Tag Archives: austerity

Light the blue touch paper 2016

cartwheel2016 has brought us Brexit and President elect Trump and a feeling that the wheel of fortune is turning; the world is changing. Already the Infosphere* is awash with explanations, ideas and remedies for these perceived disasters. I say perceived because we don’t yet know the actual trajectory events will take and where we will end up as a result of these votes. An energy of discontent and disillusionment has been building not just since the Bankers plunged the world into turmoil in 2008 but since the philosophy (if one can call it that) of an unrestrained free market capitalism skewed in favour of the rich took hold. The stored potential energy for change that has been building in the system discharged in 2016, converted into the kinetic energy of motion. The ball has started bouncing. Eventually it will run out of energy but the question is what will have happened in the interim?

So we wait like small children on bonfire night full of anticipation and trepidation as the blue touch paper slowly ignites. Hope and fear curling round each other in a finely balanced state of gleeful apprehension. Will the rocket take off and reward us with a glittering spectacle or will it topple over and screech across the garden sending us shrieking and running for safety (and kind of enjoying the danger and excitement of this out of control moment).

Like everyone else who takes even a passing interest in the affairs of the world quite a lot of articles about the how and why of Trump’s victory. I’ve listed a few at the bottom of this blog if anyone wants to go and check them out. I found there to be thoughtful and insightful analysis both from those on the left and right of the political spectrum about the events of 2016. The more I read, however, the more I realised that in my opinion they all missed one small but vital point. The ability of humans to tell stories. Each of these articles represent one person’s story about the events. We make stories because that is how we make sense of the world.

Humans are compulsive story tellers. It is our greatest strength and also our greatest weakness. I think that is the single most important genetic quirk that set us on the path to being different. My dog, clever and sagacious as he is, does not come home from his wander round the village and regale me with the story of his morning. We have been doing it for countless millennia. Our ability to tell stories is inseparably linked to the asking of questions like ‘what if’ and ‘why not’? Science is at its root the story of ‘what if’ questions and history well the name tells us what that is. We make our own individual story as we go through life, we map the world and experience into narrative and we speculate about the future through what if and why. So it is no surprise that all these commentators tell their story. Each of us has a story about 2016. Why we voted or didn’t vote, who we voted for, what we had for breakfast that day, the row with our neighbour over the dustbin, the happy feeling from someone complimenting us etc., etc. Gradually this narrative will solidify and become the history of 2016.

At the moment we’re all trying to guess what will happen and there are some scary scenarios that ty-newydd-etc-118acould well come to pass and justify any amount of anxiety. We are all ‘What iffing’ like mad. The future is uncertain because it is unknown and unknowable but that has always been the case – modern life merely gives us an illusion of security. We know this in our subconscious but our conscious mind wants a plan, wants a map through uncertain geographies. So we ‘normalise’ and therein lies our biggest threat to our species. We try to explain away or rationalise but with some things we mustn’t do that. It happened with fascism in the thirties and ended up in the second world war. We do not live in the thirties the challenges the world faces are very different and though the name fascist is applied to many on the far right this is not fascism as practised by Hitler or Mussolini or Franco. This is something different, less definite. It is born out of a system that is collapsing round our ears.

This desire to rationalise away the uncomfortable is why nothing will be done about the over exploitation of resources until disaster has occurred. Why people hope Trump will turn out to be a reasonable and enlightened President. Why Boris Johnson can say if we don’t sell arms to the Saudis someone else will. Why the Sun, Daily Mail and Express voice ever more vile sentiments about immigration and about the rule of law while politicians make feeble comments about the freedom of the press. It is why the far right deftly use the Overton principle to move humanity along the conveyor belt to the shredder.

ty-newydd-etc-120aOne of the constant questions I hear from my friends and kindred spirits is ‘how could the left have lost the hearts and minds of the dispossessed and disadvantaged to the point where they would support the very people and system that has brought them such misery. My answer? The story told by the left was complicated confusing and boring. Like one of those books where you have to keep going back to check who is who because the plot is unclear. The right on the other hand tell a rattling yarn.’Once upon a time our country was great…’ and so on and people remember the story. Well now we have to invent o new story. One that doesn’t normalise the worst aspects of the human psyche. One that celebrates co-operation and compassion as values to be cherished. Not politics not left or right but just people getting along and living together on a very small planet.

Fears discussed and addressed dissipate like mist when the sun breaks through. Fears closeted and suppressed canker and grow and are fed by those with their own agenda. Brexit happens, Trump happens Shit happens, etc., etc. We need to talk to each other. To admit that we all have a shadow line inside us even though we don’t like to admit it. It is there, those knee jerk reactions, the synaptic pathways laid down in our brains by repeated use. We need to make an effort not to normalise. To stand up against injustice even in the small everyday compass of our lives. Be open, be friendly why not? When a system is collapsing all bets are off and there is a chance this could lead to a much better future for humanity. There is a chance it could lead to another dark era for humanity. No sleepwalking allowed in interesting times otherwise in the words of Tom Leherer

“And we will all go together when we go.
What a comforting fact that is to know.
Universal bereavement,
An inspiring achievement,
Yes, we all will go together when we go.”

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*Infosphere = the place where all communication happens – whether media, social media or just talking to each other.

These are some articles that resonated with me so no surprises that they are from the liberal left wing area of the Infosphere. There are several from the Guardian which these days is a toothless old dog but one of the few bits of the mainstream media that I still read.

http://charleseisenstein.net/hategriefandanewstory/

http://theconversation.com/trump-victory-comes-with-a-silver-lining-for-the-worlds-progressives-68523 (Yanis Varoufakis)

http://paulkingsnorth.net/2016/11/07/the-revolutionary-moment/

https://agentofhistory.com/ send your love to Donald Trump

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/commentisfree

Aditya Chakrabortty – Rust-belt romantics don’t get it: the middle class is being wiped out too

Owen Jones – A win for Trump was a win for bigotry. Here’s how we resist him

George Monbiot –Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies beneath Donald Trump’s triumph

Jaqueline Rose – Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for modern masculinity

Suzanne Moore – So much has been broken by this election, but we can’t collapse in on ourselves

 

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.

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.