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

Language, Media, UK, Welfare, Work

Flipping the script: Example No.1 – from ‘benefits’ to ‘compensation’

Dear Reader,

Sorry for the prolonged silence. I’m sooo busy. It’s a bit of a crunch time for me. My research fellowship ends and with it any regular money. I’m not realistically gonna get any university jobs mainly because instead of focusing in and carving out a particular academic niche, I’ve done the opposite and tried to incorporate many more ‘ologies’ and perspectives. I’m keen to understand and respond to the fundamental challenges we all face and that means transcending the artificial disciplines that compartmentalise knowledge and research within the university. It also means doing more than research and actually acting in/on the world. It means also not acting upon others, but acting with others in democratic processes of knowledge co-production. And it also means working with other kinds of people, especially artists.

Therefore, I, along with some like-minded friends, have decided to establish the ‘Centre for Transformational Learning and Culture’ (CTLC). We’re working on a model and plan now, but we’ll fill you in very soon along with an invitation to join us and be a part of it.

Anyway, this brief post is about something different and related. It’s about language and how language is used by powerful elites to deform us and how language can be taken and used by us to transform ourselves. We need to flip the script wherever possible.

The war over ‘benefits’

Here in the UK, it’s all kicking off within the ruling Conservative Party and a civil war is breaking out on two main fronts: 1) Whether the UK should remain in the European Union and 2) The economic and political merits of further public spending cuts (austerity). I don’t have the will to bring myself to comment on the first issue – a choice between staying part of transnational undemocratic, corrupt institutions or leaving it to advance the self-interest of those committed to our own national undemocratic, corrupt institutions. I guess I slightly prefer the former option.

On the second front, after the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) declared cuts to disabled people’s so-called ‘benefits’ alongside tax cuts for the richest, the long-serving Minister for Welfare and Pensions, one Iain Duncan-Smith, decided that enough was enough and resigned. Suddenly, after six years and countless deaths later, he claimed to have reached his moral limit. Enough has been written speculating on this internal conflict. My proposal here is to suggest that we strike while the iron is hot and strike with language.

Iain-Duncan-Smith-001Iain Duncan-Smith

Flipping the script: From ‘benefits’ to ‘compensation’

The word ‘benefits’ is a classic example of how the ruling class constructs political reality. A benefit sounds like something good, something generous, something not earned, but received. The mass media, particularly the tabloid press, hammer this home each day with stories of the lavish lives of the feckless, lazy poor. Again, enough has been written debunking these ridiculous, toxic myths. We know, of course, that benefits are meagre and condemn their recipients to lives of poverty, even when they are working.

scroungers4

We should not accept this word. Rather than the ‘benefits system’, I propose that we start talking about the ‘compensation system’. ‘Compensation’ is much more accurate. This system offers paltry compensation for the dehumanising experience of having lost the right to a decent livelihood, access to education and training, and, increasingly, access to transport, health, and justice. In short, it offers shameful compensation for rendering people surplus to, and reconstructing them to meet, the capitalist system’s requirements.

Imagine the potential political impact if everyone who opposed austerity and recognised its barbarity swapped ‘benefits’ for ‘compensation’! It could be huge. So, why not join me. Any time you’re in a conversation or debate, especially if you’re on TV or radio, start calling it the ‘compensation system’.

If you have any other ideas for ‘flipping the script’, let me know.

Thanks

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.

 

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

Education/learning, Politics and economics, Singapore, UK, UK housing crisis

Learning materials for current UK housing crisis

Hi there,

I’ve put together these resources for the next meeting of our learning group, Oxford Democracy-Builders. It’s at 8pm on Weds 2nd December probably at the West Oxford Primary School, but I need to confirm that. So if you’re about please come along. No need to read anything. No test. It’s just a friendly and welcoming discussion where every single person brings something unique and important.

house-of-the-commons_8268

Housing Crisis learning materials

What’s going on?

House prices: Mind the gap, BBC, 14th October 2015 (video)

Where can I afford to live? BBC Housing Calculator

Youth homelessness figure eight times higher than Government admits, says charity

If you’re a family on the National Living Wage, here’s where you can afford David Cameron’s new starter homes, The Independent, Oct 7th, 2015

 

Why?

Housing Crisis: Mapping the drivers

Unaffordable housing: causes, consequences, solutions, Institute for Economic Affairs, 12 March 2015

George Osborne’s housing-based revival stands on flawed foundations, Larry Elliott, The Guardian, October 5th, 2015

Buyers from outside Oxford pushing up city property prices, Oxford Mail, 20th February, 2015

The Economist, The Tories’ affordable-housing plan is a middle-class giveaway, Oct 8th, 2015

Britain is suffering from a housing crisis – who is to blame and how can we fix it?, The Independent, 10th Feb, 2014

Renting your way to poverty: welcome to the future of housing, Danny Dorling, The Telegraph, 2nd June 2015

 

A ticking time-bomb?

Deutsche Bank: We can already see how London’s insane property bubble will end

Mortgages: Nearly one million ‘face difficulties’

 

What can we do?

The taxing question of land

Proposal to build 3.5m homes in 40 UK towns wins the £250,000 Wolfson Prize

Housing: It’s in Our Hands

 

Capitalism, Ideology, Marxism, Politics and economics, UK, Work

Working tax credits: the real questions, some real answers

What is ‘hegemonic power’? One central element of hegemonic power is the power to make the root (systemic) causes of our problems invisible and largely unspeakable and unthinkable. Instead, all our debates are over ways to remedy or improve the symptoms of the disease (or even why the painful symptoms are good for us) rather than the disease itself.
An example of this from the UK is the current furore over tax credits. The Conservative government is removing working tax credits (though before the election it promised not to). These are state payments that supplement workers’ wages. Their removal will hurt very many poor people indeed. As this article from today’s Guardian shows, the government crows about the low unemployment rate, but says nothing or very little about the paltry sub-poverty wages so many of us get for that employment.

David-Cameron-586215
What are virtually absent from the debate are the questions any curious child would surely ask. These are:
(Q1) ‘Why do the companies we work for pay us so little money that we can’t afford the basic things to live a dignified life?’

(Q2) ‘If they pay us so little why do we have to work for them?’

(Q3) ‘Why should the state supplement their low wages with tax credits which is effectively payments from general taxation, which, in turn, is largely contributed to by working people through their work and consumption?

(Q4) ‘Can’t we create an economic system where everyone gets a decent human life? And if that does involve doing monotonous or stressful work can’t we make sure that those who do it get properly rewarded for it?’

Now, I would be surprised if you’ve never, ever asked those questions or similar ones to yourself before. The fact that you never hear them asked publicly or on your TV screens has probably made you think that they are stupid or naive, fantastical questions. They are not! They are intelligent, actually common-sensical, questions that need to be asked and deserved to be answered. These questions are the clothes that the Emperor doesn’t wear!

I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, but I think I have good ones and they all pretty much come from reading Karl Marx and Marxist literature. In short, my answers would be:

(1) Cos profit (what Marxists call ‘surplus value’) comes from our labour. This makes the class conflict, and the resulting balance of power, between workers and capitalists the fundamental political condition shaping capitalist societies. Today, that balance of power is very firmly skewed towards the capitalist class. They need to pay us what it takes for us to keep ourselves alive so that they still have a workforce, but beyond that the capitalist class will seek to minimize labour costs to maximize surplus value. But, it’s not just about economics. Work is political, capital is a social relation, and ‘the economy’ is not a force of nature. So, it’s not just about minimizing labour costs to maximize surplus-value. More fundamentally, it’s about repressing workers and our collective organizational power to ensure that the system continues. Poverty, debt, social atomization, and media BS are the main weapons here to keep us down, disillusioned, and divided. And these are weapons, and there are casualties (truth being the first) in this class war.

(2) Cos we have to work. This is what Marx called the ‘double freedom’ in capitalist society. We have the freedom to choose to work (and, to an increasingly limited extent, choose which work we do) and the freedom to choose to starve. We have to work and this makes us working class essentially. If all we have to sell is our labour-power we are working class. We are working class because many years ago, we were kicked off our land – the land that gave us a choice between subsistence and wage-labour – and forced into the towns and cities. Think you’re free? Stopping doing the job you hate...

(3) You’re right! The state shouldn’t do this. It shouldn’t have to do this. We have the collective, organisational potential to demand that our companies pay proper wages and give us far more security and safety in our jobs. Recent moves in this direction have come from popular action. But that will both hit already flagging corporate profits and turn the balance of political power towards us. So, that must be stopped at all costs.

(4) Yes! We can! I think capitalism is absolutely dying now. It can’t revive its profitability. Capital went global and financial in an attempt to crush our political power and revive its profitability. It largely succeeded (temporarily) in the first aim and only partially and temporarily succeeded in the second. Now, through money-printing, asset-inflation, austerity and debt, the capitalist class tries again to reboot the system, but can’t. At the same time, we now have the technology that enables us to share for free, co-operate rather than compete, do far, far less crappy work, and build a networked rather than hierarchical society all based on a commodity, information, that is infinitely abundant and so is incompatible with a market economy unless it’s a forced monopoly/oligopoly that represses the free exchange of information and ideas. See Paul Mason’s brilliant new book PostCapitalism on this. So, what those who dismiss exciting new political developments in the UK and many places beyond don’t see is that the world is already changing. We can totally create a new society based on a different, social value system, radically democratic in its configuration, and compatible with individual freedom, social peace, and environmental harmony. I really do think this it’s coming already.

If you’re sat there reading this stressed out by a job you hate or by the awful, endless pursuit of just trying to get a job you’ll hate, anxious about the mortgage or rental payments you struggle to make, or the consumer or student debt you’ll never ever pay back, you might be saying ‘Get real! Talk is cheap!’ and you’d be right! Talk is cheap. That’s why we still have capitalism, patriarchy, structural racism and other forms of intolerable injustice and oppression. But, it’s equally true to say the only way we begin to rid ourselves of these diseases is not bickering about the symptoms, but to see the root causes. And if it’s an economic or political issue, be it tax credits, the housing crisis, the privatisation of the NHS, or austerity, the symptoms differ, but the disease is the same – capitalism: the cancer on our body politic. When we think we might be sick we need that initial bravery to recognise the fact and to take ourselves off to the doctor. Well, I guess here I am that doctor and here’s the diagnosis. The only difference is that the disease is collective and the treatment is the responsiblity of all. Feel free to get a second opinion, but if you’re convinced then please get involved in the collective remedy. Though full recovery will take time, voicing these questions, and getting involved will help you feel loads better right away! Why? Because what you’ll feel is your own power and once that’s turned on it won’t turn off! Go for it!

Democracy, Media, Radical democracy, UK

May the force be with us! Hope for a Copernican revolution in leadership

A couple of months ago, in the early stages of the protracted campaign for the Labour Party leadership, I asked my Facebook friends if anyone could mock up a meme of Jeremy Corbyn as Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars with the line: ‘Help us, Jeremy, you’re our only hope’. My FB pal J. Craig Melia duly obliged, and what a great job he did!…

JC as OBK 2

JC as OBK 1

Now that Jeremy Corbyn has been elected Labour leader with overwhelming and widespread support, it has dawned on me that the Obi Wan analogy has more to it. Let us first swiftly recall the Star Wars story. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The evil and brutal Empire, led by the Emperor and his faithful commander Darth Vader, enjoys almost complete control of the galaxy. Only a small band of rebels maintain resistance. It is Princess Leia, one of the leaders of the rebels, whose recorded message is smuggled out of her captured spaceship by two droids and brought to Obi Wan Kenobi on the desert planet of Tattoine: ‘Help us, Obi Wan! You’re our only hope!’

But, of course, OBK is not the only hope. There is another, younger hope whom Obi Wan must train in the ways of ‘the force’ to become a Jedi knight capable of defeating Darth Vader, the Emperor, and the Empire. That ‘new hope’ is, of course, Luke Skywalker. Obi Wan Kenobi knows his task is to help rebuild the resistance and to train Luke. He knows that his own mortal fate is to sacrifice his life at the hands of Darth Vader, so that he may continue in death to serve as Luke’s spiritual guide. ‘If you strike me down, I will come back more powerful than you can possibly imagine’ are his final words to Vader before he is struck down by Vader’s lightsabre. Luke leads the rebels to victory in a battle in which the Empire’s ‘Death Star’ is destroyed…

Now, what the hell has this got to do with politics in the UK in 2015!? Bear with me! I think it could help us predict what might happen to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, and the wider movement for social justice…

An older, bearded man, a long-time fighter, is called out of the wilderness by the few remaining leaders of the resistance against the all-powerful evil Empire. Despite the odds being hugely stacked against him, he uses all his experience, wisdom, and stoicism to great effect and helps to build a revitalised resistance movement. See, JC and OBK share a common narrative! And it goes on.

OBK was the older, wiser man willing to engage the leaders of the enemy directly in order to give his younger colleagues the opportunity to claim a huge strategic victory and turn the whole course of history. And we might interpret Corbyn’s role in a similar light. Throughout his campaign, Corbyn was quick to detract from making it a campaign about him and, instead, to emphasize the central importance of the wider social movement for justice. Just like OBK, Jeremy is a seasoned campaigner. He can take whatever muck the ‘dark side’ that the collective political, business, and media elites comprise can throw at him. He can take that for the team and, in the process, can help reveal just how dark this corrupt and murderous system is – not that they need much help, it seems! But, again like OBK, this act of bold leadership and generous self-sacrifice will most probably end in his own political death. I doubt that Corbyn will become Prime Minister; not because the policies and principles he espouses make him unelectable, but because he may well need to pass on the baton to a new hope.

However, again, I, like Jeremy himself, do not want to put the focus on leadership. Leadership will always be important, but this new leader will succeed or fail depending on the extent to which she (let’s hope!) puts total faith in the real force, namely the people, the ‘demos’. If, during his leadership, Corbyn can lead a true democratisation of the ultimate party machine, the Labour Party, and can help to galvanise and unite a nationwide social movement then he will also help to instigate a democratisation of the very institution of leadership itself. Here, then, is how Jeremy Corbyn may come to be like yet another bearded man back from the wilderness who returned to die so that we may all live! And they even share the same initials! To be clear to those Christians reading this, I don’t mean in any way to compare directly Jeremy Corbyn with Jesus Christ. I’m simply arguing that Corbyn’s political role may be one of self-sacrifice for a wider and deeper common good.

There is a scene in Bertold Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo where the students of Galileo have just heard that their venerated teacher has actually bowed to the Catholic Church’s pressure to renounce his own ‘blasphemous’ heliocentric (Sun-centred, i.e. the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun) theory of the world and to maintain their geocentric (Earth-centred) dogma. They feel completely betrayed. When Galileo returns home one of his beloved students cannot contain his anger and pain: ‘Unhappy is the land with no heroes!’ cries the student. ‘No!’ replies Galileo, ‘unhappy is the land that needs heroes!’

This maxim should guide us today. Yes, we need our leaders – to inspire us, to unite us, to speak out, and to try to win power to effect real change. But, we must not invest too much hope or expectation in any one individual or group of individuals. This, clearly, is one of the lessons we can draw from Greece’s recent experience of Syriza and its leader Alexis Tsipras. Instead, our leaders shall be our leaders only to the extent that they derive their legitimacy from us, the demos, the force. Ultimately, it is up to us to come together not just to demand social change, but to build it ourselves.

I recognise that the evocation of a unified people here is simplistic and problematic. What I really mean is that politics and democratic leadership are about listening to, giving voice to, and pursuing justice and equality for the uncounted, the unseen, the unheard. The democratic revolution will be just as profound as the Copernican1 one for it is an empathetic revolution that requires the realisation at various levels – physical, political, spiritual, and metaphysical – that the world does not revolve around us as individuals, but is made by, made for, and made up of every one of us equally. Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to read out ordinary citizens’ questions at his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons bodes well symbolically (if not entirely strategically) in this light.

It’s wonderful that Jeremy Corbyn has won the leadership of the Labour Party, but let’s use it to redouble our efforts: to educate ourselves, to rebuild our communities and the social fabric, and to create a new society from the ashes of this dying one. This is the best way to help him succeed in what I think his real task might be – the democratization of the institution of leadership. May the force be with us!
DC and Death Star

1By ‘Copernican’, I refer to Nicolaus Copernicus, the 15th Century Polish scientist who was the first person in European history to offer a theory with the Sun rather than the Earth in the centre of the ‘solar’ system.

Capitalism, Globalisation, Housing, Immigration, UK

On the ‘migrant/refugee’ crisis: Part One – Does charity begin at home?

Dear readers,

I’m sorry for my recent silence. I’ve been here and there and looking after my kids a lot. But now the summer hols are over and I’m back on it!

There’s only one possible topic to address in this blog – the ‘migrant/refugee’ crisis gripping Europe. I’ve been thrilled to see so many people across Europe getting involved, showing their solidarity and support for people trying to escape conflict zones and impoverishment to make a better life for themselves and their beloved children. We have by now all seen the indescribable horror of migrants and refugees’ ordeals. People say ‘as a father or mother of a child that age’, but that’s unnecessary. You don’t need to be a parent yourself to feel a primordial grief-anger when confronted with a photo like that.

So, I’m heartened to see people wanting to act and demanding that their governments take action. But, for action to be effective and not counter-productive it has to be considered and well informed. So, my goal here is to try to present you with some deeper structural analyses of the current situation to help you make better decisions about how to act. I always try to think praxis – thought/action. Thinking without acting is useless; acting without thinking is dangerous!

Thinking in this way necessarily means confronting ourselves with challenging questions and that’s what we need to do here. So, this will be a two-part blog. In this first part, I’ll try to answer that common right-wing refrain that we can’t help these refugees out because ‘charity begins at home’ and we’ve our own house to get in order first. I’ll also challenge the idea that the solution to our problems lies in charity. In the second part, I’ll look at who these migrants/refugees are, where they’re coming from, and why they are risking their lives to enter economically depressed Europe. In both parts, I’ll offer evidence for thinking about the current migrant/refugee crisis as a consequence of capitalism and the current profound crisis of capital.

In this part, I will argue that  fears many of us feel are legitimate but mistaken, and that we actually have more in common with newcomers than our ruling class. I will also argue that charity as a human response is understandable, but charity does not address (and even exacerbates) the root structural causes of this crisis. If we want to truly end war, inequality, poverty, and ecological destruction – if we want to help people stay and prosper in their own homelands – we have to confront and overcome capital; we have to go beyond charity and get political.

In this and all my blogs, I am, of course, trying to persuade you of my argument, but, first and foremost, I’m encouraging you to think critically and believe in yourself as someone who totally can understand, and help to change, the world around them.

Does charity begin at home?

The right wing media and politicians constantly argue that, if we’ve got our own houses to sort out, and if Britain is an already overcrowded island, why should we be expected to help the world’s waifs and strays? So the first question we need to address is: ‘Doesn’t charity begin at home?’

Last Sunday, in my own town of Oxford, over 1,000 people came out to express their solidarity and support for refugees. It was wonderful to see so many people of all ages coming together as common humanity. I couldn’t get close enough to hear the speeches at the rally. However, the questions that I suspect few if any were addressing were these very domestic concerns: ‘In a city in which houses and rents are the most expensive in the whole country, where local people themselves are desperate for new and better housing, where are these newcomers supposed to live? Which of the already overcrowded schools will their kids go to? What about the overrun hospitals and depleted and run down social services? What about the already clogged roads?’ Unsurprisingly, in his speech, the City Council leader Bob Price apparently expressed an acute awareness of these practicalities.

There were people from all parts of Oxford society at the rally. But it was undeniably dominated by the middle class. It’s wonderful that these people – people like me – with more social, economic, and cultural security and resources want to welcome thousands of new refugees to Oxford, but we’re not the ones who will be most affected by their arrival and integration. We might even open our own doors to new refugees, but these new folk can’t stay forever. They won’t want to. They will want and need their own homes. And there’s the rub! If we’re serious about opening our borders we need to confront the practical question of where these people will live, work, learn, and the resources they will consume. When people raise real concerns like these, when people ask about those in need who are already here, they are often attacked as ignorant, prejudiced, or racist. That’s not constructive. Their feelings are valid. Their concerns are legitimate. Let’s address them.

So, if you want to argue that charity begins at home, you do need to answer whose home you’re talking about. Is this nation really a home to us all equally? You also need to answer why we might need charity in a wealthy country like this. The answers to these questions are political: they concern the ownership and control of land, property, finance and overall political control.

Whose home is it anyway?

Land and property

Regarding land ownership, just 6,000 owners – made up of aristocratic families, billionaires, the royal family, the Church of England, and Oxford and Cambridge colleges – own two-thirds (40 million acres) of all the land. In Scotland, the situation is even worse. The concentration of landownership is one major factor suppressing housebuilding. If you own the land, you will hold it and let it out slowly to ensure land prices keep rising. So, right away, we can seriously dispute the claim that Britain is full. More than fullness, it’s about extreme population concentration in small urban pockets, and actually less of Britain is built on than most other developed countries.

Dorling UK land as wealth

Historical house builds

Property ownership has also become far more unequal in recent decades. Landlords now own hundreds, even thousands of houses and flats, renting them out at exorbitant rents and often neglecting the conditions of these properties. In the press, benefit-scrounging tenants get the blame, but they don’t see the money at all. Last year, local councils in the UK forked out £9.3 billion in housing benefits to private landlords. The 311 (out of 380) councils which released information showed that the top twenty company landlords in all areas receive housing benefit direct from councils. These landlords use tax loopholes and the UK government’s own generous tax provisions to avoid and minimise their tax contributions. And they often leave their properties in awful and dangerous conditions.1 Some of the biggest landlords are from the same aristocratic families representing themselves in the House of Lords and even Members of Parliament.

Since the Conservative Party introduced the ‘Right to Buy’ scheme in the 1980s, which allowed council housing tenants to buy their own homes at discount prices, almost half of all former council housing has ended up concentrated in the hands of ‘buy-to’let’ landlords. So, where there used to be social housing with life-long leases, there are now landlord barons milking desperate tenants on short and fragile contracts who compete with each other to be exploited!

Then we have the more dispersed problem of people owning multiple homes. In many coastal and scenic parts of Britain, local people on very low wages cannot remotely afford to buy a flat or house because (often London-based) outsiders’ demands for holiday homes have inflated prices out of reach. A similar dynamic is at work in Oxford where nearly half the houses are bought by the UK and global elite who buy up property as either investments or to house their kids for their education. And its not just the one percent. In depressed economic conditions with low growth, high debt, and privatised pensions, burgeoning numbers of pensioners depend on rising house prices and rents to supplement their pensions.

Any government knows that its political survival and success is pegged to the housing market, so they keep reflating the bubble and helping politically influential land-owners and landlords. Also, it’s no coincidence that, whereas only 1% of the British population are landlords, nearly 25% of MPs are!

% of MP landlords

Finally, we have, of course, the issue of homelessness. Because of varying definitions and categories, it’s hard to say how many people are homeless in the UK. In England alone last year, however, over 112,000 households applied to their local authority for homelessness assistance. Compare that with the government’s own statistic showing over 600,000 empty homes.

Empty houses

In any civilised society, in which a house performed solely a social function and satisfied a basic human need, homelessness would simply not exist. In our capitalist society, in which the house is a commodity to trade and an asset to generate rental income, and in which house prices boom and bust, homelessness is a structural constant. This is perverse.

In the UK, social housing is sold off cheap to landlords who then enrich themselves on rental incomes and tax benefits from taxpayers; poorer people are ‘socially cleansed’ from prosperous areas and cannot buy homes in their own neighbourhoods; rich people own multiple homes and leave good homes empty while others sleep rough or in hostels or temporary housing; and 2/3 of the land is owned by 0.1% of the population. In conclusion, if you want to argue against accepting newcomers to the UK by asserting that charity begins at home, the argument that the UK is all ‘our home’ does not stand up to scrutiny.

Why do we need charity?

Economic and financial power

If you want to argue seriously for ensuring that our own people are looked after first, you need also to look at the political economy (power & money) of the UK. You need to explain why this wealthy society still (and increasingly desperately) needs charity. Over one million people received emergency food and support from foodbanks in 2014-15! That’s up from 26,000 since the economic crisis began in 2008!

Numbers given 3 days' emergency food

The globalisation arguments are well rehearsed. Since the 1970s, we’ve seen a sustained and hugely successful attack on working class people. Trade unions are now far smaller and weaker and we’ve had 40 years of wage stagnation. In the UK, we’ve seen a particularly dramatic shift in the structure of our economy away from manufacturing (jobs and industries exported primarily to China) towards services and finance. This has definitely intensified the imbalance in our economy, not just in terms of trade (export/import) or budget (deficit/surplus), or even just in terms of production/consumption. The promotion of finance above all else has also exacerbated the London-centric nature of our economy. Foreign and internal ‘migrants’ flood into London and huge swathes of the rest of the country languish in stagnation. Not that life for most is prosperous and easy in London either!

The combination of wage stagnation with a hyper-consumerism has led societies like ours to ridiculous levels of private debt – loans, credit cards, etc. The nature of this debt has become more usurious as the economy has faltered and people’s situations have become more desperate. Legalised, parasitic loan sharks enjoy near free reign to exploit the desperate.

At the same time, austerity constitutes a political strategy and economic policy to make the poorest and most vulnerable pay for a crisis that originated in the crash of the combined US housing and financial markets caused by rapacious speculation. The main beneficiaries of these financial markets are seeing their wealth soar in recent years as the trillions printed to keep the system afloat finds its way into their accounts as new bubbles in asset markets form. As the recent Chinese stock market crash shows, it’s only a matter of time till the next collapse.

So, again, if we’re serious about getting our own house in order, let’s take a look at why we still supposedly need charity: why our country’s economy is so unbalanced; why we depend on banks and financial firms that steal from us and financial markets that explode in our faces; why our wages are so low; and why people remain in ever greater levels of debt.

The class war: the war in our ‘home’

There has never been more money in the world. It has rarely if ever been concentrated more unequally. Those who run our economies also control that wealth. Their wealth and power are totally tied up with the current system and maintaining the status quo. We cannot expect them to ‘get our own house in order’. Indeed, even that phrase still suggests that, as the Tories like to say, ‘we’re all in it together’. We’re clearly not. When we begin to recognise this, we begin to see that there is actually a war in this country, in every country right now, in which people are dying, suffering ill physical and mental health, and losing their homes each day of the year. That is the class war! It is the war prosecuted by the ruling class – the owners of capital – against working people. Austerity is the current economic policy and political strategy used by the ruling class to prosecute this war.

Where this war has been prosecuted most intensively, it has led to millions of deaths. Throughout the Third World, for example, the world’s poorest people were compelled by Western governments, the IMF, World Bank, and complicit, corrupt rulers to pay the cost of the debt crisis of the 1980s and bail out American and European banks. We saw manufacturing collapse. We saw indebtedness soar. We saw unemployment and emigration rise. We saw infant mortality, maternal mortality, life expectancy in these countries drop. Similar trends can be observed across Northern and, to a greater degree, Southern Europe today.

Look up! Look up!

It’s vital not to sneer at those who may seem merely to parrot the alarms rung daily by our media and politicians. It is perfectly understandable and rational to feel and express these fears. If you feel this way right now, your fears are real. Your concerns are genuine. However, what I’d ask you to do is to ask yourself whether our collective economic security and prosperity is threatened more by the people seeking to come here out of political or economic need or by a system that continues to exploit, expropriate, impoverish, and indebt the poorest, and destabilise our communities, society, and ecology. What would affect the prospects of the average UK citizen more, the expropriation of the six thousand biggest landowners and the return of that land to common ownership or the arrival of ten thousand Syrian refugees? What constitutes more of a threat to our economic security, new immigrants or unstable financial markets? Should we be angrier at a system that allows bankers, landlords and payday loan sharks to milk us or at poor people trying to make a better life?

Here’s another way to frame this argument. Imagine you’re on a small volcanic island quite low down near the coast. The sea levels are rising. Other islands have already been swallowed up. Desperate people crowded into unseaworthy boats are trying to land on your island. You yourselves are crammed into densely populated villages by the coast. The rich people on your island live in the beautiful wide expanses of the fields higher up that dominate most of the island. ‘Look down!’, they cry out each day. ‘Look down! Look at the people on the boats! They are outsiders coming to take our land, our homes! They don’t understand our language, our customs, our history! Look down!’

Every day, the newspapers and politicians call us to look down. What I’m suggesting is that it might be more fruitful and just to look up instead and see what we find.

The false friend of charity: Action begins at home

A lot of good, kind people are feeling an almost overwhelming urge to do something right now. Unfortunately, in our society, that drive to act is invariably colonised by charity. Charity is a false friend. Charities seem to offer us what we think we need. Give money, time, and resources and we can make a difference. We can make a difference to individuals’ lives, but we will also invariably sustain the very system that creates the tragedies and injustices that compelled us to act. So, when Bob Geldof invites refugees into two of his homes, that’s very charitable, but why the hell should anyone have so many unused homes! And when the interest rate rise finally comes and the near million UK people on interest-only mortgages find themselves threatened with eviction, will we rally for them and open our doors to them too?

Only structural change can resolve this crisis. So, instead of charity beginning at home, let’s think about action beginning at home, within ourselves. Let’s think about changing ourselves as individuals, communities, and as a society, working towards making the structural changes that won’t just make things a bit better till the next crisis comes, but will actually help us to create a better and more just world. This means making bigger demands of ourselves – of our time and energy – but if we’re serious about social and environmental justice, that’s what we need to be doing.

Thanks for reading. In the second part, I’ll take an external look at the refugee/migrant crisis and try to show how those who run countries like Britain are directly complicit in creating the instability and violence that compels people to leaves their homelands and risk life and limb to get to Europe.

1The Property Ombudsman reported a 37% increase in tenants’ complaints last year. Check out this article that tells of a young man Georges Almond who turned the mould in his bedroom in Manchester into an art exhibit, and his rented home into a community art project!