politics, the google effect – and cameron’s insatiable search?

I’ve only tweeted once @zebrared today.  This was that tweet:

This was provoked by the stories today that government – British government; Tory government at that  (so when was the last time a Tory administration didn’t manifest the most awful of nanny states?) – was aiming, in David Cameron’s words, to push forward his “one-nation” vision by owning benefit claimants’ lives:

The prime minister, David Cameron, will say: “Our one-nation approach is about giving everyone the opportunity to improve their lives, and for some that means dealing with those underlying health issues first and foremost.

“Whether it is drug or alcohol problems, or preventable conditions in terms of obesity, support and treatment will be there for you. And we must look at what we do when people simply say no thanks and refuse that help, but expect taxpayers to carry on funding their benefits.

“Over the next five years, I want to see many more people coming off sick benefit and into work and Carol Black will report back to me on how best to achieve that.”

Black will say: “Addiction to drugs and alcohol, and in some cases extreme obesity, can have a profoundly damaging impact on people’s chances of taking up meaningful employment.”

So much of the above so very disheartens me that I really don’t know where exactly to start at all.  Apart from anything else, it’s the poverty-porn equivalent of blaming rape victims for the experiences they’ve suffered, and for the trauma which inevitably proceeds to muck up their lives.  For when Cameron says we must deal with underlying health issues first and foremost, he is taking onboard in his capacity as politician the right to interfere with the judgements and knowhow of a swathe of other professionals.  It is a clear example of the rank politicisation of everything.

And when he argues that we have significant numbers of people (they must be significant because if they weren’t, government wouldn’t spend time on making the relevant policy) who say no to the help such professionals will be offering, as they (ie the people saying no) simultaneously expect the taxpayer to continue funding their “circumstances”, I’d really like to ask him how he can square “one-nation” ideas with:

  1. arguing that to be in receipt of support from the state gives politicians, more than any other professionals, the right to decide how people live their lives
  2. and in so doing, allows the aforementioned politicians a similar right to let everyone else who is not in receipt of benefits do whatever shit they please

For in essence, what Cameron is constructing is a two-tier humanity:

  1. people on benefits, who are little more than miserable fashion accessories which high-level egos can wave and brandish triumphantly on their way to further personal and work-related success
  2. people off benefits, who can thank the Lord Cameron – for the moment, anyhow – that the state has decided not to stick its bargepole into their affairs

In truth, it’s not a bargepole – Cameron loves the less poverty-stricken, after all.  Numbers – ie those which relate to dosh, obviously – are much easier to quantify and comprehend than emotions, thoughts, being caring and – hey-ho, why not? – even acts of love.

But even as bargepoles are not right now an issue for Cameron himself, there is – for the second group – an element of supping with the devil.  As long as nothing changes, or appears not to be changing, we can sit quietly, broodingly perhaps, whilst we make a pact of silence and conspiratorial resignation with our status of “having been left alone for the while”.  How long it will last we cannot know.  All we know is that at the moment the focus is not on us.

And it’s surely true that the more we do social, the less social we become.  So who really needs to worry too much anyway?  The trend is much bigger than any of us wee individuals.

Neither is managerialism any more the challenge most facing us: if only all we had to deal with was a CEO or two feathering their corporate nests.  No.  This is something much bigger.  This is the politicisation of everything, can’t you see?  Everything and its mother is now the goal of a politics without limits: a politics which seeps into every corner and space of our lives like water into tapestries of ruin.

This is the Google effect, in fact: such politicians have realised they want to get everywhere; they want to see everything; they want to be involved in everyone; and they want to know all about what you want to do, before you even know yourself.

Cameron’s not a politician so much as a flesh-and-blood version of a 21st century search engine, exhibiting monumentally intrusive instincts.

And such search will never give up until you do.  And when you finally do, it’ll turn to your beloved.  Until you beloveds no longer exist as such.  And until neither, as a discrete individual, do you.

fisking rodney on a saturday evening in june

The title’s a bit Hemingway-like I think.  Kinda reminds one of Cuba, marlins and the best bits of literary summers, recounted by the giants of the novel.

Anyhow.  Rodney’s very kindly put virtual pen to paper and argued why Labour doesn’t deserve to be in power from 2015 onwards.  This is in response – most recently – to some tweets, but also as a result of a to-and-fro relationship between us of an intellectual nature in relation to the subject of party politics and where it’s brought us.

Mainly to a standstill, I think – or, at least, that is probably how most of us currently see it.  Me too, a while ago, before I stopped blogging at 21st Century Fix (a place I’ve recently returned to, by the way – just in case you want to take another peek …).  In the thought time that not blogging very much has allowed me, however, I’ve been able to rethink some of the disgust political practice has caused in me, and it’s led me to reassert some older beliefs.

Let’s start off with the bits of Rodney’s piece I’d like to fisk.  This, for example:

Whilst it is true that the present government has been unable to achieve all it wanted to achieve – indeed all it said it would achieve – I do not agree that they have done all that badly. […]

This I would agree with, thought not as he might think: this government’s main priority was to remove all vestiges of successful English socialism from the face of the United Kingdom.  By hollowing out, selling off and/or dismantling the NHS and Legal Aid services, they’ve made a highly successful bid to destroy clear evidence that the English were quite capable of making pragmatic socialism work.  In their own terms, then, they’ve not just not done all that badly: they’ve actually done overwhelmingly well (especially with their lapdogs, the BBC, manifestly in tow).

Rodney continues his paragraph in the following way:

[…] A profound truth (assuming I am right) is that governments are really not all that powerful. Whether we like it or many large global corporations can do more things that effect the everyday life of each and all of us than can the government. […]

This, I’m afraid, is disingenuous in the extreme: whilst in a sense it’s true that large global corporations can do more things than governments, the reality is actually that what they do, they are able to do precisely because they do it through governments.  Via lobbying activities of all kinds, expensive and permanently focussed in-house legal teams, agenda-setting think-tanks, direct sponsorship of political parties and representatives and a whole host of other means – both nudging and blatant, both covert and overt – global corporations do so well at affecting our lives precisely because they use government so effectively as an extension of what they judge are their interests.  Now if only we could do the same, then governments really would be powerful bodies.  As it is, they are stuffed with business agendas of all kinds to the extent that they simply replicate the interests of those whose interests sadly no longer coincide with so many of ours.  To be honest, part of the gameplan is surely that: to convince us that governments as we have them must inevitably be unrepresentative of our interests.

And so we continue, from within, to undermine the very idea of representative democracy and its possible rehabilitation.

Rodney’s next paragraph touches on the market.  Here he suggests (the bold is mine):

Probably the most significant increase in the cost of living for many people has been the increase in the cost of power. This was way outside the control of the government as it was caused by one such global event. Mr Milliband has realised that this is having a serious impact on many people and so would like to regulate energy prices. That would, in my view, be a disaster (every time any government of any colour tries to control market forces they face innumerable unintended consequences which usually hit the very people they are trying to help).

Again, this is disingenuous.  Governments control market forces very cleverly: when they want, are encouraged to or have an incentive such as the retaining of their political power.  Through all kinds of legislation and international trade treaties, which even as I write are being drafted behind what those responsible would prefer to remain very closed doors, and at the beck and call of those who know how to get governments to represent their interests (Rodney’s already-mentioned global corporations), the real free market and all its ideals have been transmogrified into the corporate capitalism we have now: yes, it may deliver big products and services but it certainly doesn’t allow for the mystical free market to be unleashed for the good of all us citizens.  In truth, it’s easy to control market forces.  It only gets difficult when it involves controlling the actions of the big for the benefit of the small.  Mainly because the big then use a rising gradient of diplomacy, coercion and – ultimately – blackmail to get governments to do what they want.

Always in the name, you’ll notice, of the free market too.

Rodney now moves on to wealth creation and the need to reward those who supposedly create such wealth:

[…] If the UK is a difficult place in which to create wealth, those who have it in them to do just that will find somewhere else in which to do it.

It follows that to encourage the creation of wealth we need to reduce the regulations on the wealth creators and create a tax system which is as benign to business as possible. Everything that the present Labour leadership says demonstrates that they just do not understand how business works.

And again, here I would charge Rodney with being utterly disingenuous.  Labour, or at least that bit which exactly Ed Miliband occupies, understands very well how bad business (abusive energy cartels; feral media empires; murky payday-loan offshoots of a banking sector, stopping at nothing to pursue its deregulating instincts) operates in our latterday society.  And if we want real wealth creators to flock to Britain – or even, God forbid, to arise from within – we need a different kind of business culture where ideas, innovation, their professional implementation and behaviours which choose probity over the instinct to fraud replace the rentier capitalism that Rodney seems to approve of.

We move on, then, to conflating being ultra-rich with being a wealth creator:

[…] What right have they to have these wonderful lifestyles when millions are far worse off?

There are two answers to that question.

The first is that generally speaking they have earned it. The days of vast inherited wealth are over – we are talking about are people like David and Victoria Beckham, Richard Branson and, of course, those who by some means (not all admirable) have become ultra-rich.

This is absolutely unreasonable: being one doesn’t mean you are the other.  Just because you have access to large amounts of money doesn’t make you a wealth creator.  There are plenty of ways of letting money sit burning holes for the benefit of mainly a privileged minority, without one wishing (or caring) (or knowing how) to make it work hard.  (The examples Rodney gives are a mixed bag I shan’t take issue with, but I can think of a bunch of millionaire Cabinet ministers who right now are doing very little to create anything at all except fear in the most defenceless our society can contemplate.)  (Millionaire ministers who have inherited their wealth, by the way …)

Conversely, just because you want – and are able – to be a wealth creator doesn’t mean you need to be ultra-rich.  I really fail to understand (have done so for decades now) why our society believes that to make a rich person work harder, they need to be allowed to become personally far richer – even as, in order to face down their working days and participate constructively in democracy, their workforces need to fear the knock of the bailiffs at the front door and the doctor’s inevitable diagnosis of costly infirmity.

It’s a highly focussed, highly partial, fear we using to line our societies with; a fear we believe we need in order to keep the poor under control; in order to prevent the poor from becoming wealth creators themselves – as if they weren’t wealth creators already!  After all, who makes the widgets the sales of which add to the cash piles that pump up the shares of Rodney’s blessed global corporations?  And in a continuous improvement and “lean” business environment, who – if not the humblest worker – is responsible for each and every addition to company efficiency, ingenuity and craft?  So don’t tell me the workers don’t create wealth.  In modern company structures, they’re the very first to do so.  Every day of the damn working week that they fear the energy tariffs, the hospital bills, the food shop, the mortgage payments – and the terrifying final entrance of those bailiffs.

*

Rodney concludes thus:

Really, I suppose that what I am saying is that party politics as we have then are no longer fit for purpose.

And yes, even just a few months ago I would’ve agreed.  But now I see no alternative.  His Coalition government, a government which “hasn’t done so badly”, has tied up in knots huge swathes of extra-parliamentary activity in the periods before general elections, so that an organisation which isn’t inscribed by political parties will be very very difficult to make work.  His Coalition government, and its broadcasting arm the BBC, a corporation we have no choice but to fund on pain of criminal prosecution (tell me, if you can, where in the world government propaganda is paid for by the voters it’s designed to confuse), has smothered mainstream news of the sell-off of the NHS; of the suffering disabled people have undergone due to a series of deliberately targeted measures; and of the impact the unnecessary dismantling of Legal Aid will have on us all.  And in truth, his Coalition government, an agreement between two leaders who have carried their spineless rank and file before them, who under the guise of serious global dislocation have carried out a neoliberal agenda like none we have ever seen before in the UK, is what really isn’t fit for purpose here.

They want us to believe the system is beyond recovery.  I want you to understand it’s the people we need to change.

And for this reason, and only this, I believe in the round that towards today’s Labour Party many such good people are gravitating; imperfectly it is true, but with a desire to make this system, any system, whatever we’ve got, whatever we have to operate with, whatever is still left to us, work to better the lot of us all.

Before, dearest Rodney, it’s too late.

what if there were more criminals at the top than at the bottom?

Leadership is a curious beast.  Leaders should, I suppose, without being too much of an expert in the matter, give an example.  We assume, I mean those of us who are democratic in our inclinations, that this example is what we might call a good example.  But either way, whether good or bad, leaders shape our environments.

A while ago, I wrote this post on the subject of the Melian dialogue.  In it I concluded the following:

I think the answer to the latter lies in the lessons of the Melian dialogue.  I stumbled across these lessons the other day at a talk given by Google’s Bill Patry.  For most of his talk, he seemed both amiable and sharp on the subject of copyright and its implications for our society.  But in response to a question taken from the floor at the end of the session, he gave the Melian dialogues as an example of the ways of the world.  Despite the fact that he seemed to describe himself as a political beast of Democrat-leanings, where government intervention in society’s functioning could often be seen as a positive, in reality it became apparent that at the heart of his thinking – perhaps more as an American than as an individual in his own right – was this unalloyed acceptance that might, by definition, is generally right.

And as corporate types seep into – and perhaps even invade – our democracies, fashioned and forged as they are on the transactional killing-fields of such ways of doing business, it is inevitable that a systemic change to how we perceive the extent to which democracy can go beyond the brutal Darwinism of other epochs will inevitably begin to inform our ways of seeing.

It would seem that no one, not even the American centrists Mr Patry may serve to represent, sees any longer any issue with accepting the lessons of the aforementioned philosophy: that the exercise of naked power is no longer a shameful exercise.

And as businesses across the world reserve the right to act accordingly, and as democracies become an extension of business practice, so might is right will become the mantra of modern democracy.

And the idea we could help support the weakest in society a mere blip on a now confused conceptual horizon.

I wrote this piece early in 2012, and think it useful this afternoon to revisit it in the light of fast-approaching European elections – as well as general elections but a year away now.  And I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to ask the question today’s post implies in the title: “What happens in societies when there are proportionately more criminals – or those of a criminal mindset – at the top of the various hierarchies that people our democracies than at the bottom?”  Now the straightforward answer is, of course, obviously straightforward: corruption runs rife, and economies become hugely inefficient.  A democracy decays from within.  Trust amongst everyone is terrifyingly lost.

But the situation we are living now, a situation which the Melian dialogue alluded to above kind of foresaw, is one where the decay I describe is actually seen as virtue: after all, in hindsight everything the UK Coalition government has achieved in the past few years has been aimed at cementing the underlying assumptions that the powerful are always right, by virtue of their power; the moneyed have every right to acquire more wealth, by virtue of their wealth; and the mighty must never have their acts queried or questioned by the evermore (rightly, properly, correctly) voiceless and poverty-stricken workforces, who – as a result of their inability to do more than barely survive – are thus clearly deserving of their pitiful situations, by virtue of their rank inability to improve their lot.

Thus my question; thus my worry.  This isn’t simply a situation where the Athenians entirely rule.  This is also a situation where what the Athenians do is seen as entirely just.  And those who are ruled over, and those who might initially – intuitively even – wonder if justice is being served, are convinced by powerful voices and leadership that the killing-fields of corporate business are a fitting model for our once mediating sociopolitical actors: where once our politicians looked to measure the impact of a full-on commercial sector with respect to the fundamental interests and human rights of every private citizen, now that full-on commercial sector runs rampant in our public spaces, our political debating chambers and our once congenially gentle sitting-rooms.

Everything Everyone is for sale.

And it’s not just bad for the private citizens out there; long-term, it’s bad even for the Athenians.  Total control never did anyone any good.  Total control always makes those who possess it weak, lazy and dysfunctional in the end.

I suppose what I’m really asking is the following: how do we know that what our political and business leaders have slowly and ever so gradually introduced into the environments that were once our very particular nation-states is actually what we really want?  How can we stand sufficiently aside in order to perceive whether a moral corruption and criminality is progressively taking hold not only of notable people at the top but also, little by little, of ourselves?  How is it possible for us to be sure that we have that distance in order that we may properly understand what we are losing?  (Or maybe that’s even: “have already lost …”.)

Just ask yourself this – as a goodbye litmus test of the current state of our state.  Imagine the following situation: if you were living in a country where the people are the top were generally criminally minded and the people at the bottom were generally law-abiding, would you actually notice it was the case?  And, as a result of the way leadership so often always imposes its assumptions, mightn’t you actually find yourself thinking it was completely the other way round?

And if so, what then?  What, then, might happen?  And what, then, could you possibly do about it?