Jousting with your Inner Thatcher: Part 2 – ‘You shouldn’t need the government to do it for you’

In the style of Adam Curtis: “This is a series of posts about how our politicians became so successful at promoting a US-style form of individualism that we all – even those who claim to hate her – came to have a little Margaret Thatcher hiding inside of us, guiding our every move.”

That goes for the anarchists too in my experience. In fact I spoke to a couple who were quite confused when Cameron unveiled The Big Society. It sounded to them like a step towards anarchism. Many on both left and right these days tend to agree that the government shouldn’t do too much for us. Ultimately, say these people, it would be great if we did without the government altogether.

Now, if what you’re saying to me is that our government is run by greedy, selfish scum and we shouldn’t trust them to organise anything bigger than a tea-and-scones picnic for us then I’m bound to agree with you. It doesn’t strike me as an idea that could be argued with – except by people who directly benefit from the current state of affairs of course, which isn’t as many as it should be.

And that’s the big problem that the left at least should understand (the right are precisely the right because they refuse to be concerned about it): resources are distributed very unequally in our society. And no, they don’t go to people based on merit, and if they did, whose idea of merit would it be? And what of those born without merit? Are they condemned to a life of poverty? The question of the mechanics  of inequality is not as obvious as people think, and involves moving away from the comedic idea that people people earn what they deserve.

Where people are right is that we can always get more involved in creating our own lives. We live a life that is consumerist in a deeper way than us being able to buy lots of silly shit in the shops. Everything is done for us, often by professionals. Education is done for us. The local gym is run by other people. Charity is done by professionals. Pubs are run for us. Food is made elsewhere. Festivals are created for us. It lulls us into a strange state of active passivity such that even when we decide we want to break away from mainstream society, we assume, as we  run around doing lots of stuff, that someone else will sort out the cool shit we want to be involved in.

We should organise more stuff ourselves. We should make our lives our own. It’s all true. But over it all hangs one important cloud: a form of economic organising – companies and corporations in a government-created market environment – that concentrates wealth in people and places where we can’t get at it. Until we find another way of organising our economy, there is only one body with the power and ability to redistribute that wealth in a more reasonable way: the body that creates the legal structure of companies in the first place.

We can argue all day about how the government should be organised and who gets the power of decision-making, and how to distribute resources without concentrating too much power in their hands, but the idea of reducing the government while corporations run free is the Thatcherite utopia. People in power deliberately obscure the question of resources in the name of an individualism they expect us all agree with. We shouldn’t let them. We shouldn’t let our inner Thatcher whisper ‘Yes’ as we hear them talk about taking responsibility for our lives. They mean something different by it than we do.

So yeah, it turns out that, even if some of those Tories believe their own rhetoric, The Big Society is a cover for a massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to those who already have it. It isn’t a Big Society at all, it’s a Big Shit On Our Heads. Work for free because we (the rich) don’t want to pay for it. If you don’t have the services you want, you’re to blame. A lot of people have noticed this by now and I’m not saying anything new. But if you want to know the kind of thing I mean by ‘government-created market environment’, have you noticed that according to the politicians (as well as their backers, of course) what rich people need to incentivise them is higher salaries, while what poor people need to incentivise them is…lower salaries? They build their tax and welfare policies accordingly.

We don’t need the government to organise everything, but until our economic structures change, we do need our central governing body – whatever form it takes – to distribute wealth a little more evenly, and to take steps to lower the huge wealth gap that they’ve been busy creating. That is what this current government will never do, and so their vision of ‘small government’ is not in favour of freedom, as they claim, but in favour of corporate power, i.e. in favour of themselves and their friends. As for your inner Thatcher, I recommend a sharp blow of a mace to the skull. Do it quick, before she starts whispering to you again.

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So you think you’re a radical?

This 1960s psychedelic peace sign is the first result for 'radical activism' on Google Images

I’ve always quite liked those essays and pamphlets that have from time to time been put out to confront politically active people with their own behaviour patterns. They tend to have a provocative edge and slightly supercilious note that I will attempt to emulate in this post. Because this one is for people who think of themselves as radicals. This is a post about how radicalism might not be radical, and you’re probably to blame. No, not you, obviously, I mean all the people behind you.

I should make it clear I’m not talking about spontaneous outbursts of action by people fighting for what they need. It’s not reasonable to discuss what is or isn’t radical about sudden mass movements of people trying to make space for themselves in the world. It simply happens. I’m talking about – and to – the people who sit around discussing how to change things.

Events like the demonstration on the 26th March have begun to bother me. Before it happened there was all sorts of talk about all the cool stuff that was going to happen, yet apart from UKUncut very little happened outside the march. Some people ran around in circles for a bit and had some barneys with the police, but no targets, no occupations, no serious disruptions. It seemed that people were waiting for someone else to organise the cool stuff and when it didn’t they just accepted they were riding on the back of a demonstration created by an organisation many of them despise.

What is the cool stuff anyway? What is radical action? Well we’re all agreed now that radical stuff should feel good. It should feel liberating as well as being liberating. It should be exciting. It should give you a buzz. It should give you some sense of inner release, or expansion, or connectedness. Having read a load of radical literature from the 60s and 70s I think I’ve found the roots of this attitude: the 60s and 70s. And its not only our attitudes we get from there, but also our rhetoric, and our theory, and most of our idea of what radical action is. A startling amount of it comes from the Situationists and if you haven’t read them, you should, because that’s who you’re following.

Problem is, that was a time of a great outburst of individualism among young people. It felt great. I’m sure many people had really interesting experiences of personal liberation. And the structures of society remained largely untouched. I don’t think that was just because the US government shot people at Kent State University or whatever other particular event you choose to blame. I suspect it is because you can’t really challenge large-scale structures – hierarchical collectives if you will – as individuals. And here’s the really horrible thing I’ve begun to suspect: in political terms your personal liberation doesn’t count for diddly-squat.

Yes, I know we’ve all come to believe that the liberation of society and our personal liberation are intimately bound up with each other, and maybe they are bound up with each other a bit, but they are different things. I think when eager young people (like me ten years ago) are inducted into what passes for radical culture, they are really inducted into a sub-culture that is very good at giving a sense of personal liberation. And that’s it. Not much more.

I think this helps to explain why some people in Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s were convinced they were part of an anti-capitalist movement. As individuals they were anti-capitalist. All their friends were anti-capitalist. The fact that 99% of the population didn’t care often seemed to escape their notice and they called themselves a movement. It wasn’t a movement. I don’t think there is an anti-cuts movement at the moment either. Just a few people who agree with each other hanging around with each other and not much will – from what I’ve seen – to try and break out of that bubble. So someone can make a claim like ‘everyone knows the NHS is being privatised’ and not understand how wrong they are.

The truth is, it’s hard work to set up organisations open to everyone. It’s hard to beat the mainstream media at disseminating information outside of twitter. If activism should feel fun, I guess we just won’t do it, because hard work isn’t fun. As for why I would focus on organising: I think the people in charge are really well organised at the moment. The reason every government is more right wing even than we feared is because there is very effective right wing organisation pulling in one direction and there is no organisation at all pulling in any other direction.

One of the problems with radical political circles is the failure to communicate with ‘outsiders’ and another, perhaps even more insidious, is that everyone agrees on what radical action is. Even though in our current social context (by definition, since each context is unique) these actions we are taking have no track record of success, this is what we do. This is radical action. Protest. Direct Action. Solidarity rallies. Occupations. I do these things myself too, but I’ve often been filled with doubt while doing them, and surprised by the certainty of others that they know the right way to fight for change.

Some of the actions are even actions known to have failed. I was surfing the internet while distracting myself from writing this post and I came across the Jarrow March 2011. A bunch of unemployed workers are planning to march from Jarrow to London to highlight their situation, in imitation of a similar march in 1936. Now, I don’t know how to point this out without sounding like the bad guy, but someone’s going to have to say it. Guys, you know it didn’t work in 1936, right? You know it made bugger all difference? I suppose the reference to history is supposed to create certain resonances with another time of austerity. But couldn’t we try something that might work this time?

It might seem counter-intuitive that I’m talking about a lack of hard-work organising and that people are organising things that don’t work in the same post. But they are related. They’re both about people pursuing their personal liberation along lines laid down in another time, by other people. And the personal liberation can be such a good feeling that people end up sure they know how to liberate others and throw themselves into ‘radical’ activism with all their might. And often what they’re really doing is continuing their personal journey of liberation. Don’t get me wrong: personal liberation is good, and the first direct actions anyone does can be amazing for that reason, but it should be the start of other things.

I really don’t want to denigrate people’s efforts within anti-cuts groups. But more and more I start to get the feeling that many people are campaigning within a bubble of them and others who agree with them. I think this is in part a consequence of the idea that activism is meant to feel good. And I don’t see much reflection on how we can bring change prior to taking action, or see enough thinking about how society is different now than in the past, and how we might have to adjust our methods to deal with that. I see very few people admitting that we aren’t sure how to be radical yet. And it may turn out we want to be as individualistic as mainstream culture – or even more so – but I don’t think we should just adopt that culture with self-fulfilment without thinking about it.

I don’t know how to be radical, but I would like to propose two ideas that might lead in that direction. The first is to analyse in detail the structural and social landscape in which you live. It is different to at any time in the past. Any radical actions proposed in the past may no longer be radical. Like the TUC march, they may be mere ritualised resistance, bothering the people in power not one bit. So let’s examine the possible routes to change as society stands right now. To do this properly doesn’t quite mean throwing away everything you know about radical action, but it requires you to bracket it while you imagine doing things completely differently. It might mean never going on a protest again. Probably not, but it might.

The second idea is for you to challenge your notion of yourself, the way you relate to the world, and what you expect of the world. Because I don’t think radical action will always feel good right now – though I agree that if it doesn’t feel good in the long run that’s a problem. I don’t think it will always feel liberating in the moment of doing it. And I don’t think how you feel about it should matter as much as most people seem to think it should. If we care about change we need to have an effect on the world, and that’s a very different thing from the satisfaction of individual desires. I certainly wouldn’t want people to engage in hair-shirtism for the sake of it, or return to the days of moralistic mutual discipline in political organising, but I wish at least more people would start thinking about – for instance – how we can really get organised outside of the traditional leftist modes and the boring legwork that will be necessary for it to happen.

I think the lack of self-reflection among people who consider themselves radical is so great that to some extent I wish people would stop doing stuff. Stop marching, stop occupying, stop publishing, stop tweeting, stop doing direct actions, stop everything. Just for a bit. As you become ‘radicalised’ you become inducted into a culture of ‘radicalism’ that is as individualistic as the culture it claims to oppose, and adheres as strongly to ritual forms as our would-be masters do. I think we still need to work out how to be radical: how to think radically, how to act radically, how to relate radically. I don’t think we know yet.

I think the assumption you know how to be radical is killing radicalism.

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How much wood would a woodchuck chuck…if woodchucking was outsourced to Serco?

This woodchucking data is not currently available due to holes in the Freedom of Information Act. However on past performance in similar outsourcing exercises we can safely make the following assumptions:

     

  • There would be woodchucking ‘efficiency savings’ according to both Serco and the government ministers involved. However these would be impossible to detect, since the woodchucking subsidy to Serco would be more or less equal to the amount of money currently being spent on woodchucking by the government woodchucking service, and the indicators used to measure performance would be changed during outsourcing.

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  • There would be a flurry of woodchucking rate improvements at the beginning of the contract while Serco wanted to pretend they gave a toss about woodchucking,  something they have no expertise in, since they have no expertise in anything except subjecting their employees to humiliating management experiments. The increase in woodchucking performance would later turn out to have been the result of making the woodchucks live in constant fear for their jobs.

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  • Over time the rate of woodchucking would drop significantly below that achieved while woodchucking was done in-house. Serco would bet that (a) woodchucking would not become a major political issue so their performance would be ignored and (b) the government department responsible for keeping them to their contract terms would not have the resources to do it.

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  • Despite the dire performance of Serco in the woodchucking business, they would win the contract once more when it came up for renewal because they would have spent the intervening years ‘lobbying’ politicians, i.e. paying them, buying them nice dinners and offering them jobs after their ministerial careers are over.

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  • The woodchucks would all receive a significantly lower salary for woodchucking than previously, and on worse conditions with worse job security. This would result in a lower of quality of life across the woodchuck population, and those woodchucks with a passion for chucking wood would leave their jobs in disgust at having to work for an employer who couldn’t care less whether the wood got chucked or not.

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  • At some point there would be a catastrophic failure to chuck wood at all, as a result of a string of management failures and a failure by Serco to invest in woodchucking long term.  The lives of many people and woodchucks would be ruined as a result, but the responsibility for this would be borne by the government. At no point would Serco shoulder the financial burden of their failures.

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  • Serco would go on to get more fat government contracts in other things in which they would have as much expertise as woodchucking (none), and with new safe ground occupied would proceed to abuse their position once more, milk the contract for all it was worth and run the service into the ground. Their detractors would be labelled ‘The enemies of enterprise’.

I want to photoshop this to say 'Serco: bringing parasitism to life' but I don't know how to use photoshop, or even have it on my computer

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What’s this liberal doing in my head? The problem of ‘illegitimate’ protesters

Riding bronze horses is illegitimate for sure

This is the first in series about the ‘liberal’ mindset, 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.

In the wake of recent protests, and through the pre-emptive arrests for the royal wedding, the government and police have made it clear recently that only ‘legitimate’ protesters are protected by our ‘right’ to protest. I would expect them to make this distinction but it seems crazy for protesters to adopt it too. I’ve seen too many rants online and in newspapers against the ‘aggressive’ protesters who spoil things for all the peaceful protesters. This should be a debate about tactics but many people turn it into a debate about morals (I posted on this recently) and worse, happily adopt the term ‘illegitimate’ protester. If you’ve been using the term, even implicitly, you need to start questioning what the crazy liberal in your head is making you do.

This legitimate/illegitimate distinction comes to us from those currently in power. What ‘legitimate’ largely means is protesters willing to comply with the antiprotest laws of recent years and protesters who will not cause any trouble. About fifteen years ago we had far fewer anti-protest laws on the books (Do you remember those crazy days? It was barely safe to leave the house. It was anarchy. Thank you lords and masters for legislating for that problem). The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters could still be made – ‘peaceful’ protest as ‘legitimate’ is an oldie and a goodie – but the laws have made it much easier. Now if you haven’t consulted the police about where and when you will protest, it is illegitimate. Hence the police could comfortably claim that those in Trafalgar Square who were violently dispersed by police on 26th March weren’t ‘real protesters’.

As an aside, many people, establishment figures and good liberals, have recently attempted to describe the recent Egyptian protests as ‘peaceful’, which obviously helped to legitimise them in their eyes. Though the Egyptian people didn’t start a war it is absurd to describe the protests as peaceful. Talking to people in Egypt when I was on holiday there I realised that many people didn’t protest against Mubarak primarily: they went out on the streets to fight the police. They went out to oppose the arbitrary and abusive powers that had ruined their lives for decades. They burned down the police stations that Mubarak’s security services operated from. They confronted police lines and fought through tear gas to push the police back. Many protesters (close to 700) were killed, but finally, with the military largely standing aside, they won. It was to a large degree a physical fight and anyone who says otherwise is ignoring the facts.

Ah but things aren’t as bad here, is the stock response to this. Yes, this is a good one. Things aren’t as bad here. We don’t need to oppose our government with force, say the moderate liberals. That’s just too extreme when they aren’t locking us up and torturing us. This misses the point spectacularly and it misses it in a way very particular to the liberal mindset. The biggest problem, the defining problem I would say, of the socially liberal worldview is a failure to recognise and understand power.

Protest is the action of the relatively powerless against those who have much power. It is not, I’ve always thought, a particularly good way to exercise power – it lacks finesse and often direction – but when a corrupt system robs you of power, it is one of the few avenues to express power left to you. The advantage of street protest is that all it requires is numbers to make it effective. Enough people to disrupt the narrative, enough people to raise a dissenting voice, enough people to make it clear that the consensus is broken. What should matter then, in terms of tactics, is the ability of the protest to disrupt the abusive status quo, and not the severity of the abuse of power fought.

I can kind of see the argument for saying that protest should be ‘proportionate’ to the level of abuse, but I’m not comfortable with it because what do you calibrate your scale against – Nazism? Pol Pot? Relative to those things we’re all doing fine and should just go home. But in recognition of this argument, if you do think that the level of the abuse matters, if you do view the number of deaths caused by the government as the scale against which you should match your protest level, then please do examine the current plans for dismantling and privatising the NHS, and the cuts to the NHS they said they wouldn’t make. Standards of care will fall and as a result people will die.

There’s your death count for you, and you can add plenty to it for the benefits cuts, but that’s not why you should reject the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate protesters. You should reject it because if you adopt the definitions of those in power, you’ve already lost.

Again this is about people refusing to think about the problem in terms of power. These words, legitimate, illegitimate, were carefully chosen to help entrench those with power in their positions. If you allow them to label certain protesters legitimate and others illegitimate it should be clear that they will seek to attach the label ‘legitimate’ to those who don’t bother them too much and ‘illegitimate’ to those who do bother them. Since the purpose of protest is to bother those in power, surely only a mad person would accept the labels offered. It is a recipe for failure.

The purpose of protest is to disrupt and confront. Those who engage in protest seek to express their desires when few other options are available to them. There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only protest you agree or disagree with, only protest that works or doesn’t. Yes, within any group some person may commit a foolish act, like throwing a fire extinguisher off a roof too close to people on the ground. Some may even engage in violence for the pleasure of hurting other people. Those people can and should be judged on their own actions. To attach labels to whole groups on the basis of those people is the logic of collective punishment.

There is no legitimate or illegitimate protest, only effective and ineffective protest. If you keep listening to the liberal in your head then you’ve chosen the latter. You should perhaps be asking why the liberal in your head is telling you these things. It frames the game in a way that ensures you lose. Where did your liberal ideas come from then, and who do they serve?

Perhaps its time to have a stern talk with the liberal in your head. There’s nothing worse than having your own head stab you in the back.

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History is bollocks: moral politics and other fairy tales

Striking workers and police apply 'moral force' to each other

Oh dear, this one’s a bit long and factually based. I apologise for that.

I still remember a series of books in my school filled with morality tales for children. One that sticks in my mind was the story of some kids who, despite being told by their parents to stay away from the railway track, went and played on it anyway and were electrocuted to death. Why anyone thought a 9-year-old kid needed to read tales of sudden death I don’t know but if the aim of those tales was to give me nightmares they definitely succeeded. There was another one about a girl who put a garden fork through her foot because, against her parents’ warnings, she decided to work in the garden on a Sunday. A fork through the foot doesn’t seem like the end of the world now but it was made much more horrible by the fact that it was punishment. Those stories were extreme but Disney does morality tales too so we’ve all been exposed to them.

Morality tales all tend to have one major problem: they are mostly untrue and even actively dishonest. They are not true in a very particular way, in that there is usually little or no connection between the claimed moral cause and the ensuing effect. The girl didn’t put a fork through her foot because it was Sunday. Probably she did it because she was pissed off that someone was trying to impose stupid rules on her so got distracted while forking the garden. It’s easy to challenge the poor causal linking in morality tales. So it’s interesting that we are told a whole series of morality tales as kids that we mostly accept when we get older, even though they have the same basic structure as those specious frightener tales. We tend to take them more seriously because they are called ‘history’.

We are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, that a whole range of important historical decisions were made for moral reasons. Giving men the vote for example, happened because after the upper class cocked up so badly in the form of WWI they saw that there was a moral duty to share power with the people they had decimated. People cite similar beliefs about the institution of the welfare state after WWII. The start of WWII would be another – people vaguely imagine reasons from the desire to defend Poland to the desire to defend the Jews, or the necessity of self-defence. Or how about the Civil Rights Movement? And this is the one that really got me thinking, because there has been a small clamour of voices among anti-cuts campaigners to keep protests peaceful. And when asked what proof they have that peaceful protests works they always cite the Civil Rights Movement.

So, starting from the top, why did men get the vote after WWI. Well, it’s complicated. I suspect the forgotten Great Unrest might have something to do with it. There were even strikes during the war. The British ruling class had to fight while being undermined from within by its own people, who already hated the them so much before the war started that there was some serious revolutionary talk in the air. And they organised their hatred to oppose their rulers.

Similarly it could be said to be fear of the masses that caused the welfare state to be implemented. The 1926 General Strike was still pretty fresh in the minds of politicians, and here were millions of demobilised unemployed men who were pretty pissed off they’d had to go to war at all. Spending lots of money wouldn’t have come top of the list of a broke government’s priorites after the war for purely moral reasons. I’m not saying that politicians are bad human beings (that’s for another post) but they occupy positions that very, very rarely allow them to think in moral terms.

As for why WWII started, the British establishment didn’t give a toss about the Jews. They didn’t give much of a toss about the Poles either. As for the notion it was a war of self-defence, Hitler had not planned to take on Britain and was said to be rather surprised when the invasion of Poland brought Britain into the war. Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and didn’t plan to destroy such a fine example of the superiority of the Aryan race. So why did Britain join WWII? While Hitler didn’t plan to invade Britain, he did plan to build an empire. And as far as Churchill and his class was concerned, there was only space for one big boy in Europe. Britain went to war mostly to defend the empire from a competitor. The moral justifications came afterwards.

And so to the Civil Rights Movement. Firstly, let’s get the facts straight. This was not simply a movement of peaceful protesters against an oppositional state. Read the history of the Selma March and you realise that local and national governments were pitted against each other. The triumphant peaceful marches in the end got the protection of the state. In other words, they had the central government on side almost as soon as they began. The reasons for the central government’s stance? The moral upstandingness of the protesters? Maybe. Or maybe the Democrat party saw a massive voting block that would forever move the vote in their direction. Who knows? But is it true to say it was peaceful protest that did it? Perhaps it helped, but there was a lot more going on, including more aggressive black power politics and political shenanigans in Washington.

Here’s what they don’t like to teach us about history in school: it is mostly about power, not morals. All the above examples are about organised power blocks going up against each other. And the main reason to pretend it was morality that won out, rather than naked power, is that you can then claim that the current state of affairs, the status quo, is a result of a history of morality triumphant. The lesson of the morality tale is: this world we offer to you is a good and moral place, so all you have to do is behave well and a good world will become even better.

It’s a nice tale, but it’s a fairy tale. It may not be as pretty to believe that history is a consequence of power struggles, and therefore the status quo is the result of power struggles, but it is an important thing to believe, because it leads directly to an interesting conclusion: There is nothing inherently moral about the status quo, and if we want to pursue our own ethics, we will have to do so by the use of power. Behaving well so as to generate some mythical ‘moral force’ has nothing to do with it.

Some might go further and say that the idea we should protest within certain respectable limits is about preventing us from generating any power that would threaten those who have power right now. At the very least, lets think about the fact that if your form of protest is approved by those in power, it can’t be threatening their position very much or they would cease to approve of it very quickly.

I wonder if, somewhere at the back of our minds, as we consider asserting ourselves against the status quo, we are worried that, because we are abandoning the moral demands made by a fairy tale history, we’ll get a fork stuck through our foot. Lose your fear of a fork in the foot I say! (Or maybe it was only me that had that fear, but you get my point). If the fork gets stuck in your foot, it won’t be because morals demand it, but through a careless application of force that could happen to anyone. The moral of the story of the girl who worked on Sunday could equally have been: Apply force, but carefully.

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On The March for the Alternative that wasn’t and Ed Miliband’s inability to fuck Tina

The logic of Tina has its way with a puppy and a child

There were lots of alternatives on offer on last Saturday’s March for the Alternative. Alternatives to marching. Alternatives to peaceful protest. Alternatives to non-political policing. Alternatives takes on what the other protesters were up to. Alternative tales of how your day went. And ‘alternative’ versions of the the truth in the media the next day. Protesters have had a go at each other and there have been some honourable attempts to bring them back together again (Solidarity Forever).

Unfortunately the one thing the March for the Alternative didn’t deliver was the one thing it claimed to deliver: an alternative future for those marching. The reason for that can be summed up in the fact that it had Ed Miliband at the end of it. Anything that finishes at Ed Miliband has got to be flawed. Not because Ed Miliband is any better or worse than any other leader of recent years, but because Ed Miliband is no better or worse than leaders of recent years.

And the only argument the TUC and anyone else ever has is: They’re better than the Tories.  And so we get Ed Miliband at the end of a ‘March for the Alternative’.

Now it’s true that people protested and marched for lots of different reasons on Saturday, but I’m pretty that they all agreed on one thing: when David Cameron said there was no alternative to the cuts, they wanted to scream at their television that he was lying. The first, most basic, most necessary response to There Is No Alternative (TINA) has always got to be:  Fuck Tina. Just because your imagination has failed, doesn’t mean mine has. Fuck Tina. We can and we will find alternatives, because we have to, and because we’re pretty sure you’re lying about them not being out there. Fuck Tina.

(As an aside, I once had the passing thought to set up a website called fucktina.com on this very subject, but upon investigating found – unsurprisingly really – that the name is being squatted by someone waiting to make a quick buck from porn providers. Another cunning plan bites the dust.)

So if that’ s why people marched – with the conviction there are alternatives – what was a man deeply complicit in the Blair/Brown regime doing at the end of the march? Not fucking Tina, that’s for sure. Ed Miliband has never fucked Tina. Ed Miliband will never fuck Tina. Ed Miliband is incapable of fucking Tina. But the problem is much worse than that. No one in the Labour party, destroyed by the right wing economic coup that brought Blair to power, will ever fuck Tina. But it’s worse than that even. No party, in our current political system, will ever fuck Tina. It is set up so that those who succeed must fully commit themselves to an undemocratic institution – Parliament. This institution is not made democratic by a vote every few years, whatever we’ve been told. Parliament is a place for powerful people to gather and decide our future.  Most of those powerful people are not elected, and the ones who are got there by lying. That sounds extreme but if you think about it for a moment you’ll realise it is a simple statement of fact.

It is my opinion that the only way we can fight for a real alternative in this country is to fight for radical institutional change within the governmental and economic structures that currently manage our lives. This is a very definite and specific thing to ask for: neither revolution, nor policy changes, but changes to the structures themselves. Changes that would let us inside the walls, that would recognise that we can trust ourselves to make the decisions that our leaders currently make. Changes that would recognise the unsustainability of closed institutions like Parliament in a world where information flows more freely, and people are better networked than ever before. Changes that would keep politicians on a much, much shorter leash.

But the first step is to lose the idea that we must choose one party or the other. We must stop acting as though this way of doing things was created by God at the beginning of the Universe. It wasn’t. It’s very recent. It’s not working.  We need to stop believing that choosing a party slightly less bad than the other party is an okay way to run a country, that this system is worthy of our hopes and aspirations and skills and knowledge. The Labour party is not the problem in the system, the problem is that we allow professional power-mongers to make our decisions for us in the belief that they know better. They really don’t. On that topic, and just in case you’ve forgotten what Labour is all about. Here’s a reminder of what they’ve done recently:

– Undermined the welfare state

– Prepared the NHS for privatisations

– Started a war of aggression in a country not threatening us

– Been bought by the bankers, had lots of nice dinners with them, and so helped precipitate the financial crisis

– Introduced university tuition fees

– Increased the gap between rich and poor

– Reduced social mobility

– Infected the public sector with a plague of targets and other business-worshipping methods

– Passed a veritable barrage of authoritarian measures

– Sold schools to rich people

– Contributed to anti-immigrant and anti-muslim feeling

– Expressed no doubts about their former leader becoming a millionaire off contacts made during his ‘public service’

– Allowed James Purnell to continue existing

People marched last Saturday for good and honourable reasons and they marched in large numbers. They marched against an essentially undemocratic government that does not care about them and has a deeply-held belief that Money Is Right. Ed Miliband is not offering an alternative, and is certainly not offering institutional reform. He couldn’t if he wanted to. People are often convinced that you can change institutions from the inside. But if the change you want is to give away power, you simply can’t. No institution does that willingly. It doesn’t allow people who would give away power anywhere near the reigns in the first place. That means if we want it, we have to unite and take it.  If I’m right, and institutional reform is the way forward, then we all have to fuck Tina together.

I’ve never had group sex before, but they say you should try everything once.

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Dropping in on David Roland, Tory Party funder, March 26th

There is an old radical slogan with many variants, along the lines of: ‘The people screwing you over have names and addresses’. It is, I assume, meant to be an implied threat as much as a statement of fact, but I’ve never been sure about its worth. Yes, there are particular people who play a key role in the system that is screwing us over. But I suspect they are infinitely replaceable, and it is the structure of the institutions that I see as the problem.

But despite all that, sometimes you can’t help looking at particular people and thinking: ‘The world really would be better off if you personally had less power and influence’.

David Roland is the top funder of the Conservative party. He set up a hedge fund called Blackfish Capital, which has offices at 5 Saville Row. Apart from being a Tory, and a thief, and probably corrupt, as well as being among the people who lobbied for financial deregulation, he’s an all-round good egg:  Guardian profile of David Rowland

So some of us thought we should drop in on him and Blackfish yesterday, since we were in the vicinity anyway. Sadly the offices were closed, even to David Rowland himself:

David Rowland of Blackfish Capital

But there was still a bit of a party, with David Rowland bringing along lots of friends:

Blackfish Capital rudely refused us entry

I bet David Rowland lobbies for hedge funds even on his days off.

David Rowland: partying at his offices

Does it help to focus on individuals within the system who have personal bastard-like qualities? I don’t know, but it can be fun. It can also help underline what kind of world we are fighting against: David Rowland’s world.

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Anti-cuts campaigners, looking inward, and the failure of 26th March

This is not a revolution, not even close

Okay, so there is no criteria for success or failure for the Doing Stuff for the Alternative on 26th March. Except for the TUC who presumably want a Labour government. For everyone else, whatever happens on the day itself, I know what’s going to happen on the 28th. Exactly the same thing that happened every other Monday. The 26th will change nothing. It won’t be the revolution. It means nothing in itself, no matter how many people turn out or how many buildings get trashed.

So what’s it good for? I think it’s good for helping solve a bit of a problem that a few people have been noting among anti-cuts campaigners (and let’s be honest, among students in particular). There are an awful lot of activists spending and awful lot of time talking to each other. This is nice, especially if everyone has a cup of tea while doing so, but there may be such a thing as taking it too far. We may have gone too far already.

I’ve noticed a problem that I’ve noticed in activist groups of other kinds over the years, that they start using particular language and thinking in particular ways that makes them very inward-looking. The language is often very definite, and becomes more fixed as time goes on. It sets the group apart from the rest of the world. You have better politics, better actions, better ideas. You take your place in a mythology of your own making as the heroes of the political struggle of the day.

This was, in my opinion, one of the major reasons for the fizzling out of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’ of the late nineties to early 2000s. It wasn’t actually a movement at all. It was a bunch of people who largely agreed with each other spending a lot of time talking to each other. While those in power got on with their stuff, and most people got on with living their lives.

Having seen a couple of the occupations in this latest round of occupations, I’m not even convinced that student activists are talking to other students, let alone talking to people who aren’t students – i.e. most of the population. This is a big problem. And I hear people talking in meetings about ‘making links’ outside there own groups, but I still haven’t seen much doing it.

I also suspect that sectarianism, rearing its ugly head more often than last year, is partly a result of spending too much time talking to each other. It becomes easy to focus on the small difference between each other because you’ve ignored the fact that the majority of the population of the UK doesn’t agree with you, or doesn’t know what they think, or think your methods suck, or simply don’t understand what you’re blithering on about. I suspect the majority of people don’t even know there is an anti-cuts march on the 26th (no, I haven’t done a survey but I would bet money on this). They will see it on the news, and consume it through the mainstream media commentators.

It isn’t easy, getting out of your own circles, partly because the social stratification in Britain is very finely graded and people don’t generally mix much with people unlike them. It’s a really hard thing to do, but if it doesn’t happen, there’s no point in even having these protests. If it doesn’t happen this ‘anti-cuts movement’ ends right here, because it isn’t a movement…yet.

The one thing it’s easy for you to do is your have your own ‘revolution’ (not a useful word I think but that’s for another post) in your own group. If you are already in a privileged position it may well even have some minor impact on the way government works. You can then take on respectable jobs, perhaps in government even, and in thirty years you can be telling your children all about your ‘radical’ youth. This is the 60s and 70s path to revolution and it ends…right where we are now.

So talk to people. For god’s sake talk to people, and not just on the internet. Organise, and not just with the people you know. As for the 26th: the only way anything will happen afterwards is if you spend the day (and night) building up your book of contacts, sharing viewpoints and ideas with people unlike you, and talking about what comes next. And afterwards, when you’re getting angry about the inevitable ignorant and savage media coverage, think about all those people who didn’t come on the 26th, who just saw you on the news, and how you’re going to talk to and organise with them.

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Reasons to…burn books and go on your first protest

You're the firestarter, twisted firestarter

This is a post about why everyone should burn books. I’m serious about this. I really think it would be good for people. I know that sounds a bit wrong, but bear with me.

“Do you think I could do some Morris Dancing here?” you say to someone in the park.

“It’s a free country,” they say, meaning that they are free to think you’re a twat as much as you being free to dance there.

And it’s a nice thing to say. It feels good. “It’s a free country.” It rolls off the tongue. It reminds you that the secret police aren’t sitting at the next table, or that there is not, as yet, a law against Morris dancing, despite the offence it causes.

“It’s a free country,” you say, even though you’re a sophisticated person who recognises there is no such thing as absolute truth and that ‘freedom’ can’t be strictly defined.

And even though when you walk into work in the morning you switch into work mode. You may be luckier than most people, but for most people work means not being yourself. It means presenting a polished version of yourself for the approval of your superiors and colleagues. Smile sweetly at the boss as he says something particularly moronic. Shut up about the idiocy of the direction your organisation is going in. Or hint at what you think and be frowned down by the person who controls your wage packet. Pretend to agree with your incompetent boss, then do what it takes to get the job done anyway. Put up with the patronising attitudes of managers, or the insulting and arbitrary pissing around with your wages as a temp worker.

In a country full of people who pride themselves on being individuals I find it weird not that people bow to what their superiors want – you’ve got to put food on the table after all – but that no one seems to notice they are required to give up their individuality when they enter the workplace. “You’re the boss,” we think with a shrug, “Even though you’re a bad boss.” But we don’t say what we think, we feel unable to so. And mostly we do what we’re told, like a bunch of little kiddies. We even convince ourselves that disciplining ourselves to follow the boss’s line is the real maturity.

And maybe you think it’s fine, and maybe you think it’s necessary for organisations to work that way (I don’t), but you can’t pride yourself on being such a fucking individual at the same time. That’s 8 hours a day 5 days a week when you shut your mouth and do what you’re told by people who got to their positions through a bunch of decisions and processes so arbitrary you might as well have picked their names out of a hat. In fact they’d probably be better if they were chosen that way because they wouldn’t be so good at licking the arses of the equally incompetent and/or abusive senior management.

So I was thinking about these contradictions while talking to people in Deptford today about the upcoming demonstration on March 26th and was struck by the number of people who wouldn’t even consider going on a demonstration. They didn’t agree with the cuts, but they just didn’t see themselves as the type of people to go on protests. Which is interesting, because in theory we’re free to say and do whatever we want, in practice the idea of expressing that right on the streets seems almost repellent to many people.

The reason for that? Just habit maybe. Because there are certain things you do and certain things you don’t. And let’s not ask too many questions about why. Perhaps that habit got ingrained with some help from an education system that taught us to be passive and workplaces where we can’t speak our minds. But why worry? It’s just not my thing, that’s the point.

Which is why I think everyone should burn books. Because it’s one of those things you just don’t do. The fact that it’s one of those things nice liberal people don’t do is irrelevant. It’s not the done thing so I think you should do it. I mean, yes, book-burning has a history, but if your choice of books to burn is arbitrary, not censorial, and if it deprives no one of reading material, then what harm does it do?

It’s a free country, they say.

Sort of, I say, piling books on the fire, but if you’re going to follow your habits and call it freedom, I’m going to burn books and suggest you do it too. You’ve had a habit of not burning books. By all means choose Dan Brown to burn. By all means raid the boxes of books even charity shops can’t sell and that would have gone for recycling. The point is, after dancing naked (did I mention that bit before?) round a pile of burning books you might choose never to do it again, but at least it won’t be out of habit.

“This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.” — Euripides

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Government propaganda announcement: if you want political change, set up your own party

[FIZZZ, CRACKLE, SCREEEEEECH]

THIS IS YOUR LOCAL NEIGHBOURHOOD LOUDHAILER. PLEASE LISTEN CAREFULLY TO THIS GOVERNMENT BROADCAST AND MEDITATE UPON ITS CONTENT FOR THE NEXT EIGHT HOURS. THE STABILITY OF YOUR SOCIETY DEPENDS ON IT. ALSO YOUR FOOD VOUCHERS:

[FIZZZ, CRACKLE]

THE CORRECT RESPONSE IF YOU FIND THAT THE POLITICAL PARTIES ARE NOT TO YOUR LIKING, OR FULL OF LIARS, OR RIDDLED WITH CORRUPTION, OR UNWILLING TO LISTEN TO PEOPLE, OR IN HOCK TO BANKERS, OR RUN BY PEOPLE YOU WOULDN’T TRUST TO SELL YOU A USED CAR, OR ALL OF THE ABOVE, IS TO SET UP YOUR OWN POLITICAL PARTY.

REPEAT EACH PHRASE AFTER ME: THIS IS A DEMOCRACY. IF I DON’T LIKE THE PARTIES ON OFFER OR THINK THEY DON’T REPRESENT ME, I CAN RUN FOR GOVERNMENT MYSELF OR SET UP MY OWN POLITICAL PARTY. THIS IS A DEMOCRACY. ANYONE CAN RUN FOR ELECTION. THE PUBLIC HAS A CHOICE. THIS IS A DEMOCRACY. THE CORRECT WAY TO CHANGE THINGS IS THROUGH THE BALLOT BOX. WE ARE GRATEFUL THAT WE LIVE IN A DEMOCRACY.

[SHUFFLING NOISE, SOUND OF FLUTTERING PAPERS]

BOLLOCKS.

*GROAN*

OH WELL. THIS A GOVERNMENT WARNING: THE PATH OF THE BALLOT BOX IS NOT EASY. IT IS ONLY FAIR TO WARN YOU OF THE OBSTACLES TO DEMOCRATIC CHANGE:

1. YOU NEED A LOT OF MONEY TO RUN A SUCCESSFUL POLITICAL PARTY

2. THE PEOPLE WITH MONEY TO SPARE ONLY GIVE IT TO THOSE THEY POLITICALLY AGREE WITH

3. THE PEOPLE WITH MONEY ARE, BY DEFINITION, INVESTED IN THE STATUS QUO

4. THEY ALSO LIKE CHANGE THAT BENEFITS THEM, BUT ARE ACTIVELY AGAINST CHANGE THAT MIGHT SHIFT THE BALANCE OF POWER BETWEEN THEM AND ORDINARY PEOPLE

5. YOU MAY BE ABLE TO ‘CROWD-SOURCE’ YOUR FUNDING, BUT THE OTHER THING YOU NEED IS THE SUPPORT OF THE MEDIA FOR YOUR PARTY TO BE SUCCESSFUL.

6. THE MEDIA IS RUN BY THOSE INVESTED IN THE STATUS QUO, AND IN THE CASE OF MOST OF IT, BY PROFIT-MAKING COMPANIES THAT SELECT PARTIES BASED ON SELF-INTEREST

7. IF THOSE IN CHARGE OF THE MEDIA DO NOT LIKE THE CHANGES YOU PROPOSE THEY WILL CONSTRUCT A NARRATIVE TO PORTRAY YOU AS ‘EXTREMIST’ AND PUSH YOU ONTO THE SIDELINES

8. HAVING NOTED THE DIFFICULTY OF CREATING A SUCCESSFUL POLITICAL PARTY INTERESTED IN REAL CHANGE, YOU MAY WISH TO NOTE THAT MOST OF THE STRUCTURE OF GOVERNMENT IS NOT AT ALL DEMOCRATIC ANYWAY

9. YOUR PARTY WILL THEREFORE BE ATTEMPTING TO EXERCISE CHANGE WITHIN A NON-TRANSPARENT STRUCTURE COMPOSED OF MANY THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE, THE ENTIRE MACHINERY OF GOVERNMENT THAT PURSUES ITS OWN AGENDAS AND IS INFLUENCED BY LOBBYING FROM ALL SIDES

10. YOU MAY ALSO NOTE THAT PARLIAMENT ITSELF, THE ENTITY SUPPOSEDLY AT THE CENTRE OF GOVERNMENT, IS NOT A DEMOCRATIC INSTITUTION. IT WAS SET UP TO RESOLVE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN COMPETING GROUPS OF WEALTHY PEOPLE AND THIS IS STILL ITS MAIN FUNCTION

11. THE IDEA THAT GRAFTING ELECTIONS EVERY FEW YEARS ONTO THIS UNDEMOCRATIC INSTITUTION WOULD TURN IT INTO A DEMOCRACY CAN BEST BE DESCRIBED AS A FAILED EXPERIMENT – ONE NOW SADLY REPLICATED AROUND THE WORLD

12. YOU WILL FIND IT WILL BE ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE FOR YOU TO ACT DEMOCRATICALLY WITHIN THIS STRUCTURE, SINCE YOU WILL BE EXPOSED TO THE NON-TRANSPARENT INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL PRESSURES THAT – RATHER THAN THE DEBATES IN PARLIAMENT ITSELF – LARGELY DETERMINE WHAT PARLIAMENT PRODUCES

13. OVER TIME YOU MAY SEE THE NEED TO MAKE A SERIES OF COMPROMISES TO ENSURE YOUR GRIP ON POWER. THE COMPROMISES WILL BE MADE BETWEEN YOUR PARTY AND THE MONEY PEOPLE WHO WILL FIND A THOUSAND WAYS TO HOLD YOU TO RANSOM.

14. THESE COMPROMISES WILL BE CLAIMED AS A VICTORY FOR THE MODERATING EFFECTS OF DEMOCRACY, RATHER THAN THE TRIUMPH OF THOSE WITH MONEY, NOW EXERCISING THIER WILL THROUGH THE PARTY THAT WANTED TO REDUCE THEIR INFLUENCE

15. YOUR PARTY WILL NOW BE HELD UP AS A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF HOW NEW PARTIES CAN ENTER INTO THE SYSTEM, AND THUS AS PROOF THAT DEMOCRACY WORKS, EVEN THOUGH IT HAS FAILED TO CHANGE WHAT IT SET OUT TO CHANGE

16. VOTERS WILL ONCE MORE HAVE A CHOICE OF PARTIES THAT ARE ALL THE SAME BECAUSE THEY HAVE COME UNDER THE SAME PRESSURES FROM THE SAME PEOPLE INVESTED IN THE STATUS QUO

BUT PEOPLE OF THE NATION, WHAT CAN WE SAY? THIS IS THE WAY IT WORKS. ONCE AGAIN, REPEAT EACH PHRASE AFTER ME: THIS IS A DEMOCRACY. ANYONE CAN RUN FOR ELECTION. THE PUBLIC HAS A CHOICE. THIS IS A DEMOCRACY. THE CORRECT WAY TO CHANGE THINGS IS THROUGH THE BALLOT BOX.

THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
THIS IS A DEMOCRACY
I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES
I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES
I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES
I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES
I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES
I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES
I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES…

[FIZZZ, CRACKLE]

*AHEM* THIS IS THE CHIEF PROPAGANDA OFFICER. PLEASE IGNORE THE…MISTAKES IN THE ANNOUNCEMENT YOU JUST HEARD. THE DEPUTY SUB-MANAGING PROPAGANDA OFFICER HAD BEEN READING TOO MANY FAIRY TALES. HE WILL BE SENT FOR REEDUCATION AT A POLITICAL SCIENCE DEPARTMENT SPONSORED BY GLAXO SMITH-KLINE. MEANWHILE PLEASE CONTINUE AS NORMAL AND FORGET THE ERRORS YOU WERE JUST SUBJECTED TO. BE HAPPY AND PRODUCTIVE. ABOVE ALL, BE GRATEFUL THAT YOU LIVE IN A DEMOCRACY. THIS ENDS TODAY’S GOVERNMENT BROADCAST.

[FIZZZ, CRACKLE, SCREEEEEECH]

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