An older favourite
Tag Archives: real life stories
It was a Saturday on the thirteenth consecutive night of rain and the Poachers Arms was to be found on an unfashionable side street off the cripplingly fashionable Hoxton Street. I stepped gingerly over the puddle of water spreading from the umbrella stand by the door and into the usual convivial atmosphere around the bar.
“We’re thinking of building an ark,” said one of the regulars. “Where do you think we should build it?”
“It should be somewhere public,” I said. I ordered a pint of Poacher’s Pipe-dream then explained: “Part of the point of building an ark is to remind people that the punishment for their decadence approacheth.”
“I work in a museum,” said a woman who had come in the door just behind me. “Plenty of space there. We could get it sponsored by BP – everything else is.”
“Yes, I’ve often wondered about that,” I said. “It seems weird for public institutions to take advertising from companies that do so much harm.”
The woman looked affronted. “We turn bad money into good,” she said. “We’re using them really.” She turned to the barman. “A gin and tonic please.”
“Why do you think they spend the money though?” I said. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get some kind of PR or political gain from it. They presumably think they are using you.”
The woman shrugged. “I see you’re some kind of idealist,” she said. “I’ve learned to be realistic. We need the money. They have it.”
I turned to Downer Dave, one of the regulars at the bar. Downer Dave is so called due to his unrelentingly negative, or as he calls it, realistic, take on the world.
“Who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said, then to the woman. “This is Downer Dave by the way. What’s your name?”
“So who’s being more realistic Dave?” I said.
“You,” said Downer Dave. He looked at the woman. “They’re using you. Sorry.”
“Hey listen,” Louise put down her drink and held up her hands. “I think the world shouldn’t be so crap but I just don’t think you can change it. I used to work in the House of Commons. It was horrible. It’s an oppressive building and the people who work there are weirdos. But change it? Please!”
“She has a point,” said Downer Dave.
“I’ve worked in government too,” I said. “In international development. And they thought I was ‘unrealistic’ too. Problem with that is that they were trying to solve a political problem – global poverty – with technical solutions. Imagine thinking you could solve a problem of too little power by taking decisions on behalf of those people. So that word ‘realistic’ is a tricky one – it often is when people use it politically. Who was being unrealistic there?”
“All of you,” said Downer Dave. He turned away and asked the barman to put on some lively music. “I’m depressed now,” he said, casting a glance back over his shoulder at us.
Louise looked at me, started to say something, stopped herself, raised her glass and clinked it against mine. Without another word we parted, and I moved deeper into the Poachers Arms, my damp clothes steaming gently in the warmth.
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.
THIS IS YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD LOUDHAILER AGAIN. YOU HAVEN’T BEEN LISTENING TO ME RECENTLY HAVE YOU? I KNOW YOU HAVEN’T. I HAVE CCTV EVERYWHERE. PLEASE LISTEN TO THE FOLLOWING ANNOUNCEMENT CAREFULLY. IF YOU SWITCH OFF HALFWAY THROUGH YOUR POWER AND WATER WILL BE SWITCHED OFF.
ALL PRAISE OUR GLORIOUS DEMOCRACY FOR ITS BENEVOLENT MERITOCRACY! OUR SYSTEM OF ECONOMICS AND GOVERNMENT IS BETTER THAN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD FOR ONE SIMPLE REASON: ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS. YES, YOU HEARD ME: ANYONE.
WE’RE NOT LIKE SOME TINPOT DICTATORSHIP WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE RIGHT FAMILY TO MAKE MONEY OR RUN THE GOVERNMENT. WE’RE NOT LIKE CHINA WHERE YOU HAVE TO BE IN THE COMMUNIST PARTY. WE’RE NOT LIKE IRAN WHERE YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE RIGHT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS. WE ARE A MERITOCRACY! ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS! ANYONE CAN MAKE MONEY! ANYONE CAN RUN THE GOVERNMENT!
IT MAKES ME LAUGH WHEN I HEAR PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY COMPLAINING ABOUT THE GOVERNMENT. WELL IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, GET IN THERE AND CHANGE IT! THAT’S WHAT WE’RE ALL ABOUT! IT MAKES ME SAD WHEN PEOPLE COMPLAIN THEY DON’T EARN ENOUGH MONEY. START A BUSINESS! ANYONE CAN DO IT! ANYONE CAN BE A SUCCESS!
I DON’T WANT ANYONE SAYING THEY HAVEN’T HAD OPPORTUNITIES TO BE A SUCCESS – PUNISHMENT FOR THIS CRIME IS HAVING YOUR BANK ACCOUNT FROZEN – SO I’M GOING TO GIVE YOU SOME TIPS ON HOW TO BE A SUCCESS.
ANYONE CAN DO IT! ALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS THE FOLLOWING:
1. ACCEPT OUR DEFINITION OF SUCCESS I.E. YOU MUST WANT MONEY AND POWER OR YOU WON’T GET IT.
2. SACRIFICE YOUR FAMILY TO YOUR AMBITIONS. THE REASONS FOR THIS ARE OBVIOUS.
3. BE PREPARED TO IGNORE THE EFFECTS OF YOUR DECISIONS ON OTHER PEOPLE. THE NEED FOR THIS IS OBVIOUS.
4. MANAGE YOUR VALUE. NO ONE ELSE IS GOING INVEST IN YOU, SO INVEST IN YOURSELF! TREAT YOUR LIFE AS A BUSINESS OPERATION AND YOU WILL SOON SEE THE RETURNS.
5. BECOME YOUR OWN PR COMPANY. MANAGE THE IMAGE YOU PRESENT TO THE WORLD. WHEN YOU SCREW PEOPLE OVER, PRESENT IT AS AN ACT OF BENEVOLENCE. WHEN YOU ARE UNSURE OF YOURSELF, PRESENT UTMOST CONFIDENCE.
YOU SEE? THAT’S IT! ANYONE CAN DO IT! WE’RE NOT LIKE THOSE MEDIEVAL COUNTRIES WHERE ONLY CERTAIN TYPES OF PEOPLE CAN BE A SUCCESS. IF YOU’RE NOT A SUCCESS, IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT AND I DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOU WHINING ABOUT IT, OR ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S SUCCESS. AND I CAN HEAR YOU: I AM NOT JUST A LOUDHAILER, I AM A NETWORK, AND I HAVE A DIRECT LINK TO YOUR HEAD.
PUNISHMENT FOR WHINING ABOUT YOUR LACK OF SUCCESS OR ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE’S ‘UNDESERVED’ SUCCESS IS SOCIAL OSTRACISM. NO SUCCESS IS UNDESERVED. THAT’S WHAT MERITOCRACY MEANS. THAT’S WHY YOU ARE THE LUCKIEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.
THIS IS THE END OF THE ANNOUNCEMENT. THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.
[FIZZZ, *CRACKLE*, SCREEEEEECH]
There is an old radical slogan with many variants, along the lines of: ‘The people screwing you over have names and addresses’. It is, I assume, meant to be an implied threat as much as a statement of fact, but I’ve never been sure about its worth. Yes, there are particular people who play a key role in the system that is screwing us over. But I suspect they are infinitely replaceable, and it is the structure of the institutions that I see as the problem.
But despite all that, sometimes you can’t help looking at particular people and thinking: ‘The world really would be better off if you personally had less power and influence’.
David Roland is the top funder of the Conservative party. He set up a hedge fund called Blackfish Capital, which has offices at 5 Saville Row. Apart from being a Tory, and a thief, and probably corrupt, as well as being among the people who lobbied for financial deregulation, he’s an all-round good egg: Guardian profile of David Rowland
So some of us thought we should drop in on him and Blackfish yesterday, since we were in the vicinity anyway. Sadly the offices were closed, even to David Rowland himself:
But there was still a bit of a party, with David Rowland bringing along lots of friends:
I bet David Rowland lobbies for hedge funds even on his days off.
Does it help to focus on individuals within the system who have personal bastard-like qualities? I don’t know, but it can be fun. It can also help underline what kind of world we are fighting against: David Rowland’s world.
This week readers, I bring you a tale of great heroism, a tale to inspire and refresh the tired heart. The story begins in sadness and suffering among the small percentage of private individuals and organisations who control most of society’s resources. The block of money controlled by the government, that is, the tax take, had always caused them great pain. It is true that the money people take back control of many parts of it – much of the military budget for example, increasingly even the welfare budget. But something was still causing them an enormous amount of distress: the NHS budget.
Because the NHS budget was big. Very big. It was a big pot of gold they had no access to, save for the 10% of it going to pharmaceutical companies. 90% of a big pot of gold out of their reach was an unbelievable, horrendous ordeal for them, a nightmare scenario of a wealth redistribution mechanism that did not favour them.
People, we can barely imagine what they suffered. It’s true that a higher and higher percentage of government budgets was going to the money people through PFI, through outsourcing, through consultancy, and through corrupt and incompetent procurement procedures. This was some small comfort to them, but there was still that big pot of gold, still tempting them, still untouchable. The pain! The agony! How they must have tossed and turned at night! Pray that you never experience such suffering.
But this is a tale of heroism, and I can tell you that those money people did not give up. The odds were stacked against them, but they had a few things on their side: hundreds of millions of pounds with which to buy governments, hundred-thousand-pound-a-year sinecures to offer politicians on retirement, and the global triumph of an ideology that explicitly favoured profit-making over public service. With nothing but these meagre tools the money people fought and fought for their rightful share of the pie – that is to say, all of it. It was hard work, it was slow work, and the public mood was initially against dismantling the NHS, but they did not get downhearted, their lobbyists worked ceaselessly and their PR people fought the NHS through insurgent media organisations who backed them.
One day, after great struggles waged in society’s darkest places – high-end restaurants, politicians bank accounts, the national media, the social network of similarly-minded people who hold most of the wealth and power – the money people finally got what they had longed for through all their long years of suffering: a government whose sole political mission was redistributing money from ordinary people to them. The money that had for so long been distributed through the NHS could now return to the hands of its rightful owners: those who already held most of it.
Against all the odds, the money people and their agents the private health companies had achieved their dream. Their agony was ended. Within months the government began re-organising the NHS as a channel to move taxpayers money into profit-making organisations. So complete was the triumph of the underdogs that no party in the country saw fit to oppose them.
Those who fought this bitter battle, its grimmest days thankfully in the past, have reached some level of contentment now. Their dogged determination in the face of a national consensus on the value of the NHS stands as an inspiration to us all. To anyone else who suffers like they did, they offer humble words of advice: be rich already, know the right people, buy the right people, and one day – however dark things seem right now – everything will go your way.