Nov 102014

I’m slowly coming round to the conclusion that capitalism’s not the problem.  True, its richest exponents have distorted representative democracy by buying into all kinds of bodies politic (more here on a related topic – revolving doors).  And this has meant – in real and quantifiable terms – we can now see exactly how our representative democracy’s been hounded to early infirmity:

Present social movements, as “Occupy Wall Street” or the Spanish “Indignados”, claim that politicians work for an economic elite, the 1%, that drives the world economic policies. In this paper we show through econometric analysis that these movements are accurate: politicians in OECD countries maximize the happiness of the economic elite. In 2009 center-right parties maximized the happiness of the 100th-98th richest percentile and center-left parties the 100th-95th richest percentile. The situation has evolved from the seventies when politicians represented, approximately, the median voter.

But it seems to me this hasn’t happened so much because capitalists are an evil bunch – or at least, not a particularly evil bunch.  Whilst my own experience of business in the language-services sector at the hands of the bigger fish should lead me to easily agree with the latter idea, I’m not inclined to do so any more: firstly, business, doing business, isn’t easy at all – whatever the size of your institution.  Unavoidable overheads and running costs, the vulnerability which social media and networks bring, just getting paid on time – and in time – affects and stresses us all.  (It also may lead many of us into sanctioning things a calmer moment or two wouldn’t allow.)  Secondly, whilst it’s true that big business has imposed its structure on representative democracy, it might also be true that representative democracy has played a part in doing exactly the same in the opposite direction.

The state, after all, is never a neutral concept.

In fact, I’d prefer to stop calling it “representative democracy”: prefer, much more, to call it “distanced democracy”.

In the same way as we often accuse the hierarchical agencies which rule large corporate bodies (not only big capitalist companies; also, smaller – supposedly charitable – institutions) of exhibiting highly removed behaviours from the daily hustle and bustle of down-at-the-bottom-of-the-pile workforces, so democracies which have operated through the variably good faith of professional politicians and other enablers of political activity have tended to become similarly ensconced in bubbles of unburstable self-belief.

Taking the whole #SamaritansRadar process as an example here: we clearly have an example of people at the top who have no clear idea of what they’re unleashing.  And this is probably because they are at the top: there’s no way anyone – even someone with immense dollops of the good faith I’ve already mentioned we all need more of – can possibly determine accurately what someone else, who spends their entire day-to-day existence working with the consequences of these “distanced” decision-making processes, already knows all too easily; already knows all too worryingly.

No.  I don’t think capitalism is the issue after all.  What’s in crisis ain’t a historically slippery economic “system”, which in truth is anything but a system as ideologues might understand it.  What’s in crisis is the relationship between its customers and itself: so much so that, foolishly, its biggest proponents, through secretive trade treaties various, are aiming to feather-bed their economic fears and desires in order not to have worry about overheads, late payment dates and evermore bolshie and nationalistic nation-states – looking, equally, as the latter are, to tie down future exploitation of land, sea, natural resource and multifarious property rights in almost everything, at the expense of the permanent and frantic control freakery these frontier-less capitalists manifest.

But then who can blame them?  (The capitalists, I mean.)  Wouldn’t you do the same, once (if) you managed to reach a certain critical mass?  Wouldn’t the roller-coaster of “grow or be destroyed” eventually force you down the route they all inevitably end up following?

This is why I’d suggest the solution isn’t to be found via reining in the capitalists – nor complaining, observing, suggesting or sustaining the idea that capitalism is broken.

The solution, for capitalism and democracy both, lies in the lessons of #SamaritansRadar: yes, people like myself, who don’t consider ourselves disabled, who don’t identify one-to-one with everything those with significant support needs rightly fight for … well, we can always choose to support a campaign, a movement, a direction on behalf of one party or another.  And that, to an extent, is good – of course it is.

But a real democracy, a democracy which is not “distanced”, a democracy which gets closer to the accuracy of persistent, timely complaint, is the kind of democracy where those who are directly and indiscriminately affected by oppressive behaviours have their own ability, tools and environments to allow them to continually shout the loudest, and be continually heard.  And just as this kind of what we might call “first-person democracy” will always guarantee the noise is maintained until it becomes unnecessary, so – in the same way – what the “distanced capitalism” I alluded to before needs in order that it may become irrelevant and out-of-date is a similarly close and faithful relationship between those who can exercise it as a tool of business and those – its customers, in fact – who have a daily, continuous and perpetual right to judge it: to judge it, to complain about it and to get their voices properly heard.

To judge persistently in first person with reliable data, evidence and conjecture … that is all our currently “distanced democracy” needs to become relevant once more to our needs; and that is all our “distanced capitalism” needs to become irrelevant to our preoccupations.

Jun 192014

In UK politics, from the dawn of the 2010 Coalition onwards (but probably in Blair’s time too – nothing ever comes from nothing, now does it?), welfare has become a very bad fare.  Now we get stories such as these, where people who describe themselves as progressives couch the debate in the following terms (the bold is mine):

Yes, the left should always push back against the demonisation of people on benefits , but equally important is to remember that a life on benefits is a huge waste of a person’s potential. There is absolutely nothing left-wing about that.

The reason why I disagree so fiercely today with James, generally coherent and quite matter-of-fact as he is on such stuff, is that someone of his journalistic calibre should want to take issue with the words we’re obviously choosing to use to define the debate.

Something he doesn’t really do.

Of course a life on benefits is a huge waste of a person’s potential; so is a life on the meek living wage that some organisations are proposing – or even lukewarmly implementing.  Until small power – ie the power held by small people (and here I don’t for example mean powerless toddlers – except in that figurative sense modern liberal democracy makes of us all!) – is allowed to knit itself cogently and productively into much bigger power (bigger in the sense of getting important things done), the alternatives people like Rick propose – large corporate organisation, transnationally structured – will never bring any benefit to the fore which doesn’t have its collateral antidemocratic instincts integrated into the DNA of its very being.

So when Rick argues …

The thing about big power is that it gets stuff done. The organisation and concentration of resources is what made rich countries rich (which is why places with lots of very small companies are poor). The countervailing power of unions and other social movements made the owners of these concentrated resources agree to share the fruits with everyone else.

… he’s using arguments which are clearly easily evidenced but lead to the very situations of dependence James decries in the context of the welfare state.  Are we therefore saying big is great for private industry (and here I mean industry in both its fundamental meanings: structure and outputs) but not in any way for the counterbalancing of nation-state government?  And where we accept government should be big, are we arguing that it should only serve in its immensity to service its counterparts in the business sectors?

I suppose what I’m really suggesting is that we haven’t moved – in politics or business – from any of the primal medieval hierarchies.  We are as old-fashioned as they come; and this couldn’t be a sadder reality in a century which claims to be the most technological in history.

Advanced in our physical tools; meanwhile, as backward and primitive in social and organisational tools as ever.  I don’t know about you, but this is not what I expected of the post-millennial age.

Three final links; three final sadnesses.  This involves the British Coalition government, supposed bastion of intellectual and cultural freedom, dismantling the last vestiges of our sense of physical and personal privacies and integrities.  Whilst this describes a parallel destruction of nation-state rights by secretive treaty-making.  And in the middle of these two fronts, even our Internet communications continue to be retained against overarching legal judgment.

As already – and frequently – expressed, then, my overriding responses are ones of sadness.  I can see the point of view of people like Rick, and I am sure many others who read and appreciate his finely-wrought blogposts, that big problems need big organisations.  And I can accept the opinion of James on the waste that it is a life on benefits, even when I sincerely disagree with the justice and fairness and intellectual accuracy of using the language and focus he employs.  (Just as much a waste it is to spend a life under the yoke of wage slavery, after all.)  And, in fact, I can even see the need to track Internet usage, and trawl what bad people do – although our privacies may suffer at the hands of such behaviours.

But, at least in my eyes, it would seem that as leaders have got used to collateral damage in a residual kind of warfare (residual in the sense that whilst drones in some places consistently bomb the hell out of people, the consumer markets and environments which freely occupy the planet elsewhere continue to easily generate their useful activity), so they have become accustomed to the idea of collateral damage very much at home.  That people on benefits should be punished with even more wasted and terrified lives – instead of someone intelligently managing the change they really need – has become such a given that even people like James and Rick give the impression of generally accepting it.

And this is where we must surely part ways.  That UK politics is destroying our homeland instincts to kindliness, generosity and consultation, and that global biz is performing the same role all over, is really not difficult to take onboard – at least conceptually, at least from the point of view of perceiving the processes taking place.

What is difficult to take onboard, however, is that progressives like James and Rick are consistently failing to see the things they advocate as part of the problems we have; and part of the reasons we’re all now desperately flailing not only to find but, more importantly, impose radical solutions.

For this is where I really am sad: those who believe they already have such solutions – in UK politics and global biz both – are demanding of everyone who occupies any square metres on this earth a total submission seen rarely in previous times of democratic engagement.  Tying up loose ends frantically as they are – via international treaties, door-to-door inspections and extralegal where not illegal data retention practices – they’re covering all their bases in a quite fearful way: fearful because it indicates they’re as afraid of the future as we should now also be.

And fear of the future always brings out the worst in this wonderful, frustrating and complex species we call the human being.

Aug 182013

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?

May 132013

A while back, I found Michael Gove’s belief in traditional history almost beguiling.  This is what the BBC reported back in February of this year:

Under Mr Gove’s plans, revealed earlier this month, children will learn a complete history of Britain, with a clear “narrative of British progress” and an emphasis on heroes and heroines of the past.

The youngest children, as is currently the case, will be taught about key historical figures, and from the age of seven, pupils will be expected to learn a detailed chronological history of Britain, from the Stone Age through to the end of the Cold War.

That phrase “heroes and heroines of the past” did worry me rather a lot, but – at the time – I kind of let it ride.  More on this later.

This weekend the big story has been how Mr Gove has become Mr Sloppy:

The education secretary, Michael Gove, has come under fire for citing PR-commissioned opinion polls as evidence of teenagers’ ignorance of key historical events.

Gove’s department has admitted he cited polls originating from Premier Inn and UKTV Gold press releases.

And so it is that we may see evidenced the real reason Michael Gove wants to get his hands on our history: if we stop it at “the end of the Cold War”, as it would appear he would like to be the case, the victory of anti-Communism is complete in its finest and most indisputable hour: the Berlin Wall collapses; Germany is reunited; neoliberalism’s trickle-down effect still hasn’t been shown to be the farce and falsehood it actually is; light-touch regulation still hasn’t destroyed millions of livelihoods; the credit crunch hasn’t yet crunched; mental ill-health hasn’t mushroomed dramatically along with personal debt.

But that’s not the only advantage of stopping history at “the end of the Cold War”.  Nor is it the only aspect which worries me about Mr Gove’s real motives.  A man capable of using a sequence of press releases to justify a prejudice about the nature of how we must inform modern life with historical events is just about the most preoccupying element of the whole affair.  And this is where I return to the phrase “heroes and heroines of the past”.  It’s not just that traditional history, the sort that seems to float Gove’s boat, is – inevitably (at least for the kind of historians Gove will run with) – a HIS-story much more than it’s ever a HER-story.  No.  It’s that all the democratising tendencies which are looking to flower around us – those driven, even where incompletely, by social networks and media of all kinds – seem to be travelling in a direction quite opposed to the old hierarchies of kings and queens.

Modern politics, little by little, if left at the mercy of these trends, will fall apart and disintegrate quite irreversibly.  And it seems clear to me that this is one barricade Mr Gove does not want us to tumble.

By arguing all he wants is a chronological description of famous people which stops at the vanquishing of the evil party which fought and sustained the Cold War so mercilessly – something essentially he is asking us to buy into – he is actually looking to shore up the old ways of doing politics.  Old ways which, left to their own devices, an educated civilisation and populace would pull apart tiny thread by thread.

By rewriting the way we teach and talk about the past, he is looking to protect his hierarchical view of how politics – the politics which he knows how to lever and make function – must be conducted: people in charge; famous people at that; famous people like Mr Gove & Co.

If we don’t think it important enough to fight him on the beaches of the past, let us at least consider it crucial enough to fight him on the beaches which will shape the future.

Because that’s what he’s improperly aiming to do: Mr Sloppy is doing everything to distract us from seeing the real Mr Undemocracy he is.  We mustn’t allow him to confuse us.

Whilst Gove’s Mr Sloppy is the smoke and mirrors which still bemuse, Gove’s Mr Undemocracy is the real enemy out there.

Mar 072013

Rick has a lovely piece on defending bureaucracy as a Good Thing.  It starts off like this:

Gus O’Donnell presented a thought-provoking programme on Radio 4 this morning, In Defence of Bureaucracy. He presented two arguments. Firstly, you can’t get much done without basic organisation. Secondly, bureaucracy, with its formal rules, offers protection from the arbitrary whims and prejudices of those in power.

I suggest you read it in its entirety.  It’s not just a piece about bureaucracy in government.  It’s also a piece about bureaucracy in the private sector.  This paragraph, for example:

Bureaucracy is the corporate equivalent of the rule of law. It protects people from arbitrary decisions inside the organisation. Rules and procedures give people clarity about their roles, their scope for decision making and their boundaries. Like the rule of law, they protect employees from random and vindictive treatment by their bosses. It has become very fashionable to deride bureaucracy but working in organisations with fewer rules and procedures can be just as unpleasant. Trying to second guess the whims of a maverick autocratic boss can be every bit as energy draining and innovation stifling as working in a bureaucracy.

In essence, as a set of democratic societies, we could not have arrived at where we are if it hadn’t been for the law-engendering instincts of overarching rules, processes and procedures.

It’s clear, therefore, that our impulsive perceptions of bureaucracy need a makeover.  We need to perceive it with a greater sense of its complex contribution to latterday civilisation.  Therein the rub, of course.  There’s plenty of evidence that bureaucracy – and its fairly widely independent relationship to political masters – makes it a perfect vehicle for doing ill too.  Just because a bureaucracy religiously ensures that rules, processes and procedures are followed to the letter doesn’t mean that only good may necessarily spring forth: if the rules, processes and procedures in question are malignant in nature, the result will be unkind.  What’s more, pretty consistently – even remorselessly – unkind.

The most obvious example is how the Nazis appropriated the Weimar Republic’s institutions.  But we also have an example much closer to home:

Patient interests were neglected for years by NHS mangers as hospitals concentrated on cutting waiting times at the expense of good care, the head of the service admitted today.

Sir David Nicholson accepted that he was “part” of an environment where the leadership of the NHS “lost its focus” and which indirectly led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of patients at Stafford Hospital.

Now it still seems the latter case is being the subject of much political football – the Tories have recently blamed the previous Labour government for, I assume, its attachment to targets (perhaps, in this case, the wrong ones – that is to say, the easiest ones to measure); meanwhile, the Labour opposition is calling for Nicholson to resign his current responsibility as driver of highly unpopular government-organised change at the NHS.

As I’ve said on a previous occasion:

If you think about it, the pyramid which reaches pointy-headed to the sky is actually totally absurd.  As the work gets more complex and challenging, we use fewer heads to decide what needs to be done.  The chances of committing errors, of stressing oneself into illness, of failing to achieve one’s targets … these are all bound to increase with the traditional pyramid we are all used to.

Surely this is madness.

Surely we need if not a cylinder, at the very least a pyramid without a considerable part of its upper superstructure.

And as Shuggy concisely points out:

From the Hootsmon:

“Excessive hierarchy must become a thing of the past. Upward communication must be encouraged and constructive criticism should be positively received.”

The remedy for this is, apparently, to give those at the top of the hierarchy more power:

“Headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous organisations…”

Kier Bloomer being desperately stupid in a way that only intelligent people can be. I’ll make this my last post on education for some time because this stuff makes me so depressed I can’t stand it.

Again as I’ve said on other occasions, where we currently find ourselves is here:

Where managerialism takes over, and where hierarchies reduce the number of people involved as the tasks get more complex, we get the big-hitter striker syndrome: a man or woman at the top on whom everyone is focussed. A man or woman on whom everything depends. A man or woman who will one day fail; or perhaps, over time, frequently fails – but has the physical presence to convince us they are, even so, actually succeeding; and so deserve the massive salaries they command. […]

Bureaucracies and top executives – or corporate law and CEOs, if you wish – are complicated relationships, after all.  It’s true, of course, that bureaucracies can act as a dead hand on individually dangerous and maverick leaders.  But as the Nazis showed us, and as the concept of charismatic leadership more widely demonstrates, a stratospheric leadership structure can just as easily use a bureaucracy to escape conviction and control as that very same bureaucracy can serve to ameliorate the former’s wilder instincts.

If we want to continue to believe we can use bureaucracy as a force for good, we need – first and foremost – to sort out the ever-growing dysfunctionality of pyramidal structures, as well as the inefficient concentrations of wealth that accompany it.

Jan 112013

Yesterday, on the back of an excellent post published by James Firth describing the upsides of shirking and laziness, I in turn said this:

And thinking on this fearful government campaign against the concept of shirking as James would prefer to understand it – a concept we could just as easily describe as idle thoughts, imagination and deliberately unfocussed creative and lateral thinking in general – makes me wonder if our government doesn’t have a couple of prejudices driving it:

  1. Thinking idly must be the preserve of the idle rich – because it’s one of the most sure-fire ways of getting richer.
  2. Thinking idly must be the preserve of the already powerful – because, as one sure-fire way of understanding how the world really works, it’s bound to lead the plebs to reconsider their assigned positions in society.

What I didn’t realise was that there is science behind what is happening.  Watch this video, first – it’s only ten minutes long and will change your life for sure.

As you will see if you follow my instructions to the letter, unthinking work responds positively to the attractions of monetary payments.  They dangle a larger carrot in front of you – or threaten you with a larger stick for not working harder – and, verily, you end up working harder.  But when it comes to using your brain to think, more money actually makes you perform worse!  Time and time again, the data proves the latter.  An astonishing – and apparently counter-intuitive – conclusion.

Are human beings, in reality then, hard-wired socialists by nature?

It’s certainly a thought, anyhow.


Naturally enough, this got me thinking.  I worked for about seven years in a large banking corporation.  My experience in one department there led me from relatively thinking tasks at the beginning to evermore desultory and meaningless data entry six years on.  The trends were absolutely clear: the dumbing down of processes and their corresponding procedures was an instinct which was manifestly part and parcel of corporate life.  The question was: why?

I always assumed it was an urge to reduce training costs, limit the impact of staff turnover and make it impossible for any one worker to be in control of sufficient intellectual property which a move into another company might prejudice.

The dumber the processes the workforces have to carry out, the fewer of those processes – and their value-adding implications – they can take away with them out of malice or pique, for example.

But in the light of what we’ve just seen in the RSA video above, it would seem that there is an intuitive (maybe even conscious) conspiracy sustaining itself to take out of a thinking society such as ours – trained for decades, as it has been, in the constructive cocoon of compulsory education to cogitate better and more profoundly than ever before – all the relevant and value-adding opportunities to use our cognitive and self-motivating side to be precisely that.

So instead of substituting a stick-and-carrot system designed to make simple and repetitive tasks function at least minimally well with an alternative system which would fit exactly with our thoughtful and educated latterday brains, large and small companies everywhere have decided – whether deliberately or instinctively – to jettison all attempts to take advantage of our minds and, instead, return us to the drudge of manager-driven wage slavery.

In a thinking society, where almost everyone has been taught how to imagine, create and laterally devise, this is why they’re dumbing down all the processes: it’s a power thing, after all.  A desire to keep a hold of those old hierarchies.  A need they have to maintain the control that externally motivated work has over the worker bees it commands.

And what’s even more curious is that as we continue to find ourselves carrying out more and more meaningless tasks in our work time, in our leisure time we’re blogging and videoing and writing to our heart’s content.  What’s more, with mostly very little monetary reward.

Whilst we’re pushed towards evermore robotic work experiences, our need to think and cogitate cannot be suppressed.  Just as, in fact, our democracy is removed from our politicking, so our desire to search out and practise democratic process moves into online and other virtual manifestations.

However hard you try to remove freedom of thought and cognitive opportunities from human beings and their daily experiences, you are bound, I think we can all agree, to ultimately fail.

And whilst we humans are pushed towards – and back into – meaningless work, and whilst our robots become cleverer and more ingenious, no wonder our politicians feel the need to criticise the thinkers: to criticise them roundly, describe thinking as shirking – and let it be understood that those who wonder are wasting their time.

After all, imagine how difficult it might be to rule over a nation of people far cleverer than you.

A nation of people who thought stuff without the petty reward of the only thing that separated you – with your concentrated wealth – from them.

A nation of people who didn’t believe stuff in accordance with what you gave them or withheld.

A nation of people who did what was right because doing what is right is what keeps them alive.

That, in conclusion, is what we now have in the United Kingdom.

Too many clever voters who think better in their spare time than their leaders are now managing in their paid time.

Curious, isn’t it?  Curious how historical hierarchies always seem to fight to reassert themselves.

Dec 152012

I have this love-hate relationship with politics.  I love that it sometimes seems to be able to enable the best in us.  President Obama, as a traditional politician, was certainly there up with the greatest last night in the terrible news coming out of Connecticut.  There is nothing more we can say, nothing more we can usefully contribute, as simple observers looking from the outside in on a singular nation’s tragedy.

But we can share the grief at such horrors – even at a distance.

For none of us are innocent any more.

Europe suffered the same unassailable anger and the same malaise last year in Norway.

During the conflict in the ex-Yugoslavia, violent people with cruel weapons did similar things to other innocents.

So in President Obama, in that traditional politician at the top of the organisational pyramid that is the US system of government, we saw yesterday the true worth of such politics: the ability to encapsulate and crystallise the needs of a moment.

To say the right thing.


Not the right thing.

The caring thing.


This, then, is when I love politics.  Out of the awful ashes of terrible suffering we truly wonder, at the very least occasionally, as when a smile of a beautiful person captures our touching and ever-so-momentary gaze, whether a better world really can’t await us.

Whether a better world might be within our grasp.

If only we knew how to engineer it.

Not that anyone, even President Obama, can explain how we might achieve that.  But to give us hope that some people want it as much as we do is surely a grand achievement in times like these.


I still can’t help feeling, however, that – mostly – politics is actually a form of abuse.  Imagine, if you will, the kind of husband who beats up his wife.  There are many ways of beating someone up, mind: sometimes physically; sometimes with words; sometimes by retaining resources so that life becomes a terrible burden and battle to get to the end of the month.

And politics, more and more in the recent past, seems to mimic these behaviours.

An example: well-meaning people like to say that you need to get involved in politics, whether you like it or not – because even if you choose not to do politics, politics will still choose to do you.

You have no alternative.  You really don’t.  You must play the game according to the professionals’ rules – even as by so doing you find yourself at an amateur disadvantage.

Sound at all familiar?  Like that beaten-up wife?  “Should I stay?  Should I go?  Will he take my kids away from me?  Is it my fault?  Is it theirs?  Could it actually be his?”

And in our love-hate relationship with politics we see a similar dynamic taking place.

Politics an example of how power abuses the people?  I think so.  This is abuse at state-sanctioned and industrial levels.  This is the kind of domestic violence so prevalent we don’t even perceive it as such.

Where the politician beats up on the voter and the voter beats up on their spouse and the spouse beats up on the kids and the kids beat up on the dog.

The parallels are sadly similar, you know.

Think about it carefully.

When someone makes a habit of hurting people for their own good, and even goes on to say that there is no alternative … well, this is precisely when we have an environment of oppression designed, most exactly, to make us knuckle down against our much better instincts.

No alternative to politics?

Are you really telling me there’s only going to be one way to organise the masses in what we might care to term a fruitful consonance and industry?

Nov 072012

This isn’t democracy – it’s medieval kingmaking.

In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever had democracy as it could have been.  And they say Romney was so gracious in defeat.

Judge for yourselves.

I felt it was reasonably measured, even if coded in many things I – as a simple Brit looking aghast from afar – find it impossible to understand.

But what really disappoints me this evening as I cogitate is the following pair of statistics which flashed past my eyes this morning from somewhere: whilst Romney spent around $800 million on his campaign plus Super PAC money, Obama is said to have spent just under $1 billion.  That is to say, total spending in this single campaign for President of the United States was more than $2 billion.

Democracy – where not kingmaking – is a damn expensive business.

So money, in the end, won the race.  But was that the war or just the battle?  Does anything ever change?  Will the dangerously offbeam finally sit back on their heels and give in to the sensibilities of the majority?

Well.  Tonight, I also received an email from the Weekly Standard marketing newsletter.  The Weekly Standard is a very right-wing US publication.  For some reason, it’s been bombarding me with exhortations from the Romney camp to vote the right way all through the election.

I obviously neglected – once upon a time – to tick the right box when I signed up to something else.

The content of the email in question was titled thus:

Obama Won. The war continues.

And it proceeded thus:

 Fellow Conservative,

Last night, President Obama won reelection. This is a devastating blow. But we cannot allow it to be a decisive defeat.

Conservatives cannot give up now. We must reaffirm our resolve and renew our fight for conservative principles.

Heritage Action for America is an advocate and warrior for conservative principles in Washington and across the nation. We will not allow President Obama and his allies in Congress to get away with another four years of unbridled liberal policies.

We have a track record of holding lawmakers to account–which will be all the more important as liberals try to claim a mandate for their failed ideas.

Watch our video to find out how Heritage Action will fight the liberal agenda and work for future conservative victories »

The war will continue. Stand with us in this fight.

Thank you for all you do.


Michael A. Needham
Chief Executive Officer
Heritage Action for America

Hardly the kind of language, instincts and impulses that are going to heal any civilisation too soon.

So this is why I say it’s a shame Obama did have to win.  It’s a shame not because of who he is: he seems, from the very outside looking in, a decent soul; intelligent like very few before him; a grandfatherly figure even as he is young and dynamic.

A gentle man where not a gentleman.

No.  It’s not Obama I find so very resistible but, rather, the process that tops such pyramidal structures of power with one or other of two impossibly responsible individuals.

It’s a shame that – in such modern times as these – we can devolve responsibilities for so very many things; we can create new communication tools and structures; we can design new ways of allowing communities to speak to each other; we can invent new processes and fashion new procedures … and yet, in politics, we are firmly anchored – even today – in medieval times of such foolish concentration.

Will it ever be so?  Will we never learn otherwise?

Is all-out war conducted on greasy poles the only discourse politics truly understands?

Oct 252012

Rick takes me indirectly to task as one of those who, tweeting as we do, praise flatter hierarchies to the exclusion of the tried and tested pyramid.

I think Rick is wrong.  He concludes thus:

It is the legions of people in medium to large organisations, monitoring performance, setting up and refining systems, making small but regular improvements, coaching, coaxing and occasionally disciplining their staff, who slowly but surely improve productivity and grow the economy.

Small companies with charismatic leaders and no rules might be very exciting but they only get us so far. It’s the boring companies with boring bureaucracy, boring systems, boring measurements and boring middle managers in suits that make us rich.

Something I can only fulsomely agree with.  But he’s previously criticised us tweeters for the following:

My Twitter timeline is full of links to articles about dynamic startups, cutting-edge businesses, inspirational leadership, visionaries and hierarchy-free organisations with self-managed teams. Oh and change, of course. Lots of change.

Inevitably, this means that a lot of other things are bad. Or worse, BORING!

Bureaucracy, BORING! Big companies, BORING. Systems and processes, BORING. Hierarchy, BORING. Control, BORING. And as for middle-managers, well not only are they BORING, they are stifling everyone’s creativity too.

This is something I’d beg to differ with, at least in part.  He knocks us for knocking the middle-management suits – I don’t knock the middle-management suits; I think they suffer just as much as the rest of us.  What I really knock are the KPIs handed down from up on high by helicopter-viewing executives who care not to get involved in the reality of processes and procedures; who commission entire IT systems on the basis of a salesperson-driven twenty-line summary; who ensure middle-management has to force the lower levels into evermore unnecessarily dumbed-down and mind-numbing tasks; and generally mess up companies in their pursuit of sterile and ultimately soul-destroying turf wars.

Wars which, nevertheless, hardly ever leave them personally out of pocket – whatever the end-of-year financials.

But less pronounced hierarchies could still be achieved, even when taking into account Rick’s beautifully woven and undeniable thesis: we could, after all, remove most of those above middle-managers and most of those below, so that everyone had a more productive and sustainable work experience in those flatter hierarchies he quite understandably chooses to so unfashionably disparage.

That is to say, we could argue for the virtues of a middle way.  Perhaps, even, end up renaming middle-managers: just as teachers have become facilitators and enablers of learning paths, so managers could become facilitators and enablers of productivity.

Not stuck in the middle between the crossfire of frustrated executives and despondent level ones but – rather – an overtly constructive and creative communication and organisational conduit between those who sell (the executives I mention, I mean) and those who know and can only dream (the aforementioned level ones).

What do you think about that?


A final thought for your cogitation this evening.  This post, over at 2020UK today, charts what it argues is the 30-year decline of Middlesbrough under, in this case, the control of the Labour Party.  I’m not really looking to agree or disagree here: for the purposes of my post, I’d far prefer to take it as an example of how permanence in power, whatever the party in question, can cause socioeconomic decline – yet would also find myself sustaining that chopping and changing in a swinging pendulum-like manner hardly resolves the latent issues either.

There must be a middle way in politics, just as Rick in business has so convincingly proposed.  Is it time, then, we also rechristened our politicians and party activists as facilitators and enablers of the democratic process?  Not grey-suited middlemen and women who stifle the grassroots but imaginative and creative people – even where rigorous – who could draw the best out of each and every citizen.

The job specifications would have to be tweaked for sure – but the teasing out of productivity and efficiency could remain as a value-adding given just the same.

An interesting change in prism, I think.  An interesting impact it could have as well.

One final final thought.

Would working to promote the virtues of such a middle way – in both politics and business – mean it’d be time we actually got rid of our leaders too?

Any opinions on that one, anyone?

And if so, how would we convince them?

Oct 112012

This tweet got me thinking:

Cameron is not a prophet, a genius or even an inspiration. But he is the best all-round politician of a limited generation.

For the sake of a mind experiment, let’s assume that latter assertion is true: he is the best all-round politician of a limited generation.  The question that then comes to mind is: why is the generation limited?

It’s a well-known fact that more than fifty percent of Conservative Party funding comes from the financial services sector – what you and I would inexactly call the banks.  Banks are for a number of reasons the most hierarchical organisations on the planet.  Regulatory bodies and the need for an iron-cast governance make them that way.  Except that, of course, events have shown that what should’ve  been a virtue has become a weakness.  Top-level CEOs have brought such businesses – and by extension, our personal economies – to rack and ruin, precisely through the top-down power which such pyramidal structures offered them.

Meanwhile, in British society it seems that political parties have had a bad press of late.  Yes.  They do tend to promise rather more than they deliver.  They do tend to throw up charismatic leaders who eventually forget where they came from.  But if properly constructed, if constructed along the lines of those virtuous virtual communities the web is always throwing up, political parties could have a quite different purpose: that is to say, help engender a creative environment in which party leaders would no longer have to sit uncertainly atop an unstable structure, but could – instead – find themselves amongst collaborative colleagues, members and supporters all looking to work together.

If – as the tweet argues – the generation is limited, and I’m happy to accept for the moment that is so, is it actually because we stand at a massive structural crossroads in our societies?  On the one hand, we have socioeconomic conservatives in politics and business – in the UK, the Tory Party and their banking sponsors – looking to work together to sustain centuries-old ways of thinking and doing.  On the other hand, we have socioeconomic progressives – I used the word “progressive” uncertainly, I must admit – trying with difficulty to see their way through to different ways of organising people, societies and civilisations.

And in this latter band of social miscreants, I see Ed Miliband himself.  That he might not be the best of a limited generation, as – for the moment – Cameron could be, isn’t because he’s not up to the job of leading a country.  Rather, it’s because he belongs to a quite different generation from that which Cameron has cared to represent.

Miliband’s is a generation which looks to learn from the iconically 21st century.  Words like collaboration, cooperation, communication and dialogue.

He’s most definitely not looking to reassert that the 19th century at its zenith should be our objective.

If Cameron does appear to be the best of a bad bunch, perhaps that’s because he really is.

And if Ed Miliband appears to have been having an uphill battle, perhaps that’s because he’s far more ambitious than Cameron: perhaps he refuses to settle for being the best of a bad bunch.  Miliband, quite paradoxically, may be aiming to use party politics for a quite different purpose.

Not to command from up on high in the rarefied atmosphere of a political Everest but to enable in the luxuriant and fertile downhill slopes where the vast majority of people use their daily intelligences to eke out their livings.

A case of an uphill battle to go downhill?  Downhill to that part of society where the greatest abundance of thought and wisdom lies?

Why not?  On many occasions in history, perception is everything.  You can be right, but if people’s misinterpretation of you kicks in first … well, there’s very little you can do to right the vessel after that.

When Labour under Miliband first talked of that New Generation, I truly do think they were on to something.  The only question which remains in my mind right now is whether they remember exactly how much that something was.

Because I do.


Further reading: this on Miliband’s One Nation strategy is well worth your time.  Disillusionment waiting in the wings for some?  Perhaps.  If this is the case, how much more important is it to ensure we reach the abundance of creative party political structures – before, that is, an inevitable closing-down of options takes place.

Oct 072012

Watch this and read this – and then let’s talk:

The Wartime Farm team tackles the conditions faced by British farmers in 1942, when Hitler’s U-boats continued to attack British ships, slashing imports and inflicting massive shortages on the country.

Ruth finds out how Britain coped with shortages of the wood vital for the war effort in the building of aircraft, ships and rifles, as well as pit props for crucial coal mining. With her daughter Eve, she travels to the New Forest and discovers how women known as ‘Lumber Jills’ were drafted in to fell trees in the Women’s Timber Corps.

Meanwhile, Peter and Alex face up to the wartime petrol crisis. Peter embarks on an ambitious plan to convert a 1930s ambulance to run on coal gas. Alex experiences the conditions faced by the Bevin Boys – conscripts who were sent to coal mines instead of the armed forces because the need for coal was so great. Having converted the ambulance and collected the coal to run it, Peter faces the question: will it work?

Well, quite.  Now those of you who read these pages regularly will know I’m not the most patriotic of souls.  But the “Wartime Farm” TV programme linked to above demonstrates exactly how spirited and socially minded – especially in the face of terrible adversity – the British people as a whole could become.  It communicates in its beautiful description of ingenuity under pressure how clever ordinary people can show themselves to be, given the right circumstances and environments.

A lesson for all those who knock the United Kingdom as a political structure and as a singular people?  Well.  Before you give up on your knocking – or, indeed, before you continue breathlessly on your jingoistic routes to the next general election – the Open University, joint producers of the series in question, has this to say about our history.  Interesting, to say the least (the bold is mine):

In Wartime Farm Alex Langlands, Peter Ginn and Ruth Goodman will take on their biggest challenge yet. As with Victorian and Edwardian Farm, they will be taking up the running of a farm for a full calendar year, using only the tools and materials of an historic era.

But this time they will be turning the clock back to World War Two – and mirroring the demands of an agricultural endeavour unparalleled in British history.

Alex, Peter and Ruth are about to embark on nothing short of a revolution in British farming – one more akin to Soviet-style collectivization than anything else. With quotas and targets imposed by the Ministry of Agriculture, new sweeping national standards were set down, irrespective of what type of farm you had or where it was located.

I wonder if there isn’t a lesson in the above for the times we are now living.  And I ask the question in all good faith – striving with great difficulty to be even-handed as I do.  What if our Coalition government is right to express absolute fear about the depth of the financial crisis – the figurative war – we are currently engaged in?  What if they are right to say we need urgent measures – and now?  What if they are right to have wanted to deal violently and aggressively with a situation shortly on the point of spiralling out of control?

And what if they are simply not up to the job – even as their analysis is correct?  Imagine World War II had been driven by a vacillating Chamberlain instead of a Churchillian … well … Churchill.  Imagine that is now the case here.  A rudderless nation which doesn’t even realise it’s actually, truly, engaged with 21st-century war.

Tom was interesting the other day in a long, complex and fascinating piece on One Nation politics.  I urge you to read the whole of it, but for the purposes of today’s post, I’d like to extract this short affirmation:

The fact is, as happy as I am to accept the rhetoric of One Nation, if I was a Tory, I would be a Thatcherite. I respect ideological leadership, sticking to guns, and having guns to stick to in the first place.

And I do think that many of us (though not, it must be said, myself) do secretly admire those kind of behaviours in many if not all walks of life.

What, then, allowed Britain to deliver so effectively in World War II?  Partly, of course, it must’ve been the outright fear – shared by everyone – of Nazi imposition and the consequential massacres that would have followed.  So fear was one element.  But it can’t have been the only one.  The collaborative instincts and the sheer social intelligences shown in “Wartime Farm” do not flower so generously just in a state of fear.  Overarching targets, however, are a quite different matter.

It seems to me, on a relatively cursory inspection, that the “Wartime Farm” thesis will end up demonstrating that collectivisation can be good, liberating and creative – especially where carried out for a specific purpose, during a particular timeframe and for a concrete and manifestly clear reason.

That is to say, for a reason people see – out of their own initiative and thought processes – as understandable and inevitable.

So what’s missing today for Britain to able to deliver as we would all love to be the case?  Fear, surely not.  There is plenty of fear.  But instead of serving to bind us, our government has used it to divide us – and, in this, we can quite rightly attach to it a massive and outrageous blame.

First, then, we need to redirect that fear so that it encourages us to work together instead of continuing to spin us apart.  Fear re-engineered and legitimately channelled can motivate people to do good things – as long as we feel that the major forces in society doing the channelling truly want to help us to better times.

Instead of helping themselves to what we live, own and are.

In order to convince us that the fear of societal destruction – this figurative and very 21st-century war I allude to above – can actually bring us together, we need the second part of the equation: convincing leadership.  The best leadership involves every level of the pyramid, however flat or tall that might be, acting effectively.

Which is what “Wartime Farm” would seem to indicate took place in the 1940s.

The reality is that we’ve gone dreadfully back in time.  Our current leaders don’t understand the concept of leadership at every level.  Nor do they understand the importance of channelling fear constructively.  All they understand is the sound of their own voices and the heavy beat of their actions.

And meanwhile, whilst Britain could deliver, the Tories in power will vacillate like Chamberlain would have done – until the enemy from both without and within finally destroys what the Nazis never were able to: the British people’s sensible understanding that moments of wartime – which is kind of where we currently find ourselves – sometimes demand processes of collectivisation aimed directly at the short-term common good.

A kindly collectivisation of our rational selves.

Carried out in the very best of faith.

Perhaps what Ed Miliband was really getting at when he spoke of One Nation Labourism.

Five-year plans anyone?  (Rebranded, of course …)

Sep 172012

This is a great piece from today – it deserves your full attention and a full reading.  This, for example:

Government is still using industrial era terms and concepts, 150 years after Mill’s book.

Our understanding of government and society has changed. our technology has changed. The outcomes that government is expected to deliver has changed.

Does industrial-era terminology still provide the right models for government? Are politicians still ‘pulling the levers of power’, or negotiating equitable solutions in partnership with other organisations and communities?

This, too:

Can we conceptualise a 21st Century model of government using 19th Century terminology, or do the words, and the shape they lead our thoughts into, limit government to outdated modes?

And so I responded as follows:

[…] Language does frame so much of what we do – and what we believe is right to do.  The lesson has been learned long ago (though not always paid attention to) in the area of disability and civil rights.  It’s time that we should release governments from terminologies the 21st century could quite easily allow them to outgrow, if given half a chance.

I was too young to really live the civil rights movement, even in the UK.  I suppose, as a young boy, that demonstrations in favour of equal rights for men and women did impact to a degree on me – and then later on as well, when I became a trades union representative.

Meanwhile, I have had my own contact with disability issues as already documented on these pages – and am well aware of how language affects perceptions and what people think is possible.  Whilst living in Spain, towards the tail end as I began to suffer from mental ill health myself, I did translations for a Spanish university on texts relating to what they called “people with support needs” (“personas con necesidades de apoyo”) – never did they choose to call them “disabled people”; quite the opposite.  If I remember rightly, please correct me if I am wrong, there was even a moment in Spanish legal history when what we Anglo-Saxons still call the “disabled” were actually called “inútiles” – that is to say, “useless”.  Certainly, in a Spanish context much has been done to remedy that state of affairs.  But what it clearly teaches us is how language frames our perception of reality and what we can do with it.

So if, as the article linked to above indicates, language such as the “machinery of government”, “fine-tuning” and “spin” defines our sense of what is possible in governance, defines it in terms of the mechanics of the Industrial Revolution and its corresponding hierarchies, how on earth, then, are we going to manage to remake 21st century society and democratic organisation as effectively as we have managed to remake its manufacturing industry?

When people with support needs were described as useless in law, any efforts to change people’s perceptions were going to be just as futile.

Which is why I do get the feeling that until we recognise the need to describe politics and government in a terminology fit for the 21st century communication and relational tools all of us as private citizens are so used to engaging with, until we actively use different metaphors to structure our prejudices, we will remain firmly anchored in a 19th century environment of restricting and unempowering semi-serfdom.

Or maybe, sadly enough, even further back than that.

Sep 162012

Yesterday, late at night (excuse the incongruences if they exist!), I suggested the following:

[…] I am a child of a technological society – and continuous improvement is the essence of my belief system.  I simply cannot accept that we can refine to a millionth degree a computer, an iPhone or a piece of civil engineering – and yet find ourselves unable to improve the 19th century boom-and-bust cycle of traditional economics.

A Facebook friend responded this morning by arguing in favour of planned economies.

Which got me thinking.

The iPhone, perhaps the apex of all latterday manufacturing and publishing industries, is just about as planned and structured to the last detail as anything in this life could possibly be.  It’s an astonishing paradox that Apple is held up to be the paradigm of effective free-market capitalism (even when we know it isn’t free market at all) – whilst being the most control-freaking company in history.

When you think about it, Apple and traditional capitalism should form an oxymoron.  There is nothing less like a light-touch free-market approach to life than the fruit of Steve Jobs’ legacy.

But instead of indulging in yet another easy bit of Apple-bashing, why don’t we choose to take our lead from it instead?  This is what I posted this morning in our favourite walled garden:

[…] We’ve spent the last fifty years refining our manufacturing ability – and have neglected (probably deliberately) to apply the same principles to our organisational structures. […]

In essence, what’s happened is that those in charge have truly managed to deliver radical improvements in thought, manufacturing and ideas development processes but – out of unhappy self-interest or perhaps an inability to see beyond the day-to-day – have refused to apply the same ingenuities to the running of our economies and wider societies.  Why?  As I allude, I suspect a combination of self-interest and lack of foresight – the almost feudal and pyramidal system of organising almost everything in politics and society currently benefits those who could otherwise truly effect big changes if they were only prepared to use other structures.

What iPhone really shows us, then, is the massively impact planning our whys and wherefores can have on how they turn out.  If we want to use Apple – and its huge cash mountain and its immense ability to deliver products and services people want – as an example to follow, we have to argue it has far more to do with planned economies than the supposedly libertarian, slapdash and light-touch approaches conventional neoliberalism would have us ascribing to.

The iPhone an argument in favour of beginning to plan our economies all over again?  I think so.  And as I also pointed out in my Facebook response this morning:

[…] where before perhaps our analytical tools were not up to the job, I don’t think this is going to be the case today. […]

If we are capable of sophisticating our manufacturing processes and consumer durables to such an extent as Apple’s iPhone, we can – where there’s a political and social will, of course – do the same with our societies and economies.

Is this a case of convergent evolution?  A case where the clearest example of 21st century corporate capitalism shows the way forward for a different kind of 21st century socialism?

A return to a sadly failed 20th century model of planned economies – only now, in the light of Apple’s experience, with the potential for a huge new lease of life.

I wonder.

Sep 142012

I see via Twitter, fleetingly I must admit, that Iain Dale has defended Thatcher’s memory in relation to the Hillsborough cover-up.  I didn’t hear the programme itself, I believe it was “Any Questions” on BBC Radio, but assume that what we had was a vigorous and convincing separation of action from event.  I imagine the discussion would have gone as follows: Margaret Thatcher did not anywhere say or let it be understood that anyone should cover up anything.  That evidence will not appear because it did not happen.  End of argument.

Margaret Thatcher was a charismatic leader.  But not in the sense most of us generally understand the term.  Most of us understand charismatic as meaning attractive in some dashing way – plenty of personality, the kind of person who manages to sweep you away despite yourself.

Tony Blair was perhaps closer to the latter understanding of charismatic.

No.  The charismatic I mean when I talk of Thatcher is a different charismatic – one I posted on recently in relation to Rupert Murdoch.  Part of the Harold Evans quote contained in that piece bears repeating here in relation to Thatcher:

[…] The concept of charismatic authority as applied to the Murdoch empire may be best understood – as a concept, I emphasise, and not a personal comparison – in the use made of Weber’s definition by Sir Ian Kershaw, historian of the Third Reich. Kershaw argues that Hitler was not much absorbed by the day-to-day details of Nazi Germany’s domestic policy, but was nonetheless a dominant dictator. Kershaw explains the paradox by adopting the phrase of a Prussian civil servant who said the bureaucrats were always “working towards the Fuhrer”. They were forever attempting to win favour by guessing what the boss wanted or might applaud but might well not have asked for. Similarly, in all Murdoch’s far-flung enterprises, the question is not whether this or that is a good idea, but “What will Rupert think?”. He doesn’t have to give direct orders. His executives act like courtiers, working towards what they perceive to be his wishes or might be construed as his wishes. […]

In my previous post today, on the subject – in part – of Thatcher’s reign, I suggested the following:

When those bodies which exist in representative democracy in order to protect the people are, in reality, there only to represent themselves … well, this is when we do really have to ask questions.  For example, is the common and underlying factor in all these unspooling scandals actually very English kinds of self-elected and autocratic leaders?  Is the nature of our police leaders as allowed to unfold under Thatcher – and perhaps tolerated under New Labour for whatever reasons – an issue which now requires a proper airing?  Orgreave and now Hillsborough?  News International?  Is there really not enough evidence to pull together a broader understanding of what has happened in the past quarter century?

And as Peter in the tweet I linked to first of all rightly concludes:

Ian Dale is being disingenuous. The background created by Thatcher contributed massively to the attitude of S Yorks police.#bbcaq

Absolutely!  Spot on, in fact.  And this was exactly because Thatcher was a charismatic leader with the kind of power to get things done at a societal level just as she wished – even when she didn’t specify exactly what or how.  In a certain impositional way which was bound to feed down to the lower levels, her leadership style contained, as much as Murdoch’s own, that ability to command without specific orders or any dangerous audit trail left behind.  That surely, after all, is the purpose of a certain kind of leadership: not micro-manage underlings into a shaky inefficiency but encourage them to flock around one in effective consonance.

So when we all finally conclude Thatcher wasn’t to blame, because the evidence simply won’t exist, we will have to accept that she wasn’t.

Except, of course, inasmuch as she set the national tone through a system that eminent historians concluded was used – in other awful historical circumstances – by a very unhappy, and arguably evil, führer.

Does that make her guilty of anything?  The fact that she only set a tone which may have encouraged very specific centres of police power in crucial moments of her government to act as autocratically as she had shown herself able to?

I’m inclined to believe it does.  And I’m also inclined to feel that life under Thatcher was so awfully violent and cruel not because she brought it upon us but rather because she brought it out of us.  Charismatic authority does that: whilst it leads by example, it succeeds through understanding us far better than we care to understand ourselves.  And then it proceeds to work on those instincts and use them to take us all in one horrible direction.

So she didn’t actually do it, did she?  She just enabled it.

A paradox.  All this time I’ve been arguing against pyramid politicians who impose their will – and in favour of enablers and facilitators who empower the people.  Yet it’s quite possible that, in the event, Thatcher was an enabler and facilitator like no other.

Empowering the people doesn’t automatically mean the people will do good.

Especially if the enabler and facilitator in question looks to empower autocracy.

Time to reopen the book on Margaret Thatcher then?  I think it is.  Her legacy, the past quarter of a century, is now unspooling before our very eyes.

Sep 122012

We’re living in a society where responsibilities are unevenly distributed.  In this I mean in relation to job descriptions.  For whilst level one workers, humble data-inputters like the data-inputter I once was, get rewarded with humble salary packages, they do in many senses collectively exert the greatest of company responsibilities.  Without their daily massed ranks, it wouldn’t matter how loudly or aggressively a CEO might shout; nothing, absolutely nothing, would get done.

So the responsibility of humble workers is great even as the reward is minimal.  Conversely, if, as suggested in the first place, we go by job descriptions instead of practice, the responsibility of an all-powerful CEO is as tendentiously great as the oily nature of their pecuniary emollients.

It’s the way of the world.  Maybe those who support the idea of pyramidal organisations are right, at least to a certain extent, in what they say about its virtues.  I’m inclined to believe this is not the case – but certainly the breadth of its practical application would seem to indicate I’m in a massive minority here.

But let’s just accept for a moment that pyramids may be good.  What are their downsides, if any?  Devising a system of social organisation on the basis of hyper-important people is not a decision to be taken lightly – even as it’s apparent that a light touch has been involved.  They need security cameras and protection twenty-four hours a day; they need separation from the rest of society for their – and possibly our – own good; and they become distanced and special in ways none of the rest of us are allowed to.

This, however, isn’t the worst of it.  The worst of it is how damned inefficient they end up behaving.  Trillions of whatever currency takes your fancy down the drain; tens of millions of workers wrenched violently out of their corporate cocoons and homes and livelihoods; and hundreds of thousands of the weakest in society suffering the consequences of this rank inability even to do what appears in what is clearly an impossible job description anyway.

Of course, in a way, we can blame these hyper-important people.  In many cases, other hyper-important people have made up these aforementioned descriptions in cahoots with the applicants.  They want to justify their mutual remuneration packages, their golden handshakes and handcuffs, their pension plans, their unassailable bonus payments … so it all has to seem so stratospheric and complex in order that a rubber-stamping board of directors (directors? Now there’s a misnomer if there ever was one) gives the easy go-ahead.

And so instead of investigating new and innovative organisational structures which might serve to share out the complexity of modern life, we continue with medieval structures more suited to slashing the throats of serfs and peasants.

However, unfortunately, and more fairly said, it’s not always exactly the fault of the above-mentioned hyper-important.

Democracy, organisation, work in general … it’s all hard stuff.  It takes time and energy and dedication to a cause.  And if by default we have allowed the energetically under-qualified to take over our societies so dramatically, perhaps it’s now time we recognised exactly what we’ve done – perhaps now time we began to do something radically different.

Otherwise we’ll continue to inhabit a society condemned to die a death of a thousand cuts.  Each one of them inflicted by self-congratulating, though not entirely self-appointed, creatures of a hyper-important mess.

Aug 052012

An interesting thought came my way a few minutes ago:

Note to ALL political tweeters: How about you congratulate Olympians, rather than try to politicise their fantastic achievements? #indyref

And this I find myself agreeing with.

The truth of the matter is that environment often conditions our behaviours.  If people are tending to politicise sporting achievements, there may be a number of wider reasons for this.  Today, on the day that Andy Murray wins the Olympic gold against Roger Federer, I am minded to remind us all that Olympic committees are tied to sovereign nation states; that sovereign nation states do not always find it easy to rise to latterday expectations of equality; and that whilst the Olympic Games as such has an ideal the participants will continue to subscribe to, it also has a business model which leaves much to be desired – especially when it cedes as it does the physicality of the Games to globalising corporations hardly given to treasuring localities and regionalities with any degree of gusto.

That the Games are political is nothing new.  That they need to be political is another matter.  It might require a complete and utter change more in how we see the world than how we pay for it, but such a change would surely benefit everyone.  If both small and large could take advantage of their beauty and majesty, wouldn’t that send a far more egalitarian message to their spectators and participants?

As a final thought, the most curious thing for me in all of this, and this is me now reflecting at a broader level, is how these large and omnipotent business “partners” – the Coca-Colas, McDonalds and Adidases of the world – strive on the one hand in their processes and procedures to depoliticise all social and cultural discourse and yet on the other encourage division and an almost serf-like ownership of these inconsistently private spaces of public usage.  In reality, whilst they appear to be the most apolitical of all institutions, their impact on how we run our lives is about as profound as it could ever get.

Perhaps we need a new way of looking at this 21st century politicking: the politics of hide and seek participation; the politics of pretending one doesn’t do politics at all – even as one spends millions of pounds on affecting the directions societies take.

A coward’s politics.

A politics – as the Spanish would say – of “tirar la piedra y esconder la mano”.

In other words, a politics of “throwing stones and hiding hands”.

Now that indeed, these days, is the task of Olympians – that is to say, the boardroom Olympians who literally rule over us from up on high.

How history does indeed re-establish itself from generation to generation …

Sad, ain’t it?