Travel reports: Evo’s Road

Asking people in Bolivia what they think of Evo Morales, the current president, turns out to be less interesting than I thought it would be. In the past the country was very divided on the question of the country’s first indigenous president. There is a long history of deep racism in Bolivia and many people hate Evo for who he is – a man from a poor indigenous background. The racism here turns out to not be purely about skin colour but also about culture. Many self-described ‘mestizos’ have a high percentage of indigenous blood but if they behave in an appropriately European manner they can be forgiven. Evo was a poor llama farmer and coca grower (and as a kid he sold bottles of soda to bus passengers) and to many mestizos you don’t get much less civilised than that.

Meanwhile Evo was swept to power on a tide of grass-roots – mainly indigenous – activism that twice in the last ten years brought the country entirely to a halt. He and his party MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) have implemented some important changes in Bolivia, including outlawing discrimination and changing the constitution of the country to ensure indigenous people can never again be excluded quite so totally as they were in the past. He has also defended coca farmers against the US war on drugs, and although he is not the rampant socialist many of his opponents claim, he has forced gas and oil companies to hand over much higher revenues and used the money for important improvements in education, infrastructure and other necessities.

But I read an interesting thing about MAS before arriving: that it does not have many connections with the broader social movements in Bolivia. It was designed as an implement for placing indigenous people into the formerly pale national elite, and this it has successfully done. It is a party then that depends not on grass-roots support but on wooing the electorate like any other party. And while it has worked to make structural changes to Bolivian politics, it has always worked to ensure its own place in the structure.

Now we come to why it was so boring to ask people about Evo. About a year ago, in a move seemingly from nowhere, Evo cut the government’s subsidy on fuel. Prices shot up overnight, not just on fuel but on food and every other essential item, some prices almost doubling. Overnight, Evo made the poor people who voted for him poorer. Admittedly he made the rich poorer too, and you can argue that a subsidy that helps the rich is ‘inefficient’, but the people who voted for Evo could not afford those rises. There were massive streets protests and eventually Evo backed down and reinstated subsidies. The prices however stayed where they were. For this one mistake it is now difficult to imagine Evo being re-elected. He managed to piss off everyone in the country at once and anyone you ask about Evo will give the same answer: he screwed us. He may have done some good, but then he screwed us. Or from the middle class: he was an ignorant peasant and then he screwed us.

So why did he cut the fuel subsidy? Evo’s claim that he didn’t want to subsidise fuel smuggling sounded a bit weak. Was it because, as in Nigeria, IMF economists decided it was an ‘inefficient’ subsidy? But it seems it wasn’t even outside pressure that did it, or not directly. Allegedly the reason Evo cut subsidies was because of falling private investment in the state oil and gas company. That is, he did it to please international finance.

The MAS project has been a success, but what type of success is this? In the short term you can get some changes by putting new people into the elite. Reportedly this government works till 8pm at night where previous governments worked until 4pm. They are serious about changing things. But in the long run, as many people in the United States have discovered, it doesn’t much matter what colour your president is. He’s still the president. It is his role that is the problem, target as it is for everyone who already has money and power. It seems a shame that the architects of MAS didn’t think about flattening the elite rather than entering it, that they didn’t try to move power from the government to the grass-roots movements who supported them. Perhaps some of the people within MAS itself may begin to regret it too if they lose the next election.

In the satirical Bolivian film ‘Who Killed The Little White Llama?’, the narrator talks about Evo Morales only once, while standing in the middle of a typical unpaved Bolivian road. “Evo Morales is a first class president,” he says. “While we travel on these roads, he flies first class.”

Share

If it bleeds, we can kill it: a success in the fight against marketisation

Marketisation, at home yesterday

At some point I suspect most people involved in the recent struggles against The Marketisation Of Everything In The Universe have at some point felt that they are on the losing side. While many people remained optimistic enough to stay involved in the struggle, it was difficult to avoid the fact that tuition fees did rise, the marketisation of education continued apace, and although some resistance was offered to the sale of the NHS most of the successful opposition was by doctors on technical grounds – though I’m pretty sure many hid their politics behind the technical objections.

It is therefore a great pleasure to see this week that the government has shelved ‘indefinitely’ a bill to further marketise education, that would have introduced purely private elite universities similar to the US. It is not just a great pleasure, it is a victory, because it appears that the government did not have the stomach for the fight.

Tuition fees rose, despite the protests, despite the strikes, despite the million column inches, and sometimes it felt like we were doing it all for nothing. But this is not nothing. This is something. The government is scared of another fight. I, we, helped make them scared. It is difficult in the middle of a fight, when everything seems to be going against you, to feel you are achieving anything. But even if we don’t win the battles we want to, our resistance can and does win other battles.

It is true that it is a small victory in the grand scheme of things. It is true that many tasks remain, including the public trouncing of the philosophy of marketisation – the idea that those who can pay most should get most and those who have already won should win more – and the undoing of the social damage it has done.

But this is a good day for those involved in the fight. We should feel happy about the grief we have inflicted on the government. And as we gear up for more fights over education and the NHS, we should remember the words of Arnie before he went all governor on us: If it bleeds, we can kill it.

Share

Travel Reports: On whose square a square is

Plaza Murillo

A few days ago I was in Plaza Murillo, the main square of La Paz. It attracts a lot of tourists both from abroad and within Boliva. It is the Bolivian equivalent of Trafalgar Square in London, but it had one big difference from Trafalgar Square. Plaza Murillo was interesting and Trafalgar Square is boring. Families sat around in the Plaza and a small horde of street vendors sold snacks, ice cream, children’s toys and souvenirs. Most interesting of all, people fed the pigeons.

I remember feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square when I was a child. It is, in fact, pretty much the only thing I remember about that family trip to London. Watching the children in Plaza Murillo reminded me that if you are four or five years old, throwing out grain to attract pigeons then chasing the pigeons away, then waiting for them to come back, then chasing them again, is about as much fun as it is possible to have. You can buy pure joy for the cost of a cup of grain.

As many readers will know, some years back the authorities determined that pigeon-feeding in Trafalgar Square would henceforth be forbidden. The reason given for this was that pigeons are unhygienic – a fact that I cannot dispute and that no-one could dispute. Yet I wonder exactly how many people fell ill or died due to that pigeon-feeding death trap through the years. It struck me as just another of those petty, undemocratic acts of control that characterise much of the professional classes in Britain. No doubt some bureaucrat or Councillor got a real kick from effecting change on the streets of London. Perhaps they lie awake at night hugging themselves with joy at the improvement they made to the capital. At last we are free from the menace of pigeon poo!

Meanwhile there is nothing to do in Trafalgar Square, particularly for a child. It is a blank space with a tall pole and some fountains. It is a poorer place in my eyes, but it is no doubt cleaner. The full meaning of cleanliness in public spaces is interesting however, as is the presence of street vendors in Plaza Murillo, and the absence of them in Trafalgar Square. A year or so before I got to Nairobi the authorities there had determined that street selling in a large area of central Nairobi was to be forbidden. Their reason, not hidden behind the obfuscations we are so used to in Britain, was that street vendors made Nairobi look poor. Now of course most of Nairobi is poor (and the former street vendors now even poorer) but now the streets of Nairobi don’t look so poor, which is what mattered to the rich of Nairobi.

Street vendors used to be much more common in Britain, presumably in Trafalgar Square but also beyond that. The main streets of New Cross are also very empty, except for the traffic. I would even call them sterile but for the general air of grubbiness that the Council doesn’t care enough to do anything about. A couple of years ago I met in the Amersham Arms an old man who had emigrated from the Caribbean to London some fifty years ago. He told me how when he arrived in New Cross not only were there many factories between there and the river, but the streets of New Cross were thronged with street vendors.

I don’t think the street vendors evaporated by themselves any more than the pigeon-feeding did. I suspect they were gradually illegalised across the country, except for in certain authorised and lucrative (for the local authorities) locations. No one remarks on it now. We just assume that streets should be empty spaces for walking through. They are minimal public spaces, used only for connecting bits of the city together, and the squares too have gradually been sterilised. They are kept public on the condition that the public do not do anything in them.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Trafalgar Square, where local byelaws prevent all unauthorised public gatherings, over and above the measures in the Criminal Justice Act and Serious Organised Crime and Policing Act that can already turn political demonstrations into criminal acts at the drop of a hat on the wrong side of a barrier. At a recent demonstration the police finally took the control of Trafalgar Square to its logical conclusion, erecting a great steel barrier designed for crowd control in major national crises around the Square to prevent demonstrators entering it. They confiscated banners from people entering the sterile zone so as to convert them from demonstrators into respectable citizens once more.

What many people have forgotten in Britain, perhaps because many people have been comfortable in their private spaces for so long, is that public spaces are public spaces not because the authorities determine they are public, but because the public determine they are public. They are made public spaces by the public taking control of them. The current Occupy movement is a great example of people making space public whether it was considered to be so or not. This is a particularly important lesson to re-learn in the face of actual privatisation of public space – something that has been creeping across the UK for some years now.

In Peru someone told me about another example of a battle over public space, and I think this one can be an example to us all. A few years ago an idiot Mayor of Cuzco decided that he wanted to get rid of the three-hundred-year-old trees in the main plaza of Cuzco. His reason was that they were blocking tourists’ shots of the famous cathedrals around the plaza. No matter that Cuzco was already probably the biggest tourist city in South America, he was going to make it better. The only problem was that the people of Cuzco loved their trees and didn’t want them cut down. So the Mayor sent in tractors in the middle of the night when no one was around and they pulled down every one of the great old trees in the plaza. The people of Cuzco, who were convinced that it was their plaza, spontaneously gathered and stormed around the city in such a rage that the Mayor was forced to escape the city in secret and fly off to Lima. He didn’t return to the city for three months and was never re-elected.

Now I’m not saying we should form an angry mob every time some bureaucrat or politician acts as though the public space is their space but…wait, no, I think I am saying that. I want pigeon-feeding back in Trafalgar Square, and street vendors making our streets look poor and messy again (if we have poor people then we shouldn’t hide them, and anyway the streets are theirs too) so if someone wants to get a mob going I’ll definitely join in. We might even get the right to protest back while we’re at it.

Share

Travel report: on cake and the idiocy of economists

The cafe of free exchange during a rainstorm the next day

As regular readers may or may not know I am currently on the road in South American. Normal service shall therefore be replaced with brief travel reports.

In a small town in a poor part of the Peruvian Andes I was sitting in a cafe eating cake (not, by most standards, particularly good cake – the significance of this will be revealed in a moment). An old Quechua woman, a campesina, came to the entrance of the cafe and sat on the step waiting to be served. The waitress ignored her for a good long time but eventually came over to her and took from her a bag of freshly dug potatoes. In return the old woman received a single slice of cake.

A whole bag of potatoes, probably dug by her own hands, carried on her bent old back, for a single slice of cake! It’s true the cost of the two would be similar back home, but there the potatoes would have been harvested in 2 seconds by a machine. Of course, even if prices were consistent across countries, ‘the market’ is not interested in how the potatoes were grown, harvested or transported.

An economist would say that what I witnessed was free exchange. And the woman had, at a particular point in time, chosen to exchange potatoes for cake. No-one held a gun to her head while she did it. But if you look at the history of Peruvian campesinos and the history of cake, the story looks a little bit different.

Cake is a nice thing and in the form sold in that cafe has spread across the world carried by rich people and the people who cook for rich people. It is something that people want to eat and those with cake-making capital have a certain power over those who cannot afford the ingredients for cake, or the oven in which to make cake.

The history of Peruvian campesinos meanwhile is the history of perhaps the most consistently oppressed people on earth. First the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, then global capitalism. The latter, while less obviously (it depends how much attention you’re paying) or constantly violent than the slave labour imposed under the previous two systems, prefers wi-fi in central Lima parks to installing water to campesinos houses.

The old woman presumably offered a bag of potatoes for cake because that was what she had to offer. That was what she had to offer because of various systems of violence imposed upon her and her ancestors since the beginning of recorded history. Can this – just because the woman wanted cake enough to offer something – really be described as ‘free exchange’? Surely the only people who could make free exchange would be those with a free history, if such a thing existed.

Economics – or the cultish form of it that dominates politics and academia – is full of facile notions like free exchange that take no account of power or history or, for that matter, reality. Economists are idiots. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that they have always had easy access to cake.

Share

At the Poachers Arms: what to do about governments

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.

On a Tuesday night of plummeting temperatures I came upon it on the corner of two narrow streets in Bloomsbury. Rain was blowing around the streets in cold gusts, threatening to freeze in mid-air but for now still flooding the gutters. The lights behind the timber-framed casement windows had never looked so welcoming. I entered to the glorious smell of roast pork belly. Thomas, the oldest barman in the world, served me a pint of Slipshod and shouted through to the kitchen for a plate of food.

I sat at a table beside a middle-aged man reading a paper and young couple, the woman wearing an office shirt, loose tie and trilby hat.

“It’s disgraceful!” said the man as I sat, looking up from his paper. “The government!”

“They usually are,” I said, taking a sip of Slipshod. “What do you suggest?”

He shrugged. “It doesn’t seem to matter who you vote for. They’re all at it.”

“Do you think you would be any different?” I said.

“I’d do a bloody sight better than those worthless twats!” he said. “Course,” he added, “I probably don’t have the tact.”

“I don’t think anyone would be better,” said the woman with the trilby hat. “I think it’s the conviction that you would do better that is part of the trouble.”

“So it’s better to leave them to it?” grunted the man.

My plate of roast pork belly arrived, borne by the ancient Thomas. “Can’t leave them to it,” he said. There is nothing wrong with his hearing even if his joints aren’t what they used to be. He slapped the plate down in front of me. “I’ve been around a while. They’re all mad, the politicians. Mad as hares.”

“I don’t think we need them,” said the woman as Thomas departed. “I think we can create new ways of doing things ourselves. I don’t want to run the government.”

I got busy with the food as the newspaper reader and the be-hatted woman sparred.

“So,” said the man. “You think we should just leave them to it.”

“No,” said the woman. “You don’t have to pay attention to the government to do something about it. If you create new ways of doing things it challenges the power of those in charge.”

“Takes bullets to challenge that lot,” said the man. He picked up his paper as though that were the end of the conversation.

“It might, in the end,” said the woman. “But I don’t think that should be the first resort.”

“Wasn’t suggesting it should be.” The man looked annoyed at the misrepresentation of his position.

“Thing is,” said the boyfriend of the woman in the hat. “I think the structures of government and economics that exist now will corrupt anyone. The trick is to get power away from them.”

“How?” said the older man, putting his paper down again. “Who should have the power?”

I swallowed a mouthful of pork, gravy and potatoes. “Perhaps you need actual democratic structures that are different from those that exist now,” I said, wanting to be helpful. “And you pull power towards those structures.”

“You’d still end up cock-waving at each other,” said trilby hat.

“Then maybe you need to reshape the existing structures,” I said, piling apple sauce onto a forkful of pork. “You don’t choose between the state or not-the-state. You change the nature of the state. But you still need other forms of organising to do that.”

“What, a party?” said trilby hat suspiciously.

“No, no,” I said. “It would only betray you. Something less hierarchical. And not one organisation. Many overlapping forms of organising aimed at undermining the usual form of organising a government.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” said the woman.

“Nope,” said newspaper man, butting in again. “You said you should ignore the government. Doesn’t seem like such a good idea to me. God knows what they’d get up to.”

The woman in the hat looked between the two of us. “Okay, if I did say we should ignore the government I didn’t mean it. I don’t trust the fuckers.”

Her boyfriend nodded as though thinking about something for the first time. “So maybe we do need organisation. Not like parties or anything. Just channels for attempts to distribute power better.”

I raised my glass of Slipshod. “Here’s to multiple channels for our rage. Home-made gutters for the rain of dissent.”

The newspaper reader grunted and nodded toward the window. “It’d better be warmer than this, that’s all I can say.”

“That’s up to you,” said trilby hat to him with an overly sweet smile. “You’ll be the rain.”

Share

What to say when people say ‘Your protest is in my way – I have to…’

Democratic constraints

It is an interesting fact of taking part in almost any kind of direct or protest action that at some point someone will point out, often quite forcefully and using swearwords, that you are in their way. You have, they think, no right to impose on them with your political expression.

Recently I was involved in one of the strongest forms of blocking action: a picket line. Although many people turned back from the line the responses of those who didn’t was interesting. The silliest was ‘I support you but…I’m going in anyway’.

In that situation there was only one way to support the picket: not crossing it. The very point of a picket line is that it makes people make a decision and take an action based on that decision. It defines physical space in a new way and it doesn’t want your good opinion, it wants your support in maximising the effect of the strike.

Another great response given by many people was ‘I have to go in.’ To which the only answer was ‘You really don’t.’ What did it mean, this phrase ‘I have to’? Clearly it was not objectively true – they were not going into the building to feed their baby or to save the world. Some of the mostly immigrant staff doing poorly paid service jobs without any job security had to go in to keep their jobs it is true. But it wasn’t them saying ‘I have to’, it was people who would have suffered nothing except a missed lecture or meeting.

I tried to explain it to people as a priorities issue. ‘I know going in there was your priority for right now, but we’re asking you to re-prioritise for something bigger than yourself.’ I sympathise with the people who were taken aback. You rush around London doing your stuff for the day and it is a bit shocking to abruptly have people in your face asking you to do something different. But it was disappointing when people couldn’t reconsider the course of their day. It felt like what ‘I have to’ meant was the ‘I’ – they couldn’t really conceive of re-prioritising for a collectivity.

As an aside, some people on the picket line shouted ‘scab’ or other insults after those who crossed the picket line. I didn’t think this helpful, not because I thought the individual freedom of those people was the most important thing at that moment, but because politics is about ongoing relationships and shouting insults closes down future discussion.

Meanwhile some people took our very presence personally – were resentful that we were there at all. They could get through into the building but not without talking to us. This they saw as an imposition. In truth our attitudes were far worse than that: we would have closed the building if not for the police keeping the line open. This would be perceived by some as a gross infringement on their liberties.

My experience of doing other protest activities is that people can view even some minor inconvenience as an imposition. They think you have a right to political expression, just as long as you don’t get in their way. As for if you deliberately constrain their actions – as a closed picket line would – that is an outrageous breach of personal liberty.

But let’s look at this in a broader context. Our behaviour is constrained all the time; to be human is to be constrained. And while we take some constraints volutarily to help us live together with people, we are often constrained not-so-voluntarily by the people who pay us and rule us. If our boss says something we do it. Sure, we can walk out. We are free to live in poverty. Thanks. The state creates rules about who can strike and when, and this constraint is what…’necessary’? Or is it a rule that deliberately pits one part of the population against another?

So what is it about certain people and institutions that they are allowed to constrain us while others are forbidden? Because certain institutions have ‘legitimacy’? I never gave consent. Because they have a certain ‘official’ role? Because they have certain power over us (the ability to withdraw our pay) this makes it okay for them to order us around?

Isn’t it at least as legitimate to constrain other people as a group of people fighting for a better way of living? Why is that such a terrible infringement of personal liberty while the word of your boss is not? Part of the reason to engage in direct actions is to expose the ideology of everyday life that creates unexamined ideas like this.

I could go further and say there is a better basis for constraining others during protest than the usual hierarchies have: that is, you are engaging with actual people in a two way exchange. Our constraints are not absolute and fixed, they consist of what is negotiated between people who have equally little power. While the point of the negotiation is not to end all conflict, the conflict that remains has a real basis: the constraint occurs because we have a different vision of the world and this has to be created in physical space.

So here’s something to say to people who are inconvenienced by a protest:

It may inconvenience you. But you have been living in the world created by other people with infinitely more power than us. If you notice our constraints more, it’s not because you live without constraints, it’s because those other constraints have become ‘normal’ to you. Perhaps you’re happy with that, but why expect everyone to accept them? Are you sure you’re such a champion of liberty? We’re not sorry you’ve noticed us. We’re not sorry we inconvenienced you. We are constraining you. But ask yourself, do we leave the ‘right to constrain’ to a few people with power over us or do we attempt to create another way of being between ourselves?

Share

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

shard

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.”

Share

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.

Share