Jul 242014
 
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Yesterday, I read this phrase quoted from Tim O’Reilly (the bold is mine):

We couldn’t agree more: “Technology should be about values with people at the centre” @timoreilly #OSCON2014 #OSCON

This afternoon, meanwhile, I read three amazing articles – all of which, in some way, may lead to a final fixing of our broken political process.

The first article is from Wired UK, and describes how the tech industry is leading to increasing inequality.  A lack of morality – manifested by the industry everywhere, as well as large corporations in all sectors since the beginning of capitalism – leads to “ordinary people” being forced out of their suburbs.  The wealth generated by workers, who with their interconnected technologies can set up business anywhere, soon distorts and deforms the social patterns and financial dynamics of every community they set their eyes on:

[...] The tech community has the ear of government, a lot cash and the skills to truly change the lives of people across the world. And while some do, like those building open software, along with proponents of the clean web and those trying to address human rights abuses in device manufacturing, the majority do not. US psychologist Paul Piff calls the growing detachment of the super-rich, simply, the “asshole effect”.

The second article comes from the Guardian back in June (again, worth reading in its entirety), linked to from the Wired UK report above.  And it asserts things like this – things I have failed to hear for a long time but which were music to my ears a naive decade ago:

So how does open source everything have the potential to ‘re-engineer the Earth’? For me, this is the most important question, and Steele’s answer is inspiring. “Open Source Everything overturns top-down ‘because I say so at the point of a gun’ power. Open Source Everything makes truth rather than violence the currency of power. Open Source Everything demands that true cost economics and the indigenous concept of ‘seventh generation thinking’ – how will this affect society 200 years ahead – become central. Most of our problems today can be traced to the ascendance of unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory capitalism, all based on force and lies and encroachment on the commons. The national security state works for the City of London and Wall Street – both are about to be toppled by a combination of Eastern alternative banking and alternative international development capabilities, and individuals who recognise that they have the power to pull their money out of the banks and not buy the consumer goods that subsidise corruption and the concentration of wealth. The opportunity to take back the commons for the benefit of humanity as a whole is open – here and now.”

A perfect riposte to Google & Co’s Melian dialogues, I think.

The final article which – at least in my opinion – serves to build on the first two is this one from today, also published in the Guardian.  In it, Cory Doctorow suggests that the very tech which has corrupted further our politics can be turned round and used for and by the people to recover integrity.  As he concludes most powerfully (again, the bold is mine):

This threshold-style action system is at the heart of Kickstarter (pledge whatever you like, but no one has to spend anything unless enough money is raised to see the project to completion) and it’s utterly adaptable to elections.

In democracies all over the world, voting is in decline. A permanent political class has emerged, and what it has to offer benefits a small elite at the public’s wider expense.

We hear a lot from tech circles about “disruption” of complacent, arrogant and entrenched industries. Politics is the foremost example of such an industry and it’s overdue for disruption.

Incidentally, this afternoon a short Slideshare came my way.  I’ll embed it below so you can see that others are having similar thoughts:

And as an adjunct to all the above, back in 2012 I suggested this alternative to our first-past-the-post electoral system, where I said things like this:

This would clearly be a brand new electoral system – a system which depended heavily for its functionality on virtual-community technologies and multifarious software tools.  But it would also be a brand new electoral system entirely fit for a consensual and collaborative – that is to say, a coalition – age.  No longer would politicians have to triangulate their positions.  No longer would the electorate have to compromise when they voted.  In everything we began to do in such a body politic, honesty, sincerity and directness would become the definers of a completely new era in representative democracy.

*

To my final observation today.  We all know how “Citizen Kane” turned out, of course.  But maybe a “Citizen Kane 2.0″ could be worth pursuing.  Imagine that a campaigning paper of the history of an organisation like the British Guardian, say, decided that – with all its present online and virtual experience and activity – it might be able to do much more than freely comment the world’s events.  Initiate, proactively participate, manage, channel and forge a new politics as per some of the ideas contained in this post today … in particular with respect to what Doctorow proposes.  Now wouldn’t that be a fine and life-changing experience for not only the journalists and readers already involved – but also for the wider population of despairing citizens?

Reshape parliamentary process through the very technology that has so fiercely pwned – in the nakedly Melian terms I mentioned earlier – every step of 21st century governance as we have experienced it to date; reform the process of exchange and blur the lines of hierarchy intelligently between leaders and led, between the thinkers and the thought; and remake, finally, the balance of power amongst those who promise so much and those who are lied to so frequently.

A temptation too far?  Come on, you clever bods of the written word.  Remind yourselves truly: the pen is mightier than the sword.

(But in order to be so, it needs occasionally to be unsheathed …)


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Jul 032014
 
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I posted this yesterday on the subject of the #FacebookExperiment scandal, quoting from a Cornell press release:

Because the research was conducted independently by Facebook and Professor Hancock had access only to results – and not to any individual, identifiable data at any time – Cornell University’s Institutional Review Board concluded that he was not directly engaged in human research and that no review by the Cornell Human Research Protection Program was required.

I then went on to conclude:

So, then, it’s OK to use research that has been obtained without permission from any source whatsoever, as long as one cannot identify the victims unwilling participants social network users in question – creatures, incidentally, who occupy the lowest of all low strata in the 21st century litany of unobserved rights and excessive obligations.

The thesis of my post was that Facebook was not just doing what other tech corps out there are doing – which is true – but that their behaviours in testing out “emotional contagion” in their users was very similar to what our Coalition government here in the UK has been doing since 2010:

And if the ICO feels that data protection laws may have been broken when Facebook experimented on the way that people reacted to negative and positive stories, without asking their permission first and even though they’d signed up to a wide-ranging set of T&Cs, who is to say this Coalition government didn’t similarly break human rights laws when they decided to experiment on how a nation might react to a barrage of false stories about immigrants “nicking” jobs, the “scrounging” poor, the “feckless” disabled and a well-packaged myriad of other lies, distortions and half-truths?

Today, Jay Rosen, writing in the Washington Post, adds a further twist to the resistance a whole host of people should feel with respect to this entire adventure, when he argues that the most culpable participants have been the universities themselves, for not observing the difference between “thin” and “thick” legitimacy:

Thin legitimacy is when the experiments conducted on human beings are: fully legal and completely normal, as in common practice across the industry, but there is no way to know if they are minimally ethical, because companies have no duty to think such matters through or share with us their methods.

Thick legitimacy: when experiments conducted on human beings are not only legal under U.S. law and common in practice but also attuned to the dark history of abuse in experimental situations and thus able to meet certain standards for transparency and ethical conduct— like, say, the American Psychological Association’s “informed consent” provision.

After having spoken to people who work in pharmaceuticals, I’m inclined more and more to believe that tech corps have shrugged off both thick and thin legitimacy in a way that, for example, the former sector usually finds very difficult to manage.  Perhaps the problem is the degree to which we’ve wanted to legislate data outwith the very specific field of medicine, as well as the wider issue of consent (whether spoken or unspoken) in general.

Ethical committees in a medical context are there to ensure two things: firstly, that people are protected in an informed way, and as much as is possible, from the potentially toxic side-effects of otherwise useful experiments; and secondly, that the experiments carried out are robustly designed and take full advantage of the opportunities to learn and develop understanding.  There’s no point in exposing people to the downsides of science if the options are not properly explored to ensure the upsides; if maximum advantage isn’t part of the gameplan.  And whilst we all understand why medical data should be collected, collated and handled with care (or at least we did before #caredata hit the screens), other kinds of data have seemed to slip through the net of our awareness and coherence.

So.  Perhaps we should forget the nature of the data and focus our attention, instead, on the simple quantity.  Given that, for example, a sufficiently clever and substantial collecting of metadata can say far more about what someone intends than a close line-by-line reading of the content it inscribes, I would suggest we stop defining when something requires thick legitimacy with respect to the degree of intimacy or fragility or sensitivity of the material in question, and started defining it in terms of how much we hold.  Big data means we can find out practically everything – assuming we have enough of it – from the virtual equivalent of rubbish bins strewn across the web.  It doesn’t need to be intimate or fragile or sensitive in itself to allow intimate or fragile or sensitive conclusions to be reached.

Thick legitimacy for everyone and everything above a certain size, then?  I think so.  A thick legitimacy which should imply the oversight of independent ethical committees – just as with pharmaceutical corps, just as with the medical sector – and which, as committees of the ethical and the proper, should know far more about the subject than a cack-handed PR awareness of the potential for reputational damage permits.


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Jun 282014
 
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A tweet that just flitted past me reminds me of something else that came my way this morning.  First, the tweet:

Burnham also says we need to throw off “nineties managerialism” #FabSummer

Burnham being Andy Burnham, one of everyone’s (deservedly) favourite Labour highfliers.

And I’m sure no one would disagree with the idea of throwing off “nineties managerialism”.  The question, of course, not being who agrees or not but, rather, what the forces ranged against are busily planning to achieve.

So what do I mean?  Take a look at this fascinating graphic which the Philips Twitter account tweeted this morning (I’ve reproduced it below for ease of reading, but if Philips is unhappy, just drop me an email and I’ll remove the copy from this blogsite).

Digital Healthcare by Philips

As you can see, a lot of what Burnham has been proposing for the NHS, linking medical and social care in a far more connected way, fits in with Philips’ own big data and digital view of how healthcare’s often disparate parts could fit together more seamlessly and usefully in the future.  However, at least for me, a massive caveat jumps out of this graphic.  There’s a bit in the middle, through which everything seems to be required to flow, called “Patient relationship management”.  You’d have thought that, if anything, “Professional care” would be the hub of what should essentially be a caring sector: a sector focussed on delivering patient needs, not structurally managed process.  And the potential is there for doing just that, of course.  From the little I know about big data these days, the opportunities for automating what used to be people-occupied roles – processing automatically data of all kinds and from all sources – is clearly significant.  And such processing can benefit a lot of people – both patients and professionals.

But what happens if this automation I speak of either doesn’t deliver as expected, delivers a world we fear already – or simply allows those with knowledge of these new Dark Arts to regain a managerialist mystique and control over our precious caring and public-service institutions?  There are always options to make such huge change work for the wider populace, I don’t disagree.  But similarly, there are chances for those who see the future quite before the rest of us to feather their virtual and physical nests in time for any encroaching disruption.

It’s an interesting future, that’s for sure.  And that people like Burnham should be equally interested in making it work is a happy circumstance.  But it’s not only people who need to give us comfort during times of upheaval: it’s also the built-in guarantees we should wish to legislate in order to defend the central importance of people over systems.

Big data in healthcare is a grand set of tools.  The question here is: who will end up using them?  The managers or the cared for?


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Jun 252014
 
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There has been a lot of rubbish written about the subject of British Values recently.  This post of mine will probably serve to make the already high pile even higher.  But hey-ho, here we go.

Although my mother came to Britain as an immigrant, in a sort of way fleeing her experience of Communist oppression in the ex-Yugoslavia (her parents were anti-Communists during World War Two, and so lost a lot by way of opposing Communist privilege in the post-war period of Tito’s regime), I myself was born in Oxford.  About as quintessentially English as anyone could get, in fact.  I’ve always wanted to return there to live – but one of the undeniable British Values of recent times involves finding it prohibitively expensive to get decently-priced accommodation in places where jobs simultaneously exist.

So here I am, making my living via Internet and web tools and environments, in a property no one would care to call their own.

Stoicism, then?  Another British Value?  That’s two already, and I’ve hardly got started.

Actually, the thesis of this post was to be rather different.  For me, born and bred British but having grown up in between quite different cultural vectors (atheist English/Welsh/Yorkshire/British/European versus dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communist Catholic Croatian), it has always seemed that the greatest achievement of our cultural cauldron has – really not surprising, this – mimicked very closely the outlines and structures of our linguistic heritage.  Yes.  We always look to the United States in these matters – and, admittedly, their achievement is considerable: melding (or maybe that’s welding) a multitude of different – still growing, still effervescing – cultures together in a primal soup of patriotic belief in order to create one country out of an astonishing federal association.  But what we’ve achieved in Britain over the years – what lately we’re looking to ditch, too, as we take onboard everything and anything American – is typically contrary to our cousins across the Atlantic, even as in our diffident way we assume we’ve done really nothing at all to differentiate ourselves.

And, actually, maybe we have really done nothing: our secret being this nothing we’ve really not done.  One of my skills, and one way I make my living, is as a language trainer: www.speak-ok.com is where I ply my trade.  Over the years, I have noticed – as many of us who train will concur – that learners of English almost invariably find it difficult to learn because there is a hole at the centre of its grammatical structures.  The beauty of English is that the formation of its tenses is relatively straightforward; that the subjunctive is mostly invisible where not completely unnecessary (and becoming more so); and that you can make yourself easily understood, especially to other foreign speakers of the language, even where you commit mistakes in what we are normally supposed to say.

I would argue, therefore, that – given a chance – English, and the British, are generally forgiving when it comes to meaning.  We’re not pedants; we don’t pursue arguments to the death; we generally look to comprehend what you meant to say rather than, exactly, what you did.

And this huge vacuum at the centre of the language itself finds an analogous vacuum at the centre of what we feel we can agree upon is the essence of British Values.  But in reality, it’s no vacuum at all: in reality, like foreigners attempting – and failing – to find one-to-one grammatical correspondences with their own finely-wrought languages, what’s to blame is our perception of what we believe – perhaps from a US-style perspective we’re absorbing (or that’s absorbing us) – that we should now be encountering in our cultural heritage, even though it has never been there in the first place.

If the greatness of English, as a linguistic construct, is to be found in its forgiving nature as far as comprehending broken forms and attempts at communication, and therefore making them work for the benefit of everyone, then the greatness of British Values is surely located along the same lines: the same lines as one of its key linguistic heritages; the same lines as the people formed by such a set of linguistic patterns and ways of thinking and seeing.

We are what we speak.  And what we speak, for people from other languages, works in the absence of a certain complication they have learnt to need, to value and to use to control their own national characteristics and ways of doing.

So after all of this, what’s my conclusion?  Let’s, once and for all, stop trying to fill the “vacuum” at the centre of British Values.  An absence doesn’t mean a lack.  It can mean a freedom.  It can mean a liberty to do what we choose – when we are taught rightly not to hurt others.  It can mean a space to move as we would wish.  It can mean an efficiency to finish a job without irrelevant and unhelpful fuss.

That, for me, is where British Values are to be found.

In particular, in English’s inclusive ability not only to acquire new vocabulary and ways of communicating from other cultures but also to live alongside other proud and honourable traditions; to collaborate with them; to learn from them; and to synthesise new ideas from them.

English the language, and Values the British, don’t so much simplify stuff; rather, instead, they simply make it easier to get along.  And that, right here, is the real virtue we should perceive.

That, right here, is what we should all be attempting to perpetuate.

British Values: the essence of an existence, well experienced.


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Jun 192014
 
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On Labour’s new policy today for “everyone to have his own owl”, our favourite Mirror site describes it thus this afternoon:

Actually, the whole thing was a mistake. Labour’s REAL badly costed policy announcement for today was deciding to cut Jobseeker’s Allowance for young people, saving a pitiful £65 million. Nice.

(Interestingly, whilst the short link says “cutt.us/xdjrc6h3″ and whilst the “cutt.us” is clear, I do think – conspiratorially – someone should tell us what the manifestly secretive rest of it is actually supposed to mean.)

Meanwhile, there is surely a lesson to be learnt from the whole affair.  If a short hacked tweet along these lines can in an instant capture the imagination and attention of the mainstream media, their social counterparts and even those ordinary people who still pace real-world streets, maybe there is a new tactic of politicking waiting (literally! Yes, literally I say …) in the wings of such imaginations.  Politics and the Owl Factor?  That may be our brand new wonky litmus test.

Is a policy worth pursuing from now on in till the general election in 2015?  Then let it be judged against the Owl Factor!  And only if it is judged that the social commotion of today’s owl is likely to repeat with any degree of certainty will we let any future policymaking go ahead.

Simon Cowell is that?  Or Simon Owl?!  An utterly new landscape of democratically-engaged social networking opens up before us.

Hurrah the Owl; hurrah the Owl; hurrah the Owl …


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Oct 272013
 
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Chris, who I have occasion to read more often than I read mainstream content, says this today on a blogger’s favourite subject (the bold is mine):

[...] Stephen says that “if you want your blog to get noticed now, best to develop a niche.” But the thing is that the MSM has left a lot of big niches. Sunny’s right that “there is just too much opinion out there”. But a lot of voices doesn’t mean we get a diversity of ideas.

There’s an awful lot which the mainstream ignores. Perhaps the main question I ask before blogging is: “what needs saying that isn’t said elsewhere?” And I’m rarely stumped for an answer. The mainstream tends to ignore things such as anti-managerialism, the ubiquity of ideology/cognitive biases and the vast quantity of new and interesting economic research. Yes, there’s too much opinion, too much manufactured outrage, too much narcissism and too much obsessing about the Westminster village. But there’s a shortage of different perspectives.

Compare and contrast with the new owner of the Boston Globe, our dearly beloved John W Henry (dearly beloved for Liverpool-loving households anyway) (again, the bold is mine):

We as a society used to spend countless hours watching and sharing a limited amount of media mainly through television programs. Ironically, we now have increasingly significant social isolation and alienation as a byproduct of the rise of social media tools that overwhelm young people. These tools need to be designed to provide for more maturity, restraint, and responsibility.

Ironically, we also seem to no longer have any time because of time-saving devices. As a parent, I see kids completely immersed in Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and messaging. One of the attractions of summers at Fenway Park is seeing families actually sitting together and conversing for three hours rather than sitting in different worlds at home.

We live with what the writer and thinker Clay Shirky has identified as a “cognitive surplus.” We need ways to move from consumption to activation. The Globe can be a catalyst for activism across a broad range of interests. The same technologies that breed loneliness in some contexts can provide opportunities for people to connect with one another meaningfully and make differences in each other’s lives. These differences don’t have to be earth-shattering to be of great significance. We live in a time in this region with terrific opportunities to lead.

In their different ways and in their different contexts, both Chris Dillow, the proudly amateur blogger (though in no way amateur writer, much less amateur thinker), and John W Henry, the very American – very global – businessperson, whose interests straddle nation-states, sectors and very different communities, have come to similar conclusions about what’s wrong with respectively cherished fields of communication.  Their solutions are different, of course, as befit their causes: Dillow needs enough resource to live his life as he pleases, in order that such resource may then give him the relatively little time each day he needs to usefully inform and produce his blogging.  Meanwhile, Henry is looking, on a much more physically grand and industrial scale, to develop a business strategy – almost an ideology, in fact – which will serve to turn currently capacious readers into expansively active doers.

As many have already observed, in particular a kind of unwilling mentor of mine, blogging by itself achieves nothing; cannot even be valued when in such a vacuum.  It must connect with the world (ie must be read by someone) for anything of worth to happen.  This time of reading may of course not accompany the time of writing: if this is the case, the blogger is indeed a lonely soul whose writings will only please an audience when he or she is long gone.  But most of us understand/have understood traditional blogging to be in possession of a very firm location and connection with time and place.  And in such a perception of what blogging should be (or maybe should have been), a thing of direct and common engagement with a community and people of particular sort, we realise that Henry’s goal to encourage his readers – ie his relatively passive, more significantly freeloading, absorbers of often sadly shallow content – to become souls who begin to make differences in others’ lives purely as a result of a newly conceived journalistic practice and industry … well, from the point of view of a long-time blogger like myself, it does make for truly fascinating reading.

If what is good about the Chris Dillow kind of blogging is now being perceived by someone like John W Henry as the kind of thing the mainstream newspapering he wants to rescue is often found to be wanting in – not for people or editorial reasons so much as overbearing industrial pressures where, even in the so-called quality press, the quality content continually fails to beat back the self-replicating “celebrititty” Internet-baiting dross – then perhaps there is a future for the former instincts of blogging at its halcyon best (Norman Geras and Paul Cotterill also come to mind), especially as partial saviour of the mainstream at its most lovably popularising.

If Henry can do for the likes of Manchester’s long-lost Guardian what he is currently doing for Liverpool’s football – if he can rescue the campaigning newspapers of the past from the sad obscurities and conceptual abysses into which so many have fallen (in their admittedly desperate bids to remain solvent in the latterday journalistic free-for-all that is the 21st century web) – perhaps one day we will end up agreeing that there must be no fundamental difference between the mainstream and the traditionally-conceptualised blogosphere after all.

And if this is the case, if that blogosphere I describe finally maintains its integrity long enough for the mainstream to realise exactly where it all went wrong, then it will – at the very least – have served to keep the flame of good journalism alive.

As it will finally have served its purpose.


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Oct 082013
 
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This is how John Lennon saw it.


http://youtu.be/L832Jj7C0DA

This is how I’m seeing it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breadcrumbs is all we were finally allowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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


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Oct 042013
 
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I think I was crunching the occasional snail underfoot as I walked past the old zoo entrance, practically home.  It was almost eleven o’clock; I’d set off for Liverpool at just after four.  I’d got to the event’s location crazily early, but I was never one for wanting to arrive late.  The event was at the Devonshire House Hotel.  And Red Billy was right: if you’re in the Labour Party, and count yourself as in, what separates you from your journeymen and women is a shade of difference, not a chasm.

This was an evening of fulsome agreement on occasions, modest agreement on others, gently expressed disagreement in some cases – but no displeasure nor unkindness of any kind.

So can politicians ever exert any kind of real influence?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps not.  But what they can do, what Ed Miliband clearly exudes, is a tone of decent everyman we could all do well to emulate.

And in a world of Goves, Osbornes and Hunts, this is not a small matter at all.

The noose of choice is beginning to tighten.  Politics was ever thus.  No.  Politics isn’t war converted into rhetorical tussle.  More exactly, politics is a kind of civil war, converted into very real pain.  The stories behind the pain the Tories are causing us, recounted at this evening’s Q&A with Ed Miliband, made themselves manifestly apparent: from LGBT prejudice of a dreadful nature to a story about the absence of clearly defined disabled care for an adolescent with autism, we could see laid out plain for all to see the results of a Tory nation-state where each person must tussle alone with their very private sadnesses.  From street musicians who understand by their very travelling the importance of preserving – and restoring – our municipal spaces to those who admire the theorising of Miliband’s father, and yet simultaneously appreciate his son’s distancing from such theory (“My father had a very different job from mine” is about as clear as any disavowal can get, staying as it must within the confines of family love), here we had yet another demonstration of how Labour is becoming a community not of slavish agreement but, rather, of intelligent discussion around the trains of thought that Miliband (Ed) is bringing to British politics.

For this is what is happening: Ed Miliband is tremendously ambitious.  Not for himself (except inasmuch as this allows him to lever his goals); instead, for a country he clearly does anything but hate.  And in order to realise this degree of ambition, he has had to think his way through how he might reweave the very fabric of everything we do in Britain.  He is not looking to turn the world upside down in his pursuit of change; his is not a wild Goveian brandishing of insults.  Rather, he is aiming to restore a natural balance which decades of neoliberal hedge-funded tax-havened offshoring has deliberately fought to upset.

It has become so natural for us to believe there is no money to be had that we have swallowed hook, line and share offering the entire lying tale utterly whole.  But just think back to post-war Britain: think back to the constraints of that time.  Think back to how a very different Labour government reconstructed a severely damaged but still not bowed nation-state.

If it was possible then, why not be equally ambitious now?  After three destructive years, both to body and human spirit, there is no reason at all to believe we can’t be.

And so to my final question: is Ed Miliband the right leader?

Absolutely not.  And neither do his clever trains of thought take him in that direction.

The right enabler then?  Maybe, just maybe, he is.  For if I am right in my analysis, as that political noose I mention tightens evermore hurtfully, it could now just be our turn to take up a very different slack: the slack of the spaces where our contributions as members, registered supporters and general sympathisers can make Miliband (the enabler) exactly what an old body politic needs.

Evidence this could already be happening?  Maybe this: one of the most sympathetic and reaching-out of interventions came from a modern trades union representative who called for collaboration between the Party and trades unions to share the cost – both intellectual and financial – of developing materials to get Labour’s messages across.  The idea was phrased cooperatively; the tone was understanding; the intention was clearly to talk positions through.

This is the new Labour of Miliband (the enabler).  A community of sincerely thoughtful souls who are looking to forge a decent Britain.  The One Nation idea may not fit quite perfectly with other movements in our fraughtly disuniting kingdom but as a metaphor for Miliband’s new Labour, if today’s event is anything to go by, the fit could not be more productive.

Maybe parties, like governments, can never do anything more useful than set a tone.  But if that is the case, the enabling Labour on show in Liverpool this evening has shown us it is already half the way to its more than admirable goal.

The eagerness of the righteous, translated into a latterday speech the 21st century understands.

And that, in the end, is the level of ambition Ed Miliband believes in.

The question now is: do you also dare to hope again?


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Oct 022013
 
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Love is a complex emotion.  At my happiest, I have been profoundly in love.  At my saddest, I have been rejected in such love.

The last three years of Coalition government, for me at least anyhow, have encompassed such a rejection.  Like a suitor displaced, like a lover disgraced, my prejudices around the wisdoms of consensus politics have been bitterly cracked by the experience of what Cameron and Clegg have cooked up between themselves – often behind the backs of their very own party members and the latter’s profoundest beliefs.

This is not a good advertisement for equal marriage at all.

Sad that the two Cs can only preach what they would like us to do; practising being quite beyond their ken.

And so I saw this video this morning.  Watch it to the end if you have not already done so; it is an unseemly moment in our public life.


http://youtu.be/2CJsBdAqStM

Meanwhile, this is what us vs th3m make manifest to us all: difference is what the Mail fears most – things and thoughts which mix and match, which combine anew, which make us puzzled and curious.  Stuff which makes us wonder.  God forbid that we should wonder.  God forbid that we should question an existing environment of failing industrial models; an existing environment of a capitalism which prefers to blame those who suffer its weaknesses so much more than those who have clearly caused them; an existing environment of one-concept ponies way out of reach of that intelligence which most ennobles us.

Hated by the Daily Mail

In attacking Ralph Miliband for his attachment to a broader socialism, however, I think the Mail is looking to knock the idea from last week’s Labour Party Conference that socialism as per its very English post-war examples – the NHS, Legal Aid, free education, social care – is actually an essential part of a very English conservatism.  Not the alleged conservatism of this terrible Coalition, where the only road is “One Best Way” corporate capitalism.  No.  A quite different conservatism which, perhaps, in hindsight, Blue Labour was attempting to make our own.

In truth, at its best Labour’s grandest post-war achievement was to pick from the disaster of Communist oppression, even under a terrible umbrella of Cold War fear, the idea that working together as a society – in a planned and constructive way – could create a better world for a much grander number of people than would otherwise be the case.

There was a time when so many of us looked to the non-aligned Communism of Yugoslavia and its ilk for a way forward to a better place than rampant capitalism was providing.  But such ways, such planned economies, were way before their time: we didn’t have the algorithms, we didn’t have the maths, we didn’t have the simple computing power to crunch complex economic systems to an organised and productive effect.  Now we do.  Now we have a corporate capitalism as centrally planned as any 20th century one-party Communism.  Apple’s mountain of cash is far bigger than many nation-states which struggle liberally disorganisedly out there.  The question is this, of course: if Apple and Google and Coca-Cola can centrally plan, why not see it time for political organisation to propose the same in democratic discourses such as ours?

If we need an explanation of the madness that is the current Daily Mail, we need only examine the implications of a world where corporate capitalism combines with a very humane, a very eccentric, a very conservatively English socialism of the sensible.

For what the Mail and those of its ilk really fear is not the hordes of foreign invaders imprinting Marxist uproar and confusion on our otherwise green and pleasant conurbations but, rather, quite obviously, the hordes of common sensers that gently sleep every day of the week in these islands – those who let such newspapers go so far, but one day thus far and no further.

Yes.  Perhaps we are essentially conservative.  But precisely out of the melding of an innate conservatism with the instincts of society, we managed to create a very English socialism in a world – at the time – rightly hostile to such experimentation.

The real wise and wonderful Third Way was post-war Labour’s rescuing of our right to think of others as much as we thought of ourselves.  Just imagine if now, after three years of a dog-eat-dog capitalism, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party saw itself capable of similarly rescuing socialism’s sensibilities: a commonsensical socialism of the essentially conservative.

With the analytical and predictive tools Attlee’s government could only have dreamed of, Miliband’s Labour has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set to rights the course of history.  That’s why the Mail is throwing such a wobbly.  That’s the real reason for all this rubbish.

They’re running bloody terrifyingly scared – because English socialism at its heart, at its best, is conservative to the core.  And with the conservative heart that is an Englishman or woman, we have a perfect fit of the kindest people on the planet.

That, in essence, is why I love even the England I hate.  Political DNA is of a piece: there is nothing you can extract without damaging the whole.  To meet sensitive souls who give a Cameron or a Clegg their rope is painful while it happens, of course.  But there comes a time when even such sensitivities find themselves drawing a line.

Last week, Ed Miliband vowed to bring socialism back to these shores.  And for us, he drew the line that needed drawing.

Society is back.

And English socialism too.


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Sep 252013
 
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Ed Miliband clearly, cogently and coherently defined a generation yesterday.

As Peter Oborne succinctly points out:

[...] Mr Miliband is not the leader of some virtual political party, constructed by focus group experts to appeal to the lowest common denominator. He represents a great political movement, and it is his job to speak on behalf of the underprivileged and the disenfranchised.

These words from Mr Oborne made me want to weep.  At last, I might add.  At last.

As all great leaders must, Ed Miliband’s challenge is to define generations.  To define epochs.  To define political cycles.  Through his words, through his demeanour, through his desire – and ability – to talk directly to the people, he can open up, for such a generation, a series of freedoms currently boxed in by a quite different stratum of society.

That is to say, by those Oborne’s newspaper might be suspected of supporting.

And for those Oborne describes as underprivileged and disenfranchised.

I think, with his latest speech, Mr Miliband is achieving the challenge he has set himself.  More importantly, the challenge he has set us.

We cannot doubt his sincerity – nor, indeed, his accuracy when he describes the Britain we see around us.

At least for those of us who do not live in the nicer parts of the leafy Londons of this world.

So the first step has been taken.

All that remains – the most important, the most inevitable, the most unavoidable step we must dare to take – is discovery!  Discovery as to exactly how to forge a winning majority.  And, as Spanish football writers would always underline, it’s not enough just to win.  You have to win beautifully too.

Through your words, through your demeanour, through your desire and ability to directly communicate.

The discovery in question will help define whether Mr Miliband’s generation is big enough to enfranchise the underprivileged or not.

What a wonderful goal!  What a wonderful challenge!  What a wonderful political party Miliband (Ed) is allowing to emerge!  When a Labour leader can proudly and unreservedly state what he has now revealed in public … that truly is a discovery well worth witnessing.

We have rediscovered a flag to wave.  We have rediscovered a party to fight for.  We have rediscovered we are proudly unbowed.  And that, Mr Miliband, in itself, for now anyhow, justifies your leadership a thousand times over.


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Sep 222013
 
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An Ed Miliband quote (the bold is mine):

“This next election is going to come down to the oldest questions in politics: whose side are you on and who will you fight for?”

Some more:

He said it was “wrong” that millions of people are “going out to work unable to afford to bring up their families”.

He added: “The Labour government will put it right, we will strengthen the national minimum wage, we will make work pay for the workers of Britain.

“That’s what I mean by a government that fights for you: abolishing the bedroom tax, strengthening the national minimum wage, child care there for parents who need it.

“That’s what I mean by tackling the cost of living crisis at this conference, that’s what I mean by a government that fights for you.”

Now Pope Francis (again, the bold is mine):

“Where there is no work, there is no dignity,” he said, in ad-libbed remarks after listening to three locals, including an unemployed worker who spoke of how joblessness “weakens the spirit”. But the problem went far beyond the Italian island, said Francis, who has called for wholesale reform of the financial system.

“This is not just a problem of Sardinia; it is not just a problem of Italy or of some countries in Europe,” he said. “It is the consequence of a global choice, an economic system which leads to this tragedy; an economic system which has at its centre an idol called money.”

The 76-year-old said that God had wanted men and women to be at the heart of the world. [...]

I am reminded of this phrase I quoted myself in a post a while ago (this time, both the bold and italics were mine, but then!):

[...] here’s the text of the poster below:

People were created to be loved.  Things were created to be used.  The reason the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.

Meanwhile, this is what David Cameron has recently been up to.  From the supposed king of PR, at that.

Just to review what’s been happening, then.  Whilst Cameron’s been snoozing his way through a capitalism both Pope Francis and Ed Miliband are criticising similarly, the latter has managed to get to the point where voicing a desire to return socialism to our shores is not a dirty idea.

Bloody right it shouldn’t be.

And in so doing, he is only recognising what has been happening all along: that the Tories and their American friends have been actively promoting the destruction of those sensible vestiges of a very English socialism we on this little island of ours were perfectly happy to sustain.

Quite cleverly, like Ronald Reagan before him in that quite separate sociopolitical context, Miliband (Ed) has consistently gone over the heads of the commentariat and political establishment out there to define a direct channel of communication, in this case with the British people – certainly the English I see around me – who don’t seem to be appearing in the focus groups and opinion surveys so beloved of the professionals.

But that is the job of leaders who first surprise and second manage to crystallise exactly what we thought but didn’t voice.  Their task, to define and enunciate in words and intelligences we can all understand the time, moment, sensibility and sense of the age it is their destiny to oversee.  If we are to have pyramidal politics, let the ones at the top choose to enable inclusively, as Miliband wishes (I am sure) to be the case – instead of leading leaden- and flat-footedly the humble voters to their own sorry destruction.

As Iain McNicol’s email to those of us who are not attending Party Conference today exhortingly pointed out:

 In my last conference speech, I promised that in a year’s time we would take on a hundred full-time community organisers. I’m excited to say we now have them — and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting each and every one.

These guys are the best of Britain: people who have dedicated themselves to serving our communities. By next year, our hundred organisers will be working in a hundred battleground seats, bringing neighbourhoods together and building the movement we need to beat the Tories.

And:

 Our party was built on this kind of local organising. Unlike the Tories, unlike the Liberals, we were not founded as an elite, closed club. Labour was a party in the community first — and that’s where we’re staying.

This community, this movement, this party is brilliant. [...]

From Ed’s sensible socialism to Pope Francis on the kind of social economy his beliefs drive him to promulgate, the pendulum is swinging back.  Swinging back for everyone, of course, except for poor old David Cameron.

In truth, Ed’s sense of timing is pretty damn good.  Keep quiet for a few months; keep your head firmly down; essentially listen to what is really hurting people.  And, simultaneously, make the Tories believe you’re quite out of the frame; that you’re as ineffectual as they’d prefer you were; that Labour really doesn’t know which way to jump.

Only to pick your moment powerfully: a simple soapbox in the street; face-to-face without autocues; an ordinary man with an extraordinary mission (always remembering that “extraordinary” can also mean “extra-ordinary”).

Compare and contrast, if you will: Ed’s sensible socialism, Pope Francis on capitalism – and Cameron … puffily poleaxed on a four-poster communications disaster.

You couldn’t write it more unkindly if you were a political speechwriter.

Maybe God is.


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Sep 072013
 
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I tweeted a couple of days ago an observation on how from WWII (the Second World War) to the WWW (the worldwide web), important stuff had changed dramatically in terms of government and people.  Whilst in the former case, cryptographers and brainy bods in general spent their time pursuing the evil Nazis, these days, it would seem, their job is to pursue us all (here and here).  And whilst some souls would – even now – look to reconstruct an Internet of laws (more here), it would appear that most of what the West does these days involves the “meth-head” approach to international relations.

What does this involve?  Essentially, a playing of mind-games with the general public.  This works in the following way:

  1. Knowing full well that one day all this rubbish would unspool, the game-plan says that when it does, distrust must be seeded in everything we trusted prior to any startling revelations.
  2. A sense of broader public distrust benefits only those intelligence communities whose day-to-day is suspecting everything and everyone anyway.  It allows the security people – and, let’s not forget, the criminals sooner or later too – to use tech-based backdoors and trapdoors to undermine our belief in our systems, so that any breaking of the law later discovered can be attributed to the weakness of the maths.  In reality, of course, it is always due to the weakness of our moralities.
  3. By rebooting time back to the beginnings of the Wild West, government agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ are using the law (for in general, it’s true, in a shady way they may be complying with it) to break down our rights instead of building them up.  For this is what I mean by the term “rebooting”: a return to where the rule of law was the law of rulers.  A return to the law of the mighty.
  4. The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of “meth-head” international relations is that which encourages us to believe that the US and its allies are capable of “nuking the moon”.  By playing these mind-games, by aiming to destroy our trust in anything, we will fear far more the unpredictable self-made outcasts than we ever feared the monolithic self-made rule-players.

The problem we have, then, with this World Wild West which Western civilisation is in the process of constructing is that we have very few means to hand to halt the trends.

From the Lobbying Bill currently rushing through Parliament to attempts to censor online thought through corporate filters instead of parliamentary debate, legislation and oversight, we are living in times of extreme prejudice.

And there ain’t even a Gary Cooper on the horizon.

Or is there?

Maybe one chink in the armour of regressive behaviours is to be found in two tweets I wrote yesterday:

@Spritecut Hmm. I find it too easy to believe anything for sure. & increasing levels of distrust benefit those who live that world anyway.

@Spritecut Only thing which can beat distrustful community is community where trust is valued. That, I feel, is what they’d like to avoid.

To beat paranoid behaviours which wish to extend their belief systems to everyone – to beat the “meth-head” approach to national and international relations – surely the best way, then (perhaps the only way in fact), is to create massively – even where peacefully – opposing communities of high levels of trust.

We need to trust the maths; we need to believe in each other; we need to avoid being sucked up by the paranoias of security agencies.  And in order to do so, we need to create the systems that help us re-engineer what must yet again become a broadly-held understanding: that the law must be there to build up our rights, not there to break them down.

As Falkvinge says:

The news that the NSA has “broken crypto” is simply not true. What they have done is weaken the human factor creating cryptosystems.

And it’s that human factor – the weakness we all contain – which needs to be addressed here and supported.

As we have mentioned on innumerable occasions, we need to roll back the neoliberal removal of humans from their social sides if we to have any chance of recovering trust – the trust that otherwise blesses us, both as a species and a civilisation.

The Wild West was a fantastic frontier of opportunities.  But it’s also an “imagined construct” whose imaginings have done great harm to many.  It should not surprise us that the World Wild West is following a similar path.  We can, however, in the full knowledge of history, perhaps work out a way to recover our sensibilities – and, even, recover our rights.

If the NSA and GCHQ have seen fit to reboot the law of rulers, maybe it is time we equally saw fit to reboot the battles which sought to impose the rule of law.

The rule of law not only as sanctioned by Parliament.

The rule of law as sanctioned by software coders everywhere.

Repairing the Internet something which might attract?  Sure does seem that way from this laptop today.


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Sep 052013
 
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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

Actually.

Right.

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.


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Aug 252013
 
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I’ve been wondering the same.  We’re criticising and slamming and dunking with clever words this state we believe is a police state already.

Or not quite yet, as the case may be.

Yet this tweet encapsulates something I’ve also been pondering:

If you can publish an article in a national newspaper comparing your country to a police state, it probably isn’t anywhere near one.

The question, however, I think is quite different.  What – if like so many post-modern moments – this is now a post-modern police state, where the rules of the game have been utterly reconverted?

A new kind of state which has learned from previous manifestations.  Yes.  I’ve seen a tweet describe how Ceaușescu’s regime registered all the typewriters in the country in order to be able to doublecheck the origins of any communication – with the inference that such behaviours were a precursor to what we have on the table now; I’ve seen other comments appear to compare the American NSA with the East German Stasi – comments which let it be understood the Stasi were small beer compared with today.

But I’m beginning to think that the new contract drawn up – even as it has been drawn up without our cognisance – is not exactly, not quite, the police state we’re assuming it must be.

A police state it is – don’t get me wrong.  A police state where everyone is under suspicion.  But a police state which has learnt to allow social networks an important role in keeping the lid on dreadful circumstance.  In any other time, a government which allowed thousands of disabled people to die as a direct result of its policy adjustments would be massacred at the polls; in the media that cared to report it; in the parishes and grapevines that used to populate our country.

Now it would seem that people can become homeless as a result of the “bedroom tax”; the homeless can end up crushed in wheelie bins as a result of their poverty; and the poor who have nothing to eat can get sentenced to prison for stealing a sausage roll.  And nothing happens.  That is to say, nobody at government level cares to reconsider anything they are.

Anything they are, think or do.

This, then, is the new kind of state I describe above.  A state where democracy no longer pretends its main objective is to represent the will of the people through the ballot box: the function of the ballot box, instead, is to legitimise the actions of a minority.  As John Prescott describes today in a gently analogous process:

As Deputy Prime Minister I was asked by GCHQ to sign phone tap orders in order to trace the terrorists behind Omagh. I later discovered GCHQ had been tracking these individuals for weeks and my ­signature simply legitimised this State-backed phone hacking.

Writ larger, this is what has happened to representative democracy.  What politicians are going to do, like corporations and their blessed succession-planning procedures, is already well laid-out way before an election takes place.  We simply serve to rubber-stamp wealth’s instincts, justifications and objectives.  And if we don’t always act according to the unwritten script, something else happens to impulse other actions; something else happens to cloak the reality in the inevitability of a sadly-tough political medicine – a medicine which aims to make us believe our political leaders, and their sponsors, have their hands just as sadly tied.

What’s really new about this police state is it’s actually morphed into a policed state: everything we are, do or think is getting to the point where it’s liable to be recorded and copied by someone.  From CCTV in train toilets to Internet logs which register every website we go to … you know, it’s actually quite astonishing in a world where copyright law imprisons people for decades for the accessible crime of copying content in its digital form that, at least in security and marketing contexts, the very stuff of our own flesh-and-blood lives is quite easily the most broadly-copied and widely-shared sequence of events on the planet.

And I really do not hear anyone shouting out loud that our intellectual property rights over our existences are being deliberately and summarily violated.

Do you?

I didn’t think you did.

Anyhow.  Notwithstanding my intellectual bleating, this new kind of state has clearly shifted the onus of democratic representation onto the social networks.  As it has become easier to complain virtually, so representative democracy has moved away from giving space to such complaints.  Where we social-network users thought our acts made democracy better, it’s quite possible that our lords, masters and mistresses have actually invented/taken advantage of a way of venting off further requirements to respond – in any politically meaningful way – to any kind of societal dissatisfaction at all.

This is a police state which doesn’t – as a general rule – put people in prison, so much as construct virtual prisons within which we all are now living our lives.

It’s almost as if we’ve moved from being battery chickens to being their free-range cousins; from inhabiting caged zoos to inhabiting safari-parked enclosures.  The frame looks so big and beautiful now – yet frame it continues to be.

And so they’ve imprisoned all of us, and so it is true – just as wild animals and pets become domesticated in what were once very English castles.  And in this new kind of post-modern police state of ours theirs, we they no longer need to incarcerate anyone.

We’re already, most of us, more or less cheerfully behind bars.

The only possible upside being maybe one day – just maybe – we’ll be on the outside looking in.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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