At the Poacher’s Arms: on progress and tedium

The legendary Poachers Arms is a pub which is always open, can be found just round the corner from anywhere, and where the regular patrons make no pretence at being respectable citizens.

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

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

“Is it?” I said.

“You can see the data,” he said.

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

“Infant mortality is falling across the world.”

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

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

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

“Like what?” said the Regular.

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ve got lives to live,” said Macy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We clinked glasses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t they all get jobs?

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

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

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

Are you all jobless layabouts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simple things made complex: things that don’t work

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.

It seems clear, I think, to most people, that when a thing does not work, it is not working. If your motorised trebuchet does not work then it is failing to throw rocks at the Palace of Westminster and we can all agree that it is not working as a motorised trebuchet should.

When people say that capitalism is not working – and I have heard various people say just this lately – the point tends to be more controversial. The reasons why it is controversial (besides the definition of capitalism) are interesting. Firstly, let’s complicate this further, since that is the task of these posts.

In my experience people tend to mean two quite different and separate things when they say ‘capitalism isn’t working’. They either mean (a) It isn’t working as it should right now or (b) It has never worked. The former gets more sympathy at the moment, because a lot of people in the UK are getting poorer right now.

So this statement (a) is clearly true on one level, in that we experience the lowered standard of living brought about, apparently, by some of the lynchpins of the capitalist system. But the implication of it is that the system can be fixed.

But let me put a third point of view. Let’s call it (c). This viewpoint says (c) capitalism is working just fine thanks, and we just have a few glitches to iron out. And here is the evidence for that point of view:

What this exposes for me is that the question of whether capitalism works is, unlike a motorised trebuchet, a matter of your point of view. That graph is from the US but last year in the UK wages for most people stayed flat or even fell, while CEOs picked up 30% pay rises – as they have been doing all through the credit crisis and recession (including the current recession they are pretending isn’t happening because certain growth figures don’t technically say it is yet). I also suspect that not shown on this graph is a 9% or so who have had rising incomes (though not as steep) either as owners of property and capital on a smaller scale or as high level managers of various types – managers and salesmen to those with the real money.

So now we see that statement (a) – capitalism isn’t working right now – is possibly largely from the point of view of people who have felt they have benefited from it in the past. Capitalism working ‘as it should’ means capitalism working for them.

Meanwhile statement (b) – capitalism has never worked – must come from another viewpoint once again. In my case it is usually from the viewpoint of the very large number of people in the world who live in poverty while we clearly have the technology and resources to prevent the situation. I feel a little bit unsympathetic to the people who claim (a), because they just got saddled with the kind of ‘austerity measures’ (corporate bonanza) that ‘we’ (our glorious leaders) used to force on poor countries. So now suddenly capitalism isn’t working. But there were other ways of looking at it all along, no?

Capitalism: not a motorised trebuchet.

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At the Poachers Arms: growing numbers

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.

The other day I found it operating from – of all places – the north wall of St Paul’s Cathedral. I ordered myself a pint of Winstanley and watched through the doorway some hippies being friendly to police officers. A man sitting next to me introduced himself and we fell to talking about large-scale organising for a different political system that would give us more control over our lives.

Within moments he admitted to being a ‘Blairite’, a crime for which he seemed unrepentant, but this was the Poachers Arms so I made no comment. In the true Blairite tradition he said he thought that left and right needed to unite in order to change the world.

I suggested that if he meant the promoters of right wing ideology who used their money and power to impose their self-interested ideas on others then I could not join him in his quest for global unity, but if he meant Daily Mail readers then actually I agreed. We then had a discussion about whether you could divide the rich from the comfortable working class or middle class at some particular level of income and decided that you couldn’t. I pointed out that there are, however, reasons why particular people, including powerful people and even those on low incomes, will always support the status quo. It was important to understand, I suggested, that there would have to be movement without having everyone on board.

This bothered him a little, as though he, like the hippies outside, thought that the whole world could sing together in harmony. He didn’t want to pursue the matter though, instead taking a sip of his pint of Cromwell and gazing around for a moment until he hit on a new topic.

My new friend seemed worried about one particular idea he had heard doing the rounds: the idea of bringing other people into the ‘movement’ for change. This was too much like conversion for his liking, and I agreed.

“People will join in large numbers if and when they feel pissed off enough,” I said. “I don’t think there’s much point in trying to persuade them to take action before then.”

“Ok, that’s good,” he said, “Because I was starting to feel a religious vibe around here.”

“I do think that people experimenting with politics right now, without mass support, are important,” I said. “When more people are tired of being made poorer, they will be joining a core of people who already have experience organising.”

“As long as the education process isn’t going one way,” he said.

“Since those people active in politics in this country hasn’t brought about a new world lately,” I said, “I think that everyone needs to learn from each other.”

He raised his glass in agreement. I drained mine and left. Outside the Poachers Arms the police officers were stopping and searching a homeless man.

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At the Poachers Arms: consumer power and debt

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.

Yesterday I was sat in the Poachers just across the road from the occupation at St Paul’s Cathedral and over a pint of Very Hairy Badger got talking to a man with an Australian-English accent. We got to talking about how we could organise long-term to oppose the financial and political structures that are currently squeezing us.

His suggestion was that a large organisation of consumers could gain power over banks and utility providers by withdrawing from them, one corporation at a time, until they were forced to restructure themselves, or the politicians were forced to restructure them.

While I half-liked the idea, my response was that consumption is structured as an individual activity and it is very difficult to built collective action around it. For instance any threatened bank/corporation could drop prices and the effort to abandon them would be undermined by people having to maximise their use of their resources as individuals. I also suggested that it would require quite a large amount of people to be involved to really threaten the existence of a bank or corporation and building towards that would be difficult on the back of a distant promise of power.

He accepted this was a problem, but asked whether an idea I had mentioned – that of organising debtors against their creditors – didn’t have the same problem. Aren’t debtors just consumers, after all? And wouldn’t organising around debt suffer from the same problem that it is structured as an individual burden?

As I drank my pint I found I couldn’t immediately disagree with him, but thinking about it afterwards I thought that perhaps debt is not the same as other goods we buy. It is money, not a good, and as such is pure fiction backed up by force, and so it exposes the way our economic system works. Organising around it would reveal the power structures like nothing else. But it would also require long term organising, and could be undermined by people making individual choices they need to make.

As I said goodbye to my companion at the bar we both understood that no problems had been solved. But in the Poachers Arms problems are not just for solving, problems are for uniting around within the embrace of a Very Hairy Badger.

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On the deification of utter bastards

A right bastard

I was inspired to write about the worship of not-very-nice people partly by the death of Steve Jobs, well-known bully, censor, exploiter and selfish bastard, and partly by the sight of ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T.E. Lawrence on my shelf. I say shelf. There isn’t space on the shelf so it is in a teetering stack behind my door, along with other books that are half-read or on their way into or out of my life.

The interesting thing about Seven Pillars of Wisdom isn’t that it is great literature (it isn’t) or that Lawrence of Arabia did great things in Arabia (well-known, if questionable). The interesting thing about it is that, unlike most biographies of political operators, Lawrence makes little attempt to make his actions or morals more palatable or to sell himself as a man who loves puppies. He makes it very clear what sort of person he is, and he is a bastard. He pushed armies around like expendable cattle, manipulated people, lied, tricked, betrayed, and although he felt bad about ‘unnecessary’ deaths in battle, it seemed as much a matter of technical pride as anything.

Perhaps it is unfair to pick on people in wartime, since it rarely brings out just good in people, but the point is that these people (Churchill for example) were admired as people, not merely for their sometimes dubious achievements. It’s one thing to say ‘This man is a bastard but we need his skills right now’, it’s another thing to then turn him into a hero.

There are, of course, always things to be said in defence of these much-admired figures. As the article above says of Steve Jobs: “He was a polymath, a skilled motivator, a decisive judge, a farsighted tastemaker, an excellent showman, and a gifted strategist.” But, and I can’t help coming back to this, he was also a bastard.

I also, personally speaking, question the need for his products – or rather, they have no relation to matters of ‘need’ at all. Since I’ve picked such an arbitrary historical figure to compare Jobs to I think I’m going to take it even further. Lawrence was involved in a highly dishonest campaign to fight Ottoman Turkey that (a) was never going to give the Arabs the independence promised and (b) had as much to do with maintaining the British Empire after the war as winning the war at that moment. It probably helped get the British Mandate for Palestine that has had such wonderful results since.

It’s not that I want everyone to be nice – in fact I’ve even argued that the niceness of politicians is irrelevant. Besides, sometimes I’m not particularly nice myself and I would never expect it of anyone all the time. I am however suspicous of the claim that some people ‘need’ to behave nastily. This argument is entirely dependent on certain power imbalances – the ones that allow them to be nasty without consequences – being in place and accepted. And I wonder about the causes and the effects of deifying these people who are known to have systematically screwed people over. What does it say about our culture? Or perhaps more to the point, what does it say about the people who decide who is important in our publicly shared culture? They value achievement, clearly, but not just any old achievements I suspect. They value achievements that benefit the right people, and accept unpleasant behaviour as necessary to the system of power because they personally benefit from that system of power.

As for us, those who aren’t the right people, in my experience it feels good to do yourself the favour of rising above the hero-worship of our lords and masters. Instead we can admire the achievements of those who threatened the right people, or admire people who achieved nothing, or not in the ordinary sense of achievement. I admire ordinary people I meet who know how to treat everyone around them with care and respect. One day I hope to be like them.

Until then, I’ll probably carry on being rude to people who admire Steve Jobs.

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What to say when people say….what a politician said

Yes, this time I think we finally got the honest one

Here are some suggested answers to someone who mentions something a politician said, including, say, an explanation of what is happening in the economy and what the politicians are doing about it. This also covers the ‘news’ (i.e. repetitions of government press statements) as put out by organisations such as the BBC:

1. Take out your phone, on which you will have earlier recorded the buzzing of an injured wasp. Play this sound to the person and say ‘I find this to have more significance than what you just said.’

2. Did you learn to trust politicians’ explanations of their actions from Tony Blair? If someone in a position of power would lie to start a war that killed several hundred thousand people and made millions homeless, do you think another might lie about, say, their reasons for cutting government budgets?

3. What is it that makes you trust that your ‘leaders’ have your best interests at heart then? Who taught you this, have they lost their job and/or home yet, and have they ever studied any, y’know, history? If you don’t believe they have your best interests at heart, why do you repeat what they say in public as though it has meaning?

4. Really, I’m interested to know why you think you ‘need’ people in these ‘leadership’ positions and why you choose to respect them against a vast weight of evidence that suggests they steal from you, line their own pockets and habitually lie to you – not about minor things but about really major things – like whether they help torture people (the British government do, it turns out).

5. Look, it is not politicians’ faults that they lie about everything they are doing. They are the mouthpieces for a fundamentally dishonest and abusive economic system that is making you poorer right now and they don’t have any choice but to lie. You do have a choice whether you believe it. I find your choice…odd.

6. Say one of your own thoughts. It will be better.

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A Dictionary of Terms for the Shafted: Part 1

A hive mind known to colonise other hive minds

This is the beginning of a dictionary of contemporary working life. I may one day write some further additions to it. Submissions welcome.

Freezing Bottom: the condition of an organisation in which wages are frozen, but only at one end of the salary spectrum. It is not considered polite to talk about it.

Totally Targetted: when an organisation replaces the pursuit of values, or active engagement with real problems, with a pursuit of targets. This is the beginning of the end. The real target is your self-directed working and any notion of cognitive independence from the hive mind. Run.

360 Performance Appraisal: you suck the boss while the boss scratches his moustache over your groin.

Effing Effed: Due to efficiency savings, your newly efficient job role now efficiently covers the work done by three people previously. You are paid the same, or accounting for inflation, less. You know that this ‘efficiency’ reduces the quality of your work but this appears to be of no interest to anyone.

Casualisation casualty: someone whose job and all future job roles have moved from permanent payroll positions to temp or contract work. You are expected to appreciate the flexibility, though it is left ambiguous who the flexibility is for. Say goodbye to buying a house.

Robot Rogered: When a consultant robot is asked to come in and improve things you are considered to have no expertise in – i.e. what you spend forty hours a week doing. These highly intelligent yet ignorant robots will, rather than consult you, apply the stand formula for process ‘improvements’ they apply everywhere, then leave you to sort out the mess. Robots are paid approximately five times more than you.

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Kicking John Stuart Mill

Asking for it

No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. John Stuart Mill put forward the most famous defence of it and the truth of his case is now widely accepted, at least in the civilised places of the world. When I read Mill when I was younger his arguments seemed so much like common sense that I wondered he had even had to make them.

A few years ago I was working – for reasons that now seem as naïve as my appreciation of Mill – in the UK government’s Department for International Development. It was a merry place full of well-intentioned liberals who were for the most part quite genuinely committed to ending poverty across the world.

I soon began to notice that, while certain criticisms of the Department were acceptable, others were not. Questioning the efficacy of certain methods was fine – welcomed in fact. But questioning the rule of profit, trade and efficiency, and questioning the power relations between Department staff and poor people was entirely beyond the bounds of reasonable criticism.

I tried to talk about these things for a while but in the end I shut up. It wasn’t that I didn’t hold to my criticisms any more, but I discovered that the more I voiced them, the more I got pigeonholed as some kind of crank, or worse, useless to their cause. I stopped saying what I thought in meetings. I knew that if I did speak, any attempt to get a permanent job would be ruined. When I stopped caring about that – who the hell would want a job there? – I still said nothing. There seemed no gain to anyone from establishing myself as a useless weirdo.

That was when I went back to the past in a time machine, found John Stuart Mill, and dragged him forward to the future, just so that I could give him a hearty kick up the arse. ‘I didn’t want freedom of speech,’ I told him. ‘I wanted freedom to speak. An abstract freedom does nothing for my dignity if eight hours a day, five days a week I can’t practice it. Freedom of speech is nothing but a bad joke if the economic power of my managers renders them deaf.’

Then I began to notice that in the Department, so committed to the poor people of the world, no one gave much thought to the fact that they, a professional class of people extending across NGOs and government departments across the world, had granted to themselves a vast amount of decision-making power over how aid and development was done. It never seemed to occur to them that every decision they made was a decision that poor people could not make for themselves. Of course they admitted they got the decisions wrong sometimes, but they could always try again, there would always be another chance to be effective.

It seemed to me that the managerialism of the Department was a microcosm of a greater managerialism: the wealthy countries managing the poor countries and we, the wealthy, managing the poor. The roles we all played in this vast managerial empire could not be questioned. My freedom of speech – such as it was – meant far more than the freedom of speech of a poor person, and that was fine with the Department, even though the poor had much more at stake. The trick was simply for us all to play our roles as well as possible.

This made me, I’m afraid, quite irate, and I grabbed John Stuart Mill, who I had refused to return to his own time, and kicked him up the arse not once but several times. ‘We didn’t need freedom to speak,’ I said to him as I kicked. ‘We needed the power to speak. We needed to break out of the managerial regimes we were taught to regard as ‘natural’. We didn’t want to be supplicants asking favours of the elite, we wanted to speak as equals.’ I then put John Stuart Mill on a leash and tied him to a stake in my garden. I had a feeling I was going to need him again.

Soon I noticed that the professionals of the development industry were very keen on something called ‘voice’. The voices of the poor should be listened to if development was to be a success. This seems very laudable, unless you have already noted the power relations of the managerial regime, and so you become suspicious.

What is this ‘voice’ they mean? How does it fit in to the development industry? And you find that it means surveys, questionnaires, occasional interviews with poor people. These can then be summarised – with the more extreme views filtered out of course – and fitted into a report to come back to the Department. This will then be added as an annex to another report that doesn’t pay any attention to the mild conclusions of its own annex.

I began to realise that any time someone talks about ‘voice’, it means they intend to keep the powerless powerless. While the ‘voice’ of the poor floats through the corridors of power, the poor have to get on with their lives. As the ‘voice’ of the poor goes into the NGO newsletter – discreetly edited of course, since the donors wouldn’t understand the complexities of the project – the poor have to do things in order to live. Usually, and in the long run, it is their own actions that will create better lives for poor. Meanwhile in the Department the poor had become passive bodies, recipients of our help. The talk was of how our actions could save the poor.

So I went out to the garden to see John Stuart Mill again. This time I gave him a damn good thrashing. ‘The power to speak is not enough,’ I said to him. ‘I realise now that speaking won’t put food on anyone’s table. We needed the power to act. That means political power. You talked so much of liberty and freedom but you always assumed that the political structures of the elite were the right place for politics to happen. You assumed that if the people did have politics, it would be processed through the institutions of the elite and so find expression. But the elite have their own politics, their own desires to enact, and so our own desires and actions become swallowed by theirs.’

I don’t work in the development industry any more. Two days before leaving the Department for International Development I vented my frustration at the months of silence by telling a lot of the staff exactly what I thought of the place. It’s true I didn’t get locked up for doing that but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference either, except for ending any chance that I could work in development again. Everyone knows everyone you see, and they all know the kinds of things you should and should not say.

No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. Except, that is, for criticising the word ‘freedom’, the word ‘of’ and the word ‘speech’. No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech, except to say that it is not the power to act. If you do not have the power to act then freedom of speech becomes subsumed into the control techiques of those who do have the power, if you do have the power, freedom of speech is a triviality.

I still keep John Stuart Mill in the present, locked in my basement. Every now and then I go down and give him a good kicking on general principles. I suppose he suffers a bit but no one could call me a cruel man. I always allow him to say whatever he wants to me, however hard I’m kicking him.

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Outputs and Measurables: The Obvious Reality in 7 points

Measurable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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