Apr 212013

This story was brought to my attention by Paul Bernal on Twitter this morning.  It involves what he described as a Labour-funded think tank, IPPR, coming up with the brilliant (#irony) idea to turn unemployment benefit into a loan which would be repayable on returning to work.  You can find the story on the Observer at the moment here.

IPPR, meanwhile, is fairly transparent as think tanks go.  As per the Who Funds You? website, it gets an “A” rating – and on its own website lists current funders thus.  Quite a mixed bag, in fact: from charities and David Miliband himself to the European Commission, Serco (#hmm), Aviva, the consumer magazine Which?, a brace of Joseph Rowntree organisations and the City of London Corporation.  Hardly straightforwardly Labour-funded, then.

The news did, however, cause me to tweet in the following way:

Taxpayer bailouts; student loans; now the poor in their grasp. The real something-for-nothing scroungers are the bloody banks themselves!

And it’s true.  It seems to me that in a crisis entirely due to mismanagement in and around the financial sector – both technical and technocratic it has to be said – those who continue to pay the price for such disintegration are those hardest hit by its consequences.  So it is we reward instead of punish the banking corporations for having got it so wrong.  As money gets tighter for the poor, opportunities for the banks to make easy cash off our backs are expanded not only by the Wonga-style market forces of the desultory high street but also by the bright and bushy-tailed think-tank boffins themselves.  I can’t think of another sector in the world – or, indeed, in history – where failure was such a profitable act.

Nor, in fact, where it continues to get even more profitable.

But, on the train yesterday on the way to a Manchester policy forum, I stumbled across a solution to all our ills.  At the moment, corporations are legal figures with many of the rights and obligations of ordinary people.  This is well known and well documented and I shan’t repeat myself here.  However, what I would like to suggest is that a serious imbalance does exist as far as depriving the liberty of such corporations to act when under investigation – or, indeed, after being found guilty of certain acts.

Ordinary people, for example, quite often when arrested find themselves summarily deprived of their liberty – and no one questions the process.  Apart from the odd legal phonecall or interview or occasional family visit, their radius of action and ability to influence the result is radically reduced.  This allows for the police to carry out necessary investigations, untrammelled by the interference of too many interested – and perhaps self-promoting – parties.

This does not happen in the case of corporate entities: mostly, in cases of even quite severe misdemeanour (witness recent high-profile banking scandals around the long-term money-laundering of drug revenues by banks you’d hardly expect to exhibit such behaviours), we generally find such corporate figures – flesh-and-blood people in everything but flesh-and-blood – do not get arrested; do not need to request bail; and never get imprisoned.  Their liberty is never deprived; they continue to operate in the meantime; they proceed to make their money as before.

Sadly, of course, we often discover after the event that the potential for being fined for some act or another will have been factored into an annual budget before the crimes in question were committed.  A fine, even a large fine, even just the threat of a fine, becomes simply one more operating cost to be contemplated as the logistics of the year are calculated.

And although, on occasions, executives do find themselves accused of specific acts, the processes are so drawn out as to make any sensible adjustment to the direction of our socioeconomic fabrics impossible to engineer.  They frequently manage to stay at the top of their hierarchical games, despite the complaints of shareholders; despite the unhappiness of a wider consuming public; and despite the reputational damage this leads to.  With their battalions of legal support, these alpha men and women feel secure in their protective silos and bunkers of belief.  No wonder they behave as imperiously as they do.

In such cases, not only are the operations of the companies in question left untouched, the ability of their apparently criminal leaders to continue leading remains intact.

My suggestion, then, which came to me as I journeyed – quite appropriately – to the TUC’s founding place, is to engineer two new figures in company law:

  1. the figure of arrest without bail
  2. the figure of imprisonment

How would these work?  Well, in the case of the former, arrest without bail would mean the corporation would have to shut down all its operations immediately.  Just as a person who finds themselves under the same deprivation of liberty, whilst investigations into probable misconduct take place, so we should be able to do the same to a company.  And the mere threat of being able to do this would surely lead to a radical change in how fines and punishments for corporate maleficence were treated and assessed in the future by those who currently quite happily contemplate them.

In the case of the latter figure, the figure of imprisonment, we could suggest that a company might totally cease operations in a similar way once sentence had been passed a posteriori.  Under such circumstances, and for a certain period of time only, the company in question could not continue to occupy the marketplace, in much the same way as a person in prison must effectively cut off all connections to the outside world.

The result would be two powerful instruments to make the corporate figure far more like the human equivalent which – in so many cases – it loves to emulate.

Applied in particular to the banking corporations, it would send a hugely important message around the significance of competence, honesty and openness for our shared societies.

As well as, surely, end the terrible cycle of reward for utter failure – a cycle which appears to be the current tonic and reality of latterday capitalism.

Apr 042013

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.

Mar 252013

A while ago, I was very cross with Compass (more here).  Part of what brought the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition to power was a broader miasma which led to the organisation’s dallying with the very idea of what the Lib Dems represented at the time.  Which is not to say that New Labour didn’t lose the election; didn’t bring this catastrophe upon them(and our)selves.  But Compass, along with the Guardian newspaper, certainly got their fingers all filthy in some amazingly grubby pies of half-baked confection.

Over the past year or so, however, an alternative to sincere but hardly transferable barricade-climbing (I did suggest in all good faith that a Coalition of Resistance backed by sixty-three economists should really have been named a Coalition for Recovery) has, in parallel to other more grassroots movements, been emerging from the thinkers who now seem to be interfacing with this grouping.

Which is not to underplay the importance of all the organisations which attempt to battle with the wily beast that is Tory/Lib Dem uneconomics.  It’s just that one day, some time, the rainbow must either disappear – or find its crock of gold before it’s too late.

Anyhow.  To the reason for this post.  Today, as an interested subscriber to their email list, I received notice of a briefing on how to defend and construct a powerful narrative around the concept of social security: deliberately, I think, recovering its original denomination to recover its original integrity and sensibilities.

Welfare has been hurt so unhappily of late – not only by Cameron’s lot but also by the internecine Blue, Black, Purple and Red Labour boots which have bruised their way across a wider Labourism.  So it’s no wonder Compass are finally looking to reframe that debate.

You can find the briefing in question here, if you’re interested.  Some quotes which caught my eye below:

1. Social security cannot be separated from economic security.

If we are to deal with causes and not just the symptoms of our social recession then we need an economic model that provides security and social justice through fair wages and decent, more evenly distributed work. Having overworked and stressed people existing side by side with those that are desperate for work makes no sense.

And this in particular:

Through new institutions, built by people and not remote bureaucrats, we create the spaces in which progressive values of equality and democracy are reinforced.

Which reminds me of my piece on the potential for a positive Latin-Americanisation of Europe, as well as some of the things I highlighted today on how democratic institutions have been hijacked by the top 6 percent.

Some other choice phrases in no order of preference:

  • The widespread nature of an aging population and ill health due to modern lifestyles and endemic job insecurity means costly-targeted systems should be replaced by services that are open to all in a way that is universally preventative; this means providing services for everyone to reduce harm to us all.
  • The renewal of the welfare state starts with a refusal to believe the worst of our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family and seeks to rebuild it by believing the best in people. No one was born wanting to live their lives on the couch, avoiding not just work but the opportunity to make the most of their life, and very few do so. We are only fully human when we are creative and engaged in society with other people. Yet we must be given the space and opportunity to be a part of and add to our society- whether that be through paid work, caring for a family member, running a household, or being a part of our community.
  • Language is vital. You may have noticed we have used the term social security in this document, this is because welfare has become contaminated by its association with a US-style residual poor relief for people of working age. We need to reclaim and own the phrase social security as not simply a bureaucratic means but representative of an end to which society aspires; a society that provides security. It expresses the desire to achieve, insofar as is possible, genuine economic security for all through social means.

There’s a lot of good stuff in there – certainly a lot of good intentions few would find it in themselves to disagree with.  I can hardly see Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems agreeing to any of that, mind.  And the current Tory leadership, in your dreams.

At the moment, I have to say we are simply cannon fodder in a wider battle we really did not know we were signing up to.  And perhaps I was wrong, after all, to argue for a Coalition for Recovery – perhaps, right now, it’s one of Resistance we do indeed need.  With the wise initial steps of this gentle document on narrative, coupled with the intellectual vigour of a People’s Assembly backed by those who know all too well what resistance is like, the time to resist may be much closer than we think.

No.  The Tory/Lib Dem Coalition haven’t quite become evil Nazi-types for the moment.  But they have chosen to take the fraudulent 0.7 percent of the welfare budget and paint 99.3 percent of poor people’s behaviours in its light.  It was they who chose to employ a tiny number of Britain’s inhabitants as a battering-ram to clobber down the doors of thoughtful, and supposedly sovereign, voters everywhere.  And in their thirst for continued power they will continue in such a way – until, I suppose, they ultimately run out of further objects to demonise.

At which point, who knows what they might do?  Any ideas? Do you know? Have you any notion?

And – as one last thought – once we arrive at that moment, will you finally be ready to take a middle-class waverer’s final stand? *


* Acknowledgements to Tom for such a perfectly nutshelled idea.

Mar 222013

Rob makes an interesting point at The Centre Left yesterday:

The issue is this: Labour’s internationalism tends not to be the internationalism of today; of the internet, of international business, travel and communication. It too often harks back to the internationalism of solidarity, of comrades-in-arms. The internationalism, rather, of the Internationale. It is touching, and it strikes a chord with many of us. But it is an inward-looking,backward-looking definition.

The reason? Because practically none of its leading lights has the first clue about the internationalism that most of us see. Yes, they have visited other countries, on academic placements or political missions. But they have never, for the most part, worked in the private sector, that most international of environments. There is a blind spot there.

One Nation Labour was ever thus misconstrued.  Fatally flawed as it is from the internal contradiction of bemoaning “local” nationalisms and yet arguing, in a multi-culture world (where not multicultural), that single nation vocabulary is going to send out the right international signals, the internationalism Rob incompletely describes has simply served as the anteroom of such singular approaches to globalisation.

But whilst most of what he says seems the acceptable face of “responsible” capitalism – which is to say, pragmatic business lives pragmatically lived – I have to take issue with some of his underlying assumptions.  Especially when he says things like this:

How often do you hear a Labour MP talk about the “Asian century”? How many have visited Shanghai, the new hub of that continent? How many, dammit, even have dealings with continental Europe, if it is not to exchange political pleasantries with some European politician with an equally limited view?

Certainly, when Labour MPs are leaders or front-benchers of their Party, they don’t even exchange pleasantries with their own damn members.  They force us to swing from one cuddly but painful extreme (as defined by Rob) to another, far more cruel (as defined by Ed Miliband’s outrider, Liam Byrne).

I also find this quote revealing in its slightly dismissive tone – the “of course” is pregnant even where not pronounced; and is, of course, a bit of giveaway:

The fact is that there is a global race. It is not, as some Labour members would have it, a “race to the bottom”, in wages and protection for workers, although those things are important to safeguard. But merely pretending the race doesn’t exist is not an option, either.

It may, of course, be true that Labour and business must find different ways of getting on with each other – but the business bollocks that is revolving doors, unpaid workfare schemes and other marvellous examples of Labour’s pleasantries on behalf of capital surely has to change.  Yes.  New Labour successfully fashioned an electoral platform on the basis of triangulation – but in the process it’s pretty clear now that the job of government, what previously could have been described as a process of enabling the needs and rights of both ordinary voters as well as transnational movements of all kinds, has gradually made it indistinguishable to the job of corporate CEOs themselves: maximise revenues, outputs and market share of very specific interest groups at the expense of an awfully peaked employment.

Finally, today, I’d like to quote from a post I stumbled across yesterday before I went to bed.  It related Peter Mandelson’s speech to the CBI dinner last night (currently only available via Google webcache).  Remembering that Mr Mandelson was a key architect of New Labour, I’d like to simply list a few of the phrases he came up with (this is not a comprehensive summary of his thesis):

  • [On the eurozone crisis] we are seeing the relative competitiveness of the southern euro states – their unit labour costs – going in the right direction. It’s important that their fiscal consolidation and structural reforms continue because they have a long way to go.
  • But this is not either/or. It would be a mistake to argue for growth at the expense of continuing structural reform and improving competitiveness and productivity in Europe.
  • Rises in wages unlinked to increases in productivity in some countries have been a big part of eurozone’s problems, as are rigid product markets in many services.
  • [On the British crisis, the] banks will be re-building themselves for years to come. There remains uncertainty surrounding our main trading partner in Europe. Energy prices are not helping us. The way back is going to be long, costly and painful.
  • I believe government has responsibilities to help create a one nation society. But as a country I believe we need to make bigger choices than the ones being offered today. The next election deserves to be won by the party that has done the hard thinking and policy development not just on maintaining public welfare and re-distributing the cake but on how we expand and re-invent the cake, by transforming what we produce and how. And also where we sell it.
  • Britain needs to be deeply committed to exploiting the opportunities in the fast growing markets of the world – where I placed my emphasis and priority as Europe’s Trade Commissioner – but – and this is a big but – without ignoring the huge market on our doorstep.
  • [On Britain’s relationship with Europe, it] seems insane to me, at a time when we have in our country so many other deep seated problems to grapple with, we should want to add to them by starting an entirely artificially generated argument amongst ourselves about whether or not we want to remain in the European Union.

Underlying all the above is the belief that getting structures right is more important than empowering people themselves to explain and engineer – themselves – what they need.  And it chimes most unhappily, too, with Rob Marchant’s globalisation “light” (my take a few posts ago on a related subject here): real people who travel to real countries and buy real raw materials.

In essence, if political parties are not to become more and more irrelevant, they must understand that broadcast politics – broadcast discourses in general – are not the way of the future.  There must be a far more collaborative approach which doesn’t simply involve the dreary one-way “listening” of professional politicos from so many halting times past but, rather, looks to involve and engage – through politics – voters and other interested citizens in all kinds of socioeconomic decision-making processes.

If Labour is to convince all its constituencies that there is still a place for it in the modern world, it mustn’t simply – nor gaggingly – hang onto the coattails of the internationally globe-trotting opinion formers of Marchant’s post but – also – realise, in its grandest traditions, that it has a pedagogical responsibility to lead such opinion.  And no rebranding exercise – whether that which renames “globalisation” as “21st century internationalism” or that which renames “Labour” as “New Labour” and, then, rather breathlessly, as “One Nation Labour” – will ever excise from the memories of millions the fact that in the economic equation which is flesh-and-blood finite lives versus eternal corporate structures the Labour Party is called to defend the former from the veritable abuses of the latter.

A final final thought: Labour does need to constructively interface with capital.  But where this needs to take place is at an empowered grassroots.  The elite, the slightly irrelevant European politicians Marchant mentions (presumably not referring here to Peter Mandelson), have made the mistakes they have made for one of two reasons:

  1. because they’re too far removed from the realities their policy-making impacts on – unsatisfactorily inefficient elites we could call them;
  2. because they’re deliberately using austerity to nakedly transfer wealth from the poor to the rich – brazenly efficient elites we could call them;

Either way, Labour needs to recover its former role of enabling the interests of voters and citizens above all.  If not, anything else will simply lead us not to a 21st century internationalism but, instead, to a very 21st century return to fascism.

And I’m sure no one in the Labour Party would deliberately argue in favour of that kind of globalisation, whatever the rebranding exercise in question.


Update to this post: Progress, on whose server Peter Mandelson’s speech was originally hosted, is back online.  You can now find the full text, as per my Google webcache link above, by clicking here.

Mar 112013

Paul Burgin asked an intriguing question this afternoon.  I retweeted it and answered it thus (for those of you not familiar with Twitter’s syntax, you have to read the second part first and the first part second):

What Ed M is doing right now? Rock boat, but not too much. RT @Paul_Burgin: What does it take to ensure that Cameron remains PM until 2015?

Is it, in fact, time that the leader of the Labour opposition, Ed Miliband, gave David Cameron, the Tory Prime Minister, the helping hand it would appear he so desperately needs?  After all, this judgement of Cameron’s efficacy and historical potential is biting – and eye-opening:

My friend writes:

“I’m struggling to get the incredulity of the commentariat regarding leadership threats to Cameron. Why should anyone expect that a Party leader who failed to win an unlosable General Election, did nothing with being PM, and apparently has no chance of winning the next General Election would survive unchallenged?”

Ouch. And, as he points out, it is often forgotten that later this year Cameron will have been leader for eight years.

“Eight years after becoming Conservative Party Leader … Thatcher had got inflation from 22 per cent to 4 per cent and beaten the Argies. Heath had joined the EU. Churchill had won World War Two. Baldwin had seen off the General Strike and the Great Depression and broken both the Liberal and Labour parties, utterly. (No other Conservative leader lasted eight years post World War One). Cameron, on the other hand has … well, there’s … umm …”

Now I’m not entirely sure that in that poverty-stricken “umm” everything is necessarily lost.  Blair’s abiding achievement, after all, was a bloody conflict in Iraq.  It may have been the case that history was cruel to him – but the energy, resource, financial weight and body count which the conflict in question required of us leads me to wonder if a cipher of Blair wasn’t exactly what we were looking for in Cameron.  So did Cameron really fail to win an “unlosable General Election” – or was it, rather, that he instinctively comprehended the British people’s need to tether just a bit more definitively their next leader to their evermore parochial kennel?

Sometimes, the closed system that is politics has its own karma.  You give up a country’s sense of itself to a foreign power such as the US, however apparently justified at the time the deal may have appeared to be – and the next leader but one who comes along has no alternative but to reverse the ship of state.  No more foreign adventures for the moment – no more Falklands, no more Kosovos, no more Iraqi conflagrations.  If you must lie to the people, then divide the country cruelly up into deserving and non-deserving; get your communications paid for by the viewers via the TV licence fee; and tell those huge lies as hugely as you can, whilst history – or at the least the next general election – remains firmly on your side.

But whether Cameron is the cipher we needed or not, I think it’s pretty clear we in the Labour Party now need him to remain.  We need his frantic straddling of supposedly detoxified Toryism on the one hand and the lurching to the right which UKIP’s current bounce presages on the other to continue for as long as it might.

And it is in Paul Burgin’s original question and in Iain Martin’s perspicacious friend that I think I finally discover the reasons behind the modest approach which, to date, Labour’s Ed Miliband has taken.  Miliband has had Cameron’s measure since the very beginning.  After all, Miliband was an MP under Blair – had the opportunity to observe at close quarters the very man Cameron has surely modelled himself on.

In both Cameron’s strengths as a professional obfuscator and his manifest weaknesses as a professional salesman, Miliband will have seen it all before.

Miliband knows Cameron’s laying his own traps.  He just has to be there for him – with the kind of helping hand all enemies proffer.

Enough rope to keep him hanging on.

Not too much to hang him.

Not yet.

Jan 212013

Chris makes me feel utterly inadequate today.  As a member of the soft left, I am fairly in his sights:

[…] it’s the centre-left who are the utopian dreamers, and we Marxists who are the realists.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Political activists, and especially career politicians, are selected for the optimism bias; you don’t go to all those dull meetings unless you think (conventional) politics can achieve a lot.

Of course, it’s not just the soft left who suffer from the condition.  As he goes on to point out (and closer to my heart and own personal experience):

And it’s not just mainstream politicians who are the dreamers whilst I’m the sceptic. Stock-pickers who think they can beat the market and CEOs who think they can successfully control ther fate of huge organizations are just like centre-left politicians, exaggerating what they can achieve in the face of powerful and complex market forces.

But it’s his conclusion that really knocks me sideways – and makes me wonder if there is any point in (figuratively) continuing (the bold is, wearily, mine):

As it is, the question “what can politics achieve in a capitalist economy?” is rarely posed, let alone answered, by the centre-left. And until it is, they are likely to remain Isobel Crawley-type figures – perhaps doing a little good, but not challenging basic socio-economic inequalities, and leaving poverty and their own privilege largely unchanged.

(I had to look up the reference to Isobel Crawley, by the way.  You might guess which popular upper-class soap I haven’t found myself entangled by.)

So Chris argues we do a little good – but fail, at the same time, to “challenge” the basic socio-economic inequalities.  And yet what does this word “challenge” imply?  Verbal and/or physical violence of some sort?  Or a “democratic” “battle” within the confines of a capitalist discourse he so rightly condemns?  What, indeed, can politics achieve in a capitalist economy?  Especially the kind of capitalist economy which most of us now labour under, where politicians and business leaders interchangeably operate to the benefit of their own pockets, interest groups and mercenary aims?

What, then, is the alternative to violence of some sort or another?  Is there, indeed, anything not countenancing bloodshed which could do more than does the soft left already?  My mother has a solution, of course – consistently held: if only we loved each other more, we might achieve the change we are looking for:

It is so distressing to read about the injustices so blatant that the only understanding I can glean from this ‘world’ is that when the money – mammon – is the only goal to achieve in the world, there is no room for love and compassion towards people! The Judeo-Christian ethic has been eroded and something else has to be put in its place and we have got ‘it’ now: greed, avarice, selfishness – it has many facets but it is the one and same thing! Let us return to the God that we have abandoned for false gods! […]

So on the one hand we have my mother – half of my upbringing, in fact.  On the other, we have people like Chris – the other, far more logical, side of my character.  Yet, whether we reach our conclusions through faith or whether we reach them through science, it seems – right now – that the conclusions are becoming pretty much the same.

That awful situation where one is torn between logic and love?  There’s no bloody difference any more.  Society and politics are as shitty as they have become not because society and politics are shitty.

No.  That, my friend, is not the explanation.

My mother calls it “mammon”.  Chris calls it “capitalism”.  Either way, and whatever label you use, it’s hurting us more than it ever did in the past.

In fact it’s not our institutions which are failing us so much as our underlying, and practically unperceived, system of capitalist behaviours.

And so I ask for a solution – a way forward for my own small world.  I’m ready, as per my cowardly character, to be patient, meek and mild: to await the beneficence of the powerful even.

At least to a degree.  At least for a while.

Yet the examples continue to hurtle past our eyes.  This awful story from yesterday, for example:

The world’s 100 richest people earned enough money last year to end world extreme poverty four times over, according to a new report released by international rights group and charity Oxfam.

The $240 billion net income of the world’s 100 richest billionaires would have ended poverty four times over, according to the London-based group’s report released on Saturday.

As the charity goes on to say:

“We sometimes talk about the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘haves’ – well, we’re talking about the ‘have-lots’. […] We’re anti-poverty agency. We focus on poverty, we work with the poorest people around the world. You don’t normally hear us talking about wealth. But it’s gotten so out of control between rich and poor that one of the obstacles to solving extreme poverty is now extreme wealth,” Ben Phillips, a campaign director at Oxfam, told Al Jazeera.

This is the shit that is going down these days.

This is what creates the real pain and manifest anger.

So one final question to be going away with this evening: is there any kind of lesson to be learned when my mother’s love and faith reach the same conclusion as Chris Dillow’s perspicacious and rational mind?

And is there anything apart from violent civil conflict which will succeed in changing anything soon enough for the majority?

Jan 192013

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of getting older.  It seems that in the dialectic between those who believe in the imperfections of the market and those who worry more about those who come off worst as a result, both sides choose to ignore the assumptions of the other.

Both the socialists amongst us and the more market-focussed evangelicals deliberately refuse to engage any debate on the terms the opposition feels most comfortable with.  This is what then leads us all to megaphone politics: and in this figure of speech, I don’t mean the honourable tradition of trawling the streets with honest messages.  No.  In this figure of speech, I mean those who practise power by shouting for much longer and louder than they are ever likely to listen.

In fact, by shouting longer and louder they rarely get the opportunity to listen.

They may not even realise they are unable to practise the art in question.

And so I am led to wonder what the real purpose of society is: moderate the battleground, as the market-focussed evangelicals would have us believe; protect the most in need from the vicissitudes and implications of such Darwinism; or simply accept that there is little more we can expect or hope for than to spend most of our time in a futile and sterile shouting at (what we clearly consider) to be the stupidest of enemies.

These are serious issues, of course.  None of us is getting any younger and – whether we like it or not – most of the changes now taking place within the policy circumference that is politicking in the UK seem to prejudice the elderly more than anyone.  From pension ages and pension grabs to working conditions and rights to the current privatising structures of the NHS, Legal Aid, social care and welfare – and even the education of those who still depend on the upper middle-aged for their futures – it’s those who begin to fear such age who are really seeing their peace of mind being almost deliberately gnawed away at.

For it isn’t just the already elderly who are suffering this absolute desire by – it has to be said – most of our politicians to aim at uniquely moderating the economic battleground at the expense of other approaches.  It’s also clear that most of the rest of us, who can no longer believe in early youth in order to effectively ignore late middle-age, are beginning to fear the currently unspelt-out consequences of all these changes.

Precisely because we have two political sides which are content to shout at stupid enemies in vain, we get this terrible pendulum of political activity: from the extremes of Cameron and his cruel and heartless government to the stealthy and Machiavellian socialism of Blair & Co, the result is a society which could consensually agree on a permanent moderation of the economic battleground at the same time as it developed consistent and sustainable structures to protect the most in need – but which actually refuses to meet the other on any useful and productive common ground.

Not because the common ground doesn’t exist, mind.  Rather, because the arrival at and acceptance of such a common ground would change the nature and exerting of power in the UK forever.  And this would become an inconvenient truth for many of our practising politicians.

Perhaps, in truth, we need to understand far better at a party-political – and even societal – level the processes of growing old, getting disabled and becoming sick in both body and mind.  For it’s almost as if we deliberately choose to ignore the latter by focussing on the options, opportunities and mindsets of youth when we define and structure our political parties, their mission statements and values.  There is – after all – so much talk about aspiration, getting on, progress and achievement when, if truth be told, the destiny of all of us is to end up in a box in the ground.  It’s almost as if politicians, more than any of us out here, are looking to blind themselves to the inevitabilities we all share.  Acquiring and building bases of power, whether in companies or political parties or charitable institutions or extended families, is – surely – in some way a profoundly engineered rejection of the ultimate consequences of birth.

As a result, we get leaders and governors who – in the language they use to enthuse us all sufficiently to go out and vote – tell temporal lies; lies with internal sell-by dates in fact; lies about what is practicably achievable which self-destruct once their purposes have been fulfilled.

Of course we would all like to believe it’s possible to cheat death.  And that, in reality, is what our politicians – all of them – sell in some way or another.

Those who would moderate the battleground argue we all have an equal chance at life’s lottery – before, that is, we have to recognise the game might be up.

Whilst those who would protect the most in need argue we should look to ameliorate the pain – before, that is, the very end overtakes us.

And, meanwhile, everyone seems to agree that the best way to ignore the underlying realities is by verbally knocking everyone else about as foolish, ill-intentioned and broken souls quite beyond repair.

Think I’m getting involved in too much psycho-babble here?  Maybe we need a bit of soul-searching instead.  It does seem to me, whatever your political position, that getting older – and, by extension, more disabled and sicker – makes you inevitably less suited to the kind of economic activity our societies are designed to operate best with.  Their managerialist systems of direction, where personal force of character means more than measurable and rational processes; their inability to avoid repeating the mistakes of previous regimes which have all aimed to turf-war their way to the top on the backs of supremely unconsulted and thinking workers; their need to whitewash and brainwash expensive investment mistakes as continuous improvement … well, all the above, and far far more, simply leads us to assume that the memories of the rather more elderly can only serve to undermine the bright and bushy-tailed promises of those ever-present, always effervescent, 37-year-old executives who brazenly populate and impose – without evidence or careful thought – their world views on how and for whom we run our civilisations.

My own personal belief as one of those 50-something elephantine souls who remember too many prior – and ultimately falsely-made assertions – that everything was going to work out just fine?

In truth, we need to learn the following three things:

  1. As the market-fanatics would have us assume, continue to moderate those battlegrounds: we do require a certain freedom of action to engender freedom of thought.
  2. As the socialists would have us accept, strive without exception to protect the most in need: if there is much more human history to come after these early 21st-century days, whatever it is will measure us on how well we defended the defenceless.
  3. Above all, even more importantly than the previous two, learn to listen to, converse with and learn from our enemies.

For only then will we have any chance of rising up from the brutish animal state we are sliding rapidly into.

And even as my enemy must become my friend if future bloodshed and war are not to be inevitable.

Jan 062013

A couple of days ago I extended the hand of conditional friendship to David Cameron.  This is what I argued:

Yes.  I’m still prepared to give Mr Cameron the benefit of the doubt if in the next few months he not only continues the re-engineering of a society via benefit withdrawal but also proceeds to substantially reduce the cost of living by stamping down on his profiteering friends in corporate-land.

If he succeeded in being even-handed in this way, if he made Britain a much cheaper place for us all to live in, if he managed to reduce the cost of living so that the state found active intervention in people’s daily lives simply and totally unnecessary, we could I am sure, whatever our politics, all find it in ourselves to admire him in some way or other.

Maybe we might approve of a benefits society or not – but to excise the cancerous profiteers from the heart of a modern democracy like Britain’s would truly be a historic achievement for this extraordinarily complex Tory moderniser to take away as his indisputable 21st century legacy.

Only to conclude:

If his good intentions are now limited to unleashing a savage impoverishment onto millions, this extraordinarily complex Tory moderniser will have shown himself to be nothing but an extraordinarily simple sham.

Today we have some more rumblings from government circles which further complicate our judgement of the issues:

Senior Conservatives have outlined radical pro-enterprise policies designed to build an “opportunity society” and act as a blueprint for the party’s 2015 election manifesto.

These measures include the following:

[…] abolishing the retirement age, extending the school day by up to three hours and paying lower benefits in the North and other parts of the country where the cost of living is less expensive.

Other suggestions include encouraging more disabled people to work and obliging pupils who fail their exams to take resits during school holidays. In a wide-ranging report, the MPs also call for a “more entrepreneurial economy” that “re-legitimises wealth creation”.

Finally, one more thought (which for the moment will appear tangential) to throw into the mix on the back of another Telegraph report which came my way via Facebook yesterday – and to which I responded thus:

I wrote over a year ago that I thought a Slovenia-like gameplan was what the Tories were up to long-term. Happy to consolidate London and the Home Counties, to lay waste to the North of England and to engineer it so Scotland and its interfering majority of Labour MPs split off from the rump that would then be forever the Tory Party’s … It’s a thought, anyhow.

So it is that to me, at least, the aims, contradictions and paradoxes of these Tories become clear.  Slamming as they have done in times gone by all attempts to devolve power to the regions, they now plan to create an opportunity society where those interested in creating monetary wealth are to be prized above all other kinds of human intercourse.  And not only that.  The opportunities to be thus taken advantage of will exist primarily in their strongholds of London and the Home Counties.  And not only that.  In all but name the United Kingdom will disappear: the Scots may achieve total independence or not but in the round they will no longer participate in or influence English electoral processes and divisions of power at Westminster.  Meanwhile, the North of England – now an outpost of civilisation to be talked and taken down a rung or two – is described as and destined to be the British equivalent of the Skoda and Dacia factories: cheap Third World-like labour costs for those who would create personal and shareholder wealth above good jobs and sound communities.

For that is what this Tory opportunity society is all about.  The opportunities they talk of – opportunities which verily exist, that is true – exist primarily in the Vatican City-like bubble that is the plutocratic City of London:

What is this thing? Ostensibly it’s the equivalent of a local council, responsible for a small area of London known as the Square Mile. But, as its website boasts, “among local authorities the City of London is unique”. You bet it is. There are 25 electoral wards in the Square Mile. In four of them, the 9,000 people who live within its boundaries are permitted to vote. In the remaining 21, the votes are controlled by corporations, mostly banks and other financial companies. The bigger the business, the bigger the vote: a company with 10 workers gets two votes, the biggest employers, 79. It’s not the workers who decide how the votes are cast, but the bosses, who “appoint” the voters. Plutocracy, pure and simple.

Coupled with the drive to get us all on to self-assessment of income tax – for, at least in my humble opinion, means-testing child benefit has far more to do with reconverting us all into potential entrepreneurs, and at the same time ridding us all of the soft cocoon that is PAYE, than saving the state any money at all in the process – it is clear these Tories are messianic figures who believe we need a kick up the backside for the world to have any chance of being set to rights.

And as they learned from Blair’s experience with Iraq, no matter the collateral damage that is generated in the process.

Still, however, the question remains: opportunity knocks – but for whom?  The answer to the question defines my own perception of what the Tories claim to be trying to achieve: yes, if they truly were to reduce the profiteering their corporate colleagues have been getting up to over the past three decades at the same time as they reduced the cost of the benefit state, I could appreciate a degree of good faith and even argue in favour of some of their alleged goals.

But in reality these Tories are not looking to create a cheaper society all around.  Rather, they are looking to cheapen society for corporate capitalism and for corporate capitalists.  But as corporate capitalism and corporate capitalists become – more and more – synonymous of a wealth creation which serves to increase plutocratic wealth at the expense of sufficiently decent and dignified plebeian jobs, so the Tories are even less likely to understand that a real opportunity society would contemplate far more measures than simply plutocratic expansion for us to know whether progress had been made or not.

Which is why I’m afraid this opportunity society these Conservative MPs proclaim today is almost certainly also a sham.  As much a sham as David Cameron is manifestly content to remain.

And where Labour should see its own opportunity is precisely in pursuing not the rhetoric of knocking the disabled, poor, sick and unemployed who through no fault of their own need support from society in general, but – instead – in arguing that the Tories are correct in one piece of their analysis: we need to reduce the cost of and unnecessary reliance on benefits.

Where the Tories are rankly wrong, however, and here Labour is still nowhere on the ball nor sufficiently appreciative of the error, is in not following up their initial analysis with a cogent and consequential train of thought: if we are to reduce the cost of benefits to the state, we also need to reduce the cost of living to the people (or, alternatively, increase the wages they earn); if we need to make cheaper a whole raft of processes, we need to ensure this doesn’t cheapen our moral take on society; if we want to convince people that opportunities are out there, success shouldn’t be defined only in monetary terms; and if society is to move forward in truly good faith, we must not only stop the corporate cancer of profiteering injustice – a cancer which incidentally the Tories currently depend greatly on for their funding – but also actively enable a proper and fair understanding of societal justice.

A blueprint, that is, not for a lazy and counter-productive corporate takeover but, instead, a proper and constructive empowerment of the intelligences of every future citizen.

And whilst the Tories refuse to address the fears of the former, Labour still has the opportunity to engineer their blueprint for the latter.

Dec 022012

I Facebooked and tweeted the following thought a few minutes ago: “I’m afraid our free press is about as free as our free markets are free markets.”  On Facebook, in response to the argument that this means freer than state-controlled Pravda (or these days, I suppose, TV’s “Russia Today”), I then argued this:

No. I don’t mean that. I mean that elected governments are no longer the primary source of power over our lives.  I also mean, as Dan Hind observed recently, that any limited liability organisation is obliged to accept regulation.  If you don’t want to be regulated, don’t limited liability yourself.  Regulation is part and parcel of the corporate contract.  Prefer to be unregulated?  Then do what the rest of us citizens have to do when proclaiming our opinions to the rest of the public domain.  Accept unlimited liability as the downside of a greater freedom.

The truth of the matter is that our free press is no more nor less free than our markets.  As modern communications currently require industry on a massive scale to operate usefully – that is to say, to provide us with a broad understanding of what’s going on in the world – concentrations of wealth inevitably intervene.  If media ownership is reasonably distributed, and if the sources our journalists use to construct their tales are reasonably widespread, we may get a reasonably free implementation of what a democratic press should really be.  But if our free markets tend towards the monopolies of corporate capitalism, which they do, our press, supposedly free, open and honest, will tend towards exactly the same.

So if we cannot guarantee that in the future we will not begin to slide into Roosevelt’s definition of the fascist state, we must conceptualise our free press so that it does not depend on the state of our markets.  Yes.  It is true.  It is dangerous for government to control our media.  We’ve seen how the current Coalition has already seemed to have managed it, covertly and cleverly it must be admitted, in relation to our public broadcaster’s coverage of the changes being engineered in our NHS.  So to actually make it possible for governments to engage in legislation creep in the future, and acquire every right to participate in the making of the news, is clearly a foolhardy step to propose taking.

But it is equally foolhardy – and rankly naive to boot – to suggest that leaving our press in the hands of transnational corporations is the very best way to guarantee our nation’s freedoms.

There must, therefore, be a third way out of this nightmare.

Neither government legislation nor corporate whim?  Sounds good to me.  The question is: what?

Sep 102012

In many ways, the virtual reflects the real world.  Identity online, who you are really communicating with and even with what degree of privacy, is an issue electronically just as much as it can be offline.  In the early days of the printing press, meanwhile, uncontrolled copying of content meant authors and publishers were left with little compensation for their efforts.  And so we could argue that the Internet – or more exactly the worldwide web – is at such a stage in its development.

The law, however, is in many respects another case altogether.  Traditional ways of making constitutions which rule and structure how people behave have either been conscious and overt – as exemplified by written constitutions the world over – or unwritten but just as binding through sentences handed down by courts.  In both cases, however, to a certain degree anyhow, representative democracy has acted over the process.

Latterday 21st century constitutions are utterly different from the above.  Here, software code itself defines how we behave and interact.  Code, in fact, is the law of our times.  But democracy has not been involved in the game.

Which is why I would argue that people who become specialists in their technical fields need to acquire and learn how to follow strict moral codes.  For the following reasons.

Firstly, let me explain that I don’t mean the already regulated areas of teaching, the legal profession and doctoring here.  Instead, such areas of knowledge which help to define, without an appropriate democratic oversight, our current and ever-growing extra-democratic rights and responsibilities: software engineering, entrepreneurial activity, risk-taking of all kinds … the stuff, that is, that we’ve allowed to slip out of democratic control and essentially subvert any chances of an a priori debate.

We could, of course, decide we needed to democratise our specialists far more than they are.  Or, alternatively, we could decide to dispense with them altogether.  But the former would hardly work in an environment where representative democracy is manifestly failing us – whilst the latter, if we care to continue with technology as our civilisation’s driver and saviour, is really no option at all.

No.  Democracy can’t mean we all take part.  Not because democracy doesn’t call for it.  Rather, because our technological prowesses mean it is impossible to contemplate without radically changing how we look as a society.

So we will continue to need specialists as before – to interface between the complex and the ordinary.  But a different kind of specialist: a specialist who doesn’t greedily make huge wealth out of their ability to know something someone else can’t; a specialist who knows how to communicate peer-to-peer.  Peer-to-peer in the sense of human-to-human and not in the sense of competencies.

For there is an alternative: we may choose as I am implying above to introduce a sense of professional vocation into all acts of business, politicking and cultural activity.  If we educate our societies – in a perhaps predistributive way, and as applied to a wider culture – to want different things from the things they currently aspire to, maybe then we can change the results we are currently getting.

It’s no accident that you and I should hanker after new versions of gadgets we already have.  It’s no accident that we should want to eat more than our bodies naturally call for.  It’s no accident that life involves substituting the desire for wealth over the desire for health.  All these instincts are not natural to the human being.  They require nurturing on a grand scale: a grand scale which amoral advertising campaigns have spent the last century delivering.

The only thing we have to do is decide, then, at a grand societal level, that we want our people to want other things which don’t break them – and our societies – down.

We need specialists as we’ve never needed them before, that is true.  But we don’t need specialists who believe in using their knowledge to pull the wool over our eyes over and over again.

The lesson?  Don’t hoard as William Gibson is alleged to have said.


And share before our necessity leads us to take.

Jun 162012

Alex provides the data, if data was still needed, about the IMF and the Greeks. All I am minded to remark is that whilst billions of euros have been withdrawn from Greece in the first half of the year by private investors, escape from the country’s miseries isn’t so easy for the workers who might wish to emigrate out of them.  Capital versus labour – it’s always the same story: freedom of movement for the former (with all the traumatic implications for ordinary people’s economies which such freedoms lead to); all kinds of practical barriers, including media prejudice in host countries, for the latter.

This is perhaps one excellent reason why Greeks should leave the euro but stay in the European Union.  Get that competitive edge back which Europe’s denied varying velocities lost – but hang on any which way you can to the right to work wherever you want.  Beat the capitalist investors at their own game perhaps?

Meanwhile, here’s another piece of evidence about how the world we live in is unfair: in this case, how the fall in trades union membership mirrors exactly the rise in wealth inequality (graph here).  Our intuition might have told us that trades unions battling against amorphous and various employer organisations would help, in an imperfect civilisation, to create less unfair societies – but this post goes much further than massage our prejudices.  This post confirms a reality with immediately understandable data.

From the Facebook page "Connect The Dots USA"

Finally, an image I published not long ago from a Facebook page I’m subscribed to called “Connect The Dots USA”.  It clearly indicates how difficult providing social and welfare services will become in the future, especially as the real levels of tax American corporations pay are so far below the nominal 35 percent.  Remember, these are the same bodies which use public roads, pollute public land, sell junk food to schoolchildren and sign overblown contracts for the provision of public health services – as well as make money out of publicly funded armaments and IT projects (so many of which curiously tend to run dramatically over budget).

All examples, in fact, of the ways they have chosen to take advantage of federal and state infrastructures which they no longer see the need to contribute to.

And I am sure – as well as fear – that the situation in the UK is becoming evermore analogous.

Of course, it goes without saying that those of us on the left have often been accused – perhaps accurately – of class envy.  This argument would have us believe that we don’t act out of a pragmatic understanding and acceptance of the world as it is.  Rather, we refuse to accept that life is unfair and that such injustices are a given for those who have the good or bad fortune to be born into this universe.

After fifty years on this planet – yes, I share my birthday with that literary-fest that is Bloomsday! –  I can’t argue with the partial truth of that assertion.  But where I do disagree with the Darwinian capitalists is in their implicit understanding that life – and the world in general – is only as unfair as it must be.

Today’s three examples give those of us who believe in social, economic and cultural justice the right to sustain the position that this world is an unnecessarily unfair world – and from that moment onwards, fight to eliminate any unfairness which escapes the necessary injustices of an often incomprehensible universe.

If those of us on the left are looking for a pragmatic way of channelling the manifest – and long-predicted collapse – of capitalism, we could do far worse than to argue that in that point which lies between an unfair and an unnecessarily unfair existence we can usefully pursue a popular and realistic revolution.

A popular and realistic revolution we could use to revalidate the latterday left.

Apr 292012

Jonathan Freedland has an interesting piece in the Guardian at the moment on whether Miliband & Co should treat and characterise Cameron & Co as useless or evil.  It’s an important point, for getting the message right in traditional megaphone pyramidal politics is just about the most important thing that you can do.  He does conclude that:

Put another way, should the opposition say this government is hopeless or heartless? The funny thing is, Labour may not even have to choose – for the government is doing its level best to be both.

And here I think we get to the nub of the issue: this Coalition government is driven by a consummate PR man – a man who believes whole worlds can be shaped through the use of well-chosen words for the broader benefit of paying company clients.  When transferred to our body politic, it’s about as conditional a view of the matter as you can get.  Cameron really should not be underestimated though, for he has never underestimated the facility cunning advertising has for turning a situation upside down.

Freedland argues that the choice is twofold: between useless or evil.  I think this government can actually be characterised with a third description: deliberately destructive.  The process used has developed thus: early on in its time, the Coalition has employed to its advantage our uncertainty as to whether it was incompetent or horrible to deconstruct our ability to focus properly on which megaphone would best be shouted through.  Our resulting uncertainty of tone has allowed them to continue being horrible whilst cloaked in apparent ineffectiveness.  Yes.  We have all been very clever on the data and content of our detailed rebuttals to almost every single policy idea the government has put forward over the past two years – but this is really not enough: the government is still firmly in place; we, meanwhile, are still occupying the role of moaning – and perhaps moderately anal – minnies.

Through the cloak of incompetence, then, the government has managed to continue with its evil intentions, the final goal being the total destruction of those sensible English socialist instincts which the NHS and Legal Aid at their best represented.  By cutting away the safety nets of both, and releasing huge private sector activities and impulses from their control, Cameron has managed to be useless, evil and – as I suggest in the title – deliberately destructive too.

For Cameron’s long-term aim is to rid this country of anything which might stand in the way of the Tory Party’s sponsors.  This is One Nation Conservatism brought firmly up to date: the Nation in question is a capitalism built around large companies; the Conservatism in question depends entirely on making it impossible for a government of a different hue to reverse any of the changes – even if it were possible to find and vote for such a government.

Not just useless.  Not just evil.

Deliberately detonating just about anything and everything that once served to counter the unimaginative, soul-destroying and – ultimately – fossilising “one best way” of corporate mindsets everywhere.

But politics – at least my vision of politics – shouldn’t be about finding ways of slotting people into a system; rather, it should be about fashioning a system around the needs of the realities of individuals.  The difference is subtle; the implications and consequences for the wellbeing of the individuals concerned immense.

We love the way that Barça plays – but the goals themselves only ever really get scored when people like Messi or Iniesta flash brilliance.

And Messi has never achieved the kind of brilliance at national level which he clearly has achieved at club level.

Systems are needed – but they need to respond to the characteristics of real people.

New Labour attempted and failed to grapple with this challenge.

Cameron & Co have simply unashamedly gone down the “one best way” road: pork-barrel politics and shock-and-awe tactics leading to a napalming of all and any other ways of seeing or doing.

So Freedland, in the piece I link to at the top of today’s post, is kind of right about useless and evil: what he gets wrong, though, is that both are actually tactics chosen intentionally, not characteristics exhibited unavoidably.

And as they lay waste to our nation in order to make it impossible for Labour to undo their evil, so a “one best way” will inevitably become a “one only possible way”.

Apr 282012

As you might have realised over the past few days, perhaps to your irritation, I’ve been obsessing a little with the subject of the social web.  The relevant posts can be found here, here, here, here and here.  Yes.  Perhaps you’re right.  Too many.

Anyhow.  Just a short shortish final one to tidy up some of the loose ends.  There was a time, many years ago, when I was a kid growing up in what became the shadow of a “white hot technological revolution”, when a certain kind of wonderful future was being promised to us all.  But as the THE article suggests (the bold is mine):

Human nature being what it is, we may live in a new world but we react in ways shaped by an old one. New visions may inspire but getting there is hard. So found Harold Wilson 30 years ago as his vision of the white hot technological revolution dissipated before entrenched vested interests and economic rigidities. Opportunities were not fully grasped: Wilson’s penchant for manipulation led to fudges: rhetoric was not matched by a clear industrial strategy; failure deepened Britain’s cynical defeatism.

There was this – in hindsight – curious belief that the capitalism we best know (not the only one on the table) would allow a significant part of opportunities to scrape future technological profit to benefit their supposedly soon-to-become leisurely workforces.  And for a while it seemed there would be enough slack to make such progress possible.

These days, however, it is not the case.

There is a crisis of remuneration in the knowledge economy which no one seems able to deal with.

Those in favour of copyright believe in using it to crack down on infringements – infringements which sometimes border on the humongous, it is true.  Yet copyright, these days, would seem mainly to benefit the copyright holders – again, we come back to the corporate bodies that wish to rule both our leisure time as well as our work; both our commerce as well as our democracy.  The vast majority of creators, painters, authors and photographers who work under the control of such large organisations rarely get to see very much of the profit generated by their creations: either the overheads and waste of the industry models in question swallow up so very much of what could become creator income –  or, alternatively, as history has often shown us, life in the garret is bound to be the destiny of most of those who would live to be creative.

Yet whilst those who do favour copyright seem to despise technology companies such as Google and manufacturers such as Samsung even more than the end-users they claim pirate their product, there is another area of modern endeavour they seem to have ignored: the hijacking of the benefits of the knowledge society by those who have created the social web.

Let’s just rewind and see how it could’ve been: a society where brains, applied to ideas, developed and implemented technologies on a massive scale – technologies which became cheap enough for everyone to remove drudgery from their ordinary lives and so release the human mind for much better things.

What do we have instead?  Poorly paid – or even unpaid – worker bees (that’s you and me on Twitter and Facebook) inputting data for the software code of such a social web to generate outputs which fascinate companies and allow them to better identify their markets.

Yes.  We are now generating the data for corporations which not only make money out of us directly through advertising (Facebook and Twitter) but also sell our personal details to other organisations (food and consumer-durable manufacturers for example) in order that they may better sell their products to us.  We are now an outsourced part of this latter group of companies’ marketing departments.  Instead of costly opinion polls and focus groups, all they have to do is pay a modicum amount of money to examine Twitter’s firehose (its full complement of content to which the rest of us cannot have access beyond about a maximum of seven days of search) and thus use our freely inputted data to better sell us their products.

And in the above case, no one is suggesting (except perhaps yours truly) that anyone is really injuring the copyright of anyone else.

The problem, then, isn’t even principally one of copyright infringement.  The problem is that these software companies have worked out a way of attracting us to sit down for free in front of our monitors and screens, and input devices various, and create content which substitutes the stuff they promised us fifty years ago was going to release us from the drudgery of manual labour.

Essentially, it would seem the long-promised knowledge economy has been hijacked and dumbed-down by the requirements of the social web.  And, right now, I really cannot see our way around it.

The future?

In a previous post, David commented that direct remuneration might not work.  Are we condemned, then, to a life of generalised poverty, addicted as we have become to describing our lives which in their parts are pretty uninteresting but which when brought together with the lives of others by clever code (code which refuses to acquire liability but reserves the right to monetise all the same) ends up becoming an all-too-fascinating tapestry we cannot avoid following?

Is, in fact, social web the opium-eater’s dream of the 21st century?

And a slow and uncomfortable impoverishment our common fate?

Apr 192012

Limited liability has clearly driven capitalism’s glittering history of innovation.  It has allowed imaginative entrepreneurs to take reasonable but not excessive risks with their own livelihoods to the benefit of technological progress.

But, in times of severe economic crisis when these things truly begin to tell, it has also created an awkward imbalance between the rights and responsibilities of corporate and limited liability organisations on the one hand and ordinary real-life human beings on the other.

Much of current anger at the system we have is directed at those organisations which – in an absolutely worst-case scenario – lose only their honour, not their shirts.  Meanwhile, for the rest of us out here, enforced upper-torso nakedness is but one reminder of other 20th century unhappinesses.

The undercurrents of feudalism in our society become terribly apparent in such times of community distress.

What to do then?  What to do?

I just saw a tweet about a North East of England police force’s terrorist unit picking up on some sort of racist hate crime and bringing in five men alleged to be responsible.  And it made me think in the following way: “Ah, you see; maybe the police aren’t just there to repress.”

A small act of counter-narrative in the massive overloaded narrative arc of our current oppressive state.

Problem is, there’s plenty of evidence of a casual instinct to the latter.  As I tweeted earlier:

No point in making reasonable suggestions to tinker with Coalition policy. Any reasons will never be bigger than aim of simply making money.

But back to the counter-narrative.  If we truly wish to rebalance the system, and it’s essentially unreasonable to take away from the business world all the obvious advantages of limited liability, why not instead propose establishing a system where housing, minimum living standards and access to basic utilities can never be removed from absolutely anyone?  That is to say, a system of limited liability for real-life human beings and their households.

Once established the principle for eternal corporate bodies, why not for the flesh and blood creatures that populate the planet?

In fact, couched in such terms, you really never know, it’s possible we’d even acquire a useful yardstick to help reconfigure our welfare system.

“So how would we pay for it?” I hear you ask.  And I’d knock that one back at you: “How have we managed to fund limited liability for medium-sized and large business operations for at least the past century – maybe longer?”

Surely the answer lies in the oft broken-backed flesh and blood creatures I’ve already mentioned above.

Time, then, to repay that debt so easily acquired?

Where there’s a way, all you really need is the desire to squirrel out that will.

Apr 112012

Bumblebees need holes in walls to find a habitat.  I learnt that whilst in the Lake District yesterday at the Peter Rabbit garden outside the Beatrix Potter Attraction, Windermere.  It seems, for me right now, to describe perfectly what the Coalition’s economics is doing to us.

The people who do the things they are doing to us work in the urban landscape that is the metropolis of London.  When they escape to their country retreats, it is out of privilege they escape: for them, the countryside is just as much a good to be bought and sold as a future on the futures market.  When they plan to detonate, dismantle and destroy the complex ecosystem that is English society, they do not care to worry about those of us who are like bumblebees: those of us who need, in amongst the impervious concrete constructs, habitat-generating holes in Lakeland stone-style walls.

The shock and awe of Osborneconomics is an urban construct: the constructors and developers who remake the faces of our cities every twenty years do not care about complexities, preservation or the conservation of the existing.

Yesterday, visiting Windermere and Bowness showed me – reminded me – that change needs to be managed not imposed; but managed in the sense of appreciating and dealing with its impact on real environments and not in the sense of that managerialist approach which involves brainwashing workforces, voters and affected populations into meek and materialist submission.

Managing in order to add real value, sustainability and persistence of vision to existing communities.

Not managing in order to keep people in the dark, out of the loop and under control.

Windermere and Bowness as tourist attractions and ecosystems of local survival need careful attention, gentle change and an appreciative approach to understanding their manifest needs. The vast majority of people who live and work there do not do so out of the privilege of stratospheric politicians but rather through a hard-won desire and aspiration to make their way in the world.

But if Windermere and Bowness need and deserve this way of doing, why can the rest of us not have the right to the same?

The latter is clearly not what Osborneconomics is about.  Osborneconomics is about making as much money as possible – and to hell with us bumblebees.

Mar 282012

I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here.  Let’s assume the battle for privatisation is lost.  Let’s assume it’s a done-and-dusted deal we can no longer usefully impact.  The  NHS, Legal Aid, education, the police and a whole raft of other public-sector services will sooner or later enter the private domain – whatever we do or say.

Nothing to be done about it.  The financialisation and commercialisation of all relationships will soon become complete.

Perhaps, as some have been saying in relation to other areas (I have seen tweeted today the importance of picking one’s battles in the context of the European Union; last Saturday, Lawrence Lessig argued that we should focus copyright efforts on science rather than cinema), we should begin to be a little more discretionary about what to date has been our wholesale opposition to anything and everything the right is proposing out of manifest self-interest.

Accept what’s happened and gather our forces with a different aim in mind.  If we continue to act as Tory analysis of the last ten years would assume we will, we are simply playing to their strengths.  In my slowly forming opinion, I think we need to start learning how to act differently.  Unpredictably.

So let us transfer our war from the killing-fields of preventing privatisation to the playing-fields of making it fit for purpose.  The advantage for all our futures?  We can focus on the cronyism, the corruption, the revolving doors of ministers who leave government to become company directors and CEOs who absent themselves from failed business models to become ministers – we can focus on all of that as we strive to make whatever system we are obliged to work with a system with proper oversight and protections.

We need a vigorous Legal Aid system – they are taking that away from us.  Let us make legal defence for all a priority in the next manifesto, whoever administers its ways of working.

We need the safety nets of proper welfare and NHS services, free in moment of need – they are taking that away from us.  Let us make safety nets for all a priority in the next manifesto, whoever administers its ways of working.

We need a competent system of inspection, target-setting and oversight – they are taking that away from us.  Let us make such oversight on behalf of all our citizens a priority in the next manifesto, whoever administers its ways of working.

We need, in fact, to ensure that – whoever is in charge – we the people remain firmly in charge of them.

Our overarching narrative must become this: we the people are sovereign.

Whilst business and politicians are not.

And, in the meantime, manage our battles with great care: it is time to be selective, wise and judicious if we truly want to influence as wide a public as possible.  It is time to play according to different rules.

It is time to surprise our enemies.