed to engendering and working inside monopolistic markets want to do the same to our public sector, we not only gain nothing from the changeover in terms of efficiency, we also lose a tremendous amount in democratic accountability.

We could easily argue, with the evidence on the table, that the private sector is named thus precisely because it generally attempts to keep its sometimes horrific failings to itself.  After all, the light of public day is not generally cast on the boardrooms which take their cold decisions – protected as they are by their legions of lawyerly advice.

Let us, then, understand one point: the truly free market could help our healthcare a thousandfold.  But the market proposed by Cameron & Co is not the free market in question.

And the market proposed is not a problem because it allows people to profit from healthcare.  We understand that a nurse or GP should want to build a life around their career.

No.  In truth, the market proposed is actually a problem because it allows non-human corporations to profit to the ever-increasing exclusion of flesh-and-blood people.

That’s what’s changed.

And that’s why we now find it easy to sympathise with tweets like Matt’s.

The problem isn’t the profit motive, per se.

But, rather, what’s invading our social and emotional landscapes – and taking us over.

It’s not that we shouldn’t make a profit out of our wellbeing but, rather, that – in the future and at our expense –  only others will be able to.


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Jul 052012
 
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The Guardian reports that thirty NHS trusts have accumulated between them a deficit of £300 million.  Presumably, the government will have to bail them out.  That shouldn’t be such a grand task for Whitehall’s busy bees – after all, they’ve had plenty of practice in recent past of hand-over-fist bailouts for the banks.

Meanwhile, I also read the following from a short article in the Telegraph this morning:

[Bob] Diamond, along with David Cameron, was a very public supporter of John McCain, the last Republican candidate for the presidency, when he ran against Barack Obama in 2008. [The current Republican candidate for the American Presidency] Romney earned a $50,000 speaking fee from Barclays in 2011.

Now I suppose you could argue that as Barclays wasn’t nationalised at the time (though this, of course, could quite easily change), such a payment to a foreign politician was purely a matter for Barclays and their shareholders.  But I do wonder if even a significant minority of customers were aware that the profits their business generated for the entity were being employed to fill the already deep pockets of American presidential hopefuls.  Customers are also stakeholders, aren’t they?

Or so they say …

The truth of the matter is that the price of success has clearly become massive failure.  Yesterday, I quoted from another Guardian article where it described how the atmosphere of fear amongst ordinary bank staff clearly made it impossible for alarm bells to be sounded.  I remember, myself, when I used to work at data-inputter level for a bank, how we would get bombarded with messages and training courses from HR insisting on the importance of learning from mistakes.  However, the only real lesson we learned from making mistakes was not to run the risk of making them again.

And one of the biggest mistakes you could commit in a bank was to question the exhortations of your bosses.  Especially as an ordinary worker you were only assigned a five percent bonus on a salary less than the national average.

Your importance was clear.

So it comes to pass: Mitt Romney is no longer friends with Bob Diamond.  As the Telegraph also reports:

“When we first started organising it, Bob was perceived to be a respected captain of industry in Britain, and precisely the sort of man that Mitt would want to be photographed with when he comes here,” one of the organisers of the event tells me. “Obviously, the situation has since changed somewhat.”

Which leads me to arrive at the following conclusion: if the price of success, especially short-term corporate success, is becoming awful and consequential failure for everyone – CEOs, managers, workers, customers, the poor, the rich and the squeezed middle too – do we not define success incorrectly?

For if failure involves committing the mistake of daring to question what others do, we are surely in the world of Nuremberg all over again.

Stalinism has won, hasn’t it?  Only now it exists behind the closed confidential walls of large companies across the globe – companies which have learnt to avoid paying social taxes through a multitude of tax-havened schemes.  No wonder telling your boss he or she’s got it wrong has fallen so dramatically out of favour.  The environment of secrecy which must grow up around such mentalities leads everyone to see shadows almost everywhere.

In truth, we’ve forgotten the true definition of success.

And – in that short and unprepossessing conclusion – we inscribe the enormity of our failure.


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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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Mar 162012
 
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Yesterday, I described – from my own point of view as a language trainer – how Ofsted’s recent claim that what was wrong with the English education system was the “levels” of literacy didn’t tell quite the whole story.  This morning I read, over at the always excellent Though Cowards Flinch, that not only did the claims not tell the whole story, they actually appear to have told a few porkies.  Paul summarises the results of his investigations thus:

We have a Chief Inspector –  head of a supposedly independent organisation – operating in apparent collusion with a government department to give a deliberately false and negative impression of literacy standards and English teaching in England.  Why else would he discard the information provided in his own report, which he’s been asked onto radio to talk about, in favour of other, more negative figures apparently dredged from a dodgy press release?

The phrase that really catches my eye is that “head of a supposedly independent organisation”.  If few organisations in previous regimes were entirely out of the grasping reaches of professional politicos – ask the question “Who policed those who policed?” and the answer will almost certainly engender unhappiness – then this current government appears to have finessed to a fine art the ability and desire its makers and shakers have to totally disregard any nominal attachment to evidence-based politics.  From Legal Aid to the NHS, from welfare reform in general to our blessed political football of an education system, it’s quite clear that what counts these days is a brazen affiliation to money, wealth, power and their charms.

The public no longer expects probity in its politicians – and, as any teacher or trainer or educationalist will point out, or even any professional politico when it suits them, expectations define and create individuals in the image of their wisdom or lack of it.  It’s not even as if politicians are on a hiding to nothing any more.  They can now do what they want because – in a sense – they have broken through a crucial barrier of expectations and obligations: the political barriers which have been broken involve serving Queen, country, fellow citizen and political beliefs before one’s own grimy and sordid pockets of self-enrichment.

This Coalition government of the self-interested is interested in nothing more nor less than a socioeconomic landscape which rewards bad competition and bad capitalism above and beyond any other version of society; especially any other version which any other political ideology might wish to collaboratively sustain.  For these politicians, the only good business organisation is that which aims to become transnational; the only good politician is he or she who is prepared to be paid off by the former; and the only good voters are those who are happy to believe every lie which the aforementioned complex of interests can peddle.

As Paul concludes in his piece:

[...] it’s hard to avoid the sense that Sir Michael Wilshaw is much more than a Gove lapdog, happy to bash teachers and children for narrow political purpose, and to use manifestly incorrect data to do so.

In the current political environment, therefore, he’ll go far.

Too true, my dear Paul.  Far too true for anyone’s good.


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Aug 152011
 
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Yesterday, I wrote about the potential upsides as well as the proven downsides of American-style corporate bodies.  Today, I see some further evidence (this from False Economy today, and worth a read in full) which demonstrates that most corporations are on benefit – and should, therefore, at least by people such as IDS, be firmly told where to get off the gravy train:

This summer we have witnessed a series of public crises following one another in quick succession: the News International scandal, the European sovereign debt crisis and now the widespread looting in England’s major cities. They all bear witness, albeit in very different ways, to the long-standing dominance of corporate and financial interests over politicians and public policy, and to the insertion of their doctrines of market supremacy and private gain into all areas of the public sphere and social consciousness alike.

The article goes on to summarise with great brevity that:

Simply put, the cost of the financial crisis has been successfully transferred onto taxpayers, and public anger displaced from the bankers onto the governments which have slavishly followed their favoured prescriptions for addressing the public deficit.

As the piece unhappily concludes:

This implantation of the corporate sector at the very heart of government, to which potential countervailing powers of the trade unions, political parties, civil society associations and public media have at best provided only a limited check and exposure, seriously compromises the democratic process, and skews policy in favour of the already wealthy and powerful.

Corporations on benefit or what?  Now don’t tell me it’s not true …
____________________

Further reading: the report the False Economy article refers to, “Unelected Oligarchy: Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain’s Democracy”, has its own introduction here and its own .pdf file here.  It comes highly recommended by a brace of honourable souls, so here I am now reading it.

I must be mad – I’m supposed to be on holiday …


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Aug 032011
 
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Politics is all about apportioning blame and obtaining advantage as a result.  It could be about something quite different – but, in reality, that’s not how it works.  Two snippets of such reality have just come my way.  The first, in relation to the debt ceiling crisis in the US, reacts thus:

this is fisco-terrorism by #banksters in washington… horrifying that this isn’t prosecutable. How many thousands will suffer from this?

I don’t know if I’d go as far as to say this, but – and no pun intended whatsoever – it does seem a bit rich for the rich to be able to cock things up so badly, get bailed out by sovereign states so muchly and – finally – attack the living standards of the poor by maintaining the falsehood that concentrating power and wealth is the only sure-fire way of kickstarting Western economies of the kind we have been accustomed to.

Meanwhile, almost at the same time, I receive my generally weekly newsletter from the American right-wing journal the Weekly Standard, which in very few words just begs us to fall into the trap of playing the blame game I mentioned at the top of this post:

This economic nonsense confirms a point Senator McConnell made during the debt ceiling fight: We can expect little progress in addressing the central issues of our day as long as Barack Obama remains president. That’s why it’s incumbent on conservatives and Republicans to have a realistic view of what can be achieved before January 20, 2013, as they lay the foundations for the case against Obama in the upcoming campaign.

That case is straightforward. Unemployment is higher than when Obama was inaugurated. So is the price of gasoline. We are further in debt. Government has grown. More Americans believe we are headed in the wrong direction. The facts speak for themselves. All that is required is someone to state them.

The truth of the matter is that the second paragraph is probably more real in both spirit and letter than we might expect.  Thus it is that the right-wing commentator responsible for pulling together the sentiments expressed, Matthew Continetti, writes a striking description of the current state of US society – a state which to a greater or lesser degree all of us, wherever we find ourselves, are suffering from at the moment: “All that is required is someone to state [the facts].”  And, in amongst all the spin and the marketing-speak detractors and supporters of Obama find themselves wrapped up in, it is absolutely significant that whilst the poor have no voice articulate enough to make itself heard (I almost certainly mean wealthy enough when I say articulate enough), the rich, who have found their voice a long long time ago, unerringly waste their opportunities on going about reducing the opportunities for a much broader base of Americans.  If there were an index of opportunity determined in terms of such a breadth of access to entrepreneurial grace and favour, I am pretty sure the decisions just taken in the United States have served to dramatically reduce its impact and level of operation.

As Paul points out in a case much closer to home, after all this time the left still don’t get it even as the right long ago understood.

And yet … and yet …

I would still far rather believe that a re-encounter was on the cards.  If only those “facts” Continetti talks about were possible to share.  It would then allow politics to be based on the exchange of verifiable information, instead of what we – both rich and poor, both articulate and unexpressed – currently suffer under: a grand inability on all sides to use data in good faith, and share information with proper intent.

The blame game allows Obama’s supporters to remit us to Bush’s war years and the massive waste of human resource for devious political objective.  The blame game allows Obama’s detractors to remit us to his own inability to turn a rainbow-coalition promise of real change into a forceful tool for action.

And meanwhile we drink tea and watch the Titanics sink on both sides of the Atlantic.

As a final thought, just imagine if it had been the socialists who’d brought the financial system to its knees and had then bailed themselves out, paid themselves ever greater bonuses and finally passed legislation which required the rest of us to support them in their dotage.

That is what has just happened in the US, what is happening in Britain, what is happening across Europe.  Only the socialists in question call themselves capitalists – and have learned like no others in history to feather their own nests.

See what I mean?

The blame game again …


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Jul 132011
 
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It might actually be more a sign of how difficult it is to maintain a useful moral compass when working in large companies in general, but, whatever the reality, here’s a short question for you to ponder.

We have two hundred journalists in the very epicentre of the biggest media earthquake in modern journalism – and not one of them appears to want to tell the inside story to anyone.

And this, despite the fact that they’ve lost their jobs. 

What does this say about Murdoch, his regime, British journalism in general and modern communications?  Answers on a virtual postcard to …


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May 152011
 
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Trademarked straplines are becoming the bane of our life.  I was going to write a post entirely made up of them – but, as is always the case, someone wiser than I am got there first.

I suppose my biggest gripe with these irritating pieces of marketing-speak doesn’t lie in how they are constructed and integrated into the wider brand image (some of them are quite clever and to the point, it has to be said) but, rather, what they are symptomatic of.  And, I’m afraid, this brings us back to the subject of our beloved corporations and transnational companies.

Let’s take the example of industrial music and see where it leads us.  Throughout the history of 20th century pop music, large companies have infiltrated our mindscapes with catchy songs which are designed – much as 20th century tobacco – to hook us and make it impossible for us not to incorporate them into our daily lives.  How many singles were sold by word of mouth, by someone singing to their nearest and dearest the latest chapter and verse of the coolest band on the block?  The kind of quoting in full which the most fearsome copyright owners these days fight tooth and nail to prevent in social media.

And yet, surely, social media is the virtual equivalent of talking with the neighbour over the garden fence.  Social media is mostly just like that informal conversation held in a pub with a pint and today’s newspaper to hand – read, reread and shared most promiscuously; reread and shared and handed out by the landlord without so much as a peep from the newspaper moguls.

Arguably, file-sharing on the grandest and most legal scale there ever was.

So.  There is a historical precedent.  Just as software companies used to tolerate home copying as a marketing device to encourage business take-up, so music and film companies have throughout their existence allowed people in the real world to quote freely from their product in the interests of furthering sales growth.

When, for example, did you last hear of someone being taken to court for asking Sam to play it one more time?  When did you last hear of judicial sanction being applied to that Man United fan proclaiming that they are the champions?  Yet these are both examples of reusing so-called intellectual property in public spaces without paying a single royalty to anyone.  And thus, in the interests of greater income, it has always been.  And thus, in a sense, we are both owned and given a certain freedom of movement – simultaneously held on a certain leash and allowed to wander somewhat.

Trademarked straplines, then, operate in similar territory.  They take simple and quite innocuous phrases (Amazon – and you’re done™, McDonald’s – and then some™) and devise broader marketing strategies around such building blocks.  Simple enough for even the dullards amongst us to be able to remember and repeat and quote (if only mentally) – and proprietorial enough to prove to anyone who cares to think more deeply about the matter that even the English language is becoming a legal minefield and barrier to free and spontaneous communication.

If the 20th century showed us our freedoms were at risk of being destroyed by the all-consuming and pervasive centralised economies of Communism, Eastern European socialism and the hybrids that were countries like the ex-Yugoslavia, it is the 21st century where it is becoming only too apparent that the centralised economies which are now removing and excising our liberties – often quite despite themselves and their avowed philosophies of community engagement and corporate social responsibility – are these large companies I mention above: large companies which – caught up in fearsome battles to the corporate death – become torn and twisted away from their original missions of serving the customer.

Just as Communism aimed to free the worker, so these corporate behemoths – at some point or other in their histories – also aimed to serve the customer splendidly.

Only it’s now happening conversely.  They, in their never-ending realities, end up – instead – serving themselves of such innocent clients.

And so now, more and more, we’re owned™ – even as we like to think we are being released from the burden of government which so many commentators believe is the real problem with 21st century existence.

Yes.  I’m happy to admit it.  Government is the problem – even as it is the solution.  But the government which is causing us most problems is not only to be found in the parliaments of the world.  It is also to be found in the boardrooms.  And until we take this fact on board, nothing but nothing is going to improve.


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Mar 202011
 
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I’m a Star Trek fan – always have been.  The original series you know; it’s like a mental balm for me.  The world is set to rights as I spend forty-seven minutes in the company of the familiar crew – which for fans like myself seems more like an extended family of certain and sure relationship than a cardboard entity of sci-fi reruns.

But before Star Trek, we got the film “Forbidden Planet” – a Shakespearean drama of particularly wonderful vibrations.  I remembered this film today – and ordered it from Amazon.co.uk.  I think the reason is pretty clear.

It’s a forbidding planet at the moment – a planet where we need a mental balm to simply continue.  The Japanese earthquake, the Libyan and Yemeni crises, Osborne’s budget plans to farm out all public services to private industry – all of these events, whilst separate and discrete, seem to form a common pattern of regression to much darker times.  Money here is not something we learn to revolve intelligently around a socio-economic hub that is a nation but – rather – a tool to crush the weak under the hubris-inviting heels of the strong.

And I wish to set up a company.

And I wish to make a difference.

And I wish to devise structures that are inherently cooperating and supportive.  In the land where the pursuit of happiness is sanctioned by the state, I read that seventy percent of Americans consider themselves unhappy.  I would have thought that a similar proportion of employees would feel the same across this world of centralised giganticism.

Really strange how centralisation is bad for Communism (for it is) but good for capitalism (but it isn’t).

The rich are beginning to reveal their colours too clearly.  And I ask myself: are there no rich out there who wish for power to be exerted and shared in different ways?  Are there no rich out there who believe in improving the general lot of everyone?

Meanwhile, Chris balefully points out the following:

[...] One conventional view on the right – which includes Blairism – has been that we should worry less about how we cut up the economic pie and more about ensuring that we increase its size. But what if we just cannot, reliably and in the long-term, do this? Doesn’t redistribution then become relatively more important?

As large corporations can choose to ignore that exhortation of Milton Friedman that anybody who considers anything but shareholder interests is acting immorally, so the rich can surely arrive at a similar conclusion that it is quite definitely not in their long-term interests to sit on their money in a society where many go without.

Human beings are essentially social beings.  Society cannot be a built on the foundations of silos, bunkers and confrontation.  Yes.  I sincerely believe, in this Coalition government, we are reaping the wrongs of Blairism – but I also believe that the pendulum which is swinging past us, swinging so savagely in that direction quite contrary to the last decade’s stealthy socialism, will lead to a dangerous and revolutionary Britain the like of which we have yet to see; a Britain which will benefit no one.

So what do we really need?

As I wrote four years ago:

A corporate Britain but of a different cloth? Maybe so. Corporations have enormous resources to do good, if they choose to. If their current “externalities” can become future “internalities” out of simple self-interest (global warming and environmental pollution, for example), then the market will be harnessed in time to save us all – they will be able to help save us even on their own terms. No one needs to act immorally (that is to say, paraphrasing Milton Friedman, not in the interests of their shareholders) – doing more than maximising profit can still be maximising (future) profit, bringing improvements to our societies that everyone can share.

Whither a world without consumers? Whither a world without a shared narrative? Jack Straw is right. We all need a story we can believe in and tell each other. We need a British story – for economic, social and cultural reasons.

Let us not make of this planet a forbidding place to be.

Please not, dear corporate partners.

Please comprehend before it is too late.


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Mar 142011
 
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There are some interesting comments over at Chris’s place today.  They’re in response to a piece he wrote which was kickstarted by a paragraph from my piece last Thursday on how the rich are getting richer whilst the rest of us are perhaps losing that opportunity that was almost within our grasp to make of Web 2.0 a virtual and unbloody socialist revolution of the 21st century.  This is what Chris says:

To what extent are the conditions in place for a Marxian revolution? I’m prompted to ask by Miljenko:
Whilst the rich lever evermore power for themselves, the rest of us who were looking to do all sorts of open source-type things in both virtual and offline communities…suddenly find ourselves back in an awful rat-race of laboratory rodent-like relationships.

This echoes the standard Marxian view of how capitalism will be supplanted by socialism. This will happen, Marx said, when capitalist relations of production, instead of stimulating growth, actually retard technical progress, and when discontent with living standards creates a revolutionary working class.  [...]

To which Paul Sagar replies:

[...] to put the point more sucinctly: the 20th century happened, bozos. Read some (intellectual) history. It’s fine to be a Marxist in terms of *analysis* (as the author of this site shows, and shows most ably), but it’s grotesquely ignorant and calous to cling to hogwash about “revolution” after a century in which such revolutions brought NOTHING but human suffering.

Sagar is of course right as far as it goes – but the same could be said of religion (an easy target, I admit) or, indeed, of the single-minded empire-building robber barons of 19th and 20th century capitalism.  Sagar is more interesting when he says in the same comment (my bold):

As GA Cohen – the man who wrote Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A defence, no less – ended up conceding: the truth is that *markets* and a largely market-based society, are more efficient, as a general rule, than centralised communistic alternatives can ever realistically hope to be. Hayek and von Mises may not have gotten much right, but they did get right the market’s advantage in terms of information dissemination, which no non-market alternative could ever hope to rival. And when combined with pessimism about communistic productive potential, that spells disaster for the prospects of a Marxist revolution, and gratutious and devastating disaster for societies in which an elite attempt to *force* a “communist” model on a people without the requisite (because impossible) technological/material abundance.

The truth of the matter is that vast swathes of our society – our Western society – are controlled by an elite which has forced a communist model on millions of people.  And – right now – these people have taken control of the government, through the support and patronage they offer to Cameron’s political line.  Chris responds to Paul’s assertion thus (again, my bold):

@ Paul – of course, you’re right that markets are vastly superior to central planning. But for me, revolution now cannot be about replacing markets with central planning. Quite the opposite. Revolution should consist more in breaking down central planning – which is the dominant form of organization within companies, and is a major cause of inequality.

And he continues by saying:

The question should be about forms of ownership, not state vs markets. Again, the left gets this wrong.

This I agree with one hundred percent.  I’m currently trying to devise the best entity for the company we’re looking to set up on the back of my imminent redundancy.  I’ve spent the last six years or so working for an organisation that fears so dreadfully that its workforce won’t do the right thing that our every move is watched and regulated.  I would so like to believe that entities of ownership exist – or, perhaps, that I can create one – where people feel so engaged, through the very structure of their relationship with the company they work for, by everything and everyone that company represents that such a Big Brother approach and hierarchy will become absolutely unnecessary.

For Chris is right – as right, in fact, as the rhetoric of the right throughout the 20th century has shown itself to be: central planning is wrong and inefficient and Communism was its most wrong and inefficient example.  But where Chris is coherent and cogent in his principles, that is to say, central planning is wrong wherever you find it, the right has been terribly hypocritical: the right, its sponsors, its business makers and shakers, whilst quite appropriately criticising the dogmas of the far left, have chosen to reserve the very same structures of top-down control for themselves in their large money-making machines and organisations.

Paul, in this sense, is as inexact as you can be where Chris is calmly accurate: we do need a revolution – and social media, Web 2.0 and virtually free worldwide communication can ensure it is essentially bloodless. 

And of a bloodless revolution, not even the most bizarrely right-wing commentator can make a bogeyman.  Which is why, as I said in my previous post, this kind of revolution is so absolutely fearful for those it undermines, opposes – and begins to make irrelevant.


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Mar 152010
 
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I continue to be surprised by the duplicitous nature of modern power politics. No. I’m not talking about the grassroots stuff. I’m not talking about those community-minded politicians who think great thoughts and tussle with small needs. That’s not what I’d term power politics.

Yesterday I watched “In The Loop” and realised that – most of the time – most of us are entirely out of the loop. So much we should see and understand – and hear about before we deposit our confidence in our elected representatives – is at the mercy of people who know how to bully other people whose livelihoods depend on privileged access.

Power politics involves abuse – just as much as rape or sexual harassment. People with power exert it unreasonably over those who, relatively speaking, are powerless.

And so to the point of this post. I’ve just read two pieces of online wisdom tonight. The first came my way via Tim O’Reilly’s Twitter feed. The second, along the same lines and developing the theme, has been picked up by the always excellent John Naughton (who is consistently able to show us that the original purpose of logging the web with quality links and little comment can still hold its head high in what is often a modern morass of opinionated verbiage).

The thesis of these two pieces? Apple is wrong when it argues that consumers need and will be happy with locked down hardware and software, with a dictatorial centre deciding a priori what can and can’t (what should and shouldn’t) be published. Yet it would appear that many in the US – of all places – believe in this model for business where they would most certainly not for government. In this sense, perhaps, Google’s Android may represent the quintessential libertarianism of many North American instincts – all those negative freedoms Berlin described – whilst Apple’s iPhone, in some curiously twisted and mostly self-interested way, represents the positive freedoms we are more used to in Europe of constructive interference and political management – only in this case turned eventually sour by a thirst for impregnable domination.

I just wonder why what is so right for some business – in this case Apple – is so wrong for government – in this case Obamacare. As the private financial services sector has been bailed out to the tune of trillions in what has quite interestingly been called socialism for the rich, so the poor – and not so poor – have been condemned to suffer unemployment, foreclosure and a general financial misery no one could accuse them of having been responsible for. As private industry is arguably too big for government to allow it to fail, the little man and woman can be left to go to the wall.

Why have we spent the past decade buying up and praising the positive freedoms of Apple and generally ignoring the negative freedoms of – for example – open source?

Why, in times of considerable financial crisis, do we decide to prop up a private governance which has clearly failed its stakeholders on a whole raft of decisions and, what’s more, argue that we should make the public purse pay for another’s mistakes?

Will Google’s Android allow us to reassert our taste for freedoms we should perhaps all cherish or will the alleged thought police of Steve and Company – with their ideological hunger for centralised control – impose their view of what’s good and what’s bad on consumers made passive by so much corporate Communism.

(Quite an oxymoron, that – from that strangely amoral high ground of a corporate America that tends to continually rejig the world quite literally to its very own devices.)

(I also wonder why – in that inconsistent manner which characterises my thought – I am much happier for a dose of ideological centralisation in governments like Obama’s or Brown’s than any equivalent I see in those sorts of jazzy solar systems of private governance people like Jobs tend to inhabit. What is it about giant corporations that I find so very much more untrustworthy than almost any democratic institution I have ever come across?)


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