Time to look to the left…

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In the wake of the Referendum debate up here, we are all wondering if the remarkable upsurge of political engagement can actually lead to real change, and what new/old political or social movements might be the vehicle that will allow this change to take place.

My feeling is that despite all the noise and smoke, real change is not inevitable.  This is partly because maintaining momentum is a challenge, (particularly in the wake of the NO vote) and perhaps even more because there is no real clarity over WHAT people want to change. There has been a clear expression of dissatisfaction- both with the current socio-political status quo, and with Westminster (which was usually seen to be English) in particular, but the Yes campaign up here seemed to me a combing together of very great complexity under the deceptively simple duality of yes/no. People were able to invest hopes and dreams along with a way to vent their spleen, but consensus over the sort of society/economy/community that should replace the one we are part of now? This is a wholly different issue.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I was not convinced by the nationalist argument, but that I am desperate for change. The process of engaging with the referendum has therefore been a painful one for me- one that I feel to have driven wedges between myself and things I hold dear- as well as people I hold dear. Aside from the personal aspects of this however, to a certain extent, what has happened is what always seems to happens in the UK- it has become another means by which the political left splits itself apart.

The challenge then for radicals on both sides of the referendum campaign is to find a way to come together again. If the real issue was not nationalism, but a desire to be in charge of shaping things towards our own destiny, then what happens now that these things need to be filtered again through the current political machinery? For the NO voters like me, now that we have rejected one possible change process, what are we going to put in its place?

I have spent hours and hours since the referendum reading stuff about alternatives, and how policy might be different. If you are interested, here are a few links;

The New Economics Foundation. A collection of ideas on how to achieve greater environmental, social and economic justice.

Countless articles in Newspapers (mostly The Guardian, which is the only one to give voice to persistent thoughtful radicals.) Including this one

The big idea of the three main parties is the same: not capitalism, or neo-liberalism, or social democracy – but growthism. This term was coined by the author Umair Haque to describe the pursuit, above all other things, of economic growth. Never mind who it benefits, who gets left behind or what it destroys; never mind if its practices are unfair or unsustainable: if the numbers go up, everyone is happy, and if they’re not happy, give them a tax break.

Common Weal. “…a vision of what Scotland can be if it rejects the failed Me-First politics that left us all in second place and instead builds a politics that puts All Of Us First.”  A collection of reports on a range of political and economic solutions.

The Green Party. The only UK political party that has a comprehensive set of radical policies on everything from social welfare and defence- not just the environment! I confess that as a lifelong (albeit latterly reluctant) Labour supporter, I am on the cusp of making the leap towards the Greens. I am gathering a clarity over the changes I long for and the Greens seem to have most of these things as policy objectives. A change from Growthism to sustainability, and emphasis on social justice and progressive fair taxation, and a defence policy that is as radical as almost anything I have ever seen- a real movement away from the military industrial machine.

I had a long discussion with a friend recently- someone still heartbroken and raw from the referendum. One of the things we talked about was whether change had to be local or more global. My feeling is that it has to be both. Activism has to be rooted in real community, local connection, but it needs to be connected to something bigger- to leadership, creativity and passion that has a wider expression. This is what the Left has failed to achieve for some time- possibly because Labour (ostensibly a Leftist party, but actually as rooted in the accommodation of growthism as any party) was seen as offering all that the Left could offer. However, also this might have something to do with it too;

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”
― Noam Chomsky, The Common Good

We need to forge local connections, but we also need to look beyond them. Part of this might well require healing some of those divisions with our political allies. When we look to the left, let us see people of hope, not people of division.

Tony Benn; who will carry his fire?

In memory of the man (who died today, aged 88) watch this;

As I listen to him- his appreciation of the history of working people in their struggle against the power and wealth of the few, his hate of war and injustice, his passion, grace and good humour, I pray that there will be those who will take up the same issues for the next generation.

I am sad to say that I am not sure who these people are, and where they will come from.

Brand and Paxman expose the cracks in capitalism (and ourselves.)

Emily told me to watch this.

If you have an interest in politics/economics/inequality etc, please watch it. I find myself slightly shocked at recommending a clip with a narcissistic smart mouth being interviewed by someone who uses cynicism like a rapier.

But watch it anyway.

Firstly- hooray.

Someone is shaking the tree. The video has gone viral- young people are revolting (if only by clicking the ‘share’ button.)Questions are being asked again about injustice, the operation of power, the distracting divisive effect of the media.The Occupy movement is heard of again in the mainstream media- I worried that it had been blown away like an electronic leaf in a cyber storm of ephemerality.

And perhaps most of all, a voice is speaking for the next generation – my kids – about the possibility of change. No, the NECESSITY of change. I fear that these voices have been silent, overwhelmed by consumerism and the chasing after product; be that a physical thing or a commoditised experience.

But…

Where is the connection to action? What is the vehicle for change? What are the dangerous ideas that will inspire?

The only idea Brand seems to have is this one- do not vote. It is a waste of time.

He may be right- but what do we do instead then?

I hope and pray that my kids might start to find some real alternatives. That they might come to believe that a different world is possible.

Watching Brand and Paxman is like engaging in a conversation between myself and my daughter (in fact it resulted in just that.) Paxman and I failed; after our radicalism, things got worse. Thatcher skewed us ever further into a credit fueled consumerism. The world became more unequal, power more concentrated in the hands of the rich.

We might cast cynical glances at the ideas of the next generation, but it will be their world soon, if it is not already.

Neoliberalism- what comes next?

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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
common sense.

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…

What makes a ‘good’ country?

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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…

 

Politics does not matter- or does it?

Michaela and I were sitting looking miserably into our tea cups today and talking about the vote in parliament to cut welfare payments.

All this depressing divisive and stigmatizing talk of ‘strivers and skyvers’. Tax cuts to the rich to encourage them all to generate ‘growth’ in the economy (best measured it seems by how much the rich get even richer.) As if the poor are somehow culpable- a useless drain on society that we are better without. As if they were the cause of all this economic turmoil rather than its primary victims.

Writing in the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty pronounced this vote as the final nail in the coffin of the welfare state. Some may regard this as overdue- as we lurch to the right, and find our political language dominated by America. But we are not America. We have our own proud history- not the Kings-and-Queens stuff, but the history of the rise of a kind of shared decency that characterises these islands. The history of the small people in fields and factories. Here is Chakrobortty;

 the golden period of Welfare really came in the 60s and 70s as, thanks to the work of Barbara Castle, Jeff Rooker, Audrey Wise and others, pensions and allowances were made more generous and tied to typical earnings.

“If you were poor, you were far less behind than at any other time in contemporary British history,” according to Richard Exell, a senior policy officer at the TUC and a campaigner on welfare issues for more than 30 years. “It produced a Britain that was one of the most equal societies in western Europe.”

Just before Margaret Thatcher came to power, a single person out of work would get unemployment benefit worth almost 21% of average earnings; last year, jobseeker’s allowance was nearly half that, amounting to just over 11%.

Welfare’s big decline came in the 1980s, as the Conservatives moved more benefits from available to all to on offer only to the poor. This was justified as making public spending more efficient.

But, according to a famous and much quoted study by Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme, such means-testing is far less effective and more expensive than universal benefits. In a study of 18 rich countries, the academics found that targetting benefits at the poorest usually generated resentment among those just above – and led to smaller entitlements.

This “paradox of redistribution” was certainly observable in Britain, where Welfare retained its status as one of the 20th century’s most exalted creations, even while those claiming benefits were treated with ever greater contempt.

“If you look at unemployment and sickness benefit as a proportion of average earnings, then Britain has one of the meanest welfare systems in Europe,” says Palme. “Worse than Greece, Bulgaria or Romania.”

Some of that same meanness can be seen in the way Welfare was discussed as it moved into its sixth and seventh decades. It was no longer about social security but benefits. Those who received them were no longer unfortunate but “slackers“, as Iain Duncan Smith referred to them. A recent study by Declan Gaffney, Ben Baumberg and Kate Bell of 6,600 national newspaper articles on Welfare published between 1995 and 2011 found 29% referred to benefit fraud. The government’s own estimate of fraud is that it is less than 1% across all benefit cases.

Is this what we come to- this great nation of ours? Mean and whinging and judgmental?  Are we not better than this? Which brings me back to politics. Michaela remembered reading something recently about one of the finest politic speeches of the last 50 years in the UK- Neil Kinnock, speaking in 1985, at a time when we were young and fired up by ideas and hope that things could be better;

If Margaret Thatcher is re-elected as prime minister on Thursday, I warn you.

I warn you that you will have pain–when healing and relief depend upon payment.

I warn you that you will have ignorance–when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right.

I warn you that you will have poverty–when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can’t pay.

I warn you that you will be cold–when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don’t notice and the poor can’t afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work–when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don’t earn, they don’t spend. When they don’t spend, work dies.

I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light.

I warn you that you will be quiet–when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient.

I warn you that you will have defence of a sort–with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding.

I warn you that you will be home-bound–when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up.

I warn you that you will borrow less–when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday–

– I warn you not to be ordinary

– I warn you not to be young

– I warn you not to fall ill

– I warn you not to get old.

Neil Kinnock

For the record, Thatcher won the election and we live in her rain shadow still. Cameron and his whipping boy Clegg have now gone further than even Thatcher would ever have dared go however.

Politics matters. We need some more Kinnocks- for all their faults…

Where is the new ideology?

It is an old academic political discussion- the end of Ideology– by which I mean the end of the time of battling grand political/economic theories that inspired and fuelled our attempts to understand and shape our society. Thatcher put an end to all that in the UK- not because she had no ideology, but because she cleared the field of all opposition. Capitalism and ‘The Market’ triumphed and gifted us with the so called free movement of capital, trickle down, neoliberalism and globalisation.

Over the next 20 years, nation after nation fell in line, cajoled by the promise of great wealth or manipulated by powerful organisations who needed scarce resources or a new market.

None of this is a surprise, but what is more noticeable is the lack of viable alternative. Sure there are voices of protest- not least the Occupy Movement- but to demand change is not necessarily the same thing as proposing an alternative (I know that the OM are in discussion about all sorts of issues, but I would suggest that no real coherent alternative ideology has yet emerged.)

There was an interesting article in the Guardian today by Aditya Chakrabortty. Here are a couple of quotes;

When the history of how a good crisis went to waste gets written up, it will surely contain a big chapter on the failure of our academic elites. Because just like the politicians, the taxpayer-funded intellectuals at our universities have missed the historic opportunities gifted to them by the financial collapse. And it will be the rest of us who pay the price…

…So have the non-economists grasped their moment? Have they hell. Look at the academic conferences held over the past few weeks, at which the latest and most promising research in each discipline is presented, and it’s as if Lehman Brothers never fell over…

Chakrabortty did a search of recent sociological and social science conferences and academic papers and concluded that pretty much the disciplines were not interested in challenging the core assumptions of the dominant ideology.

So where is the challenge to come from, if not from the academic elite? And more importantly, where are the alternative ideologies going to emerge from?

I watched the two Che Guevara films recently- a time when ideology believed that revolution was possible and even worth killing for. Revolution meant overcoming the ruling elite, empowering the poor and dispossessed and bringing egalitarian justice to society. Whilst I abhor the violence, most of us will instinctively feel the pull of these ideas.

Most of us too will have heard the spoilers- the voices that suggest that such ideas are unrealistic, unobtainable, work against human instincts and have been proved to serially fail because of the repeated failures of communist regimes throughout the world. Therefore the only option left is to continue as we are- with a few tweaks to satisfy the left field.

I want to raise my own voice in protest at this hopelessness. I want to invite my friends into a journey to find a new kind of ideology. We are not there yet, but I think we have some clues;

Start small. Start local.

Buy less, want less, make more.

Reduce waste, increase sharing and holding things in common.

Increase joint social enterprise.

In all things be aware of the impact on those who have little.

In all things be aware of the impact on the environment.

For me, the other academic/social/political group that has been near silent in the offering of a viable alternative is this one- the Church. Because as I look at the economic list above, it seems to me to be also a SPIRITUAL list. Without the life of the Spirit within us, we are mere animals, scratching and scraping at one another for the meatiest parts of the carcass.

So perhaps it all comes down to the word Love. If Economics are subordinate to love, then what might the theories look like? If political science was shaped by love, how might we organise ourselves differently? Even as I write this I feel the rise of cynicism, but- love remains.

I think this is the ideology of the Kingdom of God, and the viral vitality that we can and should bring to all these debates. And we do not have to wait until the universities write papers and hold conferences- because we can make our own small economy now- here.