Oct 282013
 
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This, from Notes from a Broken Society, came my way via Facebook today.  Without having read Russell Brand’s piece, I can see what NBS’s Neil is getting at.  Which then led me on to actually consider reading Brand’s piece, quite despite myself.  So I did.

In a way, I realise now what my own readers have to deal with.  I don’t think I’ve ever written anything quite as long as Brand’s piece – but the style is instantly recognisable.  As per Neil’s succinct description:

To anyone who has studied the history of Fascism, the rhetoric is familiar (so, incidentally, is the style: the lengthy, rambling incoherence, the frequent recourse to personal experience, the use of long words to disguise the emptiness as profundity).  [...]

And adding insult to serious injury, we get this as a helluva sucker punch:

[...] It’s been fascinating to see this nonsense portrayed as being a phenomenon of the left, until we remember that Hitler and Mussolini described themselves as socialists.  [...]

Guilty as charged, milord?  I’m beginning to wonder if this is the case.  Even as by contemplating the matter, and thus reverting to personal experience, I am simply perpetuating the initial crime.

Neil does, however, go on to say some things which are simply not true.  This, on “Metropolis” for example, conflating director, artwork and Nazism in one unexplaining link:

[...] Reading Brand’s torrent of words brought together a number of thoughts; most notably the ideology behind that extraordinary document of early Fascism, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis –  a film that today retains its visceral power, its artistic persuasiveness, while remaining utterly repellent in its ideology. [...]

Compare and contrast with these words from Lang himself, where both art and ideology are criticised:

Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels was impressed with the film’s message of social justice. In a 1928 speech he declared that “the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labor, to begin their historical mission”.[20]

Fritz Lang later expressed dissatisfaction with the film. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich (in Who The Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors, published in 1998), he expressed his reservations:

The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou’s, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale – definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn’t like the picture – thought it was silly and stupid – then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It’s very hard to talk about pictures—should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?

In his profile for Lang featured in the same book, which prefaces the interview, Bogdanovich suggested that Lang’s distaste for his own film also stemmed from the Nazi Party’s fascination with the film. Von Harbou became a passionate member of the Nazi Party in 1933. They divorced the following year.

Fritz Lang was hardly an unthinking purveyor of fascism.

The reality of political and artistic endeavour is very rarely as simple as a single YouTube video can paint it.

If Neil is able to conflate, for the purposes of latterday political argument, the complex essence of an artistic path like Lang’s – in times as difficult as the 20th century too – what may be left of the alleged proto-fascism of people such as Brand, apparently portrayed so manifestly in the New Statesman piece?

Or, indeed, for that matter, on the pages of my own blog?

Maybe we are all proto-fascists by now.  One of my most consistently read pieces continues to be this one on the possibly fascist nature of the current British state and Coalition government.  It would hardly be surprising, were my thesis in this latter piece to be true, that the vast majority of the nation’s voters might be transmuting – under the influence – into little fascist clones themselves.  Figures which Neil sadly describes may not be getting it in the following way:

[...] The “don’t vote it only encourages them” line that Brand espouses mainly shows that he just doesn’t get – and indeed has contempt for – democracy; yes, voting is at the heart of democracy but it’s not the whole story by any means. [...]

However, when Neil says this, when he argues that Brand “simply doesn’t address the concept of power; and his rantings are all about individualism, nothing to do with the collective.  But at heart democratic politics is about the collective; it’s about debate, and compromise [...]“, I’m afraid precisely what Brand chooses to address, and what I have addressed so many times on these pages to little purpose, is the ability the collective left have shown to not engage with our individual experiences.

If the right have been able to burrow their way so surreptitiously into our political mindsets and voting patterns, if they have managed to “persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power”, surely it is because the left have forgotten what it is like to live one single life, one bloody step at a time.  And if talking about one’s own experiences to illustrate why one feels as one does is the rankest example of proto-fascism, rather than the clearest example of amateur and individual ethics and responsibility, then I am indeed also the fascist Brand is – in some quarters – accused of being.

Even as it also demonstrates why the left is so fundamentally losing the democratic battle, so beloved of the standard bearers (you and me both) of a demonstrable moral superiority.

Curious, that.  Curiouser and curiouser.

As a final reflection, I do mainly agree with Neil on what he warns against.  But I understand Brand far more sympathetically than many on the left might.

The time has come not for a destructive repeat of the 20th century’s revolutions but for a very 21st century process of disruption.  And far more people than Russell Brand are beginning – not only out of a little desperation but also out of a lot of considered opinion – to believe it’s a story we need to tell.  Even if it is a personal one.  Even if it does run the risk of cloying sentimentality.

And even if those who sincerely believe in the collective think the purpose of the collective should – in some weird way – involve the subtle shutting down of the individual.


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Oct 202013
 
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A Twitter friend of mine suggests I read an article about how the evil of big government be abolished.  I am sympathetic to elements of this thesis, as long as we define “government” as either public- or private-sector concentrations of power – concentrations which will inevitably impact on our day-to-day existences in a significant way.

So then we can agree.

It’s not just the statism of the left we must pillory here; it’s also the corporatism of the right’s sponsors in the (big) business community too.  Both are examples of managerialism on a grand scale run riot.  They lead to situations such as the ones I’ve been describing recently, where cutting-edge technologies slide into bleeding-edge: where the race to get the latest smartphones and tablets into our grasping consumerist hands leaves behind the minimum levels of reliability which technological progress once saw as a fundamental part of its claim to cultural prowess and priority.

They say – universally I would suspect – that you should never come to us with a complaint but a solution.  The problem – the “challenge” if you prefer! – is that there’s no single solution to anything (nor, in fact, has there ever been), and anyone who says otherwise is lying.  What ties together our dissatisfaction with almost everything these days – whether of a political, educational, health-related, technological or more general sociocultural bent – is that the (virtually orgasmic) instinct to reach a destination rather than enjoy a journey, to exhibit the result rather than perpetuate the process, has overcome to a dreadful extent our society’s ability to set reasonable goals.  I was struck this afternoon by the shape of my timeline on Twitter, as an example of this: on the one hand, so many writers, promoters and marketers using the technology to puff up – I don’t necessarily say incorrectly or without every right to do so – their chosen causes; and on the other, an online acquaintance of mine retweeting a simple request for union recognition and the right to transport concessions (I think it was) in a small workplace no one has heard of – no one, that is, except the workforce in question itself.  Whilst the latter is no less noble than the former, yet, even so, it – and parallel actions of a similar nature – are afforded far less visibility and acceptance in this civilisation we judge to be the one most progressing ever in what is, essentially, a relatively short and, lately, manifestly all too frail history.

I suppose I have reached a crossroads in my life: I don’t believe everything I’d hoped might be true.  I don’t believe, any more, in the inevitable capacity of technology to solve more problems than it causes.

So where did it all go wrong?  Perhaps, exactly, where it went wrong for our financial institutions: when marketing, promotion, the managerialist instincts of “puffing up” reality if you like, overtook careful analysis, hard work, conscientious mindsets and sensitive professionalism.

With all the latter whisked out of the core of corporate capitalism in most parts of the world we look horrified over and onto, it is hardly surprising that the “solution vendors” have managed to pollute our better impulses with the short-termism of novelty.  So it is we learn to throw about 150 hard-won quid every eighteen months or so on a gadget we now expect to break down as part of the unspoken contract we have with such “progress”.

Not the progress I was brought up to believe in, that.

And you?


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Oct 082013
 
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This is how John Lennon saw it.


http://youtu.be/L832Jj7C0DA

This is how I’m seeing it:

Hello #Twitter. Was in virtual world, training people to communicate this morn; in outside world, helping wife to disconnect esta tarde.

Good to take a break and re-evaluate. And stepping back is fine (as long as you don’t step back into an abyss, of course!!!).

So I wonder why it’s so untraumatic slowly retiring from blogging and social media. And I honestly think it has to do with this #NSA stuff.

Sharing one’s thoughts has become the biggest Hobson’s choice there ever was.  You can do it with the virtual swathes of people out there and – at the same time – give your heart, soul and everything up to Big Government and its minions; or you can begin to stop dropping pebbles into the wishing-well that is the worldwide web and start keeping them to yourself – on occasions, perhaps, your nearest friends and family too.

But the problem here – and it’s a serious one I assure you – is that spying Big Government hates it when its people’s behaviours get into grinding gear – when its people’s behaviours begin to unpredictably change.  There’s nothing less frightening than a mass of easily satisfied consumers who sit gaily clutching their gadgets galore; nothing more scary than a horde of unsatisfied voters who want to think things properly through.

So even as I wonder at myself – after seven years of more or less continuous blogging and after two or three years of 35,000-odd tweets (or maybe that’s 35,000 odd tweets!) and even as I find this cold turkey I am hardly suffering from leads me to a week without Facebook, a few days here and there without blogging, as well as a highly cursory tweeting and the like – I cannot really believe, even now, how unpainful it is all being.

What’s the reason?  I suppose it’s very simple: I don’t believe the worldwide web is the best place to share any more.  I don’t think, now, it was any place to share.  Perhaps, at the very beginning, there was an ickle chance it could have been.  But this ickle chance was soon swallowed up by far greater interests who understood the historical sweep with far greater clarity.

I’m beginning to realise it was a place where people in power sold a donkey to those who would finally keep them there: consumers; end-users; the creative sorts who loved to show off their wisdoms (me included in this last lot; perhaps me included in all three) … all of these people and so many more out there were assigned the role of sustaining a modulated form of the status quo.

Breadcrumbs is all we were finally allowed.

Breadcrumbs is all we could perceive.  The trail was ours, I don’t deny that – but the trail led only to the legs of the highest tables at which the powerful today, especially today, swaggeringly continue to sit.

Cold turkey is now easy for me because I see the lie on which this whole Internet was built.  And perhaps that’s exactly the conclusion the NSA, GCHQ and its multifarious hangers-on want us to come to: there’s no point in continuing with such a fundamentally corrupted beast.

Which is why I have to say they’re probably right.  In this, I mean.  Not in doing what they’ve done.

Lord, no.  Not that.  Not in a thousand years.

To undermine so fundamentally our fabric of free speech, to make us feel we have a Hobson’s choice of an empty web of hole-ridden cloth on the one hand or a shutting up shop and a silently reserving our democracy for family and friends on the other, is truly a golpe de estado of terrible proportions.  I mean really, what’s the point of such a democracy if voters are tracked so utterly?  Where is free will?  Where is secular liberty?  Where have all the liberal concepts we once treasured so much gone and ended up?

Freedom of choice?  It won’t exist.  We will find ourselves “pre-imprisoned”, in one way or another, for our own “safety” and for the “security” of our communities.  Algorithms and maths will decide our destinies in an absolutist way, much as omens and heathen religions did in other supposedly darker ages.  DNA, genetic analysis … all this science and so much more will be put to an end which rational thought would in other centuries hardly ever have countenanced: the removal of all fraternity and liberty from the sphere that is human thought and act.

Yet maybe in all of this rather sad landscape I paint a solution could exist.  Maybe the Hobson’s choice I describe is even grander than I describe.  Maybe, just maybe, we might decide that the NSA & Co have actually done us all a favour: in their obvious, perverse and deliberate destruction of the idealism of a perfectly communicating web, they have really brought it down to earth.  And we, as human beings, need the down-to-earth to function well.  We, as human beings, need such challenges as these in order to keep up the fight.

In the frame of a perfectly – and easily – communicating web, we were becoming lazy gadget-consuming materialistic beings.  So perhaps, now, in the snapshot that is an NSA-perforated Internet we can become, once again, the sincere altruistic thinkers and doers of those beautiful decades ago.

Those thinkers and doers who – all those decades ago – brought about the original Internet, and thus raised our joyous hopes.

____________________

Update to this post: via Adam Fish, this warning tale for all of us who would like to sound clever when nattering about Internet discourse.  Evgeny Morozov on the fallacy of, amongst other things, cuddling up far too happily to the enemy.


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Oct 062013
 
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I’ve started working recently with a Windows 8 computer.  It has a touchscreen, which makes more sense, but Luddite that I am, I’ve installed Classic Shell to turn it back into the Vista/Windows 7 I was far more used to.  Though to be honest, with its wider screen and the resulting taskbar moved to the side, what it now mostly reminds me of is Ubuntu’s much lambasted left-hand sidebar, a beast I never had problems getting used to.

Yes.  I’m happily getting used to a Windows which now reminds me of Linux!  And that’s some irony, don’t you think?

But something else moving from one computer to another makes you do is evaluate all those websites and social networks your old computer automatically leads you to when you load up the browsers.  And whilst Twitter seems to have made the cut, even though I’ve been off it far more the past week or so, one social network I’ve resisted so far is dear old Facebook.  Yes.  The notifications build up and the baleful emails reminding me I’ve not been on for a while do tug; but at the same time I find myself remembering what it was like, whilst my phone was in for repair, to be without mobile web for a fortnight in February.  It was liberating; it made me look at the world around me again; it even allowed me to recover a sense of privacy.  I was having thoughts which I didn’t find myself able to share, and then from those moments on … well, I began to realise that perhaps I didn’t need to share them any more.

The alternative to an almost obsessive communication where privacy is utterly shorn from human existence is a retiring of our trains of thoughts from the public sphere, and a reassertion of our previous ability and aptitude to continue their processing in private.

We used to do this: in the past, those blessed with greatness did.  They cogitated in the intimacy of their drawing-rooms, their shop floors, their offices and laboratories – and then posted in one properly and singularly authored content their completely framed explanations on a justly surprised world.

No.  I’m not saying it was a better way.  I’m saying that, a priori, the better way is today’s.  But not if Prism and others – for example, the Russian equivalent they say is being prepared for the Winter Olympics, where no one present will be able to escape a total and permanent surveillance for the duration of their stay – manage to get their way.

Which they will.

Hardly bodes well for the spirit of Olympic brother- and sisterhood.

Unless your idea of such relationships implies a total and permanent intrusiveness in siblings’ occurrences.

Not mine, I can tell you.

So if these are the alternatives – a) an efficient sharing and counter-sharing of an incessant engendering of ideas coupled with a zero right to privateness on the one hand or b) a less speedy but far more humane and socially respectful limiting of the public sphere with a greater sense (if nothing else) of privacy on the other – perhaps it is the latter we should head for.  Perhaps my recent experiences – and the resulting conclusions – this year of disconnecting from the interconnectedness of the worldwide web in the face of a total lack of respect for my being – for mine, yours and everyone’s out there – is something we ought to begin to share more widely, even as we begin not to share so much stuff, as much as we have to date.

It’s in our hands.  It’s part of what we can do.  Just like most workers can still withdraw their labour in the face of oppression (though they are, of course, trying to make that illegal too), so we as connected citizens can begin to dose our levels of connectedness.

Not out of a shady desire to be suspiciously secretive.

Rather, out of a very human desire simply to be private.

Perhaps, then, that will be the way forward as we attempt to recover the integrity of the public sphere.

Not by demanding it be made even more public than it is, and then going on to require that our human rights be evermore broadly and correspondingly respected, but – rather – by sagely beginning to make it less accessible to these electronic eyes through a process of careful choice.

Not hiding from the worldwide web our evil thoughts.

Just closing the door – with every historical precedent on our side – to our most intimate moments.

That’s not illegal.

Not yet, anyhow.

____________________

Update to this post: this lovely TEDx talk, from Bruce Schneier in all his clarity, defines, conceptualises and pulls brilliantly together where power and its rapidly evolving nature is heading in our latterday world: essentially, the ongoing battle between the old institutional powers finally reasserting themselves versus the early-adopting nimbler distributed powers (both virtuous and criminal), now manifestly finding the going getting tougher all the time.  Short, sweet and worth your next twelve minutes.  (Thanks to Adrian Short on Twitter for bringing this to our attention.)


http://youtu.be/h0d_QDgl3gI


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Sep 202013
 
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Forget what you think about my writing style.  Forget – even – what you dislike about my politics.  This tweet of mine sets the scene:

Capitalism has so individualised our discourses that it’s become entirely impossible to talk about anything without talking about persons.

Politics has, in fact, become “peoplitics”.  Perhaps mutated (malignantly, at that) would be a better way of putting it.

And this next video encapsulates perfectly the result.


http://youtu.be/tkDfyLFFK84

Two massive fails from two professionals of the game.  First fail: Michael Crick, a journalist, becomes the news – and Channel 4, in its (lately) madcap pursuit of ratings notoriety, helps out where it can.  Second fail: Godfrey Bloom, a politician, lets rip his personal opinions and reactions – instead of focussing our attention on all the truly horrible things afflicting us.

Only neither will be perceived by anyone as a fail.  All this personalisation of absolutely everything has become a bloody par for the miserable course.  Myself (similarly in personalisation mode, it is true) (and as you might expect), I attribute it to the incessant drip-drip of corporate capitalism, as the beast continues to insist water-torture-like in its pursuit of monetisation nirvana.

And maximising monetisation nirvana inevitably means individualising our every repeating instinct.  If we chose, as societies, to do more of our stuff together – from car-pooling in the mornings to sharing carefully-planned community central-heating systems during the winter – we’d save our own little pockets tons of dosh.  But corporate capitalism aims to increase potential markets: everything must, therefore, be individualised to ensure as large a wasteful income as possible.

The side effect?  We don’t only buy as selfish people with little thought for others, we also talk about selfish others with little thought for selfless ideas.

Peoplitics indeed.

Where did it all begin to go so wrong?  Where did we all begin to think such trivial events counted so much for our progress – whilst our ideas, creativity and imaginings counted for so very little?


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Sep 082013
 
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Here we have a Coalition which is anything but a partner with its people.  And do you wanna know exactly how easy it is to know what the Coalition’s playing at?  This easy!  Just listen carefully to what it accuses others of doing – and then you’ll find an example of government doing the same.

When it looks to smash the indignant feelings of an oppressed poor by accusing it of scrounging off the state, it quite happily services the needs of its political sponsors in large financial corporations to scrounge their way to profitability again.

And when it looks, brazenly, to eliminate extra-parliamentary protest, it acts, brazenly, to conduct the biggest campaign of government-sponsored extra-parliamentary governance in Britain’s history.

Well, I haven’t doublechecked all of Britain’s history – but, at least, the history I’ve lived in my lifetime.

From the latter link, this is what I said just over a year ago:

It seems to me that, more and more, supposedly democratically-elected governments are getting the dirty work of less than transparent policy-making carried out on their behalf by private industry.  This is, in a sense, a strategy of de facto governance where democracy is absented from the process.  It works in the following way: in exchange for negative publicity which, in any case, legions of legal departments can generally vanish into relative thin air, private industries of transnational sizes are awarded humongous public-sector contracts.  And as this is a business-to-business relationship – thick-skinned government to hard-sold corporate – public opinion is pretty irrelevant to either party.  A perfect way of removing the need for approval from irritatingly well-informed and tech-savvy end-consumers, who were in any case beginning to make the business of corporate capitalism so very complicated and unpredictable.

Instead of selling to end-users who pick and choose, the most foresighted corporations are now choosing to focus their attentions on governments which – for various untransparent reasons – prefer to pick and stick.

The corporates get stability in long-term contracts despite the voter flak.  The governments get to blame the corporates if anything too unpleasant comes to light.

A perfect exchange of complementary interests.

Which brings me to what I ended up saying then – sadly predicting the conditions for this ugly story, which rears its ugly head via Boing Boing just this Friday.  First, Boing Boing’s report (the bold is mine):

The only way to stop Internet users from accessing “bad” websites is to spy on all their Internet traffic (you have to look at all their traffic in order to interdict the forbidden sites). So it follows that any censorship system must also ban any privacy/security tools. The UK is raising a generation of Internet users who are told that “security” requires them to make their sensitive, personal information available to anyone who is listening in on the network, because otherwise they might see sexually explicit material. Instead of teaching kids how to stay safe online, the official UK Internet safety policy requires them to be totally naked in all their online communications.

In order to achieve this goal, the following is happening:

UK mobile providers, including O2 and its reseller GiffGaff, are blocking commercial VPN providers that help to secure sensitive communications from criminals, hackers and government spies. [...]

You may ask what this really has to do with government.  After all, surely O2 and GiffGaff are sovereign bodies.  Well.  In the light of my post already quoted above, I’m not absolutely sure that this is the case.  As I concluded in August 2012 (the bold is mine today):

[...] We have a recent story on how mobile phone access to the Internet is controlled extra-judicially by the private sector here (from the Open Rights Group of which I am a member) as well as a story from my own archive on how copyright owners can quite literally – and quite easily – make websites invisible to all sensible intents and purposes.

In conclusion, the case of ATOS – and the issues its behaviours and processes apparently raise – are not really attributable to the company itself.  It is, rather, the government – deliberately employing it as a shield to hide public services from a proper democratic oversight – which is mostly to blame and which should be brought to book.

And by focussing our attention on crucifying a supplier – a supplier which, admittedly, appears to have substituted the disabled as direct customer of this sorry cohort of political actors we call the Coalition – we may be ignoring the much wider reality: that in disabled services, in welfare and health, in Internet freedoms, in law and order, communications and social media more generally, allegedly democratic governments across the world are working out how to circumvent democratic controls by using private-sector firewalls.

This is a new kind of anti-democratic governance.

A de facto governance.

A governance which our cowardly leaders have cleverly put together outside the democratic process – in order that trusting voters and citizens ignore the real reasons for their despair.

I wrote that just over a year ago – I think it, and much much more, still stands.

To catch a thief, no one better than a thief of course.  In that sense, there’s an argument that an immoral government knows best how to channel an immoral populace.

Not that there aren’t other problems this raises.

Who’s to argue the populace is essentially immoral, for starters?

But far better for modern governments is simply refuse to sign on the dotted line.  If parliamentary democracy – and representative democracy elsewhere – is becoming such an impossible task for governments to work efficiently with, why not place the responsibility for policy- and law-making on the shoulders of unelected bodies such as corporations?  For the government of the day, no legal flak; no media persecution; no irritating sessions examining the fine print of so much legal to-and-fro.

Just issue a populist edict via friendly media (anti-terrorism, anti-paedophilia, anti-porn in general) – and get rid of a whole raft of measures and consequent inspection regimes from the framework that should be Parliament.

The only problem with respect to the Internet in particular, of course, is that Cameron has recently been going on about Britain being the sixth-largest economy.

And I’m really not sure how long that’s going to last when companies and their customers realise all their communications must be naked.

____________________

Further reading: this .pdf file from Open Rights Group and the LSE makes for unhappily prescient reading.  Please read it and inform yourself.  Before it’s too late.

Even as it may already be.


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Sep 022013
 
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Whilst the government called Ed Miliband “a fucking cunt” and a “copper-bottomed shit” for saying no to a repeat of Iraq, it would appear the French – who did say no to Iraq all those years ago – have known that Syria has had chemical weapons for at least thirty years:

The announcement comes after Sunday’s French paper, Journal du Dimanche, said French intelligence agents had compiled information showing that some of the weapons had been stockpiled for nearly 30 years.

And if the French have known it, surely the NSAs and GCHQs of the world have known it just as much.

Which brings us to the matter of a request by a UK company to export precursors of chemical weapons to the Syrian government last year.  Here we have the British government’s reaction, via the Lib Dem member of the Coalition, Vince Cable.  A little disingenuous to say the least:

The licences for the two chemicals were granted on 17 and 18 January last year for “use in industrial processes” after being assessed by Department for Business officials to judge if “there was a clear risk that they might be used for internal repression or be diverted for such an end”, according to the letter sent by Mr Cable to the arms controls committee.

Mr Cable said: “The licences were granted because at the time there were no grounds for refusal.”

No grounds for refusal – except thirty years of stockpiling, Mr Cable.

Right?

So what do we have then?  A UK Coalition government, which commits austerity violence on its own population, gaily spending our taxpayer dosh on coming to decisions to export potentially dangerous chemicals to war-torn regions – war-torn regions where their government is one of the few which hasn’t signed international treaties on not using the WMDs that can be made from such chemicals … and this UK Coalition I talk of finds itself able to congratulate itself that it has complied with the law, even as it foul-mouths the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition for saying no to any resulting Western “intervention”.

Which by the way would, as a Facebook photo that just whizzed through my feed pointed out, involve members of our Armed Forces “fighting [in a way] alongside Al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war”.

This, I feel most strongly, is the result of what we might term the psychodrama of austerity unspooling.  What I’m not quite sure of is whether we were brutal and incoherent abroad first – and then learnt how to be so at home.  Or, perhaps more likely, vice versa – in a (sociopolitical) vice of totally immoral proportions.

When you learn how to treat your own people as scroungers, wasters, chavs and layabouts, how much easier it must be to think that on the foreign stage you can prance your incongruences – brightly flailing their idiocy and unkindness without anyone caring.

He (or she) who can call the Leader of the Opposition a “shit” and a “cunt” is able to see all voters, all opponents, all anti-war activists, all thinking people who are unsure of this matter … everyone who does not instinctively agree with what only starts out as yet another drone- and cruise-missile-led adventure … well, anyone who does not automatically say yes is also going to be seen as a “shit”.  No wonder austerity is so easy for them.  We are simply bits and pieces of political (sometimes literal) cannon fodder in a cruel and global conflict.

The problem here, of course, and I leave it without resolution on my part, is that whilst Iraq was the war we should’ve said no to – a war, in fact, the French did say no to – perhaps this Syria biz is quite something else.

What’s more, if the French are prepared to declassify intelligence which shows Western governments knew that Syria had stockpiled chemical weapons for nigh on thirty years, and then did absolutely nothing about it, it surely does beg the following question:

“How can our own political institutions and structures choose to make money out of such evil political trajectories – and then expect us to vote in favour of anything the former propose?”

From chemical weapons to Saddam’s unspeakable WMDs to austerity politics where the poor are savaged by the consequences of the acts of the rich, even as the rich are able to emerge unscathed, we have a politics which is broken quite as badly as it ever could be.

No wonder we feel like being shits to the profession.  They’ve been cunts to us all along.


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Aug 182013
 
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This is going to be a tricky post to write.  I’m a complete outsider to Labour politics.  I’m a complete outsider to politics in general.  This means you won’t ever be coming here to hear the latest gossip.  My idea of latest gossip consists of reading Peter Watt two years after the event.

So what can I add to the stories we are suffering at the moment?  Not much, you might be inclined to say – especially when powerfully interested parties seem to bed-hop into the papers’ agendas:

Lord Prescott, a former deputy prime minister, and Lord Glasman, a Labour policy guru, are the latest grandees to demand stronger leadership from Miliband if the party is to win the next election.

In separate attacks, they criticised Labour’s absence from political debate over the summer and warned it needs to start scoring more points against the coalition.

It is Prescott, in fact, who seems to think what’s missing from Labour is more top-down militaristic precision:

On the same day, Prescott laid into his party for failing to set agendas over the summer, attacking its lack of organisation compared with the Tories and Labour under Tony Blair.

What’s more, the Guardian happily summarises Miliband’s woes thus:

A string of Labour MPs, including George Mudie and Graham Stringer, have bemoaned the party’s lack of policies and failure to counter the Tories’ arguments. But the most high-profile figure to issue a warning in the past week has been Andy Burnham. The shadow health secretary, told the Guardian that Labour must shout louder over the next few months or risk election defeat. Tom Watson, Miliband’s former general election campaign co-ordinator, also laid into the party’s response to the Falkirk vote-rigging allegations, accusing it of creating an unnecessary storm in a tea cup.

Personally, I’d prefer to place a different frame around all of this.  Instead of arguing that Miliband (or perhaps we should say his “team” – as always, political knives are positioned with surgical accuracy) has failed to fulfil his role of Cameron’s opposite, I’d like to think – from my entirely unprivileged observer status – that grassroots stuff like this is being done and prepared behind the traditional pyramidal scenes:

Cards on the table, then.  I’m not a happy Labour bunny.

This, however, does attract my attention.  And this, in particular, makes me smile:

“It’s not just about winning elections,” says Mr Miliband. “It’s about constructing a real political movement. It’s a change from machine politics to grassroots politics.”

Perhaps there is time, even now, to do much more than simply win another election on the backs of frustrations, fears and hatreds.  Perhaps there is time to think – at this time – of kindness, humility, mercy and forgiveness.  A politics made for people rather than a politics made for politicians.  Politicians, finally, as enablers then – instead of pin-headed CEO-types perched atop pyramidal structures?

Now with all the above, I’m not saying Ed is a perfect soul.  But as I said a long time ago, he’s definitely not a typical CEO-type perched atop pyramidal structures.  Cameron, Osborne, IDS and Hunt – meanwhile – most definitely are.

Is that what we want then?  More of the same – only wearing a different uniform?

I don’t think so.

Yes.  Ed does need to prove to us shortly that grassroots politics can replace the machine – but one thing, for sure, is that it takes two to grassroots.  There is only so much he can do to get us involved with redefining the machine.  If we don’t take up the challenge and participate and volunteer, it is true he will be left high and dry.

Then, with all their virtues and downsides, we might indeed get the replacement that people like Miliband’s brother might represent: people intimately involved in the ways and means of pin-headed CEO-types – just the stuff that the Coalition is wrought from.

Not so much because of their politics though.  Far more importantly, because of their ways of conceiving socioeconomic relationships.  Brought up in the environments of corporate organisations everywhere – and here I mean charities just as much as I mean companies and transnationals – they cannot even contemplate, even imagine, ways of doing that do not imply reverting – at some point – to severe hierarchy and clear command and control.

It’s just not in their DNA or work experience to see the world through a perspective which is not a multimillionaire’s imposing skyscraper somewhere on the planet.  And that kind of politician knows nothing about the kind of world I want.

My grain of sand.  My very little shout in favour of what Ed might yet be.  Maybe you’ll all prove me wrong – but of course you’re bound to achieve such a goal, if you choose to decant once again for the very top-down non-participatory politics you’re currently knocking Cameron & Co for sustaining.

Sometimes, we do find it so hard to see the world as it might be.

For whilst your question may be “Why the vacuum in Labour?”, you really should be asking yourself “Why have I missed this opportunity?”.

So don’t blame Ed – at least not for everything; instead, just a little, blame yourself!

And then, when you finally reflect on what you truly want, be honest about Cameron & Co.  In politics it’s not just what you do; it’s also how you do it.  Do you want Labour to be a mirror image of the Tories?  On the left side of the reflection – but a reflection all the same?  Or do you want a different kind of politics – a politics which doesn’t depend on the kind of declamatory speakers and makers of yore?

What I’m suggesting here is a politics which provides ordinary people with the kind of hands-on relationships that could offer them real power in this country – the real power which lobbyists, corporations and society’s well-connected individuals currently enjoy to the continuing detriment of the disadvantaged.

I know what I’d prefer.  To settle for anything less would be a crime after the last three years.

And I jolly well don’t want my Labour to lazily default to Cameron & Co’s mirror image.

Do you?


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Aug 022013
 
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My most recent tweet reads as follows:

This “stopping people for papers” lark is the anteroom to the introduction of ID cards. The cards will be the content of your mobile phone.

“Stopping people for papers” sounds a bit like tinpot dictatorships, so first read this and then read this – before judging for yourself how tinpot the UK is getting.

Anyhow, it’s pretty self-evident that people are currently being stopped on British buses and commutes in general, and are being asked for evidence of their identity using a crude form of ethnic profiling.  So far, so bad – or good, if you are of such an inclination.

Now to the latter two parts of the tweet: firstly, that the Home Office is planning to introduce ID cards; secondly, that they will consist of the content of your mobile phone.  These stories should help bring us all up to speed.  As I pointed out in a couple of previous posts back in 2012, the government isn’t only planning to introduce ID cards, it’s also planning for them to be privatised ones:

So no longer will it be necessary to battle the libertarian instincts of so many Daily Mail-reading Middle Englanders.  By simply passing legislation designed, according to its proponents, to fight organised crime and terrorism conducted on the Internet, the function creep Meacher mentioned in his piece will be enabled from a design-of-concept point of view into the laws themselves to allow them to also create the figure of virtual ID cards.

For you have already bought and paid for an identity card: it’s called a mobile phone; it costs you maybe £400 over a two-year period; its functionality, call-centre provision and contractual relationship is already outsourced to a private provider; and it will allow governments everywhere – but in particular here in Britain – to spy on, collate and structure all your most personal information as individual profiles are legally created about every single voter in the country.

This is ID-card paradise for entirely amoral command-and-control agendas.

Or, for the rest of us, a civil-liberty hell on Planet Earth.

And all this before we heard of Prism, Mastering the Internet and XKeyscore.

It all comes together, doesn’t it?  First, the street-located technology to download (or steal, depending on your point of view) the content of your mobile phone in minutes; second, its trialling and employment in airports and other points of entry into the UK; third, the inevitable sop to private-industry sponsors galore looking to get the grasping hands on yet another potential cash-cow – at the clear expense, of course, of citizen privacy; and fourth, its primary application on “people of colour” and other individuals we decide, out of unhappy cowardice, we would be better off not defending for the moment.

But as we’ve already learned from the past couple of years of Coalition government, what the Tories decide to do the weakest in society very soon gets applied to a much broader constituency.  The logic of these actions is ultimately irreversible: once done to the downtrodden and “illegal”, such regimes, out of massive hubris, end up extending them to everyone else.

Naturally, I may be wrong.  I may be wrong about all the above.  This may not be part of some concerted plan to introduce privatised ID cards by the backdoor, and through the mechanism of using them on illegal immigration first.

But if I am wrong – and I’d be more than happy to print a refutation on these pages which demonstrated that I was completely out of my trolley – what other explanation of all the aforementioned stories explains them as clearly as my thesis?

You tell me.  Your turn now.  Please put my mind at rest.


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Aug 012013
 
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I’ve noticed over the past couple of weeks a growing cynicism in my public expressions.  I’m currently on holiday, so you’d hardly expect it.  That Cameron wishes to limit our access to the Internet even as his mates in the security services are increasing theirs may have nothing – or everything – to do with it.

This morning, however, I felt I outdid even my most recent outpourings in this radically unhappy tweet:

So fracker corps will end up poisoning our water table in order that water corps may hike the price of the bottled stuff. #symbiosis

What’s behind such gross bad faith on my part?  What drives me to make such wearisome connections?  Where’s the good in even trying?

Interesting questions, all.

And I am reminded of an experience I had a couple of years before I left the banking corporation I previously worked for.  In 2008, it was forcibly taken over by another banking corporation of similar size, as a result of the broader financial crisis which assailed us all that year.  Whilst our corporation had spent a lot of time and energy implementing the concept of leadership at all levels, the one which took us over had a far more traditionally American view (as I think befitted its CEO of the time) of how hierarchies should be organised.  In this case, the index they used to measure employee satisfaction was termed “engagement”.

Essentially, how closely identified employees were with everything the company allegedly stood for.

So it was that engagement surveys became the flavour of the quarter.  Everyone had to do them.  In some cases (not my department’s I hasten to add), it was said that bosses looked over employee shoulders to ensure the right answers were given.  In other cases (yes, here my department was guilty), chocolate bars were strategically located next to the workstations in question in order to encourage buen rollo.  Of course, the reason for all this dysfunctional behaviour was because the results of the surveys were tied to our bosses’ KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) – and therefore, inevitably, to their yearly bonuses.  Who wouldn’t, under such circumstances, try to influence the aforementioned surveys?

Bosses, after all, are only human.

Even where mere Level 1 workers must strive (robotically) not to be.

Anyhow, in the first year or so of the new regime’s existence, engagement ratings went quickly through the roof.  Whilst the trades unions transmitted one kind of message from the grapevine and grassroots, management got quite another impression of what was happening.  They, quite naturally, were delighted with their data – and promptly proceeded to ignore the perceptions of the unions.

It took another year or so before the misfit between survey-land and reality became even moderately clear to the executives.

So why do I mention all the above today?  Because it’s a clear example of the slow but sure extinction of engagement.  And it’s a dangerous extinction to boot.  Partly because the people best placed to resolve the issues are the people most blind to them.  Partly because the damage done to worker morale, trust and good faith is so difficult and costly to repair.

Looked at more widely, then, it seems to me that our society is going through a similar process.  While popular acquiescence to government diktat and corporate imposition makes those at the top believe they can get away with anything, and whilst sales figures and opinion polls show little dramatic change, deep down under the surface of public perception, not even publicly commented on any more, a desultory resignation is taking hold.

A huge and destructively long-term process of disengagement has been initiated.  Only an omniscient figure of economically God-like proportions can predict, right now, where it will lead us in the end.

I am not that figure.

But I can tell you, right now, that if banking corporations are anything to go by, society’s spying on the answers we give on the one hand and the cheeky provision of branded bribes on the other can only lead our shakers and makers to a place of massive misunderstanding.

The slow but sure extinction of engagement leaves behind it little DNA to recover the species.

Engagement isn’t a woolly mammoth but, rather, a thoughtful and fragile indicator of human interaction.

And no amount of chocolate bars will make such interaction any more real – even as they may serve, for a while, to soften the sorry blow of societal deception.


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Jul 312013
 
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Perhaps it’s us who are in the wrong here. Perhaps our expectations of a century of universally-educated civilisations were simply too high.  Perhaps it’s us who’ve got it back to front.  Perhaps the bastards are right to grind us down.

I don’t believe I believe so.  But there’s always a tiny space for a shadow of a doubt.

The issue, essentially, is that Twitter, Facebook and a small number of other social networks don’t only tell us how it is – they also tell us how it always was.  From a right-wing prejudice-based bias at the heart of a supposedly venerable BBC journalism and journalist to long-held Tory attitudes about Northerners and Northern spaces to abusive relationships between men and women, between the powerful and the disadvantaged and between the rich in general over everyone else, all that the last few years of online connectivity seem to have offered us is a consistent falling away of any veils of innocence.

Twitter, Facebook and that small number of other social networks I mention aren’t making a new world: they’re simply, flatly and painfully reflecting a very old one.  When heavy-handed police actions bubble to the surface of our perceptions on such a huge scale, most of us who were taught as children to respect the state’s good faith will question whether something is radically different; will question whether something is radically changing.

Sadly, I don’t think it is.  Sadly, I believe that such networks and media are only informing us more clearly of what we already got up to and did offline; of what we already got up to and did before social came along.

Our politicians a ragbag of corrupt self-serving auto-publicists?  Yes?  And?  So what’s new?

Our business leaders a cabal of establishment-infiltrating fascists?  So?  And?  Need me to explain any more?

Our men and women (mainly men though, it would seem), predisposed to insults and slagging the disadvantaged violently off, given half a virtual chance?  Wow!  And?  Who’d have thought it?

This is the underbelly of life turned over and exposed to the light of online examination.

The underbelly was always there though.

Women were always abused by their partners; by their nearest and dearest.

Politicians always trampled on electorates.

Business leaders always took ruthless advantage of their customers; always hid their dirty boardroom linen.

Nothing’s changed.  Nothing’s changing.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that all of us can see and share more of the shit which they (that is to say, we) used to hide.

Perhaps, then, what we need to propose is something different from this simple reporting, spreading and retweeting of shit.  Perhaps we need to reconceptualise the purpose of social: where the Tories condemn socialism as a tool for the desperately poor – even as they reconfigure and reuse it as a pig-trough mechanism for the scrounging rich – maybe a better use of social would be to reproduce environments of support for the disadvantaged.  Don’t people our timelines with stories of disheartening state and corporate violence – or, at least, don’t people all our timelines with such depressing news as this – but, rather, instead, move to use our connectivity to enthuse and organise parallel environments of a kindly and supportive society of the benevolent.

Yesterday I exchanged a tweet or two on the subject of building a new Berlin Wall around London, with the aim of encircling and enclosing all the prejudiced Tories within.  An underground movement could at the same time be established to help those not of a Tory persuasion to escape their fate.

This was, of course, a joke.  Unfortunately, it didn’t seem very funny.  Unfortunately, it seemed all too attractive to those of us exchanging our evermore bitter comments.

Maybe connectivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Knowing too much about the underbelly of life doesn’t necessarily make one more powerful any more.  Knowledge isn’t power these days.  The willingness to brazenly lie, on the other hand, is.

And I realise, as I reread the above before publishing, that I was a naive little citizen for a very long time.

I’m not sure I don’t want to continue being so.

The problem with veils that fall away, however, is that once on the ground the evil do proceed with their trampling.

The real corporate purpose of social, if you ask me?  To remove all choice of naivete; to remove all chance of childlikeness.

To remove, ultimately, all possibility that our (once shared) humanenesses may return from the caves in which they currently, frightened, hide out.

But we still have an opportunity.  We still may cast a tiny shadow of a doubt.  We still, even so, may be able to turn the tables on the moneymen.  If only we can make of social a proactive tool for the parallel, perhaps one day we can re-emerge blinking from our caves.  Perhaps one day we can recover our humaneness.  Perhaps one day social won’t just tell us how it always was but, instead, help us define exactly how it really should be.


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Jul 152013
 
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I work hard.  I work at least six hours a day, as well as caring, cooking and poorly-cleaning for a family.

I write this blog first and foremost; have been trying to get paid for it for at least eighteen months.  I’ve invested, foolishly, a lot of savings in this blog.  Partly, because I thought I could make a difference.  Partly, because I simply love writing – in much the same way as you may love breathing.

But it’s not all I do.  I mark online.  I’m giving more and more video-conferenced English classes too – and thinking about it, in a by-the-by sort of way for a moment, it’s funny how teachers like myself spend their lives trying to resist doing what they’re good at (I was, after all, a full-time language trainer for most of my adult life when in Spain); how teachers like myself look to be writers, editors, homemakers or simply taxi-driver-parents – anything but the teachers they surely should accept is their lot.

I’m telling you all this because of another blogpost by Chris Dillow.  In it, he says:

[...] If it’s rational for someone to settle for less than their (perceived) perfect match in the dating market, it should therefore be reasonable for someone to settle for less than their dream job. And, in fact, millions of us do so. [...]

He goes on to argue:

[...] There is, across the western world, an excess supply of labour. Some would-be workers cannot get a match at all. So, if it’s rational for everyone else to settle for less than they’d like, shouldn’t it also be rational for the least attractive potential workers to settle for not getting a job at all? Just as our friend says: “don’t chase Alison King; you’re only making yourself miserable wanting what you can’t have”, shouldn’t we also tell the least productive workers: “don’t make yourself miserable wanting a job that isn’t there”?

Many years ago, in 1999, I lost my teaching job of the time.  I waited for a couple of years, retraining – looking to do something “exciting” instead.  I finally alighted on the idea of online publisher and did a Publishing Master in Madrid.  I was trying to be imaginative and different in my pursuit of a totally alternative way forward.

Everyone at the time told me: retrain as a teacher; get into the Spanish system; get qualified for institutional life.

I didn’t want that.

I wanted the gently megalomaniac tinge of selling culture across frontiers.

In the end, that didn’t work out either; they were right and I was wrong.  I even got to the point where I believed Microsoft and the American government were interfering with my Internet connection and data, especially as I spent most of my time vigorously trashing them in a blog – no longer online – on the subject, mainly, of the Iraq War.

So it was that I was judged paranoid and medicated.  That was in 2003.  How wrong I was to sustain such a falsehood.  How wrong we now know I must have been.

:-)

And ten years later, after a year of miserable income (you can tell I’ve just done my tax return), of digging deep into savings and many family disagreements, I’ve returned to the idea of doing what I always did well all along: teaching, one-to-one, on a personalised and personalising level.

To use Chris’s terminology, I’ve finally – ultimately – settled for second best.

But whilst he concludes the following …

But let’s be clear. Anyone who seriously wanted to improve the well-being of the nation would stop prating about “changing the culture” to encourage people to seek work, and do the precise opposite.

… I would say something slightly different.  I would say what we need is a different education system.  An education system capable of managing our expectations cruelly.

A short anecdote, if you will, to explain what I mean.

My daughter has just started her first ever work-placement.  She’s never worked for a boss before: to date, all she’s had in her life of that sort of thing have been teachers, parents and elder brothers.  She’s a very intelligent young soul: she taught herself how to read Spanish; she taught herself how to edit videos; most recently, she taught herself how to draw extremely elaborate sketches of magnificent proportion using little more than pencil, paper and hours of dedicated leisure time.

She is a born learner.  She is as bright as a button.  She knows her mind – and is utterly unable to suffer fools gladly.

She doesn’t get on well with all her teachers, but when she does, she knows exactly why – and exactly how to explain what the process involved happens to be.  She will always provide evidence to back up any opinion she has.

She is the most evidence-based fifteen-year-old I know.

Sometimes it’s terrifying.

She is most definitely a young woman of a consumer age.  Her expectations on how life should function are high: software shouldn’t be difficult to use; gadgets shouldn’t mess her around; activities shouldn’t be boring; life shouldn’t lead her to waste a single second of her time.

Now put her in her first work-placement: the corporation in question is well run, professional, correct and welcoming.  Yet her upbringing, her consumer and empowered end-user mentality, means that a day’s worth of shelf-stacking really hasn’t met with too much of a thumbs-up on her part at all.  Couple that with an induction process where the computer software kept on crashing, and we can see why a habitual iPod and smartphone user might question the validity of real-world bespoke in-house environments like these.

We can see why someone with such high consumer expectations should begin to wonder if the world of work isn’t an example of second-class citizenship.

And so we return to Chris’s conclusion.  My alternative take?  Maybe what’s really to blame here – what the current British Coalition government is really in the game of effecting – are the high expectations that not only our consumer society raises but also our blessed and empowering education system.

Yes.  Exactly that.  In their pursuit of land-grabbing markets across the globe, corporations have taught us all to “believe in better”.  Too much so, in fact.  Too much for the jobs the future will offer us.  As automation takes away the need for specialisation and skill, all we have left for the most highly educated market of working-people in history are the drudge jobs which, in truth, my daughter’s work-placement represents.

An objective and brutally pragmatic examination of the country’s needs in a post-globalisation era would suggest we need an education system capable of managing and communicating the following expectations:

  1. Aspiration for everyone is unrealistic.
  2. Most people will have to settle for second, third or umpteenth best.
  3. Working poverty must become the norm.
  4. A staggered – where not staggering – employment path is inevitable.
  5. Illness will strike us all down one day – with financial implications of a most serious kind.
  6. Software will not work to our benefit where government is involved.
  7. Education will not improve people’s job prospects.
  8. Paid education will not improve people’s job prospects.
  9. A meritocracy is a chimera – always has been, always will be.
  10. Young people like my daughter will only experience excellence if they can afford to buy a new gadget.
  11. Every other experience will involve severe and inevitable disappointment.
  12. And as long as our education system continues to encourage our youth to aspire, our youth will inevitably suffer sadly – and badly – in a cruel delusion of richer people’s making.

Now just look at all of this.  I look at it myself.  I realise that the last year where I have frittered away precious savings on silly virtual mutterings has essentially, probably, more than likely been a middle-aged man’s final workshy-riven flailings.  Not workshy in the sense of hating work; rather, in the sense of being shy of the kind of work that requires you to resignedly settle for umpteenth best.

If you look at the above list of twelve terrible expectations, you will I am sure realise that practically all of them are currently being re-engineered by our government.  All twelve, in one way or another, form part of their shopping-list of actions: these are the remade expectations they’re looking to impose on our next and most malleable generation.

The best-trained, cleverest and most ingenious generation of young people we have had the privilege to witness … condemned to a life of shelf-stacking and stock-taking by a world which pursues excellence only in the area of MP3 players; a world which is unable to see the virtues of expanding the envelope of life itself; a world which only measures achievement in terms of micro-managed productivity worksheets and tick-box exercises various.

A world where drudge and political fudge replace the beauty of splendidly engineered imaginations.

That’s what the Coalition government has been about all along.

That’s why I have to confess: in a way, yes, I have been a workshy man.


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Jul 062013
 
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There are a number of views on what’s happening in the Labour Party at the moment.  Chris Dillow says this; Eric Joyce argues the following; Tom Watson decided to resign thus.  Three choice paragraphs, one from each respectively.  First, Chris:

[...] Unions are lousy at hegemonic strategies. The rhetoric of “fighting” and “demands” makes them seem a tiresome sectional interest rather than a group whose interests are the national interest. And of course the media – including the ever-neutral BBC – reinforces this. Whereas bosses are often invited to give a “neutral” and “expert” opinion on the economy, working people rarely are. “What’s good for GM is good for America” was long a plausible slogan. The slogan “What’s good for Unite is good for Britain” has never even been tried. Perhaps, therefore, unions themselves are partly to blame for their political marginalization.

Second, Joyce:

Over the years, trade unions have used their putative power sensibly. They’ve understood that party rules create the possibility of serious dysfunction if they choose to overexert their potential muscle. In Falkirk I’ve found them to be a stabilising influence in partnership with the Labour party. Until now.

Third, Watson:

Having resigned a couple of times before, I know how puckish lobby hacks might choose to misconstrue the departure. So to make it harder for them let me say this: I’m proud of your Buddha-like qualities of patience, deep thought, compassion and resolve. I remain your loyal servant. I’ll always be on hand to help you if you need me. I just don’t think you need me in the Shadow Cabinet any more. After nearly thirty years of this, I feel like I’ve seen the merry-go-round turn too many times. Whereas the Shadow Cabinet’s for people who still want to get dizzy.

I love that line of Watson’s about Miliband’s “Buddha-like qualities”, don’t you?  And what’s more, it makes me realise why breaking the link between trades unions and Labour could be good for both trades unions and Labour.

Let me explain.  I am an associate member of a TUC-affiliated trades union.  I no longer work for the sector they operate in, but I value the work they do, the added-value services they offer even associate members and their whole approach to trades unionism.  Interestingly you might say, for a Labour Party member like myself, they have chosen – however – not to affiliate with the Party.

I could’ve joined Unite at the time I joined the aforementioned organisation.  I chose not to.  The union I joined is a small, focussed trades union, with a personal approach I appreciate.  I also worked for it, for a while, without glory or much effectiveness, as a rep.  But that would be a story for another post.

This trades union I talk about did get a little overwhelmed by events when its policy of engagement was swept away by a new regime as a result of an enforced takeover.  It took time to find its feet again.  But then we all did, in 2008, when the world turned all our worlds upside down.

However, the problem I had with both my union and Unite – a (now) necessarily powerful union in times when capitalism is far more global, brutal, aggressive and clearly lacking in some of its former (perhaps very temporary and hardly heartfelt) virtues of dialogue and HR-driven employer comms – is that they didn’t half find themselves obliged to behave like their competition: that is to say, company management.  They say you should be very careful who you choose as your competition – you will always end up mirroring its behaviours.  Never a truer word was spoken in the case of modern corporate-interfacing trades unionism: torn between wanting to communicate openly with members on the one hand and required to conduct back-room negotiations on redundancies and business change on the other, with the legal framework of Stock Exchange communication tying down both company and employee representatives, it soon became clear to me that open and honest conversation was an HR – where not PR – chimera of humongous proportions.

In many ways then, and not just in the attitude that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, trades unions and hedge-fund managers find themselves in absolute agreement.

“If I pay you, you do what I need.”  A conditional and conditioned relationship as old as the hills.

Labour and the trades unions, both, have rightly striven to take the high ground with respect to the more than 50 percent of Tory Party funding which proceeds from the financial-services sector.  But Labour and the trades unions, both, are currently handicapped because a) the latter are not free to construct the political wing their members need; and b) the former has grown from a party of the considerably deprived to an organisation which aspires to put a benevolent face on a capitalism it doesn’t really want to undermine for a significant minority.

And maybe it’s right in this: maybe there are many people who don’t find representation in the Tories but do want a capitalism-supporting political party which looks to ameliorate rather than revolutionise.  Those people have a right to find that representation.  Labour, equally, has a right to argue democratically, internally, that this constituency should be where it – ultimately – chooses to situate itself.

You can’t, however, continue to hold the high ground on party funding if dysfunctional process enters the link between Labour and the trades unions.

As Joyce suggests, you’ve got to know how far to flex your muscles – and know not to flex them too far.  Though I know nothing of the ins and outs of the Falkirk case itself, it does seem apparent that the creative tension which has sustained for quite a while both “sides” of the labour movement’s argument – worker representation on the one hand, middle-class representation on the other – appears now to be on the point of snapping.

And that is why I think it should.  Labour should be free to choose to represent the deprived without the hand of trades unionism being perceived as its main driver.  Trades unions should be free to choose any constituency which pays its dues correctly and loyally without the hand of so much managerialist interaction tainting our view of its motives.

Trades unions need to revert in both perception and reality to competing for membership and support through the daily labour (never better said!) of personal interaction, coupled with the strategic long-term freedom to wage the proactive battles we need them – we need ourselves – to wage.

Labour may choose to follow such a path too – but if it doesn’t, let another political wing be created in its absence.  Properly conceived for 21st century relationships – relationships which avoid the dysfunctionality hedge funds generate in the Tories, just as much as complex labour-movement relationships may have done in Falkirk et al – let us allow new political wings to grow organically out of new conditions, ways of seeing and doing.

Downsides?  Money, of course.  Party funding.  None of these problems – on any side of the political equation – would exist if “he who pays the piper” wasn’t looking to call the tune.

Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Unite, trades unionism in general … this all, in the end, comes down to the question of money.  If Unite and the wider movement of trades unions had the dosh to set up a fully-funded political party, and if Labour had the resource to pay its own way, none of the above would cause grief to anyone.  Even Mr Cameron, free of the weighty implications of City money galore, could have been the Prime Minister he must once have dreamed of becoming.

It’s clear to me, anyhow – even if not to you.  The sooner trades unions and Labour lead the way, the sooner we could bring a moral imperative to bear on the other parties.

Right now, though, we’re stuck in a very 21st century hypocrisy of our own fabrication.

And we do need the freedom, the intellectual space and the absence of roller-coaster pressure to finally think more clearly on this one.

Something along the lines of the subtext of Tom Watson’s resignation letter?

Something a bit more Buddha-like, in fact?

Contemplation?  Resolve?  And final action, perhaps?

Well.

Whilst we do so value thinking fast these days, thinking slow is also said to have its virtues


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Jul 032013
 
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This morning, Steve makes a simple request:

Here’s an idea for an Education minister just leave the curriculum alone and let teachers get on with teaching #toomuchtoask? #goveout

It strikes at the very heart of everything bubbling under in latterday politics.  The deliberate deprofessionalisation of society, from doctors to nurses to teachers to lawyers, perhaps partly inevitable in a world where search engines begin to replace books and opinions begin to multiply, is not helped in the least by its lopsided nature: yes, we see how the Dark Arts have historically been used to maintain privilege and fees – but we see absolutely no sign that our political masters and mistresses are prepared to similarly attack their own.

If truth be told, the political class is the least professional of all our professions: in many cases proud of its amateur status, its gentlemanly structures and its multiple income streams, it has proceeded to make an apparent virtue out of buccaneering ways.

It does make me wonder if the current Coalition overtly or otherwise perceived the educated and evidence-based as a real threat to its long-term projects.  Anything it could do not to “let teachers [or doctors or lawyers or nurses et al] get on with teaching” would be seen as a clear strategy, where the prestige and the ability of a professional group to fight back on terms always unfamiliar to unprofessionalised figureheads – such as our political leaders often are – surely had to be undermined forthwith in the interests of a longer-term political power.

But what we’re beginning to lose in our societies and civilisations – what we’re beginning to miss – is also the concept of and instinct to compassion.  When I read something as dreadful as this NBC investigation into the reality of civilian deaths at the hands of remote-control drones, and I read how President Obama claims to be “haunted” by the “collateral damage”, I wonder how it is possible for such an intelligent man to simultaneously engineer better healthcare for his country, even as he razes to the ground the physical and mental security – their clear and manifest lack – which ordinary people, not terrorists, not combatants, not the violent in any way, who live in other countries now feel about their houses, homes and homelands.

Just as US drones invade foreign lands and reserve their right to inspect and bomb other peoples from safe on high, so our very own politicians are reserving the right to invade the absolutely essential privacy of our professionalisms: in selling our NHS records to the highest bidder, they invade our patient-doctor relationship; in allowing hedge funds and venture capitalists to shape our children’s education, they invade our parent- and child-teacher relationships; in removing so many matters from the scope of Legal Aid, they invade our client-lawyer relationship.

Our politicians more and more operate in a system which predisposes them to lobbing figurative hand-grenades into the wedding receptions of our lives.

No privacy – that is clear.

No professionalism – it mustn’t be allowed.

No compassion – would that it be possible, but we live in a world where the concepts of “citizen” and “humanity” are condemned not to coexist.

Maybe that’s the real reason our leaders are able to feel haunted by their bombing of children, even as they continue to bomb them – they feel they know such terrible things about us, only terrible things, that seeing the better side of life is now beyond them.

Battle-scarred, war-weary, our politicians act without compassion – without a desire to value professionals, without an appreciation of the importance of privacy – because little of their lives is compassionate to, professional about or private around them either.

In a sense, maybe they want for us – see it only reasonable that it should be the case – only what they have themselves.

They are unable to see outside the bubble they have created.

And if they can’t have these things the rest of us treasure, why should we?


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Jun 252013
 
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There’s plenty of evidence that we’re moving towards a “court-jester” democracy: a democracy where whilst we will be able to tweet to our heart’s content, the practical capacity to vote, spend and consume in an environment of consistent health and wellbeing will no longer be ours by virtue of inalienable right.

Here’s a post which seems to be pointing us in this unhappy direction, on the subject of what we might call the McCarthy-isation of Obama’s US:

Obama launched the Insider Threat Program in October 2011 after Army Pfc. Bradley Manning downloaded hundreds of thousands of documents from a classified computer network and sent them to WikiLeaks, the anti-government secrecy group. It also followed the 2009 killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, an attack that federal authorities failed to prevent even though they were monitoring his emails to an al Qaida-linked Islamic cleric.

But such a policy could easily:

[...] discourage creative thinking and fuel conformist “group think” of the kind that was blamed for the CIA’s erroneous assessment that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, a judgment that underpinned the 2003 U.S. invasion.

“The real danger is that you get a bland common denominator working in the government,” warned Ilana Greenstein, a former CIA case officer who says she quit the agency after being falsely accused of being a security risk. “You don’t get people speaking up when there’s wrongdoing. You don’t get people who look at things in a different way and who are willing to stand up for things. What you get are people who toe the party line, and that’s really dangerous for national security.”

This story is worth reading in full, detailing as it does, with horrifying clarity, how people are being encouraged to watch, examine and permanently spy on each other at all sorts of levels of US government and administration.

It’s curious that this should be happening in big governments like Obama’s, at the very same time that their voting populations – composed of people like you and me – get so used to letting off a very public steam on social networks and media.  It’s almost as if our democracy is being sheered off from the machinery of government: whilst such machinery has been forming its intrusive private ways since at least the mid-1990s, and has lately become evermore suspicious of its own shadow, the rest of us – those of us who choose to act, perform and communicate in front of everyone else – have learnt the real value of electronic sincerity; of an open and honest transfer of ideas and content.

We don’t have the power which the private, paranoid and perpetually anxious administrations have reserved for themselves.  But we do have the freedom – will continue to maintain such freedoms – to write, tweet, blog and speak the truths which are bound to keep occurring to us.  Yes.  Truly a “court-jester” democracy.  But not exactly what even Orwell – in his prescience – predicted might happen.

In that, we can draw real comfort in moments of serious fracture.

We may be living Orwellian times, times of awful obfuscation, but I do believe they are – in proper and hopeful measure – times we can also rightly call our own.


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Jun 252013
 
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This is the fifth part of my Citizen Media series, the first, second, third and fourth parts of which have provided an overview of the University of Manchester colloquium which sparked it off in the first place; have described the deprofessionalisation of photo-journalism and the post-human status of technology-ridden imagery; have compared and contrasted the clearly good and truly bad of online “citizenship” and behaviours; and have examined some ideas relating to the attempts by corporations to understand, track and monetise the banal and everyday of broader citizen experiences.

Today, I would like to examine some ideas which were thrown up in relation to the subject of translation.  To many, translation – and its vocal cousin interpretation – would seem little more than “support” industries: professionals whose main role must be to accurately and objectively convey from one language and culture to another the essence and content of a communication.  Whatever the format, the goals must remain the same.  That, after all, is the ethos of professionals everywhere – and in probably almost every kind of profession.  As one person at the colloquium was moved to comment:

As a translator, I don’t want editorial pressure.

A number of the papers and presentations touched on the issue of translating cultures in different directions.  For many of us present, the default direction would necessarily be from British or American English to other societies.  This (if I remember rightly) is how one important translation community, Global Voices, began.  Yet from its US beginnings – described entrancingly by Ivan Sigal – we were also able to witness the story of Italian “offshoots”, manifesting as they did how non-Anglo-Saxon cultures have begun to exert their own profound desires to shift the inertia and momentum of cultural production, and by so doing create new centres and fulcrums of activity.  No longer do they limit themselves to translating English-centric content for the benefit of Italian speakers; instead, far more complex choices are being made to create and translate back and forth between other languages.  (I am reminded here of the battles I had when I helped to set up a Spanish Native-Lang site on OpenOffice.org at the beginning of the last decade.  I wanted to create entirely original content and design parameters.  The English-speaking part of the website, meanwhile, preferred a straightforward copy from the original.  Even then, the conflict existed between an Anglo-Saxon kind of linguistic colonialism and the bright green shoots of difference other cultures often want to explore.  The irony of myself, a native English speaker living in Spain at the time, being responsible for initiating such a translation project is – of course – not lost on me!)

One of the most interesting presentations was given by Mona Baker in the absence of someone who, in the end, was unable to attend.  Media of this talk can currently be found here.  It was titled: “Translation as an alternative space for political action”.  This succinct title I think sums up in very few words the inevitable tensions that political and cultural circumstances have generated in what was once (perhaps too casually) seen as a profession of dry and technical practice.

Of course it’s possible that this was never the case; it’s possible these were dilemmas which such professionals tried to keep to themselves, in the interests of gentler political profiles.

No longer, it would seem.

From translating websites and communities such as Ecos, whose early websites said “Stop the wall!”, and who now use Facebook and its wall, to Babels and many impactful others, the process of moving meaning from one place to another does not equal the physics of thermodynamic law: things are created and destroyed; things are inevitably made up or lost on the way.  And in some cases this is deliberate.  Some notes I took as follows as examples:

  • Some communities use non-hierarchical translation processes, mirroring open source dynamics.
  • Grammatically “incorrect” translation, to English in particular, is almost welcomed as a deliberate tool to undermine the perceived imperialism of the same.
  • The problem is that those of us who depend on professional translations to understand what’s happening in the rest of the world make all translating in a globalised world a political act of some sort or another.
  • Without “trustworthy” translating infrastructures, we cannot know what the truth really is.

Here are some more thoughts from other moments during the colloquium:

  • In a world of globalisation, TV and other news production becomes evermore (demonstrably) parochial.  Silos savagely being reconstructed here – despite all democratising efforts to the contrary?
  • We don’t tweet as we write, so automated translation systems don’t work.  “Translating social media needs social translators.”
  • In order for translators to be able to operate in social media and networks, they cannot avoid becoming curators with politicised antennae.

And back to Ivan Sigal’s Skype chat on the subject of the origins of Global Voices:

  • The importance of language and volunteers.
  • Translation approach of Global voices allowed expression and bias to come through individual (not editorial) bias.
  • Transparency around where source material comes from is key.
  • Positions and views not hidden under a veneer of objectivity.
  • Motivation of volunteer translators: a) looking to correct a personally perceived imbalance in topics of individual interest; b) once they join the network, they find like-minded individuals who keep them going.
  • Spillover into job- and other work-related opportunities – another motivation.
  • Fabrication is a danger – an occupational hazard of those who would parse social media outputs.  (Fabrication is, however, also a danger of those who operate under a pervasive “political economy”, with “charismatic” leaderships who impose their own commercial and political agendas on huge numbers of employees – Murdoch for example; in the cinema, “Citizen Kane”.)
  • Citizen media is “the network of networks”.  All movements (should) have a natural life – they don’t need to have a fully institutional character.

A case of a highly motivated – and almost despairing – process of translating across frontiers through subtitles was that of Greek activists who regularly post videos of current events in order to – again as in the Global Voices example – correct an imbalance in international perceptions.  The subtitling we saw was into English for an English-understanding constituency, in itself perhaps a sad reflection on the quality of “Western” reporting and points-of-view.  There is a home-made air to such reportage; these are not expert reporters nor, even, expert subtitlers – and yet the content which they are producing informs us in a way our mainstream media is unable (or unwilling) to do.

Maybe that is the objective of us all.  As Gramsci was quoted as having said in 1978, to become – all of us – “organic intellectuals”.  By subtitling, by liking, by tweeting, even by blogging, we remain permanent citizen-witnesses to those truths we feel most important.  To the aforementioned “network of networks”, we choose to be “permanent persuaders of ‘good sense’”; and in such a networked, socialising and cumulative way, we ensure that commonly-teased-out threads of reality are woven into tapestries that truly represent us all.

If a profession as ancient as translating can see itself thus inescapably radicalised, who is to say that the teacher, doctor, lawyer or journalist has any other alternative in the matter?

Paradoxically, in a globalising world, these blessed frontiers inevitably become more significant – as well as painful.  Our fate would, therefore, seem to lead us to an ever-deepening radicalisation on all sides; certainly an ever-increasing persistence of personal visions.  That we may all find it easier, in the context of universal education, to express these visions doesn’t mean agreement and cooperation will automatically follow.

On the other hand, an extortionate relationship with truth and reality will help none of us achieve any semblance of equanimity: an equanimity which we can surely only one day build together.

Are we, then, in a post-objectivity era?  A time where “he said, she said” journalism – or translating, or doctoring, or teaching, or legal practice – simply doesn’t fit the structure of our century?  Have political forces driven their wedges so deeply into our societies that every act of communication must become an act – at the very least – of assertion?

An act of assertion – where not an act of aggression?


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