Jul 282014
 
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Bit of a serious title today – but I think the topic is serious too.

Gordon Brown finished off an interesting article the other day with this phrase:

Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

The article was about the dreadful mass-kidnapping of girls in Nigeria by extremists.  It describes a situation which in no way is comparable to the UK.  However, even so, I am minded to remember these stories on the Big Society and compare and contrast in the following way.

For starters, when in 2012 David Cameron said the arrival of food banks proved the Big Society was putting its best foot forward – “First of all let me echo what he said about volunteers and people who work hard in communities, part of what I call the ‘Big Society’, to help those in need” (further observations six months later from the Guardian here) – I don’t suppose those he imagined to be in such desperate need were going to be his political and business sponsors and cronies.  But exactly this, so it turns out, would now seem to have been the case all along:

An investigation has begun into the use of taxpayer-funded grants by the charity set up to lead David Cameron’s “big society” initiative.

The Charity Commission was examining whether funding for a childhood obesity project was used to pay the debts of a linked company, the Independent reported on Saturday. The commission was also seeking more information on payments allegedly made for consultancy services to two directors of the Big Society Network (BSN) and its chair, Martyn Rose, a Conservative Party donor.

News of the investigation comes days after a public spending watchdog issued a critical report about how National Lottery and government funds were handed over to and used by the BSN.

I have to say I was suspicious of the Big Society idea and its concrete implementation from quite early on.  As long ago as 2010, I suggested that:

Meanwhile, as a secondary question to the thrust of this post’s thesis but of obvious relevance nevertheless, if it does rather more eagerly include the retired and semi-retired – curiously enough, those generally most conservative in outlook and interests – the question then will be why?

Thirdly, because any institution, community or nexus of people will lose its ability to stay free of corruption and its resulting inefficiencies, the more similar and alike its component parts become – something all of us should surely wish to avoid.  Yet, the profile – or ratio – of inclusion versus exclusion as described above would seem to suggest that the Conservatives do not anticipate giving everyone an equal handle on the levers of power.  And this is why I suggest the big society idea may lead to what I also called the Mediterraneanisation of our communities – where families and personal contacts are far more important and far more highly prized in the governance of our society than those transparent, and supposedly more objective, processes and procedures that belong to a more technocratic way of doing things.

So to come back to my initial question and add a second: is there evidence that the big society idea aims to exclude?  I would suggest that it is beginning to appear – would seem to be evermore patent, in fact, as the big society idea’s definition and coalescing inevitably allows us to better understand the ambush of ideas it has involved.

As a by-the-by, then, and in bloody irritating hindsight, it would seem that the aforementioned “ambush of ideas” – designed not only to forestall fears of the abandonment of compassion by the state and all its works (and that many of us suspected would be the case from 2010 onwards) but also to proactively fill the deep pockets of Cameron & Co’s ideological partners with the public dosh thus leveraged – was indeed sprung on us, for a precious four years during which the Tory right have operated with a calculated impunity.

Yet what is most galling about the whole process is that precisely this clicktivist activation of our democracy – from the efficient and hugely competent organisation of food banks to online petitions to virtual communities of mums, the disabled and the poorest in society, quite unwilling to take all this rubbish lying down – has been advertised by Cameron & Co as a demonstration of everything they’ve been looking to unleash in the British character.

Yes.  Despite the #gagginglaw, the #bedroomtax, the destruction of so many disabled support mechanisms, #DRIP’s appalling process and colluded agreement, the scapegoating of immigration, benefit recipients and the poorer in society in general, the destroying of the NHS, Legal Aid and other parts of the welfare state, the fiddling of unemployment figures and economic data and so much more … despite all of this, what’s been and what’s to come, we’re all supposedly so much freer than we were before because – precisely by the art of Coalition magic – we’ve all become incredibly engaged with the very essence of what it is to be a democratic citizen.  That is to say, the very fact that we’re demonstrating day after day is proof of the Coalition’s pudding of ideological wisdom and strategic ingenuity. 

And this proof I describe?  Where does it lie?

In the levels of activity that manifestly exist, of course.

No?

Well.

This brings me back to Gordon Brown’s conclusion that I quoted at the top of today’s post.  And here I paraphrase and amend slightly:

Democratic citizens should be able to participate in a society, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.

For that, dear reader, is where we stand right now.  There are levels of activity and levels of activity.  What Cameron & Co have done to our democracy is not to democratise, free up or unleash a natural instinct to participation.  If only that had happened, we wouldn’t be in the mess we currently find ourselves in.

No.  What Cameron & Co have done is transfer to a wider society, impose upon a broader citizenry and implement aggressively the destructive dynamics that all Westminster’s politicians eventually become accustomed to.  And whilst I’m sure Ed Miliband’s heart is in the right place when he suggests that people are bussed to Parliament to take regular part in a carefully controlled PMQs, created (I suppose) for the acceptable face of the voting populace and plebs out there, he really does need to go much farther than that: it’s not the people who should be allowed gingerly into Parliament but Parliament which needs rapidly to understand the noxious effect its traditions are having on a nation of once already sincerely participative and constructive subjects – people brought up to believe in collaboration, and who’ve been retrained in a sadly Pavlovian way to use “social-media screech” as a placebo for true political involvement and consensus.

Our democracy is not healthy at the moment, simply because so many of us are screaming our pain.  It will, however, of this I am sure, one day revert to a rude and welcome wellbeing when, finally, we get the political class we deserve – that class, I mean, which comes ultimately from the people themselves, and understands – from personal experience – that noise and communication are not things we should ever carelessly confuse.


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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 272014
 
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I read this on Facebook today, attributed (I assume, from what prefaced it) to Karl Marx:

It is well known that a certain kind of psychology explains big things by means of small causes and, correctly sensing that everything for which man struggles is a matter of his interest, arrives at the incorrect opinion that there are only “petty” interests, only the interests of a stereotyped self-seeking.

Further, it is well known that this kind of psychology and knowledge of mankind is to be found particularly in towns, where moreover it is considered the sign of a clever mind to see through the world and perceive that behind the passing clouds of ideas and facts there are quite small, envious, intriguing manikins, who pull the strings setting everything in motion.

However, it is equally well known that if one looks too closely into a glass, one bumps one’s own head, and hence these clever people’s knowledge of mankind and the universe is primarily a mystified bump of their own heads.

After my post yesterday on the subject of systems versus people, I wonder if the above doesn’t top and tail me as the very reactionary I have cleverly tried to avoid being all these years.  In this post, I said the following:

[...] I’d also be inclined to argue that it’s time we stopped blaming political systems for the corruption they appear to generate and started blaming, instead, the corrupting people who are taking advantage.  Yes.  I know it brings us back to the hoary subject of personal responsibility, many times couched in quasi-religious terms and so consequently abused by those who have specific and unhelpful agendas, but it serves no one’s interests to continue destroying the public face of politics as an ideal, concept and practice by saying the problems are essentially of a widespread and systemic nature almost everywhere you look.

I also added that:

There’s nothing wrong with our systems which a swathe of people encouraged to be good couldn’t put right.  After all, the problem is hardly ever an absence of relevant legislation – rather, far more frequently, an occasionally appalling inefficiency in its application.  And this is the case in politics and banking, just as much as it is obviously the case in medical research and food distribution.

Forget the systems, then.  Forget that ever-present policy tinkering so beloved of professional politicos.  Whatever we’ve got, let’s try and make the best of it.  Don’t change the textbook.  Rather, give the teachers and students the opportunities to properly engage.

As you can see, I look at this whole issue from the perspective of a life-long language trainer and teacher.  I have always felt that given the opportunity and confidence, people tend to do good over bad.  And where they do bad, they have not been given the opportunity and confidence.  Does this then lead me to reactionary conclusions?  I dunno really.

Meanwhile, over at Rick’s blog today we get this:

As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as a rogue operator. Whether or not senior managers know about the detail, they are the ones who set the tone for the organisation. Employees rarely deviate far from this. If they do, they don’t last long. OK, some may be a little over-enthusiastic and cross a line but it’s usually within a framework of what is generally regarded as acceptable. The rogue trader fallacy is an attempt to individualise what is almost always a systemic problem. If managers set aggressive targets and tell people to do whatever it takes, they usually have some idea of what ‘whatever it takes’ means, even if they don’t (or choose not to) know exactly who is doing what.

To be honest, with this I agree entirely.  We get the figure of charismatic leadership (more here), for example – surely examples relevant to past, recent and future court processes.

But I wonder if my latterday instincts to interpret events in terms of individual responsibility is altogether as reactionary as the systemic people amongst us might accuse me of.  I don’t disagree with the idea that systems affect behaviours: I am a teacher, after all, and facilitating safe and productive learning environments and frames prior to the start of any learning process is always key to any final success.

I do also wonder, however, if we aren’t as a species simpler in the round than we think.  There’s a tipping-point in life, love and war which encourages us to hold out until the last moment – but no longer that.  If we see something is about to go belly-up, it is a reasonably common instinct to try and save one’s reputation, worth, income and wealth.  Perhaps, then, when I find myself now wanting to blame individuals for the corrupting tendencies of systems – whether political, medical or food-related – I am really saying: “Don’t blame these systems, blame something else!”

Politics isn’t to blame; the banking sector isn’t to blame; even Nestlé isn’t to blame.  But that’s not to say, either, that individuals are as to blame as I original posited – nor in exactly the way I blithely suggested.  No.  What’s really to blame is yet another system out there – much bigger and much more lowest-common denominating than all these more apparent and visibly human-made ones.

What may that be?  People sometimes adduce human nature, but to say this reduces our thoughts to immediate adherence or rejection of the concept.  So for me human nature doesn’t cut it.

Maybe more it has to do with the fear that drives that tipping-point I mentioned earlier.  And in a world where fear could be completely eliminated, wouldn’t it be so much easier for the planet – and ourselves – to be systemically “better”-behaved than is currently the case?

Whilst we would all behave better for acceptably systemic reasons, we would simultaneously be behaving better at micro-levels of personal responsibility too.  Striking that balance is surely where the future lies: not somewhere halfway between the systemic and the individual but rather – in a far more complex and as yet unexplored way – simultaneously systemic and individual.


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Jun 262014
 
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Today, I saw a person on the TV show “Good Morning Britain”, a person who if I understood correctly represented Wonga.com in some significant way, saying sorry for a series of (to put it politely) historical “infractions”, most of which which appeared to border on the significantly fraudulent:

Payday lender Wonga must pay £2.6m in compensation after sending letters from non-existent law firms to customers in arrears.

The letters threatened legal action, but the law firms were false. In some cases Wonga added fees for these letters to customers’ accounts.

If I continue to remember rightly, the person who spoke on the tele this morning, when asked about who exactly was responsible for the misdeeds clearly committed, said something along the lines of: “We’re not here today to talk about individuals.”

I’m puzzled by this response.  When I worked for a large 70,000-people financial services corporation, it was impressed upon us – both in our daily job and periodically through continuous training – that what we saw, thought and imagined had utmost significance for the continued probity of the wider company.  Within what you might term the broader systemic behaviours, our own individual perceptions and consequential actions were legally enshrined, inscribed and potentially punishable.

Mind you, perhaps – already out there – there is an unspoken universal law which governs and defines how this focus on individual responsibility decreases exponentially, the greater one’s level of executive power.*  It certainly would seem that way; it would explain a lot of what’s happening right now too.

With my own personal interest in political structures to the fore, and even as this is amateur, ineffectual and irrelevant to current practice (my network of influence being absolutely zero, of course), I’d also be inclined to argue that it’s time we stopped blaming political systems for the corruption they appear to generate and started blaming, instead, the corrupting people who are taking advantage.  Yes.  I know it brings us back to the hoary subject of personal responsibility, many times couched in quasi-religious terms and so consequently abused by those who have specific and unhelpful agendas, but it serves no one’s interests to continue destroying the public face of politics as an ideal, concept and practice by saying the problems are essentially of a widespread and systemic nature almost everywhere you look.

I don’t know about you but I find myself reaching a point of utter inaction on so many different fronts.  Even in my day-to-day life; even as I got to the supermarket for the weekly shop.  So it is I can neither buy from the Primarks nor the John Lewis of the world; I can neither happily fund charitable drug research nor happily buy multinational cereals.

And as the TechDirt piece linked to above quotes, from the mouth of a person of perhaps quite different times:

[...] Here’s what George Merck, who became president of his father’s eponymous chemical manufacturing company in 1929, said on the subject, as quoted on the Today in Science History site: “We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”

We could substitute the word “medicine” with the word “politics” or the term “financial services” – and the impact, effect and consequences would be pretty much the same surely.  The truth and sense of integrity, too.

There’s nothing wrong with our systems which a swathe of people encouraged to be good couldn’t put right.  After all, the problem is hardly ever an absence of relevant legislation – rather, far more frequently, an occasionally appalling inefficiency in its application.  And this is the case in politics and banking, just as much as it is obviously the case in medical research and food distribution.

Forget the systems, then.  Forget that ever-present policy tinkering so beloved of professional politicos.  Whatever we’ve got, let’s try and make the best of it.  Don’t change the textbook.  Rather, give the teachers and students the opportunities to properly engage.

So let’s look in quite a different direction.  Focus, instead, on fashioning for the people the environments which serve to generate the confidence we all need – the confidence we all need to speak up in good faith about what resides in our hearts and souls.

To participate; to act constructively; to communicate, collaborate and talk with each other.

About what we all really need and deserve.  Freedom from fear.

Ultimately, freedom of expression.

____________________

* Maybe we should call it the Stepping-Stone Law, after those who wade in the bubbling brooks of tendentious activity – brooks which finally lead down to the rivers and estuaries of ultimate control and knowledge.  (But then again, maybe not …)


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Oct 252013
 
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I suppose, in the end, we have to recognise Blair was right about one thing: we have to win enough votes to win an election before we aim to do anything else.  And in a world such as ours, to draft our appeal in terms of socialism, whilst guaranteeing a certain weight and moral validity, will hardly win any prizes for attracting the sensibilities of those whose votes make the difference between a lying halfway house of a Coalition government (as per the current one) on the one hand, and a proudly declamatory and transparent offering of tone and style (as per a future Labour one, perhaps) on the other.

Maybe we do need to accept that manifestos are vague pitches which most usefully encapsulate broad intentions – intentions which should be judged and perceived from such generous perspectives.  If we look to such a proclamation of promises with the beady eye of “will you, won’t you” conditionality, deception and disillusionment will inevitably be our lot.

We have to be more realistic to our political class.  We have, ourselves, to be far more generous to what they can deliver.

I know saying this will not make me popular.  Even so, I feel it now needs to be said.

We need to give our politicos space to preach a better world – even as we know they will deliver a less good.

Instead, I think it is elsewhere we need to focus our attention – our attention, not our ire.  This wave of history lapping at our feet – in particular with respect to its technological aspect – is driving our society towards a self-taught self-help socialism of determined communities, where both large and small companies and organisations various make their livings off the backs of a renewed focus on such a contextualised individualism (perhaps with every craftsperson’s right and precedent – “Artisans of the world, unite!” – to back up the way they conduct their commercial activities).  In my own case, I find myself teaching people across the globe the ins and outs of my mother tongue.  I feel myself to be, in a way, a victim of the zero-hour generation – and yet, at the same time, I think that I number amongst the very same generation’s most blessed of all.  Whilst I am still healthy, whilst I can still live my life in a reasonably independent way, this life is perfect for me: variety of timetable, customers and content make my work and life balance quite adequate.  And in my case, I have to admit, even as I accept I am suffering the curse of labour instability, that I have never been happier in this life.

I also have to recognise that without the infrastructures of the corporations, mainly American, which I have occasion to lambast most of my days, I would not be able to teach in that global context which makes my working-life so satisfactory.

So it is, then, I would like to suggest the following: if we are to continue, in our very British body politic, to have the kind of rather spurious game that pitching competing political manifestos against each other involves, maybe we should look mainly to the goal of refashioning the aforementioned tone and style through the selfsame hoary old sequence of political “promises”, this time understood by us voters in as kindly a way as we can still manage.

If Ed Miliband could just see his way to seeing our job, as a political party wishing to govern, in the light of an environmental concern (environmental, that is, in the sense of space – not in the sense of ecology), and even to seeing it as a trip, an excursion, a journey rather than a destination in itself, we could maybe, just maybe, aim to develop our electoral process to the point where instead of concentrating on the aforementioned spurious manifestos of what we should and won’t do, we could spend our time using them to honestly develop, promote and sell an appropriate tone and style for the future.

After all, leadership is so often a question of enabling others: not micromanaging their integrities, their actions and their personal contributions out of existence but giving them the freedom to lead themselves.

Precisely for the spurious political reasons and expectations I mention, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party is now being expected to provide swathes of detailed solutions to a flurry of truly serious problems afflicting the country.

In reality, the political debate we choose to hold should be quite a different one: Ed Miliband’s Labour Party should be saying that in a self-learning and self-empowering generation of virtual connectednesses – even where this generation has been, and is being, persistently confused by all kinds of commercial and state-sponsored activities (both disgracefully illegitimate as well as clearly rather more sincere) – a new kind of socialism, a socialism which already exemplifies itself although we choose not to name it thus, a socialism which looks to connect evermore intelligent participants, a socialism which curiously – quite individualistically – self-engenders … this socialism I poorly describe must be the self-taught self-help philosophy on which we decide to build a better Britain.

We should not be expecting of Labour the answers to our problems.  We should be expecting of Labour the recognition that we are the answers.

And in and through such a profound recognition, our political parties – all of them – could show us they have the courage to ultimately accept the implications of such a humongous shift in the dynamics of British political process.


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Sep 212013
 
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Last night (well, early this morning), I discovered how one might be connected to two separate Skype accounts from the same Windows user on the same device at exactly the same time.  I’m currently waiting for clever bods to confirm (if confirmation’s possible) that this is a robust technique – but if it is … my, does it provide a facility I’m sure people with both personal and biz accounts have, for quite some time now, had on their rather random software wish-lists.

If you want to know more, have a look at my Twitter timeline from this morning.  In the meantime, I shall wait for any possible tests to be completed.

This kind of stuff, this random stumbling across felicitous discovery, is kind of what life – certainly my life – has periodically thrown up.  It’s the good bit about life, this – that we can reach beyond our limitations and studies and, through some kind of curious unpredictable case of intuition, add far more value to our sum of knowledge than might be reasonably expected.

We are bigger and better and kinder and brighter than the number-crunching wizards of technological capitalism might allow.

As I tweeted just now:

If we live in a history of masses where individuals have levered disproportionate control, what *is* there to do except live where one can?

And as someone else sadly observed, as a society we are capable of staying up till 2 in the morning to queue up for a new-fangled piece of technology – but, at the same bloody awful time, we do not fight for social justice.

I’ve just, myself, committed the same unhappy infraction: following a train of information-technology thought throughout the early hours of Saturday morning in order to solve a fairly irrelevant issue I’ve long had with a piece of software I regularly work with.

Instead of, that is, going to this socialist demonstration or that – or doorstepping that family or this.

It’s a tragedy, what’s happened.  Yes.  History has become of the masses, as many a Marxian I suppose would suggest was inevitable.  But a small and very focussed group of the selfish has learnt how to conduct the masses in one direction or another.  We are not as complex as we would like to presume.  Through a constant process of “message massage”, we have learnt our place in that mass is a hyper-individualised and localised one.  Paradoxically, social networks do not socialise our environment but actually, massively, serve to individualise our every instinct and impulse.

Really, social networks should be redefined: they do not socialise at all.  Rather, they are pieces of aggressively individualising software code designed specifically – quite consciously – to repeat and reproduce an atomising series of patterns of networked interactions.  We do not interact to build sharing networks with these systems at all.  Instead, we interact to build selfishness-engendering relationships where a contagion and infection of behaviours and beliefs takes place.

They don’t put us, in any way, in a social network to be social.  They put us in a social network to become antisocial.

And whilst Marxian masses were once thought bringers (where not harbingers) of inevitable history, those who still stand atop these society-defining pyramids of (globally) inefficient command and control have worked out cleverly, perhaps unintentionally but certainly convincingly, how to make the masses in question work not for that history we might have hoped for (or not, as the case may be) – but rather for their pockets ever-deepening.

We are selfish beings without a jot of altruism.  That is what we have become – or they have made us.

Your call.

Or your video-conference, as the case may be.


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

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

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

And this next video encapsulates perfectly the result.


http://youtu.be/tkDfyLFFK84

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

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

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

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

Peoplitics indeed.

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


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Sep 142013
 
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I haven’t posted here for a couple of days now.  As it’s September, I’ve been getting a steady flow of new online English students.  That they pay and this doesn’t should be self-evident.

Sometimes you have to accept that what you do is so contracorriente that there’s simply no way to feed a family off its back.  I’ve tried for two years; even have a Newstex account which literally pays about $2 a month (so if you feel I misuse your content, I’m quite happy to give you a share of what I “earn” – just don’t expect either to get anywhere soon as a result) … but all this and more to little avail.

I do believe in what I write and also why.  But the little reward of counting up the hits no longer applies these days, as everyone learns to circumvent and block the kind of cookies and systems which provided such minimal reward in the past.

So where am I now?  Beginning to work very hard to build my online language-training business, after a couple of years of learning how to do online training effectively, and perhaps – even – originally, to an extent.

And what does this mean?  Well.  This blog will continue until that date in November 2013 when I finally reach seven years of existence.  Once I reach that date, I think I must put it in mothballs.  There’s enough content here, by now, for anyone fairly interested in finding out about my strange and weirdly lateral way of perceiving received opinion – in finding out more, and maybe thinking they can fix me in some pigeonhole or another.

This, I think, will never happen though.  I always start from scratch in what I do.  If I am half-decent as a teacher/trainer and identifier of learning needs, this is because I attempt with all my soul to listen to what the person in front of me is saying.  And I do the same – have done the same – with the world I have before me as well.

So then.  I hope the last seven years, when that date is reached, will be seen as having been years of learning, curiosity and a real desire to educate oneself.

For the rest, I can say only long goodbyes are contemplateable in my world.  I love people too much to cut off my contact with any of you without prior notice.

This post, then, serves to signal the start of mine.

I guess money is at the root of all decision-making, after all.  Even love.


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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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Jul 122013
 
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Itiddly summarises the awful progress of the British Coalition government thus.  It makes for depressing reading because it concentrates it all in one place.  But I urge you to read it, even so.

In truth, the Thatcherite household economists are righter than they think.  You know the ones I mean: the ones who proclaim that violent austerity is needed to violently balance the books.  Only for the savagely falling tax receipts to blow any such intentions out of the murky water of government obfuscation.

No.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean as economists; I don’t mean as applied to the science of economics.

“Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.”  It’s an easy phrase to understand because we generally try – we should try – and apply it to ourselves.  Which is why these stupid stupid Thatcherites find it such an easy and convincing narrative in order to pull the blue wool over their voters’ eyes.

And they’re so clearly wrong: they’ve even had the practical opportunity to prove it.  They’re so bloody minded that they even say – in the face of horribly manifest evidence – that the real reason it hasn’t worked is because we haven’t had the guts to cut deeply enough.  As the Telegraph article linked to above underlines (the bold is mine):

Like Greece before it, Portugal is chasing its tail in a downward spiral. Economic contraction of 3pc a year is eroding the tax base, causing Lisbon to miss deficit targets. A new working paper by the Bank of Portugal explains why it has gone wrong. The fiscal multiplier is “twice as large as normal”, or 2.0, in small open economies during crisis times.

What is new is that Vitor Gaspar, the high priest of Portugal’s shock therapy, has thrown in the towel. He blames the fainthearted for refusing to slash with greater vigour. Needless to say, he still refuses to accept that a strategy of wage cuts and deflation in a country with total debt of 370pc of GDP was always likely to fail.

Meanwhile, in our own blessed land, the same paper, just today, reports as follows:

Mr Osborne, the Chancellor, has declared that taxes will not need to rise after 2015 to fill a £25 billion black hole in the public finances.

He dismissed concerns that the Tories are planning further tax rises and said that his plans instead would involve further spending and welfare cuts.

“Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.”  Rings a little hollow, right?  Seems quite the wrong approach.  And from the point of view of the economy, it is.  But not from the point of view of our people.

It has often been observed that we judge a society – we should judge a society – on the basis of how it treats its weakest and most defenceless.  And when the Thatcherite household economists argue that the important things in life will look after themselves if we look after the small things, they misdirect their attention.  Instead of focussing on sustaining the defenceless, the weak, the sick, poor and disabled (in no way insignificant members of our nation – even as they are definitely quite the easiest to neglect), in the belief that if we can treat them with grace and love, then grace and love will be the lot of everyone else, they choose to rubbish, terrify, cause untold distress to and, finally, drive to death the very people whose treatment should be a litmus test for our civilisation.

We should rewrite this clearly favoured proverbial chant of neoliberals everywhere.  No longer shall we apply it to economics but to how we perceive and deal with flesh-and-blood human beings.  Let it, from now on, run thus: “Look after the defenceless and the powerful will look after themselves!”

That, in essence, should be the prime objective of any society which cares to see itself as civilised.  The powerful never need our help – never!  Neither our often stealthy and shameful acquiescence – nor their brazen redrawing of the battlefield.

Any civilisation which refuses to devote the majority of its resources to defending the defenceless becomes a pig trough of socioeconomics – a pig trough which should shake and shame us to our core.

Oh yes.  We do need to balance the books.  It is true.  The books that explain to us how to believe in much better: much better than any of this.

But the books we must deny any responsibility for – any desire to acknowledge or factor in to our political equations – are those which the powerful use to maintain their power.

Let’s get it clear, once and for all: this is a full-throated conflict where the pounds are taking care of themselves – and the pennies can just bugger off.  We mustn’t allow it to continue.  We must find a way to interrupt it.  We must prevent the needless suffering of any more of our citizens.

Repeat after me: “Look after the defenceless and the powerful will look after themselves!”  “Look after the defenceless and the powerful will look after themselves!”  “Look after the defenceless and the powerful will look after themselves!”

And maybe in this mantra we shall find another way.


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May 302013
 
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There is an idiotic article out there at the moment with one – just one – (apparently borrowed) phrase of massively perceptive wisdom:

[...] As has been said, you have to be just clever enough to do it and just stupid enough to believe in it.

As follows, in fact:

It is surely reasonable for Dame Widow Twankey, the former director general of HI5, to call for people to inform on neighbours they suspect of idiocy. To a very limited extent, it happens already. But for the sake of all of us – political and celebrity communities in particular – it needs to happen more.

Also reasonable, on the face of it, is the Government’s desire to do more to discourage the process by which disaffected individuals turn themselves into intellectual lunatics – the job of the proposed task force on Prevent, the counter-radicalisation strategy.

In fact, we already know all we need to know about radicalisation. What the task force needs to focus on is what to do and – equally important – what not to do.

Studies show that it can happen to anyone, that there is no single identifiable profile. That said, the great majority of idiots, unsurprisingly, have been Anglo-Saxon males aged 35-70, a third to a half of whom had always been unemployed in the service of the state, in particular as MPs, and a significant portion of the rest under-employed as company directors or tabloid columnists. Most were unhappily married. Where women were involved, it tended to be in a supportive role, although in the Houses of Parliament and the Lords female representatives were radicalised by the decline of democracy, showing a curious empathy with the dispossessed.

Worldwide, about 62 per cent were graduate idiots, with those of non-British origin generally from the educated but politically frustrated aspirational middle class. British home-grown idiots tend to be less well educated though of a higher socio-economic status. One estimate is that about 31 per cent participated in some form of lower education, studying such subjects as hunting, shooting or fishing. They are not mad: levels of mental illness were roughly in line with world averages. Between a third and a quarter of those judged to be idiots in Britain and Europe had signs of congenital idiocy. A fifth or more of British idiots were also international celebrities, in particular business gurus, lifestyle leaders and think-tank groupies, integrating perfectly with the foolishness of their host culture and often obtaining leave to remain. Throughout Europe, many idiots were and are disaffected second-generation business wannabes on the political make.

Etc etc etc …

And so to our conclusion?  Again, as follows:

Rather than ban idiots, the Government should dialogue with, educate and embrace them (as the French often do) along with their hangers-on. It should stress that the proposed Common Idiots Bill (aka the “Promote Graft Charter”) does little more than extend to new idiots existing practices with the old. Above all, officials should pay more attention to “anti-democratic idiots”, the swamp from which the current Parliament and the international celebrity community has emerged. The Prime Minister publicly called for this in his 2011 speech in Munich, but Whitehall largely ignored him, focusing on what one of Dame Twankey’s successors called “the idiots nearest the boat”. It needn’t cost much – a few good dipstick officers here and there – but it would make a difference.

One final observation, this time on a totally serious note: we can always tell where a so-called “white” society is rampantly prejudiced when a crime committed by a “white” man or woman doesn’t merit the epithet of “white”, even as any crime committed by someone of another race, religion or ethnic grouping immediately leads to the latter information being foregrounded in those oh-so-even-handed newspaperly descriptions.

When I was a kid, and when I was occasionally driven to use swear words about people in front of my father, he would tell me – quite carefully and gently – that I should be using the term “indescribable idiot”.

No.  It doesn’t sound the same as, for example, “black savage” – but it does allow us to communicate our necessary positions without the tragic interference of otherwise inevitable prejudice.

We ought to listen to my father on this one, I think.

Let’s start calling all those who would destroy the equilibrium of democracy “idiots” – and in the process aim to leave our prejudices properly behind us.

Don’t you think?


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May 102013
 
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This news is, indeed, pretty sobering:

For the first time in human history, the concentration of climate-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has passed the milestone level of 400 parts per million (ppm). The last time so much greenhouse gas was in the air was several million years ago, when the Arctic was ice-free, savannah spread across the Sahara desert and sea level was up to 40 metres higher than today.

This morning I wondered if the society we live in leads us inevitably to immoral outcomes, even where every one of our individual acts is never any more than amoral.  And so I’m beginning to think that we as a species are perhaps also engineered to be suicidal.  This could explain the ferocious battle currently being waged between those on the right who believe in the glory of individual agency and those on the left who believe in the sacrifice of collective action.

In some deep dark way, both sides have already sensed that the battle is far more profound than simply ideological.

Curiously enough, whilst we accuse the individualists of denying climate change and creating the very selfish circumstances now leading to encroaching disaster, it is the sacrificial left who may actually be part of the process that leads us to such destruction.  A small tale to enlighten you.

I remember when I was at university a story a good friend told me.  It was around the time that the horrendously unknown “gay plague” of AIDS was exerting its fearsome grip on our imaginations.  This friend went back home one Christmas to a most uncertain welcome from his father.  Toothbrushes which had shared a whole lifetime in the same cup now occupied very separate places of safety.  Even hand towels were no longer shared.  The fear was palpable and self-evident: who could trust what students at uni might get up to and catch these days?  Or, more importantly, transmit?

This sad father was responding, of course, to the individualist instinct for survival I mention above.  No sense of collective sacrifice dawned on his psyche.  He was looking, in potentially desperate circumstances, to save himself above all.

Yet many of us at the time said: “Hell to all of this!”  And maybe this was no right answer either.  Loving love more than life is no better sign of a healthy soul than loving life over love, after all.

And this is why I believe that maybe humanity is bound to be hard-wired as suicidal.  Or, at least, ultimately so.  Whether we act in an individualist way, maximising our personal outcomes; whether we act in a collective way, maximising our social outcomes … either way surely leads to end-of-the-world outcomes, whatever we assume we are doing otherwise.

I may be quite wrong. In fact, I do hope I am.  But I really can’t help the feeling that something quite serious here has been fundamentally contained within strict evolutionary rails – and now finds itself steaming ahead quite irreversibly.


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Mar 242013
 
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I’m beginning to find it evermore difficult to communicate.  Not on Twitter – that’s become easier of late, as I get a handle on writing in spurts of 140 characters.  No.  Where it’s getting more difficult is in the real world.  I feel my communication patterns are briefing themselves up into real-life equivalents of Twitter.  My wife comes home and so I inform her of a telephone call: the information is given concisely, sufficiently I think, and yet it doesn’t include the straw and space for comprehension which our real-life existences are made of.

So we get into a disagreement; she says I don’t speak clearly; I clearly feel I do; incomprehension all round.

Is this what we might call the Twitterisation of thought?  A clear example of nature versus nurture if there ever was one.  For two Twitter users who meet out there offline (oh shudder!  Good Lord!  The real world exists …), the hashtag sign means something.  The brevity of communication is a virtue, not an obstacle.  We slyly and collaboratively understand each other in clear cahoots, as subtlety and underplay replace repetition and underline.

But for someone like my wife who only lives in the real world of speech, this Twitter way of communicating is tight, alien, unforgiving and unsupportive.  Is that what I have become then – or is that really what I was?  Is Twitter nurturing us to a different way of being – or is it naturing us to the essence we never had the chance to express?

You could argue something similar about the ways and wherefores of online history – and by extension, the offline stuff of books too.  I’m looking at the old technology that is traditional blogging – and its steely decline at the hands of more collaborative and centrally controlled communications media such as Facebook, Twitter and multifarious single-population social forums.  There was a time when I was hoping blogging could be saved via more complex aggregation tools I was intermittently involved in.  But all their clever drivers, those people with the hands-on knowledge of those technologies I could only comprehend distantly, eventually came to the conclusion that blogging had had its day.

Oh it would continue to exist – but not like in its heyday.

The one thing we’d forgotten, however, was the benefits of repressive state agendas:

I’m one of 17 signatories (on behalf of LibDemVoice) to a letter published in Saturday’s Guardian, reproduced below, which opposes the “fundamental threat” of the draft legislation approved this week by MPs of all parties which would regulate blogs and other small independent news websites.

It’s not often you’ll see us, ConservativeHome, LabourList, Guido Fawkes, Liberal Conspiracy and Political Scrapbook agree on something. But what we term the “botched late-night drafting process and complete lack of consultation” has, for once, brought us together. And, as the letter notes, perhaps even more remarkably got Tom Watson and Rupert Murdoch agreeing, too.

It seems, for governments and business leaders across the world, the lesson will never be learnt: if you want to stop people from communicating their thoughts, ignore them.  Let the technologies shrivel on their ageing branches.  Simply don’t pay them any attention.

But no.  They simply can’t allow themselves to learn that lesson.  Politicians (and here, I include business leaders too), to understand the present crop properly, are driven by the opportunity for bitter conflict.  They must, absolutely, always have the last word.

And so it is we get threats such as the above to the populace’s freedom to insult and throw brickbats at all and sundry.

You’d have thought that someone would have informed these leaders differently.  Maybe they have; but have similarly suffered at the hands of the “last-word syndrome” I mention.

In essence, I suppose, we have to accept that oppressive regimes are good for democracy.  We take up our virtual and offline cudgels and decide to get involved.  Nurture versus nature?  Of course, it’s much more complicated than that.  What a democracy in the hands of a fascist mentality manages to achieve is public connivance.  But our nature continues to be democratic.  It’s not just a matter of changing the way we behave: it’s also a matter of catalysing innate instincts.

Where we sometimes get it wrong on the left-hand side of history is in assuming the masses will overwhelm.  The great thing about humanity – and its veritable danger too – is that individuals are also important.  Just as a catalyst can make or break a chemical reaction, so a single human being can change the course of a discrete history.

In fact, to take an example much closer to home, our societies are sort of like home-made mayonnaise: yes, the ingredients are always the same; even the mixture must follow the same process.  But there comes a hugely fragile moment when an individual’s acts can either make it or not – a moment when a little too much of one or other ingredient can destroy all chances of achieving the end we pursue.  And then, in the face of the approaching (where not encroaching) dinner party, we must resort to the corporate stuff which never fails to deliver its homogenised result.

So let us admire the fantastic role models out there.  Let us draw inspiration from individuals who, occasionally, do the right thing.  Let us remember that doing the right thing is not always a choice.  And let us never forget that it might, one day, even get better.


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Mar 212013
 
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Stratospheric economics can be a crude and blunt instrument.  In particular, crude:

PIGS (also PIIGS[1]) is an acronym used by international bond analysts, academics, and the economic press that refers to the economies of PortugalIreland and/or ItalyGreece, and Spain – often in regard to matters relating to sovereign debt markets. Some news and economic organisations have limited or banned its use due to criticism regarding perceived offensive connotations.

More background thus:

With the onset of the financial crisis of 2007–2008 several variations appeared.[25] When rendered as “PIIGS”[26][27] some commentators added the additional “i” for comparative purposes to include Ireland from the 2008–2013 Irish financial crisis, with alternatively the “I” which originally referred to Italy occasionally becoming an interchangeable reference to Ireland[28] by some during this period.

Additional permutations gained prominence during the 2009 United Kingdom bank rescue package period and into the European sovereign-debt crisis as some commentators used numerous variations such as PIIGGS[29][30] which includes the United Kingdom (as Great Britain).[31][32][33]

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PIGS-PIIGS-PIIGGS.png

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PIGS-PIIGS-PIIGGS.png

Such acronyms – and their casual usage – clearly indicate a degree of casually unhappy prejudice.  And the current difficulties surrounding the economies of Greece, Italy, Spain and most recently Cyprus indicate that it’s going to be easy for careless voices to continue justifying their unwholesome belief systems for quite a while yet.

Under such an umbrella of attitudes, we might consider the idea that Europe is slowly being “Latin-Americanised” as utterly negative and critical.  But Teivo Teivainen (more here) sees the situation – and the implications of the language used – in a quite different way.  In his short paper, “Desde la crisis hacia transformaciones democráticas”, published this month in Spanish (you can find the .pdf itself here – the paper from page 20 onwards), he describes a series of fairly recent quasi-colonial attitudes which have underpinned Europe’s attitude to South America, and defined the direction in which learning and teaching should take place.  Essentially: the world has everything to learn from Europe, Europe little to learn from the world.

This is a felicitous definition and understanding of where much of economic Europe sees itself – in particular because he provides the evidence to show it is not true.  Whilst we currently see the Europe of German financial power apparently looking to kick Cyprus into orbit, and into the embrace of the waiting Russian bear, we realise just how commonplace these prejudices are: even within Europe, the North now sees the South as irresponsible wastrels, and whilst this may be true about the leaders and their often corrupting behaviours (see Spain, their banks, their mortgage laws and so on), the blame can hardly be placed at the feet of the people themselves.

What’s clear, then, is that the European experience of engagement with economic matters is extremely rarefied.  There are experts who make and shake and there are ordinary citizens who are made and shaken.  And in the ever-increasing circles of crisis which begin to assail us all, there seems little we can do to rescue ourselves from the consequences of acts which the rich and wealthy are in the process of benefiting from, even as the European economies begin to stumble and stutter for everyone else.

So what lessons does Teivainen offer us?  As he points out in his introduction:

[...] Hoy estamos viendo en Europa que nos pasa algo que los latinoamericanos pueden conocer mejor que nosotros. Ello nos abre a la posibilidad de aprender del Sur de una nueva manera.

[...] Today, in the Europe which is happening to us, we are living something which Latin-Americans may know better than ourselves.  This opens up the opportunity to learn from the South in a different way.

And as he goes on to indicate of the pedagogical process which many South American movements and institutions have engaged in:

Un aspecto fundamental en este proceso pedagógico es que los movimientos y algunos gobiernos latinoamericanos están llamando nuestra atención sobre aspectos políticos de lo económico. Al buscar soluciones que enfatizan la participación popular en temas tradicionalmente concebidos como económicos, están haciendo un gran servicio al imaginario de proyectos democráticos en otras partes del mundo.1

A fundamental aspect of this pedagogical process is that movements and some Latin-American governments are drawing our attention to the political implications of economic matters.  As they look for solutions which underline popular participation in subjects traditionally understood to be economic, they are providing a grand service to the collective imagination of democratic projects in other parts of the world.

In essence, the learning process has come full circle.  The skills for dealing with the consequences of an economic deficit – which quite fairly can be argued is as a result of a weighty democratic deficit in both the North and South of Europe (after all, it doesn’t seem to make much difference if you speak English, French or German – on the watch of everyone, the bankers have ultimately got away with financial murder, and have created in the people real hardship) – are no longer ours to proudly give away to the rest of the world.  Europe, and here I include the United Kingdom, is no longer the place where the technical, never mind the moral, high ground can be found.

Yes.  It is true.  We prevented centuries of internecine conflict with the cushion of comfort which the European Union became – but at what cost now as Russia’s Gazprom and Merkel’s Germany appear to both want the carving up of supposedly small sovereign states?

There must, of course, be better ways – and it is Teivainen’s thesis that they already may exist in other parts of the world.  As I suggested a few posts ago, we may yet be able to save the NHS’s principles by looking to the experience of health service provision in the Third World.  So why not understand a more participatory way of agreeing on and defining the economic experience and infrastructures?  What not apply the same ideas to the fundamentals of our societies?

It would be a delicious irony indeed if from colonial times and places past we found the First World’s future salvation.

I’ve already made some slow and uncertain steps in this direction.  With my first Revolution ’13 post not long ago, I suggested we recover the idea of disruptive revolution by asserting it could be both efficient and bloodless at the same time (perhaps, in fact, the former would even require the latter).  And only yesterday, this project came to my attention:

MANIFESTO FOR DEMOCRACY AND SUSTAINABILITY

We cherish sustainability: meeting the needs of people now without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. But today, human activities have exceeded the earth’s natural limits. As a species we have created great inequalities and torn resources away from those yet to be born.

We cherish democracy: the rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But democracy is undermined by decision-making that is democratic in name only. It is threatened by conflict, apathy, inequality, manipulation and corruption. It is failing to deliver sustainability.

Together, if we take immediate action, we have the power to transform democracy so that it is an engine for sustainability. This Manifesto for Democracy and Sustainability has been developed to guide a global movement for change. As its signatories, we confirm that we want to be part of this movement. What we create together will be part of our bequest to future generations.

  1. Sustainability needs flourishing democracy
  2. Take the long view
  3. Sustainability must be a central goal of governments everywhere
  4. Education must link citizenship and sustainability
  5. Knowledge must be inclusive
  6. Nothing about us without us

So good things are happening out there.  People, ordinary citizens, are finally beginning to see for themselves – in the light of the destruction by ineffective elites of social and economic support networks various – that democratic deficits are not only undemocratic but economically and socially inefficient.

And so we come back to Peter Levine’s two-fold definition of “good democracy”:

  1. Inclusive, yes.
  2. But efficient, too.

So why not let the Latin-American learning paths lead their way?  For by so doing,  we may also one day understand – from those best placed, wherever they find themselves – how to turn grave crisis into the serious opportunities we surely all agree we will need.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That personal responsibility.

That core humanity.

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

That love, even.

That kindness, generously imparted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t.

*

They say familiarity may breed contempt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.  It’s the people, stupid.

And our leaders are too stupid to realise it.


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Jan 172013
 
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I went to Chester Zoo recently.  I saw some beautiful butterflies.  All butterflies are beautiful – but these were particularly beautiful.  What’s so very beautiful for me about these creatures is how they dance unthreateningly from one position of rest to another.  They add to the world in almost everything they do.

But they do so in such a sustainable way.

We could do well to treasure their example.

There’s something else I admire about the butterfly, of course.  A long time ago, I was instructed by my father – who, even today, treasures their example in much the same way I suggest above we should all aim to do – not to try and touch them ever.  Apparently, their wings are covered in tiny scales – the touching of which removes an important protection.

In this, butterflies are one step away from a lingering but unstoppable death.

One touch, in fact.

Yet evolution has cared to find them a place in the scheme of things.  Nature has created them and decided unthreatening, in this case, is good.

And nature, in this, at least in this case, is about as wise as it gets.

Two examples today, then, of where we human beings have become butterfly-crushing bastards.

First, Aaron Swartz’s suicide, the implications of which I hope will continue to resonate: please read these two posts from John Naughton and ensure that this indeed does continue to happen.  From the second of the two, and quoting from a Matt Stoller article:

[...] What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. There’s a reason whistleblowers get fired. There’s a reason Bradley Manning is in jail. There’s a reason the only CIA official who has gone to jail for torture is the person – John Kiriako – who told the world it was going on. There’s a reason those who destroyed the financial system “dine at the White House”, as Lawrence Lessig put it. There’s a reason former Senator Russ Feingold is a college professor whereas former Senator Chris Dodd is now a multi-millionaire. There’s a reason DOJ officials do not go after bankers who illegally foreclose, and then get jobs as partners in white collar criminal defense. There’s a reason no one has been held accountable for decisions leading to the financial crisis, or the war in Iraq. This reason is the modern ethic in American society that defines success as climbing up the ladder, consequences be damned. Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice.

But Aaron Swartz isn’t alone in his death at the hands of the political inversion of our public interest.  Here in Britain, today, we now have plenty of evidence to hand to demonstrate how all these unsung heroes of our time – human butterflies all – are being broken by a political system that turns a very real public interest into a very private personal benefit.  Some choice examples here:

The first example concerns a constituent of mine who was epileptic almost from birth and was subject to grand mal seizures. At the age of 24, he was called in by Atos, classified as fit for work and had his benefit cut by £70 a week. He appealed, but became agitated and depressed and lost weight, fearing that he could not pay his rent or buy food. Three months later, he had a major seizure that killed him. A month after he died, the DWP rang his parents to say that it had made a mistake and his benefit was being restored.

[...]

To illustrate one of those cases, I shall cite a letter I received from a constituent, Janine, in Liverpool. Her dad was thrown off sickness benefit in November after an Atos work capability assessment and was declared fit for work despite suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Six weeks later, on Christmas day, Janine’s father died.

[...]

My caseworker, like those of many Members, is inundated with cases that are tragic and heart-rending. The telephone line to my office is often clogged with crying people. They often ring several times a day, as they are unable to cope with the stress that they are facing. Many have mental health problems, and are unable to cope with the paperwork. They are unsure what to do with it, and they ring me to ask for help in the most tragic and personal way.

[...]

We are all here today because constituents have come to us and told us their stories. Constituents have come to me in their wheelchairs with their carers because they have wanted me to know about the difficulties that they are experiencing. They cannot understand why, in the face of overwhelming medical evidence, they are still being called in for interviews. Some cannot understand why they have been told “If you make it to this interview, you must be fit for work.”

[...]

Thirdly, there is a category of people who are being considered fit for work although they have had, for instance, a severe stroke or are awaiting a back operation. One constituent was told that if people could move an empty cardboard box, they could go to work. Do the health care professionals employed by Atos always take account of the fact that people have to get to work in the first place, or that, while they may be able to perform an action once, they may not be able to perform it repeatedly when it causes severe pain?

[...]

Many disabled people’s groups say that the reductions in benefits have had a catastrophic effect on recipients, and there have been a number of reports of suicides and untimely deaths brought on by immense distress. In my surgeries, I have heard several harrowing and very sad accounts from constituents who have been subjected to impersonal and inhumane work capability assessments by Atos. One has been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour, which cannot be completely removed because that would leave her paralysed. In August and September of last year she had radiotherapy to slow down the growth of the tumour, but in October she was told that it would grow back even more quickly, and that she would have to have further radiotherapy or she would die. I should add that this lady also has polyarthritis and asthma. Why has this lady been placed in the work-related activity group? Her doctors and consultants have specified that she should be placed in the support group as she is fighting for her life. Her only concern should be winning that battle.

[...]

Another constituent contacted me who had been ill for two years and was eventually diagnosed with cancer following a serious bout of pneumonia. Prior to her illness, she had an unblemished employment record. She was certified as unable to work by her GP and had attended many DWP hearings about the employment and support allowance, with the final one being in April 2012. She won her tribunal hearing against the Atos decision. She had not received a single penny in state benefits from before April 2012 until she died at the end of November. She faced immense distress and was denied any financial assistance at a time when she was vulnerable and in desperate need of assistance.

[...]

Clearly many of my constituents have not been treated with the fairness and decency they deserve. Although I realise that we need to see whether people can work, we need a system that is humane and fair, not one that causes fear and loathing. It is time the Government realised that they are driving many sick and disabled people into poverty. What does the Minister think of Citizens Advice’s detailed year-long study “Right first time?” on the controversial work capability assessment run by Atos, which has revealed evidence of widespread inaccuracies in the medical reports that help to determine whether individuals are eligible for sickness benefits? Citizens Advice also tracked a group of people through the process of claiming employment and support allowance and looked at how their claims were handled. The report’s conclusions are stark: 37 individuals were tracked and had their reports examined, with serious levels of inaccuracy revealed in up to 43% of the reports. That level is significant enough to have an impact on the claimant’s eligibility for benefits—surely our sick and disabled deserve better than this.

[...]

Over 5,000 of my constituents are on incapacity benefit or employment and support allowance and they are facing this terrible system. I should like to give a few examples. Mr H, a double-leg amputee, was told to undertake an 80-mile round trip for his work capability assessment. Mr W, who has serious mental health problems, had a panic attack and was physically sick during his WCA but was told he was fit for work. His wife believes that he is being victimised by Atos. Mrs D, a district nurse who broke her back at work, was told that she is fit for work. Mrs M, who was treated for cancer in July 2010, was deemed fit for work before the results of the operation came through. Her appeal will not take place until next month. Mr E, who is one of the people the RNIB is worried about, had been completely blind for 16 years and forced to give up work, but was told by Atos that he was fit for work.

And finally (the bold is mine):

A gentleman in my constituency—let us call him Mr D—served in the forces for many years and is now in his late 50s. In the past 18 months, he has undergone extensive surgery to the brain, following a tumour, and in November 2011 he was informed that he required further surgery, this time to his neck, to remove the growing tumour. At the same time—in precisely the same month—Atos assessed Mr D as being fit for work. That assessment was undertaken by someone who was not trained as a doctor at a time when Mr D was going to assessments with a gaping wound in his head and still undergoing treatment. Does it not make an entire mockery of the whole process if that is allowed to happen? Does it not cast real doubt on the effectiveness and accuracy of the whole system? Most ominously, does it not reveal the system’s true intention?

Several of my constituents—far too many to be isolated incidents—have told me that they were asked by the person carrying out the assessment whether they just sat around all day watching Jeremy Kyle. I expect uninformed, unprofessional and crass comments from the likes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but not from medical professionals with the serious task of determining whether a person is fit for work in, presumably, an objective and non-prejudicial manner.

Too much to read you say?  Too many words, distant experiences and other lives we cannot be expected to share?  Well, I’m afraid there’s plenty more of the same at the Hansard link in question.  And you really should read it all.  In fact, I insist.

Now.

Go ahead and do it.

And then come back for a very short last couple of thoughts.

*

If Aaron Swartz has anything in common with any of the rest of us souls who populate this planet, it is with these human butterflies I refer to above.  Struggling to understand the world as it really is, yes.  Weak, in no way at all.  With everything stacked against them too.  For being blind only means you cannot see as the wicked do too easily.

And seeing life as it is doesn’t mean giving up on goodness either.

Even when pursuing goodness may – ultimately – mean one’s own destruction.

*

One final link for you to think about.  This, tonight, from the Independent, takes us back to the conflict-strewn 1980s:

The Labour MP Tom Watson alleged in the Commons in October that politicians belonging to a paedophile network had used their powerful connections to escape justice.

In a short statement tonight, the Metropolitan Police said: “The Metropolitan Police Service have today, Thursday 17 January, launched an investigation, Operation Fernbridge, into historic allegations of child abuse in the early 1980s at the Elm Guest House, Rocks Lane, Barnes, London.

“The investigation will be led by the Child Abuse Investigation Command. Anyone with information is asked to contact officers on 020 7161 0500.”

Talk of breaking butterflies on wheels, eh?

This shit is everywhere, at all levels and in all countries.

Isn’t it?


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