Simple things made complex: things that don’t work

This is a series of posts in which I talk about simple things but extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them more complex.

It seems clear, I think, to most people, that when a thing does not work, it is not working. If your motorised trebuchet does not work then it is failing to throw rocks at the Palace of Westminster and we can all agree that it is not working as a motorised trebuchet should.

When people say that capitalism is not working – and I have heard various people say just this lately – the point tends to be more controversial. The reasons why it is controversial (besides the definition of capitalism) are interesting. Firstly, let’s complicate this further, since that is the task of these posts.

In my experience people tend to mean two quite different and separate things when they say ‘capitalism isn’t working’. They either mean (a) It isn’t working as it should right now or (b) It has never worked. The former gets more sympathy at the moment, because a lot of people in the UK are getting poorer right now.

So this statement (a) is clearly true on one level, in that we experience the lowered standard of living brought about, apparently, by some of the lynchpins of the capitalist system. But the implication of it is that the system can be fixed.

But let me put a third point of view. Let’s call it (c). This viewpoint says (c) capitalism is working just fine thanks, and we just have a few glitches to iron out. And here is the evidence for that point of view:

What this exposes for me is that the question of whether capitalism works is, unlike a motorised trebuchet, a matter of your point of view. That graph is from the US but last year in the UK wages for most people stayed flat or even fell, while CEOs picked up 30% pay rises – as they have been doing all through the credit crisis and recession (including the current recession they are pretending isn’t happening because certain growth figures don’t technically say it is yet). I also suspect that not shown on this graph is a 9% or so who have had rising incomes (though not as steep) either as owners of property and capital on a smaller scale or as high level managers of various types – managers and salesmen to those with the real money.

So now we see that statement (a) – capitalism isn’t working right now – is possibly largely from the point of view of people who have felt they have benefited from it in the past. Capitalism working ‘as it should’ means capitalism working for them.

Meanwhile statement (b) – capitalism has never worked – must come from another viewpoint once again. In my case it is usually from the viewpoint of the very large number of people in the world who live in poverty while we clearly have the technology and resources to prevent the situation. I feel a little bit unsympathetic to the people who claim (a), because they just got saddled with the kind of ‘austerity measures’ (corporate bonanza) that ‘we’ (our glorious leaders) used to force on poor countries. So now suddenly capitalism isn’t working. But there were other ways of looking at it all along, no?

Capitalism: not a motorised trebuchet.

At the Poachers Arms: growing numbers

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

The other day I found it operating from – of all places – the north wall of St Paul’s Cathedral. I ordered myself a pint of Winstanley and watched through the doorway some hippies being friendly to police officers. A man sitting next to me introduced himself and we fell to talking about large-scale organising for a different political system that would give us more control over our lives.

Within moments he admitted to being a ‘Blairite’, a crime for which he seemed unrepentant, but this was the Poachers Arms so I made no comment. In the true Blairite tradition he said he thought that left and right needed to unite in order to change the world.

I suggested that if he meant the promoters of right wing ideology who used their money and power to impose their self-interested ideas on others then I could not join him in his quest for global unity, but if he meant Daily Mail readers then actually I agreed. We then had a discussion about whether you could divide the rich from the comfortable working class or middle class at some particular level of income and decided that you couldn’t. I pointed out that there are, however, reasons why particular people, including powerful people and even those on low incomes, will always support the status quo. It was important to understand, I suggested, that there would have to be movement without having everyone on board.

This bothered him a little, as though he, like the hippies outside, thought that the whole world could sing together in harmony. He didn’t want to pursue the matter though, instead taking a sip of his pint of Cromwell and gazing around for a moment until he hit on a new topic.

My new friend seemed worried about one particular idea he had heard doing the rounds: the idea of bringing other people into the ‘movement’ for change. This was too much like conversion for his liking, and I agreed.

“People will join in large numbers if and when they feel pissed off enough,” I said. “I don’t think there’s much point in trying to persuade them to take action before then.”

“Ok, that’s good,” he said, “Because I was starting to feel a religious vibe around here.”

“I do think that people experimenting with politics right now, without mass support, are important,” I said. “When more people are tired of being made poorer, they will be joining a core of people who already have experience organising.”

“As long as the education process isn’t going one way,” he said.

“Since those people active in politics in this country hasn’t brought about a new world lately,” I said, “I think that everyone needs to learn from each other.”

He raised his glass in agreement. I drained mine and left. Outside the Poachers Arms the police officers were stopping and searching a homeless man.

At the Poachers Arms: consumer power and debt

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

Yesterday I was sat in the Poachers just across the road from the occupation at St Paul’s Cathedral and over a pint of Very Hairy Badger got talking to a man with an Australian-English accent. We got to talking about how we could organise long-term to oppose the financial and political structures that are currently squeezing us.

His suggestion was that a large organisation of consumers could gain power over banks and utility providers by withdrawing from them, one corporation at a time, until they were forced to restructure themselves, or the politicians were forced to restructure them.

While I half-liked the idea, my response was that consumption is structured as an individual activity and it is very difficult to built collective action around it. For instance any threatened bank/corporation could drop prices and the effort to abandon them would be undermined by people having to maximise their use of their resources as individuals. I also suggested that it would require quite a large amount of people to be involved to really threaten the existence of a bank or corporation and building towards that would be difficult on the back of a distant promise of power.

He accepted this was a problem, but asked whether an idea I had mentioned – that of organising debtors against their creditors – didn’t have the same problem. Aren’t debtors just consumers, after all? And wouldn’t organising around debt suffer from the same problem that it is structured as an individual burden?

As I drank my pint I found I couldn’t immediately disagree with him, but thinking about it afterwards I thought that perhaps debt is not the same as other goods we buy. It is money, not a good, and as such is pure fiction backed up by force, and so it exposes the way our economic system works. Organising around it would reveal the power structures like nothing else. But it would also require long term organising, and could be undermined by people making individual choices they need to make.

As I said goodbye to my companion at the bar we both understood that no problems had been solved. But in the Poachers Arms problems are not just for solving, problems are for uniting around within the embrace of a Very Hairy Badger.

On the deification of utter bastards

A right bastard

I was inspired to write about the worship of not-very-nice people partly by the death of Steve Jobs, well-known bully, censor, exploiter and selfish bastard, and partly by the sight of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T.E. Lawrence on my shelf. I say shelf. There isn’t space on the shelf so it is in a teetering stack behind my door, along with other books that are half-read or on their way into or out of my life.

The interesting thing about Seven Pillars of Wisdom isn’t that it is great literature (it isn’t) or that Lawrence of Arabia did great things in Arabia (well-known, if questionable). The interesting thing about it is that, unlike most biographies of political operators, Lawrence makes little attempt to make his actions or morals more palatable or to sell himself as a man who loves puppies. He makes it very clear what sort of person he is, and he is a bastard. He pushed armies around like expendable cattle, manipulated people, lied, tricked, betrayed, and although he felt bad about ‘unnecessary’ deaths in battle, it seemed as much a matter of technical pride as anything.

Perhaps it is unfair to pick on people in wartime, since it rarely brings out just good in people, but the point is that these people (Churchill for example) were admired as people, not merely for their sometimes dubious achievements. It’s one thing to say ‘This man is a bastard but we need his skills right now’, it’s another thing to then turn him into a hero.

There are, of course, always things to be said in defence of these much-admired figures. As the article above says of Steve Jobs: “He was a polymath, a skilled motivator, a decisive judge, a farsighted tastemaker, an excellent showman, and a gifted strategist.” But, and I can’t help coming back to this, he was also a bastard.

I also, personally speaking, question the need for his products – or rather, they have no relation to matters of ‘need’ at all. Since I’ve picked such an arbitrary historical figure to compare Jobs to I think I’m going to take it even further. Lawrence was involved in a highly dishonest campaign to fight Ottoman Turkey that (a) was never going to give the Arabs the independence promised and (b) had as much to do with maintaining the British Empire after the war as winning the war at that moment. It probably helped get the British Mandate for Palestine that has had such wonderful results since.

It’s not that I want everyone to be nice – in fact I’ve even argued that the niceness of politicians is irrelevant. Besides, sometimes I’m not particularly nice myself and I would never expect it of anyone all the time. I am however suspicous of the claim that some people ‘need’ to behave nastily. This argument is entirely dependent on certain power imbalances – the ones that allow them to be nasty without consequences – being in place and accepted. And I wonder about the causes and the effects of deifying these people who are known to have systematically screwed people over. What does it say about our culture? Or perhaps more to the point, what does it say about the people who decide who is important in our publicly shared culture? They value achievement, clearly, but not just any old achievements I suspect. They value achievements that benefit the right people, and accept unpleasant behaviour as necessary to the system of power because they personally benefit from that system of power.

As for us, those who aren’t the right people, in my experience it feels good to do yourself the favour of rising above the hero-worship of our lords and masters. Instead we can admire the achievements of those who threatened the right people, or admire people who achieved nothing, or not in the ordinary sense of achievement. I admire ordinary people I meet who know how to treat everyone around them with care and respect. One day I hope to be like them.

Until then, I’ll probably carry on being rude to people who admire Steve Jobs.