Is the Shard good for London? Or will it simply make a good headquarters for a future totalitarian regime?


The Shard rising

I haven’t been able to join in with the admiration of the Shard going around. A lot of the admiration is focussed on its size, it is true; it is not a particularly beautiful structure. To some people it nonetheless symbolises the advance of progress, the proof that London has still got it. Having the tallest building in Europe on the skyline says something good about London. I have never been able to view it in this way. I have barely even been able to see it as a building.

The Shard is a profit machine. That is why it is being built. That is its purpose. “So what?” you say, this is capitalism, suck it up. But this is a profit machine being built in a particular time and place. Who is it providing more office space for in these grim times? According to the FT in a piece titled London banks ‘will need space of four Shards’ it will be accommodating “a strong rise in demand among hedge funds and private equity firms in the West End, closely correlated to the stock market recovery.” Expanding banks are also expected to be among the main occupiers. In other words, it is being built in anticipation of making the UK even more dependent on a financial sector that just screwed us.

Meanwhile who pays the price for a big concentration of new office space like that? It can surely only make property prices in Bermondsey and Southwark go even more stratospheric. This will be happening at the same time as the cap on benefits and increase in council house rents that is already expected to effect a sort of social cleansing of inner London. So the Shard will help to screw many nearby residents, possibly forcing the poorest out of London altogether. Great.

Oh well, at least it will help increase economic activity in a stalling economy. But for who? Since London is really a tax haven, and most of the money made there gets stored in tax havens, are we likely to see much in tax receipts from the companies working there? As for the profit from the building itself, the point is not that the investors in the Shard are Qatari and will therefore take their profit out of the country. It wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference if the investors were British. That money is not for us. It would leave the country anyway.

Even if we were to reap something in taxes from the companies working there, would it really be worth it when we consider what the next financial crash might do to us? When we consider that not only is the government not interested in weaning us off the finance sector, but they are really, really not going to regulate them either? The Shard is a time-bomb. The Shard is great pointy cock shafting London.

It isn’t an exciting and iconic building. It’s a profit machine. And it isn’t for the likes of you or I. So admire it on the horizon if you like. But to me it does look like the headquarters of our totalitarian overlords, and really, it isn’t that futuristic. Remember, in this country there will be no imposed coup to put the banking regime in place like in Italy or Greece. It won’t be necessary. The bankers are already in charge.

What’s this liberal doing in my head? And why does it think I owe something to society?

Workfare makes us free

This post is one in a series about being a ‘liberal’, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

It is one of those self-evident facts that we should all contribute to society – this is one of the ideas behind the current government policy of forcing people to work for free for large corporations. We will be assisted by society in the course of our lives, the logic goes, and we therefore owe something to society. This view is held by many people but some of those people are not interested in economic ‘justice’ of any kind and I can’t be bothered to address them. Instead I will address this to liberals who might be interested in some kind of increased economic equality but who would still rely on this logic.

The interesting thing about the idea we owe something to society is that what people often mean is that we should contribute to society by having a job (and never mind how pointless or actually unproductive the work might be, right?). Now, there’s an obvious flaw that many people can spot here. A lot of what we might call society is little to do with paid work. Reproduction of the human species, for example, largely takes place outside of the framework of paid labour. Yet presumably it does sort of contribute to society, right?

I am not (I think) moving towards the notion that you having sex is a contribution to the greater good (though it does, in many ways, add to the sum total of human happiness) but here’s a poser: is a mother who never gets a full time job a ‘burden’ on society? You could, rather, make an argument that the mother, doing one of the most important things in society, has an entire world of paid labour parasitic upon her efforts. People have commented that it is probably more common for human societies to regard the production of goods as playing a supporting role to human reproduction, rather than – as the assumption appears to be in our society – human reproduction playing a supporting role to the production of goods.

I could leave the argument there, perhaps add in something about the importance of the unpaid labours of art and love, and we could all reach some vague decision that society has its priorities wrong and has lost its spiritual connection with the essentials of human life. But that would (a) let the liberal in our heads off the hook much too easily, thus defeating the object of this post, and (b) wouldn’t get to the bottom of why ‘we’ might have our priorities wrong.

What is, if we might be so bold as to ask, society? Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in it so presumably we should. I think social interaction is a defining aspect of human behaviour and so, without getting too far into definitions, there is a ‘society’ of some sort. We need it, therefore we must owe it, right?

Except that it isn’t a homogenous entity, this society. It has structure within it, and one of the structures we can spot within it is the economic structure. And we can pretend if we like that all the wealth we collectively produced is produced between each of us, and that money goes into a big pot, and from that pot we get the benefits. And then we have to work out why some people get a much bigger piece of that than others.

‘Because it works’, is one thing people say, and I have posted on this before so I won’t elaborate on the dishonesty of that here. So instead I propose another hypothesis: that the entire economic structure was never designed for the benefit of most of us but for the benefit of a few. To keep it functioning some of the benefits have to be shared around, but that is secondary to the machinery put in place to generate great wealth for a few.

This idea has recently surfaced in the Occupy movement as the system being run for the 1% not the 99%. It is nothing new, and one of the effects of it is that the benefits to you are an expendable part of the system. This is why you can suddenly get poorer (as you probably are now if you live in Britain and don’t run or own a large corporation) even though you are not working any less.

So, much as society in some sense does exist, a homogenous society in an economic sense is a fiction. On some level we all know that the idea we are paid what we deserve is nonsense – our pay is determined rather by our power to ask for it. So the notion that this unfair system of pay leads to a fair system of us all doing our bit for society is a bit odd. The idea that your role is to contribute economically to the economic pool of ‘society’ is based on fiction – particularly when you discover what tax havens are doing in the world. You can’t owe something to a fiction, or if you feel you do you would normally be advised to seek help with your mental health.

Why is it that so many people see this fiction as ‘common sense’ then? I think that those who benefit most from the fake economic ‘society’ are good at justifying themselves, and paying others to persuade us to join in with their justifications. The idea that we owe it to society to have a job is an ideological tool for forcing people into work when it isn’t necessary. Sure, we get some benefits, but they are in the power of others to confer, and they mostly do it when they are scared of being hung from a lamppost for not sharing enough.

And yes, a lot of the work we do isn’t necessary. Once you start breaking down one fiction you often find a lot of fictions hiding behind it. As Western countries ‘we’ (not you and I obviously) have vast pools of excess wealth. And yet we ‘have to’ work. Everyone has to. Or we’ll all die. Or something. The threat is rarely spelled out. But it would be just awful.

It sounds instinctively wrong to say ‘I owe nothing to society’, but in the sense of paid labour we can and should say just that. But this is only a start – we do need each other and I think most people feel this on some level. The challenge is not just to act as an individual against a fictional economic ‘society’ but then to entangle our lives with others in a meaningful society – which will often involve things which go on beyond the realm of paid work. So we may end up feeling we have long-term obligations to people, but they will be willingly entered into, with a knowledge of the power relations involved. Not, in other words, based on fiction.

People often seem slightly put out when I say that I don’t want a job at all, that I wish I could do without one. They think I am lazy, or put it down to my middle class decadence. It’s true that I like single malt whisky and I don’t like paid work. Is this a slap in the face to ‘society’, or to those who want jobs and don’t have them? Perhaps. Or perhaps I think I and everyone else would be better off without a fiction that was designed for the benefit of a few.

At the Poachers Arms: large scale organising

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.

It was a Saturday night in the Poachers Arms and the local screamo revival trio Meaningless Fucking Meaning were dominating the ambience of the pub from the occasional stage in the corner alcove beside the fireplace.

Regulars and visitors filled every square inch of breathable space and the bar staff moved around constantly and quickly, making eye contact only with the customer of the moment.

I took my pint of Colonel Despard and squeezed and bounced myself to the garden door. The garden, which is a different shape each time you go there, was yard-like today and filled with people. The noise of human speech, loud as a flock of gulls was, at least somewhat quieter than the rendition of Aristocratic Corpse Longings from behind me.

“I hear the neighbours have called in a complaint,” said the Blairite man standing next to me.

“It’s only for one night,” I said. “I don’t think people should never be inconvenienced by other people.”

“Maybe they’ve got kids,” said the Blairite.

“And maybe they can’t resist using the apparatus of local government to their advantage even though they bitch about the council tax 364 days of the year.”

“A bit late for political talk isn’t it?” said the Blairite (who I had not yet discovered was a Blairite).

“Nonsense,” said a woman in front of us, spinning around. “If you can’t support your political views with four pints inside you then you don’t believe them. Take me. I’m an anarchist and I’ve had six pints and I can still explain that anarchy doesn’t mean chaos but organisation of society without structural violence.”

“I’m a Blairite,” said the Blairite. “But I’ve had three pints and I can’t explain it.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “No one could. This is my first and I have no clue how you could begin to explain it.”

“But I will say,” said the Blairite, “That I don’t think it would be possible to do without the state. If only because some violent minority would get in charge.”

“Very different from now,” said the woman, her eyebrows raised.

“Touche,” said the Blairite.

“But I know what you mean,” I said to him. “I think the existence of the weapons we have now means that you need large scale organisation, if only to ensure the nutters don’t end up in charge. And you need organisation to move resources around the planet in a useful way too.”

“See, a state,” said the Blairite.

“That’s a failure of imagination,” I said, taking a sip of Despard. “Why does large scale organisation have to look like a state? It could be completely different in form, in mandate, in principles…”

“And would your hypothetical organisation mediate disputes between neighbours on noise levels?” asked the Blairite.

“Who knows?” I said. “Who cares? I can sure as hell imagine one that wouldn’t randomly start wars in Middle Eastern countries.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said the woman.

The Blairite hesitantly raised his glass, almost looking over his shoulder as though to check that his friends weren’t watching. “Me too.”

A Dictionary of Terms for the Shafted: political policing

This is the second installment of the dictionary. I felt we needed new terms to help us describe the increasing intimidation of protesters in the UK.

Kettle of First Resort: The use of ‘containment’ – holding people against their will and without intention to charge them – as a standard tactic rather than (as claimed) as a last resort.

Open Kettle: A variant of the above, but with porous police lines. The intention is to take control of the space from the protest while allowing individuals to move through the lines. An Open Kettle can become a standard kettle at any moment.

Pressure Cooker: An Open Kettle in which the police progressively move inwards, diminishing the space in which the protesters can move. Those who maintain this is not meant to be intimidating are welcome to stand inside one.

Threatening Letters: Sent to ‘known protesters’ before a protest, to threaten them with the law if they don’t obey the law. Also useful if you’ve lost your diary and can’t remember when the next protest is.

Bouncer Bill: searching people on the way to protests. The victims are chosen according to a set of unstated prejudices and like the bigotted bouncer at the door of the nightclub, the excuse is ‘the safety of everyone’, even though these searches never uncover anything.

March Under Siege: A protest march that is only allowed to move under control of the police to the front, rear and sides of the march. Announcing your route helps the police lay the siege.

Polluted Protest: A protest in which there are so many undercover police that no one will be able to tell afterwards which side did what to who.

Shock And Awe Teams: also known as ‘snatch squads’ – the use of overwhelming violence to take out minor perceived threats. The police launch themselves into a crowd with batons at the ready and emerge with a candidate for the next definition.

Restrained Violence: Police violence against one already restrained, whether on the ground or in cuffs.

Public Exposure: Targetting the media with stories about your enormous weaponry in the days before a protest so as to intimidate those going.

Time-restricted Liberty: The setting of a definite time limit on your right to assembly and expression. The police attempt to send people home after this, like teachers telling children playtime is over.

A Successful Protest: In police language, this means one sufficiently dampened by police threats and violence that it can be ignored by the establishment.

Political Vetting: The bit in the post-protest press conference where the police spokesman outlines who was or was not a ‘legitimate’ protester.

Total Policing: Er, presumably the kind of policing you expect in a totalitarian state. This is the latest Metropolitan Police slogan.

At the Poacher’s Arms: on progress and tedium

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.

Last night I found it beside a small railway station on top of a hill. I joined another regular at the bar and ordered a Lochyloch single malt whisky to start the night off. Macy the barwoman poured me a double shot for the price of a single and when I thanked her she looked offended and informed me it wouldn’t happen again.

I got talking to the Regular about this and that, and someone he knew who had once sat on a spiked iron railing and slightly lacerated some essential parts of his digestive system and had afterwards said it was the most interesting thing to happen in his life. I could see his point, I said, ignoring the snigger at the unintentional pun. The Regular couldn’t, and claimed that boredom was a disease, especially when the world was becoming a better place.

“Is it?” I said.

“You can see the data,” he said.

“That depends partly on what you choose to measure,” I said.

“Infant mortality is falling across the world.”

“But,” I pointed out, “It’s not a good measure because billions of dollars have been poured into precisely getting that figure down. It doesn’t mean people’s lives have improved in other ways.”

“But our standard of living has improved,” said Macy.

“For some people, in some places,” I said. “But inequality increased in Britain all through the Labour years. In the meantime things having been happening that are difficult to pick up in the data.”

“Like what?” said the Regular.

“Like a shift in power to concentrations of corporations and a shift in thinking funded by those with the money. I think this means things are going to get worse for most people in most countries for a good couple of decades. What’s happening now is a new thing. It will be hard to stop.”

“What do you think we can do about it?” said the Regular. I know his views on politics. He doesn’t think it a good use of his time. With which I don’t entirely disagree. It isn’t a good use of anyone’s time.

But Macy broke in, “People’s lives are full of other things. Full of the everyday things we have to do. Work, going food shopping, all that stuff we don’t get any choice about.”

“And people will do what they are motivated to do,” said the Regular.

“So we leave it to the people motivated by money to run the world?” I said.

“We’ve got lives to live,” said Macy.

I downed the Lochyloch – a waste of good whisky but I had to fortify myself for a boring speech – and said “But this specialisation is what dooms us. Your job is pulling the pints and changing the barrels. Their job is making millions of pounds and they fuck up the world. The compartmentalisation of roles is screwing us. In the meantime those few people have formed a very effective power bloc and the only way I can see to break it is for the many people with little power to unite against them.”

“But in the end it’s about changing the terms of the debate,” said the Regular.

Macy absent-mindedly poured me another Lochyloch as I said, “In a way, but that isn’t just a matter of persuasion. You have to exert power. You think the directors who got 50% payrises last year while our wages stayed static and lost out to inflation can be ‘persuaded’ things should be done differently? The organisation of power against those in charge and changing the terms of debate are one and the same thing.”

“I get off at 12,” said Macy. “I don’t know what to do to change anything, and I need to be in bed by 1am cos my next shift is at 11am tomorrow.”

“I don’t know what to do to change it either,” I said. “None of us do yet. We’ve got to talk about it.”

“And talk and talk and talk and talk,” said a voice to my right. I turned to see another of the Poachers Arms regulars. “God you three are boring. Can’t a man have a drink in peace? I’m going to order a pint of anthrax to kill myself in a minute if you lot don’t stop.”

I raised my glass. “To the end of tedium,” I said. “Especially mine.”

We clinked glasses.

Some answers to common questions on #occupyLSX at St Paul’s

I thought it might be useful to compile a list of answers about the occupation to point curious people towards. They are the views of one person involved, not of the Assembly.

Why is the camp outside St Paul’s not the stock exchange?

St Paul’s was the meeting place to go to Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is. They are right next to each other. The police blocked the way into the square with solid lines of officers and police horses. There was some discussion about where to go next but in the end the decision was made for us when the police encircled us and prevented us from moving for some hours. So a combination of powerlessness in the face of police force and pragmatism (not wanting to get beaten with a truncheon) led to the St Paul’s site.

Why don’t the protesters move now? You’ve caused a lot of bother to the clergy.

Yeeees. But also no. The clergy caused trouble for themselves when some said one thing (stay) and some said another (go). If you want to work out why this rift became so troublesome, it was possibly caused by the contradiction between wanting to throw the moneylenders out of the temple, and having the following corporate sponsors:
Lloyds Banking Group
Fidelity Investment Managers
CMS Cameron McKenna
London Stock Exchange
Sarasin & Partners
BGC Partners

Jesus? Or money? Jesus or money? Jesus or money? It has been tough for them but I’m not overly sympathetic. If you are, see the benefits of being a corporate sponsor of St Paul’s here.

Why isn’t the protest at Canary Wharf where most of the big banks are?

Canary Wharf is private land. All of it. Even the roads. It has a large jumped-up security team who act like a private police force and the real police respond to their requests very quickly due to potential ‘targets’ in the area. A camp would last all of half an hour. It is disgraceful that such a large part of London is privately controlled but that is a different battle.

Why don’t they all get jobs?

There aren’t any. That’s part of the reason people are pissed off. Try to keep up. One reason there aren’t enough jobs is because the government is deliberately contracting large parts of the economy in near-recession conditions. Not sensible folks. Cutting the public sector to strengthen the private sector is like cutting off one leg to make the other stronger. Silly. Unless your ultimate goal is less taxes for the rich of course…

Why do they have macbooks/drink starbucks/use phones if they are anti-capitalist?

Because they’re all hypocrites of course. Or are they? Two points here. Firstly, some of the occupiers are anti-capitalist and some simply want reform. Secondly: withdrawing completely from a system to live in a cave would leave you very ill-equipped to change it. Most anti-capitalists are not anti-technology, they are just against the organisational and financial forms used to produce the technology. There is a weird lack of logic to saying they should not use particular products of those financing systems. Perhaps they should also not eat, or ride a bike, or live in a house – why pick on Starbucks? The whole system works more or less the same way. You can try to change it or you can live in a cave and eat bats but it would be difficult to do both.

Are you all jobless layabouts?

Some have jobs, some don’t. It’s a bit funny accusing people who are working hard for nothing, keeping a 24-hour camp moving, of being lazy. I know that some people have pulled 24 hour shifts in the kitchens and in other roles. Go and accuse them of being lazy – though be aware that tiredness can reduce impulse control.

The camp seems to have some well weird people turning up. Why not get rid of them so you have more credibility?

Your city is run by Boris Johnson and you’re taking the high ground on people being weird? Anyway, one person’s weird is another person’s radical, and yes, there probably are a few really bonkers people about, but anyone can turn up, and what would it take to get rid of them? Stalinist purges? No thanks.

What are the demands of the occupation? For god’s sake MAKE SOME DEMANDS! No-one knows what you WANT!

People are fighting against a system of privilege and corruption that has developed over several centuries. Learning how to undo that to build an economy that works for everyone will take time. Decades and more. Also, any group of people who have just met (like the occupiers) have to take some time to work out what they can do collectively. It is a slow process. Weeks. Months. Years.

There are some simple things that can be done while the long fight goes on (Robin Hood Tax for example) and many occupiers I’ve met support some of these things. But there are no quick fixes for the fact that our lives are run by unaccountable forces both inside and outside government.

Why not go home now you’ve made your point?

Not everyone is there to make a point. Some people are there to try to discover what they can do with others. Or because they want a place to speak where people will listen, perhaps for the first time, despite living in a ‘democracy’ (you feeling represented there? me neither).

And perhaps, yes perhaps some people want to be awkward. Why not? They’ve just had their economy destroyed by a finance industry that lobbied corrupt governments to let them do whatever they liked. Let’s be awkward about it. I’m in an awkward mood myself. Being awkward seems a good start at this point. It seems a lot better than rolling over and taking it.