Art and Culture, Capitalism, community education, Critical pedagogy, Democracy, Education/learning, Feeling and embodying, transformation, UK, Welfare

What does the economy look like, Part Two: Developing the view from below

A brief summary of Part One of this post

In an earlier blogpost entitled ‘What does the economy look like? And why does it matter?’, I critiqued mainstream graphic representations of the economy, giving the examples of the commonly spotted GDP chart and supply-demand curve.

GDP ONS

demandsupplycurve

Without dismissing the usefulness of graphs and charts to reveal important economic trends and factors, I argued that ‘when economists reduce the aesthetic portrayal of the economy to such graphs they render invisible the social and close the politically possible, making those exploited within the current economic system invisible and silent’. In short, economics depoliticises by hiding the deeper reality which is that the economy is ultimately made up of social and natural relations, that is relations between ourselves and nature. I gave the example of something as everyday and essential as a plate of food and asked readers to think about all the human and non-human life that contributed to producing and delivering this food. It is almost impossible to account for all contributing lives here. Yet, they are real and we are bound with them in global systems of relations of production, exchange, and consumption. There can be no more materially real relations to us than the ones between the lives that make our life possible and yet these people, these natural elements are invisible to us. If we wish to change our economy, we need to somehow see our economy, and this means making the invisible somehow visible. We need to see, to some degree at least, the social systems structuring our economy.

I then introduced a recent book by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel called Cartographies of the Absolute. Don’t let the title frighten you! It’s a good one actually because it refers succinctly and directly to the central issue. How can we make visible something that is both at the same time everywhere and seemingly nowhere? How can we render static that which is constantly moving and changing? Toscano and Kinkel are interested here in the absolute that is capital, that ‘absolute’ force shaping our lives and fates. And, yet, its very absoluteness, its ubiquity, makes it unseen, ‘hidden in plain view’. This is why we can’t realistically hope to see ‘the economy’ – the economy is the totality of global class relations within which we ourselves are immersed.

1439234375_Cartographies

Ultimately, as Frederic Jameson puts it, any attempts at mapping the whole economy ‘disorient under the banner of orientation’. But, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly emphasise, this mustn’t paralyse us. Though we must discard any efforts to map this absolute, we still need some kind of cognitive mapping to inform our political understanding and our strategic actions. If, as Frederic Jameson contends, ‘the view from the top is epistemologically crippling’, why not start from the bottom instead?

In the final section of Part One, I proposed that if the dominant way that our economy is aesthetically depicted serves to render silent and invisible its greatest victims then let us listen to those rendered silent and let us find out what economy they can see. I then introduced what I call the ‘Flo Chart’, a pictorial representation of the economy produced by a wonderful woman called Flo who participated in a learning group I ran in Hodge Hill, Birmingham. Here’s the picture of the Flo Chart.

The Flo Chart

You can read Part One to see what I wrote about it in detail. Suffice to say here that the Flo Chart shows us that, even without the technical language, people can demonstrate remarkable insight and have much to teach others about our world. In this case, what Flo captures, beyond the charts and graphs, are the social relations of the economy, the exploitative nature of those relations, and our ultimate interdependence.

Finally, in Part One, I argued that, beyond merely recognising and including the knowledge and insight generated by people at the bottom of our society, the view from below isn’t just indispensable for getting a better view of (understanding) our economy, our society, it’s indispensable because the process by which people at the bottom of our economy, our society are invited to share their vision is, when it’s done right, a process of intellectual and, ultimately, political empowerment. In short, working with people at the bottom is central and vital to building our democracy and democratising our economy.

Seeing the Economy, Part Two: Learning inspired

In Part Two of this blogpost here, I offer some ideas, drawn from my own praxis of community education and theoretical work, for how we can generate collective visions of our economy as foundations for re-envisioning ourselves and our society. I focus on role-playing exercises that I have conducted with two groups of people in recent months.

The role play

Ken Loach is a now legendary film director who has spent six decades making beautiful and brave social realist films. He has allowed us to see them all here. His films have directly influenced society and politics in this country and beyond. I haven’t seen Ken Loach’s latest film I, Daniel Blake yet. The film recently won the ‘Palme d’Or’ award for the best film at the Cannes Film Festival. What I have seen, however, is a two-minute clip from the film which you can see here.

When I saw this clip I was immediately struck by how similar it was to the role play scenarios devised and performed by the participants in the learning groups I facilitate. In two separate learning groups, I have worked with participants to devise role plays set in benefits offices/job centres like this one. Our sessions go from sharing our stories, performing a role play, discussing the experience of the role play, and then, finally, analysing the role play politically.

Sharing our stories and performing the role play

The sessions begin with each other sharing their stories. I then invite participants to use their own experiences and stories to imagine the setting of the benefits office or job centre, to take roles within the office, and to perform these roles. I then allow the participants themselves to develop the scenario. My job is only to ask them occasionally if they think that what they are performing feels realistic, authentic to them. I loosely use the techniques of ‘Forum Theatre‘ developed by Brazilian dramatist and educator Augusto Boal. Hence, I invite other participants watching to take the place of the current actors in order to try to develop, or ideally resolve, the situation.

In one group, a young father whose benefits have been frozen for missing an appointment tells a benefits officer that the reason he missed his appointment was because his son had broken his arm and he had to take him to the hospital. The benefits officer, in a similarly officious and detached manner to that displayed in the film clip, informs the young man that he should have written a letter to that effect and will now have to reapply. The young man protests, saying that he is here in person now, that he has no money at all and two hungry kids at home. He appeals for understanding, for empathy, and for support. He is told that he can apply for a hardship fund, but that this application would still take two weeks.

In another group, the scenario is of a young man with learning disabilities who needs to be accepted for a particular disability benefit in order to qualify for assisted housing. When his case is rejected, he meets a similar bureaucratic wall. In this group’s case, it ended up with an emotional and irate applicant being physically removed from the building by the security guard just like the scenario in I, Daniel Blake!

The final step in our process was to ask participants, still in their roles, about their lives and their position in the scenario. We then ended our role plays and discussed what had happened in them.

The discussion

We focus very much on feelings in our discussions. There are feelings of fear, anger, frustration, and powerlessness, of course, on the part of those playing the roles of the applicants. I recall people saying how they just wanted to be understood, to be recognised, to be treated as a human being. For the applicants it is a very dehumanising experience. But, what of the benefits office staff? When I ask the people who played those roles, I get similar responses too. They speak of the stress, the pressure of their jobs; the long hours and low pay and the constant line of ‘clients’; and how they feel they have to disconnect from the people they serve in order to protect their own sanity. This is a fascinating and important insight. It’s easy enough to watch the film clip above all come away thinking that the benefits office staff are the bad guys, but are they? They too are suffering, they too are dehumanised. In a recent meeting with my friends at My Life My Choice where we watched and discussed this film clip, one participant did a quick internet search to find out what a security guard in the North East of England might earn. She found an advert for a security guard in Middlesborough with G4S offering £7.50 per hour! So, if not one of the people present in that situation is benefiting, who is? What is going on?

The analysis

From our discussion we then moved to analysis. We focused our analyses on the issue of power. Who has the least, who has the most power here? In our MLMC meeting, we agreed that those with the least power – those most silenced, unable to speak and act, and most threatened by the material consequences of the situation – were the young woman’s children. Then came the young woman herself, then the security guard, the benefits officer, and finally the manager. Yet, we also agreed that the manager himself had very little actual power and was just implementing rules and laws set from elsewhere. You can read a summary of this session here on the MLMC website.

So, in all these sessions, we start following the power and that leads us upwards – to regional managers, yes, but then to the Department of Work and Pensions, the Minister in charge of the DWP, the government, the Prime Minister, the political parties, the Houses of Commons and Lords that make the laws and decide the budgets. But, then who are the people in these institutions? What backgrounds are they from? Are they rich or are they poor? Are they black, brown, or white? Are they male or female? Able-bodied or disabled? Do they know what life is like on the bottom or not? From where do they and their parties get their financial support? From the people or from the large corporations and banks? What about the media that is so important a political and cultural force? Who owns and populates the highest ranks of the media?

Asking such questions leads us to draw ‘maps’ of power like this one from our recent MLMC session. Sorry this one’s not a great example – it was hastily drawn and is incomplete, but it gives you enough to see where it can and does go.

Power-and-job-centre-diagram

We begin to draw a map of one small area of the capitalist system and we begin to see how it is linked to political power. But, we could go further and we must. We must also ask why. Why does this woman have to claim benefits? Why do we have a benefits system? Why are benefits being cut so savagely? This brings in economic power – austerity and its roots in the global financial crisis. We could go further and further, wider and wider, geographically, historically, socially. There is a limit and we cannot, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly say, actually map the absolute. But, just to make a start here is crucial. We can actually see how relations of power, very real and violent ones, are not always, indeed are rarely, between people in the same place at the same time. Power flows through us in systems of relations that connect billions of human beings over huge distances, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

One final thing of the utmost importance to point out is the function of the security guard. The security guard’s presence shows us that this is a system that is always ultimately underpinned and secured by physical violence. The security guard represents violence and the violence is that of the nation-state. In turn, the nation-state is the embodiment of all social relations of domination that we experience. The person selling their labour-power as the security guard may have little power in their own lives, but as a security guard s/he embodies the violent power of the state. This is a painful schizophrenic life to lead for anyone.

The power of role play-led analysis

I find role plays really powerful, potentially transformative, exercises for several reasons. First, as I say, it helps us to see invisible but very real systems of relations of power and violence. Second, by using our bodies as well as our minds, we come to embody this new understanding in deeper, more sustainable ways. Third, and related, we learn with an energy and we work to produce our own knowledge based on our own experiences and insights. Fourth, by inhabiting the lives and roles of other people, even supposed enemies, we can develop our understanding, our empathy, our humanity. This is what makes such exercises and analyses potentially transformative.

The big challenge, however, is the next step. Seeing the vastest of the system can be helpful and is necessary, but it can feel disempowering, of course, and we need to all feel empowered so that we can change things. I will write more about this in future blogs, but, for me, the general approach is three-fold: First, we can take things back to the level of our own lives, to our own local communities and ask ourselves what we can do for ourselves and each other right now; Second, we can explore the system more, see the contradictions within it that lead to crisis, see how historically contingent it is and that there was a world before it and will be a world after it; Third, this leads us to think in more utopian ways about the world we actually want. We have to develop a shared sense of what we want, both in the short-term and in the long-term. This is the work we all need to do.

Conclusion

In Part One of this blogpost, I emphasised the importance of social theory – that even without knowledge of social theory, people’s intelligence, insights, and creativity shine through, but that social theory can give us all a richer language to cultivate our own intelligence and understanding. It’s the combination of experiential knowledge (that we all have) and scientific knowledge (that social theory can give us) that can produce transformational knowledge.

A central focus of developing this transformational knowledge that we need for our new lives and society must be on our economy. Here, the question of what our economy looks like is of fundamental, of foundational, importance. It’s the firm basis on which we can rebuild. Only from this foundation can we start to reimagine and recreate an economy within our society in a truly democratic fashion. Democratic work always starts from the bottom-up. It is challenging, but truly rewarding and socially necessary work and it brings me into wonderful relationships with amazing, intelligent, and creative people. I am very fortunate to be blessed in this way.

austerity, Capitalism, Ideology, Left-wing politics, Marxism, Politics and economics, UK

Is austerity ideological?

Hello!

I know this post isn’t immediately topical, particularly with the focus on the fallout from the ‘Panama Papers’. But, sadly, austerity remains topical after eight long years now and it’s a point I’ve wanted to make for a while, so here goes…

Is austerity ideological?

Very often we hear left-wing critics of this and many other governments’ programmes of austerity describe these policies as ‘ideological’. Indeed, here is the widely read blogger ‘Another Angry Voice’ calling it ‘ideological austerity’. Here’s another example on alternet. And here’s the opposite claim: Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, a crucial figure in the imposition of austerity, labelling critics as ideologues (the original source of Tusk’s comments are behind a paywall on the FT’s site).

Ideological austerity

These accusations of ideology seem to come more from the social-democratic, reformist left-of-centre rather than the more radical and revolutionary left. This is not surprising because the claims betray a somewhat naive misunderstanding of the nature of both austerity and ideology that springs from an initial unquestioning acceptance of the permanence of the current political-economic order and a desire merely to ameliorate conditions within it. In stark contrast, a more radical position – one that literally gets to the ‘roots’ of issues – situates itself, as best as possible, outside of the system, seeing, in this case, capitalism’s historical contingency and ultimately terminal contradictions, and imagining and building alternative futures.

Permit me then, dear reader, to make the following two points:

First, since ideology is the name we give the intellectual apparatus that allows us to make sense of our world, everything is ideological. We could not imagine human life nor society without ideology. Consequently, austerity as economic strategy is obviously ideological; equally ideological are all alternative strategies.They are both the products of beliefs and assumptions about: the nature of the problems in the economy, their origins, and how to fix them; the nature of an economy itself; the ethics of economic production, labour, exchange, consumption, and distribution; the nature of an economy as a discrete social realm of action; the nature of human beings as economic agents; and far more besides.

Second, by labelling austerity as ‘ideological’, Keynesian reformists seek to assert that the strategy is irrational, i.e. that, since it should be patently clear to all that the policies of austerity are economically damaging and counter-productive, the only possible explanation for their continuance is a blind ideological devotion on the part of policymakers to a discredited neo-classical economics. However, from a different perspective – the perspective of capital itself – austerity is totally rational. Through the austerity strategy, capital can: put the cost of the crisis onto workers; accumulate further through the regressive policies of austerity and the state support for financialisation, asset inflation, and debt-based money creation; and, perhaps most crucially, depress workers’ wages to a point that profitability can be revived. This perspective is revealed by a Marxist critical political economy that recognises capital as wealth/social power in continuous need of expanding accumulation. The same perspective identifies the contradictions within capitalism that austerity exacerbates, particularly politically destabilising inequality and poverty and the impoverishment of the working people needed to keep buying commodities that exacerbates a debt crisis and depresses economic recovery, and, of course, first and foremost, the labour-capital contradiction that defines and cannot be reconciled within capitalism. Finally, it is also a perspective that recognises that the current crisis is not, as the Keynesians insist, a crisis of ‘effective demand’, but is, fundamentally, rather a crisis of profitability. However cheap central banks have made their money (and now we even have negative interest rate policies (NIRPs!) in countries like Sweden and Japan and even talk of the need for ‘helicopter money‘!), banks and ‘investors’ are taking it and sticking it in financial markets and property rather than investing it in productive economic sectors. This is resulting in dangerous asset market bubbles and is also turning many economies, the UK economy above all, into perfect structures for parasitism, sucking up the money of the poor (and middle class) through rent and debt. This will soon end in a new, more violent financial and subsequent economic crisis that will lead to far more serious political turbulence across the world that will, once more, lead us to fascism or democratic political revolution.

For far more details and for a Marxist political-economic perspective from a real economic expert, check out Michael Roberts’ outstanding blog, The Next Recession. I urge you to read it.

Thanks, as ever, for reading my blog. I’m off now to Aarhus, Denmark to go to this!

Best wishes,
Joel

Capitalism, community education, Critical pedagogy, Culture, Education/learning, Ideology, Media, Value

On value and values

Hi there,

I’ve decided to produce a Soundcloud podcast of each blog I write. If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to things as much as reading them. I also spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning, so it’s a great way to learn new stuff while I do my housework. I’m hoping that the podcast will attract more people to engage with my blogposts.

Let me know what you think. Read/Listen on!

Thanks

Joel…

On Value and Values

I’ve recently revisited a wonderful group exercise called ‘Draw a Fire’ that invites people to explore the values they hold most dear. I ran it with all three of the community learning groups I currently help to run: Oxford Democracy-Builders, My Life My Choice, and Hodge Hill. All three groups are very different and, indeed, each group itself is made up of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Yet, what this exercise shows very clearly is that the values cherished by everyone in each group are really very similar.

The exercise is taken from a practical community education book called Partners Companion to Training for Transformation (p.118). Here’s what you do…

“Everyone in the group is asked to take paper and pencils and to draw a fire with the help of the following guideline questions.

1. By what was my fire shaped and formed?

2. What is it that motivates me or gives me energy?

3. What is at the heart of it all?

4. What has kept me going/nourished me?

5. What kindles me, what causes me to blaze, smoulder, quench, rage, warm, destroy, bake, spark, etc?”

Participants work alone, drawing their fire. Then, depending on the size of the group, people can come into small groups or can reform as a whole group to share their fires and stories.

I will share three photos of the key words and phrases I took by listening to each participant in my groups when they shared their fires. 

Fire of vision and values

MLMC fire

 

Bromford fire

What do you notice about these three collections of words and phrases? What values do you see? What visions for the good life and society do you see coming through?

What I see coming through so clearly are a set of values that I believe to be almost universal among us common folk, a central emphasis not on ‘money and things’, but on ‘relationships and experiences’, as one participant put it. The values that everyone throughout these three groups here cherishes are friendship, freedom, community, love for others and for our natural world. Money, riches, possession sare all conspicuous by their absence. This is certainly not because all the group participants have enough money and enough things. Numerous people in these groups very often have not had and/or do not have enough money for some of the most basic things in their lives. So, what is going on? In our Oxford Democracy-Builders group, some questioned whether these values were indeed widespread, suggesting that they might just reflect the values of an already self-selecting group of people passionate about social justice and change. Let’s explore this question…

 

The universal human value system: extrinsic and intrinsic values

For decades, psychologists have been conducting studies with thousands of people throughout the world in an attempt to understand what humans value. Reviewing this research, one psychologist, Prof Tim Kasser, points to clear evidence for a universal human value system:

“…the human value system is composed of about a dozen basic types of values, including aims such as having fun, understanding one’s place in the universe, being healthy, and having close relationships. People in every corner of the globe appear to care about and be motivated by each of these basic values, although of course to varying extents.”

So, we share a universal value system, but, says Prof Kasser, this system can be divided quite clearly between what he calls ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’ values. Extrinsic values give primacy to ‘financial success, image, and popularity, each of which involves a strong focus on rewards and other people’s opinions. In contrast, intrinsic values emphasise ‘self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling, which tend to be more focused on helping to satisfy people’s inherent psychological needs’.

 

universal human values

 


According to Kasser, these psychological studies have shown that extrinsic values are linked with unhappiness and poorer health and that intrinsic values are associated with higher levels of happiness and well-being. They also show how people’s values are linked to their social behaviour and how these values ‘bleed over’, so, if someone has intrinsic values in one area of their life, this is much more likely to ‘lead them to express stronger desires to support the larger community of people, other species, and future generations’.

So, maybe my friends in the Oxford Democracy-Builders group are right. Maybe the complete and consensual emphasis on intrinsic human values we expressed just reflects the values of a small minority, while most others out there actually emphasise those antithetical extrinsic values. Or maybe not…

 

The intrinsic majority and the perception gap

A recent report by the UK-based Common Cause Foundation presents evidence from its UK Values Survey to show that actually almost three-quarters of all UK citizens ‘attach greater importance to compassionate values than selfish values’. And, guess what, just as some of my group-mates thought that our intrinsic values might not be shared by most of the rest of our compatriots, the Perceptions Matter report shows that a huge 77% of respondents also believed that their intrinsic values weren’t shared by their fellow citizens. The Common Cause Foundation’s research reveals a large gap between the intrinsic empathetic values that most of us espouse and the extrinsic self-interested values we think others hold. And the Foundation finds that the larger the gap between the two within a given individual, the less likely it is that they will vote in elections or generally be politically engaged.

 

values perception gap

 

To recap, here’s the story so far. Three separate and diverse groups perform a group exercise that reveals a universal emphasis on those intrinsic human values of friendships, nature, community, love. The extrinsic values of wealth, possessions, image are entirely absent. But, are we just atypically nice people? There is evidence to suggest that we aren’t; that, in fact, the values we stress are the same values that 3 in every 4 people share.

Two questions come to mind now: (1) If we’re primarily all about cultivating intrinsic values, how comes our whole media and culture is totally dominated by materialism, consumerism, superficiality of body and image, in short, extrinsic values? (2) What about that fourth person? What’s up with them?!

 

The fourth person: the cultural production of subjectivity

Now we get political. Politics is about power and power isn’t just about making people do what you want them to do. It goes way deeper than that: it’s about creating the very human beings you want or, alternatively put, the creation of political subjectivities that the social system requires through the production of ideology and culture. Who we are, what we think, the values we hold are overwhelmingly related to the kind of society we live in and are influenced by the institutions of communication, culture, and education that structure and reproduce it.

So, what values do our institutions inculcate within us today? For author F. S Michaels, our institutions are seeding within in us a ‘monoculture’ in which the sole narrative we are taught is the ‘economics story’ to the extent that we are forgetting all the other rich stories that make up the human experience. Michaels is undoubtedly right. However, while I haven’t read her book, Michaels seems to be an idealist thinker (believing that ideas are the dominant force driving history). I am a materialist. The monoculture of economism that Michaels identifies reflects the dominance (hegemony) of capitalist class power since the neo-liberal counter-revolution of the 1960s. To establish political hegemony, a ruling class must naturalise its dominance; it must make us think that the way the world is is not socially contingent, but is as natural as the air we breathe. The fact that every area of life must be beholden to the economy, to the market and every thing we do as a society justified in economic terms – the fact of the monoculture – reflects the success of this capitalist hegemonic project over the last five decades.

The ideological, cultural, and financial resources at the disposal of the ruling class and the depths to which this monoculture has been sown is incredible. Just think of our daily life: the radio/TV/newspaper messages; the images of happiness-through-consumption we are bombarded with; the government propaganda. When one thinks of all that, one should probably be amazed that, after decades of increasingly intensive and sophisticated targeting of this stuff, after countless trillions of advertising, still only one in four people explicitly avow the extrinsic values of the monoculture! But, I’m not surprised! Human beings are intelligent, conscious beings. We know what makes us happy; we know what makes us sad. We might make bad choices for ourselves under conditions of stress, peer pressure, desperation, but, deep down, we know-feel universal truth and we seek love.

 

Towards a transvaluation of values

There’s a phrase in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that I think I get, but might not! The phrase is the ‘transvaluation of values’. Nietzsche’s work was about showing us that the values or ‘morals’ that dominated a society were not natural, but were the outcome of a long historical development. He developed a philosophical/social scientific method of ‘genealogy’ to look back into history to show us why we believed what we believed. It led him to rail against his own society and its Judeo-Christian ideological/moral foundations.

Just like me, Nietzsche believed in values that transcended history. In stark contrast to me (and, it seems, three-quarters of the UK population at least), Nietzsche’s universal values were individualism and a ‘will to power’ at the heart of which were ‘exploitation and competition’. I like Nietzsche’s historical method (taken up later to incredible effect by Michel Foucault), but deplore his values. Instead, I argue for a transvaluation of intrinsic values as described by Tim Kasser.

 

Value: the foundation of political economy

At the heart of political economy is the question of value. Human beings come together and use the natural world to produce and exchange goods. These can be produced and exchanged in many different ways. Today, in our capitalist society, of course, goods are produced as commodities for market exchange by wage labour in increasingly complex, global, hierarchical organisations. However they are produced and exchanged, the fundamental question always is one of value: how do we establish how much of one thing we exchange for another? For over a century, the dominant school of neo-classical economics says it’s just a question of ‘utility’: the value of something was simply how much people were willing to pay for it. This subjectivist view really defined economics as a distinct discipline because, prior to the late 19th Century, classical political economists (most famously, Adam Smith and David Ricardo) held the objectivist view that value wasn’t just determined by supply and demand, but that there was an objective, scientific underlying determinant of value, namely labour. Karl Marx took their theories and radically developed them to reveal the secret of capitalist profit-making: capitalist profit (surplus value) comes from human labour-power (and nature).

Capital needs to grow; it needs to accumulate value; it needs to exploit human labour and nature and it needs consumers to continue to buy more and more in order to convert this value back into money capital and start the cycle of accumulation again. Consequently, the values that the capitalist class must promote are extrinsic: wealth, possession, status-through-consumption. There is a conflict between our instinctive and latently universal intrinsic values and capitalism’s relentless extrinsic values.

 

The political task: a society where our values determine value

One way, then, to frame our political task is to create a society in which value no longer determines, but is determined by our values. In such a society, rather than the economy and economism dominating society and nature and telling us what we should and must be, we would begin with our vision for our lives, our society based on our values and only then would we ask the economic question: how can we produce and exchange what we need in harmony with our values?

As it stands, value dominates values. Our world is upside-down and our suffering, as a consequence, is great. But, in this time of terminal crisis for capitalism, things are already changing. The stakes could not be higher, but, as I work with wonderful people in learning groups and read research that reinforces my beliefs, I feel a surge of hope.

Capitalism, Feeling and embodying, Love, Marxism, Money

The most important thing I’ve probably ever written in my life

Hope that blogpost title lured you in! Read on, dear friend, read on!…

 

FROM DEATH TO LIFE

M-C-M’/C-M-CU-I-U’/I-U-I’

I am currently organising an ‘unconference’. I’m inviting a diverse group of around 30 people to a weekend workshop in April focused on the issue of transformation. That’s intentionally left very broad.

One of the people I have invited, a gent by the name of Matthew Painton, has so kindly offered to give me the gift of five free hours of his time. Matthew is a ‘life coach’. This title has perhaps cheesy connotations, but there is nothing cheesy about what Matthew has done for me. There are no words to express my gratitude to him…And we’re only two hours in!

What I’m asking you to read for me below, dearest reader, is probably the most important thing I’ve ever written in my life. I wrote this immediately after the experience I describe in the writing. This experience came soon after Matthew and I had completed our second session. The experience I describe took place about 10 hours ago. It’s now 21:10 and I’ve tidied what I wrote up a bit, added a few explanatory sentences, but intentionally left it as raw as possible.

If what you read here resonates with you, if it moves you then please do let me know. You can leave a comment or you can email me at joel underscore lazarus at hotmail dot com. I would love to hear from you.

With thanks and with love

Joel…

 

M-C-M’ (M = Money; C = Commodity; M’ = More Money)

This equation – the equation that reveals the alchemic secret of money – comes from Capital, Vol I by Karl Marx. What it shows is that, in our world, money isn’t the object we think it is. Money is the subject. Money capital uses us! It uses us to grow, to incessantly grow. We are the objects it uses for self-valorisation. Hence vampire and zombie analogies in Capital and many popular cultures. Capital is vampire; we are zombies.

But if we accept this real abstraction as the total force forming the organising principle of our world, the subject controlling our lives, we must also be open to the possibility that we are or could be the objects of an alternative subject. Something else could drive our lives instead of money capital.

Today, with the help of Matthew Painton, I found that subject – it is the universe, the totality of life itself. It is inside me. It is inside you.

We cannot possibly feel it constantly. How could we function in our daily lives? We need, to an extent, to suppress it and, in the process, we anaesthetise ourselves. But the totality and incessant pressure that money puts on us inevitably makes us unconsciously and almost permanently repress this subject in favour of serving money.

But what we suppress or repress doesn’t go away. It is there.

What motivates us to stand up for, to even give our lives, for others – for family, for friends, for community, society, for a forest, for a mountain, for Nature? First and foremost, it’s not an argument, it’s not an idea, an ideology; it’s a feeling. We feel the injustice, the pain, the suffering. Only then comes the intellectual rationalisation. And that’s crucial, but that rationalisation does also function to limit the feeling, the raw emotion. So…

What if we turn off the mind for a bit and just let the feelings flow?

Can one possibly even begin to feel the totality of pain and suffering in the world? I don’t know. But today I tried to do just this…

I sat still, closed my eyes and tried to feel the pain and suffering in the world. I felt the searing, shattering pain of a parent’s grief; I felt the physical and spiritual agony of a human being violated, of another imprisoned, another tortured; I felt the stabbing hunger of a starving belly. I felt the humiliation of a Muslim woman vilified, a disabled person taunted; a young black man demonised.

I felt the numbing silent devastation of a forest burned, a river poisoned, a sacred mountain decapitated.

There is a unity to every living thing on this planet. There is a unity to body and mind. Until today, I couldn’t see the unity that connected Marx’s revolutionary science of historical materialism to a spirituality that emphasises above all the interconnectedness of all things, of materiality and consciousness. Today I see it.

In our society, it is money capital that is the organising principle, the totality, the subject, the absolute Emperor of our society. Marx’s revolutionary formula reveals this:

M-C-M’

Money feeds on our bodies and minds to grow. In this Emperor’s world, we are objects. We are C-M-C. We sell our bodies and minds, our labour-power, for money in order to use this money to sustain our existences and consume the energy needed to reproduce ourselves once again for money.

The money world, the society of capitalism, is ecocidal and it is genocidal. This is the death equation.

But, there is another revolutionary equation – the equation for our time, the equation that tells us the true source of life, the life equation. It is, I think, this…

U-I-U’ and I-U-I’

In this pair of equations, U stands for the universe or universal life. I is I, myself. This is the life equation.

In the first pair, the death pair (M-C-M’/C-M-C), money flourishes at our expense – a zero-sum situation. In the second pair, the life equation, life itself and I, as both independent subject in and object for life, flourish. A positive-sum situation.

Rather than money, the totalising subject here, the Emperor, is the universe, universal life, the totality of all living beings. Universal life is expressed and embodied in specific living beings (I) and through us all it seeks to flourish and grow. In contrast to living in order to serve the money emperor of death, if I seeks to live its life guided by and in harmony with the infinite power of U, I itself flourishes.

U is life. U is truth. U is beauty. U is love. For some, U is God.

This is an intellectualisation of U and we do need to think about U and how we live practically, how we organise our society, in a flourishing relationship with U, but U is not primarily an idea. U is not an ideology. U is a power, a power that is felt.

Today I felt U. I sat, closed my eyes and flowed…

I was the whale deep down in the dark blue sea. I was a blind pelican being fed fish by other fellow pelicans, the sun on my face, a writhing fish in my mouth. I was a murmuration of starlings, thick, pulsating. I was a bison. I was a herd of bison. I was a penguin sheltering with others from a blizzard. I was a hare running. I was a chimpanzee perched in a tree, eating fruit. I was even a spider creeping forward slowly. I was a child running towards the sun…

 

Do this for me, for yourself, for universal life today. Take 10mins that you think you desperately need in your work (to serve M). Sit down, close your eyes, breathe with all your belly, deep breaths, and explore what you feel. What do you feel? Feel the feeling, be in the feeling, and let it take you on a journey.

I’d be honoured to hear from you what you felt and where you went. This is inside all of us, all the time – a feeling of infinite power and goodness there to guide us.

The goal is to destroy the deathworld of money, yes, but through empowering the world of life that money is sucking dry. The feeling will guide us. Through it, and only through it, we see that what we think is impossible, we feel and know to be possible and the only real way – the loving way.

To the flourishing of all life!

Joel

Art and Culture, Capitalism, Communication, Critical pedagogy, Culture, Democracy, Education/learning, Media, Radical democracy, Television, UK

Five ideas for hacking television

Dear readers,

Here is an article out today on OpenDemocracy in which I offer five ideas that might guide any attempts to democratise the production and viewing of television. I’m trying to apply these ideas and more to my own project – the Capital City Project. Early days yet for that, but some good stuff in this piece if I say so myself! 🙂

If following a link feels a little like hard work, just read the article pasted below instead!

All the best and, as ever, comments most welcome

In Solidarity

Joel

In this article, I present five ideas for democratising television. The ultimate goal in mind is the democratic transformation of our society. All five ideas derive from a field of practical philosophy commonly known as ‘critical pedagogy‘. The question of transformation is a pedagogical one: people, communities, societies can transform themselves through processes of learning and the practical application of what they learn.

The practice of ‘hacking’ entails the deconstruction of a technological device or practice in order to fully understand its logic and function so that it can then be reconstructed or reconfigured to perform additional or alternative functions. What I am proposing in this piece are practical ideas for hacking television.

These are ideas that are evolving in train with my plans for the ‘Capital City Project‘ – a project aimed at producing a TV drama series and accompanying website. The drama will be based on and around the trading floor of an investment bank, telling the contemporary story of money. The website will be produced by a team of philosophers and social scientists, inviting viewers to use social theory to analyse the drama.

Before starting on the project, I had little idea of how television was really made. I now understand that accessing the television industry requires first penetrating the outer walls guarded by affiliated production companies. To do so invariably requires an already established track record of production success. Perhaps all obstacles can be overcome by a combination of money and contacts, but most of us don’t have those things.

This could lead most to abandon television and develop our own alternatives online – a process already in train. Yet, those committed to democratisation through intellectual empowerment need to think seriously about scaling up in order to catalyse a mass praxis: a society-wide process of learning and transformation. We have to think about how to democratise our use of contemporary media technologies in order to engage millions, rather than dozens, of our fellow citizens.

To attempt mass praxis, we also can’t give up on public service broadcasting. Though I feel the BBC has seriously reneged on its mandate to ‘educate, inform, and entertain’, under changed political conditions the corporation could yet play a central role in cultivating intellectuality and democracy in the UK.

So, in this spirit of optimism, here are five key principles that could guide our attempts to democratise television:

(1) Breaking down boundaries between television’s producers and consumers

Following Walter Benjamin, fundamental to the democratisation of television is the democratisation of the means of its cultural production. The barriers to achieving this are political not technical.

Democratising the production of a film or TV programme would require a practice of giving voice, ensuring that the objects of our documentaries or dramas become active, speaking subjects. Ultimately, however, the camera itself must be handed over. The universal male, straight, bourgeois gaze must be joined by a multiverse of gazes: female, queer, black, disabled.

We must also pursue the democratisation of our consumption – our viewing – of television, ending the paternalistic and manipulative concepts of the passive spectator that shape current television production. Here, a cornerstone of critical pedagogical thought is essential. Jacques Ranciere’s ‘equality of intelligences’ is a pedagogical universalism: ‘I learn everything the same way – translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate and understand’. As viewers, we actively make sense of what we experience in just the same ways as we do in our daily lives. Any democratisation of television must recognise the active intellectuality and emancipatory potential of the viewer. A more direct way of putting this might be to endorse David Simon’s maxim of ‘F*ck the average viewer’!

Jacques Ranciere. Credit: Petitfestival

(2) Creating dissensus

The transfer of cultural productive power generates a plethora of voices and perspectives. It is now that the possibility for producing television capable of creating ‘dissensus’ emerges. The concept of dissensus comes, once more, from the philosophy of Jacques Ranciere. What we understand as politics Ranciere sees as a relentlessly policed consensus. Creating dissensus means disrupting our sensibilities of our naturalised social order so that we recognise its artifice and contingency. Other realities, other worlds suddenly become conceivable. It is this experience that is necessary for us to begin to remake ourselves and our society.

(3) Empathy for disorientation

Dissensus does not just disrupt what we see and believe, it disturbs our very subjectivities and identities. Dissensual culture creates the antithesis of what Theodor Adorno described as the ‘feeling [of being] on safe ground’ and the ‘infantile need for protection’ that our current mainstream ‘culture industry’ generates. Dissensus also reintroduces the personal and social conflict that television’s production of reality sweeps away or constructs and smoothly resolves. Consequently, initial responses to dissensus can include feelings of denial and anger. Producers of democratic television need to be empathetic toward this experience of cognitive dissonance or disorientation. We need to work with psychologists, psychoanalysts, and critical pedagogues to explore strategies for helping individuals, communities, and even whole societies convert feelings of initial disorientation into positive energy for transformation.

4) Theoretical glasses

Probably only artistic interventions can create a dissensus capable of provoking initial emotional response strong enough to open up transformational possibilities. Yet, the fact that dissensus can help us see our world anew makes the role of social theory vital. The word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek ‘theoria’ meaning ‘to see’, ‘to behold’. Producers of democratic television should invite viewers to use social theory to analyse the films and the issues they raise.

We can understand our own ideological perspective as the particular pair of glasses we wear to see the world. Transformation involves changing our proscription, enabling ourselves to see further and deeper. Critical pedagogy as a radical democratic philosophy is committed to self-driven transformation. We must avoid what Pierre Bourdieu rightly called the ‘paternalistic-pedagogical’ television of the pre-neoliberal era. To quote Bourdieu, we might regularly ask ourselves: ‘Am I seeking to get people to see what I see or am I trying to help people to see for themselves?’

5) Harnessing the emancipatory potential of the website

It is the internet that provides exciting technological solutions to the challenges of democratising television. We can build websites to facilitate and encourage online and real life dialogue – safe spaces for people to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas; to help viewers use social theory to analyse the issues raised by our films; and to help viewers come together to join existing or create new social initiatives. The pedagogical website can also liberate the film from any direct need to be overtly didactic. In short, the combination of critical pedagogy, television, and the website has vast emancipatory potential. It can form the pedagogical bridge connecting art and emotion with critical reason, leading on to action and transformation.

Crowd Watching Television at Kings Cross, 1955-56. Credit: ABC

Why now?

We are all living in a state of permanent crisis. Even capital’s high priests speak of long-term ‘secular stagnation’. Utopian promises have been superseded by endless austerity and disciplinary technologies of ‘responsibilisation’ and ‘resilience’. So many of us are ill – physically and mentally. So many are paralysed by what Mark Fisher calls a ‘reflexive impotence’: we don’t believe we can change anything; we prove ourselves right.

The crumbling of capital’s neo-liberal hegemony and the emergence of the internet makes the media a central site of political struggle. As the gap between our lived realities and the reality we see on our TV screens grows, the legitimacy of our media organisations and their ability to perform their ideological functions decreases.

It may be that the BBC is steadily abandoned as new media enabling more democratically-produced output emerge. However, with its near-universal broadcasting reach, the BBC is uniquely placed to attempt the kind of mass praxis envisioned here. Furthermore, its publicly funded and owned status means that the BBC has a legal duty to serve us. A central element of this service is education. I believe that the BBC’s tiresome defence of ‘neutrality’ has, in reality, meant a withdrawal from the field of political education, leading it ever rightward over recent decades till arriving at what Tariq Ali has called the ‘extreme centre’ of today.

Last year, I was in the audience at a couple of events featuring senior BBC journalists. What was clear was that they had abnegated any sense of a duty or even desire to educate in a crucial political sense. They poured scorn on the idea, for example, that they should educate their viewers about quantitative easing. ‘Who am I to insist that people should know about QE?’ one asked. ‘Who would watch a 45 minute documentary on that!?’, declared another. We desperately need our BBC to serve our needs for political education. As the model I sketch in this article makes clear, this must and can be done in democratic ways.

British telly has always been blessed with gifted satirists offering us what we might call a beautiful fatalism. Yet, if our goal is to build a better world, we need more than critique. Neo-liberal capitalism has decimated our belief in ourselves and our ability to change our world. It’s time to produce television that seeks both to empower all those involved in its production and viewing. For those seeking to produce culture in all its forms aimed at democratic transformation, our goal must be to cultivate our collective self-belief and educated hope.

 

Art and Culture, Capitalism, Critical pedagogy, Education/learning, Marxism, Politics and economics

What does the economy look like? And why does it matter?

 

Question: What does the economy look like?…

The mainstream economist’s answer: ‘Why! GDP, of course!

‘An economy,’ a mainstream economist might retort, ‘is nothing more than the combined economic activity of all ‘households’ in any given location – say, a region, a nation, the world. So, if you want to see what an economy looks like, consult the charts that portray these aggregated numbers’. The specific chart that visually depicts our national economy is, of course, that portraying ‘GDP’ (Gross Domestic Product).1

GDP ONS

 

To be fair to mainstream economists, the GDP figure and chart does spur subsequent investigations into, and depictions of, other, subsidiary sectors: trade, manufacturing, consumption, employment, etc. But, it remains the case that were one to ask most economists what the economy looks like they’d probably show you the GDP chart.

 

The supply-demand curve

The historical GDP chart tracks our interminable quest for that holy grail – economic growth. If economic growth is the proclaimed overarching objective of our society then the path to this objective lies through the venerated ‘market’. Aesthetically, the sanctity of the market is revealed to us in the ‘supply-demand curve’. This simple two line chart shows us how the Lord weaves his miracles daily, bringing forth social order and justice from atomised chaos with each wave of his ‘invisible hand’. For atheist free-marketeers, God is the market itself.

 

demandsupplycurve

 

This sanctification of the market serves as a foundational myth of our economic religion – established in the ‘scriptures’ of founding texts, peddled by the priesthood, and reinforced and institutionalised in schools, universities, TV programmes and films every day of our lives.

 

The minimalist aesthetic of hegemonic microeconomics

This is not a blogpost debunking the preposterous myth of the free market. It is a post focused on how our economy is portrayed aesthetically. From this perspective, then, I think it is safe to share Susan Buck-Morss’ conclusion that that the hegemonic economics of today, neoclassical economics, is ‘microeconomics’…

‘Minimalism is characteristic of the supply-demand curve, none of the substantive problems of political economy are resolved, while the social whole simply disappears from sight. Once this happens, critical reflection on the exogenous conditions of a ‘given’ market situation becomes impossible, and the philosophy of political economy become so theoretically impoverished that it can be said to come to an end.’

What does this all mean? As I understand it, a central political function of neoclassical economics is to depoliticise our society. By using their technical equations and graphs to depict the economy, economists perplex us into accepting that the status quo is the natural and only possible social order. They also point our attention to exchange and consumption away from the politics of production and work. Neoclassical economists, the aspiring physicists of the social sciences, using their ‘scientific expertise’ to close down political possibilities.2

Only by reducing the complexity of individual and social life to this degree can one create an aesthetic as minimalist as the GDP or supply-demand curve chart to represent the ‘economy’ – an entity that structures, and is structured by, millions, indeed billions, of human beings.

This is not to dismiss the usefulness of using graphs and charts to reveal important economic trends and factors. It is, instead, to argue that when economists reduce the aesthetic portrayal of the economy to such graphs they render invisible the social and close the politically possible, making those exploited within the current economic system invisible and silent.

 

Seeing the unseeable

Visibility and invisibility are at the very heart of the issue here, for repoliticising our economy means attempting to somehow show that it comprises billions of unique human lives connected and structured through social relations of power. Above all, a political economic attempt to answer the question of what the economy looks like must try to show that what is invisible when we try to see the economy is just as real as the visible, if not more so. This, on first consideration, shouldn’t be that hard. We all believe in the existence of things we can’t see: electricity, gravity, microorganisms even. But, the complexity and dynamism of social systems and structures mean that their existence can’t be scientifically seen or aesthetically represented in similar ways. They are, as Karl Marx put it, ‘real abstractions’.

 

turkish food porn.png

 Gratuitous Turkish food porn!

Take a look at your next plate of food. Now try to think of all the human beings, animals, and natural contributions involved in ensuring its presence on your table. When you really start to work it through, you soon realise that we’re talking about countless combinations of literally millions of human beings and living creatures. Just because we have not met them does it mean we have no relation to and with them? Their labour, their very lives, have played a vital role in sustaining our own. There can be no more materially real relation than this, yet, no visible trace of this collective labour, energy, life can be seen on our plates. An understandable response to this is to feign blindness. But, if we remain blind to our place within the complex social system that we call our economy how can we see beyond the end of our own forks? How can we how to change our economy, our society, for the better if we can’t or won’t see it?

 

‘Cartographies of the Absolute’!

This is the dilemma admirably addressed by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel in their recent book Cartographies of the Absolute. When one gets past the intellectually terrifying title, one finds, in many places, some no less terrifying prose. Yet, Toscano and Kinkel’s contribution to our question is important.

 

1439234375_Cartographies

This graphic was produced by William Bunge as appears on the front cover of Toscano & Kinkle’s book ‘Cartographies of the Absolute’

 

Writing in the Marxist tradition, and taking us on a wonderful tour of contemporary art and film, the ‘absolute’ that the authors confront is none other than capital itself – the entity, the force that binds us all in relations of coercion, exploitation, and alienation each day, each very minute. Capital is everywhere, pulsing ceaselessly through our transplanetary and biological veins, making our very world go round, making and remaking our very selves. Capital produces us and we produce capital. And, as Toscano and Kinkel rightly emphasise, since capitalism is full of antagonisms and contradictions, we are too. Capital is, then, for the vast majority of humanity, the ‘absolute’ force shaping our lives and fates. And, yet, its very absoluteness, its ubiquity, makes it unseen, ‘hidden in plain view’. This is why we can’t realistically hope to see ‘the economy’ – the economy is the totality of global class relations within which we ourselves are immersed. Ultimately, as Frederic Jameson puts it, any attempts at mapping the whole economy ‘disorient under the banner of orientation’.

 

The view from below

There is no need, however, as Toscano and Kinkel themselves emphasise, to let this conclusion paralyse us intellectually or politically. Though we must discard any efforts to map this absolute, we still need some kind of cognitive mapping to inform our political understanding and our strategic actions. Frederic Jameson contends that ‘the view from the top is epistemologically crippling’.3Let’s proceed instead then from the bottom. If the dominant way that our economy is aesthetically depicted serves to render silent and invisible its greatest victims then let us listen to those rendered silent and let us find out what economy they can see.

So, what does the economy look like from below? Here’s one view. Dear readers, I proudly present what I call the ‘Flo Chart’!

 

The Flo Chart

The ‘Flo Chart’!

 

This picture was drawn by me, but it’s reproduced from memory of the original which was drawn by a wonderful woman called Flo during the first PPE (People’s Political Economy) learning group I ran at The Hub, a community centre in Hodge Hill, Birmingham back in the Autumn of last year. I asked the group to express in any way they wanted what they thought and felt when they heard the word ‘economy’. This is the picture that Flo produced in response to that question. Flo is an older woman who, by her own admission, has no formal understanding of economics or what an economy is. Listening to her tell us all, quite openly, the extreme challenges that life has thrown at her, it was clear where Flo saw herself and others at The Hub within her Flo Chart: very much at the bottom.

It’s an amazing picture to analyse. What I see I’m tempted to call ‘the absolute’. I see everything, everyone contained within this balloon (this bubble?). I see a few on top and others falling down to join ‘the masses’ at the bottom. I see the huddled folk at the bottom keeping the air in the whole thing by plugging up the balloon. The Flo Chart shows our ultimate interdependence – those on the top need those on the bottom. They would quickly fall to Earth if those below were to unplug the balloon.

Clearly, the Flo Chart makes no scientific representation. No data is being displayed here. But, if the GDP chart shows us an economy then the Flo Chart shows us the politics of, the unequal social relations structuring, that economy. Moreover, the Flo Chart shows us the artistry, the eloquence, the intellectual and creative power (and potential) of the dispossessed. The view from below isn’t just indispensable for getting a better view of (understanding) our economy, our society, it’s indispensable because the process by which people at the bottom of our economy, our society are invited to share their vision is, when it’s done right, a process of intellectual and, ultimately, political empowerment. In short, working with people at the bottom is central to building our democracy and democratising our economy.

 

Re-envisioning our economy

People are intelligent, insightful, and creative. Without knowledge of social theory, they might not always have the words or concepts to articulate their intelligence, but, still, their intelligence and creativity comes out, often with devastating power. The task of folk like me (I’m falling slowly in the middle), with knowledge of social theory, is to help people at the bottom to cultivate their own intelligence to see further. The word ‘theory’ comes from the Greek ‘theories’ meaning ‘to see’, ‘to behold’. When we combine the social knowledge that everyone has with the scientific knowledge that some are privileged to have then we can produce the transformational knowledge we need to reimagine and recreate our world.

The question of what our economy looks like is of fundamental, of foundational, importance. It’s the firm basis on which we can rebuild. Seeing our economy to the best of our abilities requires looking from multiple vantage points not least from below. We need to create a vision (or visions) of our economy that combine our shared experiential with our scientific/theoretical knowledge and, indeed, our emotions. It’s important because only from this foundation can we start to re-envision – to reimage and recreate an economy within our society – in a truly democratic fashion.

In the second part of this blog, I will offer some ideas, drawn from my own praxis of community education and theoretical work, for how we can generate collective visions of our economy as foundations for re-envisioning ourselves and our society.

1The Gross Domestic Product figure measures the total monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy over a given period of time. It is usually expressed as a percentage rise or fall compared to the previous year or quarter.

2Although we see the establishment of a separate realm of human activity in classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Smith and Ricardo were still very much interested in understanding where economic value came from and, while they reduced social and political relationships to the bourgeois technical language of inputs/outputs, investments, profits, and returns, they did at least recognise that value was created by human labour. It was the ‘Marginalist Revolution’ of the final third of the 19th Century, lead by William Stanley Jevons in England, Carl Menger in Austria, and Leon Walras in Switzerland, that sought to bury any notion of the origin of value as somehow social and political, dethroning classical political economy with the theory of marginal utility. Instead of any consideration of social theory and value, economics became, and remains to this day, a consideration of utility and prices. The only social theory here is really that ‘man’ is out to satisfy his desires and minimise his work. This quest for ‘marginal’ utility (and avoidance of marginal disutility) – how much he will give for any additional unit of something he desires – combines with the positioning of the market as optimal mechanism for blindly, but efficiently, allocating scarce resources in the economy to form the cornerstones of the neoclassical economic religion.

3I understand this to mean that, rather than enhancing our understanding of our common humanity, our ability to see our planet the Earth from above, for example, has, conversely, increased our sense of bewilderment and powerlessness.

Capitalism, Healthcare, Marxism, Privatisation, UK

The ‘Hunt’ for surplus-value: what all ‘junior’ doctors should know about the government’s plans

We are very proud here in the UK of our National Health Service, established by the post-WW2 Labour government, that still, despite creeping privatisation, provides healthcare to all ‘free at the point of delivery’ paid out of general taxation. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is major news that this week all hospital doctors-in-training in England (i.e. doctors not yet consultants pejoratively labelled ‘junior’ doctors), will be striking for the first time in over forty years after an amazing 98% of doctors who voted in the British Medical Association ballot approved of strike action.

The Conservative government, led by arch-villain Jeremy ‘Berkshire’ Hunt, claims that it seeks to modernise the pay and conditions of doctors and to end the supposed imbalance of treatment received by patients between weekdays and weekends.

It seems to me that the issue of weekend cover is legitimate. However, thanks to Jeremy Hunt’s fearmongering, he’s actually managed to jeopardise the health of many British people by scaring them away from taking themselves to hospital in a timely fashion if it happens to be the weekend. Indeed, there is now even a recognised ‘Hunt effect’ which has come to be understood as ‘inadvertent harms caused to patients by misstatements about the quality of healthcare’.

The government claims to be motivated purely by concerns for ‘patient safety’. In reality, the government’s proposed ‘reforms’ are overwhelmingly about drastically reducing the labour costs of doctors to the NHS and, crucially, ultimately to the private healthcare firms it wants to take it over. You can find much more detail about the conflict between the government and doctors elsewhere. Here, I simply want to make the case for what this conflict is really about – the hunt for ‘surplus-value’ as a necessary precondition for total NHS privatisation.

 

Why privatise the NHS?

The government wants to privatise the NHS for three main reasons. First, its friends and backers within the private healthcare sector, including the biggest US healthcare firms, are salivating at the prospect of running such a large and potentially lucrative service. Already, large areas of NHS services have been subcontracted to private firms, often with dystopian outcomes: Virgin Care now runs Surrey Sexual Health Services and Serco, a firm notorious for running private prisons and secure units, runs Cornwall’s childrens services! Second, the accompanying market ideology that most of our politicians espouse (either as active proponent or in fatalistic acceptance) means the government genuinely believes that a privatised NHS would work far better than the current model. This is despite the injustice and inefficiency of the US model and despite the glaring facts that all privatised sectors are not just far worse for consumers and taxpayers, they are not even remotely free markets at all (not that such a thing exists). Instead, they are oligopolies taking huge, endless subsidies from the state and getting the government and Parliament to legislate and regulate in their favour. Where I part from the ‘idealists’ (those who think the world is driven by ideas and that, therefore, for example, austerity or privatisation policies are simply irrational and ‘ideologically driven’) is that I see this ideology tied inextricably to underlying material interests. This leads me to reason number three: the privatisation of the NHS is, first and foremost, about the continued extension of capital into every area of human life. Consequently, in both ideological and material terms, the NHS presents a formidable obstacle to the capitalist class in the UK: it is a highly popular and relatively efficient and cost-effective institution that defies hegemonic capitalist ideology and it constitutes one of the few major economic sectors beyond the total control of capital. The NHS must be colonised.

 

Profit as ‘surplus-value’

In dominant ‘neo-classical’ economic theory, the profit from selling a good or service is produced derived purely through the market price. It is a matter of supply and demand.

What mainstream economists call ‘profit’ Marxist political economists call ‘surplus-value’. Workers work a given number of hours each day to reproduce themselves and their families. Karl Marx calls this the ‘necessary labour-time’. The additional hours they work is the time during which the surplus-value taken by the capitalist is produced. Two particular things are important to us here: First, that the production of surplus-value is not a mere economic relation, but a social relation of power and exploitation that binds the capitalist and working classes; Second, that this is a social relation of fundamental ‘contradictions and antagonisms’, as Marx puts it. Here, we can see the fundamental class contradiction: the boss wants us to work longer hours for less and we desire to work shorter hours for more. Check out this amazing quote from Marx’s Capital Vol I that powerfully summarises these contentions:

‘Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is, by its very essence, the production of surplus-value. The worker produces not for himself, but for capital. It is no longer sufficient, therefore, for him simply to produce. He must produce surplus-value. The only worker who is productive is the one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or in other words contributes towards the self-valorization of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a schoolmaster is a productive worker when, inaddition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation. The concept of the productive worker therefore implies not merely a relation between the activity of work and its useful effect, between the worker and the product of his work, but also a specifically social relation of production, a relation with a historical origin which stamps the worker as capital’s direct means of valorization. To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.’

In Capital Vol I (Part V), Marx describes the historical expansion and consolidation of capitalism through the development of capitalist social relations or what he calls the ‘formal’ and subsequent ‘real’ ‘subsumption’ of labour under capital. He shows how, since really the 18th Century in Europe, the emergent capitalist class successfully extended the length of the working day, thereby greatly increasing what Marx calls ‘absolute surplus-value’, i.e. getting workers to produce more surplus-value for you simply by making them work more hours. After the biological limits of work were exceeded, causing widespread death and illness, the gradual unified resistance of the working class combined with the realisation of some influential sectors of the capitalist class themselves that they risked killing their golden goose to regulate and limit the length of the working day. The working class was, by this stage, fully formally subsumed under capitalism. Subsequently, the emphasis has been on their ‘real subsumption’, that is, the increase of ‘relative surplus value’ which concerns increasing the productivity of workers within the same work period.

So, what does all this mean for NHS workers today?…

 

The hunt for absolute surplus value: extending the working day

Since the NHS is not yet a capitalist sector, central to the process of its formal subsumption to capital will be a sustained push for absolute surplus value. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the government’s primary aims are to extend the ordinary working day of hospital doctors to a fifteen hour weekday (from 7am till 10pm!) and to make Saturdays from 7am till 7pm also a normal working day. This means that doctors would get no overtime pay during these hours. The government will, however, increase the amount the NHS pays for the remaining ‘unsocial hours’, i.e. late weekday nights, overnights, and Sundays. Even the BBC concludes that ‘the financial benefit of extending what constitutes “normal hours” to a Saturday is obvious.

doctors pay

The quest to reduce labour costs and increase surplus-value is the government’s fundamental objective. The King’s Fund (that self-proclaimed ‘independent charity’ which just coincidentally happens to be funded by private healthcare firms) tells us as much. It concludes that:

‘It is hard to predict the extent of further growth of non-NHS provision in the short to medium term. The appetite for such work, particularly among commercial organisations, may be limited given the degree of financial pressure within the system and more limited prospect of profit generation.’

The greatest single cost to any business is its labour costs. Put another way, the greatest single obstacle to ‘profit generation’ or surplus-value extraction is labour costs. In the NHS, these must be significant reduced to pave the way for privatisation.

 

Political capture

It remains for me to demonstrate the political links between the UK’s political class and the private healthcare sector. Thankfully, this task has been done quite admirably by a number of others, most notably the ‘Social Investigations’ website team. Check out this link to see a list of over 100 British MPs and Lords with direct financial connections to private healthcare firms. Social Investigations also showed how a core elite network of lobbyists are pushing the privatisation agenda from without and within the government.

Finally, just to add that the previous Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, now works for management consultants Bain & Co ‘advising corporate clients on healthcare reforms’ and serves as an adviser on health and social care for a ‘strategic communications consultancy’ set up by his wife! In addition, the current Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has form. In 2012, he was transferred to the Department of Health from the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport after it was revealed that he was keeping Rupert Murdoch’s aide updated by text on the government’s ‘impartial’ decision regarding Murdoch’s NewsCorp’s aim to take total control of BSkyB!

 

The ‘Hunt’ for surplus-value: this is the government’s real objective

Forget patient safety, the government’s real goal is the privatisation of the NHS. A fundamental precondition of this is the drastic reduction of labour costs. The extension of the working day is a crucial element of this. This will have terrible effects on the lives of both doctors and, of course, the patients they diligently serve. Consultant hospital doctors and nurses know this and have been outspoken in their support for their ‘junior’ colleagues. So, don’t believe the media. The greatest threat to our health and livelihoods is not the ‘greed’ of ‘junior’ doctors, but the interests of capital that our political establishment ceaselessly promotes.

Capitalism, Education/learning, Housing, UK, UK housing crisis

Reporting back from Oxford Democracy-Builders’ meeting on the housing crisis

Last Wednesday, eleven people came together to discuss the current housing crisis in Oxford. After some introduction and friendship-building, we began by talking in small groups about our personal experiences of housing in Oxford.

 problems2

Personal experiences

What became immediately clear from our conversations was that there were very contrasting experiences between comfortable home-owners who felt mixtures of luck and guilt at their fortunate situation and those renting often poorly maintained housing for extortionate rents without a realistic chance of having their own home. What was also starkly apparent was that this divide was generational. Indeed, one grandmother lamented how her own children were unable to afford a house in Oxford.

problems

Causes

After a break, we moved on to discussing the causes of the crisis. As you will see from the flipchart I produced from our discussion, we noted many interconnected factors, but they all seemed to be related fundamentally to politics: to the politics of land and property ownership and to finance.

causes2

causes

A new participant in the group, Katti, has recently come to Oxford from Germany to study and described her shock at rental costs and the extreme degree to which fellow students have to go to make ends meet to be able to continue their studies. By contrasting the situation in Oxford with the general situation in Germany, she was able to highlight the fundamental class nature of the conflict between those making, lobbying for, and benefiting from current housing policy and those suffering its consequences in the UK.

According to Katti, the balance in legal rights and protections are weighted far more in favour of tenants in Germany, whereas in the UK she noted that tenants have very few rights and protections left. She also described a very common scenario, probably institutionalised even, in which letting agents withhold deposits. Kati described having even to directly confront her letting agent in order to get back money which was legally her own. She told us all how the letting agent confessed that she was acting on behalf of landlords with dozens of properties who instructed agents to try their best to retain deposits.

For me, this anecdote expresses the fundamental conflict in our society between the use of houses as assets to make rental income from or as commodities to buy and sell and the use of homes as buildings for human beings to live in security, comfort, and dignity. I proposed that a good way to think about this was by thinking about ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’. A house has its obvious and vital use value – as a building that offers shelter, warmth, security. In our capitalist society, it also has its exchange value – as an asset that generates income and a commodity to buy and sell. What has happened over the past four decades has been a gradual, intentional expansion of the housing market and corresponding mortgage market – the expansion of house as source of exchange value. The general push to intensify and extend the realms of social life governed by the pursuit of exchange value has, of course, been centred around the process of ‘financialisation’. Financialisation means more than the growth and liberalisation of the mortgage market. We have actually seen mortgages bundled together into ‘securities’ for trading and used as the income stream needed to then create synthetic financial instruments for speculation. It was one class of these so called ‘derivatives’ – collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) linked to the ‘sub-prime’ housing market in the US– whose collapse led to the credit crunch and financial crisis of 2008. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their home and the subsequent policy of bank bailout and austerity to make the poorest pay for it has had extreme human and social outcomes across the world.

I suggested that the need for exchange value from houses reflects a few related developments. First and foremost, it shows how the ‘real’ economy where real things are produced and consumed remains stagnant with low levels of profitability. This pushes all kinds of people and firms into speculation on financial and housing markets. The most significant group here, perhaps, are older middle-aged and elderly people who have seen interest rates plummet and their pension funds raided or fall in value. Now more than ever, they need to derive an income from their and other people’s homes. This creates the structural conditions for intense generational conflict. But, it is not generations at war; it is an economic system that creates the antithetical interests and needs required to produce social conflict.

Interestingly, what was not really covered was the current problem of very low wages which exacerbates the housing crisis. Again, I would suggest that very low wages was symptomatic of a stagnant capitalist system needing to revive profitability by squeezing workers ever harder.

We were also indebted to Linda, another group participant, who made two particularly important contributions. First, she told us how the post-war UK government had been able to build well over 300,000 houses each year, peaking at around 400,000 in the early 1970s, but how we now build less than 150,000 – levels not seen since the 1920s.

UK housebuilding historical

Second, Linda made the invaluable point that it’s not really simply a supply-side problem anyway. She argued that the small global elite is now so rich that whatever number of houses were built, they could easily swallow this new amount up into their investment portfolios! So, again, it comes back to the fundamental politics of economic power.

 

Solutions/alternatives

We were fortunate to have three people working hard on developing solutions and alternatives. First, Fran from the Oxfordshire Community Land Trust (OCLT). A community land trust acquires land which it then keeps in perpetuity as a trust. It builds homes on the land and provides them to people for affordable rents on secure long-term conditions. The new home occupiers also become members of the trust with the shared power to decide how income will be used to improve their community. So, we are talking about collective community ownership rather than private individual ownership. OCLT has acquired a small plot of land in Dean Court in Oxford and is currently trying to get into the position to commence construction work to build six flats. The primary difficulty Fran described was, unsurprisingly, the cost of land and the need realistically to be donated land.

solutions

Second, Charlie Fisher came wearing a few hats! He first spoke about his participation in the Oxford Tenants Union which was established by a group of students last year. He described it as a mutual support group, but also a group trying slowly to rebalance the power between tenants and landlords. One thing that the OTU has been doing is working on a map of properties in Oxford according to its landlord in order to enable tenants to come together to challenge exploitation more effectively. This is slow work because it requires access to private information often very hard to come by. After the meeting, I read this recent article in the Guardian about students uniting to reform the desperate housing situation they face. It certainly seems true that students are a unique group most able to unite around housing which is, of course, much harder to unionise around compared to workplaces.

solutions2

Finally, Tim, who spent 18 years working in housing and who currently studies at Ruskin College, proposed a plan for ethical landlording. He has in mind those small time absentee landlords who own just one or two extra properties who would generally be appalled if they knew how their letting agents were treating their tenants. He argued that tenants who were treated better in terms of fairer rents and better maintained homes would generally stay longer and be better tenants. He wants to try to bring this disparate group together to try to improve the situation for both tenants and landlords. If you’re reading this as that kind of landlord you can contact me at info@ppeuk.org.

 

Conclusion

So, that’s what went down last Wednesday. A general feeling of a productive and enjoyable session, albeit one that revealed just how challenging the situation is. I would argue that the current system that produces wealth for the few and misery for the many is only sustained currently by a housing bubble and artificially low interest rates. This will end sooner or later, sadly in a mess. The social and economic situation this is causing is, particularly in Oxford, reaching breaking point. Beyond the City, the people who do the work that human beings actually need – nurses, teachers, firepeople, even doctors – can no longer afford to live in Oxford. The roads are clogged with cars driven by people commuting in. Local NIMBY villagers block the development of their villagers.

Something has to give and pretty fast. So, to those who fear nothing will change I say that change is about to happen. We have to be ready for it. All those inspiring folk leading initiatives like the OTU and OCLT may look like small fry, but they are actually producing the models of a new society (based on use value rather than exchange value) that will emerge in the coming years and decades. That’s why we must come together now to learn, to plan, and to act. As this film about the experience in Spain shows, we can definitely win.

Thanks for reading,

Joel

Anarchism, Capitalism, Democracy, Ideology, Philosophy, Radical democracy

Knowing our left from our right, Part Six: human nature and society

Dear readers,

This is the final post in a six post series exploring the differences between the left and right in politics. Here’s a brief recap of the argument so far…

In the first post, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. I then offered ten beliefs I hold that supposedly made me extreme but which, I thought, made me a sensible, intelligent, caring human being. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s preference for the state or markets to produce and allocate scarce goods was an anachronistic red herring. In reality, capital needs the state to force us to be ‘free’. Moreover, I argued that markets were very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics. This, by the way, isn’t some aberration as economists would see it; this is the inevitable reality of economic power.

In the third post, I argued that only left-wing thought understood the true nature of human and social freedom and proposed concrete visions and ideas for us to create a society in which maximal individual freedom could coincide with and sustain social peace and justice. In the fourth post, I suggested that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media and the sheer political power of the state) is because they offer simplistic solutions or promises based on superficial interpretations of reality. These are false, but they can satisfy and help avoid us doing the harder work necessary for our freedom – independent critical thinking. In societies with low levels of critical education and historical knowledge, such ideological frameworks can quite comfortably maintain the status quo. In crises, it gets trickier and, therefore, more violent. In the fifth post, I argued that left-wing thought was actually far more realistic than right-wing thought. This is primarily because right-wing thought must defend the current system. Therefore, I argued, it ignores that facts that: only mass genocidal violence has stopped democratic socialism and maintained capitalism thus far; that capitalism seems to be dying as a productive economic system; that capitalism is now actually blocking technological and scientific progress; and that capitalism is destroying the ecosystem that sustains it and us. I concluded by suggesting that we need, therefore, a grounded ‘realist utopianism’ and proposed the slogan ‘Another World is Necessary’.

This final post is on human nature and social systems. Thanks for sticking with me. Please read on. But first, a brief quiz…

 

index

QUESTION: Which one of these statements define you and the people you know well best?

STATEMENT 1) You are a self-centred person interested only in getting more material things and the sensual pleasures they bring. Work is something that you do in your life only to get more of these things. Everything you have achieved, all the things you have earned, are purely and solely down to your own work, sacrificing leisure time and instant gratification for a greater prize. Everything you have failed in is equally solely your own fault.

STATEMENT 2) You are a person who is somewhat self-interested, but also genuinely cares about others, even people you haven’t met, and the wider natural world. You think that it’s generally true that people get what they deserve in life and everyone has a chance to make something of themselves. Sometimes it’s not and that’s where government, businesses, science, and charities can step in to alleviate the worst of the natural conditions of human suffering such as poverty.

STATEMENT 3) Piss off! How dare you try to pigeon hole me or anyone else! I refuse to be part of such a ridiculous bullshit exercise!

If you unhesitatingly answered yes to statement 1, here’s the good news: You fit squarely into the worldview held and promoted (explicitly or otherwise) by very many elite individuals and organisations today, so you’re likely to go very far up whichever greasy pole you seek to climb. You also fit very nicely into the mainstream economic models that dominate not just economic theory and policy, but implicitly underpin all areas of public policy. The bad news is that you’re a dangerous sociopath who will leave a trail of destruction and misery wherever your dainty feet tread!

If you hesitantly or unwillingly answered yes to statement 1, I hear ya. It often feels like this is the kind of person we feel pressure to become today.

If you answered yes to statement 2, you’re a nice enough liberal with a naive faith in the status quo and reform. But stop being willing to respond to silly quizzes like this! 🙂

If you answered yes to statement 3, I salute you!

Anyway, as I was saying…

iceberg

The left’s democratic (and realistic) understanding of human nature and society

In this final post on the left-right divide, I will argue that, while the right talks a good game on freedom and democracy, it’s just rhetoric. Wittingly or not, those on the right maintain an oppressive, unjust system with inherent structural contradictions that can only be maintained with violence. Domination can be dressed up as democracy; it might be cloaked in impenetrable jargon; it might call itself your best friend, but it is still domination. We need to be intellectual martial artists to know when we are being attacked and to defend and counter appropriately.

In contrast, by first actually just seeing the very structures of oppression that constitute our social system and then by seeking to oppose and transcend them, left-wing politics at its best stands for true freedom and democracy.

Ultimately, I will argue, that the left-right divide comes down to who you think you are and who you think others are. I will make the case that we’re basically a nice, kind lot who just need to create a social system together that expresses that and incentivises our natural desire to do good. I will argue that the foundation of left-wing thought and activity today should be what French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls the ‘equality of intelligence’. Basically, that means that if one is reading this as someone with confidence and a decent level of education and social privilege, they need to start truly believing that no one is below them and that, given the chance, everyone can work stuff out for themselves and don’t need to be taught neither! If one is reading this feeling like they don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves or a lot of education, it means that you need to believe in yourself that you can work it out! I totally believe in you! Go for it and don’t relinquish your intellectuality, your thinking, your humanity to any supposedly superior leader or group any longer.

rhetoric plato

For the right it’s just rhetoric

As we’ve seen in previous posts, the right talk a LOT about freedom. Most of it is just vacuous bullshit behind which lies a daily barrage of verbal, and the constant threat and increasingly actual use of physical, violence used to either make us free in their image (wage-slaves) or destroy us for opposing their regime of ‘freedom’. Moreover, as I argued in the second post in this series, even the more radical proponents of freedom on the right erroneously equate freedom with the free market society. Such libertarians see a consensus, a harmony, where there is really a fundamental structural contradiction, a conflict. Liberalism starts with the individual and private property and links freedom to these two categories. As the historical ideology of the capitalist class, it ignores structural factors – the systems of oppression and exploitation that shape social relations.

And so, whether it is for self-interested or myopic reasons, it is impossible for right-wing conservatives or liberals to live and govern in harmony with their publicly declared principles and ideology because they have to uphold the structural unfreedom of the current system. As Judith Butler just pointed out from Paris, Western governments are claiming to uphold and defend the supposed core freedoms of their society by suspending them. The extreme free-marketeers who excoriate any state intervention into the sacred market were the first to call for the huge multi-trillion state bail-out of the banks back in 2008. The current UK conservative government is one walking hypocrisy: pleading poverty for public services while conjuring up a bottomless pocket of cash for imperialist war; decrying the evils of ISIS, and Al Qaida before it, which is made up of groups the UK state has funded, trained, and armed; declaring war on extremist Islamism while selling arms to the main state propagator of said extremism, Saudi Arabia; labelling any proponent of state nationalisation of key utilities or industries as ‘Stalinist’ while allowing the Chinese and French states to build and own nuclear power stations here and fixing the market price to ensure their profits; blaming immigrants for insecurity and economic, cultural, and moral decline while allowing impunity and total freedom to rich immigrants to come and gobble up our land, football clubs, and infrastructure; insisting that work sets you free while promoting a low-wage, minimum security labour market that condemns an increasing number of workers and their families to the poverty trap; lamenting the moral and social evils of benefits for the poor who need them while doling them out in the form of tax breaks and subsidies to the rich who do not. And the liberal Labour government before it were guilty of the very same hypocrisies perhaps just to a lesser extent.

These are clear hypocrisies, but they are invariably driven by what Marxists call structural contradictions in the capitalist system. These contradictions all derive from the fundamental social antagonism between workers and bosses, i.e. their opposing interests. So, for example, to boost profits companies seek to pay low wages, but low wages depress aggregate demand for the same companies’ products. Firms invest in technology to boost profits too, but its actually workers who are the source of their profit so the rate of profit across the economy actually falls as workers are displaced by machines and companies start putting money into financial markets instead, creating instability there. These contradictions ultimately lead to crisis and it is during a crisis in particular that ruling elites seek to foreclose any talk of systemic problems in favour of scapegoating individuals, minority groups, and the poor in general. So, unemployment is blamed on the personal faults or flaws in individuals’ skills or attitudes; obesity is blamed primarily on the fecklessness of the poor. Black men are blamed for all drug-related crime and violence. Laws and regulations (lax or stringent) are blamed for financial crisis. The wrong solutions or punitive political strategies flow from this false analysis.

pierrebourdieu2

Verbal (symbolic) violence

All authoritarian political thought and discourse (and many on the left are guilty of this too) foreclose freedom by putting labels or categories on us: ‘single mothers’, ‘NEETS‘, ‘youth’, ‘the private sector’. Even ‘the general public’ is a problematic abstraction. Who is ‘the general public’? Politicians claim to understand it and speak for it every day.

Right-wingers proclaim the unparalleled sanctity of human freedom while not just acting, but using oppressive language to constrain our freedom. When anyone speaks about you or on your behalf without your consent, they are serving not to promote, but to constrain, your freedom. Putting labels on us is what the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘symbolic violence’. Imagine having to walk around forced to wear a degrading sign on your back all day like, perhaps, the yellow star the Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. Just cos it ain’t physically there doesn’t mean it’s less real when that sign is put into everyone’s heads by a malign political class and media.

So, in sum, right-wing claims of freedom are false; the system they maintain is unjust and exploitative and can only be maintained by daily acts of symbolic and physical violence.

scroungers4

Left-wing politics: system change for democratic freedom

Only left-wing thought offers the possibility of creating a world in which truth, reason, and justice prevail as the foundations of our relations with each other and our natural world. Why? There are many reasons, I am sure. I will offer just two. First, because it sees deeper than the superficial. It sees systems and structures. It begins with the fundamental recognition of the interaction between individuals and society. It recognises that who we are as individuals and what opportunities we have are hugely determined by the social system we live in and the social milieux we inhabit. Consequently, while we may seek to campaign for reform to alleviate suffering in the short-term, left-wing thought and activism is centrally focused on imagining and pursuing the creation of a radically different way of running our world. We don’t just want reform, we want radical system change. This does mean revolution. This will mean violence, but the level of violence is always determined by the ruling elites.

Second, following on from this structural or systemic focus, though not all traditional left-wing thought has always done this, radical democratic left-wing objectives are essentially to eliminate any gap between the lives of individuals, communities, and societies and the political decisions made that affect those lives. In short, only left-wing politics is concerned with creating a world that every human being can contribute directly to running and in which every human being can fulfill their own individual humanity.

We are good and kind. Let’s create a good and kind social system

All right wing views of human nature are oppressive. They put labels on us, they falsely unify us as ‘a people’, as ‘nations’, as ‘the general public’ or, worst of all, as ‘the masses’. In contrast, left-wing thought sees the infinite potential of individuals and of humanity. Human beings are surely capable of evil, but left-wing thought points to the violent system that cultivates that evil. And even in such poisoned soil the sweet flower of the human soul freely blooms! Left-wing thought assumes the best of people and these assumptions are increasingly supported by social scientific evidence and, moreover, our own experiences! The vast majority of people we meet are not rotters, but are good, honest, kind people! If we can create a social system that incentivizes and is built on the best qualities of humanity we will surely all flourish.

anarchism

Anarchism and the equality of intelligences

The more I look into it, the more I am attracted to anarchism. In short, anarchism is a political theory that eschews any overarching power in favour of the spontaneous organisation of human beings. Basically, it says get rid of any system of rulers and ruled cos that’s tyranny not freedom and we can organise things horizontally and democratically by and for ourselves. I am also just blown away by Jacques Ranciere‘s idea, inspired by 19th Century philosopher and teacher Jacques Jacotot, of the ‘equality of intelligences’.

Jacotot

Jean-Joseph Jacotot: Laziest and best teacher ever!

Basically, the equality of intelligences simply means that we all use the same natural method of learning. When teachers teach us a course, they ensure that there is always a gap between us and them and our progress is determined by their ‘expertise’ and arbitrary will. ‘Any man who is taught is only half a man’, says Ranciere. The problem in confronting the regime of domination maintained by rhetoric and violence is not people’s lack of intelligence; it is their lack of faith in their natural intelligence, says Ranciere, and I totally agree. So, for me, left-wing thought and activity today must begin with the principle of the equality of intelligence – the only true foundation for democratic thought and action – and must focus on promoting this equality.

Rhetoric is war

As I’ve tried to show over this series of posts, the difference between left and right, for me, is the difference between freedom and oppression, truth and falsity, and reason and rhetoric. What we hear from the right can only be rhetoric and rhetoric, as Jacques Ranciere put it, is ‘the art of reasoning that tries to annihilate reason under the guise of reason’. So the untruthful, oppressive reality behind the rhetoric of the right might not always be immediately obvious. The only remedy is to use our intelligence, to use our reason, as our defence. Their attacks compel us to think for ourselves. Thought is the engine of freedom. And then comes speech. We use our intelligence and then we must speak that intelligence.

It is not enough, therefore, for those claiming to be left-wing to commit themselves to system change, to democracy. All too often we hear lefties decry the ‘false consciousness’ of ‘the masses’ and frame our mission as that of bringing the truth to the people like the worst missionary zealots. This is a politics of oppression and domination as bad as the forces and system we oppose. Left-wing thought and action in the 21st Century must be a radical democratic politics founded on and inspired by the equality of intelligences.

Thank you!

Dear reader, if you’ve made it through this series of posts then I want to thank you most sincerely. I’m no one special. I’ve just had the opportunities to learn and think that are deprived to far too many. But, I really am no one special and I’ve not said anything devastatingly original or insightful here, I’m sure. That said, I hope I’ve persuaded you that left-wing thought and action is the path to freedom, justice, and democracy.

I want to use this blog to encourage people to think and learn for themselves because the only truth is your truth and your own intelligence is your own infinitely powerful tool to engage with the world and help make it what you want it to be! Go for it!

Thanks

Joel

Capitalism, Ideology, Politics and economics, Socialism

Knowing our left from our right, Part Five: Get real, get utopian!

Hi! Welcome to this series of posts about the left-right divide in politics. Here’s the story so far…

In the first post, I argued that the media portrays anything even remotely left-wing as ‘extreme’, ‘hard’, or ‘far’ left. I then offered ten beliefs I hold that supposedly made me extreme but which, I thought, made me a sensible, intelligent, caring human being. In the second post, I argued that the usual definition of left-right as expressing one’s preference for the state or markets to produce and allocate scarce goods was an anachronistic red herring. In reality, capital needs the state to force us to be ‘free’. Moreover, I argued that markets were very secondary to the huge organisational power of corporations which increasingly block market dynamics. This, by the way, isn’t some aberration as economists would see it; this is the inevitable reality of economic power.

In the third post, I argued that only left-wing thought understood the true nature of human and social freedom and proposed concrete visions and ideas for us to create a society in which maximal individual freedom could coincide with and sustain social peace and justice. In the fourth post, I suggested that one main reason why right-wing ideas have had such success (beyond the obvious fact of their relentless daily propagandizing by the media and the sheer political power of the state) is because they offer simplistic solutions or promises based on superficial interpretations of reality. These are false, but they can satisfy and help avoid us doing the harder work necessary for our freedom – independent critical thinking. In societies with low levels of critical education and historical knowledge, such ideological frameworks can quite comfortably maintain the status quo. In crises, it gets trickier and, therefore, more violent. Here’s the next post in this series and it’s about realism…

stalin_gulagThe ‘gulag’: Where all attempts at socialism end up?

Their arguments

There comes a point in any debate where those on the right, or those on the left who lack the imagination or faith, interject and say ‘well, this is all well and good and sounds absolutely lovely, but now can we get back to reality?!’ The right-wing argument then goes that all previous attempts at such fantasy have ended at the gulag i.e. the mass repression and murder of millions of people by totalitarian dictatorships (the most famous exposition of this idea is ‘free-market’ icon Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom). A more sympathetic, but equally dismissive, version suggests that the economic and political power of the corporations and financial markets comprises an insurmountable and permanent barrier against such naive dreams, that dreaming this way is thus an irresponsible waste of time, and that the only realistic progressive strategy is to accept the status quo, but to work with the CEOs and bankers to try to win small but significant concessions to alleviate the worst consequences of global capitalism (see perhaps Colin Crouch’s Post-Democracy and Making Capitalism Fit For Society here). This would be the social democratic argument, broadly put. At the optimistic end of this social democratic perspective stand those reformists who believe in an ethical capitalism that can serve shareholders, bosses, workers, society, and the environment alike in a harmonious positive-sum relationship. This tends to be promoted by idealists, not in the sense of abstract dreamers, but in the sense of people who believe that the world is made up of ideas rather than historical materialists like me who think that ideas are crucially important, but that history since the Agricultural Revolution has been driven by the conflict between antagonistic social forces (a great place to start here would be Neil Faulkner’s A Marxist History of the World or this lecture with the same title). The ‘ethical capitalism’ ideal is also promoted, unsurprisingly, by those corporate elites with a liberal conscience like Bill Gates and major US foundations like the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations.

So, in this post, I will politely thank those well meaning conservatives or faithless or naive liberal reformists for patronising and dismissing my intellectual utopianism, but I will stick to my guns, and I will stick to my guns by offering four arguments for why, actually, left-wing utopianism is more realistic than their supposed realism. Here goes…

 Indonesia 1965The Indonesian anti-communist genocide of 1965, backed by US government

(1) Only mass violence has repressed democratic socialism so far

First, on the argument that socialism is only good on paper and that history shows it can’t be realised, there are many arguments here. I will cover the stuff about human nature in the next and final post. Instead, I‘ll stick here to history and just say that the failed attempts of the past were far more to do with the superior power and relentless and violent intervention of capitalist forces. Only the murder of countless millions of left-wing activists (like me) have ensured socialism’s failure so far. I’ll just point you here to two examples that are of contemporary significance. First, because we’ve just had to go through the annual ordeal of the shameful jingoism that is Remembrance Day, here’s a great short article by Paul Mason on the real reasons behind the end of World War One. Second, since we’ve just commemorated its fiftieth anniversary and because so many people should know about it, here’s something on the hundreds of thousands of peaceful people murdered with US support by the Indonesian regime in 1965. Two examples out of hundreds where capitalist violence crushed democratic intention or, at least, potential. That’s not to ignore the brutality of the ‘really existing socialist’ regimes that have emerged. Beyond the persuasive argument that these were often more like state capitalist regimes with extraordinarily high levels of centralised power and economic control, I’d just argue that they disprove nothing about the viability of democratic socialism. Furthermore, as I argued in the second post, and as the current Eurocrisis incontrovertibly shows, capital requires authoritarian force. To survive, capital must oppose real democracy. In a fit of prosopopoeia, conjuring the spirit of capital itself, Alan Sugar, a famous supposed UK ‘entrepreneur’ recently said he’d move to ‘communist’ China if the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was elected Prime Minister. I think we’d be fine without him, without them all, indeed.

(2) Capitalism is moribund. Condition probably terminal

The next argument for why left-wing utopianism is actually also hard realism is that capitalism is moribund. It seems to be dying. Even zero interest rates and the effective printing of $12trillion via quantitative easing have failed to revive the patient. All that’s really been achieved is the enrichment of the richest and the revival of old and the creation of new asset market bubbles. Evidence for a new global downturn is growing. This will soon be greatly exacerbated by a new financial crash.

(3) Capitalism is blocking technological and scientific progress

Third, the only arguably redeeming trait of capitalism was the technological dynamism it fuelled, but now capitalism is blocking this dynamism. To be clear, this technological dynamism wasn’t primarily driven by capitalists’ intrinsic love of technology. Capitalist firms pursue profit and only profit. They are legally obliged to maximise it. However, for two main reasons, capitalism is now blocking technological and related social progress. First, because working class organisational power is so weak, capitalists can try to revive profitability the lazy way – by cutting labour costs – rather than the more expensive but ultimately more sustainable way – by investing in new technology to boost productivity. Hence, all these MNCs sitting on billions of cash, choosing to buy back their shares rather than invest. Second, because information can be reproduced at almost zero cost, this new information revolution means we can now collaborate online, sharing and exchanging, producing together. There is no price on something that can be produced, stored, and shared for almost free. Hence, the only way to continue their ‘free market’ is to lock down monopolies. Think Google, Apple, Facebook. What do Google and Facebook do? They sell us back to us. Apple hook us onto their hardware so it can hook us into buying its software. There’s no rational reason why we can’t all own, say, the Beatles greatest hits for free. TTIP, the huge multilateral ‘trade’ treaty so many are protesting against, isn’t really so much about trade as it is about the real ‘IP’, not ‘investment, but ‘intellectual property’. We don’t need capitalism anymore. We can own, share, and develop our own ideas, thank you very much. The internet makes that possible. We need to liberate the internet to liberate ourselves. For far more on this see Paul Mason’s excellent Postcapitalism and Nick Srinicek & Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (the latter I haven’t yet read).

Everything stated here regarding technology is the same for science, particularly medical science. Think of the regular scandals we hear about pharmaceutical firms blocking access to life-saving drugs for the poor. Capitalism has to go.

(4) Capitalism is destroying our planet, our species

Finally, capitalism is destroying our ecosystem and climate. That’s the reality. One of us has to go – capital or us. Think that’s a false binary? Well, the fossil fuel companies now have reserves over four times more than the amount calculated we need to stay within burning in order to have any chance of limiting global warming to 2 degrees by 2050. Their financial future and prosperity depends on those reserves – reserves they’ve invested billions in identifying and readying. Ours depends on those reserves staying in the ground. But, it’s more complex than that because their financial prosperity is tied up with ours via our pension funds and economies. That’s why the only realistic option is ending capitalism. Ultimately, capitalism is a social system founded on and requiring private ownership and continued and growing exploitation of land and labour. It is incompatible with human health and sustainable social and ecological relations.

(5) Capitalist realism is sustained by those who proclaim it

Much of the ‘realism’ the right-wingers parrot is discursive, i.e. imposed and reinforced through their own saying so. I’m not denying the real material power of corporations, bankers, and governments, of course. But all empires, regimes, governments can and do fall, and, by defining reality as the permanence of the status quo, those who do so, whether wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuate the same reality. Those who say that to imagine another world is naive and impossible either have a vested interest in this current unjust world or a total lack of faith in their fellow humans. They also have little understanding of history. Some of them may want change and might just be scared (and that’s understandable), but then that’s not an intellectual argument that’s an emotional one. Whatever the motive, by saying what they do, their words actually serve to maintain the status quo in our collective heads.

So, in short, here are five powerful arguments against the naysayers and for why they might consider a dose of the realism they so readily prescribed.

AWIP

Another World is…Necessary!

Paul Mason has called on us on the left to be ‘unashamed utopians’ (in his Postcapitalism book). I am one. At the very same time, I also see my politics as way more realistic than those who seek to narrow our definition and imagination of reality to the perpetual crisis management of current desperate and terminal state of affairs we now endure.

True left-wing politics, for me, has always been utopian. Now more than ever it is obliged to be. But our utopianism must be a ‘concrete’ or ‘real’ utopianism. It must be grounded in a rigorous, scientific analysis of our current conditions. To quote my favourite band, Fat Freddy’s Drop, ‘we’ve got to know where we’re coming from before we know where we’re going to’! We’ve got to know our history and our political economy. We know the phrase ‘Another World is Possible’ that expresses utopian hope. When we combine it with the realism I’ve just offered, we might suggest that left-wing thought and activism today should centre around the slogan ‘Another World is Necessary!’

Right, in the last post (here), I will make a more philosophical case (combining it with some empirical evidence) against the right-wing one-dimensional, static and misanthropic view of human nature. I’ll argue that all right-wing claims about freedom and democracy are rhetorical cos they are there to defend an oppressive and exploitative social system. I’ll argue that we’re totally up for this sharing and co-operating stuff; that it’s in our essential nature; that we’re doing it already, all of us everyday; and that, ultimately we urgently need to bring in a social system that is based on sharing and co-operation and allows our generous, co-operative impulses to flourish. I’ll finally argue that left-wing thought today should be based on what French philosopher Jacques Ranciere calls the ‘equality of intelligence’.

Thanks, as ever, for reading this!

Joel