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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Occupy and kicking out the management

Disgruntled with the management

The Occupy movement arose in part in reaction to what many people viewed as bad management decisions by those in power – bad decisions that led to a financial crisis in which the banks got bailed out but the people didn’t. Some people, particularly those without homes, are still miffed about this.

While many people active in the Occupy movement have what I might see as a weak crique of why those decisions were made (idiots in power, wrong-headed economics, greed) one of the great strengths of the movement has been the desire of people involved to get involved in collective self-management rather than just running begging to the people in power to set things straight.

But today I popped along to the Occupy London site in Finsbury Square and was reminded just how difficult self-organisation is. At the moment people at the camp are struggling with multiple issues arising from the evictees from St Paul’s moving into Finsbury Square. I also overheard a conversation in which someone fell quickly into the idea that labour should be divided between those doing technical tasks and those doing…er, thinking. At the welcome tent a man arrived and effectively asked for endorsement for a campaign in which he was involved, an idea that makes little sense within Occupy structures.

The problems of collective working in our society are often presented as the problem of getting people to stop thinking individually and start thinking collectively. This may sometimes be the case but I would attribute a lot of the problems to something else entirely: that we are used to being managed.

Much management emanates from the world of work but it is also noticeable that there is little difference between the management structures used in corporations and in governments: they are all top-down hierarchies. The purpose of these hierarchies is almost solely the management of resources. We get sucked into this system of management of resources, often with not much more significant a place in it than a barrel of oil.

The reason people do not necessarily notice the extent to which they are managed is that there is no one person telling them what to do. At work they might have a boss but the rest of the time they can ‘do whatever they want’. But the key to the collective management system we are caught in is that it is both decentered and hierarchical. It is without a head and yet is entirely dominated by organisations that do have heads.

We are caught in a network of organisations that control resources (including us) and every last one of them is a top down hierarchy with internally authoritarian working practices. It is inevitable that their ways of working seep into us, from work, naturally, but also from our involvement in other organisations across society, from transport organisations through corporations to governments.

What we deal with when we attempt to escape being managed is our own habituation to top-down management. What Occupy and other social movements strive for is more horizontal or ‘democratic’ self-organisation, but our habits – the management techniques – from ordinary life constantly seep into what we do.

Working together is not difficult because we are too individualistic to work together but because we are used to other people making decisions for us while we work together – we are used to authoritarian collective working. We are used to being caught within a network of hierarchies that shapes every part of our lives. The management is top down but it also schools our thinking because it depends on our complicity with the hierarchies, including our ability to manage each other and our acceptance that certain things should be left to experts we have no control over.

Having learned how to organise within top-down hierarchies but being used to other people taking decisions, we tend to fall back on learned management techniques once the hierarchy is gone. A guy I know who has been politically active for some years has a tendency to say ‘committee’ when he means ‘working group’, because that was what he was used to in older leftist organisation. He always has a bit of a chuckle at people’s annoyance when he makes the slip, and with good reason. He gets confused because they are pretty much the same. In theory a ‘working group’ is meant to be more more part of a horizontal democratic process than a ‘committee’ but the reality is often different – swinging between a complete inability to make decisions and someone taking it upon themselves to ‘manage’ the group.

I’m not writing this to offer solutions to the problem. I don’t think there are quick solutions. I just think we should stay aware of where our ‘instincts’ will lead us – either into paralysis or back to the management systems that we all know so well – if we don’t keep an eye on them. We need to resist the management within ourselves as well as within banks or parliaments.

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