Empty ethics: the dangers of a charity sector liberated from charity

A recent partner of charities who may not share a charity ethos.

Charities using coerced labour from workfare programs smells very off to the millions of people who see those programs as a poisonous attack on proper wages, on job creation, and on the right to eat whether you are working or not. These are charities, you hear people saying. Aren’t they supposed to be the good guys?

We could be charitable to the charities and assume they were being naive, thinking they would receive only genuine volunteers. In that case, they should relieve themselves of their naivety forthwith by reading the Boycott Workfare site and the personal testimonies of people coerced into work (for around £2 per hour) that can be found across the internet. They should also, perhaps, relieve themselves of their naivety about this government’s intentions. It fully intends to lower the cost of labour (i.e. make most of us poorer) for the sake of greater profits and anyone engaging with the government should understand this and ensure they are not playing a part in it. As an aside, workfare doesn’t work, if the intention is to get people into work. But the government is expanding the program. It’s almost like the main goal really is to provide cheap labour isn’t it?

But I think the issue is more than mere naivety. The charity sector has undergone two changes in recent years and both must have seemed like an improvement to the charities. One change was that with the growth of the EU, the arrival of the National Lottery and the (late) Office of the Third Sector, there has been more funding available from official sources. This has some apparently good effects but it also means – inevitably these days – the imposition of targets and monitoring. It is easy to mistake success against targets for success in making people’s lives better, particularly once your job depends on meeting the targets. It is easy too to start shifting your goals in response to the money.

The second change is the increased numbers of senior managers moving across, sometimes temporarily, from the private sector. This brings management ‘expertise’ into the charity sector but this is not a neutral expertise. Business-oriented managers are more likely to pursue growth for the sake of growth (since growth is all in the private sector) and they too are fond of targets. They are also more likely to make ‘rational’ economic decisions, like the alcohol dependency charity that takes money from alcohol companies. ‘We can make bad money good,’ the argument goes, blithely ignoring why the alcohol company needs them as a fig-leaf. The managerialism of big business frees those businesses from all responsibility to people – except the people they choose to please for sound business reasons. Is business management liberating charities from the need to show basic charity to people beyond their area of work?

The charities would claim, no doubt, that they have not lost their core ethics. And perhaps they haven’t. But many have lost their peripheral ethics, their all-round view. If you stick to a few ethical rules but decide to blind yourself to anything outside that then your ethics are empty. Charities should think hard about the damage this loss of a broader ethics could do to their reputation. They should think about the dynamics they are getting involved with when they agree to provide outsourced services for government, or when they partner with outsourcing corporations with goals very different to their own. They should think about more than just growth or targets. When someone offers them free labour from a pool of often-desperate people, they should perhaps take a moment to think about what they are getting involved in.

Meanwhile the rest of us should all think harder about who we give to. We now face a far worse prospect than targets-obsessed charities slipping into being feel-good employment schemes for middle class professionals. Some of them are in danger of becoming feel-bad unemployment schemes for us all.

10 years, 7 months, 14 days of war – The Armoured Personnel Carrier in the room

Most days if you read the front pages, watch the news, or even go to the FCO or Ministry of Defence website, you would barely notice that the UK is involved in a war that has been going on for over a decade. Even the body bags coming back from Afghanistan don’t seem to have a lot of impact now.

If you read the FCO explanation of the war, it is that we are ensuring that Afghanistan cannot harbour terrorists who might attack the UK or our allies. This has clearly failed, and will likely be a continuing failure whether or not they manage to pull out most troops by 2014 as they promise. Since our own country intermittently harbours terrorists – admittedly uninvited except for the usual heads of state – it hardly seems like a logical explanation for the war.

Meanwhile how much do people in Britain know about the war? None of the participants keep a record of Afghans killed, though we know some small part of it from the MoD’s payments to the families of civilians killed by accident. We don’t get regular updates about where ‘our’ troops are as we would in a war that people cared about. There is no serious discussion of Afghan politics among the press or politicians. How often do you hear the economy of Afghanistan mentioned? Yet doesn’t the end of conflict rely on stable economic systems? The general public does not know where power really lies in Afghanistan or who is doing what in the country, nor is there any discussion of what policies the allies have imposed on the country through their puppets.

The war is barely noticed, in other words. It is barely taken seriously. But the problem is, once you start a war, it’s hard to stop. And once you get into a habit of fighting wars, it’s hard to stop starting them. Britain has never fallen out of the habit since the end of the colonial period, and while it has such a large military it is unlikely to. Sometimes I think people attribute far too much cunning and forethought to our politicians. I think a major reason they start wars is because power feels good. They are human too and if you hand them the command of a reasonably effective fighting force they can’t help using it.

The elephant in the room is not just the war in Afghanistan, it is the fact that ‘we’ are constantly getting involved in wars, and none of them for the last sixty years have been at all related to self-defence. We need to stop being used to being in wars. The best way to do this practically speaking is to drastically downsize the army so that the temptation to politicians is removed. When was the last time you heard anyone in the mainstream suggest that, or point out that our army is not used for self-defence? You’re as likely to hear it as you are a discussion about the US military payments to the Taliban for the protection of their supplies as they travel around the country. In other words, as likely to hear it as any serious discussion of the war and its problems at all.

5 reasons not to hold your breath for UK ‘growth’

High education levels will save the UK they say - at Peking University this idea is being studied closely

So if you were paying attention the other week it was mentioned for a micro-second of the news cycle that the UK is in its longest period of depressed growth for about a hundred years. Many people still think we are in just another downtown and will merrily swing our way out of it soon. I said to someone the other day that probably the best that Spanish young people (over 50% unemployed) can hope for is to get back to the standard of living their parents had, thinking this would be uncontroversial. She frowned and said ‘No, it goes in cycles – I’m sure it will be fine soon.’ But 50% youth unemployment may not be just another dip. It’s scary, and a lot of the European economies are looking in a scary place right now.

In the UK I suspect we may get a little growth within the next few years and it may look like a recovery for a while. But fundamental changes have happened in the UK and in the world. While in the short term growth is not happening because the government is cutting spending in a recession, in the long term the picture is even more grim. Here’s five reasons not to hold your breath for ‘growth':

1. I can’t tell if the politicians are deluded or lying but they ought to know that the ‘high-skilled’ economy to replace lost industry isn’t going to cut it. A friend pointed out last night that it is pretty colonialist to think that Chinese or Indian people are only going to do the grunt work. I heard about a law dept being outsourced the other day. Accountants, designers, programmers, scientists – they can all go. The outsourcing course has been set and if we follow it to the end the only jobs remaining will be those that absolutely require a physical prescence here.

2. I can’t tell if the politicians are deluded or lying but the high-tech innovation-driven economy is not our saviour. Quite the opposite: it is screwing us. It creates a few jobs, yes, but destroys thousands of other jobs as it goes. We can’t just look at the creation of paper value – we have to think about the ratio of ‘value’ creation to job creation. Instagram just sold for a billion dollars. It has 13 employees. At some point we’ll have to accept that our technology is going to make full employment impossible.

3. Meanwhile the price of oil is only going up. We can dig up half of canada if we want but there will never be enough. This is true of other resources too but energy drives everything else. Demand is going up, supply is becoming more difficult. That makes everything else expensive and strangles growth. It is going to do that for the forseeable future.

4. There will be some growth of course but what there is of it will be very unequal, as it has been for the last 30 years. This is to do with how our economy has been structured – by all major political parties in the UK. Most of us will not benefit from growth, and in fact we haven’t for a while. It’s true we got cheaper holidays and better phones but now we need two salaries to buy a house where one would do it before. This structuring of the economy can be changed of course but there is zero political will to do it. Neo-liberalism won and we didn’t.

5. The final problem is that in the absence of productive industries and of internal markets not totally reliant on imports, what growth we do get will probably be bubble growth – either re-inflating a finance bubble (very possible given the rules haven’t been tightened since the last cock-up) or re-inflating the housing bubble. Both of these benefit certain people, some of whom get to have dinner with Dave, and for a time it may look like real growth. In the long run either type of bubble will pop in a spectacular manner and will screw the economy, particularly those of us who don’t get to have dinner with Dave.

This might sound pessimistic and it might seem like I’m being gloomy for the fun of it, but I’m not really down about it and – unlike some people – I think it’s too early to say our civilisation has peaked. This is just the situation we’re in, and the sooner we understand it the sooner we can set about dismantling the ideas and institutions that – largely out of short-term self-interest – brought it about.

Olympics Death March Party!!! Woohoo!!!

Randomly selected photo of party mecca London

Life is sweet! Look at us! The Olympics and everything! Sure the economy isn’t growing but we still know how to party. Not as well as the Chinese it’s true, but it’s doubly important in these troubled times to cut loose a bit! Our leaders told us so! It’s important to keep to our course too! The party is on the move, going in One Direction, and it will never end!

Progress is wonderful! The Shard now looms above London like a symbol of our might. Admittedly it is a symbol of Qatari ruling elite might but it is like a symbol of our might. We are at the top of our game – or someone is – and the view is just amazing!

The party marches on, and we should be so proud of our moving fiesta because we pick our leaders. Not like those savages in…Qatar or China or wherever. We pick our leaders from among those people at the back of the march, driving us on with whips and Tazers, because we know they know the way. They want the same things as the leaders of…Qatar, or China or wherever, which seems odd, but look! We can swap them round! Not like those countries! It is great! The fact they are all the same – and all the same around the world – just proves democracy works! They all take us in the One Direction so that just proves they are right and we all want the same things. We’re all right, we’re alright, and the party will never die – that’s what the Olympics proves: we might be down but we’re not out!!!

I’ll tell you where could do with a party like ours. I’ll tell you who needs a reviving Olympic tonic. Greece! That’s who! Look at them! What’s that you say? Oh sure they’ve had the Olympics but that was thousands of years ago wan’t it? Now they’re so backward! They are finally being marched forward, in the One Direction. It will be good for them, this discovery that they are expendable. It will teach them to put up with the low wages their country needs.

And we need it too! Remember! We must compete with the far east! In wages too! It’s true! No one told us this when we outsourced half our economies but it put us on a one way street to wage competition with China and India. And look, if there’s one thing Greece teaches us, it’s that if we don’t allow ourselves to go down this path we too will be slaughtered like diseased cattle and abandoned by the side of the road. It’s amazing that we can vote and amazing that the joys and liberties of the free market means it makes no difference any more – if your leader does the wrong thing a technocrat can be found! Perhaps we should lose our bank holidays, say our technocrats in waiting. We have been warned! We march onwards! And we party! Towers! Missiles! Stadiums!

This party is who we are people!! We must hate those who try to stop it! We must hate those angry and desperate enough to STOP ROWING RACES!! People trained hard for that party moment!! How dare he interrupt the march!! We can’t see the corpses from here so what’s all the fuss about! I’ll worry when the smell of death hits me as I step out the front door thank you very much! The Olympics is coming and if any killjoy gets in the way our rage will be IMMENSE!! March! Party! Onwards! Prizes will be won!!!*

*But not by us

5 Reasons To Love Politicians

We need Andrew Lansley more than health services, for sure

1. You don’t want to run the country because it would be too much work and you’re already busy.

2. Politicians may be corrupt lying bastards but we all know in their positions we’d do the same.

3. Strong leadership is necessary and not many people are good at it.

4. Someone has to talk to Rupert Murdoch and the ‘business community’.

5. You’ve got to admit the politicians are good at what they do. By talking to the Rupert Murdochs and business leaders and doing as they ask, the politicians have structured your life so that you don’t have time to be involved in controlling your own world, thus making strong leadership ‘necessary’, and making their corruption appear a necessary evil. They’re killing the NHS. Say thank you.

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

Marketisation, at home yesterday

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Shard rising

I haven’t been able to join in with the admiration of the Shard going around. A lot of the admiration is focussed on its size, it is true; it is not a particularly beautiful structure. To some people it nonetheless symbolises the advance of progress, the proof that London has still got it. Having the tallest building in Europe on the skyline says something good about London. I have never been able to view it in this way. I have barely even been able to see it as a building.

The Shard is a profit machine. That is why it is being built. That is its purpose. “So what?” you say, this is capitalism, suck it up. But this is a profit machine being built in a particular time and place. Who is it providing more office space for in these grim times? According to the FT in a piece titled London banks ‘will need space of four Shards’ it will be accommodating “a strong rise in demand among hedge funds and private equity firms in the West End, closely correlated to the stock market recovery.” Expanding banks are also expected to be among the main occupiers. In other words, it is being built in anticipation of making the UK even more dependent on a financial sector that just screwed us.

Meanwhile who pays the price for a big concentration of new office space like that? It can surely only make property prices in Bermondsey and Southwark go even more stratospheric. This will be happening at the same time as the cap on benefits and increase in council house rents that is already expected to effect a sort of social cleansing of inner London. So the Shard will help to screw many nearby residents, possibly forcing the poorest out of London altogether. Great.

Oh well, at least it will help increase economic activity in a stalling economy. But for who? Since London is really a tax haven, and most of the money made there gets stored in tax havens, are we likely to see much in tax receipts from the companies working there? As for the profit from the building itself, the point is not that the investors in the Shard are Qatari and will therefore take their profit out of the country. It wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference if the investors were British. That money is not for us. It would leave the country anyway.

Even if we were to reap something in taxes from the companies working there, would it really be worth it when we consider what the next financial crash might do to us? When we consider that not only is the government not interested in weaning us off the finance sector, but they are really, really not going to regulate them either? The Shard is a time-bomb. The Shard is great pointy cock shafting London.

It isn’t an exciting and iconic building. It’s a profit machine. And it isn’t for the likes of you or I. So admire it on the horizon if you like. But to me it does look like the headquarters of our totalitarian overlords, and really, it isn’t that futuristic. Remember, in this country there will be no imposed coup to put the banking regime in place like in Italy or Greece. It won’t be necessary. The bankers are already in charge.

What’s this liberal doing in my head? And why does it think I owe something to society?

Workfare makes us free

This post is one in a series about being a ‘liberal’, an admittedly vague term I use to refer to left-leaning, moderately-inclined people who think it worth fighting for a fairer world and who largely accept existing institutions as the appropriate channel for change.

It is one of those self-evident facts that we should all contribute to society – this is one of the ideas behind the current government policy of forcing people to work for free for large corporations. We will be assisted by society in the course of our lives, the logic goes, and we therefore owe something to society. This view is held by many people but some of those people are not interested in economic ‘justice’ of any kind and I can’t be bothered to address them. Instead I will address this to liberals who might be interested in some kind of increased economic equality but who would still rely on this logic.

The interesting thing about the idea we owe something to society is that what people often mean is that we should contribute to society by having a job (and never mind how pointless or actually unproductive the work might be, right?). Now, there’s an obvious flaw that many people can spot here. A lot of what we might call society is little to do with paid work. Reproduction of the human species, for example, largely takes place outside of the framework of paid labour. Yet presumably it does sort of contribute to society, right?

I am not (I think) moving towards the notion that you having sex is a contribution to the greater good (though it does, in many ways, add to the sum total of human happiness) but here’s a poser: is a mother who never gets a full time job a ‘burden’ on society? You could, rather, make an argument that the mother, doing one of the most important things in society, has an entire world of paid labour parasitic upon her efforts. People have commented that it is probably more common for human societies to regard the production of goods as playing a supporting role to human reproduction, rather than – as the assumption appears to be in our society – human reproduction playing a supporting role to the production of goods.

I could leave the argument there, perhaps add in something about the importance of the unpaid labours of art and love, and we could all reach some vague decision that society has its priorities wrong and has lost its spiritual connection with the essentials of human life. But that would (a) let the liberal in our heads off the hook much too easily, thus defeating the object of this post, and (b) wouldn’t get to the bottom of why ‘we’ might have our priorities wrong.

What is, if we might be so bold as to ask, society? Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in it so presumably we should. I think social interaction is a defining aspect of human behaviour and so, without getting too far into definitions, there is a ‘society’ of some sort. We need it, therefore we must owe it, right?

Except that it isn’t a homogenous entity, this society. It has structure within it, and one of the structures we can spot within it is the economic structure. And we can pretend if we like that all the wealth we collectively produced is produced between each of us, and that money goes into a big pot, and from that pot we get the benefits. And then we have to work out why some people get a much bigger piece of that than others.

‘Because it works’, is one thing people say, and I have posted on this before so I won’t elaborate on the dishonesty of that here. So instead I propose another hypothesis: that the entire economic structure was never designed for the benefit of most of us but for the benefit of a few. To keep it functioning some of the benefits have to be shared around, but that is secondary to the machinery put in place to generate great wealth for a few.

This idea has recently surfaced in the Occupy movement as the system being run for the 1% not the 99%. It is nothing new, and one of the effects of it is that the benefits to you are an expendable part of the system. This is why you can suddenly get poorer (as you probably are now if you live in Britain and don’t run or own a large corporation) even though you are not working any less.

So, much as society in some sense does exist, a homogenous society in an economic sense is a fiction. On some level we all know that the idea we are paid what we deserve is nonsense – our pay is determined rather by our power to ask for it. So the notion that this unfair system of pay leads to a fair system of us all doing our bit for society is a bit odd. The idea that your role is to contribute economically to the economic pool of ‘society’ is based on fiction – particularly when you discover what tax havens are doing in the world. You can’t owe something to a fiction, or if you feel you do you would normally be advised to seek help with your mental health.

Why is it that so many people see this fiction as ‘common sense’ then? I think that those who benefit most from the fake economic ‘society’ are good at justifying themselves, and paying others to persuade us to join in with their justifications. The idea that we owe it to society to have a job is an ideological tool for forcing people into work when it isn’t necessary. Sure, we get some benefits, but they are in the power of others to confer, and they mostly do it when they are scared of being hung from a lamppost for not sharing enough.

And yes, a lot of the work we do isn’t necessary. Once you start breaking down one fiction you often find a lot of fictions hiding behind it. As Western countries ‘we’ (not you and I obviously) have vast pools of excess wealth. And yet we ‘have to’ work. Everyone has to. Or we’ll all die. Or something. The threat is rarely spelled out. But it would be just awful.

It sounds instinctively wrong to say ‘I owe nothing to society’, but in the sense of paid labour we can and should say just that. But this is only a start – we do need each other and I think most people feel this on some level. The challenge is not just to act as an individual against a fictional economic ‘society’ but then to entangle our lives with others in a meaningful society – which will often involve things which go on beyond the realm of paid work. So we may end up feeling we have long-term obligations to people, but they will be willingly entered into, with a knowledge of the power relations involved. Not, in other words, based on fiction.

People often seem slightly put out when I say that I don’t want a job at all, that I wish I could do without one. They think I am lazy, or put it down to my middle class decadence. It’s true that I like single malt whisky and I don’t like paid work. Is this a slap in the face to ‘society’, or to those who want jobs and don’t have them? Perhaps. Or perhaps I think I and everyone else would be better off without a fiction that was designed for the benefit of a few.

Simple things made complex: things that don’t work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capitalism: not a motorised trebuchet.

A Dictionary of Terms for the Shafted: Part 1

A hive mind known to colonise other hive minds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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