Monday, 25 January 2010

What's wrong with being working class Mr Brown?

Since New Labour abandoned being the party of social justice and social democracy its had a real difficulty distinguishing itself from the Tories. To use the old cliché - you can't squeeze a cigarette paper between the two parties. Gordon Brown's latest offering in the Guardian shows the dilemma. Brown talks about fairness and aspiration - two words much abused by politicians. Aspiration is the New Labour buzzword so I started by looking it up in my dictionary and found - usu. aspirations ) a hope or ambition of achieving something. So far so good - but which of us does that word not apply to? We all hope to achieve something and we do in our jobs, friendships and family life.

So what is Gordon on about? Well what he means is he wants you to aspire to be middle class - if you aren't already. Its the old chestnut. In a capitalist society people have to 'get on'. But what happens if someone doesn't want to buy in to all this? Does it make them worthless? No it doesn't. And if they want to - will they be able to? To 'get on' you have to have the opportunity. But after 13 years of New Labour and 30 years of Thatcherism inequality in society has increased. People have less opportunity to get on now than they did when I was growing up. The very people, Brown, Blair, Milburn et al, who benefited from that more equal society have pulled the ladder up after them with policies such as student fees, lower taxation for the rich, privatisation and deregulation of big business. No wonder the working class people feel abandoned and slighted by New Labour.

Brown says in his article that "we must create more skilled, well paid jobs". I couldn't agree more. But the free market policies pursued by New Labour and the Tories have failed to do this and they will continue to fail to do so. Free market capitalism takes wealth from workers and gives it to shareholders. We can expect to see less well paid jobs and poorer pensions if we continue with these failed economic policies. As usual Brown is saying one thing and doing the opposite.

At one time people felt comfortable with being working class. They didn't feel inferior to middle class people. New Labour (and the Tories) aspiration agenda is about a very narrow, individualistic, acquisitive version of social justice. There is nothing in here about raising up communities. In fact its not really social justice at all. John harris is his recent riposte on CiF summed it up nicely -

"But in its modern context, aspiration also has a more mendacious aspect: as the catch-all justification for ­politicians' refusal to do anything convincing about concentrations of wealth and privilege at the top"

In the 1960's when we lived in a more politically active and politically astute society. People understood that there were barriers to social advancement - that the children of the better off get the best jobs - not because they are more able but because they are better resourced and connected. Now - thanks to New Labour and the Tories - we have returned to those times. The only way we are going to get out of this mess is if people become more politically active and astute. We need a party in this country which will take the steps necessary to increase social and economic equality. The only party with that aspiration at the moment is the Green Party.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Make the bankers pay!

Has President Obama been reading this blog? Unlikely. Has has never left a comment on any of the posts here. But if he had read it, he would know that I agree with him that making the banks pay for the economic crisis they have caused is essential. And like him I mean paying back every single penny.

Unlike Barack I believe that not only should the banks pay for the economic problems that they have created - but they should be prevented from ever causing such a problem again. The way to ensure this is to break up the banks and nationalise them - put them under the democratic control of the people. Banks cannot be allowed to continue to control and own the money which is the lifeblood of our economy. They must no longer be allowed to create money. In fact money must become a means of exchange - not a commodity.

Barack Obama has taken a step in the right direction. It is unacceptable for bankers to be earning huge amounts of money for doing nothing which is socially useful on the basis that they only have jobs because we saved their necks in the first place. Millions of people have lost their jobs, homes and livelihoods whilst the bankers wallow in an obscene cesspool of cash. At one time these people would have had their institutions burnt to the ground. One can only wonder why that hasn't happened now.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The power of nightmares

I have been meaning to comment on the 'war on terror' and its aftermath for a while and when I saw Gary Younge's excellent article in the Guardian recently it prompted me to write this post.

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 people believed in ideologies. Politicians promised to create a better society and people believed that such a thing was possible. Nowadays people are disillusioned with ideologies. Politicians now promise to protect us from dangers - real or imagined. They have become simply the managers of a capitalist society. They tinker at the margins. They exploit and feed our fears in order to preserve their power.

That is what the 'war on terror' was really about. Following on from 9/11 President Bush announced the 'war on terror' and used the attack on the world trade centre to launch repressive legislation at home and a disastrous war in Iraq abroad. The result? We are in more danger from Islamic extremism than we have ever been before. A hornet's nest of fundamentalism and hatred has been stirred up. Our privacy and freedoms - which were supposed to be protected - have diminished.

The war on terror was never about protecting us. It was about maintaining power and control over us in a disillusioned world. Adam Curtis's excellent documentary - The Power of Nightmares - exposed all this. It showed that the terrorist threat was exaggerated and used cynically by politicians who had no positive ideological messages to give us. It showed that the very people who called for the 'war on terror' created the terrorists who threatened us. I can't recommend it strongly enough. It is essential viewing. The 'war on terror' was never anything more than a means of controlling us, and the end result is that we are less free and in more danger now than we were when it started.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The drinks industry is to blame for our alcohol problems

I started drinking when I was fifteen, in the early 1970s. The first drink I had in a pub was half a pint of mild - a bit embarrassing - when I got to the bar I realised I hadn't enough money for a pint of bitter. In a busy pub I had no difficulty getting served with my long hair and carefully cultivated sideburns. Once the initial nerves of getting served were over with I went into pubs regularly before I was eighteen.

I grew up in Middleton, a northern mill town. People worked hard in factories. On Friday they got their pay packets and went out to have a bloody good time after being cooped up all week. On Friday and Saturday nights they drank copious amounts of beer. There was the odd fight, the odd drunk falling over but guess what? - nobody was bothered about it.  There was no moral panic, no health police, no litigious culture and no paranoia about health and safety. And at that time - Britain had one of the lowest incidences of liver disease in the developed world.

So what has happened since? Well in the eighties the drinks industry started to increase the amount of alcohol in beer and wine. In the seventies people drank something called bitter and not a lot else and the alcohol content was about 3.5%. Now people drink beer - or lager. The varieties have multiplied - which is good - but now beer and lager are 4% or 5% or more. Wine has 14% alcohol when it used to have 9%. The brewers are capitalists, they want to make a profit - so they have a vested interest in getting us drinking more and largely they have succeeded. This is just what the much despised to cigarette makers did. They were castigated for increasing the strength of cigarettes. So have why have the drink's manufacturers got away with it scot free?

We live in a free market society. Making big profits is sacrosanct. The government hasn't the guts or the gumption to challenge the brewers. Much easier to dump the blame on to all of us. This is typical of a capitalist society - blame people for the ills of the market. They saddle you with debt, sell you crap obesity inducing food, try to get you hooked on stronger drinks create a massive social problem and its all your fault. Not theirs. That is the logic of free market capitalism.

I like drinking and I like being in pubs. I think drink has social benefits. It's still as much an escape valve for society as it was in the 1970s. People may now be cooped up in offices and supermarkets instead of factories but they need to escape and let off steam just as much as they ever did. Looking back I really enjoyed those nights. The town came alive. It was 99% good natured, social fun.

People then knew they were working class. They knew they depended on capitalists for a living. Most were trade unionists and were more politically aware than people are nowadays, and they had a political party which represented them. Nowadays, in the bright, shiny free market Uk Plc,  people have fallen for all that middle class guff. They are still as much wage slaves as their parents ever were. They just don't know it.

Anyway, that last paragraph was a bit off piste. The solution to the drinks problem is to compel the drinks industry to supply us with lower alcohol drinks. Every pub should sell at least one beer of 3.5%. The maximum should be restricted to 4.5% in pubs and bars. We need wine with a lower alcohol content. We wouldn't drink less - but we would drink a lot less alcohol.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Ed's not the only one with no balls

Its been an interesting few days. First there was Cameron's launch of the Tory election campaign - time for er... change apparently. As if we didn't know! It included his own goal on his marriage tax break pledge. As I've pointed out before this is a flawed policy which will only benefit the better off - what did you expect? How do I know? Well, Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), a former Tory leader, headed up some research into poverty. One of the 'findings' they seized on was that children were better off with married parents - therefore marriage is a good idea! Now that fits in nicely with Tory prejudices. But IDS et al made a schoolboy error. The real correlation wasn't with marriage it was with poverty. Better off people get married - poorer people don't. The real damage to children from broken relationships arises because of poverty - not because their parents aren't married. This Tory policy simply discriminates against co-habitees and benefits the middle classes and the rich.

The we had Ed Balls making a feeble attack on the Tories. Predictably feeble because their aren't any real ideological differences between New Labour and the Tories anyway - so there is nothing for him to attack. OK, Labour will make things marginally better for the worse off but they won't tackle the root causes of chronic low pay, inequality and poverty such as de-regulation and privatisation of public services.

Now we have Patricia Hewitt and Geoff 'Buff' Hoon launching a laughable coup attempt on Brown's premiership. They have no chance of dislodging Brown at this stage. The Party knows he's a disaster but there is no real appetite for change and no-one in the cabinet capable of challenging him. Perhaps Hewitt and Hoon should make their next project organising a piss up in a brewery. Who knows? They may even succeed.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Does anyone remember Factor Four?

Does anyone remember Factor Four? Its now a dozen years or so since this visionary book was published promising a revolution in the way we produce things. Subtitled - 'doubling wealth, halving resource use' - Factor Four offered a practical, profitable route to preserving the planet whilst improving our standard of living. It contains a wealth of examples of how we can do this by massively increasing resource efficiency, making more with less, and using massively less energy in the process. Factor Four isn't about some sort of wishful thinking. It showed that we had the technology and ideas then to make changes which would, if implemented, enable us to deal with the problems presented by climate change and peak oil.

One of key players behind the book is a guy called Amory Lovins who founded the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Lovins is an environmentalist who advocates 'soft energy paths' which result in the much more efficient use of energy. He has been involved in the development of the 'hypercar' which is much more efficient than conventional models and runs on hydrogen. He followed up Factor Four with another revolutionary book called Natural Capitalism written with L Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken. if the ideas put forward by Lovins and his co-authors were followed it would amount to a change as significant as the industrial revolution.

Lovins and his co-authors may be revolutionaries in resource efficiency but they aren't revolutionaries in a political sense. They are using the profit motive to try and get capitalists to work in a way that is not environmentally destructive. There is no doubt that companies who follow the ideas in Factor Four will be more efficient and therefore more competitive than their rivals.

So what happened? Well the ideas in Factor Four and Natural Capitalism are just as valid and valuable as they ever were and the work of RMI continues. So why haven't capitalists adopted these ideas and why isn't the industrial revolution that could save the planet already well underway? Well, some companies have used these ideas but far too few and on too small a scale. The real reason why Factor Four hasn't happened is industrial conservatism, vested interests and the perverse incentives of our capitalist economic system. Its just still too easy for companies to continue to make profits by using the old wasteful ways. Billions of dollars have been, and are still being, invested in inefficient plants and technologies which are 'proven'. Companies are unwilling to make the changes when the present system suits them well. Why bother to make new investment when 'obsolete' technologies still enable you to compete anyway? General Motors in the USA is a prime example of this. Up until very recently they have continued to produce 'obsolete' cars because the system allowed them to and they could still make a profit. Governments have been slow to act and have done little to penalise inefficient ways.

Is anything going to change? Are we going to adopt the ideas of people like Amory Lovins? Its seems so obvious that we should. But it also seemed so obvious that Brown and Cameron should have promised real democratic reform after the expenses scandal - to revive our moribund political system. They haven't done it. The sad truth is that things will have to get worse before people like Lovins are listened to. Have you seen The Age of Stupid? Well now you know that we already have the solution to climate change in our hands. The question is will we choose to use it?