A lifetime ago (actually, it was in July 2019) I posted a kind of invitation on this blog to people who were interested in being part of a discussion in relation to post-church networking for spiritual nomads.
The idea had come from a long running conversation that my mate David and I had been having, for years it seems. Both of us have been very active within ‘Church’, but no longer feel at home within the insitution. Both of us no longer attend ‘church’ but neither did we want to invent another one.
But, he and I, along with some of the best company you could ever keep, have been part of a different kind of community; for years we have been taking these weekend trips to small uninhabited islands, where we alternate between silence and communal profanity. These retreats are not accidental nor insignificant. They have gifted me with part of the depth and substance of the meaning I have found in my life. It was out of this sense of belonging and connection that we began to wonder if there was a way to chart a spiritual journey together with other people.
Both David and I have also come close to becoming ‘post-Christian’. The Christian brand had just become so tarnished. Also, the transformation in our belief systems had led us to a place where codifying faith into a set of dualist tenets and beliefs just did not make sense any more. However, we wanted to honour the best of the traditions we grew from.
So we sent out some invitations, and a number of you expressed an interest. Then nothing else happened. It feels as though I let you down, and for this I am sorry.
I can offer some excuses – a lot of things have happened, both to us and to the world, but for me at least, I think I began to struggle again with the idea that I should ‘lead’ something. I feared a new responsibility arising from the expectations of others, and I doubted my own abilities in the shadow of old insecurities that flare up from time to time.
But that is where friendship matters most. I got a call from David just on the New Year, nudging me once more to think about setting off on a new journey.
It would have to be a small, humble one, because during these times, we are all about staying local. But also, during these times, we are all appreciating more than ever the value of the internet as a means to connect and nurture from distance. Everywhere has become local, virtually at least.
So on Sunday, we tried out a new format- one that is not doubt familiar to many of you already. We set up a zoom call, and split our time into two halves- a ‘contemplative’ part and a conversation part. It was so good to connect with others who are in a similar place, even though geography is not on our side.
Where we go with this remains to be seen, but those of you who were already interested in the post-church thing, watch this space!
This year has been hard for us, as I am sure it has been for many of you.
We make a living through a small creative business, through which we sell ceramic art. In a world where shops/galleries have all but shut and our workshops were all cancelled, we have had to evaluate constantly whether we could still make this work.
Having said all that, would I change my decision to give up my old ‘day job’? Not for one second. I still count my blessings daily – not because my old job was not ‘important’ – I remain grateful to those who still do it – but rather because the way I think about work, and earning a living, has changed entirely.
Some of this has meant embracing periods of feast and famine- in making do with small amounts and enjoying being able to be a more extravagant when we can. None of this has felt like a sacrifice- we have not ‘gone without’. In fact, we do not feel poorer in any way. Quite the opposite in fact.
Michaela has had to learn this lesson again more painfully recently, as after breaking her wrist, she has had to take a holiday from the physical skill of pottery- almost like an enforced sabatical.
We have got by. We are OK.
Another way of living is possible.
After ‘these times’ one of the things that I beleive has to happen is a re-examination of the nature of the contract between employer and employee, but more than that, a re-examination of the nature of work itself in our increasingly post-industrial societies.
I post this in light of this article, discussing a book by Sara Jaffe, whose title I stole for the tag line on this blog.
Sarah Jaffe’s book Work Won’t Love You Back is an extremely timely analysis of how we arrived at these brutal inequalities and of some of the ways in which a deliberately atomised workforce is beginning to organise to challenge them. Through a series of detailed case studies of modern “labourers of love” – the unpaid intern, the overburdened teacher, the 24/7 domestic help, the NGO employee, the fixed-term academic, the discarded Toys R Us worker, the working single mother – Jaffe, a New York-based journalist, examines two of the most damaging philosophies of our times. The first is the idea that we need to get used to a “disrupted” world in which job security and regular hours and living wages are necessarily a thing of the past, quaint, pre-internet relics such as affordable housing and three TV channels; the second, perversely, that work is supposed, more than ever, to bring us pleasure, meaning, fulfilment, that we should be grateful for it and happy in it and if we are not, we are simply not trying hard enough or being “smart” enough. (Or, as she writes: “How dare we ask questions about the way our work is making other people rich while we struggle to pay our rent and see our friends.”)
We live in perhaps the first period in history when the wealthiest members of society make a noisy virtue of never not being at work; weekends and evenings and families are all part of this advertised sacrifice. They never stop, they tell their employees – their staff at work and their staff at home – and they sell the idea that everyone must be equally prepared to do the same. Long gone is what Jaffe calls the “Fordist compromise” of labour in which workers would give up a reasonable amount of time and effort – five eight-hour days of work a week – in return for a pay cheque that was enough for a family to live on, with a bit over to enjoy free time and holidays and a pension at the end of it, what William Morris called “work for hope of rest”.
Imagine being in charge of a whole economy, a whole country, with a mandate to make progressive change in order to solve problems.
Where do you start? At the top, or at the bottom?
What are your priorities?
What guiding principles should underly and inspire?
What new ideas and understandings should be weaponised in the form of actual policy?
Some of my friends will instantly think of the great new dawn of an independant Scotland, and what might be achieved when given the chance to finally do it for ourseves – after all, it seems possible that Nicola Sturgeon will be in exactly this position soon.
Arguably, the energy of the independence movement is driven by a sectarian world view in which one side is good and the other side bad and all problems/issues are seen through this narrow window. This is great for stirring up supporter passion, but it does not necessarily make for good government – consider the role nationalism has played in world history. That is not to say that great good can not emerge from nationalist movements, but it must serve as a warning as we consider the motivations that drive us.
As Bob Dylan once put it (words that seem tailor-made for Trump);
They say that patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings. Steal a little and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot and then they make you king.’
I hope Sturgeon can chart a path through this minefield, for all our sakes. If so, she will have to develop an agenda beyond the reductive and seductive logic of ‘in/out’ and guide her movement beyond sectarian identity politics towards the messy buysiness of government policy. Even before this, her new government will need a different set of principles and guiding ideas to unite around because ‘Scottishness’ is a bubble that may burst on the sharp points of any number of thorny problems, and then all of the questions I asked at the start of this piece will come in to sharp relief.
(I am going to put a note in here for friends who are passionate supporters of Scottish independence. I suspect already you will be feeling defensive, but hold your fire for a moment. )
Biden too now has his majority in both houses and after the madness of Trump, he now has both the opportunity and the responsibility to deliver on behalf of the (perhaps too) broad alliance of Democrat supporters.
Great catoclysmic events, as well as bringing disaster and destruction, often also give opportunity. Think of the new social contract that was formed in postwar UK, and outlined in the magnificent Beveridge Report, which outlined in clear terms the five ‘Giant evils’ that had to be slain in order to rebuild a Britain shattered by war. I was reminded of these by this article by Aditya Chakrabortty.
Consider the list that the report proposed;
Want. The fact that significant proportions of the country did not have enough. A bit like today, when one in 5 Britains do not have enough money to live on. 14 million people. Back in 1942, who could have imagined we would be back here again in 2021?
Disease. Fair and equal access to health care was part of this, but so was a concern that the impact of ill health should not be determined by wealth and social class. As revealed by the Pandemic.
Ignorance. Access to fair and equal education was a huge concern in post war Britain because it was seen as a form of social engineering, in which poor people could finally realise their true potential. We measured this success by looking at class-based outcomes in the education system and strived to alter our education system accordingly. We don’t do this any more. We focus on individual school performance, because it is easier to find individual failures than collective ones.
Squalor. This was about housing. Building housing stock that gave people dignity, a sense of community belonging and in which people were not subject to the whims of slum landlords. A massive social house building programme was followed by both Tory and Labour governments. Consider our current situation. Shelter, the homelessness charity call it a ‘housing emergency’. Money that should be spent on new social housing is in fact being spent buying private emergency homelessness accommodation. This means then that despite the efforts to bring street sleepers ‘inside’ during the pandemic are doing nothing to solve the real problem.
Idleness. Beveridge believed in the redemptive social good of meaningful labour. Work builds communities, instills pride and wellbeing. Work was essentially a contract between employers and employees, one of mutual benefit. Maintaining a fair balance between the two was the business of government and of a unionised, empowered labour force. Whilst the world of economic growthism that predicated this social contract might have brought environmental disaster, it is still worth asking where we are up to with fighting this ‘great evil’. Do we still see work as meaningful? Is the social contract between employers and employees still being valued in the same way? In an age of zero hour contracts and widening gap between the pay of workers and managers?
But this is looking back, at old ideas – which is of course an important lesson, but my original question was what would you do NOW?
What are your priorities?
The guiding rhetoric of the last thirty-plus years has directed the attention of policy makers towards the top, not the bottom, of society. The job of government, or so we were told, was to get out of the way of the wealth creators. In this way, innovation and the white heat of free market entrepenurialism will create prosperity for all. Thatcherism was the hinge, but this was only softened by Blair, and has largely become a ‘common sense’ hegemony across the whole western world.
Any government seeking to set an agenda will begin in this place, because this is guiding narrative of our age. Success, we are told, is about individuals being set free to succeed according to their own skills, hard work and abilities.
The poor are inconvenient to this narrative. As Chakrabortty puts it in his article;
How ingenious are the British! Like the legendary Inuit people who coined 57 words for snow, we have devised a long list of clever aliases for the stuff that dominates everyday life. Know the ones I mean? Try food poverty. Fuel poverty. Child poverty. Clothing poverty. Transport poverty. Period poverty.
These are phrases mouthed in Westminster and plastered across newspapers (which, this week, are discussing “digital poverty”). They help shape the UK in the 21st century. But this ever-growing jungle of subcategories obscures the one true problem they have in common. It is poverty: the condition of not having enough money to live your life.
If your only choice of an evening is between skipping dinner or going to sleep in the cold before waking up in the cold, then you are not carefully selecting between food poverty and fuel poverty, like some expense-account diner havering over the French reds on a wine list. You are simply impoverished.
If you are using a sock as a sanitary towel, the problem lies not in the time of the month but in your lack of income – which doubtless means you’re also not getting enough food or heating. Gas bills might jump or petrol prices soar, but if those things tip you into all-out crisis, that’s because you were already poor.
Poverty cannot be shelved tidily under different classifications, like books in a library. It jabs its tentacles into all parts of your life, distorting and defining everything from how you feel about yourself to whether you live or die in this pandemic.
Back to that question about priorities and ideas…
My contention to anyone who is seeking to make a new start, post pandemic is that we have to start talking about poverty again, both as a national and an international phenomenon.
We have to stop congratulating ourselves for our face-saving sticking plasters, and get to grip with the structural casues of poverty. This is not just for the sake of the poor, but also for our own sakes, and for the sake of the environment because nfettered wealth creation is a sickness on us all and on the planet.
Perhaps by confronting the language of anti-poverty. Those who will tell you (without ever having been close to it) that there is ‘no such thing as poverty’ in the UK. We have to confront those who play the blame-and-divide game, telling us that poverty is about individual choices, rather than arising from multi-factoral complex interactions between psychology, opportunity, and the brutalising effects of deprivation on all levels.
Certainly by reminding ourselves that poverty in about money, or rather the lack of it. Quite simply, if you are worried about how you will pay for basics – accepting that what is ‘basic’ in the UK might be different from other place- then your outlook on the world will be different. Your asperations will be compromised and your resillience in the face of many obstacles that others take in their stride will be impaired.
Whether you are Beveridge, Sturgeon or Biden, in order to pursue any political agenda, you will be confronted by much opposition. Some of this will come from institutional intertia. Change in large scale systems never comes easy, even when there is general agreement about the need for that change. I can testify to this after all those years working within the health and social care system.
But there will be other, much more direct, forces ranked against you. The think tanks. The largely right-wing owned and authored media, which is aligned with the top, not the bottom. The funding streams that subtlely shift policial compromise by a thousand cuts.
Good luck to you as you seek to tackle poverty, my friend. You will need it.
Four years ago, the incoming president Trump read the words of The Beatitudes, from Matthews Gospel, chapter 5, at his inauguration ceremony. Back then this seemed bizarre and inconcongrous, given what we knew about his character and the way he had run his campaign, but we could not imagine just how far he would diverge from the intent behind those searing, wonderful words.
Today he leaves behind a broken country, whose political system is split from top to bottom, and whose power has been shown to be available for purchase on the open market. Perhaps the biggest casuality of all during Trump’s stay in office was truth itself.
To mark the departure of the worst political leader of a democratic nation in my lifetime, I first take a deep sigh of relief. It has been quite a ride, and we should never again fail to extol the virtue of boredom in our politics.
And I also repost this poem, written four years ago in response to that Trump Bible reading;
The Beatitudes, Jesus versus Trump
5 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
When he saw the (lack of )crowd, he retreated to the safety of his penthouse suite, attended by his acolytes. From there he tweeted out a stream of popular wisdom
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the rich, because their wealth trickles down like syrup and small people feast like ants on the mess beneath their tables.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are those who are properly focused on the things that matter and do not get distracted by weak sentiment. Blessed are those who never look backwards, but always forwards, upwards, towards bright new things
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the strong as they smite down the weak and unproductive for how else can our nation prosper?
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are those who control the message and shape it to their demands. Blessed are their spokespersons. Blessed are the clever forks in their twisted tongues.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those whose charity is sensibly directed only to the deserving poor. The rest should reap the rewards of their indolence.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the consumers, for their greed is holy. Let the fire of aspiration burn in your souls so that the blessed economy might never be cursed by a lack of ‘confidence’.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are the ascendant. Blessed is the Caucasian. Blessed are the men. They make the world as they wish. Any hole is theirs for the digging, any pussy theirs for the grabbing. Through their industry, the nation will be great again.
And how blessed are the warmongers, for they ensure our security.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who take no shit from anyone. Let their power and might be unassailable. May no insult be left unpunished.
More than ever we connect through social media; our information comes through social media; ur purchases are made because of recommendations on social media. Increasingly, research is showing us how social media is shaping the very nature of our societies.
If our hope is for a move towards kinder and more egalitarian ways of organising ourselves, we have to grapple with this reality and try to understand how the internet influences our collective and individual consciousnesses.
One case study very salient at the moment is that of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot and killed during the recent invasion of the US Capitol building by protestors radicalised in part by the ravings of outgoing President Trump. How did this woman journey from being an Obama voter in 2012 to the point were she prepared to break down congressional doors to express her rage against the perception of corruption? How did a seemingly sane and responsible person become convinced that the reality that made the most sense was that perpetrated by right wing extremists and, perhaps most puzzingly of all, adherants to the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theories?
We all know people like Ms Babbitt; friends and members of our families whose views have become increasingly extreme. From the outside it often seems as though they have been inculcated into a cult, right there in their very living rooms. No reasonable argument can reach them. No contrary evidence can challenge the vehemence of their belief systems. The impossibility of challenge seems to be exacerbated online, as if any contrary view is a kind of threat to their very being.
The way that this works may be a mystery to us, but we now know with a high degree of certainty that our vulnerability to manipulation on social media has already been exploited to undermine the very fabric of how we understand democracy. The barely-noticed UK Parliamentary report into Russian interferance by the Intelligence and Security committee for example made the following startling statment that Russian interferance in UK elections is the ‘new normal’, including seeking to influence the Scottish independence debate. The report was not able to comment on the degree to which Russia interfered with the Brexit referendum (as widely reported elsewhere) because our intelligence services had not even sought to investigate.
Then there was the shady work perpetrated by Cambridge Analytica. We now know exactly how a vast data mining operation (our social media data that is) was weaponised by both the Trump campaign and the Brexiteers. The way this was done was both simple and complex. Algorithms identified individuals whose leanings could be influenced, and their social media feeds were fed a diet of material that pushed their views in one particular direction. Remember that most elections in our democracies are decided by small percentage shifts of opinion, filtered through the narrow bottlenecks of a yes/no or choice-between-three ballots. Mass participation in social media platforms are an incredibly powerful tool in achieving mass influence, from which none of us who participate are immune.
The secret, it seems, is to try to identify our prejudices, then fan them in to flames.
Don’t take my word for it, check out this interview with one of those who did the job;
This should worry us all.
We have to look for ways to protect our democratic systems from such power, concentrated as it is into the hands of tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter. There is a strong argument for breaking up the companies, who are after all now operating with the sort of impunity only possible for monopolies. We have to regulate their access to our personal data and the way it is used for both corporate profit and political influence.
But we also have to acknowlege out own culpabiity within this, not just because we are the addicted, who are unlikely to let go of the social media drug easily, but also because, as mentioned already, all of us are vulnerable. It is easy to point a finger at some distant facebook friend not seen in person since school days, or at Ms Babbitt, but the interesting question we have to ask ourselves is the degree to which our own views have been shaped by our engagement with social media. The best people I know are those who take hold of their beliefs with passion and hold on to them with integrity. They believe strongly in the rightness of their causes and the correctness of their politics. The value judgements they made to arrive at these decisions are precious to them, foundational to their sense of identity. I suppose I am describing myself- or at least the version of myself that I choose to believe.
The problem is that we ALL believe this about ourselves, to a lesser or greater degree. The problems start when we come up against others, particularly on social media, who have different views. It can get ugly very quickly. We know that engagement in this kind of battle is totally futile, and that changing the minds of your opponents is vanishingly unlikely, but we do it anyway. It feeds the worst instincts of some, who seem to derive great pleasure from inflicting pain on people they will never meet.
Surely it should bother us that over the last couple of decades, more and more people are moving from the middle ground towards holding extreme views on a wide range of subjects? That is fine if the ‘extreme views’ are ones that we share, but the reality in wider society is that we are becoming more polarised and divided. Those things that we agree on are increasingly defined against those things which we hate.
Perhaps, then, there is something about the way social media works that, rather than it’s stated aim of connecting people and facilitating discourse, actually has the very opposite effect? It is perhaps no suprise that a growing body of research is finding just that very thing.
When people express themselves through social media, they communicate collectively. Rachel Ashman, Tony Patterson and I studied sharing of images of food in an intensive three-year ethnographic and netnographic study of a variety of online and physical sites. We collected and analyzed thousands of pictures, conducted 17 personal interviews and set up a dedicated research webpage where dozens of people shared their “food porn” stories.
Our results indicate that people share images of food for a number of reasons, including the desire to nurture others with photos of home-cooked food, to express belonging to certain interest groups like vegans or paleos, or to compete about, for example, who could make the most decadent dessert. But this sharing can become competitive, pushing participants to one-up each other, sharing images of food that look less and less like what regular people eat every day.
Here is how it works. Many people start by sharing food images only with people they know well. But once they broaden out to a wider group on social media, several unexpected and startling things begin to happen. First, they find sites where they can feel comfortable expressing their opinions to a like-minded “audience.”
This audience creates a community-type feeling, expressing respect and belonging for certain kinds of messages and outrage or contempt for others. Communications innovators in social media communities often also create new language forms, such as the frustrated guys in men’s-rights-oriented social media forums on Reddit bringing new life to the 19th-century word “hypergamy,” or young people creating sophisticated emoji codes in their relationship texting.
Through language and example, community members educate one another. They reinforce each others’ thinking and communication. Members of social media communities direct raw emotions into particular interests. For example, a general fear about job security might become channeled through the feedback loops on Facebook into an interest in immigrant jobs and immigration policy.
Those feedback loops have even more sensational effects. People use social media to communicate their need for things like money, attention, security and prestige. But once those people become a part of a social media platform, our research reveals how they start to look for wider audiences. Those audiences show their interest and approval by liking, sharing and commenting. And those mechanisms drive future social media behavior.
In our study of food image sharing, we wondered why the most popular food porn images depicted massive hamburgers that were impossible to eat, dripping with bacon grease, gummy worms and sparklers. Or super pizza that contained tacos, macaroni and cheese and fried chicken. The answer was that the algorithms that drive participation and attention-getting in social media, the addictive “gamification” aspects such as likes and shares, invariably favored the odd and unusual. When someone wanted to broaden out beyond his or her immediate social networks, one of the most effective ways to achieve mass appeal turned out to be by turning to the extreme.
Taking an existing norm in the community (massive burgers, say) and expanding upon it almost guaranteed a poster a few hundred likes, a dozen supportive comments and 15 minutes of social media glory. As each user tried to top the outrageous image of the user coming before, the extremes of food porn ratcheted toward ever more sensational towering burgers and cakes. Desire for what was once the extremes began to seem normal. And the ends separated farther from the few who remained in the middle.
What better way to connect with your potential supporters than to say something outrageous, not matter how untrue, then double down on the same lie? How many retweets is THAT going to get you?
The point here is clear. Social media rewards us for moving towards extremes, and then these extremes become normalised. Then we get Brexit, and Trump, and extreme politics, extreme religion.
We get greater division too, because social media will sieze upon any division and magnify it. Our political opponents – take the independence debate in Scotland for example, already mentioned as a target of Russian interferance – are never just people with different views, they are idiots, losers, imperialists, English numpties and clowns. I am no more immune to this than the next person. Only you can answer that question about yourself.
That is not to say that ideas – even seemingly extreme ideas – are not important. Perhaps we need good ideas more than ever. The issue at hand here is two-fold; how do we form our ideas and how do we seek to employ them.
MLK was certainly viewed as an extremist, but the application of his extreme ideas was aimed towards reconcilliation and healing. He wanted to change the system towards peace and in favour of the poor and oppressed. This has been called communism. I call it justice, and there is no algorithm for that other than that which we had already.
It is one of those words that everyone claims as their own. A bit like ‘freedom’ or ‘common sense’ (OK, that last one was two words, but you get my point.) We all think that our side has the definitive understanding and the most sincere application, sometimes despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
This is not a new game, of course – we have been playing it for a long time. Think about the British empire, grasping, oppressive and brutal as it always was… and yet we convinced ourselves that our true instincts were about playing the game fairly, spreading civilisation and good governance.
It can be helpful to point to someone else who is much worse than us. We Scottish people tend to blame it all on the English for example, as if none of us ever schemed and stabbed and ran our own slave plantations. Thankfully, these days we have Trump. We have BoJo and his old Etonian enablers. Their unfairness makes ours seem invisible
There is also a particular kind of civility that is often used as a smoke screen, mostly by privileged well educated people. Today, I heard a doctor on a radio 4 programme talking about what Covid might have revealed to us about health inequalities in this country. Her answer stunned me. Whilst acknowledging ‘unconscious bias’ the greatest problem it had revealed to her was that some people did not speak good English, so might not be able to communicate well with Doctors. As if they were dying from bad syntax, rather than poor overcrowded housing and a thousand tiny cuts from blades made out of…unfairness. But there I go- pointing the finger at some poor doctor who has no doubt saved a dozen lives before I even get out of bed. I am being unfair.
“The second conclusion, which is the heart of the book, is that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”
Fairness, it might be said, is a national obsession, but mostly we view it though a consumer lens. Consider the collective outrage of a ruined package holiday or a poorly made brand of washing machines. Then consider the garden fence battles over inches of tarmac or the shade cast by a chestnut tree, or where people park their cars. This kind of fairness is always about ME, never about you. It is not about universal rights, it is only about mine.
“if we consider the total growth of the US economy in the thirty years prior to the crisis, that is, from 1977 to 2007, we find that the richest 10 percent appropriated three-quarters of the growth. The richest 1 percent alone absorbed nearly 60 percent of the total increase of US national income in this period. Hence for the bottom 90 percent, the rate of income growth was less than 0.5 percent per year.”
The thing is though, I think that fairness is very important. Perhaps it is THE most important aspiration we can have within our policial and economic situation at the moment. We have lived through a time when the gap between top and bottom has been widening, in just about every parameter that matters. Poverty/wealth, sickness/health, educational attainment, prison incarceration. These things used to matter within our politics, but they have not for some time; in fact, the very language we used to use to describe fairness no longer makes sense. We used to talk about social class and redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation. Our education system was primarily concerned with equal opportunity. Our benefits system employed non means-tested benefits wherever possible to avoid shame and stigma and the amounts provided were enough to live on without resorting to food banks. Governments almost fell because they failed to meet targets for building enough social housing.
I sound like one of those blokes in the pub who bangs on about ‘things being better in the old days’, don’t I? Well in this instance, at least our aspirations towards fairness were better. We have forgotten these aspirations and the huge supporting bodies of research evidence telling us what helps and what hinders. In fact, we have actively suppressed this research, condeming it as do-gooding-political-correctness-gone-mad perpetrated by wooly liberals driving 2CV’s with ‘Nuclear Power, No Thanks’ stickers on the back. (Full disclosure. I once actually owned a 2CV, with afermentioned sticker firmly in place. Make of that what you will!) The zeitgeist of the last twenty years was driven by free market thinking, applied to every human activity. If it did not make a profit, it had no value. The market alway knows best, or so we were told, so all activies had to opened up to the kinds of lean innovations that are only driven by the white heat of wealth seeking competition.
“In contrast to what many people in Britain and the United States believe, the true figures on growth (as best one can judge from official national accounts data) show that Britain and the United States have not grown any more rapidly since 1980 than Germany, France, Japan, Denmark, or Sweden. In other words, the reduction of top marginal income tax rates and the rise of top incomes do not seem to have stimulated productivity (contrary to the predictions of supply-side theory) or at any rate did not stimulate productivity enough to be statistically detectable at the macro level.”
The problem is that a by-product of this kind of thinking has been a widening gap between those at the top and bottom of society to the point where it is possible to make a comparison between the beginning of the twenty first century and Edwardian England. It is almost as if the very process of unfettered wealth accummulation becomes a runaway train that devours more and more. When you have a Billion, you must always have two, or so it seems. Greed is not good, it is insatiable.
“When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.”
Are there signs that the great disruption caused by the virus might be highlighting the nature of this inequality? I have been enjoying the discussions on this series of programmes greatly, not because I have agreed with everything people have said (remember the doctor I mentioned earlier?) but because it feels as though issues of equality and fairness are entering into the national consciousness once again.
When we look at who became ill and died in our rich western societies, the reality is stark. The impact is not egalitarian. We are NOT all at the same risk. The individualism that has dominated our thinking first told us that we were personally responsible in part- if we were too fat, too unhealthy. The old people who died in droves in our poorly run and woefully underfunded care system would have died soon anyway, right? I even heard discussions about how there must be something within the DNA of black people that makes them more vulnerable…
“For millions of people, “wealth” amounts to little more than a few weeks’ wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a car, and a few pieces of furniture. The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities. That is why it is so essential to study capital and its distribution in a methodical, systematic way.”
We are left with two questions. Firstly, do we really want our societies to be more equal, and secondly, how can we move in this direction fairly?
I hope that the answers to these questions will be at the centre of our politics post-virus. Whether this happens or not will depend to a large extent on new formulations, new ideas and new leadership, and it is these that I intend to look for and celebrate on this blog through the next year…
TFT style of course, so don’t expect tinsel or anything…
This is a picture of some mushrooms shooting up in a fresh pile of woodchips on our driveway.
Think about that- mushrooms are perhaps best understood as the ‘flowers’ of fungal mycota. That means that this pile of fresh woodchip (chipped no more than a couple of weeks before this) mechanically destroyed to almost-pulp, had already become seeded with spores which had time to spread through the chips and then pop out these lovely ink-cap mushrooms like magic.
Joy seems to me to be like that. It comes to our very core like a total suprise, even in the darkest times. Perhaps particularly in the darkest times.
In part one of this Christmas card, I was trying to desribe the desolation some of us feel at this time of year, and particularly THIS year. I thought it was important to acknowledge this experience because I know that I am far from alone.
For all sorts of reasons (not least, thinking about my late sister Katharine who died this year) I have been very tearful this Christmas. It took almost nothing to reduce me to tears- of course, the usual films and music could do this, but once I found myself bawling whilst on my own in the house for no apparent reason. But the strange thing was that this did not make me in any way immune to joy. In fact, it meant that when those moments came, they were like an explosion of light.
So, whatever you situation, cherish those moments.
For the first time since I started this blog, I am posting this after Christmas. Perhaps, given the strange disrupted times we are in, this is no suprise.
Perhaps too, given the poem I am about to post, hiding behind a calendar cushion is not bad thing either.
This year’s ‘card’ comes with a warning. If you are needing bells and tinsel and rosy-cheeked cheer, then perhaps it is not for you right now.
Not because I do not wish you all the very best for this season and the year to come. Lord knows we need some good news, right? But when I started this blog, I was determined to be as honest as I could be, even if this was sometimes ugly. For many of us, this Christmas has been painfully hard.
My mother, on her own, struggling with a cancer diagnosis.
My nephews and neices having the first Christmas without their mum.
My friend who had been longing to meet with her son and daughter only to be cut off from them by the fluctuations of coronovirus rules.
By comparison, I count my blessings. I managed to see my kids. I am blessed with the best companion that anyone could wish for.
Increasingly, I find myself broken by some of the contradictions we live with, and never more so then now. The excess of our celebrations feel false and obscene, even as I partcipate. The plastic. The false bonhomie filling the air waves. The tokenistic attention given to ‘the spirit of Christmas’.
I long for change, both in myself and in the world I am part of.
Sometimes it feels as though I know where to look for hope. At other times not, as if the icons and ideas behind Christmas have lain neglected so long as to become rusty and meaningless.
So, here is part one of my Christmas offerings.
What can I give him, wealthy as I am?
Does he need an i-phone, or a well-aged Parma ham?
Should I bring new trainers, a pair of brand-new jeans?
Or Halo for the X-box (whatever that all means)
In a tower block in Camden, a woman breaks her heart
Her credit score is hopeless, her marriage fell apart
Her cupboards all lie empty, her clothes are wafer thin
Her kids can thank the food bank for turkey from a tin
If I were a kind man, I would bring good cheer
I would house the homeless, if for only once a year
I’d buy my cards from Oxfam, for virtue is no sin
I’d send some Christmas pudding to poor old Tiny Tim
In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds still moan
And Mr Wilson’s waited ages to get the council on the phone
He’s worried cos his boiler has given up the ghost
And since Mabel got dementia, she feels cold more than most
If I were a wise man, I would do my part
I’d sell that gold and incense and invest it for a start
In gilt-edged annuities or solid pension schemes
For without good fiscal planning, what can ever be redeemed?
In a lock-up by the roadside a bastard-child is born
To another teenage mother whose future looks forlorn
A host of heavenly angels up high in star-strewn sky
Dear friends, what can we wish for this Christmas. What hope can we carry?
We have lost so much in our lockdown -some of us have even lost loved ones – but for all of us, pack animals as we are, the enforced seperation has been hard. Perhaps it is even getting harder.
During that first sun-lit lockdown, despite the looming apocalypse, there were some strong indications that we might learn some good things along with the bad. People were rediscovering the semi-wild outdoors on their doorsteps and a sense of community sprang up everywhere as people began to look out for their neighbours. There was much talk (including on this blog) of how the disruption of the pandemic might actually become a pivot point for much needed change in relation to huge issues like climate change and widening inequality and empty populists like Trump and Johnson might be revealed as Emperors without clothes.
This time around, even though these things might still be true, it feels harder to be optimistic. Perhaps that is partly because of the almost-Christmas that never was; the one that probably should never have happened in the first place, but the loss of which felt all the more cruel because it came so close. Perhaps too the combination of winter and wearyness weigh heavy on us all. Perhaps it is about failed leadership as well – in the UK, we have a Prime Minister who seemed determined to make the same mistake over and over. In the US, the so-called Leader of the Free World is a lying bafoon with fascistic tendencies. Even the arrival of potental salvation in the form of vaccines is second-guessed, as if we can not quite trust anything, not even science.
Meanwhile, conspiracy theories proliferate exponentially, like the virus itself. They take hold of people and become the truth through which they view the world, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The rest of us don’t know what to believe any more.
So, once again, in the midst of this particular Christmas season, where can we find hope?
I think that is the point – we first have to go out and look for it.
Sometimes it might be a little more obvious. In times of pain and loneliness, kindness can be like choir of heavenly angels, but for the most part, the hope we seek is more subtle. It can be hard to see amongst the straw.
Even in winter, life is all around us. Here, red squirrels are visible everywhere in the bare branches, collecting food for the months to come. The seasons are changing, reminding us that we are lving in the great circle. We have been here before and this too will pass.
There is still the real possibility that we will learn important things from this – the virus is shining a light on things we have ignored for too long. The widening inequality, for instance, and how the highest infection rates of the pandemic have mapped themselves perfectly on to the areas of highest poverty and deprivation in our societies. It has shown us too that large scale multi-national and multi-lateral action in service of a common goal is possible again- something we had forgotten since the last world war, despite the looming threat of climate change.
On a smaller scale, it has shown us that some things are simply more important. Families split apart are unlikely to take the next Christmas together for granted.