Sep 152013

This post on the Ten Commandments and contemplating their alternatives hits the issue of closed minds on the button.  Structure, even spurious structure, is often manifestly priceless.  History is full of examples where someone who is capable of offering such structure is judged not on the intrinsic merits of their beast but, rather, on its ability to provide societal comfort in times of crisis.

Meanwhile, a comment on Chris’s post today truly hit home, and reminded me of uni.  Whilst the former describes how celebrity culture is anything but a meritocracy, that – indeed – the free market rewards not the deserving but the noticed, and furthermore argues that …

[…] Everyone loves to gossip. A few decades ago, they did so like Cissie and Ada, about neighbours and acquaintances. In our more atomized society, though, this is less possible. So we gossip about celebrities instead.

… the latter suggests that:

This is the whole reason why soaps exist. You can gossip about them at work.

Chris also observes accurately (the bold is mine):

[..] All – like many former MPs – are using the celebrity or notoriety obtained in one sphere to make money in another. Many people, such as Katie Price orPippa Middleton, make a life of this. Celebrity is a general purpose technology.

And that, in reality, is where we’re at.  Celebrity is a simple tool to generate wealth.  Like many tools, like many technologies, it is transferable: transferable from one area to another with relative ease, especially when you’ve cottoned on to the whole concept of transferability.  The free market – Western civilisation in the round – operates not to reward worth or utility but, instead, those individuals and organisations who understand how to sustain and maximise their existing advantage.

Or does it?

There is, surely, another point of view which bears uncovering here.  Celebrity – and here I mean things like people who are famous for being famous, people who are famous for actually being quite good in their field, people who are notably something (whether clever, stupid, physically attractive or particularly disagreeable), people who occupy important roles, people who occupy private spaces which become public (especially against their will) … anyone and everyone who registers on the surface of media irascibility – does actually provide a considerable service to humankind.  In a randomising chaotic universe, celebrity provides us with structure.  From the grandfather who opens his sports paper every morning in order to meet up again with a characterful stage of regular actors to the stay-at-home parent who watches a daytime TV punctured by regular crazinesses to the businessperson with a permanently connected stock-market app … all of these are processes with a purpose much greater than their apparent/alleged utility: they help us believe we can make sense of the senseless by providing us with patterns which manfully – and womanfully – repeat and resolve.

Yes.  Soap operas do allow us to gossip daily about something.  But, in truth, the purpose of gossip is noble: it gives us a basis for giving shape to our surroundings.

In that sense, celebrity equals utility squared.  Gossip being its visible manifestation, its medium if you like, its paintbrush perhaps, celebrity is the engine of structure in our media-organised world.

The free market may be rightfully accused of not creating the conditions for planet-saving meritocracy.  But in no way can its most visible components be accused of not satisfying serious needs – needs that all human beings, occupying randomised slots in universally bemusing situations, are inevitably going to exhibit and want supplying.

Dec 302012

Steve continues to pursue, with admirable doggedness, the #plebgate affair – situating it thus.  He argues that public confidence in the police may be shaken for many historical reasons – but that the Andrew Mitchell case should not, at least as yet, be one of them.

Myself, I’m beginning to wonder if there aren’t other issues we should factor into our current body politic and society – and which might help explain how dreadful things are getting.  For instance, everyone who has ever been a half-decent teacher or parent knows that the confidence and trust you exhibit in someone is often a self-fulfilling tool to sustain that person’s own confidence and trust in themselves.  What’s more, the job of good government – where it chooses intelligently not to micro-manage society – should surely be to engender such environments of wider confidence and trust at a societal level.

Not to do so is to endanger the ability of these societies to create the relationships which lead to better, more efficient and less corrupt economies and communities.

Yet this Coalition government of ours appears to care not one jot about the evermore scarce resources that are confidence and trust.  In fact, it seems to be quite happy to express the most savage absence of belief in its people – allowing and even encouraging the broader perception that the blame for all our ills lies with the most helpless in society.  “If only the sick, poor, disabled, elderly and jobless would fuck off,” so the mantra seems to go, “we could get on with our hierarchical-capitalist ways till the [cash] cows came home.”

For hierarchical capitalism, as described by Chris today, and as employed, encouraged and sanctioned by British governments since time immemorial (but, in particular, by Cameron and Blair), is not only unfair – it’s also bloody inefficiently unfair.  As per Chris’s post:

[…] Fehr and colleagues say:

We find a strong behavioral bias among principals to retain authority against their pecuniary interests and often to the disadvantage of both the principal and the agent.

Some two-fifths of principals did not delegate even when income-maximization required it. This suggests that people get a non-pecuniary buzz from being in control, and seek this benefit at the cost of economic payoffs to themselves and others. This is consistent with the findings of other experiments by Fehr and colleagues, which suggests that hierarchy facilitates exploitation rather than pure economic efficiency.


My conclusion?  People at the top are not only working in an unjust way but also in a wasteful way.  If injustice were the only problem, we might still escape the implications of such a system.  But it’s manifestly not.  And it’s getting far worse.  If you think Cameron is evil, you really ain’t seen nothing yet.

Let’s take the case of workfare.  As the Department of Work and Pensions, in what would appear to be one of its more rational moments, has been reported to have concluded:

Academic analysis by the Department of Work and Pensions has cast doubt on the effectiveness of workfare policies. After surveying the international evidence the from America, Canada and Australia the report states:

“There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers. Subsidised (‘transitional’) job schemes that pay a wage can be more effective in raising employment levels than ‘work for benefit’ programmes. Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.”[10]

Not that government pronouncements or practice on the ground would care to give any credence to the above.  You only have to take a quick look around the worldwide web to realise this.

But if you thought Cameron was evil, how about this for a taster of what such untrusting and confidence-lacking hierarchies are capable of?

Imagine going to work every day and not getting paid. Then, one day, you’re told there’s no work to do — so you must pay the company for the privilege of not working.

This is the daily reality facing Mrs. Kim, a petite 52-year-old North Korean. Her husband’s job in a state-run steel factory requires him to build roads. She can’t remember the last time he received a monthly salary. When there are no roads to build, he has to pay his company around 20 times his paltry monthly salary, she says.

The truth of the matter is that economies the world over – whatever the ideological colours that run their governments, states and politics – can only ever flourish in environments where minimum levels of the trust and confidence I’ve already mentioned above exist in sufficient and realistic amounts.  Whether such economies be located in the extremes of North Korean or, indeed, British injustice, people will simply not be willing to take the (additional) risks that imaginative capitalism demands of its participants – especially if the (unavoidable) risks of simply bringing bread and butter home to the kitchen table are as rankly unjust as both North Korea, and now in its own tepid way the UK, appear to display more and more.

Hierarchy as thus exhibited and taken advantage of by those at the top will never function effectively; will never make people work as well as they could.

In order to take the kinds of risks proponents of imaginative capitalism argue must be taken, we need to ensure that life is supportive of those risks.  Because any society which makes the reward for sticking your neck out the guillotine is not a society with too much of a future.  And men and women as intelligent as those who lead our Western governments today should really have sussed out this truth by now.


A final string of thoughts.

How can any government possibly believe it can engineer changes in a society without getting people onside first?

How can any government possibly believe it can modify behaviours without achieving a certain degree of collaboration and consensus first?

How can any government possibly believe it can implement a series of difficult and challenging policies without managing people as people first?

Unless, of course, like the North Koreans, it believes that hierarchy is all you need to make stuff work.

As I pointed out in a tweet yesterday:

Q: What would these Tories do if they realised they’d lose the next election? A: Exactly what they’re doing right now. #Think #Tremble

Well quite.

Once you realise you don’t need democracy to action the levers of power, everything else just runs as smooth as silk.

Only you do know that silk is made by worms.

Nov 182012

Chris draws our attention to this forty-year-old quote:

[…] What Richard Sennett wrote almost 40 years ago is perhaps as true now as it was then:

A political leader running for office is spoken of as “credible” or “legitimate” in terms of what kind of man he is, rather than in terms of the actions or programmes he espouses. The obsession with persons at the expense of more impersonal social relations is like a filter which discolours our rational understanding of society; it obscures the continuing importance of class in advanced industrial society. (The Fall of Public Man, p4)

And so it is our politics is declining in terms of both the public acceptance and moral high ground it can reclaim for itself.  The job of a politician isn’t to tell – or operate with – the truth.  The job of a politician is to be believable.  It may even be the case that the politician believes him- or herself when they declaim and proclaim their gobbets of wisdom.  Self-confusion, self-delusion, self-deception … well, they’re not uncommon skillsets these days – perhaps, indeed, not uncommon in many fields of human endeavour.

Credibility involves making out you know what you’re talking about.  Truth only comes from the rarest of qualities: that of choosing to pursue doggedly the profoundest essence of an issue – no matter your tribal loyalties; no matter your preconceptions; no matter your instincts to want to win a consequential battle; no matter your fear of losing terrible face.

Our society really does not put much of a premium on truth, because truth involves putting oneself – one’s ego, in fact – completely aside in a selfless impulse to do what’s often painful.  Whilst credibility, constructed – as Chris so rightly points out – from so many class-based trinkets, bolt-ons and add-ons (clothes, accessories, cars, parking places, gadgets, company positions, hairstyles and skin types) can, actually, be purchased with a modicum of wealth quite easily.

Simply put, credibility can be faked whilst truth will never be so.

And that is why our public sphere has begun to fall so awfully in on itself.

Feb 232012

Chris, over at Stumbling and Mumbling, has an interesting post on the case for workfare – or, at least, on the case for something which might aim to do what workfare is alleged, by its proponents, to achieve.  He expresses understandable outrage – which I am sure many of us share; though, interestingly, a point made by a commenter does in a way undermine our moral coherence on this matter:

Re the “outrage” at firms getting subsidised or free labour, what’s the reason for the outrage? The Western countries have implemented HUNDREDS of different employment subsidies since WWII that involve supplying subsidised or free labour to firms. If you have some fundamental reason for thinking this sort of measure is immoral, or something like that, let’s have the reasons. (I’m 100% any such reasons can be demolished.)

Reasons for the outrage after such a long time?  Maybe we’re all late to the party.  This e-petition, and a follow-up comment on Facebook which came my way, does point us in a separate direction:

Petition to Abolish Work for your Benefit/Workfare Schemes in the UK

Responsible department: Department for Work and Pensions

We want to abolish work for your benefit/workfare schemes in the UK.

People selling their labour should be fairly remunerated for their work at the normal level paid for the tasks they perform and treated in the same way as a standard employee with full rights and representation if requested.

These are the basic rights of any worker in a modern democratic society.

Workfare is effectively forced labour and is therefore illegal in the UK.

I’ve signed the petition myself, and would ask you to consider doing the same – although I would like confirmation, if possible, of the final assertion thus contained.  As already mentioned, someone on Facebook has argued that if it can be classified as forced labour and is indeed illegal in the UK and elsewhere, doesn’t there exist the opportunity for a class action by all those who’ve been affected over the years?

The very fact that it’s been happening in one way or another for decades doesn’t preclude our right to say “Stop!” at some time.  Better late than never, surely.


Chris mentions a number of reasons in favour of a re-engineered workfare.  One of the key ones is ensuring that the unemployed don’t become isolated – that those who might become unemployed don’t fear it as much; that anyone who faces the prospect will feel their networks won’t collapse around them:

2. In getting the unemployed out into society, it would increase their circle of friends and acquaintances. This might help them get back into private sector work, not only by encouraging work habits and skills, but also by widening the social networks (pdf) through which people learn of job opportunities. In this regard, workfare might be a better alternative to the numerous courses offered to jobseekers in how to find work.

Surely, however, the problem isn’t exactly as described.  The fact of the matter is that, since time immemorial, social networks have been tools for achieving competitive exclusion much more than enveloping environments designed to share out the easy pickings broadly.

Networking – and networks – only carry out the function attributed to them because they create pyramids of hierarchical worth where, in a puzzling flux, the many aggregate around the few in the hope of occasionally getting a few breadcrumbs of recognition – and perhaps even paid work.

Most of the time, however, these highly structured relationships, which people tend to think the unemployed miss out on, generate just as many unpaid opportunities in the hope of something better as workfare of any kind ever did.

Maybe workfare is just the state’s equivalent – its construct if you like – of what private sector and self-employed individuals desperately spend most of their time struggling with: unpaid overtime in the hope of distant promotion; wining and dining in the hope of distant contracts.  And the reason we have workfare, even where it may be illegal, is because – in a reasonably illegal (or at least immoral) way too – the private sector has, over time, had to become accustomed to playing the same unremunerated games.

After all, the state and the private sector are often mirrors of each other: closer in what and how they do the stuff they do than detractors of either would care to admit.

Think about it.  Tomorrow is “Work Your Proper Hours Day”.  Isn’t this pretty similar to what workfare asks us to do?

Work Your Proper Hours Day (24 Feb 2012) is the day when the average person who does unpaid overtime finishes the unpaid days they do every year, and starts earning for themselves. We think that’s a day worth celebrating.

Over five million people at work in the UK regularly do unpaid overtime, giving their employers £29.2 billion of free work last year alone. If you’re one, why not take some time to reflect on how well (or badly) you’re balancing your life? This is one day in the year to make the most of your own time. Take a proper lunchbreak and leave work on time to enjoy your Friday evening – You deserve it!

I think it jolly well is – and should, equally, make us reflect.

Networks aren’t the solution: they’re the problem.

Feb 152012

I am minded to ask the question because of this article Brian drew my attention to the other day:

One of our era’s foundational myths is that globalization has condemned the nation-state to irrelevance. […]

The article – well worth reading in full – goes on to argue that in the absence of a true global consciousness, nation-states are all that we can rely on.  Indeed:

The global financial crisis has shattered [the myth that nation-states are irrelevant]. Who bailed out the banks, pumped in the liquidity, engaged in fiscal stimulus, and provided the safety nets for the unemployed to thwart an escalating catastrophe? Who is re-writing the rules on financial-market supervision and regulation to prevent another occurrence? Who gets the lion’s share of the blame for everything that goes wrong? The answer is always the same: national governments. The G-20, the International Monetary Fund, and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision have been largely sideshows.

Meanwhile, Chris summarises beautifully how, in the last fifty years, capitalism has become a force for anti-freedom:

During the Cold War, opponents of communism routinely, and not entirely wrongly, claimed to be champions of liberty. Freedom for capitalists and freedom of speech and thought go together, it was claimed. “Freedom is indivisible” wrote Bruce Winton Knight in 1952. “Economic freedom is…an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom“ wrote Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom. And back in 1944 Friedrich Hayek complained that “We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past.”

Today, though, this seems wrong. Many threats to freedom come from capitalists. The story is no longer capitalism and freedom, but capitalism against freedom. Two of the world’s largest economies – China and Russia – show that capitalism can exist quite happily without political freedom.

Whilst also quoting Nick Cohen who describes with a chilling precision exactly my perceptions of what working in a massive corporation is like:

The managers of private and public bureaucracies justify their elevated status and salaries not only by attempting to run efficient organisations (a task that is often beyond the poor dears) but by monitoring and intimidating those beneath them.

And so it is that I come back to the question at the top of this post: what if an excluding nationalism could actually become a positive force?  Not, however, a traditionally excluding nationalism – but, rather, an economically excluding nationalism.

If, through the channelling forces of a different kind of cultural identity, we could raise barricades against the rapacious actions of a latterday capitalism – a latterday capitalism which prefers to localise to their clear disadvantage the actions of workers even as, to its clear advantage, it globalises the movement of money – perhaps we could create cultures based more on a shared desire to fight the anti-freedom of planetary economics than to battle, maybe a shade dangerously, on behalf of the discrete freedoms of individual ethnicity.

In this sense, then, we could conceptualise our nationalisms around:

  1. how we do business instead of how business does us – which is to say, always attracting business on our own terms;
  2. how we define community instead of how community defines us – which is to say, creating shared spaces which are tolerant to every person but not to every intolerance;
  3. how we see the future instead of how the future sees us – which is to say, empowering the people who live under the umbrella of a nation-state rather than giving in to the inevitable currents of a ruling elite;

That a certain kind of capitalism is now the anti-freedom of us all is no longer in doubt.  The question is how we can wield most effectively the little power we have to recreate the conditions that once proudly connected good business with political freedom.

And perhaps we are too late.  For if this is no longer possible in the 19th century birthplace of corporate capitalism, and is no longer necessary in its 21st-century powerhouses, how can small people across the globe even contemplate changing anything?

Except, as this post might suggest, little by little – and nation-state by nation-state by nation-state …

Feb 092012

You can tell when things are getting tricky to understand.  We resort to the undefining prefixes.

Two examples this evening.  First, what we might call the paragraph of the day in this lovely article introducing us to the subject of uneconomics:

The bizarre truth, then, is that economics has attained its current pre-eminence in public life through saying as little as possible about the institutions, character and practices of contemporary capitalism. Combining acute humility regarding the realism of its premises, with the appearance of certainty regarding its conclusions, it has created a dangerous form of rationalism that is deeply entangled with economic life, while being entirely unable to reflect on that fact.

And how does that all lead us to uneconomics?  In the following way:

These questions are not new. But their urgency is heightened by the present crisis. Of all the social sciences, economics has proven itself to be the most politically useful – some might say politically malleable – but its lack of realism has become a critical issue with serious economic and political consequences. ‘Uneconomics’ is needed to explore alternative forms of expertise and advice, and an alternative basis for public economic debate.

Meanwhile, quite coincidentally (or perhaps I should really say capelloredknappedly), Chris points out how complex it is when in politics you try to be coherently moral – whilst perhaps (I only venture to suggest) he forgets how complex being moral in general can be.

Anyhow, as an alternative to attempting the path of moral rectitude, he suggests that the left should aim to be more efficient:

There is, though, an alternative here. The left should appeal more to efficiency. For example, the problem with bosses’ pay and bonuses is not that they are unfair, but that they are economically inefficient and the product of power, not merit. And, I’d add, the structure of capitalism – at its current juncture – is inefficient, not (just) unfair.

Unfortunately, Chris’s appeal for us to be more efficient doesn’t half sound to me like the atheist’s attempt to believe in not believing.  That is to say, it becomes well-nigh impossible to avoid being fashioned in some way by precisely that environment and figure one is trying to escape.

Politics and democracy are only about efficiency when very nearly fascist tendencies to number-crunch our societies try and take over.  In that sense, the idea of uneconomics is exactly the right idea for our times.  High unemployment, zero growth, governments at a loss as to what they might do next – everything that’s been tried is simply not working and we are, if we ignore the warning signs, laying the foundations for severe societal distress.  

For we even manage to forget our love of sustainable economies when our unsustainable economies temporarily stop unsustaining our worlds: what should be an opportunity turns instead into a socioeconomic black hole and – out of rank desperation, crass imagination and a total lack of ambition – we can only hope, pray and demand a return to what caused the boom and bust in the first place.

Norman is perhaps more accurate in this when he points out the following in relation to the Marxism Chris prefers to invoke as a solution:

[…] Marxism embodies a clear ethical standpoint: it holds capitalism to be unjust because it is based on exploitation; and that very notion, Marxian exploitation, cannot be defined and elaborated except by making reference to certain moral expectations about who should get what and who shouldn’t.

Just as, all of a sudden (today in fact), the rest of us seem to have stumbled across this seductive idea of an uneconomics, perhaps, all this time, what Marxists have really been looking for is an apolitical amorality which strives to objectivise our relationships in order to better understand them.

They will continue to do it for very moral reasons then; in this Norman is absolutely right – but the tool itself must be as far away as possible from the inefficient emotivism Chris criticises; perhaps quite rightly.

In this sense, it is also possible to perceive that whilst this apolitical amorality describes the analytical stances of both traditional economics as well as Marxism itself (much in the same way as an atheist’s belief system mirrors in some indissoluble way that of a Christian’s), the desire which appears to be flowering in relatively left-wing political circles to pursue at the very least the idea of a non-economics may have its mirror image and response in rather more right-wing tendencies as the dangers of such an obviation of all that was understood to be right begin to dawn on their leaders.

For if we do eventually proceed with some kind of non-economics, where does that leave all the rhetoric which has pummelled our body politic over the past quarter-century or so?

That is to say, all that stuff about tough love, difficult decisions and necessary medicines?

Can we honestly say without the impenetrable science of traditional economics – coupling that absolute humility of theory with that absolute certainty of practice – that all those jam-yesterday jam-tomorrow politicians would be able to carry on as if nothing had happened?

The ones, I mean, who prefer to strike us down at the slightest opportunity.

For our own good, you understand.  For our own benefit.

I think not.

So the question is: will they allow it to happen?  Will they allow traditional economics to be relieved of its stranglehold over all that we think and do in political life?

I’m not sure that they will.  Not without a fight.

What can we do in the meantime then?  Well.  First, let us not confuse the goals with the tools.  Second, whatever we reinvent (for little more than reinvention will it ever be), let us remember how to maintain that compassionate edge to our objectives.

And third, let us admit that the more apolitically amoral and uneconomic they manage to be, the better and more efficient the tools we discover in the future could become.

Feb 042012

Chris picks up on David Miliband’s deservedly resonant piece in New Statesman the other day in the following way:

If you ignore the mindless tittle-tattle, David Miliband’s New Statesman article raises a genuine issue: what should be the left’s attitude to the state? He writes:

The weaknesses of the “big society” should not blind us to the policy and political dead end of the “Big State”. The public won’t vote for the prescription that central government is the cure for all ills for the good reason that it isn’t.

As I pointed out in my own post on the subject, David Miliband has done everything since losing the leadership election to deserve our attention – at the very least in articles and interventions such as the one under discussion. 

I have to say there are very few things I now miss about Blairism – but one thing I definitely miss at the moment is that feeling that following trains of thought to unpredictable places had a natural place and right to exist in the Labour Party.  As an example of this, I saw Miliband (D) at an Intelligence Squared event last year – and I have to say whilst not entirely convinced by what he said, I was entranced by how he moved from one point to another.

And we need more of that eloquent intellectualism – not to use it to triangulate our enemies out of existence as in New Labour times (which is why such approaches have such a very bad name in our body politic at present) but, instead, to search out new ways of understanding our relationship to the universal themes of individual freedom, socialisation, survival and support of the strongest and the weakest – as well as the more traditional aspects of modern life which tend to occupy our leaders: economic and political organisation 

In any case, good politics is always more a case of reinterpretation over pure invention.  Blair wasn’t really original – he just gave the impression of being authentic.  And people value that – at least as a starting point.  It helps to build on the past, on previous foundations – something our most recent generations of politicians really haven’t cared to productively contemplate.

So what I do miss Blair for is that sense of authenticity and roundedness.  For that, I really do. 

I also agree with Chris that Miliband (D) should be allowed to be heard – mainly because if he is permitted his voice, the left will be on the road to a recovery of sorts.  Prioritising the bright and breezy generation of ideas over their dusty and technocratic classification is always a good sign.  And right now, we on the left need as many good signs as they can throw our way.

As Chris concludes:

Granted, David’s analysis and solutions here would be rather different from mine. But he is posing a good question. The tragedy is that, in our anti-political political culture, this question will be ignored.

It is up to us, then, to ensure that exactly this must not happen.

Jan 302012

This is part of Chris’s story (well worth a read in full):

[…] Bosses who argue that the complexity of banks means that management talent is scarce and must be highly rewarded are like the boy who murders his parents and asks for leniency on the grounds that he’s an orphan. They are confusing cause and effect.

Bank bosses have played a trick which countless ordinary workers do. The IT support guy who introduces lots of “security features” to his firm’s IT systems, or the secretary who has an incomprehensible filing system, make themselves indispensable by inconveniencing others.

And this is mine:

For my sins, I worked in a bank for seven years in a capacity that become more and more lowly as time went by. After a couple of years, I was paid less than the average national wage to check account opening documentation in order to flag up potential money-laundering issues. If such issues were detected, the job was then handed on to other more specialised staff to further process. My department and its team eventually lost the work to elsewhere in the bank as the processes were chopped up and simplified in order to be able to train new people up faster and more cheaply. For a couple of years we were given a series of evermore routine data entry tasks, before finally being allowed to leave.

Big companies are very good at dumbing down processes – it’s what they specialise in:

1) It protects them against the logistic disruption that is high staff turnover
2) It protects them against staff acting on resentment and contemplating taking business to other employers
3) It makes it easier to train up temps, substitutes and replacement workers of all kinds
4) It also possibly means that those who like to earn what they do can continue to do so *even when they are unable to fully control and understand a company’s complexities*.

And as these organisations so demonstrably make a practice of dumbing down at lower levels in the hierarchies, it does beg Chris’s question why they can’t – or won’t – do the same at the higher levels too.  It’s certainly not out of a lack of expertise or experience in the matter.

Or should we be looking to find the explanation to all of this in the plague that is managerialism?

Jan 042012

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days – but really didn’t know how to verbalise what I was thinking.  So Chris does it for us thus:

[…] Whilst some of us are suggesting that the behaviour of capitalists is damaging the economy, Liam Byrne is obsessing about the need for a “responsible workforce”. Rather than challenge the behaviour of capital, he is propagating the ridiculous myth that the workshy are a significant economic problem. In this sense, he is way to the right not just of me, but of the Bank of England.

Whilst, by the by, he goes on to say:

Which poses the question: is he an abominable and idiotic disgrace to the Labour party or is he instead its true face?

Now this latter point is not my primary reason for blogging today – but it’s worth keeping in mind as we examine exactly what’s happening here.  For this is how the capitalist blame game works:

  1. When large corporations and the people who own them set themselves up in business, they limit their responsibility if everything goes belly-up to the very minimum they can manage to get away with;
  2. When everything goes belly-up, which it almost always does at least once in the history of such companies, the ones at the very top manage to hide behind Chinese walls that reduce their legal responsibility to a very minimum;
  3. When companies’ profits do not achieve expectations, the fault is first and foremost due to the costs of labour – the term “labour” being understood to mean those at the most humble levels in a company and not the (mainly) ever-so-red-blooded gentlemen at the top;
  4. If companies suffer excessively from declining profit margins, people at the top get paid enormous amounts of money to take immediate decisions to fire massive percentages of their workforces – even where such decisions show absolutely no degree of imagination or added value;
  5. If the wider economy falls completely apart, the taxpayer will be obliged to bail out the failing private sector but compelled to destroy the public;
  6. When the wider economy stops functioning in any meaningful way, the workers who lose their jobs will carry both the moral and economic can for not wanting to find new jobs – even where these new jobs don’t exist;
  7. When the economy finally recovers, the workers will have to continue to accept wage cuts for two reasons: firstly, automation might price them out of the market if they don’t watch their demands; secondly, only the rich work harder for more money – the poor, on the other hand, tend to slacken off their labour when not sufficiently terrified;

To summarise, when things go well the capitalist takes the credit – and the dosh.  When things go poorly the worker is to blame – and pays for their sins.  And whether companies function correctly or not, in that entirely objective sense so beloved of businesspeople, the state will always serve to save bad leaders from the implications and pain of such widely ham-fisted decision-making processes.

Meanwhile, workforces the world over will suffer the consequences from here to eternity.

As well as, of course, the morally massive disapprobation of the (coincidentally) capitalist-dependent mainstream media – and precisely for not wanting to get more often on their sadly iconic bikes.

Even as the failed and failing aficionados of capitalism continue to fly the world in their business-class toys of privilege and social distance.

Dec 192011

Chris suggests we tend to confuse politics with politicians:

[…] People confuse politics and politicians. Politics – the question of how public life should be conducted – will always matter. But it does not follow that politicians matter – especially when they have only narrow and inadequate answers to this question.

But I wonder if, at least in the case of the euro, whether Chris is quite right in what he says.  Perhaps, instead, we tend to confuse politicians that matter with politicians that are visible.  What if in reality the future that appears on the horizon of our body politic is actually one where the politicians that matter become the ones who are never voted for?  As Jos points out:

[…] There is a fascinating analysis of ECB policy on Vox, published before the summit. It claims that, far from being a weak central bank unable to do what its peers can by guaranteeing government debt, the ECB is using its political independence to play a very political game.
The ECB is a full-blooded political actor engaging in a strategy aimed at forcing EU political leaders to embrace fiscal rectitude and a quantum leap forward in European integration.

That is to say, our political system has become absolutely so bankrupt and incapable of action that little dictatorships – which we always suspected ran things behind the scenes anyway – have been slowly growing up around what we used to call our democratic institutions.

Our democracy, until recently, was allegedly circumscribed by the Rupert Murdochs of our media.  Now it would appear some of their spell has been broken, it is time for others to take up the mantle of control.

Politicians will always matter, Chris.  In reality, they always have.  What is unusual about our age, however, is that we have persistently sustained a chimera – that is to say, a desert mirage which we have chosen to term representative democracy – where, in reality, all the evidence pointed to an oligarchy of rank and private interests.

But that oligarchy was just as political as any of those we nominally chose through the ballot box.

So if there is anything that is really driving the “99 percenters”, it is this: a subconscious sensing that democracy was always a lie and that the politicians that counted – that mattered to use Chris’s terminology – were not the ones we saw on the TV screens.

The question is, of course, now that the evidence is incontrovertible, what exactly do we do about it?  What exactly can we do?

Ah well.  There I have to admit I don’t know.

Do you?

Oct 262011

I was having a generally sad and – in the end – inconclusive telephone conversation last night with a close friend on the subject of love versus money.  I saw love as being all-important.  My co-conversationalist – let’s call him Joey – believed that love was irrelevant; the rest of the world – the majority of the rest of the world, that is – tending to focus on money and its accumulation.  People, these days, seem to think a lot of majorities.  I suppose it’s one of the downsides of democracies where rights are better known than responsibilities.

Both of us stuck firmly to our points of view.  Joey looked to be a pioneer – I was clearly a settler.  Does this mean I’m not fulfilling my potential?  It’s true that I tried once or twice in Spain to build big ideas – and ended up on what, for me, was the very dirty side of business.  Mixing with men who frequented Spanish puticlubs (I never ended up having to – but did find myself forced to listen to their stories; and their stories were quite enough) was not my idea of good business environments.

Yet an atmosphere where women are verbally debased, or where relationships between the sexes become valued only in terms of the money they might generate, does seem to be fairly common in most of the locker-room type communication used across the world wherever business is done between powerful men.

And there are far more powerful men out there than powerful women.

And it’s not something I want to get involved in.

So am I a non-achieving settler?  Or, more importantly, is Joey the kind of pioneer who’ll manage to put me in my place; manage to prove me wrong?  Can business and moral practices go together?  Or are we all tainted by the Chinese sweatshops and suicidal factories which provide our grand corporations with all their massive and extraordinary cash mountains?

Is there a place for love in modern business – for unconditional relationships which work out and are actually productive?

Not according to Chris, there ain’t.

Sad bad day here in Chester.  Looks like the morning after, Joey won the argument after all.

Aug 152011

Interesting stuff.

We will review our work and consider whether our plans and programmes are big enough and bold enough to deliver the change that I feel this country now wants to see.

Government cannot legislate to change behaviour, but it is wrong to think the State is a bystander.

Because people’s behaviour does not happen in a vacuum: it is affected by the rules government sets and how they are enforced…

…by the services government provides and how they are delivered…

…and perhaps above all by the signals government sends about the kinds of behaviour that are encouraged and rewarded.

What do you think?  The kind of stuff you could agree with?

Sure is, in my case.  It encapsulates a recognition of the importance of an engaged and societally aware government.  It indicates an understanding of cause and effect – not only for that matrix of parents and children which traditionally holds a fascination for the right in our body politic but also for the broader dynamics, the state-structured frameworks, which define our complex and modern civilisations.

In essence, it shows a leader aware that modern politics – and life – is far more complicated than those moments prior to gaining power tend to indicate.

If we are to take the analogy of that blessed parenthood of yore and extend it to learning in leadership, we could, I would argue, say the following: for any potential parent, the solutions seem easy – be clear and strict in your guidelines and your children will grow up easily.  For any existing parent, however, the guidelines become just that – and, whilst your children may still grow up, nothing will ever be simple again.

Meanwhile, these words show a leader willing to learn.

A leader who is moving from the facile phases of potential parenthood to the realities of bringing up his babies.

Thankfully – for our short- and medium-term – they don’t belong to an ex-Labour PM from years back, but actually to Mr David Cameron, and from today.

It’s a good first step, too.  Or at least a sign of some movement.

Let’s not criticise him for changing tack.  Let’s, instead, encourage him to go for more of the same.

May 262011

The Splinternet is what is happening to our dearly beloved Internet right now.  Before we continue, read this post on the subject – as Twitter begins to carve out its very own piece of Internet real estate in much the same way as Facebook before it.  In short, as Josh Bernoff so succinctly puts it in yet another post on the same matter:

The golden age of the Web is coming to an end. Prepare for the Splinternet.

As we all gird for the launch of the Apple Tablet, take a moment to step back and realize what all these new devices are doing. The whole framework of the Web (and Web marketing) is based around the idea that everything is in a compatible format. Any browser, any computer, any connection, you see pretty much the same thing.

Now with iPhones, Androids, Kindles, Tablets, and TVs connecting to the Web, that’s not true. Your site may not work right on these devices, especially if it includes flash or assumes mouse-based navigation. Apps that work on the iPhone don’t work on the Android. Widgets for FiOS TV don’t work anywhere else.

Meanwhile, more and more of the interesting stuff on the Web is hidden behind a login and password. Take Facebook for example. Not only do its applications not work anywhere else, Google can’t see most of it. And News Corp. and the New York Times are talking about putting more and more content behind a login.

What is really happening, then, is the branding and consequent corporatisation of the virtual world – in much the same way as happened long ago in the real.  Companies generally find the philosophies of open standards and ways of doing and seeing as challenging to their bottom line.  It doesn’t have to be like that – but the thousands of MBA programmes out there must be at least partly responsible for drilling this message into the mindscapes of our budding entrepreneurs.  And so the beautiful frontiers of the World Wild West, which to date have defined our hugely beneficial web, are rapidly being tamed by the trademarkers and value adders around us (and yes – perhaps snakes is the next apposite thought).

Which takes me to another issue I’ve been following today – analogous, I would suggest to the splintering of the Internet I mention above.  Over at Though Cowards Flinch, a marvellous compendium of deep thought which I would only dare to compare in its originality, sincerity and expertise to Stumbling and Mumbling, there is a debate currently going on about whether its writers should move lock, stock and barrel to the group blog Third Estate.  There have been a large number of constructive and considered comments to the post in question – a characteristic of this fine blog since Dave Semple ventured out of Labour Membersnet-land (the Labour Party’s intranet for members) and decided to take on the whole web at one fell (and positively virulent) swoop. 

Some observations.  I originally pointed out:

Hmm. I for one would only be especially unhappy if you moved and didn’t keep online the stuff TCF has done over the past few years. Its value is pretty much incalculable – well, I’m not bright enough to calculate it anyhow. So if moving means TCF goes offline, that’s a no from me. And if cost is an issue, I’d be happy to contribute to keep it online – even if this then means it’ll be preserved in aspic.

But I think, in retrospect, I would go further.  I remember how I felt when Dave, some while back I think, suggested he was considering whether to renew the TCF domain or not.  And how I felt, as the trained editor that I am, was very very sad.  TCF has always had a clear and cogent voice – speaking out vigorously and unashamedly on behalf of the oppressed.  Its name defined its mission from the very beginning – an example, if there ever was one, of how important a work of art’s frame can be in helping us understand its meaning and its inspiration.  And when the possibility of its not continuing arose, I felt much as I had felt – though in a slightly different way – when it had seemed that Labour Matters was going to disappear: specifically, in that case, because of its very particular success and because of the very real costs that in an online world such success can imply.

One of the reasons I stopped blogging behind the walled garden of Labour’s Membersnet and, instead, put up my stall here at was precisely because of TCF, because of Dave’s insistence on the importance of open debate – and because I realised that if progress was going to happen in politics, we needed to break down the walls that already existed rather than put up new ones of our own.

A voice is a precious thing.  It involves the ability to engender dialogue.  A sign of a responsive voice is frequent dialogue.  A good voice knows when to keep quiet.  A precious voice knows when to intervene.  TCF is all of those things – and those of us who love it, as Bob points out, shouldn’t really care how often it speaks to us.  Why should this be?  Well, mainly because we know it is always listening to us – and choosing, with great care, when best exactly to intervene once more.

I notice that Sunny Hundal, editor of the group blog Liberal Conspiracy, urges the TCF writers to make that leap to a group blog:

I’m all for consolidation, and yes, group blogs are better!

Here, surely, speaketh the progressive equivalent of the corporate mindset – that is to say, the corporate mindset which is driving the Splinternet I spoke of at the top of my post today.  It doesn’t half seem that Sunny is looking to do to traditionally individualistic blogging what Facebook and Twitter are looking, more widely, to do to the Internet.  Carve out his piece of real estate, as if this was the only alternative.  Well, it most definitely isn’t – and most definitely doesn’t have to be.  There are other ways to bring free voices together which don’t require a submission to common corporate image, tools and philosophies.  These ways need to be worked on and developed and implemented – but they and the brains needed to bring them about both exist and are out there.  If, that is, we care to look beyond simple ambitions to a rank empire-building which would simply serve to repeat the models of a far too traditional publishing.

And if we go down the route of group blogs because we truly believe this leads to “consolidation”, then we truly do not understand the value of the Internet’s democratisation of free speech.

The challenge is not to put us all in the same box so that in some magical way we learn how to see and communicate with other other.  The challenge is – rather – to take a magical infinity of astonishingly discrete boxes and through clever and apposite technologies allow them to communicate with each other from their very own islands.

What I’m saying is that we really need to build better bridges between our existing political DNA instead of mixing it all up in a cauldron of corporate “consolidation”.

And I do wonder if those who run group blogs such as Liberal Conspiracy are – in some very sad way – driven by the same impulses which drive great but essentially 20th century editors such as Rupert Murdoch.

Empire-building is a great temptation. 

The question is whether it is one we should resist.  The question is whether it is one which – in the world of online publishing – we no longer need.

A final thought: if we do need to create an empire of progressive thought, surely it is time to be as progressive about structures, infrastructures and process as we claim to be about content.  Only then will our ability to continue to generate voices as important as TCF be sustainable, consistent and worthy of our mission.

Feb 072011

Over at Frank Owen’s Paintbrush – which came my way via Stumbling and Mumbling today – the following argument was made:

Labour should uphold policies aimed at reducing cultural divisions rather than exacerbate them through crude state-sponsored multiculturalism – seen in policies such as propagating faith schools and trying to protect religious beliefs from criticism (yes, conveniently enough for this secularist my solution demands consistency through widespread secularisation!).

I’m afraid, whilst my upbringing leads me to find it possible to empathise with this point of view – dyed-in-the-wool Eastern European Catholic mother on the one hand, atheist and scientifically trained father on the other (conflict enough sometimes for one to positively desire the peace of bland similarity) – as an answer to the challenge of whether multiculturalism is worth defending or not, it really isn’t good enough.

For there are existences out there which demand of us all a supportively multicultural approach to making society.  And so I would respectfully argue that a melting-pot of differences, as proposed by the author of the above post, is, in any case, the perfect way to lose out on the creative virtues which the gentle dissonance of cultural rub (achieved through true tolerance and respect) should be able to bring to modern nation states.  Eliminating cultural DNA through, for example, a creeping process of secularisation is, I might be inclined to suggest, a process akin to burning down Amazonian forests.  The landscape becomes very similar and very familiar – safe perhaps and much easier to navigate – but we simply are not in a position to assess exactly what we are rejecting.

Take my case for example.  Born, as I was, in a quintessentially English town, a tiny part Spanish Jew (interestingly enough, a piece of information often mentioned in family reunions), although mainly Anglo-Croatian lapsed Catholic, I find myself married to a realistically Catholic Spanish woman with whom I have taken the very deliberate decision to assign our children Spanish nationality.  Whilst we are grateful for the opportunity to live, work and study in Britain, and whilst I indeed am also British, at no time have we wished our children to lose their sense of that other national or cultural pride, lose their sense of that other perception of being.  They do, in fact, have a first Spanish name, a second Croatian name, and two separate (not double-barrelled) surnames – as befits their Spanish heritage: one from their father, the other from their mother.

Then again, I myself often feel perhaps overly proud of my Croatian legacy in a world where such behaviours and attitudes are sometimes considered, maybe quite rightly (in the light of the recent history of that part of the world), to be dangerous.  So I can understand the fears that multiculturalism generates – even as I feel that it would be more useful to see multiculturalism as a description of an undeniable reality than as a crude tool to an unintentionally but inevitably divisive end.

Frank Owen’s Paintbrush concludes with the following:

Demands for women’s rights, gay rights, secular laws, religious freedoms. These are all marks of human progress and all have originated from the left.

We must not surrender this language to the bigots of the EDL. We must not let our Conservative opponents pretend to do a better job of standing up for these demands. We must not compromise our values for fear of upsetting reactionary Muslim religionists.

Whilst over at Stumbling and Mumbling we get this:

Cameron’s “practical” proposals here – “making sure that immigrants speak the language of their new home and ensuring that people are educated in the elements of a common culture and curriculum” – don’t seem good enough. As Mehdi Hasan says, high-profile terrorists have been fluent English speakers. And some research suggests that Muslims who are well integrated – educated, economically successful and living in mixed areas – are more likely to strongly identify with their religion than less educated ones.

So we can see that underlying all of this criticism of the supposed failures of multiculturalism there is circulating an unspoken agreement that religion is going to be a necessarily bad thing and its absence is going to be necessarily good.  And then I suppose, by extension, all the other forms of differentness which we can identify: flags, political identity, emotional connections with cultural legacies of all kinds, linguistic traits … well, the list is as endless as we care to make it.

All I can say, in answer to such criticism, is what I said earlier – multiculturalism serves both as a description of a state in which people like myself find ourselves, a state which simply is and cannot be denied however much some of us might wish to, as well as that means which Stumbling and Mumbling argues David Cameron simply hasn’t managed to get a handle on.

Meanwhile, all I can underline and draw your attention to is that I need multiculturalism because I am multicultural.

And listen up: if you are not multicultural – or don’t care to be so – don’t deny my right to be. 

You wouldn’t accuse a gay or lesbian of choosing their sexual orientation.  Why then do you wish to accuse me of choosing my cultural orientation?  Why do you wish to make me change my being?  Why are you beginning to convince me I can eliminate everything that makes up my cultural DNA?

Why this obsession with sameness – and where will it end?

Is it not fair – in such a context – to argue we have heard all this before, in far less salubrious circumstances, and with far more disagreeable consequences?

Think about it carefully before you answer and decide.

Then try and appreciate how significant the continued recognition of difference may be in actually sustaining and protecting our ability to anticipate and channel change – as well as serving to defend us from the future dangers of a cosy familiarity.

Jan 202011

Another provocative post from the blogosphere today, this time from Chris over at Stumbling and Mumbling:

Put it this way. Spending on libraries is around £1bn a year. At current (low) real interest rates, this means the present value of all future spending is around £100bn.
But we could give everyone in the country a Kindle or similar for £9bn. So, why not close all libraries, give everyone a Kindle and save £91bn – and raise a few billion by selling off the library buildings to boot?

I’m afraid, however, that I don’t agree at all.  Not that I don’t like the idea of giving everyone a Kindle.  (Maybe, in fact, we should do that and use libraries to service the wider employment of such technologies.)

In reality, libraries are a symbol, like post offices and local schools.  When we got rid of catchment areas as the absolute and unique definers of where our children went for their education, we started an inexorable process off where those public spaces Chris describes began to lose some of their emotional intensity.

Closing libraries only makes sense to those who define society’s priorities in terms of how much things cost.  Symbolism has meant a lot to human beings throughout history.  Today it seems the only symbolism that counts is the corporate skyscraper.  Schools, post offices and libraries are now lagging a long way behind.

I preferred an age when things like libraries were paid for because we agreed, without knowing exactly why, that there was something right about having them.

Miliband’s conservatism with a small “c” maybe?  I’m beginning to appreciate more and more where Mr Miliband may be coming from.

Oct 162010

I’ve often expressed my suspicion that politicians far prefer to shape policies in public than they do question underlying assumptions.  You’d probably retort that policies are what politicians are there for.  Assumptions, meanwhile, are for the philosophers.

But I’m not so sure – nor ever have been.  Today, quite laudably, though with a remarkably short deadline of barely 24 hours (at least as far as the prize raffle is concerned), Mark Ferguson and LabourList try to focus our crowdsourcing minds on making Labour electable again:

If you could choose just one policy for the party to adopt, what would it be?

We don’t just want this debate to be limited to our regular contributors though – we need your ideas too. So if you think you have an idea for something that would make Labour more electable, more popular, and more likely to form the next government – write an article on the subject and send it to us.

Alternatively, leave an outline of your idea in the comments below. I’ll contact the people who provide the best suggestions over the next week.

The underlying assumptions – which I find very difficult not to question – are, however, twofold: firstly, there is such a thing as a killer application which will get Labour back into power; and secondly, what our killer application will consist of is nothing more nor less than a headlining policy superstar.  And in this vein, commenters have already been submitting suggestions such as the renationalisation of the railways, getting rid of tuition fees or abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with a kind of British version of the American Senate.

Politicians so love it when we get onto this kind of terrain.  It’s when they find themselves in their element.

They’re not, as a rule, philosophical sages.  Questioning underlying assumptions isn’t their forte.

So let’s have a dose of political intelligence at this point (even though this may be an oxymoron we judge to be on a par with its military equivalent).  Mainly because me just repeating myself ain’t going to convince anybody any more.  This, from Stumbling and Mumbling, for example, on the imperfections of the job market (bear with me – there is a connection and I’ll shortly make it all clear):

The falling audience for ITV’s Daybreak highlights a failing in the labour market.
ITV hired Christine Bleakley and Adrian Chiles on multi-million pound salaries in the belief that they had the talent to attract viewers and advertising revenue. But it seems they don’t have such a talent.  Their popularity at the One Show was due not to their own skills, but to organizational factors: the fact that the One Show’s viewing figures have increased since they left corroborates this.
And here’s the thing. ITV’s error is a widespread one. Employers often mistake individual talent for organizational talent, and so pay huge salaries which are in fact unjustifiable. This is a form of the fundamental attribution error.

You can find the article here – well worth reading in full.

So what do Dillow’s observations – on the common fallacy that expensively pyramidal hierarchies inevitably guarantee some kind of positive return – have to do with Ferguson’s call for a killer application policy for Labour?  Well, it does seem clear to me that Ferguson (but not only Ferguson) is making the same conceptual mistake that organisations like ITV make over and over again.  The logic is cast-iron and the saying a tired cliché – a cliché which should never need, nor really bears, repeating: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

You’d think that in politics, where the moving of the masses to vote for one party or another is such a fundamental given, political thinkers and shakers would resist the temptation to believe that any one single act, piece of content or individual was enough to change the course of history.  But no.  It seems quite otherwise – and sadly so, I’m afraid.  People still want to believe in that “one final leap and Jack was free” approach to political action and activity.

Maybe some of them believe this because they truly believe it.

I suspect others believe it because they wish to maintain their fiefdoms intact.

But that would be a matter for a completely different post.


To sum up: new ideas and new policies should not be confused with the benefits true organisational renewal can bring.  Which is why we should not fall into Dillow’s “fundamental attribution error” in understanding our task over the next five years – nor allow the organisations we dearly cherish to perpetuate such ignorances.

To borrow a Murdochian phrase: “Let’s believe in better.”