Jul 052014
 
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I wrote this some time ago:

Snowden isn’t the first person governments have refused to value sufficiently, because those who do the valuing are less brainy.

Nor will he be the last.

And so this is why it’s time we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in the strongest terms.

Not because war is immoral.  Not because invading privacy is wrong.  Not because punishing the poor for the evidence-free consequences of the rich is an unnatural and unacceptable turning over of justice and law.

No.  Why we should begin to complain, demonstrate and act in those strongest terms I mention is because these second-rate behaviours are bloody inefficient!  Bloody inefficient – and, ultimately, dangerous for the very survival of our species.

As an empire on the planet, all of a sudden we are in retreat.

Is that really what we wanted; really what we needed; really what we expected of the century?

Meanwhile, an ultra-rich businessperson with considerable self-awareness writes this:

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.

It’s well put; there’s a lot more behind the link above; and I strongly suggest that for the benefit and understanding of the rest of us, who live outside these “gated bubble worlds”, that you go ahead and read it all.

When you have, I’ll conclude my post for today.

*

Thinking on the analogies the ultra-rich businessperson in question uses, we feel – almost smell – the furious physicality of what’s being suggested: the French revolution; the inequality; feudal times; in particular, of course, the pitchforks themselves.

And when he says “You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising […]”, we maybe can see with a clearer perspective what’s been happening in the first case my post today mentions: that of Snowden.  When we think about revolution, we think about swords, muskets, those blessed pitchforks and puddles of scrappy bloody battle.  But what if the aforementioned miscreant of secret information – a thought leader for many, I shouldn’t be surprised – is the template for future human pitchforking activity?

Such individuals wouldn’t form a revolution out of the traditional tools of Bolshevik uprising.  After all, we already have one of the most efficient police states in history – and all this under what is really a rather shady cloak of democracy (a cloak only ever hides).  Yet, even so, even now, it still obeys certain legal minimums as we attempt – despite ourselves – to maintain a semblance of free speech.

So a third option exists, quite apart from full-blown police state or bloody uprising: being as the battleground of tyranny in Western society is not so much one of physical imposition but of intellectual and constitutional code (requiring intelligence far more than brute force or revolutionary brawn to function correctly), what if we propose instead to understand the encroaching future of “not if, but when” in terms of the potential for a broad expansion of virtual pitchforks – pitchforks which may one day serve to destroy those at the top of the hierarchies encouraging all this grossly unsustainable inequality?

Virtual pitchforks?  How so?  Snowden is arguably one of the first to show the dangers for current hierarchies.  And when I say “current hierarchies”, I include all of us who benefit as well as all of us who suffer.  Just imagine such a future: a veritable coordinated swarm of puncturing points of action on a body politic, unable to sustain itself in the light of both present misdeeds and unravelling past practice.

Thus the surveillance state we now live in.  The terrorism from without exists, that is true.  And we shouldn’t underestimate its malevolence.  But the surveillance state which aims to protect the massive majority from the minute minority is a double-edged sword if there ever was one.

Or maybe, just maybe, that’s a double-edged provoker of pitchforks, the like of which we’ve never seen before.


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Mar 282013
 
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Over the past couple of years, I’ve been reading and writing a lot about the squeezed middle, the absolute poor and the stratospheric rich.  For those of us who are living in the United Kingdom – more precisely in my case, the North West of England – you won’t have failed to notice how the government and the governed simply do not see things eye-to-eye.  In fact, lately at least, it’s often more a case of a tooth for a tooth.


http://youtu.be/Exh8t6lUpAI

The thing is, my natural instinct is to see life from tens of different points of view.  This doesn’t make me popular – or widely read.  Yesterday, I realised the true and abiding power of ranting when itiddly, a Twitter friend of mine, asked me to edit a post of his before he posted it.  He’s a tribal fellow; a traditional political activist.  He insults and damns and blasts the Tories at every opportunity.

I resisted the temptation to help him out with his post – rather patronisingly (in retrospect) arguing that he needed to have confidence in his writing, as well as some exposure, much more than the help of a struggling editor friend.

You can read his post here.  It’s a rant and it isn’t.  There’s a barely contained fury, of course, but all the time it’s an evidence-based fury.  And whilst I rarely get above five or six tweets for my posts, in a very short time his had hit thirty-five (at the time of writing this post, it now reads a hundred).  Exposure wasn’t what was needed on his part here; instead, it was humility on mine.

Yet it is not in my nature to rant one-sidedly, even where ranting of a kind is sometimes something I do.  I would not be able, in all honesty, to write something as single-minded as the post we’re talking about.  And I wish, in some way, I were able to convey the reasons why.  I wish you could all see the ten or twenty different points of view I always see when I see the world.

People have, on occasions, even accused me of dancing around a subject.  Perhaps, in truth, they were closer to the mark than even they realised.  You dance out of engagement and concentration; a dance is a marvellous combination of emotion, precision and attitude.

That is how I see the process of writing.

Which is why I wish, perhaps by using Twitter and other social-network outputs, we could all appreciate better how each of us is perceiving the world: the pain, the glory, the happiness and joy; the misery, the fear, the certainties and hopes.  From high-and-mighty governors to humble barely-surviving governed, the world would surely become a better place if only we could see it properly through each other’s eyes.

So my question must be: is anyone out there at all interested in creating a Point-Of-View Machine?

Or are you all far more interested in setting up monolithic positions of revulsion and non-cooperation?

____________________

Further reading: I wonder, quite sincerely, whether the Google Glass project (more here) – rather than inspire our fear of a final assault on all our privacies – should make us more hopeful in the ways I describe above.  If the POV streams resulting from all those users were made available and accessible in a structured way, we would understand much more easily how each of us experienced life.  And from that understanding, perhaps a kinder governance would emerge.

A kinder world.

A kinder species, even.

We can only hope, of course.

And, maybe, pray.


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Nov 112011
 
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Paul has an interesting piece up at Though Cowards Flinch today, where he argues that the real object of our endeavour should not be the excesses of capitalism but the very subject of money itself.  As he concludes in a post which deserves to be read in full:

Ed Miliband said at the weekend:
In every generation, there comes a moment when the existing way of doing things is challenged. It happened in 1945. It happened in 1979 and again in 1997. This is another of those moments because the deeper issues raised by the current crisis are too important to be left shivering on the steps of St Paul’s.”

True, but Ed needs to be clear that the moment is not about taming the excesses of capitalism, but about taming money itself on behalf of the citizens of Britain and (if Habermas‘ advice is followed) the whole of Europe.

Which brings me to a post of my own which I dug out this morning and where I say the following from the perspective of the 2008 credit crunch (I’ve added the bold today as I reread what I wrote then):

I also find it curious how some democratic socialists should spend the past decade berating the evils of triangulated capitalism, only then to spend the past six months defending the evils of propping up (perhaps) poorly-run (and clearly iconic) representatives of all that was once so bad. Does no one else see beyond the dangers of the immediate headlines? Is the need to keep money swilling round the economy so great that – whatever its source – we must keep it swilling?

Where’s the intellectual coherence behind all these policies? Is this simply downhill racing for beginners?

I wonder.

I wonder if the avowed need to keep this money moving isn’t blinding us to simpler truths. Robert Maxwell was once allegedly quoted as believing wealth was not a question of possession but access. Perhaps the vast majority of the allegedly rich – companies and individuals both – falls into this latter category. These individuals and entities with access to money can only live the high life if that money is kept moving. Perhaps the urgency for us to spend, spend, spend comes from this stratum of society, more than any other. Perhaps the great achievement of the past ten years was to increase the proportion of the population which believed it formed a part of the former category of possession without letting on to the fact that it actually formed part of the latter one of access.

I don’t think people’s capitalism will ever provide anything more permanent than the access Maxwell so accurately described.

Possession will only ever be for the truly rich.

And they will always be wealthy, whatever happens to the economy and the rest of us.

So. We have a choice. Keep it swilling or realise the chimera you’ve been living for the past decade.

Now which would you choose?

For as Steinbeck is quoted as saying:

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

It does beg the question, though, doesn’t it?  That is to say: does money need to swill for the poor or for the rich?

The poor can only ever strive to live within their means.

Whilst the middling- and upper-rich have the psychological tools to hand to convince their investors they’re richer than they really are.  And so it is that the swilling I describe – and which underpins the chaos that has befallen the world economy in recent times – must continue as disastrously as it has of late, simply so that these supposedly wealthy personal economies do not fall utterly flat on their brown-nosed faces.

Nothing to do with the needs of the vast majority of the population.

Entirely to do with the mad careering of the top thirty percent.


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Aug 232011
 
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This is Tony Blair in Sunday’s Observer:

Likewise with the boardroom. I agree totally with the criticisms of excess in pay and bonuses. But is this really the first time we have had people engaged in dubious financial practices or embracing greed, not good conduct? If anything, today’s corporations are far more attuned to corporate social responsibility, far better in areas like the environment, far more aware of the need to be gender- and race-balanced in recruiting.

Except, perhaps, when we’re talking about the boardrooms of his famous “feral press”:

Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World who has been arrested on suspicion of involvement in phone hacking and bribing the police, received several hundred thousand pounds from News International after starting work as the Conservative Party’s Director of Communications in July 2007.

These payments were part of his severance package, under what is known as a “compromise agreement”.

According to sources, Mr Coulson’s contractual leaving pay was given to him in instalments until the end of 2007 – which means he continued to be financially linked to News International for several months of his tenure as David Cameron’s main media adviser.

More background to this story here.

But perhaps I am being a little unfair to Tony Blair.  This surely wasn’t what he meant when he said, of some of those very same boardrooms, that:

[…] the media can operate like “a feral beast” and its relationship with politicians is “damaged” and in need of repair.

The prime minister said relations had always been fraught, but now threatened politicians’ “capacity to take the right decisions for the country”.

Perhaps what he was truly worried about was the revolving doors and conflicts of interests that have plagued British government since?

“The number of former ministers ‘revolving out’ raised particular concern in Parliament and the press in 2008, when the list for the previous two years revealed that no fewer than 28 former ministers had taken jobs in the private sector. Of these, thirteen were still MPs. Paul Flynn, a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), commented that ‘he could not remember ministers hopping into the private sector like this……It is a way of buying access.’ This number of 28 compares with a total of 31 in the list published in March 2011, which covered the previous twelve months. A smooth transition to the private sector could now be said to be the normal expectation for a government minister.”

Or maybe the good fortune he encountered in 2008?

It is not known how much JP Morgan will pay him, but some estimates say more than $1m (£500,000) a year. The bank said he had a “unique perspective”.

It said Mr Blair would advise the firm’s chief executive and senior management team, “drawing on his immense international experience to provide the firm with strategic advice and insight on global political issues and emerging trends”.

Will Blair be value for money?

“Our firm will benefit greatly from his knowledge and experience,” it said.

Easy potshots I know for me to take at a man who has done very many good things.  But lectures on corporate propriety (.pdf file here) from a man who bit the bullet and decided to sup with the devil is going just a little bit too far.

Sup with the devil if you must, Mr Blair – and it takes a certain degree of a special kind of courage to do so I think.  But don’t then try and justify the unjustifiable when your conscience begins to gnaw away at you.

Paul should have the last word on this (the bold is mine):

But before all of that, Milibandian Labour needs to recognise, and reflect upon, some very straightforward truths about what New Labour got wrong, and which Blair continues to get wrong (and it is not even in the Tory hierarchy’s interests even to understand the concepts covered here). Effective policymaking and implementation are not just about ideas on what might work and then announcing the grand plan; they are about handing over the power to make it happen. That should be a central plank of what makes Labour different from the Tories.

And so we come to what could have been very real and touchstone-like instincts behind Cameron’s vaunted Big Society, even as Labour’s own possibly inevitable corporatism has – to date – made a real difference between the two parties difficult to perceive.

For remember, before you eagerly sup again, that not-so-old adage of late 20th century lore: “Choose your competitors with care, for inevitably you’ll end being their mirror image!”

Which, over the years, I guess is what’s happened to the British newspaper industry, British trades unionists, British political parties – and even, dare I say it, Mr Blair.


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Aug 152011
 
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This short .pdf file should be required reading across the nation (background here).  It’s called “Unelected Oligarchy: Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain’s Democracy”.  And it has something to do with what’s happened here in England recently.

Here’s a Wikipedia definition of “oligarchy”:

Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία, oligarkhía[1]) is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, corporate, or military control. The word oligarchy is from the Greek words “ὀλίγος” (olígos), “a few”[2] and the verb “ἄρχω” (archo), “to rule, to govern, to command”.[3] Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who pass their influence from one generation to the next.

Throughout history, most oligarchies have been tyrannical, relying on public servitude to exist, although others have been relatively benign. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy, but oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy. Some city-states from ancient Greece were oligarchies.

And here we have a definition of “corporate oligarchy”:

Corporate oligarchy is a form of power, governmental or operational, where such power effectively rests with a small, elite group of inside individuals, sometimes from a small group of educational institutions, or influential economic entities or devices, such as banks, commercial entities that act in complicity with, or at the whim of the oligarchy, often with little or no regard for constitutionally protected prerogative. Monopolies are sometimes granted to state-controlled entities, such as the Royal Charter granted to the East India Company, or privileged bargaining rights to unions (labor monopolies) with very partisan political interests.

Now whilst the right is blaming a generalised moral decline for the recent disturbances in England and the left attaches the responsibility for such a decline at the feet of the rich, in general (at least according to this tweet tonight) no one really knows exactly what’s going on – nor really why it’s all happened.

I suppose I also have felt something similar these days – as I guess most people who consider themselves thoughtful will have had no alternative but to conclude.

And yet, after reading the .pdf I link to above, a short document of little more than twenty-four pages, I feel that a whole host of realities have slotted into place.  I cannot emphasise enough its synthetic importance in summarising and pulling together awful threads of reality which our business leaders and government servants have striven to hide from our sight.

Or, perhaps, not even that: they are so certain of their ability to game the system in their favour that they really don’t care who finds out or when.

Here are some choice phrases from its stream of unhappy truths:

“In the case of the UK, where the ratio of FTSE company directors’ pay to their average employee in 1989 was 19:1, by 2006 it had risen to 75:1, and by 2010 it was 145 times the median national full-time wage.”

“The increasing ability of corporations and wealthy individuals to avoid taxation, and the enormous effort expended on devising ingenious schemes for doing so, is damaging to democracy at each of these levels.  It means that those doing so are able to take advantage of the infrastructure necessary to their wealth and profits while escaping the responsibility to pay for it. […]”

“[…] An investigation by the National Audit Office in 2007 discovered that a third of the country’s largest 700 businesses had paid no corporation tax in the previous year.  The UK tax liability of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is minimal, while in 2009 Barclay’s Bank only paid £113m in UK corporation tax on profits of £11.6bn, a rate of around one percent. […]”

“[…] An investigation in 2006 by The Sunday Times found that the 54 billionaires living in Britain paid income tax between them of a mere £14.7m on their estimated total wealth of £126bn.”

“[…] As a study by Democratic Audit has shown, ‘just 224 donations, originating from fewer than 60 separate sources, accounted for nearly 40% of the three major parties’ declared donation income between 2001 and mid 2010′.”

“The number of former ministers ‘revolving out’ raised particular concern in Parliament and the press in 2008, when the list for the previous two years revealed that no fewer than 28 former ministers had taken jobs in the private sector.  Of these, thirteen were still MPs.  Paul Flynn, a member of the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC), commented that ‘he could not remember ministers hopping into the private sector like this……It is a way of buying access.’  This number of 28 compares with a total of 31 in the list published in March 2011, which covered the previous twelve months.  A smooth transition to the private sector could now be said to be the normal expectation for a government minister.”

Even as the circle of corrupting behaviours is now complete, there’s plenty more I could quote from – but, to be honest, I really think you should go back to the original document and read it in full for yourselves.

There are no easy connections to be made between the street violence in England over the past week or so and the realities the document under discussion in this post contains.  But I do honestly feel, and even more so in the light of the above data, that even where the violence has been entirely apolitical, the causes lie most firmly in the field of our system of government – especially where this system justifies the inequalities that this paper makes patent for all who choose to read it.

Where democracy becomes a mere façade which allows those in charge to game the system and rot it from within, we are surely on a long-term journey to nowhere particularly productive for anyone.

Except, that is, for the short-term interests of the super-rich who can hide behind their security measures – and look down on the rest of as simple pawns in their games of stratospheric chess.


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Jul 082011
 
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Norman over at normblog has a long thoughtful chant today on not blogging.  Which made me realise there must be more to life than Rupert Murdoch’s dirty linen.

And there is.  This, for example:

Suicide rates have risen sharply across Europe since the banking crisis as people struggle to cope with debt, unemployment and public service cuts.

What’s more:

Britons fared worse than average, with an 8 per cent rise in suicides between 2007 and 2009 – a shock after almost a decade of annual declines, according to research in The Lancet.

One of the researchers responsible for the report had the following observations to make:

Dr David Stuckler, lead author and lecturer in sociology at the University of Cambridge, said the findings were “terribly frustrating”. “Human beings are the real tragedy of an economic crisis, so it is terribly frustrating that government leaders have not only failed to invest in programmes that protect people, but have actually done the opposite… This has been the pattern for three and a half decades but lessons have not been learnt,” he said.

Meanwhile, round about the time that News International’s scandal of corporate hubris was beginning ever-so-slowly to spiral out of control, our current government announced how it was going to open its arms to the super-rich and make life ever-so-easy for them to do their business in Britain.

I can’t argue with the principle of rewarding hard work.  I do argue with the practice of playing fast and incompetent loose with stratospheric politics.  And of the latter, I am sure there are a multitude of examples.

So from News International to Cameron’s Coalition government, I think the lesson is pretty clear, don’t you think? 

Look after your own above all … especially when you sit at the top of the pyramid.

It’s always going to be bad news when the newsmakers make the front pages.  Only now, in the light of what’s happening, I’m beginning to think it’s far worse when they manage to stay in the shadows. 

It doesn’t matter, either, whether we’re talking about journalists or, indeed, bankers.  Systemic abuse in pyramidal organisations is something which fashions cultures and creates long-term ingrained behaviours – behaviours which Mafia-like Chinese walls can only serve to make even more corrupt. 

When these individuals manage to stay in those shadows so very well-hidden from public view is when we don’t see what they’re really getting up to.  And that’s how things like this then get to take place.

As freecloud just tweeted:

@dominiccampbell I think its time to copy the Arab Spring and throw off some of the shackles here – unique opportunity . Then fix banks.

So perhaps that is exactly what we’re now beginning to deal with.  As we emerge from decades of merciless submission to Murdoch, this just may be the start of something history might one day call the British Spring.


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