An older favourite
Monthly Archives: February 2011
I usually try to write (slightly) funnier posts than this, but yesterday I read this article and I’ve been thinking about it, y’know, seriously. So I’m not going to do a funny post about how the English Defence League couldn’t organise a piss-up in a British brewery because they all drink shit foreign lagers. Instead there is just one point to make. I think it is the most important response to this line of argument. It’s not an argument that we be nicer to foreigners. It’s not a plea for us all to get along. It’s not a request for a society that looks like a Benetton advert because that will ‘make life more colourful’.
Here it is: The level of wages and the level of public services depends on who has the power in society. As a society we have the resources to pay better wages. We have the resources for better public services. We are, collectively, wealthier than most other societies around today and wealthier than any society at any time in history you care to name.
Better wages and better public services don’t happen because those people and institutions who hold most of the money don’t want to share it around. And they pay our politicians in order to stop it being spread around. Some of them are our politicians. And they are very happy for people to carry right on blaming immigrants.
If your wages are shit, if your hospital is shit, if your street lights don’t work, it’s because you don’t have the power to claim the resources that are available to solve all those problems. So take more power for yourself, and when you do, you’ll find it doesn’t make a bit of difference how much immigration there is, except in one sense: if you can join with immigrants to claim better wages or better public services your numbers will be boosted and you’ll find you have even more power.
The level of wages and the level of public services are not about the number of people in a country (otherwise the quality of life would be better in Belgium than in Spain and if you’ve been to Belgium you’ll know it isn’t) but about who has the power and who has the money. The liberal opponents of racism are uncomfortable talking about naked power and economics, partly because many of them are at the higher powered, more moneyed end of the spectrum. They respond to anti-immigrant rhetoric with descriptions of the economic benefits of immigration, or a plea for valuing difference. Bollocks to valuing difference – no-one who didn’t value it was ever convinced to start valuing it because a well-meaning person asked them to. Instead let’s value our own power. Rather than fighting over scraps against people who have less than us we should ensure we have control of the resources we all collectively create.
How to get to that position? There are no easy solutions, and it’s not going to fit into a blog post. But blaming immigrants is only playing the game of the people you really need to fight.
This week readers, I bring you a tale of great heroism, a tale to inspire and refresh the tired heart. The story begins in sadness and suffering among the small percentage of private individuals and organisations who control most of society’s resources. The block of money controlled by the government, that is, the tax take, had always caused them great pain. It is true that the money people take back control of many parts of it – much of the military budget for example, increasingly even the welfare budget. But something was still causing them an enormous amount of distress: the NHS budget.
Because the NHS budget was big. Very big. It was a big pot of gold they had no access to, save for the 10% of it going to pharmaceutical companies. 90% of a big pot of gold out of their reach was an unbelievable, horrendous ordeal for them, a nightmare scenario of a wealth redistribution mechanism that did not favour them.
People, we can barely imagine what they suffered. It’s true that a higher and higher percentage of government budgets was going to the money people through PFI, through outsourcing, through consultancy, and through corrupt and incompetent procurement procedures. This was some small comfort to them, but there was still that big pot of gold, still tempting them, still untouchable. The pain! The agony! How they must have tossed and turned at night! Pray that you never experience such suffering.
But this is a tale of heroism, and I can tell you that those money people did not give up. The odds were stacked against them, but they had a few things on their side: hundreds of millions of pounds with which to buy governments, hundred-thousand-pound-a-year sinecures to offer politicians on retirement, and the global triumph of an ideology that explicitly favoured profit-making over public service. With nothing but these meagre tools the money people fought and fought for their rightful share of the pie – that is to say, all of it. It was hard work, it was slow work, and the public mood was initially against dismantling the NHS, but they did not get downhearted, their lobbyists worked ceaselessly and their PR people fought the NHS through insurgent media organisations who backed them.
One day, after great struggles waged in society’s darkest places – high-end restaurants, politicians bank accounts, the national media, the social network of similarly-minded people who hold most of the wealth and power – the money people finally got what they had longed for through all their long years of suffering: a government whose sole political mission was redistributing money from ordinary people to them. The money that had for so long been distributed through the NHS could now return to the hands of its rightful owners: those who already held most of it.
Against all the odds, the money people and their agents the private health companies had achieved their dream. Their agony was ended. Within months the government began re-organising the NHS as a channel to move taxpayers money into profit-making organisations. So complete was the triumph of the underdogs that no party in the country saw fit to oppose them.
Those who fought this bitter battle, its grimmest days thankfully in the past, have reached some level of contentment now. Their dogged determination in the face of a national consensus on the value of the NHS stands as an inspiration to us all. To anyone else who suffers like they did, they offer humble words of advice: be rich already, know the right people, buy the right people, and one day – however dark things seem right now – everything will go your way.
This is a post about what I have in common with Tory voters. I’m honestly not trying to be sarcastic or anything. I do have something in common with Tory voters, quite apart from having, say, lungs (I was going to say heart, then brain, but didn’t want to make assumptions – I’m pretty sure they have lungs, right?). It’s not a small thing I have in common with them either. There is a problem though, which I’ll explain later.
A lot of people vote Conservative because they believe in individual freedom and they think Labour politicians are authoritarians. And they’re right. I agree. Labour under Blair and Brown produced a raft of knee-jerk authoritarian legislation to use against suspects, against protesters, to enable government spying on people, to stop people taking photos. They tried to curtail anti-social behaviour by force. They introduced ID cards no one wanted for no explicable reason. It felt like they just liked the idea of calling the entire population into registration centres to be photographed and recorded, or just wanted to keep an eye on us all on general principles.
They produced a lot of what can only be described as authoritarian liberal legislation, trying to defend people against discrimination while not understanding that the law doesn’t actually challenge bigotry. I don’t think the government should use their vast resources to attempt to shape people’s thinking and behaviour. Yes, I know that in reality they do that all the time, but the principle of it is screwed up and Labour made more of an effort to do it than anyone in the UK since Philip II of Spain tried to invade.
The only behavioural legislation that seemed reasonable to me was making violence against children illegal. I don’t think children should have less rights than adults just because they’re smaller and the adults can get away with it. That law I saw as a correction to an obvious anomaly. The rest seemed, ironically, like a scolding teacher finally getting annoyed with us for not listening – and picking up the cane in a threatening manner.
Most of all, Labour passed laws at the drop of a hat. They passed laws for pretty much anything. If they had woken up one morning thinking wet wipes were inadequately sized they would have passed a law to specify the correct way to make wet wipes. They couldn’t help themselves. Their response to every problem was to legislate. They had the hearts of authoritarians and the souls of…. Actually there is no way to finish that sentence. According to the Torygraph:
In his 10 years as prime minister, Tony Blair presided over more than 3,000 new laws, more than 1,000 of which carried jail terms; Gordon Brown added hundreds more. Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, [...]
So there you go. I do have something in common with Tory voters – or a lot of them anyway. Labour’s assault on individual freedom made me feel kind of sick, then kind of pissed off, then very pissed off, then really vomit-hurlingly ill.
There is a problem however. Quite a big problem. And it’s this: the Tories don’t believe in individual freedom either. I’m pretty sure they don’t believe in anything much except their own wealth and power. Their pretence to be lovers of freedom is something they stick to for as long as they think it’s a votewinner, then oops, the mask slips. You’ll note the quote above has [...] at the end because it is incomplete. Here’s the complete sentence:
Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, which had been bad enough in this regard.
So even the Torygraph doesn’t think the Tories really respect our right to be free from government control. But if you want more evidence, or some things to say to people who say they vote Tory because they believe in individual freedom, here you go:
They scrapped ID cards right? Well, almost. They kept them for migrants. Partly because you never can trust those dusky foreigners, but mostly because no one was watching or caring. In Toryland an authoritarian act doesn’t count if no one notices, and particularly if their core voters don’t notice.
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. A despicable piece of legislation in pretty much every regard, though I can’t really argue with extending the definition of rape to include anal rape – presumably everyone had just been too prudish to talk about it before. The Act not only increased police powers considerably, meaning a reduction in rights for ordinary people, but it was also an act of intergenerational authoritarianism passed to appease their core voters who were worried by the youngsters being able to, y’know, have too much fun.
Sure, the Tories hated unions, but they never prevented their right to associate, right? They would never go that far, right? Except what they did was pass a raft of legislation aimed at de-politicising unions and preventing them from taking political actions. They used the instrument of legislation to destroy a political opponent. You can associate, they said, just don’t do it politically. Because we don’t like it. But we love freedom, honest.
Their foreign policy. Like, forever. After the Bahrain government murdered protesters yesterday, David Mellor came on Radio 4 defending the Bahrain government as a ‘stalwart friend of the West’. By which he presumably meant a stalwart friend of him and his rich friends who’ve made money from them. They pretended they were supporting Pinochet as a bulwark against communism. Except supporting authoritarianism to prevent authoritarianism doesn’t really make sense does it? Does it? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, unless logic changed since I last checked. It does make sense if what really bothers you – much more than anyone’s freedom – is the issue of whether you can make money with that government.
And finally, when they do claim to be putting effort into ‘liberating’ people to do what they want, what they mostly tend to do is liberate corporations to do what they want. They’re good at that. A bit of a shame then that a corporation is an essentially authoritarian structure utterly unconcerned with the rights of individuals.
I do have common ground with Tory voters. Where we separate is the issue of whether the Tories mean anything they say.
Things to which David Cameron cannot find an alternative which a reasonably bright goldfish could find an alternative to
1. The cuts in general.
Alternative: Don’t cut Dave. That’s the alternative. It really isn’t necessary despite all your propaganda to the contrary. The deficit isn’t high in historical terms and the debts are not bad debts and nowhere near becoming bad debts. In a recession you need to spend more to get out of it. Spending less will be disastrous, except for those rich enough to be rich no matter the state of the economy.
2. Dismantling the NHS.
Alternative: Don’t dismantle the NHS. It mostly works, in spite of your cherry-picked statistics that mean nothing shorn of their context. The NHS works. It’s good value. Make incremental changes on the basis of studying where it has problems. You didn’t bother studying its actual problems and strengths did you Dave? Stop trying to channel taxpayers money to private health companies Dave.
3. Tuition fees.
Alternative: Don’t charge tuition fees Dave. Relative to government budgets it really won’t save that much money anyway. It is an ideological move as part of a program to turn education into a business to serve businesses. Stop it Dave.
4. Cut Local Authority budgets.
Alternative: Don’t cut Local Authority budgets. As you well know Dave, Local Authorities end up having to help all those who aren’t the winners in your glossy free market utopia. But you don’t care, do you Dave?
Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?
Having won the Prime-Ministership of the UK, glitzy celebrity politician David Cameron is now to turn his attention to winning the next series of X-factor, according to government insiders. His bid for singing glory is to be based upon a series of renditions of ‘My Way’, made famous by Frank Sinatra. The lyrics will be rewritten at each stage of the contest, with the intention of celebrating Cameron’s previous triumphs. The lyrics of his first entry have been leaked to the press. What do you think of them? Would you vote for Cameron? And will you be influenced more by the content of his lyrics or by the quality of his voice and performance?
And now the end is near I’ve lived a life that’s rich Votes, I’ve got very few I planned each savage attack Yes there were times I’m sure you knew
The NHS gets final curtain
My friend I’ll not say it clear
Falsely state my case, of which I’m certain
Now it’s my way or the highway
And more, much more than this
I’ll do it my way
But will claim democratic mandate
I do what I want to do
I’ll see it through, though no one wants it
Each step towards the private health way
And more, much more than this
I’ll do it my way
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all when there was doubt
I ate you up and spat you out, I faced you all
And I stood tall and did it my way
And now the end is near
I’ve lived a life that’s rich
Votes, I’ve got very few
I planned each savage attack
Yes there were times I’m sure you knew
1. Buy all the clothes and consumer electronics and cultural products you don’t need until you feel a bit of sick come up, then realise it has made no difference at all to the rest of the world. Turns out the Guardian was right to advertise all that shite. The Telegraph, The Daily Mail and the News of the World too, but they also hate gypsies, which the Guardian doesn’t. They just launched Guardian mobile after all – who is that for if not the gypsies?
2. Turn all the lights off in your house. Turn them on again. Turn them off again. Notice that the planet is still screwed. Secretly the Guardian editors know that changing your personal energy usage won’t save the world but they know a bit of self-denial makes you feel good so they’re helping you out.
3. Watch the latest film produced by a billion-dollar profit-making industry and have a serious discussion about it. Then have a serious discussion about the relative merits of Coke and Pepsi. Culture, like soft drinks, is something created by other people, including writers at the Guardian, which is why it needs to be read.
4. Go on an eco-holiday. By plane. You know you want to. And you know that with massive hidden subsidies to polluters it makes economic sense, just like it does for everyone else. The Guardian understands this – at least on some level, though they rarely come right out and say it – and that’s why you’ll find an eco-holiday in the Andaman Islands somewhere in the Environment section.
5. Find a job in a creative or altruistic industry in the Guardian jobs pages, commit to a political party that says things that vaguely fit with your ideals. Vote for them and argue for their relative lack of evilness at social events. Look at your bank account one day and thank yourself (and the editors and writers of the Guardian) for believing, on a deep, almost unconscious level, that the establishment works. With your help, and the Guardian’s, it will become better. The establishment that is, not your bank account.
I was driving to work the other day thinking about the library closures in Lewisham and around the country and began to feel angry about it. For a moment I checked myself: surely there were other cuts that should bother me more – why get worked up about this in particular? Then it struck me that I was being silly. I spend a lot of time being pissed off about things being done to other people. For once I was feeling pissed off about something being done to me. It felt good and right to be pissed off on my own behalf. I let it happen.
I spent many hours in the library of the village where I grew up, and took hundreds of books out. For a long time I went there nearly every weekend – and would always have finished books to change. I read a lot. My mother would sometimes drop us off at the library when she went to do shopping. It was safe space to her, except in one sense she never understood: it was the anti-dote to the limited, controlled intellectual environment in which I was raised.
I read mostly fiction, and mostly to escape, but in doing so I read many things my parents would have hated. I loved it. Over time my reading increased until the village library was no longer enough and I began consuming the contents of the library in the town where I went to school. I frequently withdrew and read ten books in a week. Think about that: ten books a week. Even if my parents had been earning full salaries they could never have afforded a £70-£100 a week book habit. Anyway they would never have approved of half the books I read (some of them hidden behind other ‘approved’ books as I sat in the sitting room reading). I also bought books at charity shops of course, but that was when they cost between 10p and 50p. Now the pricing in charity shops has been professionalised and that avenue is shut down for most children. There are only libraries left.
I am an adult now and earn enough money to buy books. But I still cannot afford all the books I want. I still look for new things in the library. I still order rare books through the national network of libraries. Libraries were my great comfort when I felt at home nowhere else. They are still my place of first resort when I want to try something new, and the last resort when I need books I cannot obtain elsewhere. I still love to wander round them. They are free spaces where simply reaching out and taking a book can open a whole new world. If I have not always felt at home in my own town, or my own country, I have always felt at home in libraries. You might say that I am a product and member of the great republic of public libraries.
So when politicians and bureaucrats attack libraries, they are attacking where I come from. The closure of libraries feels personal. It is personal. And of course when I go to the local libraries I see that other kids use them now, perhaps kids like me, whose other connections to the world are strangled. Kids and teenagers need libraries particularly. In an authoritarian-by-default world, libraries and the internet are the only places they can gain some control over their own development, and many kids’ internet connections are tightly controlled, or at least their histories are viewable by the parents. Children and teenagers still use libraries. So do pensioners, the unemployed, mothers looking after kids alone. As well as working people like me who are always looking for something new. Libraries are free space for everyone, but they are most of all free space to the people who really need it: the lonely, the harassed, those without money, those who need to escape, those who want more from life than what they have been offered.
And all over the country they want to close libraries down. ‘They’? Who are ‘they’? That is the question they want to vex us. As with all the Local Authority cuts, the councillors hold up their hands and say ‘It isn’t us – blame the government for forcing us to make these cuts’. And the government holds up its hands and says ‘We never ordered libraries to close – it’s a Local Authority decision’.
This is the question they want to vex us. Avoidance of blame is a key political skill. But the question does not trouble me in the slightest, I have an answer that satisfies me. I blame the government for making cuts and lying that they are necessary. I blame the Local Authorities for implementing them with barely a murmur. I blame the civil servants who did the cost-benefit analysis on libraries. I blame the Councillors who voted for it. I even blame the administrators who are implementing it. I blame anyone who is involved who didn’t stand up and walk out the room when they realised what their actions meant.
They want to claim too that they aren’t shutting libraries, they are just putting them in community hands. Without money. This is the government’s whole ‘localism’ strategy encapsulated. Give ‘control’ to local communities, take away the money. It will destroy the libraries – except perhaps in affluent areas that can support them from disposable cash – and they know it will destroy them. They don’t care, or not enough to stop it, which is the only caring that matters.
When you close down libraries, you shut off the oxygen to developing minds. You close down the only space where people have freedom of thought not just in theory but in fact. It is a crime against the right to free thinking and a crime against those people who need them. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and we should attach it to everyone involved. The closure of libraries at this point in time is not a ‘natural’ process that we have to accept, but rather than the result of a certain type of politics and economics in which we should refuse to take part.
I want to stop libraries being closed. I think we should stop libraries being closed. If it cannot be stopped, then as far as I’m concerned, it cannot and should not be forgiven.