I loved this. (Thanks Graham Peacock!)
Faith and consumer capitalism melded together into some kind of terrible world killing heresy. Take a look and it is rather obvious ain’t it?
I loved this. (Thanks Graham Peacock!)
Faith and consumer capitalism melded together into some kind of terrible world killing heresy. Take a look and it is rather obvious ain’t it?
It is official. The UK has more Billionaires per head of population than any other country. London alone has 72. Makes you proud to be British doesn’t it? The nation where the rich get richer (because they deserve it) and the poor get poorer (serves them right; lazy scroungers that they are.) More locally, to me at least, Scotland has 7 Billionaires, up from 6 last year. This from the BBC;
The Grant-Gordon whisky family tops the Scottish element of the list with a fortune of £1.9bn.
There are now 104 billionaires based in the UK with a combined wealth of more than £301bn, the list says.
The Grant-Gordon Banffshire distilling family have ousted Mahdi-Al Tajir from the top spot in Scotland. Al-Tajir, whose interests include a development of luxury homes at Gleneagles, is worth £1.67bn, according to the list.
Sir Brian Souter and Ann Gloag, the siblings who founded the Stagecoach transport empire, have become members of the billionaire club for the first time. They share a fortune of £1bn – an increase of £270m on last year.
Other Scots on the super-rich list are Sir Ian Wood and family whose £1.32bn fortune comes from oil services and fishing, and the Thomson family, owners of publisher DC Thomson, who are worth £1.2bn.
Former Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed, who owns an estate in the Highlands, is estimated to be worth £1.3bn, while Jim McColl, of engineering business Clyde Blowers has an estimated fortune of £1bn.
Setting aside the morality of concentrating so much wealth in the hands of individuals, two questions seem important-
As you look down the short list of Scottish Billionaires, the arguments supporting positive answers to these questions seem weak. Whisky, posh flats, posh shops, mega profits from former privatised industry (transport) paid for by subsidies from the tax payer. There are a couple of industrialists there however. It is impossible to look at this list and not feel that Piketty’s analysis of how wealth rises exponentially, like some kind of run away greed machine, in capitalist economies. I quoted this previously;
Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer.
The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest. Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system.
Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population. As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them.
Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.
The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war.
Piketty fears a repeat.
Perhaps then we need to watch carefully for those who tell you that the poor and broken are the problem- they are not, they are the consequences of unsustainable wealth creation by the few. Watch too for the convenient scapegoat-makers, the border-closers, the nationalists. They tend to play right into the hands of the super rich. It is a distraction from the real operation of capital, and a convenient way to wall wealth away from taxation. It also pretends that the problem of austerity is caused by the poor outsider, come to steal our jobs, our houses, our NHS facilities. Blessed are the poor, but who wants to be poor? We all want to be Billionaires…
We need our poet-prophets. One of my favourites is the grumpy dark brown voice of Chris Wood.
His uncompromising music looks you in the eyes and snarls. It eats locusts.
Here he is once more revealing to us our collective madness;
I am not into making new year’s resolutions- I tend not to keep them. However this time of year is the time to take stock, to dream of what might be ahead.
As well as the personal stuff it is a great time to wave some spiritual litmus paper in the stew of culture that we swirl around in. What is there that we can celebrate? What should we protest? How does the life of Jesus within us open us up to new ways of living in this new year?
A year or so ago, I wrote a post reflecting on the relationship between Capitalism and Christianity. This seems even more relevant now as austerity measures hit the poorest and weakest in our economy. Something is wrong– not just at an economic level, but rather in our very ways of being.
There are some encouraging signs that the Church is starting to realise this however- and that we need to be the voice of instability, not conformity. Sometimes it seems that our religion is like smoke blown into a hive while the honey is stolen. The Pope appears to understand this, as does Archbishop Welby.
The problem, it seems to me, is that church often claims to be separate from society (the old sacred/secular duality) at the same time as being indistinguishable from it perhaps in the following ways (as listed in my earlier post but with a few refinements and additions.)
I am not happy to leave this list just as a set of negatives, so here are my hopes/prayers for the Church in 2014;
Let this be the year of a different kind of revolution…
My sister challenged me to right something lighthearted here, and leave behind all the heavy economic/theology etc for a while, at least in part because some of it was making her cry (which in my book is no bad thing!)
I tried sis, I tried, but then I come across this;
I am trying not to get too excited by this old man. He is after all human, and like all of us, will be shown to have clay feet. But in the meantime he makes my heart dance.
At last someone is using a traditional seat of global power to speak the words of Jesus into the madness of our age. Those in power are rattled. The small people are engaged.
People get crucified for this kind of thing you know.
Contrast the words of Pope Francis with the latest morally bankrupt drivel from the Mayor of London.
I have never been a communist, not really.
However, I remember vividly the moment when the idea of communism took hold of me. I remember the discussion as a 15 year old boy around how it might be possible to live a different way- where our lives were not controlled by the profit principle, and where we shared what we have in order to live in harmony with one another, not in competition. It was electric.
Alongside all this was a whiff of something else- radicalism, danger. Our heros were no longer empire builders, but rather the challengers of injustice, the small people who stood in front of tanks or challenged corrupt authority only to be shot in their pulpits. There was a possibility of change, of things being better, simpler, more human.
It was also impossible to ignore the fact that communism seemed to fit remarkably well with the ideas of another radical, called Jesus.
Some people say that ideas like this are dangerous. Perhaps they are. For most of us however, they became the background hum of guilt inside our middle class lifestyles. Slowly our radicalism was buried by salaries, mortgages and the shopping run. It survived only in a few donations to charity, the odd sponsored third world child and the choice of newspaper we read.
I never believed in the inevitable rise of man towards utopia. I always doubted that capitalism would be defeated. Partly this was because we had little reason for optimism after Stalin’s purges and Mao’s cultural revolution. Like many I started to believe that Communism could not survive its encounter with broken humanity- that greed and corruption would always mean that the psychopaths would rise and that without the sharp edge of competition for personal gain we become blunted and lazy, leading to a slow decline. Capitalism was not perfect, but perhaps it could be managed I thought, to mitigate against some of the more damaging effects. Social welfare systems, health systems, progressive taxation to redistribute some wealth, protection under law for workers in employment, education for poor kids to give them a fair start. Democracy as the best compromise solution.
Perhaps these ideas are dangerous too however. They mean that certain hierarchies of unequal power and wealth remain fixed and unchanging. However, what real alternatives are there? Communism is bankrupt after all.
Meanwhile the world is in turmoil. Markets rise and fall, governments react paradoxically by blaming poor people for the excesses of the rich and powerful. All those things that might be seen as mitigations on the pursuit of profit are being slashed- education, health, welfare, social housing, unionisation.
In Europe, this is no where more apparent than in Spain. This from here;
Spain experienced a massive housing boom from 1996 to 2008. The price of property per square metre tripled in those 12 years: its scale is now tragically reflected in its crisis. Nationally, up to 400,000 families have been evicted since 2008. Again, it is especially acute in the south: 40 families a day in Andalusia have been turfed out of their homes by the banks. To make matters worse, under Spanish housing law, when you’re evicted by your mortgage lender, that isn’t the end of it: you have to keep paying the mortgage. In final acts of helplessness, suicides by homeowners on the brink of foreclosure have become horrifyingly common – on more than one occasion, while the bailiffs have been coming up the stairs, evictees have hurled themselves out of upstairs windows.
When people refer to la crisis in Spain they mean the eurozone crisis, an economic crisis; but the term means more than that. It is a systemic crisis, a political ecology crack’d from side to side: a crisis of seemingly endemic corruption across the country’s elites, including politicians, bankers, royals and bureaucrats, and a crisis of faith in the democratic settlement established after the death of Franco in 1975. A poll conducted by the (state-run) centre for sociological research in December 2012 found that 67.5% of Spaniards said they were unhappy with the way their democracy worked. It’s this disdain for the Spanish state in general, rather than merely the effects of the economic crisis, that brought 8 million indignados on to the streets in the spring and summer of 2011, and informed their rallying cry “Democracia Real Ya” (real democracy now).
For most of us, all this is happening on a scale that makes it impossible for us to fully grasp. We might focus on one small injustice, even raising voices of protest, but the entirety of the system is unchallengable, because it is too big. So what we have even in Spain is the call for better capitalism, better democracy, but no clear idea of what this might look like.
All of which is a long pre-amble to the reason for this post.
What exists at a human scale that might still gather real alternatives to all this naked profit-and-loss-boom-and-bust madness that we are dwarfed and diminished by?
For a long time, the idea that ‘communism does not work’ has irritated me. The smug example that is usually used to prove this dictum are Soviet Union collective farms- spectres of mass crop failure, starvation, forced labour and perhaps the worst sin of all, lack of productivity.
When the 1,200-hectare El Humoso farm was finally won in 1991 – awarded to the village by the regional government following a decade of relentless occupations, strikes and appeals – cultivation began. The new Marinaleda co-operative selected crops that would need the greatest amount of human labour, to create as much work as possible. In addition to the ubiquitous olives and the oil-processing factory, they planted peppers of various kinds, artichokes, fava beans, green beans, broccoli: crops that could be processed, canned, and jarred, to justify the creation of a processing factory that provided a secondary industry back in the village, and thus more employment. “Our aim was not to create profit, but jobs,” Sánchez Gordillo explained to me. This philosophy runs directly counter to the late-capitalist emphasis on “efficiency” – a word that has been elevated to almost holy status in the neoliberal lexicon, but in reality has become a shameful euphemism for the sacrifice of human dignity at the altar of share prices.
Sánchez Gordillo once suggested to me that the aristocratic family of the House of Alba could invest its vast riches (from shares in banks and power companies to multimillion-euro agricultural subsidies for its vast tracts of land) to create jobs, but had never shown any interest in doing so. “We believe the land should belong to the community that works it, and not in the dead hands of the nobility.” That’s why the big landowners planted wheat, he explained – wheat could be harvested with a machine, overseen by a few labourers; in Marinaleda, crops like artichokes and tomatoes were chosen precisely because they needed lots of labour. Why, the logic runs, should “efficiency” be the most important value in society, to the detriment of human life?
The town co-operative does not distribute profits: any surplus is reinvested to create more jobs. Everyone in the co-op earns the same salary, €47 (£40) a day for six and a half hours of work: it may not sound like a lot, but it’s more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Participation in decisions about what crops to farm, and when, is encouraged, and often forms the focus of the village’s general assemblies – in this respect, being a cooperativista means being an important part of the functioning of the pueblo as a whole. Where once the day labourers of Andalusia were politically and socially marginalised by their lack of an economic stake in their pueblo, they are now – at least in Marinaleda – called upon to lead the way. Non-co-operativists are by no means excluded from involvement in the town’s political, social and cultural life – it’s more that if you are a part of the co-operative, you can’t avoid being swept up in local activities outside the confines of the working day.
Private enterprise is permitted in the village – perhaps more importantly, it is still an accepted part of life. As with the seven privately owned bars and cafés in the village (the Sindicato bar is owned by the union), if you wanted to open a pizzeria or a little family business of any kind, no one would stand in your way. But if a hypothetical head of regional development and franchising for, say, Carrefour, or Starbucks, with a vicious sense of humour and a masochistic streak, decided this small village was the perfect spot to expand operations, well – they wouldn’t get very far. “We just wouldn’t allow it,” Sánchez Gordillo told me bluntly.
This is one tiny village, even if others are starting to copy what they have done. I am sure it is no utopia. People will squabble and fall out and scratch at one another. The Mayor probably has too much power and charisma and it may well all go to his head.
What it leaves me with mostly is this- community works only in the small scale.
Love is only possible in the press of real relationships. It can not exist in abstract theory. It is not real unless tested in actual shared lives.
We all need to believe in something bigger, something better. For this village it has become a unifying factor. They see themselves as an egalitarian oasis in a mad unsustainable capitalist desert. I admit I am inclined to agree. I liked what the Mayor had to say- “I have never belonged to the communist party of the hammer and sickle, but I am a communist or communitarian,” Sánchez Gordillo said in an interview in 2011, adding that his political beliefs were drawn from those of Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Marx, Lenin and Che.
All this to me is a call back towards real community- let us forget the big scale, the macro economic choices of a distant and devalued government. Let us live an alternative- called community.
How this looks in your locality will have to be different to mine- but the central ideas will be the same, be they the ‘Christian heresy’ that is communism (according to CS Lewis) or actually those words of Jesus that we conveniently ignore.
Where did I put those olive seeds?
A bit of fun this- although laboured and rather too worthy.
I am still trying to write what I am calling ‘poetry of protest’ as mentioned here. This one might be more or less within the rules I set for myself then, but only just. Here it is anyway;
I do not agree
I do not agree with economists
Who monetise success
I do not agree that pounds or pence
Ever show us at our best
I do not agree the skin we’re in
Should make whom we’re becoming
I do not agree that some are born
To only test the plumbing
I do not agree with generals
Their guns can rot to rust
I do not agree, their meat machines
Cause in me disgust
I do not agree when those in power
Line the pockets of their friends
I do not agree that might is right
When the poor are thus condemned
I do not agree that we should comply
We are formed in evolution
I do not agree that nothing turns
This worlds in revolution
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have written a lot about the political-economic status quo- if indeed there is such a thing in these times of economic turmoil. Some of this has been about challenging some of the ‘common sense’ truisms that we have become so used to that we hardly question. Some of too has been my way of expressing frustration and protest in the face of manifest injustice – a system in which the rich get richer, live longer, are better educated etc etc, whilst the poor are blamed as feckless and ‘skyvers’.
Throughout I have also felt this constant desire to see an alternative- a better way to organise our commercial fiscal and tax system. I can catch glimpses of this, in small things between individuals and groups, but the system will tell us that what we have, beyond a bit of tweaking, is as good as it can get.
It is this kind of thinking that allows those of us that call ourselves followers of Jesus to also accept greed, avarice, unjust economic relationships and exploitation as somehow morally justifiable, even necessary components of our society.
Egalitarianism, redistributive taxation and collectivised centrally controlled economies- these have been proved to be bankrupt ideas (we are told) which stultify and stagnate entrepreneurialism and innovation. We only have to look at the failure of communism, and the spectre of British industry circa 1976.
I came across an article in a journal called Soundings, which is a left wing journal interested in a new kind of politics. They are publishing a book online, a chapter a month, called After Neoliberalism? The Kelburn Manifesto.
The first chapter is available here– and sets the scene with some analysis of where we are now. It makes as much sense as anything I have read for some time. Here are a few extracts;
Every social settlement, in order to establish itself, is crucially founded on embedding as common sense a whole bundle of beliefs – ideas beyond question, assumptions so deep that the very fact that they are assumptions is only rarely brought to light. In the case of neoliberalism this bundle of ideas revolves around the supposed naturalness of ‘the market’, the primacy of the competitive individual, the superiority of the private over the public. It is as a result of the hegemony of this bundle of ideas – their being the ruling common sense – that the settlement as a whole is commonly called ‘neoliberal’…
Ideology plays a key role in disseminating, legitimising and re-invigorating a regime
of power, profit and privilege. Neoliberal ideas seem to have sedimented into the
western imaginary and become embedded in popular ‘common sense’. They set the
parameters – provide the ‘taken-for-granteds’ – of public discussion, media debate
and popular calculation.
One key strand in neoliberalism’s ideological armoury is neoliberal economic
theory itself. So ‘naturalised’ have its nostrums become that policies can claim
to be implemented with popular consent, though they are manifestly partial and
limited. Opening public areas for potential profit-making is accepted because it
appears to be ‘just economic common sense’. The ethos of the ‘free market’ is taken
to licence an increasing disregard for moral standards, and even for the law itself.
Commercialisation has cultivated an ethos of corruption and evasiveness. Banks,
once beacons of probity, rig interest rates, mis-sell products, launder drug money,
flout international embargoes, hide away fortunes in safe havens. They settle their
‘misdemeanours’ for huge sums that hardly dent their balance sheets. Similarly,
when private firms that have been publicly contracted fail to meet targets they are
allowed to continue. Graduates stacking supermarket shelves are told they don’t
need to be paid because they are ‘getting work experience’. Commercialisation
permeates everywhere, trumps everything. Once the imperatives of a ‘market
culture’ become entrenched, anything goes. Such is the power of the hegemonic
All this strikes me as a good analysis of the heart of our culture- one that has been shaped by the ‘common sense’ that we have been given. It is really hard to challenge this kind of hegemony – even in our selves, our own understanding, our own lifestyle, let alone that of other people.
What is needed is a new kind of ‘common sense’. A new kind of way of understanding the world that we live in, and the economic relationships we have with one another.
Christians already have this of course- what I would term the common sense of the New Kingdom. This kind of common sense values people before profit, seeks to form relationships of love and service. Quite how Christianity became so intertwined with Capitalist Colonialism I have no idea. Other than at some point we decided that being like Jesus was simply impracticable- against common sense.
It will be interesting to watch the unfolding to the Kelburn Manifesto to see if the left might yet have something to teach Christians…
Michaela and I have spent quite a few hours sitting looking morosely into cups of tea, talking about the state of our country, and in particular, our government.
For those reading this outside the UK we currently have a concoction of two different parties governing our country, but the ‘crisis culture’ that has been bred by all the economic doom and gloom has allowed the Conservative party to bring about sweeping changes to our benefits system, or health system and our education system, whilst cutting taxation for people earning over £150,000 per annum by 5%. Much of what they have done has a direct impact on the poorest section of our population, and feels to some of us like an abomination.
For example, people who live in social housing, supported by housing benefit (which includes a high proportion of people who are disabled, sick, have mental health problems, or single parent families) will now be faced with losing money, or being forced to move home. If tenants are deemed to have one spare room, the amount of rent eligible for housing benefit will be cut by 14%. If they have two or more spare rooms, the cut will be 25%. Leaving aside the negative effect this will have on all sorts of aspect of peoples lives, the simple fact is that there are no one bedroom flats to move in to for many people! Unfair, unjust changes like this are justified by this government by two things- a tabloid-like blame-the-poor attitude, and a constant reference to global ecnonomics.
All of which takes me back to the point of this piece- what sort of country would you want to live in?
I started making a list of the things I would NOT want to see in my country;
1. A large (and widening) gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’- enforced by law, tradition and the use of power.
In the UK, we have a remarkably stable upper echelon. People with money and power tend to be the children of other people with money and power. There appears to be evidence that this was reducing somewhat- at least in part because since WWII we had 40-50 years of political hegemony around the issue of equality- of opportunity, of health care of access to education. Power was taken by working people in the form of organised unions, and greater access to higher education gave people from poor backgrounds knowledge and skills they had never had before.
However, the UK egalitarian experiment was in many ways a very British one- it was not revolution, it was bureaucratic evolution. Progress was statistical, and statistics are always open to manipulation.
Along the way, we all became middle class consumers. The working class disappeared with the shipyards and the coal mines, leaving behind a broken underclass who were seen only as a threat, a burden, an expensive waste of resources.
And at the same time, the overarching idealistic imperative towards equality was allowed to slip away. We no longer talk about it. And many of the key elements of it are starting to killed one by one. Universal non-stigmatising benefits? All but gone. Free education, supported by a fair grant system to support people through universities? Gone. Universal health care from the cradle to the grave? Under threat from privatisation. Etc.
We may (and often do) argue about the nuts and bolts of all this- but the central over arching question- is our society becoming more equal, or more divided- has slipped off the agenda almost entirely.
2. A society where the rule of law is manipulated or ignored by the people in power, for their own ends, either at home or abroad.
Our comfort with this one in the UK seems to ebb and flow. In many ways, we might see our justice system, and our sense of ‘fair play’ as essentially British. The fact that we are outraged when fairness is transcended is a sign of this.
However, many would argue that the assumption of British fair play has always been a canard. The Empire was not a selfless project to civilise the world with cricket and people wearing wigs- it was a means to exploit, to subjugate, to enslave even.
At home, the interplay between power and the law is a complex one, and something that requires constant scrutiny at the same time as people in power would keep secrets.
For which you need a free press, and open government.
So, a mixed bag this- we have some movements towards open government, at the same time as the press shoot themselves in the foot with all sorts of bad practices.
There have been some changes too to the way our system works- talk of jury-less trials, and the removal of legal aid from other aspects of law (for example, benefits appeals.) These things need to be resisted.
3. Individual citizens are not of equal value- most are expendable in the interests of those who are in power.
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
All sorts of things can be used to excuse this kind of thinking- ideology, religion, economics, war against a common enemy (real or conjured up.)
At some points of our history, the UK has seen its citizens as cannon fodder, or an industrial resource. Currently it is not possible to do this openly thank God.
However, I have heard it said that the measure of a good society should be how we treat our prisoners, our poor people, our elderly, sick and infirm. This should be the first job of government- to govern on behalf of the weak, not the strong. The strong can look after themselves, the weak need to be empowered so that they can do the same.
If this is true, the UK has been doing poorly recently.
4. Freedom is waved like a flag, but defined against others, not inclusive of them.
I do not want to be part of a country still caught up in empire lust. However, even without military expansion, nuclear weapons and invasion of other countries, empire can still be a weight upon our nationhood.
We talk about freedom as some kind of inalienable human right- usually hand in hand with democracy and capitalism. Freedom is understood as ‘the right to live in the way that we are living’ with as little interference as possible in the form of taxation, regulation, or imposition by others.
However, this kind of freedom requires examination- particularly when it comes at huge cost to others- when it is based on unsustainable, inequitable trade relationships with poor countries, where it is destroying our environment.
Freedom-to also equally becomes freedom-from. We are free because we are not like you. Perhaps this is sometimes true- there are some despotic places out there. However, when this kind of freedom starts to exclude people in terms of colour, origin, religion, gender, sex- then it is no freedom at all.
5. Patriotism becomes nationalism becomes excluisivism, and it ticks like a historical time bomb.
I can think of nothing good that ever came out of nationalism- measured in terms of human dignity and grace. I say this as an outsider living in a country that is considering full independence from the wider UK. Perhaps this might be the project that proves me wrong but I see warning signs to the contrary- the easy negative stereotyping of the other, the co-opting of war stories that justify us against you, the distortion of history to cast ourselves as victims/heroes and the other as oppressors/villains.
In this kind of soil poisonous things grow.
The Bible struggles with all of this- it can be read as the story of a succession of empires as they rise and fall- eventually to be challenged by a totally different kind of Empire, called ‘the Kingdom of God’, in which the the rules are turned upside down- the first become the last, the poor are our conscience and love is our currency.
Patriotism belongs to empire- it has no place in the Kingdom of God.
I am British- somewhere inside. I find this difficult to define- as an English/Irishman living in Scotland. I am grateful for the gentle green climate of these beautiful islands, and for the slow pragmatic evolution of our welfare state.
But (in the words of many a school report) we could be doing better…