Capitalism, Culture, Democracy, Education/learning, Ideology, Marxism, Media, Neo-liberalism, Radical democracy, UK

What does this Sun/Women’s Own email really show us? And what can we do about it?

Dear reader,

It’s been an interesting 24 hours since my friend Kate Evans (@iamkateevans) showed me an email by a contributing editor to The Sun newspaper and Women’s Own magazine asking charities for a very particular request…

Embedded image permalink

I subsequently posted this email and a few observations on Agent of History here…

Since then, Kate’s been inundated with tweets and retweets, has been interviewed for an article in The Independent, and I’ve had over 20,000 views (and counting) of my original post. Even Russell Brand retweeted it, which is great! I should try to strike while the iron’s hot and offer a very brief analysis of what I think the significance of this email really is and what we can do about it. If you don’t have the time right now to read the entire post, feel free to just read the bits in bold to get the jist of my argument…

What does this Sun/Woman’s Own email really show us?

(1) Nothing we didn’t know or at least suspect!

I suspect that, in our heart of hearts, it shows us nothing that we didn’t know already. Alternatively and, perhaps more accurately, put, I suspect it just confirms our worst fears: that a large part of the ‘news’ we read in our ‘news’papers each day is actually stories prefabricated by journalists following edicts from editors and, indeed, in turn from newspaper/TV station owners and senior political figures on high. These stories clearly seek to construct a world in which the poorest, least educated, most deprived, and vulnerable people are the feckless, greedy, lazy, stupid architects of their own pathetic downfall! Homelessness, unemployment, obesity, disability, illiteracy, ill health, relationship breakdown, addiction, poverty are portrayed as conditions suffered by individuals and caused by individuals. Since these people are to blame for their own sorry states, it follows that any resources that allow them to sustain their shameful lifestyles should be stopped. The welfare system is reframed as a ‘benefits’ gravy train full of dependent passive passengers that has to be stopped if these passengers are ever to regain their independence and walk again.

daily mail benefitsAn all too common example of the daily attack on working class people

(2) Poverty is political!

I don’t want here to get into a detailed discussion about the political economy of poverty. Suffice to say here that poverty is a structural necessity in capitalism since it ensures that there is an ‘industrial reserve army’ always there to cow individual workers into accepting wage-slavery; that wages remain low enough to maintain profitability; that workers are alienated from each other in competition over jobs needed to avoid destitution; and that workers are way too preoccupied in the daily struggle for sustenance and survival to question and organise to challenge the system. It is a key weapon in the class war used to divide and rule. Poverty is not fundamentally a personal, cultural, or economic problem. Poverty is political!

Levels and forms of poverty differ, of course, according to the contextual and shifting economic conditions of capital accumulation, balance of political power between capital and labour, and control over the means of cultural production. The way that poverty was defined and described in the media in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s in the UK and elsewhere was, I suspect and believe, mostly very different. I see a key moment as the neo-liberal (Thatcherite) counter-revolution of the late 1970s. Since then, I believe a central ideological objective of the ruling class – one achieved with remarkable success – has been precisely to reframe social problems such as poverty, mental and physical ill health, crime, and homelessness as individual failings. We see this institutionalisation of individualism and what’s often called the ‘responsibilisation’ agenda embedded now throughout not just the media, but the education, health, public policy, and even charity sectors.

Two years ago, I tried (unsuccessfully) to run a political economy learning group at a leading national homeless charity. There, I was struck there about how any structural analysis of homelessness, poverty or mental illness was silenced in favour of a total focus on the individual – skilling up, jobseeking, boosting confidence, correcting personal failings, etc. I’m not saying don’t do these things. I’m emphasizing the political success of the responsibilisation agenda. This is ‘hegemonic’ power in practice!

What’s ‘hegemony’?

By ‘hegemonic power‘, I refer to (post-!)Marxist political theories of power shaped, in particular, by Antonio Gramsci in an Italian fascist prison in the 1930s and 1940s and by Argentine and French philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe from the 1980s. Here, it is language and signs/images that form the weapons, the cultural field that constitutes the battlefield, of politics (for Laclau & Mouffe, not just class politics but the politics of gender, race, sexuality, disability and all other structural forms of power and oppression).

Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

Laclau

Ernesto Laclau

MouffeChantal Mouffe

What this email shows us, then, is how the hegemony not just of capital, but of patriarchy is constructed and maintained. It isn’t a coincidence that the email’s author is looking for a woman. I suspect this is for various cultural reasons, primarily because of the obscene objectification of the female body – a central mechanism of patriarchal power.

An image taken from today’s homepage (!) of The Sun newspaper

I want to make two further short, key points about this email and hegemonic politics.

(3) Avoid culturalism!

First, I don’t believe that politics is, therefore, just a ‘war of words’. Capital is a social relation between those who own and control the means of production and those who must sell their labour-power to survive. Therefore, economic conditions have a huge effect on cultural conditions. The reason why the email’s author is looking specifically for ex-fatty-scroungers is because his newspaper’s editor and owner and even the government too are needing to construct a particular ‘truth’ that excludes any consideration of current economic crisis (of capital’s inability to restart its engines and provide society-wide opportunity) and sets the working class against each other through the manipulation of our baser, negative instincts.

(4) Power ≠ Violence!

Second, when we read emails like this it is totally understandable to experience feelings of anger, but also passivity, powerlessness, and hopelessness. A perfectly rational and understandable response to this would be: ‘So, the media lies to us, fills us with hate for our fellow suffering brothers and sisters, and is run by powerful people seeking to maintain their power! What the hell can I do about it!?’

Allow me to offer an alternative reading. I see the desperation in this email as suggestive of declining and increasingly fragile hegemonic power. This email is an act of violence, symbolic violence, done to the particular poor individual they find to do their bidding, but also to poor working class people, especially women, in general. We must not, however, confuse violence with power. I remember reading Hannah Arendt who first showed me how power and violence are actually opposites! Power is always legitimacy conferred by people in some direct or indirect way. Violence is what you use when that legitimacy has gone. You can’t rule by violence alone for long.

ArendtHannah Arendt

The email shines a light into the desperation of a ruling class whose legitimacy to rule has been gradually revoked by us. We see this collective revocation in the slow retreat from formal political engagement over recent decades. The most stable regime of hegemony is founded on rule by active consent of the people, i.e. when we believe that those who rule rule in our interests. Hegemony is rendered less stable when that consent becomes passive. It’s then a case of needing to naturalise an artificial and contingent social order. In this case, the primary hegemonic task is then to make capitalism seem as natural as the air we breathe. Hence, the power and necessity of the infamous ‘TINA” (There Is No Alternative) doctrine. We are told that the world we experience is the only world there can be.

thatcherTINA

The end of TINA

The TINA Doctrine reigned supreme for around 25 years. It can probably be dated to around the late 1980s when Thatcherism and Reaganism consolidated in the UK and US (i.e. working class power was mostly destroyed), when the IMF and World Bank brought Structural Adjustment (hardcore austerity!) to the Third World, when the Soviet Union and Communist Bloc collapsed removing any ideological alternative, and when, consequently, the world was opened up for capitalist globalisation. It was destabilised by the rise of left-wing Latin American governments, and it took probably a mortal blow in the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s only been more recently in the patent inability of capitalism to revive and the concomitant creation and growth of alternative social movements, parties, and grassroots co-operative endeavours that we can see that the era of TINA hegemony is over; that the neoliberal project is on the rocks; that the discursive field of politics is thrown wide open again; and that another world is possible once more. Hence, for example, the panic over and demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing frontrunner of the Labour Party leadership campaign.

In short, this email shows us:

  1. How the media spectacle and, moreover, our opinions, beliefs, even our very identities are constructed;
  2. How it really helps to think about politics in terms of hegemony – language as weapon, culture as battlefield;
  3. How economic conditions are a fundamental force in shaping hegemonic politics;
  4. How the current conditions of economic crisis and collective reimagining have forced the 25(ish) year-long closure achieved by the neo-liberal counter-revolution wide open again;
  5. How, therefore, rather than interpreting this email in any disempowering way, we should recognise the media’s current daily campaign of symbolic violence that this email represents and recent panics over emergent social democratic/socialist forces as actually revealing the frailty and desperation of the ruling class.

So, what should we do about it?!

There are lots of things we can do. What you do is up to you, of course, but I would suggest that there is no innocent bystander and that acting brings such an inexpressible sense of empowerment and hope. So…

  1. Don’t buy these papers any more. However…
  2. Do check them out online. First, it’s crucial to know your enemy and to see the strategies, the discourses, the frames they are using. Second, it helps to develop our critical skills of reading and analysis;
  3. Spread the word online! Share your own findings and your own analyses. Don’t just take my word for it!
  4. Don’t be scared of theory! Theory literally means ‘to see’ (theoria), I believe. Read and use theory (political-economic, socioloigical, cultural, etc) to see the world in deeper, richer ways. Use and develop your own theories to understand the world you experience – by yourself and with others;
  5. Let’s talk and listen. If we accept a language-focused theory of politics, we don’t have to accept the eternal violence imbued in ideas of words as weapons and culture as battlefield. We can try to actively create new radical democratic forms of communication and society right now by coming together with others and exploring what it takes to use words as tools to rebuild, words as bridges to unite. This involves listening as much as talking, particularly listening to those who have been systematically and systemically silenced for too long (like 35+ impoverished women!) We can explore art and culture not as a battlefield, but as a way to express our individual and collective humanity.

Just some ideas for you! The particular choices you make, the particular forms these choices are articulated in are up to you. They are an expression of your particular, and our collective, humanity. They are the integral elements of the process of humanisation we seek to explore and develop.

These are my personal thoughts. Feel free to challenge and correct me. I am totally open to rethinking and revising my understandings.

Thanks for reading

Joel

P.S. If someone can teach me how to align three photos together on one line in WordPress and why WordPress doesn’t seem to recognise the lines I try to put between paragraphs and sections I’d be extremely grateful! This technical fault or, more likely, my technical ignorance is really annoying me! Thanks!

Capitalism, Communication, Culture, Democracy, Media, UK

This is what our ‘news’papers do every day…

I have just read an email sent by a ‘contributing editor’ of The Sun newspaper who is looking for a particular someone. This person’s words speak for themselves so I’ll say no more. Here’s the email (anonymised, of course)…

“Hi

I’m looking for a woman aged 35+ who used to be overweight and on disability living allowance due to weight related issues, but is now a healthy weight and employed. We”d like her to agree with the idea that overweight people SHOULD lose their benefits if they refuse treatment on the NHS (e.g. gastric band surgery, gym membership etc). We’d want her to talk about how having her benefits taken away would have given her the motivation to lose weight, and how great she feels now that she\’s thin and supporting herself.

NB, this is an edict from on-high (the editor), not one of my making (in case anybody takes offence!).

Please contact me by email…if you can help.

Kind regards,

X”

This is what our ‘news’papers do every day. They very consciously and strategically construct a ‘reality’, a spectacle that is designed to divide us against each other, to direct our hate and anger toward the poorest and most vulnerable, and, by doing so, distract us from the real causes of the poverty, injustice, and misery so many face.

Please spread this email far and wide. Please don’t buy their newspapers. Here’s one video made by people with learning disabilities in which they express their own views and feelings about benefits.

“I am not a scrounger” from My Life My Choice on Vimeo.

Oh, and here’s an analysis of the significance of this email and what we can do about it published subsequently (added Aug 12th)

Thanks

Joel

Critical pedagogy, Democracy, Education/learning, Politics and economics, Radical democracy, UK

A Statement of Belief and Intent – What’s the point of Oxford Democracy-Builders?

A number of people have, quite naturally, asked me to tell them my objectives for starting the Oxford Democracy-Builders (ODB) group. My responses have been hesitant and unclear primarily because, as I emphasise, it’s for the group itself to define its own form and objectives. However, after some reflection, I am able to offer a summary of the political beliefs and objectives that led me to try to initiate a collective process of democratic learning and action here in my own town of Oxford. These beliefs and objectives are set out in this statement. It neither sets out my own ideas in stone nor does it definitively define what ODB is or will be. However, I hope it will help clarify people’s understanding and help inform our discussions on the nature and future of the group.

My motivations for initiating ODB

I called the first ODB meeting in May as a response to my own emotions after experiencing the local hustings for the General Election. I and around 150 others had crammed into a nearby church to hear a very low level of political debate that largely or completely ignored central political issues. Questions to competing candidates were preselected by email and the audience’s ability to participate was limited to strategic hand-clapping! I left feeling angry, disenchanted, and disempowered, so I decided to call a public meeting for the night before the Election entitled ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how can we start to build it?’ The goal was to give people an initial taste of a radical democratic alternative in which everyone had a chance to participate.

My deeper motivation for calling that meeting and for trying to build a process of participatory, democratic learning and action here in Oxford is founded on a personal journey of learning and practice – a ‘praxis’ – through the world of community learning. A few years ago, I co-founded a community education project called ‘PPE’ (People’s Political Economy) which trained people (mainly postgraduate students) to facilitate learning groups in community organisations. We the organisers learned a lot ourselves in the process, more from our ‘failures’ than our successes. You can read a report about our experiences and these lessons here.

Nothing’s really going on with PPE formally any more except for the one learning group that I run with My Life My Choice each week. That said, my experiences with PPE, my knowledge of experiences of other similar groups, and my reading of what’s called ‘critical pedagogy’1 have led me to develop my own theories of learning and personal and collective change. Here I set out these beliefs and how they inform my approach to running ODB so far.

The political and pedagogical beliefs inspiring and informing ODB

(1) If you want to democratise society start with yourself

I believe that perhaps the main cause of failure of left-wing pro-democratic organisations to achieve their goals, be they political parties, trade unions, social movements, or issue-based campaign groups, can be identified as a painful inconsistency between their declared goals and their internal structures and practices. In short, they demand (or claim to demand) democracy but behave and organise quite undemocratically. What history shows us is that the ends do not justify the means: When you seek and win local, regional, or state power in authoritarian ways you will not go on to implement democracy. Instead, the new power you enjoy as an organisation or as individuals will lead you to further concentrate your power and lead in increasingly authoritarian ways.

In contrast, I believe that our means are our ends. If we want to achieve real democracy in our society we have to start with ourselves, and when we come together to learn about and try to change the world this begins with learning about and changing ourselves. I’m not even merely saying that first we get our own house in order before trying to effect change beyond our group. That’s certainly true. But, what I’m suggesting goes far deeper. By trying to create a truly democratic space we are already changing the world. We are seeking to create a real utopia – a new, radically democratic way for people to come together to learn, to teach, to grow. Therefore, by trying to start a ‘democracy-building’ group in Oxford, I am trying to bring people together to take what I see as the necessary starting steps towards real democratisation – democratisation of ourselves as individuals and communities.

(2) To change ourselves is tough and requires support, acceptance, empathy, and dialogue

What does it mean, then, to ‘democratise ourselves’? As a work in progress myself, I’m not entirely sure. However, I can offer you here a long, causal chain that I think might capture the basic process…

Democratisation requires change; change requires critical thinking; critical thinking requires self-undermining; self-undermining requires bravery; bravery requires support and acceptance; support and acceptance require empathy; empathy requires listening; listening requires dialogue; dialogue defines democracy.

Allow me to explain…

Step One: To democratise ourselves means to change ourselves.

Step Two: Changing ourselves means opening ourselves up to new ideas, being willing to recognise and accept the limits of and flaws in our previous beliefs and behaviour, and to alter them accordingly. So change requires critical thinking.

Step Three: Albert Camus said ‘to begin to think is to begin to be undermined’. What I understand by this statement is that what we think isn’t separate from who we are or, more accurately, who we think we are. Our beliefs are inextricably bound up with our identities. Therefore, when we think critically about our beliefs, we think critically about our selves and we begin to undermine ourselves. Put another way, critical thinking renders unstable the foundations upon which our identities are constructed.

Step Four: This ‘self-undermining’ is an unavoidably disconcerting and disorienting experience. Therefore, changing ourselves through critical thinking requires bravery. Changing ourselves like this also takes bravery because we feel that we lose face when we admit our mistakes.

Step Five: Therefore, in order to create the optimal conditions for us all to find the bravery to undermine themselves, to admit mistakes, and to change, we have to collectively agree to end our judgment of each other and to offer each other support and acceptance instead.

Step Six: The best way to overcome the urge to judge that tyrannises us all is to develop our empathy of others.

Step Seven: The best way, in turn, to develop our powers of empathy is to listen attentively to our interlocutors.

Step Eight: Listening, of course, requires conversation or dialogue, so this whole process is founded on dialogue – the essence, the heart of democratic practice.

Although I set out a seemingly neat and simple causal chain here, it’s immediately obvious that the process is complex, very challenging, and time-consuming. This leads me to point number four, but first a word about the kind of critical thinking needed for democratisation…

(3) The critical thinking required for true democratisation necessitates engagement with critical political economy and social theory

I begin at this juncture of my life with a historical materialist understanding of the world. What I understand this to mean is that the history of humanity can, since the agricultural revolution, be centrally understood as the history of class relations – social relations shaped by systems of the production, distribution, and exchange of resources. Since the agricultural revolution, we have been able to generate large surpluses. Surpluses allow for towns and cities. Class divisions emerged, as did more formal politics. Politics, therefore, can be largely understood as the contestation over the allocation of these surpluses and the labour that produces them, and the use not just of physical power to control surpluses and labour, but of ideological and cultural power to legitimate their allocation.

We have seen successive forms of class societies of which capitalism is the latest and by far the most dynamic, deep-rooted, and (in terms of material ‘progress’) successful. Therefore, any process of truly radical2 societal democratisation fundamentally entails the overcoming of class society through the construction of a truly just social order in which all own, control, and run the economy and economic units of production (companies) not to make profits for the few, but to fulfil the personal and social needs and desires of all. This doesn’t just mean doing our work democratically; it means doing far less work too!

That said, we could easily have such a socialist society that remained deeply undemocratic. There are other systems of oppression and injustice and other political struggles that just as important as the class struggle. These are (primarily but not only) patriarchy and the struggle for gender equality; white supremacism and the struggle for racial equality; homophobia and other forms of sexual oppression and the struggle for sexual freedom; and disabilism and the struggle for equality for disabled people.

What this all means is that any genuine process of learning about and seeking to build democracy must go beyond the mainstream to engage with critical theories of political economy and society.

Right, back to the time-consuming nature of collective self-democratisation…

(4) Building democracy takes time, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take action now

For an individual and a group to embark on the process I set out above requires a significant commitment of goodwill, energy, and time. I don’t see any way around this. You can work together effectively in order to move forward more swiftly, but it’s still a long process. There is so much to learn and, indeed, unlearn.

There is a clear tension here between the very understandable desire to act right now and the longer term process of democratisation I set out here. I understand that tension. I feel it! I want the world to change right now! But I also recognise the dangers of cutting corners. That said, in no way am I proposing a strict division between collective learning and political action in which a learning group takes no overt action until it is somehow ready to do so. This would contradict the concept of ‘praxis’ as I understand it. A praxis is a dynamic, continuous interaction between learning and action. Learning by doing is essential and it is necessary for individuals and the group as a whole to get involved in whatever political action they want to. The only thing to stress here is that it’s vital to reflect on that action in order to act more effectively next time round.

I also think that in order for us to be willing to commit our precious time and energy to this process we need to recognise the wider significance of what we are doing…

(5) Our small efforts are part of a big, global movement to democratise the world!

When ten people come together in a school canteen it may seem that what is said and done is of absolutely no wider political consequence. I would disagree. We are coming together to consciously try to make a better world. By doing so, though we can only see nine other people present, we are actually co-operating with millions of people worldwide trying to do the same. We can connect with, learn from, and teach them primarily via the internet and this is what we must consciously seek to do. Then we can really begin to recognise the political profundity of what we’re doing – daring to say a big ‘no!’ to the status quo, daring to dream again, to reimagine, to recreate – and that surely is what it really means to become political, to realise and fulfil our humanity!

This is a statement of the beliefs I hold that motivated me to start ODB. This statement also pretty much covers the objectives or, more accurately, the hopes I have for the group. I need now to briefly explain how these beliefs and objectives inform my ‘pedagogical practice’, i.e. how I’ve gone about trying to organise the sessions so far.

Putting political beliefs into pedagogical practice

In the first meeting, I simply tried to structure a session that would give everyone a chance to participate, to speak, to teach, to learn. I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in coming to more meetings. I was glad when people said they did. I hoped that, even if they didn’t come back, they would at least get a taste of the energy, the power that there is when people come together to discuss politics and do politics in radically different, participatory ways. This was always only going to be a taster.

In the second and third meetings, I have referred to a specific method of community education called the ‘Psycho-Social Method’. This was developed in a series of four books called Training for Transformation by Anne Hope and Sally Timmel who themselves were inspired by Brazilian philosopher and teacher Paolo Freire. Here’s a link to a two-page summary of the Psycho-Social Method that I produced a couple of years ago. It is designed for people coming into a community e.g. village or region of a town or city. It begins with listening and trying to find out what are called the ‘generative themes’, that is the themes that people are talking about with strong emotions. The idea is that people will want to engage with a learning process that focuses on issues that affect them personally. The next step is for the facilitators to produce what is called a ‘code’. This could be a photo, picture, short film, short sketch, song, anything that accurately captures these generative themes and reflects them back to the group. The code can then be used as a way to begin an analysis of the problems the group faces, an exploration of their root causes, and the elaboration of an action plan to address them.

In reality, due to a combination of personal inexperience and perhaps contextual inappropriateness, I haven’t followed the Method diligently at all. What I have done is to respond to the group’s own interests and demands, which is itself in line with the Method’s own core principles, of course. Therefore, in the last meeting, I tried to facilitate the building of trust and fellowship within the group, and in the next meeting I will facilitate the group’s desire to learn more about austerity. Throughout I have tried to help us explore the issues we feel most strongly about in order to uncover some generative themes, but it takes time.

Finally, a word about the role of the facilitator.

Facilitator as teacher

I call myself a facilitator and not a teacher primarily to differentiate this from any formal educational situation that, sadly, is defined by what Paolo Freire called a ‘banking method’ of education. In the banking method, the teacher is the embodiment of all knowledge and power and the passive, pliant students allow themselves to be filled with this knowledge. Their task is to digest it and regurgitate it in tests and exams. This is an authoritarian pedagogy, of course. A radical democratic pedagogy necessitates a democratisation of the pedagogical relationship between teacher and students. It entails a recognition that all have something to learn and all have something to teach and that knowledge is co-produced, but it doesn’t go so far as to reject any merit of expertise. A democratic teacher is a teacher not because they just work in a school or university, but because they have dedicated a large amount of time to reading, writing, and thinking about a particular issue or subject. Their authority and democratic power comes from this knowledge and their desire to contribute their knowledge to social change, not from the power of the institution that employs them or gave them a degree.

Facilitator as leader

Ultimately, it has to be some one or a small group of people who decide to initiate a process like this. So, in the early stages, I guess I will be the leader of this group. However, just as all are teachers, all can be and should be leaders of a group at different times. I hope that, as people grow in self-confidence and mutual understanding, others will take on leadership roles. Indeed, I notice that this has already happened in small but significant ways already.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far then I thank you sincerely, wholeheartedly. This is not some masochistic initiation test! However, reading all this does probably show that you’re interested enough in the process I envisage to want to be a part of and to shape it.

Ultimately, this process will succeed or fail depending on people’s commitment to it. I know we are all very busy, but I also believe we all recognise the crucial importance of trying to develop new ways of doing and being like this because we all recognise how precarious our futures and the futures of our children and grandchildren are. Therefore, we do all bear equal responsibility for taking positive action today. This is my proposal for one such form of action.

Thanks again for reading

Joel

1Theories of radical democratic approaches to learning that seek to facilitate personal and collective change as a way of effecting societal transformation.

2By ‘radical’ here I refer to the word’s etymology. Radical refers to the roots of something, so when I say radical democracy I mean creating a democracy that addresses and overcomes the root causes of social injustice that impede democratisation.

Capitalism, Democracy, Ideology, Marxism, Neo-liberalism, Politics and economics, UK

The Pint’s Half-Full! On knowledge, freedom, and unravelling hegemony, Part Two: Unravelling Hegemony

From the psychology of pint-buying to a political theory of hegemony

In the previous post, my curious discovery that I couldn’t say with certainty why I acted the way I did regarding buying drinks in pubs led me to question the nature and limits of knowledge and how that relates to our freedom. I suggested that anyone claiming absolute knowledge is demonstrating a politically, socially, economically, and ecologically dangerous hubris. I also equally suggested that those who claim that nothing is knowable are condemning us to political paralysis and acceptance of an unjust status quo. Thus, I argued that we can learn loads about our world and our selves and that we then have to use this knowledge to act in the world. This ongoing process of learning and acting is called a ‘praxis’ and that praxis is the only true way toward individual and collective freedom.

In this post, I want to build on these conclusions by bringing in another insight from my recognition of the limits of my self-understanding. I want to do this in order to share a theory of politics that, I believe, sheds a huge amount of light on what’s going on in the world today. This insight is this: If I do not fully know why I do what I do then how could I possibly judge others for their actions?

This insight generates two important conclusions. First, it highlights the sheer dehumanising toxicity of our contemporary model of doing politics. The practice of adversarial, conflictual party politics is one of daily accusation, besmirching, and scaremongering, a practice that unsurprisingly has led to ever increasing levels of public cynicism and disengagement from what we widely understand as ‘politics’.

PMQs

Furthermore, one primary objective of our political, economic, and cultural leaders is to divide us by seeding fear, mistrust, and even hatred among us. They do it very well.

daily mail benefits

Fundamental to all this malignant political practice is the issue of judgment – judgments handed down by politicians and the media and the invitation to judge people and social groups we know very little about. This is a politics of negativity, of cynicism, of shame, of bitterness, of vengeance, guilt, and many other terrible emotions. This is an anti-democratic politics because it relies on a silencing – those to be judged must be marginalised and silenced in order to be most effectively demonised – and on a labelling – making those silenced wear identity labels not of their own choosing. It’s what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu powerfully called ‘symbolic violence’. Those who have ‘symbolic power’ – the power to make meaning in the world – wreak a symbolic violence on those they judge, silence, and label. This violence is invariably linked to very material, physical consequences too.

The antithesis and antidote to this is, of course, a truly democratic politics – a politics of dialogue, of empathy, of faith, of inclusion. An organisation I work with, My Life My Choice – an organisation run for and by people with learning disabilities – has a really powerful slogan relating to this: ‘Nothing about us without us!’

The second conclusion to be drawn is perhaps the most nuanced, but politically the most significant. If we recognise that we are never fully rational or self-aware, that we are ‘social individuals’, and that we are all constantly changing then we surely cannot accept a theory of politics that offers a narrow, fixed definition of what a human being or what society is. If we look back at ourselves ten years ago and see a very different person who would have defined themselves and the world very differently, how can we subscribe to a theory of politics that can’t accommodate this messy reality of personal and collective complexity and change? This is, I think, the argument that Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe make in their very influential book ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy’. They criticise what they call the essentialism of most Marxist theory that posits human beings, first and foremost, as workers in an exploitative economic system and explores the most effective ways to analyse and overcome this system. Though Laclau and Mouffe (like myself) remain Marxists and socialists, they argue that human beings are many varied and changing things; that the struggles we face are not exclusively economic; and, crucially, that these struggles are not secondary to the class struggle. Unfortunately, we could too easily have a socialist society that remained patriarchal, homophobic, racist, disabilist, etc, i.e. fundamentally unjust and undemocratic.

Laclau and Mouffe’s central thesis is that politics is primarily a struggle fought over and with words and images. So, yes, while the fact that everything and everyone is changing means there can be no absolute, eternal truth, and that the world is full of torrential flows of words and images, it is clear that people and societies are stable enough for powerful groups to achieve a long-term closure by imposing a relatively fixed definition of key political issues and practices like ‘society’, ‘economy’, ‘work’, ‘money’, ‘value’, ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘family’, ‘sex’, ‘common sense’, ‘tradition’, ‘nation’, etc, etc. This ‘semiotic’ closure is a closure of our individual and collective hearts and minds and, consequently, a closure of what can be politically imagined, hoped for, and created. So, what this term ‘hegemony’ means is a political dominance that a social group achieves when they are able to dominate the production of meaning in a society and they are able to dominate it to such an extent as to make the contingent and political seem natural and inevitable. That’s real power!

The unravelling of neo-liberal hegemony

What light can this theory of politics shed on contemporary events? A great deal, I believe. For over three decades, we have experienced the paralysing and economically, socially, and ecologically destructive hegemony of neo-liberalism. What I understand neo-liberalism to be is a reactionary political project, beginning in the 1970s, first to reassert and then to extend and intensify capitalist social relations and the hegemony of capital worldwide. Thus we see not just more and more areas of human life ‘commodified’, i.e. turned into areas of profit-making exchange, we see the logic of the market penetrate ever deeper into all our psyches and relationships. Though an extreme free-market ideology fronts it, if the interests and needs of capital diverge from free-market dogma, it is dispensed with. That’s why it’s best, I believe, to think of neo-liberalism as a material political project and not just as an ideology. The hegemony of neo-liberalism is best summarised in the term ‘There Is No Alternative’, otherwise known as the ‘TINA doctrine’, credited to Margaret Thatcher.

thatcherTINA

What I believe we are now seeing is the accelerated unravelling of the TINA doctrine, of neo-liberal hegemony. This post-neo-liberal (post-capitalist perhaps) era began, fittingly, where neo-liberalism itself first broke through – in South America – where we have seen the rise of many powerful left wing governments and social movements. We now have Syriza, a left wing party/social movement, in power in Greece, and powerful parties and social movements like Podemos in Spain and Left Bloc in Portugal are rapidly emerging across Europe, primarily in Southern Europe. And then suddenly, in perhaps the unlikeliest of places, we have a socialist, Jeremy Corbyn MP, catapulted into the media limelight as clear frontrunner in the leadership election of the British Labour Party.

Regardless of whether Corbyn wins or not, this seems a development of immense significance. In the negative politics of judgment and fear upon which neo-liberal hegemony depends, it has been easy to demonise the ideas and the people of the left because they are rarely seen or heard. By being obliged to give considerable airtime to these same ideas and their proponents, the TV channels, despite their best efforts, can’t help revealing that these ideas are far from ‘loony’ or ‘evil’, but are eminently sensible and morally appealing, and that those proposing them are not crazed fools, but sober, intelligent, likeable, and (unlike most politicians these days) principled people. Suddenly, the unthinkable becomes thinkable, the unimaginable becomes imaginable. Suddenly, the closed is reopened. Suddenly, hegemony is destabilised. The reaction is both shocking and unsurprising. We have seen pathetic levels of fury, vitriol, name-calling, scaremongering not just from the right wing press, but even from those self-appointed left wing patrician guardians of our morality. Now I know why The Guardian is so called!

One final thing to emphasise here is that I believe that this crisis of hegemony is directly related to a material crisis of capitalism. Capital’s inability to revive itself, to generate decent lives for now most people not just in poor countries but in rich ones too, its generation of extreme inequality and global ecological destruction make the articulation of alternatives possible and, of course, acutely necessary.

The overall conclusion to draw is not so much that ‘times they are a-changing’, but that we who desire to create a new just and free society out of the old finally can now see new, exciting opportunities to pursue. For those in their 50s or older, it has been a long wait! But it is up to us to seize, create, and take those opportunities. At moments of crisis like these, in conditions of civic illiteracy, the fascist Sirens call out. This time around, we cannot hold religiously and dogmatically to any essentialist truth. We need to use theory, for sure. But we need to apply those theories flexibly and contextually, and we need to create movements that combine the power of our collective organisation, imaginations, and energy with the flexible autonomy for individuals and separate groups to pursue their own struggles and dreams. This is the lesson that scholar/activists like Laclau and Mouffe offer us and, I think, this lesson is reflected in the new more horizontal, networked forms of organisation we see emerging throughout the world right now.

Phew! All that from an initial thought about buying pints in pubs! I’ll drink to that! Cheers!

Communication, Culture, Democracy, Ideology, UK

Shattering the Spectacle

I‘m recently back from a two-day workshop for social scientists in Edinburgh. On day one, I gave a talk with the title of ‘Emancipatory Social Science: from monological to dialogical communication’. I spoke about French philosopher Guy Debord who, in 1967, wrote a book called ‘Society of the Spectacle’. Debord argued that we now live in a society in which ‘the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’,1 and that the reality we experience is now one overwhelmingly mediated via mass communication systems. Debord called this the ‘society of the spectacle’ and saw the spectacle as a ‘social relation among people mediated by images’.

 

Debord

Communication-as-message

I suggested that spectacular society was constructed and maintained by a particular authoritarian and monological (i.e. one way, top-down) form of communication that I called ‘communication-as-message’. One topical example of communication-as-message would be the recent UK general election – a battle in which the Conservatives won, according to the Daily Telegraph, by ‘hammering home their message’ and ‘drowning out’ and ‘disrupting’ ‘Labour’s key messages’.

UK Election as battle of arch ‘spin doctors’: Labour’s David Axelrod vs Conservative’s Lynton Crosby

AxelrodCrosby

 

Communication-as-message, then, is the dominant (or ‘hegemonic’) form of communication in our society today. Its ultimate purpose is, according to Debord, social separation, i.e. keeping us divided. For Debord, separation was the ‘alpha and omega’ of the spectacle. His own focus was on class division, but we are separated along many other lines too.

Shattering the spectacle

What, then, would democratic (counter-hegemonic) communication – communication designed for social unification – look like? I argued along the lines of my recent blogpost (now OpenDemocracy piece) that it would be fundamentally dialogical, i.e. people coming together to talk and to listen in a praxis i.e. a continued process of shared learning and action. But, what about the mass communication technologies that produce the spectacle? How can we shatter the spectacle in the name of democracy and social unification?

For Debord, the only way to shatter the spectacle was through direct encounters. Debord focused specifically on workers’ councils, but we could also extend this to any space or organisation in which people come together in dialogue to change their world. This is, of course, absolutely central to our goal, but I would suggest that, when it comes to modern communication technologies, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Here, therefore, I brought in the insights of early 20th Century German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin

Walter Benjamin was alert to the emancipatory potential of technological innovations. Shattering the spectacle entails, of course, ending communication as one-way monologue. For Benjamin, this necessarily meant breaking down the rigid separation between author and reader, radio broadcaster and listener, or TV/film producer and viewer. He was, in hindsight, perhaps a bit too optimistic regarding the press and radio of his time. However, I think that the internet really does have the revolutionary potential that Benjamin envisaged. Substitute the word ‘internet’ for the word ‘newspaper’ in this quote from Benjamin to see what I mean…

 

‘Authority to write is no longer founded in a specialist training but in a polytechnical one, and so becomes common property. In a word, the literarization of living conditions becomes a way of surmounting otherwise insoluble antinomies, and the place where the word is most debased – that is to say, the newspaper – becomes the very place where a rescue operation can be mounted.’

In the internet I believe that Benjamin’s hopeful vision can find its fulfillment. Yet, as we well know, though it has had its moments, the internet is being used quite effectively by ruling elites to keep us divided. Clearly, what is needed is a more conscious strategy for utilising the internet as the method of and catalyst for democratic, dialogical communication – a strategy that seeks to break down and democratise the ways in which media is produced. This is the focus of my own current project, but I’m still at very early stages so will tell you all about this at a later date.

 

A lesson in spectacle construction

Day two of the workshop began with a 2 hour-long (!) panel made up of two leading BBC television journalists and three self-proclaimed ‘neutral’ university social scientists.2 The BBC journalists effectively told how they had no choice but to put on the same bickering politicians every day; how their audiences wanted to know the ‘facts’ that didn’t really exist; and how their audiences couldn’t cope with in-depth analysis anyway.

They peddled the BBC myth of impartiality by repeating how they always gave air to both sides of the argument as if every argument has only ever two sides and these two sides were not invariably from the right of the political spectrum. The BBC claims the central ground, ignoring the fact that the centre has moved so far to the right in recent decades that it is now what Tariq Ali rightly calls the ‘extreme centre’.

I witnessed both an abrogation of moral duty by claiming the halo of ‘impartiality’ and a barely concealed contempt for the general public.3 In short, I witnessed how the spectacle was constructed and maintained in contemporary Britain today.

The revolution will not be televised

During the panel I held my tongue. I longed to tell them that if they were going to sit on the fence that hard any longer then I hoped they’d get splinters up their arses! I was also reminded of a great quote attributed to Dante: ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.’

Dante

The panel was supposed to be about the Scottish Referendum – an event in which ordinary people, by coming together and getting involved in dialogue and political organisation (i.e. democratic communication), took on the whole united political and media machine that is the spectacle and nearly won! In two hours of debate, only one panelist made brief reference to this electrifying political resurgence. There is, my friends, only one conclusion to draw: that, in the words of the great Gil Scott Heron, ‘the revolution will not be televised’!

 

 

1Here, Debord follows Karl Marx by identifying the commodity as the foundation of capitalist society. In capitalism, goods and services are produced not primarily because of their use-value, i.e. because people find them useful (although they still do need to be useful or, at least, be thought to be useful), but because of their exchange-value, i.e. because they can be sold in a market for profit (a.k.a ‘surplus-value’ which derives from workers’ labour-power). So, what Debord is saying is basically that this practice and logic of commodity production and exchange, i.e. of the market, has penetrated virtually all areas of human life.

2I put neutral in speech marks, because I believe that no one is ever neutral and that claiming neutrality is a central strategy for hiding ideology and power.

3Tellingly, in Society of the Spectacle’, Debord highlights the ‘contempt’ that ‘specialists in the power of the spectacle’ are ‘corrupted by’, a contempt that is ‘confirmed by their knowledge of the contemptible man, who the spectator really is’.

Capitalism, Culture, Globalisation, Politics and economics, UK

Newcastle Divided

The English Premier League finished this weekend and one famous old club, Newcastle United, almost found itself relegated from it. Whether they avoided relegation or not, Newcastle United Football Club has fallen a long way down. I’m no ‘Geordie’, but I have an immense respect for the people of this great city, their history, and their passion for football. The story of Newcastle United’s demise is a story of how the very fabric of society has been torn apart in late globalised capitalism. It is the story of the denial and denigration of community. This is why it’s such an important story to try to tell to a wider audience. This is a blogpost about football, but only as a major institution in British social life and history. So, even if you hate football please do read on…

Globalisation through football shirts

How can we understand something about globalisation by studying football shirts? Well, consider the evolution of the corporate sponsors of Newcastle United’s team shirt from 1980 to 2015. The story begins with this iconic logo worn on team shirts for most years between 1980 and 2000.

Newcastle United NBA shirt

We see a blue star at the heart of which is the silhouette of the Newcastle skyline. The sponsor is Newcastle Brown Ale, a good brew, which was, at the time of its being club sponsor, manufactured locally. Heineken bought out the original brewers in 2008 and, since 2010, the beer has been brewed in Yorkshire instead.

NBA

This Newcastle United shirt represents the old pre-globalisation economy of more local manufacturing generating more stable employment for local people. I am not romanticising this period – it was still based on capitalist private ownership and exploitation and problematic practices of gendered labour. However, crucially, it was also bound up with very strong feelings of personal and collective pride, self-reliance, independence, mutuality, and community.

I skip a couple of seasons when NTL (now Virgin Media) was club sponsor to move your attention to shirt number two…

NUFC Northern Rock shirt

Now we have Northern Rock as the club’s sponsor. Newcastle-based Northern Rock began life in 1965 as a building society created in the merger of two regional building societies established in the 1860s. So, we still have local connections, but we see a distinct shift from manufacturing to finance.

It took just a few short days for this particular ‘rock’ to crash in September 2008 when it was revealed that it was massively exposed to the American sub-prime mortgage crisis. In the ‘credit crunch’ that followed, Northern Rock collapsed after the first run on a British bank for 150 years. The UK government was obliged to step in, guarantee ordinary people’s savings, and take the building society into state ownership.

Northern Rock’s predecessors were ‘mutual’ building societies set up and mutually owned by communities to perform a very simple, but vital intermediary function: they helped ordinary people to save and helped local businesses to start up and to grow. All profits were distributed among their members. The deregulation of finance championed by the Thatcher government of the 1980s changed all that. The vast majority of these building societies ‘demutualised’, i.e. became ‘publicly limited companies’ (PLCs) with shares trading on stock markets. They began to compete nationally and this triggered a process of consolidation with bigger fish swallowing up the smaller ones. Northern Rock itself had bought up 53 smaller building societies before demutualising and becoming a bank, floating on the London Stock Exchange in 1997. These demutualised building societies/banks also moved away from regional or national lending and into the world of speculation on global financial markets. Whereas the benefits of prudent lending were, for decades, enjoyed by their communal owners, today the vast majority of these once proud building societies are extinct. It is really only the largest privatised ones and the few which steadfastly remained mutually owned that remain.

Oh, and what happened to Matt Ridley, Northern Rock’s chairman at the time of its downfall? Well, in 2013, Matt Ridley was made ‘The Right Honourable The Viscount Ridley’, serving the Conservative Party in the House of Lords…

On to Newcastle United shirt number three – Virgin Money…

NUFC Branson Virgin Money

Oh, Richard Branson, that serial carpetbagger! When the Labour British government nationalised Northern Rock in 2008 for £1.4 billion, it took all of the building society’s ‘bad’ loans, i.e. those loans or investments which were not going to be repaid in the foreseeable future or ever, and kept those and then sold off the cleaned up Northern Rock to Branson in a shamefully cut-price deal worth ultimately around £900 million! So, then, in the season 2012-3, Newcastle’s fans had to stump up £40 or so for the pleasure of sporting Virgin Money on their chest. But it gets even worse, way worse in fact. Check out shirt number four…

NUFC Wonga shirt

Since 2013, it has been this company, Wonga, that has ‘graced’ the Geordie chest. For most of human history, in most societies, the practice of ‘usury’ – charging interest on lending money – has been either strictly circumscribed or outright prohibited. In the UK today, the exploitation of desperate poor people through short-term ‘payday’ lending at rates often exceeding 1000% per annum is perfectly legal.

When Newcastle United’s new owner, Mike Ashley, announced the sponsorship deal, the leader of Newcastle City Council described feeling ‘appalled and sickened’ at the Club’s decision. Local MP Chi Onwurah summed it up succinctly: ‘Some of the richest young men in Newcastle to wear shirts calling on the poorest to go to a legal loan shark.’

Economic globalisation and its social consequences

That brief jaunt through the football shirts of Newcastle United tells us much about the contemporary capitalist economy. We journey from local production to local high finance and then to global financial collapse. Now, on the other side of that collapse, what do we see? Rather than revival, we see parasitism: state parasitism in the form of Virgin Money and social parasitism in the form of Wonga. We also see the decline of the British economy in the figure of Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley. Ashley, a billionaire, owns Sports Direct, which employs British people on very low wages and often ‘zero hour’ conditions to sell low-end Chinese leisure manufactures in depressing retail park outlets. Newcastle United represents a perfect cycle of parasitism: Fans get paid sub-living wage money from Ashley (and others), leading them to borrow desperately from Wonga to find the money to worship at the shrine of St James’ Park (Newcastle’s stadium). Ashley at one time even changed the name of this temple of football to ‘Sports Direct Stadium’, but finally bowed to public pressure and reversed his decision.

The shirts also point to a deeper social crisis behind this economic story – a story not just of poverty and exploitation, but of a process of deindustrialisation and of the commercialisation of football that has ripped the heart and soul out of football and the communities it brought together. This is true not just in Newcastle, but in towns and cities right across the UK.

Mes que un club

Mes que un club!

In the Camp Nou stadium, home of Barcelona FC, the seats in one of the stands spell out the words ‘Mes Que Un Club’ (more than a club). This famous slogan refers to the Club as an institution at the heart of Catalonian history and, therefore, as an emblem of Catalonians’ struggle for independence and social justice.

The phrase ‘more than a club’ might have particular resonance for Barcelona, but actually every football club is ‘mes que un club’. Newcastle United is mes que un club. Southend United is mes que un club. Torquay United is mes que un club. Why? Because these clubs, like the building societies that were also destroyed in the name of greed, were founded and built up by ordinary working people and have brought people together as communities for decades. All of this has been thrown on the altar of profit and as football has globalised we now have the perverse and disgraceful situation of the ‘people’s game’ being owned, and ‘the people’ bled dry, by a collection of the dodgiest oligarchs, emirs, bankers, and sweatshop-owners in the world.

In a climate of deep-rooted enmity between rival fans, it is hard to imagine football fans coming together to win back their beloved game. But, there are some signs of unity. ‘The mythology of power that the rich propagate can only be sustained by the dreams of the poor’ wrote David McNally. We can only hope that football fans stop dreaming that an oligarch will come and buy their club and instead start dreaming collective dreams – of collective protest, of collective power, of collective ownership. Football fans of the world unite!

Democracy, Elections, Housing, Ideology, Politics and economics, UK

Deconstructing and (Re?)constructing Democracy Part Two

Post Two: The wider power inequalities undermining democratic politics in the UK

This is the second of a three-part blog about deconstructing and (re?)constructing democracy in the UK. In my previous post, I set out to deconstruct UK democracy by showing just how undemocratic our political system. I tried to show how undemocratic our electoral system, party system, and legislative bodies are, and argued that the UK’s system should be considered a polyarchy rather than a democracy. In this second post, I take aim at the wider social context, revealing the extreme concentrations of land, wealth, and what I will call ‘symbolic power’ shaping our society and rendering economic democracy and social justice an increasingly distant dream. However, there is much cause for hope for the future. In the final post, I will report back from a public participatory event I am running at the West Oxford Community Centre (at 7.30pm on Weds, 6th May) where hopefully local people will come together to discuss ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how can we start to build it?’ So, going beyond the immediate political system now, we need to also consider the broader power dynamics that render the UK increasingly unequal and undemocratic.

(1) Land and housing

There is perhaps nothing more fundamental to human society than the land we live on. Gradually over centuries, through the process of what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’ and what David Harvey has called a continued process of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ – the ‘enclosures’ in England, the ‘clearances’ in Scotland – what has emerged is a preposterously unequal system of land ownership. In the UK, it is estimated that around 6,000 families own as much as two-thirds of our land.

Who owns all the land?

To give an example of landed interest and political power, consider the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP is massive – around 55billion or 43% of the EU’s total budget! Under the CAP, farmers receive subsidies paid per hectare of land. Huge UK landowners are benefiting to the tune of millions each year. Many of these Lords may well be anti-European, but will they also push to end their CAP subsidies?

CAP subsidies to rich

What about housing? We have one hell of a housing crisis at present. Landlords are raking it in! In Oxford, some individuals own over one hundred properties. They don’t need much capital because the banks will lend them much more since the rents more than cover the mortgage payments. The situation is fundamentally one of demand hugely outstripping supply. Linking it back to our political system, in the House of Commons, whereas only around 1% of all UK citizens are landlords, almost 25% of MPs are landlords!

% of MP landlords

In all the furore about housing and the dangers of immigration into an overcrowded Britain, when do we ever hear about the obscene concentration of land and now housing by the superrich, most of whom have direct or indirect political power? Very rarely is the answer. Unsurprisingly, the only party advocating policies to tax land, scrap Right to Buy, and build large numbers of social housing is the one major English party not funded by wealthy, land and property-owning donors – the Green Party.

(2) Financial power

The other day, I was wiping my three year-old son’s backside when he suddenly took offence to my sullied hand being in close proximity to his body! This is quite analogous to what we have collectively experienced in recent years. The financial capitalists made the mess (2008 Financial Crisis); our ruling class told us to clean up the mess (austerity/cuts); and then used the media to cast those cleaning it up as lazy parasites (‘shirkers’, ‘scroungers’). Of course, at the same time, they have encouraged us all, in turn, to pass the shit downwards onto economic migrants and refugees.

Such a phenomenon could only be achievable in a society in which financial and economic power was incredibly concentrated. And this, indeed, is the situation we have. Scandal after scandal has emerged in recent years: sub-prime mortgage bundling; LIBOR-rigging; PPI-misselling; and, the one yet to be fully exposed, hugely inflated money management fees. The City of London is a gargantuan parasite, sucking money and life itself from us all. And, yet, the bankers keep getting bigger bonuses; our government defends it against calls for bonus caps; and Quantitative Easing has made the richest people in our country, in the world, twice as rich again in just the past few years.

Unsurprisingly, again, we see how leading financial figures are the major donors to the Conservative Party, and some also support the Labour Party. We see how key financial figures are knighted or appointed as party-loyal Lords. We see how the state bodies designed to regulate and constrain the power of financial and other forms of capital have been captured by financial and other corporate interests. The most obvious example here is the HMRC (UK tax-collection agency)…

(3) Supra-democratic power

The terrifying domination of financial capital’s power goes way beyond direct relations of personal influence, political positions, or state capture. More fundamentally and perniciously, we are enslaved by the financial markets themselves. In our society, the term ‘the markets’ is presented as some almost autonomous, naturalised, all-powerful deity. This god-figure sets the very parameters of the possible – the doable, the thinkable – and governments or political figures deign to cross it expose themselves to its venomous wrath. When ‘the markets’ attacks national sovereign bond interest rates or currencies, it has very material consequences for ordinary people, making or breaking economies and, by extension, human lives. Yet, ‘the markets’ is totally supra-democratic. It sits above our political system, suffocating our political sovereignty and our political imaginations. We are beholden to the God of the Markets. Think of it like this…

When governments issue bonds in order to borrow on international capital markets they effectively make promises to those who buy their bonds, saying ‘I promise to pay you the bond-holder £x plus a certain amount of interest after x years’. When political parties run for elections they also make promises to citizens, saying ‘if you vote for us, we will do x and y’. We have financial promises to bond-holders and political promises to voters. What demonstrates the unambiguous superior power of ‘the markets’, of finance capital is that, while political promises to us the citizens are routinely broken, financial promises to bond-holders are considered sacrosanct. The Markets 1 Democracy 0!1

Bankers bonuses historical

Recently, Russell Brand has declared his faith in Ed Miliband, expressing his belief that Ed will ‘listen to us’. Call me a cynic, but I suspect if Ed gets into No.10 then his democratic promises to listen to us will soon be cast aside after just one significant FTSE100 slide or fall in the Pound’s exchange rate or yield on Gilts (UK government bonds). Then ‘The Markets’ will assert its supra-democratic power in no uncertain terms and Ed, pushed by the Party’s Blairite right, will largely capitulate. Hope I’m wrong!

I want to cover just one further insidiously powerful form of extra-democratic power: that of the free-trade international treaty. How many of you reading this have heard of ‘TTIP’ (Transatlantic Treaty on International Property)? Well, TTIP is being pushed through largely surreptiously and extra-democratically and is being spuriously sold as a catalyst for huge growth in trade and jobs. In reality, it constitutes yet another brick in the anti/supra-democratic wall that has been constructed over recent decades as part of the ‘globalisation’ project. The economically devastating reality of global free trade is well documented: think deindustrialisation in Europe and North America and the devastation of emerging infant industries in many parts of the Third World. However, as free trade principles have become secured in international trade law (while rich countries themselves systematically flout them), the focus of these treaties has moved on to protecting intellectual property, essentially stifling innovation by prolonging patent lives and allowing multi-national corporations to colonise human (i.e. collective) knowledge and even natural entities. So, soon after our so-called ‘democratic’ electoral process is over, further swathes of our economic sovereignty will be put beyond our political control by the passing of TTIP. Very few people realise, alas, that this is happening. Put simply, TTIP is about pushing more power for corporations, weaker environmental regulations, and weaker rights for workers.

The Conservatives, UKIP, and Labour talk about national sovereignty with regard to the influx of poor people. They might mention the supra-democratic nature of much of the EU or, more specifically, the European Commission, but they say virtually nothing of the systematic removal of sovereignty over key things like industrial, trade, and scientific policy – areas that hold the key to potentially reviving our economy and society. They say nothing because the elites that run these parties support and push through these developments for the benefit of their backers.

(4) Symbolic power

By now you’re probably thinking something like ‘how the hell can they get away with this?’ One key way to respond is to use a concept of power that goes way beyond a crude notion of using force to make people do things. That is not power; that is violence. That cannot last long. Yes, power is fundamentally about material relations, but it is equally necessary for those with material power to make others believe that the world they experience is actually just and, even better, totally natural and unchangeable. Power is, therefore, about producing ideology – a coherent world-view of the nature of reality, society, human beings, and their motives – and inculcating that through all of a society’s institutions of cultural production and reproduction i.e. the media, the arts, schools, universities, within communities and families, and even within our own minds and bodies themselves. The ‘hegemonic’ position of what is called ‘neo-liberalism’ has been constructed, developed, enforced, imposed, disseminated over decades through all these social institutions and more.

It was the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who coined the phrase ‘symbolic power’ to describe the social power to make meaning, to shape reality itself, through words, symbols, and images in our society. When we try to use this concept to ask ‘Who has the symbolic power in our society today?’, we begin to see the power of a media industry controlled by a small super-wealthy global elite dominating output; we see a global network of ‘independent’ think-tanks and foundations set up with MNCs and US state funds in order to promote neoliberal ideology and educate and support subsequent generations of elites; we see the power to set school and university course curricula set by the same elites. All of this has drastically curtailed the space for critique and alternative ideological visions in our society. It is not always so straight-forwardly sinister. We imbibe this ideology. It becomes our natural reality to the extent that we cannot even see it. It is the air we breathe. We ourselves invariably and inadvertently reproduce it when we make art, write, even speak. From this perspective, power is also not just imposed from above, but it also flows through us. We aren’t just objects of power; we are its subjects too. This insight comes primarily from the work of French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault

The first step to winning our democracy

I’ve gone on too long and covered too little. I’m kind of ashamed that I’ve not even covered institutions or structures that preserve male, white, heterosexual structures of dominance and privilege. I will address this in a future post. I’m sure I’ve also omitted other ‘supra-democratic’ institutions too. Forgive me…

So, what’s the first step to winning our democracy? I guess it’s simply this: to stick two fingers right up at Margaret Thatcher and her ‘TINA’ (There is No Alternative) doctrine. There are infinite alternatives and the only limits to these alternatives are our collective imagination and determination. This involves recognising that the world runs the way it does for political, not natural, reasons and that we can change things, radically for the better. So many people already have begun!

So, on to tomorrow evening’s event and a chance, hopefully, to experience the raw excitement one feels when human beings come together to speak, to share, to act – to experience the thrill of real democracy.

Thanks for reading!

Joel

1This is a point highlighted by David Graeber.

Education/learning, Housing, Politics and economics, UK

Audioboom of session on housing with Prof Danny Dorling and My Life My Choice

Dear all,

Just a quick one. I run a political economy (power & money!) learning group alongside my friend Luisa with the wonderful people at My Life My Choice (MLMC). MLMC is a self-advocacy organisation run for and by people with learning disabilities. A really inspiring group!
We’ve been working together over the past couple of months on the election and we’ve been covering different issues in recent weeks.

On Monday, we were privileged to host Prof Danny Dorling who’s a Professor of Geography at Oxford University and has written extensively on inequality and housing. Danny worked with us on the issue of housing. There’s a terrible housing crisis in the UK and nowhere is worse hit than Oxford.

MLMC and Danny Dorling Whiteboard on housing 2Whiteboard on housing
Check out this audioboom to learn about the nature of the crisis, its root causes, and what can be done to remedy the problems that are blighting the lives of so many.

Housing and people with learning difficulties

Thanks

Joel

Democracy, Elections, Politics and economics, UK

Deconstructing and (re?)constructing democracy

So, it’s election time again here in the UK; that solitary period every half-decade during which this country’s political elite has to actually somewhat engage directly with ordinary people and we, for our part, are asked to actually participate directly in the political process. Though it must be noted that many individual MPs do work hard with and for their constituents, it is still clear there now exists a sheer chasm between us and our political parties and their leaders. How many of us can really claim any affinity with David Cameron the born-to-rule Etonian; with Ed Milibot the North London chameleon; with Nick Clegg the posh car salesman; or with Nigel Farage, Enoch Powell and Kermit the Frog’s lovechild cum City banker ‘outsider’? And beyond leaders, we are confronted by a set of parties all (with the exception of one) offering ‘realist’ visions of a bleak, austere, indebted future, all telling us who not to vote for…

It is, therefore, unsurprising that an increasing number of citizens have decided that even ticking a box every five years is pointless for them. They have disengaged with their ‘representative’ political system entirely. With the notable exception of some (primarily Latin American) countries, this trend of disaffection and disengagement is echoed pretty much worldwide. Here’s the trend among some of the world’s wealthiest nations….

Democratic disillusion

From negative to positive

I too caught a powerful dose of disillusionment and disempowerment when I attended my local ‘hustings’ recently to hear the seven local candidates speak. 200 people crammed into a church speaks of some kind of enthusiasm, but what followed was, for me, crushing. Pre-selected (presumably vetted) questions emailed in; negligible mentions of poverty, inequality, environment; the vast majority of the crowd having to sit in silence for two hours, able to express themselves only through the medium of hand-clapping.

‘What a wonderfully high quality debate conducted by such high quality candidates!’ chirruped the vicar chairing the event at the end. It felt like one of those moments, vital within an unjust society, in which we all came together to publicly retell ourselves the comforting lies upon which this violent system functions. It left me feeling angry and I ended up expressing myself quite violently before I realised I had to try to turn this negative into a positive. Therefore, I have decided to run a participatory public event called ‘What would a real democracy be like? And how do we start to build it?’ It’s going to be at the West Oxford Community Centre at 7.30pm on Weds, 6th May. Please publicise and come along if you are nearby.

What would a real democracy be like?

From deconstruction to re(?)construction

In a series of posts, I want to first deconstruct our current political system. I will try to show why this system can no longer seriously be called ‘democratic’. I will start in this post with a more narrow focus on political democracy, i.e. on the country’s political institutions themselves – the electoral system, the party system, and the legislative bodies (Houses of Commons and Lords). In a second post, I will widen the scope by considering the extreme inequalities of land, wealth, and power that render economic democracy or social democracy (i.e. social justice) an impossibility in the UK today. Finally, in a third post, I will report back from the public event I’m running, letting you know what was discussed and decided. So, on with the show…

Post 1: Political non-democracy

It’s a timely and worthwhile exercise to list the factors that reveal just how undemocratic our political system is. So, here, good voters of the UK and friends beyond, is just such a list. It is surely far from comprehensive. Please feel free to add to it or to critique the factors I’ve included…

(1) Political party membership

As of January 2015, the membership of the UK’s three main political parties was at ‘a historic low’ – The Conservative Party has just 150,000 members; The Labour Party has 190,000; the Liberal Democrats have just 44,000. We have seen recent significant rises in memberships in the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Green Party, but it remains the stark fact that fewer than 1% of people in the UK today are members of a political party! Furthermore, the few citizens who are members are ‘more likely to be male than the electorate in general, more likely to be retired, to hold either professional or managerial occupational status and to earn over £40,000 per annum’.1 So, in short, (though the Green Party surge holds promise) we’re voting for parties who no one apart from old wealthier white men give much of a toss about. We could perhaps call them ‘zombie parties’!!

party identification trends

Party membership levels historical

(2) The ‘Westminster’ electoral system

Oh how we love to sing ourselves to sleep with our own platitudes, one such being that ‘Westminster is the mother of all parliaments’. The only possible truth behind that claim is that our political elites have long known how to rig a system to successfully maintain the status quo and they have certainly been keen to teach others how to do the same. Or it could be the use of the word ‘mother’ in the same sense as it is used in phrases such as ‘the mother of all stitch-ups’!

More formally known as the ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) system, the UK electoral system is divided into 650 constituencies in which local voters choose their preferred candidate to represent them as their Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons. Each party is aiming for a winning total of at least 326 MPs in order to form a government with the majority required to put through its planned agenda.

This system is fundamentally undemocratic in various ways. First, MPs can get elected on very small amounts of public support. Second, not each vote carries the same weight. If you are a Labour voter living in a rural Conservative constituency, your vote effectively counts for nothing. What we will probably see in this election, for example, is that the Green Party will get a similar amount of votes than the LibDems but will get ten times fewer MPs! Third, we therefore get the depressing debacle of tactical voting: rather than positively voting for something or someone, people are reduced to feeling compelled to vote for the lesser of two evils in order to stop the person or party they definitely don’t want from winning. The greater the call by the main parties for tactical voting, the clearer the slow demise of this system becomes. They can offer no positive vision, but instead are reduced to trying to scare us into voting against their opponent. Fourth, this in turn has historically blocked smaller parties from seriously competing. However, the era of comfortable stagnation of two/three-party politics seems now irredeemably over with other parties now set to take a great number of votes, and a far smaller but still significant number of seats, from the big parties. In Scotland, of course, the SNP is set to all but destroy Labour right across the country. Fifth, the FTFP system actually disincentivises parties from even bothering to campaign in whole areas of the country they deem unwinnable, thus severely diminishing any real electoral contestation in many places.

(3) An undemocratic and corrupt House of Commons

Beyond this undemocratic electoral system lies an increasingly undemocratic House of Commons in which debates are all too often insufficiently brief and superficial; ‘whipped’ MPs tow party lines; and ‘backbench’ (i.e. non-ministerial/shadow ministerial) MPs face minimal opportunities to influence parliamentary business. We see an increasingly narrow demographic among MPs, a broad, long-term trend away from working class people toward wealthy businessmen and a professional political caste. After the last election, only 25 MPs had ever been manual workers – a 75% drop since 1979! – while over four times that number (107) had only ever worked in politics! Over a third of MPs were privately educated, though only 7% of the population go to private schools.

Beyond the obvious rightward ideological shift this has facilitated, we’ve also seen the rise of legalised corruption, a.k.a lobbying, and the growing capture of our parliament and parliamentarians by big business. The most egregious example of this relates to the National Health Service (NHS). An overwhelming amount of people in the UK oppose its privatisation. Yet, we have experienced its surreptitious piecemeal privatisation implemented by Tory and Labour governments alike. Over 200 parliamentarians (MPs and Lords) who voted to pass the malign 2012 Health and Social Care Bill had past or present financial links to the private healthcare companies which were to benefit from the Bill. The links between the health minister who pushed the Bill through, Andrew Lansley, and the industry are numerous.

Finally, lest we forget the 2009 MPs expenses scandal. The same MPs who now rally against the supposedly greedy and cheating poor milking the benefits systems were themselves exposed as profiteering in a truly shameless fashion from the parliamentary expenses system. Despite widespread systemic abuse, only eight parliamentarians were actually found guilty of criminal charges. MPs who stole luxury items via expense claims faced few sanctions. In stark contrast, youngsters who looted lesser items in the summer riots of 2011 faced stern prison sentences.

(4) House of Lords and the royal family

Then we get to the House of Lords, a 783-strong crew of largely unelected cronies – a mixture of religious leaders, former parliamentarians, party donors, old boy chums, and, (yes, still in the 21st Century!) hereditary peers – who collectively hold the power of scrutinising (i.e. strongly influencing) parliamentary legislation. The conservative right-wing bias within this privileged establishment is stark. The House of Lords is a ridiculous undemocratic anachronism topped only by the royal family.

The claim, of course, is that the royal family is ‘above politics’ and the Queen a mere figurehead. Yet, the old girl gets a private weekly meeting with the Prime Minister and, as has just been revealed in letters he tried to block from publication, the King-in-waiting Prince Charles intervenes politically by sending regular letters to senior political figures. But, the royal family is not just politically influential. As an institution it represents the very antithesis of the fundamental principle of democracy – its members enjoy disproportionate political power as a mere consequence of birth. Needless to say, their politics are deeply conservative and reactionary.

Democracy? You’re having a laugh!

So, all in all, we’re faced with a political system laughingly described as a democracy, but perhaps best described as what Robert Dahl famously called a ‘polyarchy’ – a system in which competing sets of elites vie for control of state power. In recent years, even this inter-elite competition has begun to break down with increasingly indistinguishable personnel, policies, practices, and partnerships. No wonder so many people feel disillusioned, disempowerment, and ultimately decide to disengage.

So, that’s the case against the UK as political democracy. In the next post, I’ll consider the broader socio-economic, gender, and racial dimensions to reveal conditions of extreme inequality that systematically undermine democratic possibilities.

1House of Commons Library, Membership of UK Political Parties, January 2015, p.2. http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/briefing-papers/SN05125/membership-of-uk-political-parties

Capitalism, Culture, Education, Ideology, Marxism, Politics and economics, UK

The ‘FIMO’ Phenomenon

Serendipity in plasticine

I was at my friend and neighbour’s house one afternoon after school recently. I have three kids, she has four. It was lively. They were all playing with this nice plasticine called ‘Fimo’. I’d never heard of it, but apparently it’s what the Aardman people use to create Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit, etc.

I remarked to my friend that ‘Fimo’ sounded like one of those contemporary socio-economic demographic acronyms like ‘DINKIES’ (Double Income No Kids) or ‘NEETS’ (No Education, Employment, or Training). Thus, the challenge was on: to come up with an acronym for ‘FIMO’! As it happens, it didn’t take too long at all. We soon cracked it. Therefore, dear readers of this blog, I am proud to give you the Agent of History contribution to the world of acronyms. Do a drum roll in yer heads as I give you…

FIMO – Financially Ignorant, Money Oriented!

What better phrase to sum up your average Brit!? That’s what we all are, right: financially ignorant but money oriented? Allow me to explain…

The case for FIMO

To make the case for FIMO as a germane acronym for contemporary Britain (and beyond), I think we need to answer three questions and see if these answers apply to the current British cultural-political-economic situation:

  1. What behaviour would we expect to see from FIMOs?;

  2. What kind of macroeconomic outcomes would FIMO behaviour generate?; and

  3. Where did FIMOs come from? (or Who made us FIMOs?)

(1) FIMO behaviour

The clue is pretty clearly in the title here. FIMOs are money oriented. They, therefore, spend their lives trying their damnedest to get their hands (earn, beg, borrow, steal) on money. Yet, they are financially ignorant which suggests a propensity to spend it rather than to save it, and even to borrow it up to and perhaps far beyond a point of financial viability. Financial ignorance also expresses a deeper sense of not understanding the financial system that has such a big impact on their lives.

(2) The macroeconomics of FIMO-ism

So, what we’re looking for in the UK as evidence of FIMO behaviour on a society-wide (macro) level would be indicators like large rises in consumer spending fuelled by either corresponding rises in income (primarily wages) or, failing that, by large rises in private indebtedness (mortgages, secured and unsecured personal loans, credit card debt, etc) and/or large falls in rates of household savings. In plain English, we’re looking for evidence of a society spending lots of money because they’re earning lots more, but still spending lots even if they’re not by eating into their savings and/or racking up lots of personal debt. So, what do we see? First, here’s the evidence that British people have been spending consistently more over recent decades…

consumer spending to GDP

This chart, taken from World Bank data, shows that consumer spending as a percentage of GDP (the total value of goods and services produced annually) has been rising pretty consistently since the late 1970s, stabilising at around 65% from the late 1990s. This means that we now spend over £1trillion each year on everything: essentials, luxuries, frivolities.

So, are we spending more because we’re earning more? For the vast majority of us, the answer is a clear ‘no’. Workers enjoyed a modest but growing share of economic growth in the form of wages until the late 1970s. Since then, the trend has been downwards. We’ve benefitted increasingly less from any economic growth. In the same period, executive pay has soared. The median pay of a FTSE 350 company director trebled between 2000 and 2013! This in no way correlates with these companies’ performances over the same period.

wages to gdp

Furthermore, since the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and subsequent continued depression, real wages (wages accounting for changes in inflation) have plummeted more than any comparable period in history.

wages fall biggest in history

Though the Government may claim credit for recent revivals, real wages are only now finally growing modestly again due to (probably worryingly) huge falls in inflation, driven largely by the plummeting world oil price. Though the government crows about sustained falls in unemployment, this has largely been the outcome of a combination of workers staying in jobs on frozen or reduced wages; moving to lower skilled jobs; moving into precarious, low-paid (often ‘zero hours’), low productivity self-employment; or even leaving the formal job market altogether. We are seeing a qualitative downgrade of and systemic underemployment in the UK economy.

So, if we’re not earning any more of it, what’s been driving the sustained rise in consumer spending? Well, take a look at this historical chart on levels of private debt…

debt boom

What we see is a debt explosion, including a doubling of household debt as percentage of GDP (note the staggering boom in financial sector leveraging compared to the generally stable level of government debt, spiking only after the bank bailouts of 2009). If we take the timescale out even further, we can clearly see that, while household debt grew steadily from the 1960s, it has exploded since the early 1980s.

debt boom historical

At the same time, savings rates in the UK plummeted from a high of 12% of income in the late 1970s to just 2% on the eve of the Great Crash in 2008.

household savings

All this has made the UK the indisputable debt king of the First World!

g10 debt

So, people spending more and more, earning less and less, saving less and less, and borrowing more and more. And I haven’t even covered the housing bubble fuelling much of this nor the deteriorating quality of these loans, i.e. a notable shift from secured to unsecured lending. Credit card debt has trebled to £56bn since 1998! Sounds like a surefire bunch of FIMOs if you ask me! (Not sure what the appropriate collective noun for FIMOs is. Possibly a ‘misery’!) But, hold on! If you’re reading this outside of the United Kingdom of FIMO-land, you’re also likely to be facing a similar situation. Indeed, global debt to GDP has increased by a further $57 trillion in the past seven years alone, reaching 286%!

global debt growing

So, we’re talking perhaps not just about FIMO-land, but FIMO-world!

(3) Understanding FIMO-ization

What these historical charts show us is that we weren’t always FIMOs. There was another time – not the romantic ‘Golden Age’ posited by some, but still a better time – when we earned more, worked less, spent less, and saved more. How can we explain this shift?

The neo-liberal orthodoxy that dominates our culture tells that there is no society, just individuals taking individual decisions and needing to take individual responsibility for these decisions. If we get into debt then there is no social explanation beyond individual irresponsibility. If that’s the case then the only explanation to what we’re seeing here would be some kind of devastating virus inducing a FIMO pandemic since the late 1970s. I’m not buying that. We are confronted by clear patterns of structural change in our economy and our collective socio-economic behaviour. We need a structural explanation. Here’s one…

Capitalism and FIMO-ism

Capitalism is a profit-oriented system. What are produced in a capitalist system in order to generate these profits are commodities. Commodities have to have a use-value, i.e. be something that people want to use in some way (though these wants can be manufactured), and an exchange-value, i.e. be saleable for money in order to realise the profit. The unique and perverse thing about capitalism is that use-value is always subordinate to exchange-value – things aren’t produced because they are socially necessary, they are produced because they can generate profit. Use-value is just instrumentalised in the generation of profit.

In turn, what is called ‘profit’ by the capitalists and bourgeois economists is cast as a technical return on capital – the capitalist’s fair share as reward for enterprise and risk – alongside wages for workers and rent for landlords. In reality, profit is actually the surplus value produced by paying workers far less than the total value of the commodities they produce. This reality is easily hidden because profit seems superficially to be realised in the marketplace of supply and demand. However, when we see how bosses and workers struggle incessantly over the conditions of work – hours, holidays, benefits, pensions, safety, wider taxation and regulation, etc – we can readily recognise that something fundamental regarding profit/surplus-value, i.e. something fundamentally political, takes place within and beyond the workplace itself. Furthermore, when we consider all that work undertaken (predominantly by women) within the household and community required to reproduce the bodies and souls that capitalism needs for its workforce and when we consider the resources that Nature must surrender to the capitalist production process, we see again clearly that ‘profit’ just doesn’t cut it. What is going on is not technical, nor purely economic, but political and deeply social.

This is a crucial starting point for understanding the rise of the FIMO. Remember that capitalism is fundamentally about the pursuit and maximisation of profit i.e. surplus-value. Therefore, let’s start our explanation by looking at the rate of profit that UK corporations have enjoyed since the 1940s. I’m no economist, but I understand that these are derived by dividing corporations’ net operating surpluses by their net stock of fixed assets.

UK rop

Don’t worry about the two separate measures. Just check out the trend – the very high rate of profit in the early post-war era gradually falling until we hit the crisis of the 1970s. After the late 1970s, we see a small revival that actually leads to a prolonged stagnation.

One main factor behind the falling rate of profit is when workers organise into effective trade unions which win higher wages, benefits, pensions and also higher general levels of taxation. This was the case throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. This led to the profit crisis of the 1970s and heralded a political counter-revolution of the ruling class that crystallised in the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. This Thatcherite or ‘neo-liberal’ project that revved up into full swing by the mid-1980s was an unmistakeable political project to restore profitability and class power. Thus, we saw: the attack on the trade unions; the dramatic reduction in and regressive redistribution through taxation (i.e. huge cuts in taxes on rental and capital gains income, rises in V.A.T); mass privatisations; the gradual roll back of the welfare state; de-industrialisation as corporations merged into multi-nationals and transferred production away from the UK into low-wage Third World sites; the sell-off of council housing, a slump in new builds, and the deregulation of the mortgage market; and the deregulation and mass expansion of financial markets.

Alongside all these huge structural shifts came an accompanying cultural narrative: rewards for the hard-working, for the entrepreneurial; the end to the something-for-nothing culture; the end of society and community, the rise of the individual; aspiration, ownership, and consumption; Credit macht frei. This was necessary because, regardless of whether wages are rising or not, capitalists still produce ever more commodities in pursuit of ever-growing profits. This means that falling incomes had to be supplemented by growing debts.1 It was in this environment – in an economic environment of rising unemployment, stagnating wages, and burgeoning credit, and in a cultural environment relentlessly promoting consumerism and individualism – that the FIMO was born. We are all creations of these cultural-political-economic conditions.

(4) Beyond FIMO-ism

This capitalist structural explanation for FIMO-ization is a simplistic one, but I think it’s powerful. It helps us begin to overcome the extreme individualisation of neo-liberal society – to recognise that we might not be as free as we’re constantly told. The danger is, of course, that we go the other way towards a crude and false determinism that posits us as hollow pawns in a game not of our making or control. This would be a grave mistake. We are all human beings with a great potential for learning, for changing, for freedom. Nelson Mandela, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and many others have shown us that we can find mental freedom within a prison cell, but they have also shown us that, beyond the individual, we can only win greater, potentially total, freedom by coming together with many others in political struggle.

The first step beyond FIMO-ism is to begin to understand our financial system, its place in the wider political-economic system, and our place within that. That won’t itself pay off our debts, but it might lead us to question whether simply working harder, saving more, or just borrowing more will win us the freedom and happiness we all desire. It certainly challenges the notion that immigrants are to blame for our plight.

Instead, we might begin to think that what is really required is a political campaign of a more radical kind – for the public ownership and control of banks; for the end to financial markets created for speculation and gambling, especially those gambling on the price of vital basic food commodities; for the removal of all costs for further and higher education; for the universalisation of living wages and, indeed, of a basic income guaranteed for all; for the renationalisation of all privatised industries; and for the eventual control of all enterprises by workers themselves, for without this last revolutionary political victory we cannot win the rest.

We are now in a situation in which almost all of us are FIMOs reeling from debts that, realistically, can never be fully paid. The youngest among us are suffering the most. Indebtedness accompanied by a discourse of individual ‘responsibilisation’ creates lives lived in fear, anxiety, and self-loathing. It may reduce us usefully to ignorant, unquestioning, pliant subjects, but it is no foundation for democracy. Furthermore, when indebtedness reaches unmanageable levels – levels that constrain the very reproduction of the system itself, levels that generate endemic levels of stress and mental illness, levels of falling living standards and rising poverty and homelessness – history clearly tells us that societies in these situations experience revolution or collapse.2 The history of the previous century shows us that profound capitalist crisis can be either resolved through socialism or revived ultimately through barbarism.3

I propose that the society of FIMOs is a profoundly unhappy, unfree, and unstable place. I also propose that the very fact that people are readily classified into demographic acronyms is suggestive of this unfreedom. Therefore, rather than proposing a post-capitalist acronymic alternative to the FIMO, I propose that we create a society that liberates us not just from FIMO-ism, but from any economistic constraints on our collective freedom.

Those more regular readers among you might have picked up on the way I end blogs on a note of upbeat utopianism. I do not apologise for this. The more I engage with the reformist agenda, and the more I learn about the parlous state of all areas of our economic life and its consequences, the more I am convinced that the ‘real world’ that we are supposed to live in or ‘get with’ is built on lies and that utopianism is actually realism. Thank you for reading!4

1This is one of many contradictions within the system. No individual capitalist wants to pay higher wages. They either risk losing market share by passing on costs to consumers or face reduced profits. As a class, capitalists seek lower wages too and unite to attack unions and workers generally. However, workers are also consumers, so falling wages means falling demand for commodities.

2See the work of David Graeber and Michael Hudson on this.

3Incidentally, I would place the Soviet experience as one that offered hope of the former but which, perhaps unavoidably, succumbed to the latter.

4By the way, if you don’t think that you or ‘ordinary people’ can understand political economy, well, you just have!