Tensile politics for tense times: 5 political tensions we shouldn’t try to resolve

Many people who dislike current political and economic institutions have a tendency to decide they know the solution to the problem. In the past I have also tried to work out the real way to bring change, the essence of true radicalism.

The alternative to ‘real radicalism’ seemed to me to be the ‘pragmatism’ of people whose politics appeared terminally compromised by, for instance, their acceptance of roles within certain institutions.

Here I want to make a plea for neither ‘idealism’ nor ‘pragmatism’, but for something different. We should recognise that there exists no ‘real radicalism’, or if it does exist we can’t know it for sure until after the fact of radical change. But once we accept that we don’t know all the answers we shouldn’t jump towards ‘pragmatism’: the pragmatists also think they know the real route to change. They don’t really know either.

I understand the argument that once the structure of society is understood it seems necessary to break it entirely. And I understand the argument that working within acceptable political paths brings certain types of change more quickly. I try to bracket both these lines of thinking, accepting both and not mistaking either for ‘truth’.

Instead of choosing one or the other we should live on our feet. Rather than resolving contradictions between different methods we should actively seek to keep the tensions alive – because at this point who really knows from which direction change will come? Rather than plotting the ‘true’ path to change we should accept diversity of efforts and reject the idea that we – or anyone else – have found the ‘right’ way forward.

There are always moments when people commit to one particular method of change in order to create the critical mass necessary. But when that moment comes it will likely emerge organically, not because it is the ‘right’ way. In the meantime, even if feels a bit uncomfortable sometimes, let’s try to sustain tensions:

1. Between positive or negative politics. Should we unite around what we hate or what we agree on? Yes.

2. Between working inside or outside institutions. Should we use existing institutions to bring change or ignore them in favour of building our own social models? Yes.

3. Between voting or not voting, engaging in current political games or not. Should we take part in a discredited political system or try to bring about its downfall? Yes.

4. Between confrontation and building bridges. Should we seek to bring conflicts in society out into the open or try to unite people of disparate interests? Yes.

5. Between revolution or reform. Should we try to change everything or try to create incremental improvements in people’s lives? Yes.

The difficulty of adopting this kind of thinking is that you can be attacked from both sides. The moderates will pick on your ‘radicalism’, the radicals will pick on your ‘reformism’. Since none of them have – in my lifetime at least – brought about a better world, I try not to take any of the critics too seriously.

5 reasons not to hold your breath for UK ‘growth’

High education levels will save the UK they say - at Peking University this idea is being studied closely

So if you were paying attention the other week it was mentioned for a micro-second of the news cycle that the UK is in its longest period of depressed growth for about a hundred years. Many people still think we are in just another downtown and will merrily swing our way out of it soon. I said to someone the other day that probably the best that Spanish young people (over 50% unemployed) can hope for is to get back to the standard of living their parents had, thinking this would be uncontroversial. She frowned and said ‘No, it goes in cycles – I’m sure it will be fine soon.’ But 50% youth unemployment may not be just another dip. It’s scary, and a lot of the European economies are looking in a scary place right now.

In the UK I suspect we may get a little growth within the next few years and it may look like a recovery for a while. But fundamental changes have happened in the UK and in the world. While in the short term growth is not happening because the government is cutting spending in a recession, in the long term the picture is even more grim. Here’s five reasons not to hold your breath for ‘growth’:

1. I can’t tell if the politicians are deluded or lying but they ought to know that the ‘high-skilled’ economy to replace lost industry isn’t going to cut it. A friend pointed out last night that it is pretty colonialist to think that Chinese or Indian people are only going to do the grunt work. I heard about a law dept being outsourced the other day. Accountants, designers, programmers, scientists – they can all go. The outsourcing course has been set and if we follow it to the end the only jobs remaining will be those that absolutely require a physical prescence here.

2. I can’t tell if the politicians are deluded or lying but the high-tech innovation-driven economy is not our saviour. Quite the opposite: it is screwing us. It creates a few jobs, yes, but destroys thousands of other jobs as it goes. We can’t just look at the creation of paper value – we have to think about the ratio of ‘value’ creation to job creation. Instagram just sold for a billion dollars. It has 13 employees. At some point we’ll have to accept that our technology is going to make full employment impossible.

3. Meanwhile the price of oil is only going up. We can dig up half of canada if we want but there will never be enough. This is true of other resources too but energy drives everything else. Demand is going up, supply is becoming more difficult. That makes everything else expensive and strangles growth. It is going to do that for the forseeable future.

4. There will be some growth of course but what there is of it will be very unequal, as it has been for the last 30 years. This is to do with how our economy has been structured – by all major political parties in the UK. Most of us will not benefit from growth, and in fact we haven’t for a while. It’s true we got cheaper holidays and better phones but now we need two salaries to buy a house where one would do it before. This structuring of the economy can be changed of course but there is zero political will to do it. Neo-liberalism won and we didn’t.

5. The final problem is that in the absence of productive industries and of internal markets not totally reliant on imports, what growth we do get will probably be bubble growth – either re-inflating a finance bubble (very possible given the rules haven’t been tightened since the last cock-up) or re-inflating the housing bubble. Both of these benefit certain people, some of whom get to have dinner with Dave, and for a time it may look like real growth. In the long run either type of bubble will pop in a spectacular manner and will screw the economy, particularly those of us who don’t get to have dinner with Dave.

This might sound pessimistic and it might seem like I’m being gloomy for the fun of it, but I’m not really down about it and – unlike some people – I think it’s too early to say our civilisation has peaked. This is just the situation we’re in, and the sooner we understand it the sooner we can set about dismantling the ideas and institutions that – largely out of short-term self-interest – brought it about.

5 reasons being right doesn’t matter in politics

I think I've now heard critique of the 'We', the 'Are', the 'The' and the '99%' bits of this slogan. Maybe those critics were right...

One reason for the fractiousness of Britain’s extra-parliamentary left (slightly redundant hyphenated word there but some people are still confused enough to think Labour is a left party so it needs to be said) and presumably the left in most places in the world is, ironically, that many people are obsessed with being RIGHT.

This is not a problem that I imagine afflicts, say, David Cameron or Rupert Murdoch. They couldn’t give a toss who is right, they just want to achieve certain things and they’re usually pretty good at it. Now I don’t want to argue that lefties should stop trying to be right in order to compete with our Bastards In Chiefs, but I think there are other reasons to not focus so strongly on being right.

1. But really, how far does it get you? Jesus was right and look what happened to him. Being right doesn’t win you any friends, or any battles, or any resources. It won’t keep you warm at night, or if it does only from the strength of the moral glow within you. For sure it won’t keep anyone else warm at night and if you care about the poor getting heating that should matter.

2. Being right is good for our egos but our egos won’t take us far. You can be right but boring, right but self-denying, right but self-righteous, right but too angry, right but inarticulate, or right but alone. What matters in each of those combinations is not the ‘right’ bit I’m afraid. The moral glow isn’t too attractive and alone you are powerless. It’s not that you shouldn’t make your arguments, but if being right makes you push away potential allies it probably isn’t all its cracked up to be.

3. It’s very difficult to escape the mental structures of Christian traditions. People’s conviction of ‘rightness’ often combines the worst aspects of religion and individualism. It relies on both absolute belief and on you self-definining yourself as different from others. The result is that many people end up belonging to a cult with one member. Even when the cult is a bit bigger than that, it becomes very difficult in our individualistic age for it to grow into a full scale proper religion, even if you consider such a thing desirable.

4. You probably don’t really believe what you do on the basis of evidence. Political ‘truths’ sometimes have a basis in the real world but the important ones establish themselves socially. They become more significant not according to their ‘rightness’ but according to how many people share them and how they share them. Most people participate in such ‘movements’ not on the basis of evidence but because it ‘feels’ right – and if you had any honesty you’d know that’s the real reason you do too.

5. All that really matters in politics is getting people to act together. Contrary to what many people think this does not mean getting them to believe the same things. It means creating and promoting temporary alignments of interest in order to generate the power necessary to change things. This can be done without ever once proving how right you are. I don’t mean you should never argue for what you believe in, only that the arguing is not the point, it’s the people you’re arguing with who are.

5 Reasons To Love Politicians

We need Andrew Lansley more than health services, for sure

1. You don’t want to run the country because it would be too much work and you’re already busy.

2. Politicians may be corrupt lying bastards but we all know in their positions we’d do the same.

3. Strong leadership is necessary and not many people are good at it.

4. Someone has to talk to Rupert Murdoch and the ‘business community’.

5. You’ve got to admit the politicians are good at what they do. By talking to the Rupert Murdochs and business leaders and doing as they ask, the politicians have structured your life so that you don’t have time to be involved in controlling your own world, thus making strong leadership ‘necessary’, and making their corruption appear a necessary evil. They’re killing the NHS. Say thank you.

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.

Outputs and Measurables: The Obvious Reality in 7 points


This post is not going to be one of the funnier ones. Try this one instead. Instead this post is going to state the obvious. I’ve worked with monitoring systems: outcomes, targets, outputs, measurables, Key Performance Indicators in the public sector. I’ve met dozens of people who have worked with them across the public and NGO sectors. Very few people had anything good to say about them and yet everyone works to them anyway. The management say they have to because of the funding imperatives or the political imperatives. Some managers put a brave face on it and say ‘We can get something good from this’. Others will admit it is nonsense but tell us that’s the way to get funding these days. And it is, which brings us to the first of seven very obvious points:

1. People structure their work to produce outputs, meaning projects are changed – some might say corrupted – by the funding they get, which means the people with the money get to decide or at least change the course of most projects.

2. Everyone uses targets and outputs these days. That means there is only one way to run an organisation. In all the world. Perhaps this should bother us. I mean, really? Only one way?

4. Far from making organisations efficient, it creates a new layer of bureacracy. Think about those application forms that take several weeks to fill out. Think how much time is lost to inventing the measurables, justifying them, monitoring compliance, reporting on deviations from expectations.

3. Everyone lies about what they’ve achieved. That’s not a statement of moral condemnation. You have to do it to make the system work. But having spent all this time and money on the bureacratic machinery to make it work, what it usually turns out is nonsense.

5. It is promoted by management and funders because they want control. This is why some managers adopt it even when the funding doesn’t require them to. It is way to reproduce strict top-down hierarchies that a lot of organisations claimed to have got rid of with flatter structures and informal ways of working.

6. Output measurement is done in mimicry of the private sector working to a bottom line. One of the reasons this is ‘efficient’ in the private sector is that it creates a huge amount of collateral damage that the company never has to pay for. People, resources, environment, political systems: all are ignored for the bottom line. Very efficient.

7. Most of the things that matter in life can’t be measured. And in obsessively measuring certain things, it is easy to push out the things that make life worth living. Measuring outputs is sucking the life out of us.

These points, though mostly very obvious indeed, might make some people ask ‘How else can we achieve our goals?’ But it’s a funny question, because this is a relatively new fashion. Presumably good things happened before the fashion hit us and I’m pretty sure we’ll find ways to make good things happen again. But we should also ask, how else can we achieve what goals? The goals in your mission statement? That’s a fiction anyway. What does your organisation really do I wonder?

But finally, if you want a serious answer: if your organisation is based on values, staffed by committed people who believe in those values, and embed those values in your work, and if your organisation is structured so that these committed people collectively control their work, then I don’t think you’ll need to worry about whether you are going to achieve things. Of course if your organisation is actually a bunch of hollow people doing hollow tasks for hollow reasons in a sneakily hierarchical dance then maybe you’re right: you should keep an eye on your progress with measurable outputs. It will be the only way to get anything done.

5 Reasons Why Good Intentions Don’t Count

Every time you believe in your good intentions Bono gets a little piece of your soul

1. If you’ve ever opened a crap present, and someone says ‘It’s the thought that counts’ and you secretly thought ‘No it isn’t! I’d much rather have a good present!’ then you know we should be suspicious of good intentions. Good intentions have crap effects. Often.

2. Your good intentions frequently serve the purpose of making you feel good. By having good intentions the point you have established – beyond any doubt whatsover – is that you are the sort of person who has good intentions. Well, you’ve established it in your mind anyway. But let’s be honest, most people have good intentions in some way or other. They’re really nothing special. Sorry.

3. Look, I know this is scraping through the bottom of the barrel of rhetoric before I’ve even got to point five but I’m going to say it anyway: Hitler probably had good intentions. In fact, no probably about it. He wanted to elevate his people and give them better lives. You aren’t Hitler (Yet – careful now!) but do you really feel sure there are no dodgy ideas and perceptions in your mind distorting your thinking?

4. The structures within which you live and operate will twist your intentions to their own ends. They always do. You can’t ever entirely calculate the effects of your actions, even when you’ve done them. But that’s no excuse for charging ahead borne along purely on the conviction that your intentions are good so it must be worth doing. We should at least try to take account of how our intentions will be interpreted, used, and distorted.

5. Good intentions without thinking through the context in which you perform them, without attempting to work out the reason for the failures that have gone before you, without wondering what the price of failure would be, are lazy as well as egotistical. It’s not that good intentions don’t count at all, it’s that good intentions alone don’t count. Stop being so fucking lazy. (If you are not lazy and not convinced of the inherent worth of your good intentions please forgive this minor rudeness – it was well-intentioned.)

5 lifestyle tips for Guardian readers

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.

5 Reasons Why Changing Yourself Won’t Change the World

1. You. The World. Different. Taking up meditation does not fundamentally change this dynamic, except in your head. If you buy ‘ethical’ stuff, that doesn’t make everyone else do it. If you buy less of something like oil, that drives the price down so that other people can buy more of it – the world just goes on acting independently of you and your choices.

2. Around you grinds a vast machinery of government and business. They’re quite happy doing their thing, and if you do your thing, they’re pretty happy with that too. If you don’t face the challenge of disrupting that machinery, it carries on. Your alternative lifestyle might make you feel better about yourself but so what? Those people in charge don’t seem to care, and they’re not stupid – there must be a reason they don’t care.

3.  There’s nothing wrong with changing yourself. You could probably do with some improvement. But it’s a lifelong project. You’ll never be perfect. So if your plan is to move on to changing the world after changing yourself, how long do you want us to wait? *taps fingers*

4. We often think that if everyone changed themselves, then that would change the world. Firstly, that isn’t true, because the institutions screwing us over will still be there, and nicer people won’t make them nice. Secondly, you’re assuming everyone will want to change in the same way as you. Pretty arrogant, no? Maybe they will change – and turn themselves into Tom Cruise. Tough shit.

5. You don’t matter very much. Look, I know that’s unpalatable, but the truth is, in the grand scheme of things, you’re a little speck of dust in the corner of a Boeing 747 hangar. I am too. It’s fine. Don’t get all indignant about it. Just find other specks to work together with – we’re not much alone, but together we can create our own power to oppose the abusive powers that currently shape our world.