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

A petition team assuming the politicians care what we think

This is a series of posts in which I talk about simple things but extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them more complex.

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

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

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

It could go something like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Occupy and kicking out the management

Disgruntled with the management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

The Canary is Dead: Britain is Corrupt

Examining the corpse of the News of the World is all very well...

When the Murdoch hacking-dead-people’s-phones scandal hit I had just finished writing something about the corruption of the British government. I had not written much about the role of the media in the corruption of our political system and that now seems rather remiss. However I am not going to fundamentally change anything I wrote, because what the hacking scandal has revealed about how British politics works simply confirms what I had already said. John Harris in the Guardian in particular nails some of the more unsavoury social aspects of the corruption we face.

As for what the whole scandal/investigation means for British politics right now: not much I fear. It is still being treated as an isolated incident, as another of those unfortunate aberrations from the way politics is normally done. If the public debate continues to regard it in this way then it can all be swept up and swept under the carpet.

There is another way to see it: the entanglement between the Murdoch empire and the political establishment, which created a culture of impunity for people with power, is the normal way of doing politics in Britain. The Murdochs are not the source of all evil in our democracy, and nor were the staff of the News of the World. They are simply the canary in the coalmine. Now the canary is dead and we must decide what to do about it. Which brings me to my intended starting point for this piece of writing before the current scandal broke:

Our government is corrupt. I feel confident about making this statement, as confident as I would saying it of Mubarak’s Egypt, or of the government of Equatorial Guinea, or the one-man-state machine of Berlusconi.

It’s true that, at least in the highest UK political circles, there’s very little need for passing round wads of cash in brown envelopes, and this seems to be why we don’t think of Britain as thoroughly corrupt. But the corruption that has replaced it isn’t really much more sophisticated. It doesn’t appear when examining individual parts of our political and economic system, but to anyone keeping an eye on the political system as a whole, the corruption becomes very clear. The failure to expand our definition of corruption to encompass what is happening in Britain suggests some uncomplementary things about the media who are meant to keep the politicians in check, but eloquent critiques of the current mediascape are out there already. The result of the failure of the media is that it is rare to hear people talking about how our political system really works, as opposed to how it is meant to work.

What do we see when looking at the system as a whole? We see that certain interest groups – banks might be a good example, private healthcare another – have become very good at getting their own way, against the interests of British citizens. Some of their methods are very obvious. John Major and Tony Blair both work in the financial sector. David Cameron will certainly work for banks when he leaves power. The former Prime Ministers are paid millions of pounds by the institutions that lobbied them while in power. The financial sector lobbied to be deregulated, and the politicians did what they asked, and we got our financial crisis. It was their crisis of course, not ours, but by that time they had their claws so deep in the politicians that there was no question about who was going to pay for it. I should point out that it is perfectly possible that Major, Blair and Brown all believed that deregulating the banks was the best way to create wealth, but it is easier to believe fairy tales if you know you’re going to be paid for believing them, and if, like Blair, your life’s ambition is to hang around with all the important and wealthy people who believe them too.

The financial crisis, the subsequent recession, and the current public spending cuts are a result of the corruption of our political system. This is something we need to say loud and clear. The corruption didn’t come just in the form of payments to Prime Ministers and Chancellors after they left power. It also came in the form of a revolving door between government and the industries they are regulating. That government might want to recruit top industry talent is not remarkable. That these ‘top talents’ are allowed to offer fat-salaried jobs and influential positions to their old colleagues might raise a few suspicions. What is remarkable is that, having regulated the industries just so (i.e. not at all really), they are allowed to go back and work in the industries they helped provide the framework for in government. In other words, you can go and deregulate your own industry as part of a very smart career move that will make you popular with all the right people. That we do not regard this as corruption is astonishing.

The third leg of the corruption that has developed over the last few decades is a very sophisticated lobbying apparatus that is not just about simply buying politicians nice dinners or having a cosy chat with your old school chums. We have ‘campaign groups’ and ‘think tanks’ all over the place, often presented as impartial, actually pushing highly political agendas for their funders.

The Taxpayers Alliance was set up by members of the Conservative party, in order to push the Conservative Party and politics more generally toward a tax-free society for the wealthy. It uses the national media to do this and probably contributed to the increased acceptance of the Conservative Party at the last election. They were repeatedly cited on the BBC as some kind of impartial source or democratic citizen action group. So irritated were some people with the notion that the Taxpayer’s Alliance represented taxpayers that several competing groups, such as The Other Taxpayers Alliance, were set up. They got far less attention because they didn’t have wealthy and strategically-minded Conservatives behind them.

2020Health, a self-declared ‘grass-roots’ think tank, was targetted by NHS Direct Action the other week. In response the think tank did a very good job of pretending to be the affronted innocent citizens who simply wanted to improve our healthcare. Yet when you look at their staff histories and their output, you can’t help seeing the ‘think tank’ as a lobbying front group for the private healthcare industry. It is chaired by Tom Sackville, CEO of the International Federation of Health Plans, a group that represents 100 private healthcare companies in 31 countries. If this is grassroots, it is a ‘grassroots’ global corporate movement, not a grassroots UK citizens movement.

The way individuals move between private sector, campaigning groups, public sector, politics and think tanks reveals a deeply dishonest political class that presents an image of a thriving democracy in which many different sectors all have influence on government, and yet these are all the same people, all with the similar outlooks, all doing very well thank you from the policies they push, and helping their friends to do well too. It is a false-front democracy, and one of the pillars of the new corruption.

None of this is entirely new of course – self-serving and dishonest elites have always been a part of the political landscape – what is new is the degree to which it is happening, and the lack of any entrants to the political system who are not already part of the game. What emerges when we look at all these forms of corruption is that rather than competing elites, which is the best approximation to democracy that representative democracy has managed to produce, we are currently ruled by what you might call a conglomerate elite that presents itself as one thing one day, something else the next, but who always move together towards one goal: greater wealth for themselves and people like them, often at our expense.

This is corruption. Our parliamentary ‘democracy’ is thoroughly corrupt, throughout all major parties, systemically, in a deeply embedded form, in ways that go directly against the interests of most British people. Almost no one voted for the privatisation of the NHS – only a minority voted for the Tories, and even they didn’t dare put ‘privatise the NHS’ in their manifesto. The NHS has been shown to be a highly efficient healthcare system in several comparative studies of developed country healthcare systems. It compares very favourably in outcomes with the rest of Europe, even though we spend less money than many of the wealthy economies. The politicians of all major parties are privatising the NHS anyway. Because they want to. Because they can, because no one will call the corruption what it is and fight it.

It isn’t bundles of cash passed under the desk. It’s far more dishonest than that. So what do we call it? Systemic corruption? Faux-democracy? Bogus political diversity? Total institutional corruption? Perhaps we could opt for ‘Lord Browne-ism’, after the former chair of BP, once a non-executive Director of SmithKline Beecham. He became a friend of Tony Blair, got appointed to the House of Lords, chaired an ‘independent’ review of education at the request of Peter Mandelson, then adopted by the Conservatives, that resulted in the new tuition fees. Lord Browne now works for the Coalition government as ‘lead Non-Executive Director’ on the Cabinet Office board, ‘improving governance’ in Whitehall by recruiting business leaders to serve on government departmental boards. His appointees include Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline and Ian Davis, once on the board of BP. For his day job Lord Browne is Managing Director of Riverstone Holdings, a private equity firm specialising in the energy and power sectors. Riverstone Holdings works in partnership with the Carlyle Group, whose European Chair is John Major.

As I have already said, this way of doing business is not entirely new. While we see a particular incarnation of corruption right now, the ability of the political elite to organise amongst themselves, against the interests of the populations they supposedly represent, is a built in feature of representative democracy. So this is not malfunctioning democracy we are talking about here, it is the way democracy has always worked. It’s difficult not to suspect that the politicians who made the original concessions towards ‘democracy’ did so precisely because they knew they could still keep a grip on power, they knew the ‘democratic’ institutions were far enough away from us all that we couldn’t keep an eye on what was going on . We’re supposed to depend on the media to do that of course. So we’ve got two instutions that don’t do what they claim to do. The important thing to realise is: they never have.

Whatever we prefer to call the current incarnation of corruption – systemic corruption, false-front democracy or Highly Organised Crime – we need to call it something fast, because if we’re going to fight it, we’re going to need a name for it. If we don’t fight it, the next financial crisis is just a matter of time and the NHS will soon exist only in name. Thankfully, once the mechanisms are publicised and widely understood, it won’t need any original names or any qualifiers and we will be able to name it simply and for what it is: mere corruption.

Understanding the corruption also leads to the conclusion that, while it takes different forms in different eras, our system of representative democracy has always been this way, to a greater or lesser degree. There were moments of triumph for people-power but they were the exception not the rule. Corruption is the rule. Britain has always been corrupt and it is our lauded system of representative democracy that makes it so. We can clean up some of the newer and more extreme dishonesty behind the democratic masquerade – and that is very much worth doing I think – but that will only give us a temporary lull before the next corruption/economic crisis hits.

Seeing the once-all-powerful Murdochs squirm has been a genuine pleasure, a moment of minor accountability in the usually vacuous Punch And Judy Show of parliament. But let’s not celebrate too much: the canary is dead, and we are still in the coalmine.

Reasons not to…call particular politicians arseholes

Reason enough

Okay, fine, I hate Tony Blair. I despise him for his greed and self-interest like I despise few other people on the planet. I hate David Cameron. I think he is a spoilt brat with dangerously high levels of competence. These are emotional reactions to some of the most noxious human turds ever to float to the top of our political toilets, but they are not political analysis. I think it’s dangerous to focus on these thoughts too much because it leads us into one of the most useless dead ends of all political thinking: the idea that what we need is nicer people at the top.

There are a couple of problems with that idea. We all, at least dimly, have some idea of what it takes to get ahead in politics. We know that politicians have to lie and cheat and manipulate. We know we can’t trust a word they say. We know they betray their fellow party members for a sniff of power. We know they have to put on a good face as a likeable person but that they don’t act according to their public face. So we know there is a filtering process in place, and it is the turds that get through. So how do we want nicer people to get through? By sheer luck? Sneaking in the back entrance by bribing security?

The second problem is much bigger: the niceness or not of politicians is probably not that important. For one thing, as soon as they get anywhere near power they start to feel the pressure from various powerful groups: financiers, media moguls, other politicians, lobby groups with lots of money but low public profiles. Some of these groups are so powerful that they can and do hold politicians hostage. The finance sector and the media in particular has the power to do this. Conventional wisdom in the UK says that whoever Murdoch and The Sun supports will win the election. This may be an exaggeration but it is certainly not lacking in truth altogether. When certain people and lobby groups ask for an appointment with the Prime Minister they get it.

But I’m more interested in another thing that prevents a person’s ‘niceness’ being any good. They act within certain political and economic structures with long histories. When they get into office they are put in the cockpit and presented with the levers of power, so to speak. And these levers do have a lot of power still, despite the power held by corporations and other unaccountable groups. The problem with the levers of power is they are very blunt instruments. They force the person at the helm to start making decisions in certain ways: utilitarian decisions that sacrifice some people for a greater goal or for some other section of  society. The person at the helm is a long way away from the people who are affected by their decisions. They don’t hear the screams as they pull the levers. Power corrupts not just in allowing leaders to be greedy and self-interested but in insulating them from the effects of their decisions. Power forces our leaders to make those decisions that result in them appearing on television and explaining to us that they had to make ‘difficult’ decisions: code for YOU HAVE BEEN SHAFTED.

And conventional wisdom says leaders do have to make these difficult decisions, have to sacrifice certain people for the ‘greater good’. This conventional wisdom is used very dishonestly much of the time of course – in fact they are sacrificing many of us for the benefit of a few, as David Cameron is doing right now – but let’s assume this is done honestly too.  Should we accept a system in which this is the only way of operating? Is there really no way for us to imagine a political system in which individuals do not have so much power? Is there no way for us to imagine a world without those levers in the hands of a few? Where those levers don’t exist even? To take that leap maybe we need to steer away from thinking of certain politicians as arseholes. Maybe that’s a distraction. Because the insult implies there would be some other politician whose ‘niceness’ would save us, when the political and economic structures currently in place make it impossible for that to happen.

So those are the reasons not to call particular politicians arseholes. I think they’re good reasons. But I just can’t leave the post there. Because there are reasons we should call them arseholes after all – reasons that go beyond George Osborne’s face I mean. When institutions have been in place a long time, with those levers of power sitting there toyed with by different people for decades and centuries, it is pretty likely that a political culture is going to develop to match it. What will be considered desirable in politics are the qualities needed to pull those levers and not worry too much about the consequences. What is needed are people who can take ‘necessary’ and ‘difficult’ decisions and still sleep at night. The qualities most admired will be those that enable the ‘pragmatism’ needed to use power: a shrivelled sense of empathy and an acceptance that the distance between you and your victims is right and proper.

I suspect there are social circles to go along with this: ‘prestigious’ circles of people, the requirements for entry of which will be an uncritical attitude to those levers and their use. A sense of entitlement even, a feeling that they must be used, and we are the people to use them. These personality characteristics may well develop in public schools, yes, but they are also the markers of a certain class in our meritocracy. I think the lack of the more old-fashioned markers of class – country manors, barbour jackets, butlers – at least outside the Tory party, often deceives us into thinking we don’t have a political class with a high barrier to entry. In the world of New Labour’s new meritocracy, the barriers to entry are personality traits, attitudes, ways of seeing the world. Anyone can be an arsehole now.

So the individual arseholedom or not of politicians is not the point. They are arseholes as a class, as a matter of ‘necessity’, to make the institutions of the state function. That’s not to say one doesn’t slip through the net sometimes, someone with highly developed empathy and the ability to hide it from those around them. But as I said above, they won’t get far once they do get some power. And they don’t appear often enough to undermine the ways our meritocratic liberal democracies actually operate: we are ruled by a class of arseholes. And I now use the term ‘arsehole’ as a technical term, to denote a certain set of personality traits that make a person suited for power.

We accept this, or many people have done for a long time, partly because it wasn’t us that suffered for it. Our lives were comfortable enough. The wars happened in other countries. Now the chickens are coming home to roost. The Structural Adjustment Programs once used to asset-strip poor countries are being imposed on Western economies. Don’t blame David Cameron the arsehole for it. Blame the power structures of meritocratic liberal democracy. Not many people chose David Cameron, but for too long too many people have given explicit or implicit consent to a system that relied upon a class of arseholes.

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.

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]

What to say when people say…I vote Tory because I believe in individual freedom

Is this a criminal justice protest or did I just like the photo?

This is a post about what I have in common with Tory voters. I’m honestly not trying to be sarcastic or anything. I do have something in common with Tory voters, quite apart from having, say, lungs (I was going to say heart, then brain, but didn’t want to make assumptions – I’m pretty sure they have lungs, right?). It’s not a small thing I have in common with them either. There is a problem though, which I’ll explain later.

A lot of people vote Conservative because they believe in individual freedom and they think Labour politicians are authoritarians. And they’re right. I agree. Labour under Blair and Brown produced a raft of knee-jerk authoritarian legislation to use against suspects, against protesters, to enable government spying on people, to stop people taking photos. They tried to curtail anti-social behaviour by force. They introduced ID cards no one wanted for no explicable reason. It felt like they just liked the idea of calling the entire population into registration centres to be photographed and recorded, or just wanted to keep an eye on us all on general principles.

They produced a lot of what can only be described as authoritarian liberal legislation, trying to defend people against discrimination while not understanding that the law doesn’t actually challenge bigotry. I don’t think the government should use their vast resources to attempt to shape people’s thinking and behaviour. Yes, I know that in reality they do that all the time, but the principle of it is screwed up and Labour made more of an effort to do it than anyone in the UK since Philip II of Spain tried to invade.

The only behavioural legislation that seemed reasonable to me was making violence against children illegal. I don’t think children should have less rights than adults just because they’re smaller and the adults can get away with it. That law I saw as a correction to an obvious anomaly. The rest seemed, ironically, like a scolding teacher finally getting annoyed with us for not listening – and picking up the cane in a threatening manner.

Most of all, Labour passed laws at the drop of a hat. They passed laws for pretty much anything. If they had woken up one morning thinking wet wipes were inadequately sized they would have passed a law to specify the correct way to make wet wipes. They couldn’t help themselves. Their response to every problem was to legislate. They had the hearts of authoritarians and the souls of…. Actually there is no way to finish that sentence. According to the Torygraph:

In his 10 years as prime minister, Tony Blair presided over more than 3,000 new laws, more than 1,000 of which carried jail terms; Gordon Brown added hundreds more. Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, […]

So there you go. I do have something in common with Tory voters – or a lot of them anyway. Labour’s assault on individual freedom made me feel kind of sick, then kind of pissed off, then very pissed off, then really vomit-hurlingly ill.

There is a problem however. Quite a big problem. And it’s this: the Tories don’t believe in individual freedom either. I’m pretty sure they don’t believe in anything much except their own wealth and power. Their pretence to be lovers of freedom is something they stick to for as long as they think it’s a votewinner, then oops, the mask slips. You’ll note the quote above has […] at the end because it is incomplete. Here’s the complete sentence:

Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, which had been bad enough in this regard.

So even the Torygraph doesn’t think the Tories really respect our right to be free from government control. But if you want more evidence, or some things to say to people who say they vote Tory because they believe in individual freedom, here you go:

  • They scrapped ID cards right? Well, almost. They kept them for migrants. Partly because you never can trust those dusky foreigners, but mostly because no one was watching or caring. In Toryland an authoritarian act doesn’t count if no one notices, and particularly if their core voters don’t notice.

  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. A despicable piece of legislation in pretty much every regard, though I can’t really argue with extending the definition of rape to include anal rape – presumably everyone had just been too prudish to talk about it before. The Act not only increased police powers considerably, meaning a reduction in rights for ordinary people, but it was also an act of intergenerational authoritarianism passed to appease their core voters who were worried by the youngsters being able to, y’know, have too much fun.

  • Sure, the Tories hated unions, but they never prevented their right to associate, right? They would never go that far, right? Except what they did was pass a raft of legislation aimed at de-politicising unions and preventing them from taking political actions. They used the instrument of legislation to destroy a political opponent. You can associate, they said, just don’t do it politically. Because we don’t like it. But we love freedom, honest.

  • Their foreign policy. Like, forever. After the Bahrain government murdered protesters yesterday, David Mellor came on Radio 4 defending the Bahrain government as a ‘stalwart friend of the West’. By which he presumably meant a stalwart friend of him and his rich friends who’ve made money from them. They pretended they were supporting Pinochet as a bulwark against communism. Except supporting authoritarianism to prevent authoritarianism doesn’t really make sense does it? Does it? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, unless logic changed since I last checked. It does make sense if what really bothers you – much more than anyone’s freedom – is the issue of whether you can make money with that government.

  • And finally, when they do claim to be putting effort into ‘liberating’ people to do what they want, what they mostly tend to do is liberate corporations to do what they want. They’re good at that. A bit of a shame then that a corporation is an essentially authoritarian structure utterly unconcerned with the rights of individuals.

I do have common ground with Tory voters. Where we separate is the issue of whether the Tories mean anything they say.

What to say when people say…you should vote for the least worst option

Facts: Human societies, many of which had democratic elements to them, have survived for millenia and since before recorded history. Some of them weren’t even in Europe. Strangely they mostly did this without voting for a bunch of selfish twats who they knew were lying to them but who they were intent on giving more or less unlimited powers to for a few years anyway – just on the offchance they weren’t lying or the damage wouldn’t be too bad.

Thoughts: ‘Elected dictatorship’, as we might call what currently passes for democracy in many countries, doesn’t actually give you control of your own life (If you don’t believe you should have control of your own life, please seek self-esteem training). So committing yourself to the institutions we have at the moment, as you do when you repeat the above phrase, is committing yourself to handing over the power to shaft you. Rather than saying ‘Don’t complain about being shafted if you don’t vote’ you could say ‘Don’t complain when you’re shafted if you lacked the imagination to think of something more democratic than this’.

Opinions: What to say? How about: No you shouldn’t. Every vote helps give the appearance of legitimacy to their power. And anyway, a crisis in our ‘democracies’ brought about by low voter turnout would probably be a much better result than choosing Shithead A or Shithead B.

Note: This is a series of posts called ‘What to say when people say…’ Obviously they do not provide the definitive answers to most questions (except the ones marked with an asterisk, like so*). They simply provide ideas, helpfully broken down into Facts about Things People Say, Thoughts about Things People Say, and Opinions about Things People Say.