Category Archives: Society

Aristotle, The Troika and Hubris

Democracy in chains (image © adeg 2009)

Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because of anything that had happened to a person or might happen to a person, but merely for that person’s own gratification in the victim’s humiliation. In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride and arrogance.

The Troika (IMF, ECB and EC*) are guilty of it in both it’s ancient and modern meaning. Their intransigent stance has little or nothing to do with curing the long term problems that bedevil Greece (and Italy, Spain and Portugal) and much more to do with punishing the Greeks for daring to challenge the status quo. No-one with any modicum of intelligence (whatever else I think of them I acquit Merkel, Lagarde, Schäuble, Juncker and Draghi* of stupidity) can really believe that more austerity will do anything to solve the Greek crisis. Many well respected economists and even parts of the IMF itself are protesting ever more loudly at the absurdity and wrongness of continuing to administer poison to a dying patient but are resolutely ignored. The present situation has been brought about by the inequality of power and by the strong being unable to exercise restraint – being unable to resist pushing for that final total capitulation by the weak. Greece must be punished not because it will do them any good but to show them who rules. So the Greeks have been shown the naked power of the money and bankers.

Less than a month after being elected the Greek government was told in no uncertain terms that the will of its people as expressed at the ballot box was irrelevant. The Germans in the person of Schäuble indulged in some distasteful triumphalism; his comment “Being in government is a date with reality, and reality is often not as nice as a dream”, deserves to rank with “Let them eat cake”. The troika have not budged from this stance in all the months of negotiation.

Only a small fraction of the €240bn (£170bn) total bailout money received in 2010 and 2012 found its way into the government’s coffers to soften the blow of the 2008 financial crash and fund reform programmes. Most of the money went to the banks that lent Greece funds before the crash. Unlike most of Europe, which ran up large budget deficits to protect pensioners and welfare recipients, Athens was then forced to dramatically reduce its deficit by squeezing pensions and cutting the minimum wage. In January the social crisis that resulted from the collapse of the Greek economy prompted them to elect a government pledged to end austerity. For the Greeks there really is no alternative. The ‘TINA’ so beloved of neoliberal proponents of austerity was turned on its head and the gloves came off.

The Troika continue to threaten Greece by saying voting ‘No’ means a euro exit (and by implication an EU exit). That is blatant interference in the democratic process. Whatever the outcome of the present crisis whether Greece votes Yes and capitulates or whether it votes No and marches into the unknown is almost irrelevant against the fact that the leaders of Europe in conjunction with the IMF have destroyed its raison d’etre. In the aftermath of the Twentieth Century’s two wars that had wrenched Europe apart and led to untold misery for millions, leaders who were a diverse group but who held the same ideals: a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe, came together to lay the foundations of the European Union in the Treaty of Rome. The ideal of a Europe that created prosperity and stability for all its citizens has been subsumed to the demands of the market.

‘The Market’ and ‘Market Forces’ have come to be invested with the kind of superstitious reverence and belief in their omnipotent capability to solve and rule every aspect of life. This bears much more resemblance to Cargo Cults (the belief that various ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of material wealth) than any model of society based on enlightened, humane and consensual (democratic) beliefs. If we are indeed a union then the stronger economies should support the weak (as has always happened within Nation States where governments direct support to poorer areas for example in the UK extra development funds to the North East of England or the Welsh Valleys; though sadly I fear this may also be in danger from austerity fever). What we seem to be witnessing in 2015 is the opposite; the main beneficiaries of the wealth created by Europe pointing the finger of blame at the poor. Malthus* is alive and well and holds the consciences of our leaders in his grasp.

That said I believe the true crisis here is one of democracy not economics. Neoliberal ideology could not let a left wing government demonstrate a viable alternative to the social engineering of society through austerity. In Britain we start from a stronger base but we are the subject of the same wrenching apart of society through ever widening inequality and Malthusian attitudes to the ‘poor’. British exit from EU will not solve our problems but it might just solve Greece’s. There will be a lot of pain but at least there will be some hope of a better and fairer society whereas there is none on offer from the present zeitgeist of Europe. Not what I hoped when I voted enthusiastically for Britain to join Europe – betrayed is the word that sums up my attitude to EU now. How many hundreds of thousands of Europe’s citizens are, like me, sitting in their homes reading about or watching to the unfolding crisis and wondering how the ideals and the vision of those who founded the European project have been so fundamentally betrayed.

The events of this last week would on the surface seem to make Britain’s exit from Europe more likely but no doubt even if the British people were to express the desire to leave the Union their votes would count for nothing if multi national corporations, bankers and billionaire manipulators of politicians want us to remain in the EU. Freedom and democracy are linked as if the one predicates the other; as if freedom implies democracy and vice versa. The generally accepted definition of democracy up to now has been Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.” That is rapidly becoming the big lie of the twenty first century. The forms are preserved but the freedom to choose is ever more limited. How ironic that the nation credited with the invention of the democratic ideal is the one where its funeral rites are being held. Where the panegyric delivered by Merkel et al in praise of democracy trumpets this ideal as Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives except where this conflicts with the interests of banks and multi-national corporations.”

*International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission
*Agela Merkel German Chancellor, Christine Lagarde head of IMF, Wolfgang Schäuble German Finance Minister, Jean Claude Junker head of the EC and Mario Draghi head of ECB)
*Malthus – Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 – 1834) Malthus developed the theory of demand-supply mismatches that he called gluts. Discounted at the time, this theory foreshadowed later works of an admirer, John Maynard Keynes. He is however best remembered for the views expressed in his 1798 essay on population “That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and, that the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.” In it’s most extreme form – being kind to the poor is cruelty and it’s their own fault they are poor so only harshness will prompt them to work to lift themselves out of poverty.

Update on absence – migration and brain fade

os cachorros loucas 2This post is prompted by the thought that I should let those of you who are kind and interested enough to follow my musings know that I have not dropped off the blogging twig.   The silence is entirely due to all my energies being subverted from writing into the business of emigrating.   Whoever said moving house was up there with death and divorce as the most stressful experiences nailed it.   Emigrating is moving house on steroids.   It is not the practical stuff – packing, sorting and organising, that is child’s play compared to the decision making.   ‘If this, then that but what if…’ is how we start almost all conversations these days. The dogs  merely concentrate on whether we’re packing a suficient number of dinner bowls and their favourite food and are all ready to depart in their own carefree way (as illustrated) leaving us to sort out everything else.

I certainly feel that I am now a character in one of those locigal brain teasers as in ‘there are six villages on the only perfectly round island in the universe….’ or ‘there are five cousins…’  where you have to work out the solutions from cleverly  misleading or incomplete information.   Example from our current life – five phone calls to the Inland Revenue about self employed status abroad and five different and conflicting sets of information provided – work out the correct route to take.   If you get it wrong you get fined and no we’re unable to give you an answer in writing because then it would be too easy for you.  AAAARGH!   If I continued with Rats at the moment (assuming I had any energy left after ten hour days of DIY and bureaucracy) it would be darkly Kafkaesque, unintelligible and depressing.  Rats will however be back in due course as will the rest of my musings.

We shall be shortly joining the hordes of Migrants allegedly flooding round Europe – Mr Farage and UKIP please note we are performing our own Brexit.   One of the reasons we’re leaving, apart from the British weather of course, is the depressing result of the general election.  At least UKIP only got one seat – what a nasty, narrow minded lot they are – migration is actually a good thing.   In terms of the stunningly unexpected this election was right up there with Kinnock losing in 1992 or Harry Truman beating Dewey in 1948.   I don’t know anyone who isn’t horribly depressed by the Conservative victory and the threat of the savage cuts to come plus the stupidity of a referendum on EU membership but then most of the people I know are intelligent, caring and compassionate.   Plus no doubt Scottish Independence will be back on the agenda before long.  At the moment there’s a Facebook petition doing the rounds for the North of England to apply to become part of Scotland.  It has a surprisingly large number of signatures.  The only problem is the area which people want included is gradually spreading southwards!

 

On keeping Diaries, Blogging and Moving

I haven’t been very active on my blog lately not because of running out of things to say; the world at the moment provides far too many topics worthy of a good rant.  No, my silence is due to the annoying habit of the non cyberspace reality poking its nose in!  Family ponderings have produced the decision to up sticks and move away from Britain.   The forthcoming election and the prospect of UKIP in any kind of coalition with the Tories has reduced my other half to a combination of quivering terror and stirrings of a  desire for violent direct action which since he is a Budhist has caused much internal debate and angst.    So we are plunged yet again into the process of sorting our stuff – for people who practice non-attachment we seem to have a hell of a lot!
Trawling through one of our many boxes of things that come under the heading of ‘too useful to throw away but haven’t been used in thirty years’ I came across an old diary from 1976 – I’m not good with diaries.   I used to want to keep them and I’d start in January with every intention this would be the year I actually was still writing it come November – I never got much beyond March;  entries in April were a rarity!  I eventually recognised my limitations in my mid thirties and gave up the whole enterprise – I can honestly say I never missed it – this diary must have been one of the last I kept.  One of the last entries  was in March and I thought I would share it – just because…

“I got very drunk last night so I went to a Turkish bath and this morning I felt better. Then I found someone had stolen my socks. That’s a mean thing to do. I had to be in Court and had no time to go and get replacement socks. It’s very hard to concentrate on making a good case when you know you have to be careful how you sit and stand so no-one will know you are not wearing any socks.”

The only other entry after that was one line written during June when Britain was in the grip of the heat wave “whole City reeks of dog shit”

Lines in winter – for Raif Badawi

Lines in winter

                            I

Black flakes of birds, wind driven, tossed
from tree to tree across a bleak sky.
Winter stubble fields sullen and empty

tramlines of pale stalks in dark mud
even the weeds seem to have given up
attempting a foothold in this cultivated desert

The news is full of dismal stuff

Wars and plagues, immigration and austerity
and as if all that wasn’t enough
Politicians shuffling through piles of dead words

And I keep thinking of Brecht’s line
that it is almost a crime
to speak of trees for it is
a kind of silence about injustice

                           II

You think we have no reason
to write of anything beyond
personal experience, introspection,
intricacies of words and emotion
because no one will put us in prison
when our words offend?

But what is the purpose of poets
if not to focus the mind’s
attention where it is needed most;
to sing like canaries in dark mines
in the space between heartbeats?

                             III

And this skinny little man
with an impish grin and unruly hair
this twenty first century Voltaire

with his tongue and his pen,
who dares to use them to question
and to oppose oppression

and every beat of the cane
draws a line of fire  across his back
“he made no sound” the witness said
“but you could see he was in pain”

and each stroke of the lash opens
another throat to sing.  Becomes
one thousand strokes of one thousand pens;

lines of pale stalks that remain
defiant and upright after snow and storms,
gleaming against the dark of the earth

©2015  A de Grandis

Raif B 1Raif Badawi is one of us, a blogger and part of our community – he is a writer and activist who co-founded the website “Free Saudi Liberals”.  In 95% of the world he’d be doing what the rest of us do, leading his life, going to the day job, happily expressing his thoughts and opinions on his blog but not in Saudi Arabia.

In May 2012 shortly before his arrest he addressed the nature of Liberalism on his blog
“For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.”

His final thought quoted Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
More of his writing can be found at
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/-sp-saudi-blogger-extracts-raif-badawi

Raif B 2On January 9, Raif Badawi was taken from his prison cell to a public square outside the al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was subjected to the first fifty of the sentence of one thousand lashes.
Days later, his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair’s prison sentence was extended to fifteen years
Then, on January 16, Badawi’s next 50 lashes were postponed because his injuries from the first round were too harsh to withstand additional flogging. They are scheduled to resume this week.  The Saudi Authorities will resume their torture once he has healed enough to withstand the next fifty lashes.

The crime that prompted this appalling punishment is that he ran a website called, with dreadful irony, Free Saudi Liberals. On this he discussed and advocated secularism, and mocked the cruel absurdities of the Saudi religious authorities, who denounce astrologers for peddling nonsense but themselves have people executed for ‘sorcery’.  He does not advocate violence and what he says would be taken as self-evident truth outside the closed, medieval and fearful world that is Saudi Arabia.

I’d urge all bloggers to take up Raif Badawi’s cause if to do no more than sign the petition that Amnesty International have organised to stop his further flogging
https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/saudi-arabia-free-raif-badawi-flogged-blogger

We must not forget that we enjoy our freedom to blog and to express our opinions because in our countries in the past there were individuals like Raif Badawi, writers and thinkers who dared to speak out against oppression and injustice.  I believe we owe him our support and our voices, which is what prompted me to write the poem.  I’m happy for it to be shared and used to help his cause.

Austerity, Capitalism and Collateral Damage

A follow up to my last week’s blog on the autumn statement and a further exploration of what is wrong with the policies of austerity being so relentlessly pursued by the British Government.

The report from the Office for Budget Responsibility, Britain’s the tax and spending watchdog stated that low wages force Britain to spend £900m more on tax credits than planned.   A simple and compelling illustration of why austerity does not build prosperity.  The greatest growth in poverty has been among those in work, so how can the Chancellor delude himself that people who need tax credits to bridge the gap between wages and what it actually costs to live on or about the breadline are going to generate consumer spending of the sort needed to fuel a recovery.   The simple answer of course is that the Chancellor is not deluded and is perfectly aware of the consequences of the policies this government is pursuing. The low paid and unemployed are collateral damage in the vision of the new world order of unrestrained capitalism where wealth is concentrated into the hands of the few at the expense of the many.

The ugly truth is that free market capitalism requires boom and bust – shaking the tree dislodges those with a precarious hold on wealth and prosperity and frees assets to be acquired at knockdown prices by those with liquidity.

The haves buy up repossessed properties and rent them back to those who because they lost their jobs failed to pay their mortgages but who still need somewhere to live.  Those with spare capital can buy repossessed properties cheaply.   Buy to let mortgages are easy to obtain for landlords who already have a portfolio of properties so they can grow their assets with relative ease.   The State will pay housing benefit for rent although it is parsimonious in the extreme in helping those in trouble with their mortgage payments.
My Aunt taught in Glasgow in the poorest of areas in the 1930’s and the hunger and destitution she saw stayed with her for life.  She taught children who shivered barefoot to school through the snow with no food in their bellies.  It made her an ardent socialist who wanted a just world where no children were denied a hot meal, a warm coat and boots, not much to ask you’d think but it was then.  People died of hunger and from treatable illnesses because they couldn’t pay for a doctor.  My partner’s mother had rickets from malnutrition as a child because her father had no work in the great depression and no money for food.

Our parents’ generation grew up in hard and bitter times and survived the pain and the loss and destruction of the Second World War and were determined to build a better future for the generations that came after them.  Free health care so that people like the sister of Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran born into an impoverished mining family, do not die untreated in a workhouse at the age of ten because their family cannot pay for medicines.  He spoke vividly and movingly at the Labour party conference this autumn about his experience as a child he said

“Wages were low, rents were high and there was little or no job protection as a result of a post war recession that had gutted Britain’s industrial heartland. When the Great Depression struck Britain in the 1930s, it turned our cities and towns into a charnel house for the working class, because they had no economic reserves left to withstand prolonged joblessness and the ruling class believed that benefits led to fecklessness.”

This sounds a chilling echo in what we hear today about the culture of workshy families and benefit fraud, about immigrants and poverty  being your own fault and other such myths and in the cuts the Chancellor proposes that the Institute for Fiscal Studies say would mean cutting the size of the state to pre-war 30s levels.   All the gains our parents thought they had made towards a fair, just and equitable society that looked after the poor, the old and the vulnerable are being taken away from us and we seem powerless or paralysed in our attempts to stop it.

Voices like Harry Smith are vital because the generation that remember the 1920’s and 30’s are dying out. Soon there will be no first hand witness testimony to these times. Like the First World War where the last few surviving servicemen have recently died it is passing from living memory into history and history we all know is a fairground hall of mirrors in which the present distorts the past to serve its current needs and purpose.

We have  a simple choice,  each of us as an individual needs to ask the question- ‘what sort of world do I want to live in, want my children and their children to live in?’ – If the answer is that you want a fair and just world where they can be healthy and prosperous not hungry and desperate then I have to I open my eyes to the reality of what is being taken away and  stand up and say ‘enough no more!’

Society and government are the ties that bind us and we need to protect the poor and vulnerable not vilify them and pretend it is their own fault they need help.

Electronic money does not make the World go round

Last week I wrote about the Chancellor’s autumn statement and I tried to express the anger I felt about the continual pursuit of austerity by this government.

There are voices speaking out against it in ever increasing numbers, Russell Brand being simply one of the better known in the UK at least.   I am a small voice in the multitude but I’m in good company not only famous comedians but also heavyweight fiscal institutions are lending their voices to the argument against further cuts.  May be, just maybe, the whole thing will blow up in the government’s face and an opportunity will be seized by bankrupt local authorities, struggling families and radical activists who want an end to the corruption and greed that is free market capitalism.

My friend John Rogers has for many years been engaged in the development of and the economic theories behind alternative local currencies.  The truth is that much of the problems we are suffering are the direct result of the Banking industry’s creation of and speculation in imaginary money to generate inflated profits and massive bonuses.   Local currencies return money to its original function as a medium of exchange rather than a commodity in which you can speculate and thereby cause economic instability.

Local currencies also keep wealth circulating in the local area since they are not backed by the national government then they cannot be used outside the area.  Multi-national business cannot, therefore, send their money off to whatever tax haven the have located their head office in to avoid paying their taxes. Needless to say this type of business sees no benefit in participating in local currency areas!

Local currencies are an interesting idea and I’ll be exploring it further in future blogs.  In the meantime for anyone who wants an introduction to the subject John blogs on the subject and I recommend a read of his recent posts  http://valueforpeople.co.uk/spark-blog/

 

Christmas, Secret Squirrels, Economics and Humbug

Christmas is cranking up – TV smothered in festive cheer and adverts for really expensive toys.    Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us – I spent nothing on either day proving that as a capitalist consumer I am a total failure YEAY!   My other half and I buy each other a nice big book and then we sit and read it for the rest of the festive season thereby avoiding even eye contact and the risk of resultant jollity.  Secret squirrel is the invention of a malevolent entity and should be ejected from this galaxy through the nearest wormhole; the damn squirrel as well as its inventor.    As practiced by the sadists in our office it requires you to guess publicly who has bought you the cheap bit of crap that you hate.

So we have a frenzy of spending conspicuous consumption by those who have and misery and guilt for those who do not.  Children stoked up to want incredibly expensive toys, adults to want designer clothes, perfume and booze and adverts showing happy families and friends round tables groaning with sumptuous feasts.  Dickens Pickwick Papers, Christmas at Dingley Dell what a wonderful world to be sure.

This is the background to Woeful Wednesday otherwise known as the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.  I almost didn’t blog about it because really you can’t have every other word being an expletive, it may relieve your feelings but it doesn’t present a coherent argument nor is it good prose.   The government has continued its relentless pursuit of austerity as a cure for our economic and other woes in the face of all the evidence that cutting does not produce growth or prosperity but in fact perpetuates a downward spiral in which the poorest and most vulnerable citizens suffer disproportionate hardship.    So one has to ask what philosophy underlines the idea that further drastic spending cuts will stimulate economic growth and prosperity.

Are we really to be driven by a set of values where poverty not just relative but absolute poverty for a significant number of citizens is the norm?   Where there is an ever widening gap between the lowest and highest in terms of wealth?   Again all the indicators show that these are counter-productive in terms of national prosperity.   We hear nothing now of the ‘Big Society’ or any other pious platitudes about all being in this together.  For many this will be a truly Dickensian Christmas of the worst sort.  Food banks, zero hours contracts where you are employed but with no guarantee of any pay in any one week are increasingly the shocking reality of 21st Century Britain.  The institute for Fiscal Studies which is neither left wing nor alarmist has warned the Chancellor’s deficit reduction plans mean cuts on a “colossal scale”  The public sector spending cuts over the next five years set out in the autumn statement might force a “fundamental re-imagining of the state”, the IFS said.  We are looking at up to 40% reductions in some areas including defence, the police, social security and most spending that protects the vulnerable. It is the environment, foreign relations, housing and day to day flood defences. It is business regulation and health and safety (including things like food). It is the basic infrastructure on which our society is built. And it is going to disappear, very fast.  We are going to see local authorities who cannot meet their statutory obligations to the vulnerable, who cannot grit roads or keep open libraries.  The planned cuts are likely to lead to a million public sector workers losing their jobs.  A report into food banks was published by a consortium of charities, including Child Poverty Action Group, Trussell Trust and Oxfam, which found that the number of people accessing three days’ worth of emergency provisions had risen from 128,000 in 2011-12 to 913,000 in 2013-14.   This will continue and will get worse.  The most worrying aspect of poverty in Britain today is in-work poverty, people on zero hours contracts, people who have part time work and need tax credits and other benefits to put food on the table and pay for heating.  Last month the education and equalities minister, Nicky Morgan, wrote for the Guardian that the coalition government had reduced the gender pay gap to its narrowest ever level. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report illustrated how this had happened: among the lowest-paid quarter of the population, women’s wages have reduced by 40p an hour since 2008; over the same period in the same sector, men’s wages have reduced by 70p an hour.  We should be proud of this?  Curiouser and curiouser as Alice famously said.

The Chancellor’s main gambit was slashing stamp duty on house purchases in the hopes of fuelling a house price boom which in turn will fuel a consumer credit boom ahead of next May’s general election giving us all a feel good factor and a nice boost to the economy.  Dream on Mr Osborne, if you fear for your job if you see services being slashed you become less not more likely to go out and spend.  You save what little you’ve got for the rainy day you can see coming all too clearly.  You don’t take risks; you don’t trade up your house or buy a new car.

Our problem is falling tax revenue, partly because many of the jobs in the economy are low wage or part time and because as illustrated by a report of the National Institute of Economic & Social Research real weekly wages overall have fallen by about 8% since 2008, equivalent to a fall in annual earnings of about £2,000 for a typical worker in Britain.  In addition the government allows multinationals such as Amazon and Starbucks among others to pay no tax on their profits.   Tax receipts are already £23 billion below expectation and the OBR now seems to think that this trend is permanent.  We drift into ever deeper and more permanent recession.

The most worrying aspect is that in all of this politics is marching to the drum beat of anger over immigration and so called benefit cheats,  poverty, inequality, homelessness or hunger are being air brushed out of the political debate.   So yes I am angry and disappointed that the country I grew up in is not just disappearing it has already gone.  There is no excuse for the dull acceptance that we cannot do anything about poverty or that somehow being poor is your own fault.  There is even less excuse for blaming it on immigrants.  Mr Farage and UKip are covert fascists and the only party that is standing up and saying this along with calling for a living wage is the Green Party and their reward is to be airbrushed out by the mainstream media.

Christmas?  Bah Humbug.  I’m not buying into consumer fantasy land I’m donating food to those who are hungry and homeless.