What’s this liberal doing in my head? And what does it mean by a ‘free’ society?

Freedom in the US recently: management fails to achieve full complicity in NATO crimes

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’s common to refer to the societies of rich Western countries as being ‘free’. A lot of people will hastily qualify this. We are, they say, relatively free. We can’t protest anywhere or anyhow we want, but we can protest. We can’t get our opinions on the BBC but we can at least hold our opinions without being arrested.

And of course, admits the liberal in your head, we all have constraints on us. For instance physics, or wealth, or the lack of it. So there are limits. But ultimately the government does not force us to hold or express certain views and we will not be punished for our political beliefs.

Mmmm, yes. And no. Sometimes things are neither one thing nor another. We are, in Western societies, rarely whipped into believing something, but does that equal freedom? We are, for instance, managed. We’re actually managed quite a lot. Let’s start with your boss. You can argue with them to some extent, but they also have the power to sack you if you argue too much.

Maybe that seems obvious. What’s a bit less obvious is that we are managed by many more people than just our bosses. The process of government, being only briefly interrupted by ballots, is a process of management. PR is a form of management of your opinions. Big media is management of what you consume – think of all those people sitting around in offices deciding what you will consume in your paper.

But even less obviously, I would also say we are managed by a whole array of professionals. Architects manage our personal and work space. Planners manage our public space. ‘Creative industry’ professionals manage what we consume, from the theatre to the television. Psychologists manage our perceptions of abberant behaviour (no-one has adequately explained to me why lack of confidence is a frequently-treated pathology while the far more damaging overconfidence is not). Social workers manage our families if we fail to hit the mark. Charities manage our altruism.

Some might argue that the good intentions of the professionals absolve them from looking like authoritarians. But well intentioned control freak parents are still control freak parents. Good intentions in themselves don’t count for much in my book, particularly when they take place in the context of very unbalanced power relations.

Perhaps, in the end, you think that all of this management, because it is not directed at you personally, because you stay out of the arenas where it is strongest, does not affect you much. Perhaps the architects you live with are long dead and the social worker never visits you. But in the unlikely event that you are immune to everything professionals say you are surrounded by people who are not. We are social beings and our social world is distorted by a vast weight of top-down management across all of society.

Meanwhile let’s go back to the obvious management: your boss. What they ostensibly manage is your technical performance and yet you likely will have noticed that the most incompetent people often get promoted first. It happens so often it’s almost like it isn’t a coincidence. Almost like, say, people are promoted for having particular personality attributes, particular ways of behaving, almost like people are rewarded by management for conformity to their viewpoint. And what is the combined effect of that happening across all of society? It’s difficult to measure but I don’t think it is small.

It’s easy not to think too much about the effect on us of all this management, particularly if you feel that you benefit from it – you may be on a management wage yourself. Perhaps you believe your personality overcomes society. Perhaps you are a superhuman, immune to social pressure. Or perhaps there’s a liberal in your head, and it loves pretending to be free. If so, try to gently introduce it to words and ideas between the two poles of ‘free’ and ‘oppressed’. Perhaps one day it will even be grateful for having learned language to describe its situation.

10 years, 7 months, 14 days of war – The Armoured Personnel Carrier in the room

Most days if you read the front pages, watch the news, or even go to the FCO or Ministry of Defence website, you would barely notice that the UK is involved in a war that has been going on for over a decade. Even the body bags coming back from Afghanistan don’t seem to have a lot of impact now.

If you read the FCO explanation of the war, it is that we are ensuring that Afghanistan cannot harbour terrorists who might attack the UK or our allies. This has clearly failed, and will likely be a continuing failure whether or not they manage to pull out most troops by 2014 as they promise. Since our own country intermittently harbours terrorists – admittedly uninvited except for the usual heads of state – it hardly seems like a logical explanation for the war.

Meanwhile how much do people in Britain know about the war? None of the participants keep a record of Afghans killed, though we know some small part of it from the MoD’s payments to the families of civilians killed by accident. We don’t get regular updates about where ‘our’ troops are as we would in a war that people cared about. There is no serious discussion of Afghan politics among the press or politicians. How often do you hear the economy of Afghanistan mentioned? Yet doesn’t the end of conflict rely on stable economic systems? The general public does not know where power really lies in Afghanistan or who is doing what in the country, nor is there any discussion of what policies the allies have imposed on the country through their puppets.

The war is barely noticed, in other words. It is barely taken seriously. But the problem is, once you start a war, it’s hard to stop. And once you get into a habit of fighting wars, it’s hard to stop starting them. Britain has never fallen out of the habit since the end of the colonial period, and while it has such a large military it is unlikely to. Sometimes I think people attribute far too much cunning and forethought to our politicians. I think a major reason they start wars is because power feels good. They are human too and if you hand them the command of a reasonably effective fighting force they can’t help using it.

The elephant in the room is not just the war in Afghanistan, it is the fact that ‘we’ are constantly getting involved in wars, and none of them for the last sixty years have been at all related to self-defence. We need to stop being used to being in wars. The best way to do this practically speaking is to drastically downsize the army so that the temptation to politicians is removed. When was the last time you heard anyone in the mainstream suggest that, or point out that our army is not used for self-defence? You’re as likely to hear it as you are a discussion about the US military payments to the Taliban for the protection of their supplies as they travel around the country. In other words, as likely to hear it as any serious discussion of the war and its problems at all.

A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

I didn't have a relevant photo for this post but I love Balinese temples.

It hardly makes sense to collectively describe individualism does it? Except that it is one of the problems of living in a society where people obsess about their individuality that the social constraints upon us are less transparent than in other times and places. These social constraints always exist, always place pressure on us, always influence our decisions, but because we are all pretending that we are heroic individuals we have to kind of blank out all this social influence in case we realise how little our choices have to do with ourselves.

As well as constantly talking of ourselves as atomistic individuals another weird way we use language is to refer to our ‘social lives’ and ‘work lives’ as different things. I know that by ‘social life’ people often mean what they do to relax with other people, but the distinction obscures something that would be obvious to an anthropologist or a native of a Brazilian basin tribe: that a work environment is a strongly social environment.

It follows then that a lot of the social constraints and pressures on us originate not from friends we chose, or from family or even the work colleagues we ‘socialise’ with, but from the constant social interaction in the working environment in which we spend 8-10 hours a day (less if you’re one of the new army of part-timers who can’t get more hours – this post should make you feel better).

But let’s think about what this working environment is: a top-down, internally authoritarian structure, often with a deliberately created organisational ‘culture’. It also has specific aims, and in the private sector and much of the targetted and monitored public sector, the aims are around constant efficiency calculations, constant cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions such as individuals needing to suffer for the sake of the organisation.

In conclusion, not only are we not as individualistic as we like to claim, but a lot of the influence on us comes from an essentially authoritarian environment that mandates particular ways of thinking and working. You can leave the organisation any time of course. But since most organisations – from charities through the public sector to academia – have deliberately adoped business methods in recent years, there aren’t many places to run to that would actually offer something different.

The point of this is not that we should all be more individualistic, simply that the hypocrisy involved in pretending to be individualistic while living most of your day in an authoritarian culture is enough to make anyone turn to working with trees.

Simple things made complex: You have to decide where you stand

Careful what company you keep....

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.

These are trying times for politicians and for those being screwed by them. Crises are happening. Decisions MUST be made. Those of us not willing to have everything good and lovely stolen from us by powerful people who don’t even know our names feel we must take a stand. We must take a POSITION.

And sometimes it seems like project management, but with less appalling jargon. We must make a series of decisions that will take us where we want to go. We must follow the decision tree. But without calling it such a wanky name. Should we vote? Y/N. Should we confront? Y/N

It seems obvious we have to take a position in politics, but there is a problem. As individuals our decisions are usually almost imperceptible, and to the degree that the world at large does notice them, they (people, organisations) will decode our decisions as they feel like. And politics should not be about being sure of our rightness in our own heads, it should be about relating well and getting good things to happen. Meanwhile our decisions being decoded by others may have – for all we know – been caused by someone asking us the wrong question, or phrasing the question in a way that created an artificial dichotomy.

Not making decisions one way or the other can cause tensions inside us, but the world is full of tensions anyway. Tensions between different positions will only be resolved by death, and if you’re a Catholic, not even then.

In a way we do have to take a position in this world, or rather, we find ourselves in a position. I’m not sure it’s our decisions that get us there. We are not as rational as we pretend. We choose sides according to…what we feel like. That’s fine, and we can even dream up rationalisations for it if we are that way inclined, but that’s no reason to go resolving all the tensions.

Should we vote or not vote?

Should we confront or nudge?

Should we work from inside or outside institutions?

Should we aim for revolution or reform?

Do both. Together. Consecutively. Alternately. Do whatever seems appropriate with those around you at that particular time. It may seem strange to choose a life with more tension, but it also means choosing a life less defined by the questions people choose to ask you and more defined by your relationships and making stuff happen.

At the Poachers Arms: being realistic

Realistic blood money for realistically bloody treasure

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 on the thirteenth consecutive night of rain and the Poachers Arms was to be found on an unfashionable side street off the cripplingly fashionable Hoxton Street. I stepped gingerly over the puddle of water spreading from the umbrella stand by the door and into the usual convivial atmosphere around the bar.

“We’re thinking of building an ark,” said one of the regulars. “Where do you think we should build it?”

“It should be somewhere public,” I said. I ordered a pint of Poacher’s Pipe-dream then explained: “Part of the point of building an ark is to remind people that the punishment for their decadence approacheth.”

“I work in a museum,” said a woman who had come in the door just behind me. “Plenty of space there. We could get it sponsored by BP – everything else is.”

“Yes, I’ve often wondered about that,” I said. “It seems weird for public institutions to take advertising from companies that do so much harm.”

The woman looked affronted. “We turn bad money into good,” she said. “We’re using them really.” She turned to the barman. “A gin and tonic please.”

“Why do you think they spend the money though?” I said. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get some kind of PR or political gain from it. They presumably think they are using you.”

The woman shrugged. “I see you’re some kind of idealist,” she said. “I’ve learned to be realistic. We need the money. They have it.”

I turned to Downer Dave, one of the regulars at the bar. Downer Dave is so called due to his unrelentingly negative, or as he calls it, realistic, take on the world.

“Who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said, then to the woman. “This is Downer Dave by the way. What’s your name?”

“I’m Louise.”

“So who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said.

“You,” said Downer Dave. He looked at the woman. “They’re using you. Sorry.”

“Hey listen,” Louise put down her drink and held up her hands. “I think the world shouldn’t be so crap but I just don’t think you can change it. I used to work in the House of Commons. It was horrible. It’s an oppressive building and the people who work there are weirdos. But change it? Please!”

“She has a point,” said Downer Dave.

“I’ve worked in government too,” I said. “In international development. And they thought I was ‘unrealistic’ too. Problem with that is that they were trying to solve a political problem – global poverty – with technical solutions. Imagine thinking you could solve a problem of too little power by taking decisions on behalf of those people. So that word ‘realistic’ is a tricky one – it often is when people use it politically. Who was being unrealistic there?”

“All of you,” said Downer Dave. He turned away and asked the barman to put on some lively music. “I’m depressed now,” he said, casting a glance back over his shoulder at us.

Louise looked at me, started to say something, stopped herself, raised her glass and clinked it against mine. Without another word we parted, and I moved deeper into the Poachers Arms, my damp clothes steaming gently in the warmth.

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.

Gentle reminder: you just got poorer

It’s one of those things its easy to miss, perhaps because we don’t experience it as someone coming round our house and nicking your stuff, but you just got poorer. Like you do every day at the moment.

You’ve been getting poorer for a while now, partly due to inflation, which unless you are a CEO or George Osborne is higher than your wage rises (incidentally you may get a wage rise this year for performing well in your job but that will only signify you moving up the ladder while the ladder slips downward). Did you notice that minimum wage rose below inflation this year? You probably did if you get the minimum wage because it was already hard enough to live on.

Inflation is predicted to rise today but even if it doesn’t it has been at 3.4% over the last quarter. Meanwhile your public services have been reduced. These are also part of your wealth, and like your salary they have been getting worth less every day, partly due to deliberate cuts and partly due to a policy of not allowing spending to keep pace with the real rate of inflation.

This isn’t a cheery post and sometimes people tell me I should think more positively. But Tesco doesn’t take positive thinking in exchange for food.

Thankfully charity food banks are opening at a rate of one every four days.

The question that should worry more people than it currently does is this: is this fall in your wealth a result of mismanagement of the economy or of good management of the economy?

Olympics Death March Party!!! Woohoo!!!

Randomly selected photo of party mecca London

Life is sweet! Look at us! The Olympics and everything! Sure the economy isn’t growing but we still know how to party. Not as well as the Chinese it’s true, but it’s doubly important in these troubled times to cut loose a bit! Our leaders told us so! It’s important to keep to our course too! The party is on the move, going in One Direction, and it will never end!

Progress is wonderful! The Shard now looms above London like a symbol of our might. Admittedly it is a symbol of Qatari ruling elite might but it is like a symbol of our might. We are at the top of our game – or someone is – and the view is just amazing!

The party marches on, and we should be so proud of our moving fiesta because we pick our leaders. Not like those savages in…Qatar or China or wherever. We pick our leaders from among those people at the back of the march, driving us on with whips and Tazers, because we know they know the way. They want the same things as the leaders of…Qatar, or China or wherever, which seems odd, but look! We can swap them round! Not like those countries! It is great! The fact they are all the same – and all the same around the world – just proves democracy works! They all take us in the One Direction so that just proves they are right and we all want the same things. We’re all right, we’re alright, and the party will never die – that’s what the Olympics proves: we might be down but we’re not out!!!

I’ll tell you where could do with a party like ours. I’ll tell you who needs a reviving Olympic tonic. Greece! That’s who! Look at them! What’s that you say? Oh sure they’ve had the Olympics but that was thousands of years ago wan’t it? Now they’re so backward! They are finally being marched forward, in the One Direction. It will be good for them, this discovery that they are expendable. It will teach them to put up with the low wages their country needs.

And we need it too! Remember! We must compete with the far east! In wages too! It’s true! No one told us this when we outsourced half our economies but it put us on a one way street to wage competition with China and India. And look, if there’s one thing Greece teaches us, it’s that if we don’t allow ourselves to go down this path we too will be slaughtered like diseased cattle and abandoned by the side of the road. It’s amazing that we can vote and amazing that the joys and liberties of the free market means it makes no difference any more – if your leader does the wrong thing a technocrat can be found! Perhaps we should lose our bank holidays, say our technocrats in waiting. We have been warned! We march onwards! And we party! Towers! Missiles! Stadiums!

This party is who we are people!! We must hate those who try to stop it! We must hate those angry and desperate enough to STOP ROWING RACES!! People trained hard for that party moment!! How dare he interrupt the march!! We can’t see the corpses from here so what’s all the fuss about! I’ll worry when the smell of death hits me as I step out the front door thank you very much! The Olympics is coming and if any killjoy gets in the way our rage will be IMMENSE!! March! Party! Onwards! Prizes will be won!!!*

*But not by us

The VICE guide to politics

Dicks writing for dicks?

For a magazine that covers a lot of political stories it is interesting that Vice magazine does not have a ‘politics’ category on the header bar of its website. Vice covers a lot of political stories but it does not do politics. And it absolutely never takes political stories seriously.

In defence of Vice, it doesn’t take anything at all seriously. There are reasons that our culture has fled from ‘truths’ and there’s something to be said for the Vice point of view, for its ability to rip the piss out of everything and everyone. It is the extreme end of particular attitudes that have developed in our culture in reaction to the failed authorities of the past.

People can no longer take seriously anyone who claims a universal political truth. Part of me is glad about that. I could never take them seriously either.

Against Vice it has to be said that it is run by reactionary arseholes and is firmly embedded in neo-liberal ideology. A lot of the reason its readers don’t want to take anything seriously is they are globalised rich little brats who think hardship is the emotional toll of having to ask their parents to help pay their London or New York rent.

It is fine to not take political ideas seriously. It is not fine to treat people’s suffering as another part of the joke. Sometimes, like, stuff is real? I read a tweet recently by an @DanStayte:

Some say the sun goes round the earth, some say the earth goes round the sun. I say it’s something in between #liberal

This excellently describes the nonsensical ideological space in which Vice flourishes. But I didn’t particularly want to challenge Vice with this post – the editors couldn’t give a fuck what I think. Vice will probably die a slow and agonising death as the western economies wither. We will be sad, oh yes.

The point for the future is: when people do want to fight back, they won’t be the slightest bit interested in adopting political ideologies but that’s the solution most of the left tends to offer them. I’m not suggesting a Vice-like left – putting photos of men snorting coke off women’s breasts on leaflets and placards – but here’s something Vice does, albeit within the framework of neo-liberal capitalism: it provides a way of interacting with the world and with other people. It does present a truth of a sort, embedded within the dominant ideology.

The truth is, Vice does politics better than you do. It knows what ideology is there for – to run in the background informing what you do without ever being stated. If you do have an ideology, fine, and I don’t think you should hide it, but the point is not to persuade people of it but to help create ways for people to act in the world.

You should probably also take yourself a bit less seriously. If you don’t laugh at yourself, someone else will.

Simple things made complex: ‘When things seem bad, think positive’

A petition team assuming the politicians care what we think

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.

Anyone who isn’t immensely rich or a secret psychopath (in the Cabinet there’s a lot of overlap between these two groups) is currently mourning the Great Leap Forward in dismantling the NHS. It’s one of those political moments when we know that nothing we did worked and the bill we failed to stop will kill people and everything seems hopeless and we wonder how much worse it is going to get and how much more of the country they can sell off and pretty much every morning the news remind us that if they aren’t stopped the answer is ‘everything’.

In the midst of such doom and gloom the bright rays of sunshine in our midst will want to strike a positive note. ‘The Poll Tax was defeated after it became law’ say some. ‘We can punish them at the next election’ say others. And of course as always there are people to remind us that people fighting together can beat abusive rulers.

Well, yes. While not known for being a ray of sunshine myself, I agree with that. I also think we need to think positive – if only to stop everyone involved in fighting this government from killing themselves in a fit of depression. But I want to instead suggest that when things seem bad we should think positive, and negative, and positive, and negative, and then positive.

It could go something like this:

Positive voice: There’s got to be a way out of this mess. We have to throw ourselves into the fight again.

Negative voice: But everything we’ve done has failed. Every demo, every petition, every action was for nothing. It is clear that the government cannot be pressured because we are not their constituency. ‘Democracy’ appears to mean doing what the rich want.

Positive voice: That’s fine. That’s the situation we’re in. Relax about it. People have been in worse situations.

Negative voice: That’s your positivity? That’s the best you can do? You’re agreeing with me that we’re in the shit!

Positive voice: Stop being such a drama queen. The situation is as bad as it is. We should face it. But let’s not make it worse by getting all apocalyptic and acting like the world is going to end. Even Tories die – even if takes a stake through the heart – and not only will this particular government come to an end but this entire system of government will come to an end. All of them do. We just have to work to make sure it is a happy end for us all.

Negative voice: And what about all the people who will be made homeless, kill themselves or die for lack of treatment in the meantime?

Positive voice: Listen Mr Negativo, you’ve had your turns – count them! But since you ask, we’ll have to look after each other as best we can with what resources we can chip off the edge of Privatised Britain. Meanwhile we start working out how to dismantle this sinister political and economic apparatus over which we have so little control. To do that we have to accept that the petitions and the demos don’t do anything and the politicians couldn’t give a toss what we think – and that’s what we’ve got to work with. It’s a judicious mix of negative and positive that’s going to get us through this. Having accepted the negatives we can say ‘worse things happen at sea’ (or at least in the British Empire – we really aren’t in the worst situation anyone has ever been in) and start organising to win.