Aug 072014

I finished the Asimov story, “The Bicentennial Man”, recently.  If you haven’t read it, do try and find time to do so.  As with most of Asimov’s shorter works, the narrative creeps up on you quite slowly – though the read itself is never boring.  In a sense, they’re like Ibsen plays: so much happening in the clockwork of the story, it sometimes feels like a vice is tightening.

The payoff is always interesting, mind.  I grew up with Asimov’s ideas; their absolute playfulness a wonderful reward for the exploring adolescent I was at the time.

The plot runs as follows: a robot, called Andrew, wishes to be taken to be a human being.  Over his “life” he spends time blurring the lines between the flesh-and-blood citizens who have all the rights in the world and the positronic-brained servants (slaves, perhaps, would be more accurate) which he is an example of.  He achieves many things in this period, though not without considerable difficulty: the right to wear clothes; the right to have money; the right to be made free of his owners.  In fact, the right, as a result, to own stuff like any human does.

It seems to me that although Asimov leaves us with the ultimately necessary “suicide” of this Bicentennial Man as the essence of what it is to be flesh-and-blood, the element of ownership also touched on in the story – and already described above – defines our humanity much more than the former.  Certainly today:

The first scene of the story is explained as Andrew seeks out a robotic surgeon to perform an ultimately fatal operation: altering his positronic brain so that it will decay with time. He has the operation arranged so that he will live to be 200. When he goes before the World Legislature, he reveals his sacrifice, moving them to declare him a man. The World President signs the law on Andrew’s two-hundredth birthday, declaring him a bicentennial man. As Andrew lies on his deathbed, he tries to hold onto the thought of his humanity, but as his consciousness fades his last thought is of Little Miss.[2]

For in the face of terrible violence, if Western society is inscribed by anything right now, it is the total antipathy to anything bordering self-sacrifice.  From cruise missiles to drones, everything we seem to do these days appears to be aimed at limiting our exposure to the risk of death.  Quite the opposite of the instincts of our positronic friend.

All well and good, I’m sure we could all agree.

But, even so, I’d push the idea further.  Emily has a lovely overview of a curious question of “selfie” copyright, where a monkey took some pictures of itself, and apparently by so doing limited the right of the owner of the camera in question to exert their own copyright over the product:

[…] It is difficult to say whether the arguments would go in favour of the photographer being the author; this is certainly the verdict in a blog post by our US friends across the pond, who argue that as there was no official creator of the photograph other than the monkey, and the monkey does not qualify as an author, there is therefore no copyright in the photograph. It does however seem a bit unfair to the photographer, who should probably be recognised as a contributor at the very least. Perhaps we should ask the monkey? ;-)

That we should even be going round in circles with this situation leads me to come to two conclusions:

  1. Animals are not only de-sexed as a rule by humans (notice that sneaky “itself” I slipped in earlier) (and even as they demonstrate all the right biological impulses), they are also de-ownershipped too.  Whilst the argument here is couched in legal terms of animals not being able to be authors and thus not own, in truth what we are actually saying is since authorship is determined by the ability to own, denying the right to own to animals thankfully denies the right to authorship.  (The circle can just as easily be gone around in the opposite direction.)
  2. The separation between the state of being an animal and the state of being a human, an analogous separation which is the subject of Asimov’s robot tale too, was never more clearly an imperative for our species.  By establishing ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as something quite distinct, we assign to ourselves considerable freedoms that allow us to do and undo with the rest of the planet just as we bloody well wish.  (And you thought copyright was a distant, dry and academic subject!)

It’s possible, then, that whilst we condemn all manner of neoliberalisms for our current miseries, our concept of freedom was always defined thus: not the freedom to write; not the freedom to express; not the freedom to be free of penury.  No.  Simply the freedom to own ideas, stuff and creatures.  And those societies which allow more of such ownership are those we now perceive as being the freest of all.

Sep 052013

If there is something I still admire about our North American friends – I mean, the USA bit and its colonial-like ability to teach us all about what they aspire to – it is their boundless optimism that everything has a fix.  In fact, the original philosophy of this blog you’re reading right now was precisely that: if only we think hard enough – where thinking hard enough we assume is possible – a solution to any problem will always be found.

I stumbled across a wonderful blogpost by Ben Cobley yesterday, on the subject of philosophising and how Western culture is creating the very conditions for relentlessly excessive thought – the kind that people suffering from depression manifest – to become far more common.  It’s called “A few thoughts on depression, and philosophy”, and, amongst other things, it touches on the link between our latterday consumer society and the trust that used to bind us:

[…] [Alastair] Campbell wrote a little book called ‘The Happy Depressive’, exploring his own experiences and depression as a public policy issue.

I won’t go into that book in detail here because I want to take a brief look at depression from a different angle, but one quotation wouldn’t go amiss:

“In the US, trust in other people being ‘nice’ has fallen from 60 per cent to 30 per cent in fifty years. It is the same story in the UK. In 1959, 60 per cent of people felt other people could generally be trusted. It has now halved. [Professor Richard] Layard [a Labour peer] believes that decline has matched the rise of consumerism which has been accompanied by a rise in the obsession with status, and envy of those who do better than us.”

This, if true, is a dreadful state of affairs.  Whilst I have no way of corroborating the stats, at my own anecdotal level there seems little wrong with the assertions.  The rise in mental ill health in Western societies has matched the introduction of neoliberal economic and sociocultural attitudes.  That there should exist people and institutions determined to make societies work to their own particular benefit at the expense of the poor and already highly disadvantaged should clearly not surprise us.  And that these individuals and entities should cover their backs by arguing it’s a natural state of affairs mustn’t lessen our resolve to fight back.

For here is where perhaps I diverge a little from Cobley’s space.  As he explains on his About page in relation to standard perceptions of the remorseless, monolithic and unremitting Left:

What especially interests me is the censoriousness and opinion control that is so pervasive on my side of the political fence. It seems that, far from being a free-minded and free-thinking Left, we are stuck in a denuded, conformist and also rather boring rut.

I believe the Left should be generous and welcoming, open and tolerant, but also committed and ethical in the way it behaves. I am against ideologies like neoliberalism and ‘Vulgar’ Marxism, and also some of the forms that have emerged around the politics of identity, including strictly deterministic versions of feminism. Ideologies like these offer simplistic, all-encompassing explanations about the way the world is while setting different groups in society against each other.

They give people an excuse to stop seeing, hearing and thinking for themselves.

And with this, I find myself disagreeing very little.  But interestingly – or perhaps (I’m beginning to wonder) I should say even coherently, in the light of the above data on Western mental-wellbeing – he also chooses to quote from Karl Popper in the following way:

“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper



Yes.  Now, as I write, I can see why Cobley chooses this quote.  The choice and option to do something others might not understand often takes away the need to act in such a way.  To feel free to give up the fight against something quite overwhelming serves to empower us, just as freely, to continue such a fight.  On the other hand, to exhort one to fight – remorselessly, monolithically, unremittingly – often traps the person who should feel liberty is their goal in an emotional and political ambush of terrifying incoherence.

Only yesterday, Paul Cotterill tweeted thus:

Sick of Labour HQ emails telling me I must “fight” for stuff. Using a word devoid of actual meaning hinders organisation & solidarity.

And this:

Re Lab’s use of “fight”: The misuse of language in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things (Heidegger)

That, I suppose, is what both Paul and Ben are getting at in their different ways – and where, perhaps, we might argue libertarians do have a point after all.  In whatever we do, we must feel free to choose.  That sense of choice – for the good and the bad – is what makes us these mysterious human beings living this mysterious life.  And the Left, if it wishes to track such behaviours, to maintain its primary connect with all the human beings it is looking to serve, must surely not forget the importance of that concept of choice.

Not just the more obvious choices such as which schools, GPs, medical treatments and social services.  No.  Far more importantly, for the persistence of vision all political groupings must maintain, is the recognition that humanity itself will inevitably tend towards one way or another of behaving.

The political question is not only identifying that way, though.

It’s also working out how to promote the way that least bends us out of natural shape.

What the neoliberals have managed is to promote ways that benefit their narrow interests – whilst claiming at the same time that these ways are inherently human.

What we need to do, as free progressives if you like, is accept that social engineering is the name of their/this game – and in this inevitable knowledge begin to understand that the pendulum of battle must swing back sooner or later.

And sooner, if we choose never to give up.

That is to say, by ignoring most of the current remorseless, monolithic and unremitting Left – and, in turn, by following Popper’s advice.  For only then shall we be truly human.

And only then shall our politics be truly accurate.

Aug 062013

Democracy only makes any sense if we believe that human beings, in their natural state and left to their own only slightly moderated devices, operate generally in good faith.  The concept of progress soppy democrat-types have always associated with Western civilisation can only work properly if we assume we are fundamentally of a progressive bent.  If we see the bad and the violent which takes place in all societies as aberrations of an otherwise sensible species, then democracy as a goal, tool and strategy makes inevitable and continuing sense.

But what if we assume human beings are not essentially sensible?  Or what if we discover that once we may have been – and now we are not?

What if we begin to perceive a different profile emerging?

What if neoliberalism’s last few decades have actually changed the essence of what it is to be of our species?

Can a certain economics, deliberation and environment wreak primal alterations to how we behave; to our instincts and impulses; to our way of relating not only to other people but also to other beings, existences and ecosystems?

Has neoliberalism’s worldwide laboratory actually affected the result?

Chris suggested as much the other day:

[…] herein lies a danger. The neoliberal priority of individuals over community networks can be performative; it doesn’t just describe the world, but shapes it too.  Having given us a society of isolated individuals, neoliberalism also gives Wonga more chance of out-competing credit unions.

So back to my initial train of thought: if democracy as we understand it involves the idea of Western progress, and requires the presence of a generally progressive weight of behaviours, assumptions and mindsets from its participants in order that it might not betray its very substance, what happens to its future integrity when the weight of such behaviours is deliberately rebalanced so that it becomes impossible to coincide with traditional perceptions of advancement?

Under such circumstances, doesn’t democracy become irrelevant?  I don’t mean, as I’ve said quite incessantly (quite irritatingly) on these pages, that it finds itself peppered with corrupting acts of revolving doors, the self-interested privileges of top-down hierarchies and corporate and political grafts various.  No.  I mean something much more fundamental and game-changing than that.

What if neoliberalism’s thirty- or forty-year march – coupled with the corporate infiltration and shaping of everything we are, do and hanker after (I am reminded of a tweet I read this morning which said something along the lines of: “We’ve become a society of Shakespeares, all writing like monkeys”) – has actually made the vast majority of us basically unsuited to the concepts of traditional democracy I’ve outlined above?

If this is the case, it’s not just that democracy has turned into a farce where the powerful rubber-stamp their power with the laughably occasional will of the people.  If this was all it was, there would still be space for a degree of hope.  No.  The game-changing nature of what’s happened over the past half a century is that we, as human beings, have evolved in mere generations into something quite different from our grandparents.  A consumer society where money demands to be heard; a gadget-driven world where we love tools and use people; an impatient relationship with input and outcome; an absolute inability to step back from thinking and reacting fast.  All of this, and far more, now separates us dramatically from only a couple of generations ago.

The people of a couple of generations ago – as well as the democratic expectations of a couple of generations ago.

Just think about it.

We haven’t destroyed democracy from within.

We’ve simply moved on from its principles.

We’ve evolved astonishingly quickly, to the point where we are probably becoming fairly unrecognisable.  Though to ourselves, wrapped up in ourselves, as always, we will perceive little of this.

Evolved, yes.  Progressed, not necessarily.

For there’s always the chance that this isn’t just the end of the line for democracy.

There’s always the chance – sooner rather than later – it’s the end of the line for the species.

Neoliberalism, the map.

And we, foolish and lazy beings that we are, have taken the wrong fork in the road.

May 122013

The Observer does proud this weekend those of us interested in all matters psychiatric, in three articles published here, here and here.

My interest comes from a personal involvement at a very early age and then during a mid-life crisis.  I was epileptic from 10 onwards and diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic from 41 onwards (just around the time of the Iraq War, in fact) – though interestingly the classification used by British psychiatry suggests that:

Similar disorders developing in the presence of epilepsy or other brain disease should be classified under F06.2

Which in turn says the subject may suffer from a:

Schizophrenia-like psychosis in epilepsy

No matter.  In my case the diagnosis has always been firmly full-blown paranoid schizophrenia, my GP politely refusing to contemplate any change.  I mention this because of one of the arguments used in the third Observer article linked to above, where a professional in favour of the current system of classification says:

[…] A classification system is like a map. And just as any map is provisional, ready to be changed as the landscape changes, so is classification. […]

This is clearly not my experience, neither at the time of initial assessment nor in the years that followed that first assault on my sense and sensibility.  Meanwhile, in the second half of the article I’ve just quoted from, I find in Oliver James a much more sympathetic voice:

Yet 13 studies find that more than half of schizophrenics suffered childhood abuse. Another review of 23 studies shows that schizophrenics are at least three times more likely to have been abused than non-schizophrenics. It is becoming apparent that abuse is the major cause of psychoses. It is also all too clear that the medical model is bust.

And this:

[…] there is a huge body of evidence that our early childhood experiences combined with subsequent exposure to adversity explain a very great deal. This is dose dependent: the more maltreatment, the earlier you suffer it and the worse it is, the greater your risk of adult emotional distress. These experiences set our electro-chemical thermostats.

So does subsequent adult adversity. For instance, a person with six or more personal debts is six times more likely to be mentally ill than someone with none, regardless of their social class: the more debts, the greater the risk.

My own adult adversity was chronicled a couple of years ago in a short story I wrote.  You can find this story, if you are of a mind to read it, here.  I lay it down as the evidence I still need to provide in order that I might demonstrate I have no disorder except my epilepsy – and no illness except my savage reaction to madness around me.

As a young adolescent I remember something else too.  A book called “Sanity, Madness and the Family” entered my life and influenced me in boundless ways.  It seemed to hit a raw nerve, and much as semiotics and comparative studies at university later on, opened my eyes to a whole host of new ways of seeing.

Its thesis, if I remember rightly, was that much of what schizophrenics were accused of suffering from involved a series of collusive and horrendously denied acts committed by those who lived with and around them.  Films taken of family interviews showed the alleged schizophrenic at the centre of the discourse, with siblings and parents winking at each other around them.  In the face of a reality which was never shared it’s hardly surprising that someone might be described as delusional.

At the time of my own diagnosis, only my father had an opportunity to speak to the psychiatrist.  My wife, who spent most time with me in the year leading up to my collapse, never had the chance to put across her point of view. Hardly a holistic approach able to contain both biology and society.

The problem with maps, of course, being you can sometimes hold them upside down.


And so we come to my final question: what is the proper task of this complex discipline we call psychiatry?  To map and decide disorder, simply and dissectingly?  To assume that what we have amongst us are people who suffer from incomplete bodies, broken mechanisms and disabling biochemistry?

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

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

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

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

Apr 252013

This story from the Mirror today does really make manifest the idiocy which abounds at the moment:

A young sidekick of David Cameron has claimed hard-up families are turning to food banks because they’ve wasted their money on booze.

The Twitter outburst by Liam Walker caused outrage in the Prime Minister’s constituency.

We’ve had this kind of rank insensitivity – where not inaccuracy – before and we’ll clearly have it again.  Now we could argue, as I did recently, that this was essentially a result of a kind of psychotic relationship with reality at the very top of government.  But I’m beginning seriously to consider whether the real explanation lies elsewhere.  As I tweeted a day or so ago:

Our social-democratic society, in its kindly appreciation of all human beings, has allowed ambitious idiots to climb to the top of the pile.

In a sense, then, we might wish to conclude that the Liam Walkers of this world are the product of social media’s zero hierarchies, which in themselves are the products of our dearly-, and perhaps lately-, beloved social democracy, in its long-pronounced labour and aim to value everyone equally.

If I am at all right in what I suggest, we’re not seeing the result of us all being a product of a hierarchical neoliberalism, where cruel announcements, decisions and outcomes tumble out of the mouths of the vicious; no, not at all.  Instead, what we’re seeing is the results of those “everyone is a human being” socially-democratic mindsets, where everything anyone thinks or says is to be contemplated, understood and considered with a judicious and egalitarian care.

What the Liam Walkers of this world are visiting upon us now is precisely the consequence of what the Liam Walkers least appreciate in their upbringing: they have grown up with the feeling that they have every right to “blurt out” this stuff, because the society, schools, environment and political legacy they respect so little has taught them that hierarchy, meritoriously achieved, has zero importance in the 21st century.

Am I reverting to type then?  A “weirdy-hippy” thinker, perhaps, who spends a decade proclaiming the virtue of flat hierarchies – only to suddenly discover the downsides of their prevalence in the words of a government hanger-on?

Maybe so.  Though I think it more complex than that.  The key is in the phrase “meritoriously achieved”.  This “merit” process, as previously defined by social democracy, and then by New Labour’s more complicated – perhaps more confusing – re-engineering of its implications, was never really achieved.  The society of aspiration and opportunity as thus described ended up simply as more smoke and mirrors to hide the graft.

I suppose what I’m really looking to promote in all of this is that via mice (social media), social democracy (a meritorious society) and idiots (like social you and me), we might fashion a different way of communicating amongst ourselves: a way where each of us, through a little-by-little learning process, acquired the skills that Walker clearly doesn’t have when using the power that flat hierarchies clearly offer.

The Walkers of this world deserve our scorn, it is true.  But we’ve all done similar stuff, driven by the prejudices none of us can ever shake off.  Before social media, we did this stuff behind the scenes and in private.  Now the private has become public, maybe we need a different approach to life.  Maybe what we really need to start doing is filtering out the idiocies in all our pronouncements, as we focus on controlling the terms and natures of the debates which most affect our lives.

Yes.  We will continue, as human beings, to be publicly idiotic.

But maybe knowing we are all so will lead us to a kinder and more respectful place.

We can only hope.

And, also, try.

Even as trying is clearly never quite enough.

Apr 102013

I was Skype-chatting with someone very close to me last night.  We suddenly realised how it had become possible – gleefully so – to say smutty words like “society”, “nationalisation”, “state-ownership” and “planned economy”.  As I have argued recently and consistently of late, if corporate capitalism now has the analytical tools to properly run its internal and external command-and-control economies – tools which the Soviet Union and others did not have in the 20th century – why can we not celebrate not exactly the death of Margaret Thatcher but, rather, the victory of Communism (more here)?

Neoliberalism may have vanquished democratic discourse – made it impossible, in a very divide and rule sort of way, for democratic politicians to promote the ideas I mention above – but in truth, and in business, there is very little difference now between the corporate ways of Mussolini and Stalin and those of Apple, Google and Microsoft.  Ideological domination of the world was, and is, all their aims.  It’s true that we shouldn’t stretch the comparison in relation to the number of deaths directly incurred in each case.  But as corporate capitalism’s march proceeds anon, it still isn’t clear that the massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the already well-to-do and downright wealthy won’t have the kind of consequences we’re now witnessing in countries such as Greece.

Financial violence begets street violence; the violence of property, which need not be violent, leads straight to the violence of broken windows.

The violence of envy in fact; much more prevalent than jealousy in our material world these days.

A sad violence the stratification of society will always promote.

And so I will argue that Mrs Margaret Thatcher abandoned her true cause early on.  Where she could have created a true free-market economy, she simply created a playground for the rich.  With the belief, whether real or not, in the magical power of trickle-down economics, the enrichment of the very wealthy was easily justified.  Where did all that leave the blessed corner-shop grocer she had grown up in?  At the mercy of transnationals such as Tesco and Asda?  Is that really the legacy she meant us to think she’d leave behind her?  Is that really what she intended to engineer?

I don’t think so.  I think, more than ever now, that she was – like Tony Blair – a prisoner of her own ambitions.  Big Money, Big Communism, the sort which runs our supposedly free-market economies, was the winner here.  Still is.  And after everything that has happened since the Berlin Wall collapsed, it’s not free-market capitalism which has won out but a huge and unstoppable command-and-control statism of the right.

Not that “right” or “left” mean very much these days either.  Democratic discourse has been so corrupted by this Big Communism I talk of, and to such an aggressive extent, that we really have lost our handles on the concepts that once served to inform and usefully label our differences.

The process continues, even today.  The BBC, unconsciously, shows us all our prejudices in this list of reactions this morning:

In other developments:

How we continue to attach to the famous such as Thatcher our very apparent prejudices.  Mrs Thatcher would be proud that the country could still divide itself up over her person.  As Ian Bell put it so exactly yesterday (it seems that, for a bit of measured reflection on the matter, we must travel north of a rather more beautiful Border):

She made no bones about that. Criticism, antagonism, even contempt, seemed to invigorate those fixed, sparking eyes. She was the last authentic class warrior in Westminster politics, and she gloried in the combat.

And from Bell’s marvellous piece – I strongly urge you to read it in full – to my own final tribute to this event.  I’ve spoken quite a lot about the monetisation of life – something I think Thatcher’s neoliberalism clearly promoted.  So it is with a heavy heart I must report a final irony.  Yesterday, in the same Skype chat, I was pointed in the direction of a rather unhappy video which cruelly celebrated the death of the Iron Lady.  Visible to myself, but not the person I was Skyping with (I live in England whilst they do not), was a contextual advertisement from Google.  As a final – perhaps literal – nail in the coffin of life’s other far more glorious freedoms, it would appear that even a video on the subject of Margaret Thatcher would use fear, division and a sense of fate to frighten people into a relationship of corporate dependence.

Pre-paid funeral ad

That is to say, even out of Thatcher’s own death there is money to be made.

I wonder if she ever realised this would be her destiny too.

And that it wouldn’t be the free-marketeers of rose-tinted England who would feast off her memory but, instead, the Communist-style business folk of far-flung globalisation.

Apr 092013

I tweeted to such effect a couple of times today.  This story, with its striking timing, just makes me wonder more so.  As the university in question quietly informs us:

In light of the conclusions published by the Independent Police Complaints Commission Report (28 March 2013), Liverpool John Moores University has withdrawn the Honorary Fellowship awarded to Sir Norman Bettison in 2004.

As previously stated the University would like to commend the families and friends of those who died in the Hillsborough tragedy for the dignity and fortitude they have shown during their lengthy campaign for justice.

For our previous statement, please click here

For my opinion on this and related matters, you might want to read a couple of posts I wrote a while ago.

In fact, neoliberalism’s Berlin Wall moment may be far closer than we think.  This is, after all, the double-edged sword of charismatic leadership.  What can be so vigorously created in such a short space of time may fall just as quickly once its inspiration no longer peoples the earth.  The reality is that the One Direction generation knows very little of the lady who declaimed “There Is No Alternative”.  And that’s either a measure of how entrenched and invisible her philosophies have become – or a sign that very soon they will simply fall away in abeyance.

Clearly, only time can tell.  Time, and those who assiduously care to rewrite history.

Which is why I do perceive most strongly that so many interested parties, on both right and left (given that Mrs Thatcher’s most singular achievement was to change not just the Tories but Labour too), are now looking to cement a legacy for their own future purposes.  And it is here where precisely we should begin to remember – with a calm but diligent focus – all those events that occurred which were clearly and demonstrably unjust.  Events which happened on her watch (coincidentally or not), and which not only served to benefit her side of the political equation but also led her to take advantage of their natures.

Not that we should be totally convinced of the supposedly iron-like nature of that equation.

Hers was a myth built upon certain truths.  But a speckling of truths cannot sustain a myth beyond its sell-by date.  And if the Neoliberal Wall does finally fall, it won’t be because of evil left-wing revisionist scribes of political histories various.

No.  It will, rather, be out of its very long-term failure to deliver on its promises.  It will be out of its own failures to recognise humanity measured in any other way but the financial.  It will be out of its own inability to devise any other formula than that which values an economic contribution to society as worth pursuing.

As well as its, even today, proud dependence on these very charismatic authorities I mention above.

Authorities which, admittedly, all parts of the political spectrum so love to embrace.  Authorities which, ultimately, make all organisations unable to reacquire their original rude health.

Thank goodness that at least one English university can now begin to see this.

Thank goodness the English neoliberal tale is – finally – beginning to unravel.

Mar 062013

I read this piece from Labour Uncut today, and immediately lashed out (mentally, I mean) at a couple of the phrases thus contained.  Interestingly, however, not all.

Let me list them as follows.  First, the soundbite that caused my mixed blood to boil unevenly:

  • “An effective approach to migrant labour is, then, about economic justice, not racial prejudice. In the interests of One Nation politics Labour has to become the party that is tough on immigration, but tougher on its causes.”

I think this is clearly misplaced.  An “effective” approach to migrant labour doesn’t – in a globalised world – aim to shut down the freedom of such labour to move where it will.  Unless, of course, in the name of “economic justice”, it also chooses to restrict the movement of capital.  And I’m sure the author of the post in question would never suggest that’d be a way forward.

Though I, indeed, might be inclined to.

Another couplet which drew my attention:

  • “[…] There will also be a symbolic shift towards the police rather than HM Revenue and Customs taking the lead on enforcement of the national minimum wage.
  • “‘There must be a level playing field so domestic workers are not disadvantaged and employers shouldn’t be allowed to use migration in the wrong way,’ says a Labour source.”

Not sure there’d be many immigrants out there who’d be positive about certain police forces getting involved in any enforcement.  But Labour’s strategists probably know this – are even maybe counting on it, at least as a way of getting across a subliminal message for the “flog ‘em and hang ‘em” crowd.

Two more phrases now – this time it would seem a little more constructive in approach, and telling the kind of story I perceive:

  • “[…] it is not racial prejudice driving public concern about immigration, it is economic injustice. Indeed, the contemporary discussion about immigration pits older migrant communities against newcomers in a battle for scarce jobs and resources.”
  • “[…] Immigration is a necessary addendum for economic neo-liberalism to function. The growth of the New Labour years was held aloft courtesy of an ever-ready army of cheap migrants serving to keep corporate costs down. […]”

But the author goes on to colour his argument when he adds in flag-wrapping glory:

  • “Surely it is a great progressive cause to tackle labour market abuses and offer British workers something more than the dismal prospect of competing with migrant workers on the basis of who will work for least? Isn’t that what a labour party should be for?”

That sentence would’ve be fine for me if he hadn’t used the adjective “British”.  What’s progressive about that?  How internationalist does that sit with other “progressive” approaches to globalisation?  We never think twice about capital moving its dosh at the speed of electronic – and stateless – light.  Yet when we talk about the flesh-and-blood aspect of our economies, we suddenly get all coy about identity and its relative importance.

No.  To argue that the case of migrant workers is mainly a question of economic justice, and the economic justice we’re talking about relates to “British” workers in Britain at the expense of anyone else with an equal right on this planet to make their living, is to ignore the real causes of much migration: the relative poverty we tolerate in other countries compared to the advantages we – even today – still enjoy here in England.

And I’d be much happier if the suggestion to hand was to deal with the subject of economic justice in all its awful entirety than to use it as a fig leaf to cover the immigration sensibilities of those who’d like to be racist – but find themselves unwilling to take ownership for their state.

A final thought to be going away with.  You’re right.  I don’t know how to talk about immigration, do I?  And that should be a most puzzling matter, for I was born in Oxford, England – can’t get much more English than that – to then spend most of my life growing up in the North West of the same country.  But my mother is Catholic Croatian; my father atheist English (and possibly Welsh); my wife and children are Castilian Spanish; and I even feel kind of curiously attached to the fluid ounces of Spanish Jew that apparently course through my veins.  So maybe you can understand my confusion.  I belong to nowhere entirely – and yet feel beloved by all of those influences.

For me however, and for people like me, in Labour Uncut’s economic justice, there is no place at all – except, perhaps, a self-interested sleight-of-hand which, on the one hand, says if you have enough capital, the world will surely be yours; whilst, on the other, if you find yourself at the bottom of the pile, stick with the bottom of the pile in the country which still treasures that neo-liberal drive to the faecal end of the labour market.

Which probably means the vast majority of so-called developed countries out there.

Now doesn’t it?

Oct 192012

I finally tracked it down.  That Denis Healey quote on social democracy.  Only it wasn’t quite Denis Healey’s – rather, it was a favourite one he borrowed from Leszek Kolakowski:

“An obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy”.

The link above is dated 2009, and marks Kolakowski’s death.  Not long after the consequences of the financial-services sector’s stupidities began to hit home.  And not long before New Labour finally found its half-hearted match in this dreadful Coalition government.

I used to be a fan of that quote too.  Not any more.  In the light of the last four years, it would seem far more likely that social democracy had an important veneer of the social but very little of the democracy.  Its top-down elitist approach to the use of number-crunched stats, of nudging voters’ behaviours, of saying one thing but doing another, of being comfortable with extreme wealth and ameliorating with extreme poverty, only suggests to me that if anything we need yet another rebrand: not Old Labour, not New Labour, not Black Labour, not Purple Labour – but, instead, so we understand exactly what’s been going wrong, a social undemocracy.

“How so?” you may well ask.

Watch and listen to Sean Taylor’s song.

Now tell me that – under a supposed social democracy, under that “obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy” – we don’t have perfectly exemplified as a result of thirteen years of its practice a government which is promoting all of the above.

And as a result of the aforementioned thirteen years of squeamish compromise and devil-supping politics, it would seem clear that the voters couldn’t make up their minds whether – one way or another – anything had been properly achieved.

The reason for the existence of this awful government which tomorrow’s march in London hopes to combat isn’t principally an evil neoliberalism from the other side of the Atlantic.  Rather, it’s a social democracy which was anything but sensibly democratic.

They didn’t win it.  It was we who lost it.

Before we can move on, before we can repair sadly breaking structures, we have to accept that what we prized as an honourable way forward was precisely what allowed the greed and injustice to flourish on our watch.

Sort that out – and we’ll be far better placed to fight the injustices of latterday society.

Make democracy social and democratic.

Those should be our twin objectives.

The instinct to demonstrate publicly one’s position on such important matters being just the first step along that journey.

Good luck to everyone involved in tomorrow’s march.  I wish you well.

Democracy requires us all to bear witness to our ways of seeing.  And that, in essence, is all you are doing.  Democracy.

Sep 132012

My two youngest children, seventeen and fourteen now, are becoming more and more Spanish as they get older.  They miss the ways and wherefores of social integration: the ways people address you and assume your reality.  I had believed life in Britain would’ve become easier as time passed.  But this has most definitely not been the case.

Without wishing to sound too dramatic, they are verging on a state of walking wounded.  They do laugh and enjoy their lives, of course.  I’m not saying they do not.  But Britain – perhaps that’s just England – is such a repetitively insistent society.  Variety is the spice of life – but not in the England we know.

I wonder if this state of walking wounded I speak of isn’t being shared more widely by those who would consider themselves natives.  In the past, we lived our lives in a relatively comfortable environment: our leaders were like us more or less; we were like them; people didn’t fake too much; prejudices were shared.

Now, we find ourselves attacked on two sides simultaneously.

Firstly, from within, and since phonehacking, the Leveson inquiry and now the day-old Hillsborough revelations, it is clear that in what we thought was a representative democracy, the only people truly represented have been the already rich and wealthy.  The police have been found guilty of using their tools against innocent citizens; the tabloids, in particular those belonging to Murdoch’s empire, seem clearly in the thrall of making money over uncovering the truth; and the judiciary and establishment in general have allowed themselves to be distracted by power and status to such an extent that digging deeper was clearer not a goal.  As this by-the-by sign-off from one of the Guardian pieces linked to above indicates, and in relation to Thatcher’s own reign and preoccupations around the terrible events of Hillsborough:

While there was no direct evidence that Thatcher or the cabinet was complicit in a cover-up, it is revealed that the primary concern of the government at the time was the impact of the disaster on its proposed football spectators bills.

The second disorientation I can see, an external one this time, and which is also creating a legion of confused and shocked citizens, comes from the US – a country whose cultural content has to date, quite rightly, entranced and engaged us.  Here, we find that foreign ideas, mostly foreign to our own special form of English socialism, are beginning to take over and invade our very sense of Englishness.  This disorientation leads to feelings of shame and guilt; of anger and fear; of all kinds of uncertainties around not change as such – but bad change as per Cameron and his ideologues.

Is it possible, then, that just as my daughter and son become evermore Spanish in their instincts, growing up as they are into adulthood, and even as they find themselves in permanent and intimate contact with English society, so native-born English people – whatever their ethnicity – are discovering that the invasion of immigrants from distant and different countries which is most affecting their sense of wellbeing happens to be an immigration of ideas more than people?

That is to say, is it only that my children are growing towards their Spanishness and away from their perception of Englishness – or is Englishness for everyone in general growing away from what we might argue it has every right to remain?

And if the latter, is this a case where we can all agree that immigration is undeniably wrong?  An imposition by the already globally powerful with the aim of organising a society which clearly does not belong to them.

Ways of organisation which manifestly benefit them even as such ideas serve to prejudice the rest of us poor souls.

Yes.  Perhaps this is the final stage of globalisation.  Where ideas underpin the future of money over the future of flesh-and-blood human beings.

Sep 062012

Interesting and perceptive paragraph, this one, from an interesting and perceptive article in the Guardian today (the bold is mine):

More and more voters, therefore, will be worrying about jobs, benefits, rents, and debt interest rates, not about the value of houses, pensions or shares. The neoliberal attempt to create mass capitalism has hit the buffers. Political parties that stand on what has been called “the centre ground” for the past three decades can afford to abandon it. If the left parties can develop a coherent economic alternative, they will find an increasingly receptive audience who, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, have nothing to fear but fear itself.

That, in fact, is what has happened.  And so now I understand why it all went so awfully belly-up.  People like Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher maybe did after all believe in a capitalism of the masses – blinded as they were by their terrible convictions to the reality that capitalism, by its very essence, only ever feeds off the masses, even as it never properly or efficiently can all of them feed.

Capitalism requires hierarchy; capitalism requires owners and owned; capitalism requires both the downtrodden and those who do the treading.  It’s a chimera, that we can all get to the top.  For if we all got to the top, the armies that make up the capitalist battlefield would have no cannon fodder to throw at the enemy.

And that would never do.

If Blair is over, so are Thatcher and Cameron.

If Blair is over, so is that illusion of branded social democracy, of late and sentimental capitalism, that was the neoliberalism of little-people shareholdings.  A manifest piece of marketing in any case.

In hindsight, after all, it really does beggar belief.  Did we really – truly – believe them when they encouraged us to place our hard-won nest eggs precisely in those baskets they then proceeded to throw at the markets with the most violence, lack of foresight and absence of sensibility they could unprofessionally muster?

Save all your life to throw it away on an idea?  Is that what Blairism, Thatcherism and that tiny little tail of Cameronism has finally succeeded in delivering to the masses?

And they talk about the irrelevance of ideology to modern politics.

This isn’t the age of aspiration any more.

This is the age of survival.

We don’t need salesmen and women to lead us out of these darknesses – but survivalists who understand what’s it like not to know where the next poverty-engendering job will come from.  We need people and communities who understand that life isn’t about concentrating wealth but – instead –  about sharing it out as wide as possible.

Not spreading it thinly but spreading it broadly.

There’s a difference.

Wealth needs to revolve to benefit society.  Sitting on wealth and watching it grow coldly and uncreatively is the sickest act a rich civilisation can encourage its citizens to prize.

If Blair really is over, and Thatcher and Cameron too, let’s not let slip faint praise or murmur ashamedly to ourselves.  Rest in peace for a job well done?

THEY FAILED FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!  On their own terms, on ours, on behalf of generations to come; on behalf of generations who can now only look to the future with fear.  This, my dear friends, is what failure – unmitigated, unruly, unpredictable, uncontrollable – actually looks like.  Anything they now say will sound only of a vague and stupid puffery.  They’ll squabble amongst themselves, of course, as they discuss their awfully complex issues: disagreeing here, disagreeing there, “agendas ladies”, “points of order gentlemen”.  But in truth there is nothing they can do to charm us again with their stage-managed and effervescently careful whispers.

If only they were able to face up to the brutal reality: whilst the voters are too ignorant to properly understand what has happened, these very same voters are nevertheless obliged – duty-bound, in fact – to unknowingly suffer the consequences.

So it is that Blair and Thatcher and Cameron’s law and order, the Magna Carta itself, has broken up completely – right down the middle; a total disintegration of that formerly fair and just balance between doing and being done to.

Where Great Britain and Northern Ireland was once a land where the connection between rights and responsibilities ruled, now it’s becoming all too patently obvious that the truth we live is really quite another: too stupid to have the right to an opinion, we must even so swallow the medicine.

The real failure of neoliberalism – of Blair, Thatcher and Cameron?  It’s NOT the economy, stupids!  It’s utterly – and entirely – a morality play.

A broken-backed morality play for our time, that is.

A borked broken-backed morality play – if that sounds more in line with the register I’m using.

But I’m not looking to re-establish 19th century mores.


That’s not what I’m saying at all.

All I’m wondering, out loud, and with an ever-growing lack of spirit, is how it was possible for these two intelligent men and that one intelligent woman to contemplate creating a whole civilisation based on greed, something-for-nothing financial transactions and a survival of the fittest which even the basest creatures on our planet may choose to avoid.

If Blair, Thatcher and Cameron really are over, and we are now in the anteroom of another kinder and more humanly recognisable age, I can only proclaim: “Hallelujah!”

If they – and we – are not, I can only suggest you prepare your cardboard boxes, your tins of beans, your camping cutlery – and, perhaps, a prayer or two just in case.

For if it’s survival time, we’ll only really manage by sincerely and honestly pulling together as – maybe – never before.

Whilst if that’s not going to be on the agenda, and this tragically ugly and neoliberal Darwinian capitalism – which destroys so many lives, families, people and aspirations – is truly going to be all that’s left us … well, I really do not see a future peace for anyone to rest in.

Whatever standing history cares to assign them.

Whatever their official reputation may finally turn out to be.

Aug 152012

I’ve often battled against tribalism in politics.  I take as my reference point not the Tories of old but New Labour itself.  So much good was reworked by the silver-tongued leaders of that formation – but, as a Twitter friend of mine so rightly points out, at a cost:

@eiohel Yes, while New Labour did undertake much needed investment in schools,hospitals etc it came at a cost + we’r still paying the price

All those juicy PFI agreements being just one.

And in much the same way as the US Paul Ryan would now appear to be demanding American public-sector cuts of $6 trillion – which coincidentally mirror George W Bush’s tax giveaways to the rich from years back – so New Labour’s PFI can be interpreted as a (perhaps deliberate and intentionally fashioned) continuation of Thatcher’s savage underinvestment in state education, healthcare and social security.

Taken as a long-term strategy by those with neoliberal tendencies in all parties to eventually gut the public sector, the underinvestment by Thatcher inevitably opened the back door (where not trapdoor) to private investment in state infrastructures such as schools and hospitals.  This, then, was just the first stage in ensuring that any future regime would have its hands tied as far as private sector participation in general provision of key public-sector services.

That Cameron failed to gain an overall majority shows us just how unhappy the voting populace was with this neoliberal strategy: neither voting for New Labour in its decaffeinated manifestation under Brown nor voting for its retread in Cameron’s detoxified Tories, intuitive suspicion and a lack of real alternatives perhaps meant that the logjam of the last general election was inevitable.

It’s not that we didn’t know whether to trust Brown or Cameron.  It’s, rather, that we realised whilst our civic obligation was to dutifully vote, the alternatives to more neoliberal dismantling of a public-service model we treasured simply did not exist on our political spectrum.

Meanwhile, now what we witness is a total rejection by our leading politicians of all democratic instincts to convince the voters before implementing new policies.  They see the long-term goals of the neoliberals almost achieved – and can’t wait, gagging as they are, to fulfil their apparent destinies.

You have heard me reject – over the past six years – the need for tribalism in politics in order to achieve one’s objectives.

In the light of what has clearly been a drip-feed war played out in our common and ordinary lives by neoliberal advantage-seekers of many and any unscrupulous kinds, it would seem that – truthfully – there is now no longer any alternative to signing up to the side that best benefits humanity and its inhabitants.

Even as such tribalism, in the guise of New Labour and its Thatcherite frame, and perhaps quite despite itself, was sadly responsible for hammering the penultimate nails into the coffin of the caring state.

One word of warning, then, before I finish this post: where tribalism must be contemplated, be very careful which tribe you sign up to.

For I can hardly believe that all those bright and shiny New Labourites – who voted with such enthusiasm in 1997 – ever expected their government to form part of a historical arc which would terminate in Cameronism.

Now did we?

Jul 192012

Carl is right.  Steve is right.  Even I’ve been right on occasions.

This has been the year neoliberalism proved its strength.  On the back of a crisis it was directly responsible for – a financial Iraq, in fact – it created exactly the same societal conditions of democratic bewilderment.  At the moment, most of us seem to be wandering around in a daze – as if suffering from the kind of shocks (not aftershocks, though) which earthquake victims find themselves consistently assailed by.

People like Carl and Steve are strong enough to resist.  They keep on churning out with great wisdom their highly precise and well-researched diatribes against rank injustice.

I’ve been doing it myself for nigh on six years now.  I started off seeking refuge in the Catholic Church and now cannot even find it in the broad church that is the Labour Party.  Yet, even so, even as I find it difficult to sustain a proper anger over such a long period of time, I know I must continue to do so for the benefit of others.

This is not World War II.  This is not civil war.  This is something quite different from everything recent history has bestowed on us.  This is brazen power pulling its disconcerting levers unashamedly.  No longer do they care to wrap it up in the tissue paper of a social democracy which sells its soul to a multitude of malevolent forces.  Instead, they’re quite happy now to overtly recognise the intellectual incoherence of their rhetoric – and proceed as if people didn’t matter in the least.

Selfishness squared.  Or cubed, perhaps.

Yet, even as I admire Steve and Carl and Sunny and Paul and David and Paul and Clifford and so many others … even as I realise the truth is definitely out there … even as I understand how important is the labour of public discovery of private duplicity … nevertheless, I can’t help feeling – as I stated over at the other day – that we now need to go far beyond simply revealing the horrible darkness behind the neoliberal foolishnesses.

We are still reacting, still walking around a little aimlessly in that post-emergency-trauma way sufferers of severe aggression have; democratically, it is clear, with all their awful and unremitting power, they have cheerfully and cruelly gone and raped us.  And we, so proud of our manifest ability to communicate cogently, know not who to properly turn to any more in order that we might denounce such a crime and act.

Which is why I say, now, we need to go far beyond public discovery.

We need to move on to providing practical and parallel solutions.  Solutions which do not require the agreement of people who have learned how to lie about everything.

As a start, please do genuinely consider my offer the other day to make this a group blog.  It would be a space where intelligence could meet up with solutions – solutions outside traditional hierarchical control – yet wisely structured along the lines of a very 21st century approach, firmly lodged in the field of shared intelligences and collaborative communities.

We need a new breed of politicians and businesspeople both.

Only then can we seriously get on with the job of dealing with the conspiratorial malevolence of the selfishly anti-democratic.

For only when we widely understand that pyramidal politics and business are real drivers of disaster can we, at all, advance in our surely shared desire to allow the ideals, practice and results of true democracy to bloom in our civilisations once again.

Jul 182012

I’ll be off to Spain for a working – and very editorial – holiday soon.

Keep me posted on what happens back in Blighty.  Sadly, our proud country has changed.  From being a nation which housed a world, it’s become a state unable to even house its own.  It’s not the fault of the state.  It’s the fault of those engineering a very British coup.  And whilst I myself feel we should move beyond the passivity of a horror long ago realised – even if all the same ever-present – it’s clear that where anarchists fear to tread, neoliberalism has no such compunctions.

I can understand why, right now, people need to express these innermost fears.  We are still not at the stage where we can properly fight back.

One of the editorial projects I am currently working on will involve a blueprint for fighting back.  It will be a constructive – not anarchistic – fighting back; and this, I think, is right.  Yet the evidence is gathering out there of far worse revelations to come than to date.  Banks sanctioning money-laundering of drug cartels; corrupt behaviours in relation to key interest rates; massive failures to comply with key national security and law and order contracts … the private sector isn’t exactly wrapping itself in the flags of glory.

We all have a right to fail and learn, of course.  However, where I draw the line is when I see certain groups in society using their own apparent failures in order to detonate perfectly useful models of welfare, support networks various and social services and benefits.  To destroy the state out of the malignancy of throttling a demonstrably efficient modus operandi is ideological madness run absolutely riot.

But then, of course, it’s only madness in a sense.  It’s only madness if you consider the pursuit of stratospherically moneyed power a futile exercise.  If you don’t, then what’s going on is a perfectly sane response to Darwinian top-dog economic theory: eat or be eaten; kill or be killed.

The profit motive is no longer our solution – if, indeed, it ever was.  Unless, that is, we are talking about that kind of profit we could term societal.

A new concept then is needed: societal benefit.  A new benchmark or standard to measure others by: the constructive or productive standard.  A new way of working together: the collaborative or cooperative way.

Let the profit motive still stand – but let it be defined quite differently.  In terms of maximising outcomes for as many people as possible.  This, for example:

We pursue our mission with focus, discipline and rigor in order to maximize our impact.

For if Bill Gates can conceptualise supporting needy causes in such a way, why can’t the rest of our economic activity understand and treat from the start the general populace with similar kid gloves – before, that is, it becomes exposed to gratuitous and unnecessary stress?

What you do to the rest, do to your own.  And then you will discover exactly how we can all form part of a shareable commons; a shareable future; a shareable – different – way of living.

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 072012

Amazon’s been in the news the past couple of days.  First, this story from the Guardian brought to our attention the fact that it allegedly paid no corporation tax on UK sales even though such sales generated billions of pounds.  It would appear, however, and this is something I shall focus on in this post, that the profit margins on the income generated are generally around 3.5 percent.

Compare that with Apple’s massive cash mountain of more than $80 billion and it does take the edge off some of the allegations.

But then, on the other hand, Amazon has always been known for aiming for market share above early profits: destroy the competition first has always been the promise; the benefits will surely come later.

Today, then, we have Tim Waterstone, of the British bookstore chain Waterstone’s, saying this kind of thing of his main competitor:

[…] No trader has ever been so successful in its concentration on consumer pricing – all this impervious, of course, to the broader considerations of the overall welfare of the industries in which it is operating. It’s all so simple. Make and build your brand on a reputation for absolutely rock-bottom pricing. Do this single-mindedly and ruthlessly. Even say it upfront, insultingly and aggressively, in your advertising – go, Mr Consumer, go to Harrods or wherever it is, inspect and admire the goods, then come home and buy them from us. Online. At a deep, deep discount. And fuck Harrods or whoever it is for their trouble. More fool them. And more fool Waterstones. Go and browse through all the books there, in Waterstones, or Daunt’s, or your lovely Topping stores, then put them back on the tables (fingered and soiled) and order those you want from us. Why pay more? Why worry about the consequences?

And I can sincerely feel for what Mr Waterstone expresses with such clarity.  Even as I am a pretty gung-ho Amazon consumer.  I began to use it when I lived in Spain and couldn’t get English-speaking books locally.  When I came back to Britain, continuing to use it was a natural progression – a progression someone who loved the Internet really couldn’t resist.

But, even so, I can see from the bitterness of the above passage what Amazon has done to a whole industry of honourable individuals.

There was no industry in the world more dependent on its different elements for its good functioning than the publishing industry.  And now people like Amazon, and Apple too, are integrating massively so that all potential for making a living lies entirely in the hands of single companies.

We no longer need editors; we no longer need typesetters; in an age of e-books we no longer need bookbinders; we no longer need printers; we no longer need designers; all we need are the individual creators prepared – probably unbeknownst to them – to sign away the future of all traditional diversity.  In the name of empowering the authors, we destroy the ways and wherefores of a profoundly rich and complex sector.


What I am more worried about, however, is that 3.5 percent profit margin.  Even if Amazon did pay corporation tax in Britain on the sales its Luxembourg arm is responsible for, on such a margin how much of what Amazon moves would actually  end up in the pockets of the interventionary state so beloved of democratic socialists?

So what’s happening here then?  What are the wider implications?  Essentially, in our latterday capitalism consumers have taken over from schoolchildren, teachers, parents, patients, doctors, nurses, police officers, social workers, council workers, councillors pensioners, MPs and a whole host of other interested parties.

Our economies no longer function for the benefit of wider societal needs and justifications.  Large companies like Amazon have realised, whether consciously or unconsciously, that, by dropping their prices to the lowest rock-bottom levels which Mr Waterstone talks about, they can not only guarantee their futures on the killing-fields of corporate engagement but also remove all need to hand over any cash to the state.  In fact, it will soon become unnecessary to avoid paying tax.  Corporations will generate enough profit to keep going but not too much to have to contribute to the public sector.

Perhaps, in their terrible wisdom, this is what the neoliberals have seen – and what the rest of us are refusing to recognise.  In such a way, the state will, indeed, run out of cash – not because capitalism finally fails but because, rather, human beings in the guise of any other role but that of consumer will die a long-drawn-out death akin to the dinosaurs of old.

The only transaction which will work in this brave new world will be that of business to consumer.  As long as your needs refer to consumer needs, you will benefit mightily from such a dynamic.

The problem is if you will ever be a worker for one of these businesses; or a person in need of medical support you can’t afford; or a child in need of a soup kitchen which doesn’t exist.  Then, of course, you will miss the Welfare State – a state which no longer exists because our economy only cares any more about consumers.

This may be part of how and why the Welfare State is all of a sudden being disembowelled.  Those who are organising it, whilst certainly looking to fill their own already deep pockets, may also see the dangers of the Amazon dynamic to their ability to control the heaving masses: if we don’t sort out some way of engineering support services in a world where 3.5 percent profit margins become the norm, the recent demonstrations across Europe and the US against the injustices of the current crisis in capitalism will be but a harbinger of much worse times to come for these ruling elites.

We on the left, for example, may see the destruction of the NHS as the worst betrayal of all that we have held most dear in a society where common interests used to structure how we distributed resources.  On the other hand, those on the right might actually be looking to salvage from what they see as the unstoppable juggernaut of their own unfortunate economic history a modicum of society-protecting humanity.  Even if this is simply to protect their interests as that ruling elite.

Do try and be charitable about this, folks – at least for a moment.  The situation is becoming so grave we really do need to think a little laterally.

There is, of course, an alternative – there always will be.  In this case, to understand the Amazon dynamic for what it is – and change society so that our economy doesn’t only serve and contemplate the interests of the customer.

“But the customer is king,” I hear you say.  Well, perhaps we have lived this cliché for far too long.  A society where the customer is king and the king reigns above and beyond the interests of everyone else is a society ripe for considerable upheaval.  And the consumer society – the society where the customer is the most important driver of almost everyone’s interests everywhere – is surely approaching such a moment.

It is time we rethought society profoundly.

The question is whether anyone’s capable of understanding that it’s actually there to be rethought.  Before it becomes too late to rethink it.