I never delete people on Facebook for holding opinions that are different from mine. As an advocate of free speech, I welcome comments from lunatics, ‘KIPpers and even Tories (Of course, the first two are far from mutually exclusive).
In spite of all that, my Facebook feed around election time reminds me how much I have surrounded myself with woolly, liberal do-gooding pinko space cadets like myself.
To take an arbitrary example, no fewer than 33 of my FB friends “like” the Green Party. Conversely, not a single one of my friends “likes” the Conservative Party.
So, it should have come as no surprise today that my Facebook news feed reads like a Euripidean tragedy. Between gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair and crying into gluten-free yofu muesli, we had:
“I’m so, so sad”
“FUCK YOU ENGLAND”
“I can’t believe it. Devastated.”
Then I realised: We need to stop being unhappy. In every country of the world, including even formerly socialist places like Sweden, corporate control has made politics redundant. What you do or don’t do at the ballot box pales into insignificance compared with what you buy, where you bank and how you spend your time. We still have the power as consumers and (non-)workers to change the world should we wish to.
I voted Green and then went to Tescos on the way home and bought bacon and used their free plastic bags. That makes me as deluded and confused as the working class people who vote for ultra-capitalist UKIP.
Similarly, those people who are moaning about the election results, yet continuing to work for global companies whilst taking out credit cards and loans to buy shit they don’t need that’s been made in sweatshops from conflict minerals by third world slaves are just as hypocritical as me.
On a global scale, we are the 1%. We blame the Tories, but don’t realise that it is us, yes you and me who are the enemy….
The reason “they” have it all is that we all want what they have. It’s called false consciousness. The only way out of this mess is to create a system with values other than “their” values.
Those who are too chicken shit to consider a sustainable, anti-growth economic model may as well just quit moaning and get out there and make some money.
Liked this? Now read: Whatever happened to the leisure society?
It appears that London’s commuters have been attacked by anarchists telling them they need to stop working.
For those struggling to live and pay rent in the world’s most expensive city, those posters probably won’t cut much mustard.
However, the posters are indeed correct.
Revolution will only happen the day the working class realize they don’t have to work. It is only work which makes someone working class.
Socialists (as opposed to anarchists) on the other hand, are convinced that jobs are a great thing. They hold miners’ strikes and march for the ‘right to work’. Which means that Marxism might not be the best hope for the poor after all.
I wrote a blog about this a while ago, which explains all this. It’s here, if you haven’t already read it.
As well as the breath-taking honey-coloured stone, the famous dreaming spires and the tweed-clad Dons, the one thing that many visitors first notice is the number of homeless people on Oxford’s streets. Indeed, the homeless in Oxford are as numerous as they are visible. On any one night in Oxford, there are dozens of rough sleepers, hundreds more in hostels and thousands more ‘sofa surfing’ or sharing three or more to a room (making Oxford the UK’s 4th biggest ‘homelessness hotspot’). Some two miles away on the outskirts of town, the Oxford ring road is choked with stationary traffic at rush hour. Commuting to Abingdon or Whitney is the stuff of misery for a huge proportion of those who work in the city. These two seemingly disparate facts (homelessness and traffic) are, of course, intimately connected: Oxford is in the midst of a housing crisis. And the trouble is, there are no easy solutions. In spite of what commentators on the left and the right might have us believe.
The lack of housing cuts through all sections of society and is not reserved for some imagined underclass. Wages and job security in publishing and academia are enjoying a race to the bottom while property prices are continuing to out-perform the rest of the UK. The average property price is an eye-watering £380,000, while wages hover at around 1/12th of this figure. Simply put, Oxford is the country’s most expensive place to live, in proportion to wages.
The situation for Oxford’s less-well-off is, of course, even worse. The maximum housing benefit is £800 a month for a parent and child. A quick look at Rightmove reveals that the cheapest 2-bed property in town costs £865. You can, as they say, do the math. The Government’s so-called bedroom tax does not get a look-in here.
As we move further down the social scale, beyond town and gown towards down-and-out, the picture is even gloomier. The number of new arrivals at homeless shelters is growing by the day, yet the council has cut the hostel budget by 1/3rd. Many of what me might glibly call ‘normal’ people are now destitute, due to something as simple as falling out with a partner or losing their job. Most of the new arrivals were not into drugs or drink – until they slept rough for a couple of nights, that is.
Housing crisis affects all walks of society: The homeless panhandler, the debt-laden student, the impecunious young professional, the struggling single mum, the miserable commuter. But how can we really, honestly, help them? How about we think about supply and demand? Or, as Oxford Labour party say, let’s build more houses. If you look at a map, much of Oxford’s geographical centre is green. The colleges own plenty of marsh land, pastures and playing fields which could be used to house Oxford’s poor, or so the narrative goes. The City Council has outlined the development (NIMBYS-notwithstanding) of around 10,000 homes in the next fifteen years, including a new garden city at Bicester. Unfortunately, this still leaves a shortfall of 20,000 when compared to its own estimates of population growth.
The council is in constant wranglings with itself over various building projects. It recently tried to build housing association homes for over 3,000 people in a new complex near the Kassam stadium, but it was wisely blocked by the Green party. I say wisely, not because I especially care about the no doubt very beautiful sparrows, earwigs and dormice in the proposed location, but because – I’m sorry to say – it is a fallacy that building houses reduces housing demand. Just as building motorways increases traffic, building more housing attracts more people.
Expanding a city attracts more people. There are already twenty thousand or so miserable commuters who’d love to move back to the city, let alone all the service industry staff – by which, of course, I mean immigrants – who would flock to a growing Oxford if it were to expand. Oxford’s reputation as a city of scientific research and a publishing mecca outwith the academy mean it will always have top people setting up great start-ups. The Universities themselves are, of course, growing exponentially, stuffing in more international students, as well as the home grown elite who are willing to shell out the fees for the word “Oxford” on their degree. Building new developments would merely serve to line the pockets of construction companies and landlords, which I can’t help but think is the real motivation behind the purported ‘public good’ of building more homes.
As is so often the case with macroscopic, top-down thinking, seemingly attractive technological solutions ultimately mask a deeper structural problem. Houses have become properties – commodities to be bought and sold. Student towns, pretty towns and towns near London are even more susceptible to house price inflation than most. Oxford is all three of these. The likelihood of Oxford University’s reputation waning any time soon is pretty slim. It made it through the last 1,000 years in good shape. As long as The West remains the ideological gatekeeper of knowledge, an investment in Oxford property looks like a no-brainer.
In saner countries than Britain, these problems have been solved by introducing rent caps or clamping down on buy-to-let. But there are no guarantees. Rent caps in Berlin held back astronomical rent rises, but the city is becoming less affordable to locals by the day. There really are no simple solutions to Oxford’s housing crisis, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can. We may not be able to make the Government put the needs of its citizens before that of the banks, but each of us can be conscious of the housing needs of those around us and ensure that we act with compassion towards the homeless this Christmas.
2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, an event I remember watching with both excitement and confusion at the time. Being only nine years old, I’d never actually heard of the Berlin wall before, but it looked like something very important was happening. Unbeknown to me, something very important was happening. I was witnessing the triumph of freedom and democracy over communism. Or at least the bankrupting of the Soviet Union and its replacement with capitalist hegemony.
In the spring of that year, Francis Fukuyama’s little-read piece in National Interest had predicted that free market capitalism was the only way forward and that communism was inevitably fizzling out. Pretty soon, he said, history would end, leaving humanity in a permanent state of liberal democratic bliss. It was only a matter of months before Fukuyama’s predictions appeared to be coming true: Solidarity won in Poland, GDR Refugees flowed through Hungary, the wall came down in Berlin, and – most surprisingly of all – David Hasselhoff sang atop the Brandenburg Gate. Ceausescu, Gorby et al were consigned to the scrap heap of history, like carbon paper, the ridings of Yorkshire and white dog poo.
A stroll through Berlin today might indeed reinforce the idea that the end of history is here. If ever there was a figurehead for the end of history, it’s the 21st Century cosmopolitain city-dweller. For the sake of argument, let’s call them a Hipster. Equally at home in Williamsburg and Kreuzberg, the 21st Century Hipster knows no international borders, loves all the latest technology and reinforces unequal economic structures in whichever hotspot it calls home. Hipsters are never racist or homophobic and really don’t see much point in governments or international borders. They value diversity and individualism above all else. Capitalism personified.
Of course, the Hipster aesthetic is no longer the preserve of the international backpack/jetset. Hipster went viral. Suddenly every high street in the Northern hemisphere has craft beer, pulled pork and bearded men with tattoos. The Hipster aesthetic is really now nothing more than the mainstream of youth culture: Be nice to gay people, have a cool phone, eat home-made stuff, make stuff and do something interesting with your life.
In spite of all this, if someone were to ask the question “Does it feel that, in 2014, we have reached the end of history? Do you feel like everything will more or less stay the same from now on?” The answer most of us would give is a resounding “no”. Not only are we becoming increasingly aware of a multi-pole world emerging where America, China, India, Brazil, Europe and Russia vie for economic and ideological hegemony, we are also witnessing a challenge to the liberal democratic dream in the west by so-called popularism. Figures as comically disparate as Nigel Farage, Vladimir Putin, Osama Bin Laden and Hugo Chavez remind us that history is far from over and that either the barbarians are at the gates of Rome, or that Rome needs to realize that Shanghai, Mumbai and Sao Paulo exist too.
A list of the top ten world population growth hotspots reads like a compendium of despots, beheadings, child soldiers, modern-day slavery and rule by military coup. I would wager that transexual rights are pretty far off the agenda in Liberia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, Sierra Leone and Oman. Even Russia and China may never be as zealously enthusiastic about minority rights as the west. (As Hitler showed, it is possible to have a capitalist system which supports majority rights at the expense of minorities.)
Fukuyama and others imagine that, given time, the international markets will correct the whims of national politicians and that capitalism – albeit in a Chinese or Indian flavoured model – will prevail. So far, it appears that once people reach a certain level of material wealth, they have the time and energy to question authority and to push for democracy. As Fukuyama said in a recent article in the Wall St Journal, “Even as we raise questions about how soon everyone will get there, we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History.”
Fukuyama would point out that the market, by its very nature, cuts down national boundaries and that, through the internet, infrastructure and immigration, humanity will be forced to be liberal, like it or not. His entire prediction, then, is based on a single idea: Capitalism will prevail. If we are to predict whether his predictions are correct, we need to decide whether Capitalism has a future.
The fundamental basis of our economic system is the idea of growth. Without growth, there can be no stock market, no investments, no loans, no banks. There are three ways to get growth: Exploiting nature (eg – by manufacturing goods or by burning fuels), exploiting human capital (eg – by making working weeks longer, or introducing zero hour contracts), and exploiting money (eg – by insuring money or betting on futures). That’s it.
Aside from the cheery realisation that our entire economic system is based on environmental destruction and human misery, the other thing these facts should tell us is that growth capitalism doesn’t have long left to run. The UN says with 80% certainty that what I’m going to call ‘peak humans’ will occur before 2100. The earth cannot support more than 12 Billion people, whether they eat GMOs or not. Similarly, the oil, gas and mineral deposits of the planet are finite. Fracking and shale gas have delayed the inevitable, but I don’t think that even the most gung ho of petrol heads expects to be running on gas come 2080.
Two of our three pillars of economic growth (ie – the exploitation of human and natural resources) look pretty unlikely to survive the century. This means that capitalism is going to have to change drastically if it is to survive. The question of whether you can make money out of money without human and environmental resources like manufacturing, immigration, air travel and wage competition is oddly both pie in the sky and a pressing concern. My intuition is that somewhere along the line, debts need a human being doing a crappy job so they can buy crappy things. I’m no economist, but I can’t help but think that over-dependence on ephemeral assets is the stuff of crashes, bubbles, bank runs, dust bowls and wheelbarrows of banknotes.
The next couple of years will be a vital turning point in deciding whether the world will switch towards a more sustainable economy. The economic recession has forced many people into creating their own sustainable businesses, far from the clutches of the stock markets. In fact, the amount of money made by profit-sharing cooperatives outstripped that of smartphones by a significant margin in 2012 (in spite of what the mainstream media failed to mention).
Young Western people are into things like knitting, baking, sewing, buying vintage clothes, collecting old things, growing stuff on their rooftops, riding bikes, eating less meat – all hallmarks of a post-Capitalist, sustainable economy. The big question might be whether or not the young people in China and India catch the same bug.
In the years since the fall of the wall, we have seen a homogenisation of cultures, where the global rich’s youth are a tolerant, democratically inclined, liberal-minded elite which grows by the thousands in number every day. We could be forgiven for mistaking this for the end of history. But counter to this, the years since 1989 have seen the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the rise of Popular parties, and a population spurt in some of the world’s least liberal countries. We know that something is going to happen with global warming: It might mean catastrophic destruction of major cities or perhaps a move to sustainable local energy cooperatives. In technology, we are going to see artificial intelligences overtake humans and the reflexive phase of human history will really kick in once genetic manipulation and nanotechnology is applied to our own bodies and brains. Either way, it’s pretty clear: Fukuyama don’t know shit: History is only just beginning.
[EDIT: I’ve made this post sticky, as this topic is back in the news again! Mostly since Oxford university researchers announced that over 40% of jobs will be taken by robots soon . It’ll be interesting to see what really does happen, whether (as I suspect), people will just be kept busy doing ever more ludicrous tasks.]
In the early 70s, perhaps catalyzed by LSD or Marxism (or possibly both), academics in the humanities very briefly experienced a mini enlightenment. One of the most enlightening articles from this era, which I would recommend anyone read – if only the first couple of paragraphs – is Marshal Sahlin’s The Original Affluent Society.
In The Original Affluent Society, Sahlins explains that contemporary (ie-1966) hunter-gatherers like the Kalahari Bushmen or Inuits spend on average three hours a day working. Yet they live in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Imagine how easy it must have been for stone-age hunter-gatherers living in temperate parts of Europe or America to survive. Their surroundings were so abundant they could procure everything completely for free from nature’s larder within minutes of their doorsteps – if they indeed had doors. They also had the knowledge to just go out and make anything they wanted – again completely free and gratis, using their extensive knowledge of the environment. This is why it’s a good idea to remain skeptical about the development agenda. If a person is “surviving on $1 a day in Africa”, it might actually mean they are actually rather well-off. Introducing waged labour and that economists’ pet obsession, property rights, to these communities turns them from being the most affluent people on earth into the poorest overnight. Way to go economists.
So, what does this have to do with us? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll have noticed: hold on a minute – three hours a day? In the arctic? WTF are we doing here in the West? We have the mechanisation of agriculture, digitisation of just about everything and roboticisation. Yet we humans are working more and more hours. We work 40 hours a week – probably around 4 times the amount of our paleolithic forebears. Something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. We should be living in some kind of utopia where everybody is drinking drinks with umbrellas while robot slaves do our housework. What happened? Why do we live in such an inefficient society? Especially when capitalism claims to be so big on efficiency?
Unfortunately, the answer to this has been known for over ages. Herbert Marcuse predicted in 1956:
“the closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of domination dissolve. Civilisation has to defend itself against the specter of a world which could be free. If society cannot use its growing productivity for reducing repression (because such usage would upset the hierarchy of the status quo), productivity must be turned against the individuals, it becomes itself an instrument of universal control.”
Marcuse, Eros and Civilization
Which, in a nutshell means: Capitalism wants to keep people busy. People must keep working to live and living to work, otherwise society will start – gulp – thinking for itself.
Those of you long enough in the tooth to remember the 70s might remember that Marcuse’s predictions about productivity had started to become a reality. Human labour capacity was outstripping demand and a “leisure society” was inevitable. There was talk of a three day working week and the question was posed: what are we going to do with all our free time? Freed from the shackles of employment, humanity would reach a new era of unprecedented creativity. People could live in tipis in Wales while robots and computers did all the human work. It was going to be like Woodstock every day. But with robots. Of course, all western governments realised this was terrible news for them. How can a Labour party survive with no workers? And how can right-wingers and Liberals survive with no consumers? Luckily for them, they had a solution: Bureaucracy.
Keep people busy at all costs. Introduce audits and targets and league tables and managers at all levels in the nationalised industries. Make them feel indispensable. Devise outreach schemes and health and safety drives and equal opportunity commissions; make sure that these new jobs are promoting equality and diversity, then any left-leaning person will be unable to question them. Make the public sector one huge, teetering bureaucracy where everybody feels they are helping society. Even though all society really needs is a few nurses, teachers and possibly policemen. If this bureaucracy idea is implemented, we can ensure that all people will be kept:
a. Too busy to change the status quo
b. Dependent on the state
Which is what happened. Ask any teacher, nurse, doctor, policeman, lecturer or social worker about their job and they will all, without exception, tell you that is blighted by inordinate amounts of pointless paperwork. The drop-out rate of new teachers is approaching 50%. A large proportion of them cite overwork as the cause. They are even talking of scrapping the long summer holidays, so it must be bad. Tenured university lecturers in the UK have to spend over half their working week on paperwork instead of doing new research or teaching students. Nurses and doctors spend as much time reporting on what they have just done as doing it.
The Protestant work ethic is so embedded in Anglo-American society that everyone from the unemployed demanding the “right to work” to the super-rich who do internships instead of just whatever the fuck they like all day are all in it together. The drudgery of wage slavery is the only way to feel fulfilled in our society. The long-term unemployed become suicidal. We are urged to detest those on Benefits Street because they are refusing to play along with the game.
The fact of the matter is that our society only really needs a two or three day working week. The other two and a half days create the surplus value which feeds capitalism by creating the consumer society. If people had those extra two and a half days, they might start their own businesses and compete with large scale capitalism by owning the means of production. ‘Owning the means of production’… of course, all this Marxist language sounds hideously old-fashioned to us now. It may be outdated, boring, passé, but let’s face it: It’s bang on the money, right?
In spite of not knowing how to spell Obama, or that the UK doesn’t have a president, Gemma Worrall knows that Russia is bad. The western media can give itself a collective back pat for that one. The endless anti-Putin propaganda, starting with the Olympics and ending in the whole Ukraine thing has been so effective that even those who know absolutely nothing about anything at all have been wholeheartedly convinced that RUSSIA IS EVIL.
Thank God our great leader Barraco Barner is here to save us all from these foreign evil dictators who do evil things like not selling us their gas as cheaply as we’d like or invading places they used to own.