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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe in this mantra we shall find another way.


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Feb 072013
 
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Ada Colau is the very best reason you could have right now to get on an intensive course in Spanish, and fast.  Why?  In order to learn how to hear and understand her fierce and unremitting words spoken ever so gently.

If, however, you already understand the language, you will understand so much more about the world we live in once you watch the following video on the current situation in Spain – a country where unemployment has now topped 26 percent.


http://youtu.be/s_6G-gR3BHo

Here she describes how a representative of the banking community justifies the current Spanish laws as “stupendous” – the same banking community, she argues, which has destroyed the wider Spanish economy, and even led people to commit suicide as a result of its legislation.

And this is how  the Financial Times explains the laws she continues to call “criminal”:

Under Spanish mortgage law, which is among the most stringent in Europe, a borrower in default loses their home, and is then liable to repay all of the debt, with the creditor having rights over the debtor’s future income until the debt is settled.

And this is how the same paper relates the opinions of Spanish bankers:

Spanish bankers have long argued that the severe penalties for defaulting on mortgages helps to explain why levels of non-payment have remained low even when unemployment has risen to 26 per cent, as family members help with repayments for those who are struggling to keep up.

And this is the nature of the bailout which the same banking industry is currently receiving from Europe – absolutely shamelessly I might add, and with the kind of hubris which befits the all-too-powerful:

The European Commission on Wednesday approved a payment of 37 billion euros, or $48 billion, from the euro zone bailout fund to four Spanish banks on the condition that they lay off thousands of employees and close offices.

Yes.  Ms Colau is right.  This is criminal fraud on a massive scale.  Whilst the industry in question has no problems with reserving for itself the right to a generous corporate Communism when times are tough (or, put more plainly, when they’ve fucked up big-time), in the same breath it seems to believe this sort of generosity is quite the worst thing an individual could ever have access to.  Far better, it would seem, that a bank be able to sustain its skyscraping headquarters than an ordinary person his or her humble family home.

And although Spanish commenters on blogs and social networks seem to think that the violent qualities of their banking industry are most particularly Spanish in scale, I’m truly beginning to wonder if here in the UK there isn’t a terrible underbelly on the point of revealing itself.


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Apr 302012
 
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Two articles which tell the same story.  First, how the number of entrepreneurial, business and job-related suicides has reached alarming proportions in Italy:

According to the EURES social research institute, suicides have been on the rise in Italy since 2008, with at least two per day on average in 2010, when 362 unemployed people and 336 entrepreneurs killed themselves. In 2011, a record 11,615 Italian businesses closed their doors. In 2012, at least 25 and as many as 70 suicides have so far been linked to Italy’s economic troubles, especially prevalent in the industrial north and the construction industry.

The widows say there is too little dialogue and not enough state support for families that have fallen into despair over unemployment, bankruptcies and loan defaults.

Second, a story from Britain on how the very body politic that is responsible for administering our terrible response to the awful crises that assail us responds most despondently – and with equally dispiriting familial implications – to its ongoing consequences.

Essentially what we have is a situation where people must fit into systems.  No one believes, these days, that we should fashion our economies around the needs of the finite and perishable goods that are real people’s lives.  The reality is that whilst the systems seem to be working, most people are happy to muddle along – and even allow the powerful to encourage such muddling.

But since we are so locked into our systems, when the latter break down … well, so do we.

I am reminded of this by the story reported from Spain recently where the cost of Metro journeys was I believe hiked by 30 percent.  Just imagine the effect on an ordinary commuter.  In a sense, when they bought their flat on the outskirts of town, a social contract was being signed by the providers of such infrastructures and the purchasers: you settle down here, bring your income and your outgoings, and we’ll provide the reasonable means for you to get to work.

Now the message is: we’ve got you by the balls.  Stuff your standard of living.  Stump up the difference.

And it’d probably be morally justifiable if we were all equally affected, too.  But we’re not.

This is not just capitalism.

This is naked and unbridled theft.

And whilst the economic experts talk of the dangers of economic recession, the real danger out there is a marauding and eventually all-encompassing depression of an emotional nature.

An emotional depression in which the passive-aggressive economies that nudge us so very cleverly have, step by deadening step, ensnared us.  Just as that wife-beater makes his wife believe through very reasonable argument that she is the real problem at heart, so these economies – and their public sponsors and representatives – are designed and structured to make us all feel we are to blame for the disasters which are destroying so many existences.

Never was the invisible hand better named.  The invisible hand not that guides the markets but wife-beats the voters, their families, colleagues and friends into savage and terrible submission.


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Apr 012012
 
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If you’ve been paying attention over the past year or so – or even just over the past week or so – you’ll realise British politics is about as bizarre and foolish as it can get.  It’s possible that for politically tribal reasons you will find resistible the idea that New Labour laid the foundations in its Intercept Modernisation Programme – but the fact that on April Fools’ Day this story on the so-called Communications Capabilities Development Programme is published everywhere shows how resistant to irony bureaucracy can become.  The plan – in a nutshell – is for all email, website and general Internet usage in the UK to be accessible in realtime to GCHQ, the government’s electromagnetic listening arm.

A bit of history, then, from Open Rights Group’s wiki on the subject:

In the original Coalition Agreement(12th May 2010), this statement appears on page 11:

“We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason.”

And Nick Clegg reiterated this in a speech a week later(19th May 2010) when he said:

“We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so.”

However, on 19th October 2010, hidden in the depths of the government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review was this statement:

“We will introduce a programme to preserve the ability of the security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies to obtain communication data and to intercept communications within the appropriate legal framework … We will put in place the necessary regulations and safeguards to ensure that our response to this technology challenge is compatible with the government’s approach to information storage and civil liberties.”

The revival of the IMP is being spearheaded by the Home Office, which in fact as early as July 2010, planned to revive IMP, as revealed in a largely unnoticed document.

One can only read this as a revival of the Intercept Modernisation Programme. This is despite staunch opposition to the programme by both the Lib Dems and the Tories while they weren’t in government, and their original Coalition Agreement(mentioned above).

GCHQ were revealed to be installing a system for collecting the data required by the IMP in 2009, and are continuing to install this programme despite the suspected opposition of the new coalition. Tories at the time opposed doing this on the sly. Baroness Neville-Jones wanted it to be done only if it was passed as law by Parliament. Baroness Neville-Jones is now the coalition’s security minister and she will have to stick to her guns if the public is to ever see such an important development debated by their elected representatives.

On the 27th October 2010, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge Dr Julian Huppert asked the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s Question Time:

“Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that the Government have no plans to revive Labour’s intercept modernisation programme, whether in name or in function, and that he remains fully committed to the pledge in the coalition agreement to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and to roll back state intrusion?”

The Prime Minister had this to say:

The Prime Minister: “I would argue that we have made good progress on rolling back state intrusion in terms of getting rid of ID cards and in terms of the right to enter a person’s home. We are not considering a central Government database to store all communications information, and we shall be working with the Information Commissioner’s Office on anything we do in that area.”

Notice how he doesn’t say they won’t be extending the requirements for CSPs to retain communications data. Is this another hint that IMP will be adopted by the Coalition, just without the centralised database?

So what is the pattern since the Tory-led Coalition got into power?  First, it’s started by putting into place long-term strategies to both disempower and anger the following groups in society:

  • women
  • the unemployed
  • the disabled
  • the sick
  • those in need of legal support
  • those who live anywhere but Tory heartlands
  • the so-called squeezed middle
  • small businesses
  • evidence-based professionals such as doctors and lawyers
  • scientists
  • teachers
  • pensioners

Meanwhile, it’s kept onside the managing elites in:

  • higher education (eg the tuition fees hike)
  • corporations and those ideologically related to the Coalition itself, including those involved in health and education provision (eg the NHS bill, the free schools agenda, HMRC tax liabilities and so on)

And in general, it’s been sympathetic to the lifestyles and interests of:

  • the rich and wealthy (eg the recently announced 50p to 45p reduction in the top rate of income tax)

Now, after all the above, and building on New Labour security plans from as far back as 2006, it suddenly discovers (or suddenly reveals – not quite the same thing I think you’ll agree) that it needs a ferocious plan of thought control to defend us from … exactly what?

In years past, in Tony Blair’s time for example, we had the War Against Terrorism to conceptually deal with.  Even I gave him the benefit of the doubt whilst it still looked like the situation in Iraq was as he pitched it – though I did find evermore unhappy the company he was keeping.  But that War Against Terrorism, whilst always an ongoing matter of some preoccupation, can hardly be seen as the real justification for what is proposed now.

No.

On a day that David Cameron’s approval ratings go through the floor, the real enemy our state needs to be defended from is that long list I described above of those voters this government has chosen to disempower and anger.

And the real reason it needs to be defended is because whilst New Labour took ten years to reach the levels of hubris and disconnect from reality which led to its necessary downfall, the Coalition has managed to achieve all of this in less than twenty-four months.  In a blink of a political eye, the Coalition has committed the massive and always inevitable error of all governments past and future: identify completely the broader interests of the nation with the individual interests of each and every politician who forms a part of its inner circles.

Whilst seriously enough the voters and their families are losing in droves their trust in this Tory-led Coalition, far more dangerously for the wider population is the fact that the individuals at the top of the Coalition have lost all trust in the voters.

The announcement today that it’s time to potentially put the whole nation under continuous government surveillance is a blanket recognition that we as subjects cannot be trusted to run our own lives in collaboration and consonance with the state.

And I would agree.  It, the state that is, is right to be worried.  Essentially because the state itself, under this Tory-led Coalition, has converted itself into the nightmare New Labour was always accused of aiming to become.

Through Cameron it is now clear that Thatcher’s legacy of a land fit for the small shopkeeper has been finally destroyed.  This is not Thatcher’s doing that we see on our TV and computer screens but Blair’s very own twist on the elitist’s approach to micro-managing ordinary people’s lives.

Through Cameron we see Blair finally breaking away from his inspiration and revealing what another decade of New Labour would have meant.

Through Cameron, this government is in the process of breaking very sacred contracts.   And it knows on the inside far better than the rest of us on the out exactly what measures of control it is going to require.

Meanwhile, as we try and comprehend how matters got to such a point, all we can do is battle to remain sane in the face of such insanity.  There is no political beast more dangerous than he or she that is wounded – especially when they believe such attacks have happened and been effected not just through a rank betrayal from their own side of the House but also well before their longer sell-by date could normally have justified.

We would do well to remember this as we witness the April foolishness that is British politics today.

And as we bemoan the real unravelling of that complex travesty of misguided justice: that once-glorious Blairism of the Noughties.


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Feb 252012
 
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I find the acronym NEET pretty insulting for a couple of reasons I will shortly explain – but for those of you late to the party, here’s a definition:

NEET is a government acronym for people currently “not in education, employment, or training“. It was first used in the United Kingdom but its use has spread to other countries, including Japan, China, and South Korea. People under the designation are called NEETs (or Neets).

In the United Kingdom, the classification comprises people aged between 16 and 24 (some 16-year-olds are still of compulsory school age); the subgroup of NEETs aged 16–18 is frequently of particular focus. In Japan, the classification comprises people aged between 15 and 34 who are unemployed, not engaged in housework, not enrolled in school or work-related training, and not seeking work. The “NEET group” is not a uniform set of individuals.

A government site on the subject under discussion can be found, at the time of writing this post, here:

At the end of 2010, 141,800 (7.3 per cent) 16- to 18-year-olds were NEET.  Rates vary considerably with age – 2.3 per cent of 16-year-olds, 6.8 per cent of 17-year-olds and 12.4 per cent of 18-year-olds. For most young people, being NEET is a temporary outcome as they move between different education and training options – surveys estimate that only 1 per cent of young people are NEET at ages 16, 17 and 18.

The characteristics of young people who are not participating are diverse, although there are some groups that are at greater risk of becoming NEET. This includes, for example, those with few or no qualifications and those with a health problem, disability or low aspirations. The Department has published research looking at the characteristics of young people who are not participating.

The government’s planned contribution to resolving the problem – remember it affects one percent of our young between the ages of sixteen and eighteen – would appear to be £126 million aimed at getting 55,000 youngsters to react thus:

Launching the project, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it would help get youngsters who are “glued to the television” into the “real world of work and learning”.  

*

“Sitting at home, sitting on the sofa, glued to the television …”

What a great way of defining a generation – pigeon-holing 55,000 young people as lazy layabouts.  As “not participating”.  As having “health problems, disability or low aspirations”.  And meanwhile, at the other end of the generational spectrum, what does the government do to re-engineer our society?

Just as importantly, however, I’m also inclined to believe that the big society idea was, as I pointed out earlier this month, designed to exclude from the start:
Trends like these – and others we may perceive – are working together hard to make our blessed Big Society nothing more than an  old boys’ network of the retired and semi-retired.  Putting people in their places and pigeon-holes is the game we’re playing now.

We are in the process of disenfranchising politically and democratically whole swathes of the population, re-engineering society’s wider expectations and leaving in the hands of both the conservative and the Conservatives amongst us the running of our schools, hospitals, local communities and neighbourhoods.

So why – whilst those with disabilities have their route to independence removed, whilst those who would work for a living must work for nothing and whilst those who would aspire to take charge of their own business futures are duly informed that, to this government, capitalism is a synonym for big business – is this Coalition able and determined to empower the conservative and Conservative semi-retired when demonisation of one sort or another is the preferred course of action for the “non-participating” young, disabled and unemployed – that is to say, the utterly different and inexplicably unaspirational?

After making DLA almost impossible to obtain, after obliging the unemployed to carry out voluntary work, after planning the break-up of the NHS for the benefit of corporate sponsors, after working to destroy the principle of Legal Aid in favour of business cronies … really, ladies and gentlemen, how do you honestly expect us to want to aspire to and participate in this hell-hole of contradictions?

*

And so it is that it does make me wonder if the Tories amongst us aren’t happier empowering a group in society they know how to control over a group in society which always, always, always manages to renew, surprise, change and re-imagine the way we do things. 

Yes.  You’ve got it.  Our government’s strategy and policies laid finally clear for all to perfectly see: pigeon-hole the unpredictable young so they become absolutely blameworthy; empower the conservative old so they become absolutely blameless; and proceed to win elections for absolutely generations to come.

*

No.  I’m not suggesting for a moment we shouldn’t empower semi-retired conservative and Conservative OAPs.  I’m just suggesting we should also choose to do the same with everyone else in society. 

And where we do not, we should question why. 

And since we are not, it’s now time to question.


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Feb 252012
 
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On Thursday I came to the following conclusion: workfare is the state’s equivalent of the private sector’s tendency to force people to work for nothing.  My reasoning?  As follows:

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. [...]

Meanwhile, back in 2010 I reported on Mr Duncan Smith’s penchant for blaming the unemployed for the state in which they found themselves, as I wondered if we were stumbling into “Alice in Wonderland” or Kafka.  In the event, and from today’s perspective, it would seem it was a case of the first written by the second.  The piece I wrote does, in fact, make for painful rereading – especially in the light of what’s been happening of late.

Prescient, even.  Sadly enough.

And I am reminded of when I worked in a large corporation where it was suggested that volunteering activities should form a part of the bonus-attached compulsory annual objectives – that is to say, and I swear this really happened, an HR department of an 80,000-worker company was capable of coming up with the wizard wheeze of making volunteering compulsory.

Things like this do of course give volunteering a bad name.  For it’s a small step from not wanting to volunteer any more to refusing to work in good faith under any circumstances.  And we certainly don’t want that to happen.

So in a society where capitalism is no longer a force for freedom – and it would appear every capitalist of a successful bent has the perfect right and permission to maximise their personal wealth at the expense of everyone else – what place does the good faith that is this desire to work without being paid actually have?

That is to say, what is the place of volunteering in a society of the selfish?

Does it have any place in a society where everyone who is in charge is only out to maximise their outcomes?


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Feb 232012
 
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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.


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Jan 302012
 
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On Saturday I argued:

I do wonder if the crisis isn’t rather more profound, mind.  What if the deficit isn’t really financial?  I mean obviously there’s a shortage of political will to spend our way out of encroaching crisis, as perhaps we have preferred to do so on previous occasions – but, in reality, perhaps the problem is actually that we simply no longer have enough jobs to go around.  No mystery here – nor a particularly perceptive remark.  But, nevertheless, maybe – in the circumstances – worth revisiting.  As the past century progressed, automation struck in more and more professions: we now learn by ourselves; medicate ourselves; bank by ourselves; book our holidays by ourselves; even get to the point where we contemplate the possibility of legally representing ourselves.  And maybe – just maybe – all the aforementioned just goes to show that the balance generated by our economic structures between jobs and consumers is suddenly and irrevocably tipping in favour of the latter.

That is to say, our latterday Western economies – as they are set up and structured these days (and for some reason my unpractised eye is totally unable to fathom) – require far more of us to play the role of passive consumers than that of productive workers.

Meanwhile, this terrifying paragraph (from page 31 of this TUC-discussion .pdf) (the bold is mine) only serves to confirm my unhappy and inexpert intuition:

[...] The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast that labour’s share of the output of the economy will have fallen by four percentage points between 2009 and 2016. On present policies and trends, it is unlikely to recover this lost ground beyond that year. As in the past, it will be those in the lower half of the pay distribution that are most likely to be bearing this fall. The gains from recovery, when it comes, are likely to continue to be unevenly divided. This means a continuation of the trend of the last 30 years, with those on middle and low incomes likely to face a continued shrinking in their combined share of the nation’s annual output. Indeed, TUC analysis has shown that the amount paid to employees in wages in 2011 was £60bn less than would have been the case had wages continued to rise at the same rate as in 1978. Our growing wage gap is significant.

All I can see, then, and for various reasons, is that the way we have engineered our economies (whether consciously or otherwise) – both in relation to the forces that operate to drive them as well as in relation to the very human instincts that underlie multiple intra- and inter-company decision-making processes – has meant everything significant in such economic activity is fully taken care of except its ability to generate sustainably plentiful and quality jobs.  The free markets do work after all – we get millions of iPads for half the price a desktop cost five years ago; business waste is eliminated year on year by good businesses using total quality management strategies; and even faraway developing countries out there get to share in some of the progress this all supposedly implies.

But jobs, quality jobs, quality work-life balances, seem to be becoming evermore distant as realistic prospects on the horizon.  In the end, we as workers are nothing more than those suppliers at the very end and bottom of the food chain that is Western civilisation.  What else could we expect now than to be squeezed forever and always?

As well as blamed for losing our jobs – when the blame clearly lies with the system, its parameters and awfully limiting ground rules.

If only we had an ISO quality mark to define the ability of a company to generate those plentiful and quality jobs I mention above.  Something we could take into account when we signed a contract or made a purchasing commitment. 

An idea, don’t you think? 

An idea at the very least.

Whether a good idea … whether sufficiently groundbreaking … well, that’s a separate matter …

Perhaps not for me to say.

What I do know, however, is that our issue most definitely isn’t with the workshy but, rather, with an economic system which designs and makes new machines far more efficiently than it does new tasks, jobs and roles.  And in the light of such a reality, there really should exist no government out there honestly able to declaim the problem lies with workforces not wanting to work. 

For it’s simply not true.  And to say otherwise is to tell monumental porkies.


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Jan 282012
 
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This is indeed a lost generation.  The country of my wife and children, Spain, as reported by the Telegraph yesterday, now has a youth unemployment rate of 51.4 percent.  Meanwhile, as painted by the English version of the Spanish El País newspaper, the wider picture is just as terrifying:

According to the National Statistics Institute’s (INE) latest quarterly Active Population Survey (EPA), the unemployment rate climbed from 21.5 percent in the third quarter to 22.85 percent in the period October-December. The ranks of the unemployed swelled by 348,700, while the number of people who lost their jobs during the whole of last year amounted to 577,000. The number of people out of work at the end of the year stood at a record 5.273 million.

The solution to this problem?  As follows:

The gloomy figures underscored the dire need for an overhaul of the labor market, a task the government wants to complete in the first quarter of this year.

But with an important proviso:

“This shows that the government has to carry out a labor reform that focuses on incentivizing hiring, rather than just on cutting firing costs,” Bloomberg quoted Estefania Ponte, chief economist at Cortal Consors, in Madrid as saying. [...]

And I thought capitalism had all the tools it needed to sort out – all on its lonesome – the pretty mess someone, or something, has got us into.

Oh!  It does …

In 2011 Spanish luxury goods sales were up by 25% despite the economic climate in the country.The luxury goods sector brought in 4,500 million euros up to the end of this year.

Truth of the matter is that capitalism by itself offers no convincing solutions for a broader society.  It can’t.  It’s been so vigorously – and for such a long time – a fundamental part of the problem.

And as any good experienced teacher would tell you, there is no one methodology in the world which can ever teach you everything you need to know or do.  We must apply the same principle to economic practice.

Instead of building these self-justifying barricades between different classes and ways of seeing.

*

I do wonder if the crisis isn’t rather more profound, mind.  What if the deficit isn’t really financial?  I mean obviously there’s a shortage of political will to spend our way out of encroaching crisis, as perhaps we have preferred to do so on previous occasions – but, in reality, perhaps the problem is actually that we simply no longer have enough jobs to go around.  No mystery here – nor a particularly perceptive remark.  But, nevertheless, maybe – in the circumstances – worth revisiting.  As the past century progressed, automation struck in more and more professions: we now learn by ourselves; medicate ourselves; bank by ourselves; book our holidays by ourselves; even get to the point where we contemplate the possibility of legally representing ourselves.  And maybe – just maybe – all the aforementioned just goes to show that the balance generated by our economic structures between jobs and consumers is suddenly and irrevocably tipping in favour of the latter.

That is to say, our latterday Western economies – as they are set up and structured these days (and for some reason my unpractised eye is totally unable to fathom) – require far more of us to play the role of passive consumers than that of productive workers.

Does it have to be that way?  I really don’t know.  Wasn’t there a time, for a while, in the last quarter of the last century, that a potentially halcyon period of generous leisure activity began to be promised to our future generations?  I can certainly remember the predictions made by the technologically minded stories and thinkers who dominated my scientifically influenced thought processes in my more tender years.

Of that – however – we hear little these days, it would seem.  Instead, the things they tend to say now remind us we must work for less; work more flexibly; work more insecurely; and, above all, expect no guarantees whatsoever.

Stability of personal income is no virtue or given of modern Western society.  As an American called Kirk (and spookily so) apparently said at Davos today:

US trade rep Kirk: “More and more Americans question value proposition of trade… think weve traded jobs for cheap t-shirts /iPads #Davos

And it’s not just the jobs – it’s the nature of those jobs.

For Christ’s sake capitalism – get your bloody act together before it’s too late!

You’d almost think your proponents thought there was no alternative.

But there always is – to everything.

So where have all your competitive instincts gone?  Is it in fact – and here perhaps we have a horrifying unspoken truth – that, after so much time spent managing and manipulating and operating in monopolistic markets, our capitalist captains have forgotten what real free markets feel and look like?  As well as the instincts which should correspond to such mindsets?

Fearful figures, indeed, then, on the verge of an economic breakdown.

All of us, that is.  Sooner or later.


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Nov 292011
 
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“Conciliation” is defined in Wiktionary in the following way:

conciliation (plural conciliations)
  1. The action of bringing peace and harmony; the action of ending strife.
  2. (law) A form of alternative dispute resolution, similar but less formal than mediation, in which the parties bring their dispute to a neutral third party, who helps lower tensions, improve communications and explore possible solutions.

It’s a truism to say our political system is anything but conciliatory.  And so it is I am minded – in these strife-ridden times – to argue that important concepts which might otherwise liberate are being lost to such strife.

One example, which I bring to this post from my teaching experience, involves providing the right environment to encourage students to become independent learners.  This, in such experience, is not always an easy task.  There are many language students out there who are looking for the continued emotional support of the teacher.  You may provide them with the materials and content which a modicum of self-learning would serve to multiply by a thousandfold their progress – but no, they will insist on leaving most of the work to the classroom and the teacher.

Or they prefer to spend years in the company of the same teacher, using such learning to act out social instead of training needs.

Good teachers should, however, be like good dentists: so good at what they do that they do themselves out of a job.  And yet it doesn’t seem to work like that.  People often don’t want – or don’t know how – to be independent.

So now I’m going to make myself unpopular.  Let it first be understood I am entirely on the side of those who would remove through democratic means all vestiges of this Coalition government.  It would, however, be remiss of me not to argue – as I have already mentioned above – that some potential good is being lost to the blunt battlecries of our current crop of politicians.

They demonise benefit fraud; they look to remove disability and incapacity allowances; they blame the unemployed for not finding jobs when jobs are not to be found.  And yet, if given a different slant, all these ideas could be grounded in positivity.  For example: benefits are good as amelioration strategies for short-term distress but should not create a social environment of dependence as has often happened.  Supportive alternatives (and the word here is “supportive”) should kick in as soon as they can with the objective of ensuring people remain as proactive and independent as possible.

And what about blaming the unemployed for not being able to find those non-existent jobs?  It’s the wrong tactic all round.  We should be encouraging – not rhetorically but practically – as many people as possible to want to strike out into an economy of the proactive.

Business should not be a fearful beast but something people find absolutely fascinating.

And yet whilst our large monopolistic corporations supply our consumer fantasies with the gadgets and prices the latter dream of, the former can only distort and make so unfairly competitive the free-market economies which supposedly populate Western society.

No wonder the unemployed don’t want to set up new companies.  If their customers won’t pay and the wider economic prospects are so grim, who on earth would choose to be an independent worker in times like this?

From independent learners, then, to independent workforces, we most definitely have a challenge here as we attempt to convince people otherwise.  And where we can most definitely criticise the Coalition is in the prejudices which underlie the anti-dependence rhetoric they have used: they need go no further than their nearest language class to understand that the instinct to dependence is far broader and more widely shared throughout all levels of society than they might think.

Big corporations love us to become dependent on their products and services.

Big politicians love us to become independent of the state.

We can have one or the other – but it’s going to be mighty difficult to juggle both behaviours at the same time.

And if the politicians are really serious about doing something about the way we act, then they need to do much much more than simply knock the poor and suffering for a six.  They need to look at how their sponsors – and even they themselves – unconsciously behave, even as we are all educated into monopolistic submission by forces much stronger than ourselves.

In the meantime, the concept of “conciliation” is about as lost to our culture as “freedom” and “democracy”.  A lesson in that perhaps?  And do the three – similarly – depend on each other?

I wonder.
____________________

Update to this post: further reading from Richard J Murphy on this matter can be found here.  Acerbic as usual, it’s well worth looking at in full.


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Nov 162011
 
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Éoin tweets thus:

UK unemployment is growing 500% quicker than the Eurozone so don’t let Osborne blame Greece http://t.co/IiJJWp2X

The post he refers to, one of his own, is well worth a read in full.

It does, of course, beg the question: what on earth are Osborne and Cameron up to?  In my mind, I think the only sensible reply is to say: “Exactly what they set out to do!”

Increase unemployment – in order to tip the balance of negotiating power in the direction of employers; destroy that part of our monopolistic “free market” which, even now, was giving the bigger companies grief – in order that the only businesspeople left on the killing-field are the big-money sponsors of the Tory Party; shake out all those feelgood policies New Labour had engineered to tie the disparate social elements of this country together – in order to better control the chaos that is left; and – finally – deactivate all chances of making socialism work for the oh so conservative British.

For that, if anything, was Tony Blair’s unalloyed triumph.  Make even the Conservatives believe that helping the less well-off and more disadvantaged was an inevitable political evil which had to be tolerated in the name of fair play.

Not, incidentally, what Osborne and Cameron care to believe in at all.

And that, precisely, is why they have set out to unravel all Blair’s careful and clever tapestry of union.


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Nov 162011
 
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The Office for National Statistics has just published its most recent report on Internet usage in the UK.  The bald abstract runs as follows:

This article provides estimates of adult Internet users and non-users in the UK, for 2011 Q3. This is the third release of quarterly estimates of Internet users and non-users. By the third quarter of 2011, 8.43 million adults in the UK had never used the Internet.

That works out at around 17 percent, which – in itself – in this highly technological age seems a little surprising to say the least.

But digging into the report itself (.pdf file) throws up even greater discrepancies.  These two in particular catch my eye (the bold is mine in each case):

Earnings
Of those adults in employment whose gross weekly pay was less than £200 per week, 8.3 per cent had not used the Internet. The proportion of Internet non-users declines with each successively higher weekly pay band. Of those paid £1000 a week or more, there were no Internet non-users.

And more significantly for the purposes of my post today:

Disability
By 2011 Q3, there were 4.25 million disabled adults who had never used the Internet, just over half of the 8.43 million who had never used it. This represents 36.3 per cent of those who were disabled.  Of those adults who reported no disability, 10.8 per cent had never used the Internet.

The digital divide between low and high wage-earners and between disabled people and those who are not has never been so dramatic.  More importantly, it’s not where we currently find ourselves that is the real problem but, rather, the opportunities to search for and engineer better standards of living which access to – and familiarity with – good, cheap and reliable Internet provides.

It’s clear that the monopolistic “free market” we labour under does provide certain benefits in terms of some cheap goods and services.  But where we are talking about the special needs of people with limited resources or with individual support needs, it’s just as clear the model isn’t up to the job at hand.

In a way, the digital divide described above is an X-ray of a wider divide in our society between those who have and those who don’t.  And it serves to provide more evidence, if evidence was needed, that this crisis – whether provoked or not – will exacerbate not only the differences in access to freedom-engendering products and services but will also mean a whole generation will end up losing out on the learning opportunities such access otherwise provides.

In much the same way as my story on Hollywood yesterday seems to indicate that those who already hold most of the wealth are planning a future where the only game on the block will be theirs, so the digital economy which Britain is looking to sustain is one which leaves the weakest at the mercy of a monopolistic capitalism – able to deliver marvellous things to the majority but hopelessly incapable of adjusting its provision for the rest.

As it is also unable to allow a grassroots independence and community impulse to grow and develop into something both economically and socially productive.

I think we need to do something about that.  And it needs to be something which involves the intervention of the state.

Yet again.

Not because the state is better than private endeavour – rather, because private endeavour has shown it cannot do everything.  It’s the latter which finds itself in the dock now – not the former.  And it’s time the wealthy and able-bodied recognised this reality.

We return to the state not because we believe it is better.  We return to the state because – in some important contexts – private industry is found too wanting.


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Oct 132011
 
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Capitalism equals innovation, imagination and creativity unbound?  Or dehumanisation for the vast majority – above all perhaps?

Peter Watt says the following in the first line of his piece on the reality behind statistics:

The trouble with statistics about people is that they dehumanise.

And it’s true.  But the problem with dehumanising statistics is not the statistics themselves.  Rather, it’s the incredible reliance the political classes – to which Mr Watt himself has belonged – place on crunching numbers and key performance indicators to come to their distant decisions.

Statistics don’t kill people.  People who abuse statistics kill people.  And as Watt sketches out a landscape where a substantial minority, the unemployed, remain a minority nevertheless – a minority which will begin to reach for the amelioration of habitual drinking, the contemplation of suicide, the gut-wrenching sadness of seeing a lifetime of scrimping and saving going up in the smoke of unpunished banking crises – so it is that he concludes in his measured post thus:

Blame will be thrown and the right noises made. People will march, concern will be expressed and photo opportunities will prove how much we care. But the cycle will move on and “unemployment” will become just a word. The economy will turn and the rate will drop back. There will be a fight over who should take credit and who should be trusted to be the custodians of the future. And the misery and tragedy will be forgotten.

Except by those who experienced it.

And if all that in itself weren’t enough to put the dampeners on the morning, Chris has an even darker prognosis: we are entering the age of a mass unemployment which is here to stay.

Don’t you just get the feeling that cream doesn’t rise to the top any more?  That the people in charge are the sourest and most putrid of intellects?  That New Labour gave philosophising a bad name in British politics – and the result is this bare-faced fibbing which has come back to haunt us?  For no one seems to care about the truth any more.  What’s far more important is getting away with it whilst you can.

The philosophy, in fact, of the go-getters, the do-betters, the entrepreneurial hands-on alpha men and women … those very few ready-to-do-battle individuals who climb to glory on the backs of the many.

Innovation, imagination and creativity unbound?  May the Lord save us from such half-baked promises of a better world.

Whilst people’s lives are finite, capitalism may very well now be broken.  A stagnating double-dip of an environment will mean a whole generation may never know the riches we enjoyed.  If capitalism cannot deliver recovery for that generation – as I suspect it now may not – then it will lose its grip and ability to seduce the youthful and young at heart who still believe in growth.

We need a new set of tools. 

We need to care for everyone.

We need a growth which is not a cancer. 

But in order to re-engineer it all, we need good people throughout society – good people who can effect more change than those at the top.  And right now, all we’ve got are the old dynamics of disproportionate power – where those who control the levers are able to wreak more damage than anyone else.

If only they knew how to wreak more good.

If only …


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Feb 112011
 
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As you may have noticed, I’ve been redesigning the blog tonight.  I’ve tried to bring it up-to-date without losing – entirely – some air of what it looked like before.  Mustn’t throw out all the old with the new.

I’m not getting younger myself.

New Year, new challenges – and a new start I guess too.

My period of mourning is now officially over.  Losing a job can be many things – but most of all, if you have been lucky whilst in gainful employment, it then means sadness at losing the colleagues you were fortunate enough to work with.  It’s the people side that always counts – and companies know it even as their aversion to risk leads them to resist its truths.

Time to set up a company, I think.

Watch this space.


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Feb 042011
 
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The situation is getting pretty ugly.  I read today that one in five of British workers now fear losing their jobs.  Snowflake5 points out the importance of confidence in making the wheels of the economy turn.  Confidence which is hardly going to be engendered if households believe their breadwinners will shortly be out on their ears.

Meanwhile, I read that Compass is considering opening up its membership to those who are not members of the Labour Party.  Arguments in favour and against are published by the organisation and both make interesting reading.  This paragraph in favour caught my eye in particular:

The Compass operating plan has long been this; the belief that a transformed Labour Party is a necessary but insufficient vehicle to create the good society. Labour is the biggest tent but it is not the only tent. It can and must lead but it does not have a monopoly on wisdom. Neither can it take on alone all the conservative forces outside of Parliament that will resist our more democratic, equal and sustainable vision. But we can’t change Labour solely from the inside and we can’t build a broader progressive alliance with an exclusive relationship with Labour. Our ambitions for the good society are too big to just restrict ourselves to being merely a Labour Party faction.

Whilst this paragraph against is also worthy of further examination:

Working with progressives in other parties is important but Compass members must decide how the organisation should construct progressive alliances. We will always need to win over sections of the Labour Party and ideally the party as a whole to achieve the changes that we seek. This was what Compass was set up to do and what it has been successfully building towards. The effect of changing the membership structure would be to take a different course, to de-prioritise effecting that change in the Labour Party.

In the former, it is my judgement that we have the gentle hubris of an organisation which has grown rapidly and likes to believe it can leapfrog history.  In the latter, history is recognised – as is an understanding of the important enabling role in the wider Labour Party which Compass can continue to play if it so decides.

Compass is, therefore, at a crossroads.  It can spread itself more thinly, as might a medium-sized business looking hungrily for bigger markets.  It will then inevitably lose its defining character as it aims to appeal to a wider set of potential customers.  Its products and services will become less clearly understood as it aims to shift what sells rather than what – to date – has served to make its content cogent, constructive and useful.  It will suffer all the usual growing pains of organisations which suddenly realise they could be much more than they had originally anticipated.  And, unfortunately, one day, it will have to begin to compromise its profoundest principles.  And we shall never forgive them.

Or, alternatively, it can decide to continue as it is – in uncertain and sometimes awkward equilibrium with a Labour Party which isn’t entirely sure why it needs Compass to occasionally kick sand in its eyes.  Here, then, the model is one of symbiosis.  Here it is clearer that whilst the Labour Party does need Compass to keep its future on the straight and narrow, Compass, just as much, needs the Labour Party to provide it with the intellectual property, considered thought, political dynamism and history which has allowed it to reach the levels of membership and interest it has achieved in such a short period of time.

What Compass needs to recognise is that without its attentive gaze, the Labour Party would undoubtedly be a poorer organisation.  But – just as importantly (perhaps more so) – without the Labour Party to connect up to and react against, Compass would be no more than the widowed half of a curiously unequal partnership – without a tradition, soul or legacy to call its own.

Compass may be a tool in the throes of wishing to become a full-blown movement.  But the Labour Party is a full-blown movement still licking the wounds of cyclical loss.  What Compass must now decide is if it would like to take advantage of the circumstances – for its own benefit – and be yet another part of the Labour Party’s woes or (instead) understand the lessons of the last thirty years and ensure – for the benefit of the Labour body politic (that is to say, ultimately the interests and needs of the progressive voting public) – that an unconditional support for the broad church that is Labour, whilst desirable, should never again allow any one of its factions to hijack its organisational entity.

In fact, Labour’s strength lies in its very factional structure – where this structure is balanced and measured over time.  It only leads us to considerable political distress when hubris and a desire to rule absolutely overcome the wisdoms of community.  (For do not forget how we supported Blair unconditionally – and look where that got us in the end.)

This is why, in answer to the title of this post, I think I would most definitely say yes.  I think our support for Labour should now be unconditional.  Our support, that is, for it as the vehicle for the change we need in order to defend the dispossessed from the dispossessers.

Policies and political direction are quite a different matter though.  Which is why we need organisations like Compass to rein in their growing enthusiasm to become movements in their own right and encourage them to understand that where they most will improve British society is in that uneasy, less-than-glamorous but highly functional to-and-fro relationship with the British Labour Party.

As a tool of surgical precision on the Labour body politic – but not as another movement in itself: that is where we need Compass to reap the benefits of its surge in popularity.


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