why aspiration is a load of codswallop (and other idiocies of western society)

Some stuff follows, in no particular order – except that of being what first comes to mind …

  1. The unemployed – and the wider rates of unemployment – are a sign of technological change and development (I resist the term progress), as well as government’s failure to do its job: these are two excellent reasons for centres of power and wealth to charge the unworking poor as responsible for both their own states of being and mind:

    Unemployment is being “rebranded” by the government as a psychological disorder, a new study claims.
    Those that do not exhibit a “positive” outlook must undergo “reprogramming” or face having their benefits cut, says the Wellcome Trust-backed report.

  2. Poverty – and wider states of inequality – are a sign of concentrations of wealth which do not choose to make their resource work creatively – a sign of what we might term bad capitalism.  As a result, it becomes necessary to blame those without such choices – the working-poor, the disabled, the long-term sick, pensioners etc – for the inability of society to provide them with a decent life: it becomes necessary to blame the unchoiced, if you like, for the actions of those whose journey is far easier, and whose lifestyles are peppered with options.
  3. Capitalism does prioritise competition over collaboration; exclusivity over sharing and copying; repetition over true innovation.  No wonder they drill into us we’re not up to the job of being entrepreneurs and creators: if the whole nation did rise as one and became the creative souls they’re wanting us to aspire to being, a capitalist approach to making society would tumble and fragment under its own contradictions.  Capitalism can only work when a few have what the many must only wish for.
  4. In essence, in truth, the word aspiration is so important in modern politics because it allows the powerful to suggest we must continue to hope for a better existence; a hope which in no way – in reality – will ever serve to threaten their status quo.  By the very act of simply aspiring, no more – not doing, not achieving, not reaching anywhere in particular – we can continue along our merry way of little-by-little amelioration without ever affecting the people who sit atop it all.
  5. Finally, it’s clear that there’s plenty of resource swilling round the economies of the world to do far better by its people.  I have no solutions to the challenge – except to repeat what I said yesterday.  Far better than regulating an always ingeniously- and cruelly-moving target is to fundamentally change its nature.

A bit of a random post today: comes of getting up at 4.30 am, I think.

Until the next one …


capitalism is good for communities – discuss!

Last night’s debate at discuss.org.uk’s event, held at the magnificently 21st century Manchester Central Library (its remodelled insides, I mean – outside, it remains grand old Manchester), argued for and against the motion: “Capitalism is good for communities.”

For the motion: Breffni Walsh, Founder, Brands Are Best; and Penny Haslam, of PHEW

In the UK, enlightened capitalism helps us all. Right now, big business understands and delivers against its obligations to deliver corporate good and there is an unprecedented – and growing – recognition that satisfied and engaged employees and receptive local communities are good for business. Not least because everyone has seen the increased risk – and often spectacular fallout – from businesses that lose the public’s faith. Also, imaginative ways to respond to economic pressures have resulted in new public/private partnerships whereby our biggest businesses can get involved in helping to deliver fresh, new and effective approaches to education, health and other public services.

Against the motion: Paul Kennedy, Sociologist, MMU; and Georgia Rigg, Leadership lead, RECLAIM

On the other hand, it could be argued that big business has inveigled its way into society in ever more insidious ways. That we are all consumers first and citizens second; victims of increasingly sophisticated ways to embed marketing into our everyday lives. And with zero hours contracts and ever ingenious ways to protect profits and bosses’ windfalls at the expense of the workers, you could argue that as both consumers or employees we have never been more victimised by rampant capitalist forces.

The debate was chaired by Michael Taylor, Founder of Discuss – as even-handed and efficient a chair as one could hope for.  The evening flowed well as a result, with plenty of vocal audience participation – both during the presentations as well as after in the Q&A sessions.  Interestingly, Michael encouraged people to state points of view, not only to ask questions.  This hasn’t happened on previous Guardian Live-sponsored events I’ve been to.  I don’t know if it’s because northern folk know how long to expound a pet theme (maybe more societally conscious of others’ rights of expression!), but offering explicitly a pulpit up to the floor caused zero problems of any kind.  No one attempted to hijack the meeting, as had been the case a couple of uncomfortable times in London events.

I was undecided at the beginning, and prepared to listen.

As the debate developed, some of the key points got lost in the passions on both sides.  There were actually three groups of participants: the “for” and “against” presenters being two; the audience, a participative and necessary third set of voices.  It was refreshing to see that people were open to having their minds changed.

Personal anecdote combined with more technical and general overviews provided for a good mix of approaches.  This Storify gives my impression of what happened.

Yes.  As you can see, quite despite myself I think, I voted “against”.  I think this was more to do with the measured forcefulness of the floor than the cogent preparedness of the panel.

But as I say in my tweets during and afterwards, if we want to fix capitalism – and I still think it’s possible – I think imposing a massive and fundamental change on corporate law by making all corporations into equivalents of US “benefit corporations” would serve much better – than, for example, a harsher regulatory framework – to provide the level playing-field which the good people who work in corporate capitalism everywhere need, in order to be able to consistently follow up their manifestly good instincts:

In the United States, a benefit corporation or B-corporation is a type of for-profit corporate entity, legislated in 28 U.S. states, that includes positive impact on society and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals. B corps differ from traditional corporations in purpose, accountability, and transparency, but not in taxation.

The purpose of a benefit corporation includes creating general public benefit, which is defined as a material positive impact on society and the environment. A benefit corporation’s directors and officers operate the business with the same authority as in a traditional corporation but are required to consider the impact of their decisions not only on shareholders but also on society and the environment. In a traditional corporation, shareholders judge the company’s financial performance; with a B-corporation, shareholders judge performance based on how a corporation’s goals benefit society and the environment. Shareholders determine whether the corporation has made a material positive impact. Transparency provisions require benefit corporations to publish annual benefit reports of their social and environmental performance using a comprehensive, credible, independent, and transparent third-party standard. In some states, the corporation must also submit the reports to the Secretary of State, although the Secretary of State has no governance over the report’s content. Shareholders have a private right of action, called a benefit enforcement proceeding, to enforce the company’s mission when the business has failed to pursue or create general public benefit. Disputes about the material positive impact are decided by the courts.

It’d be a long haul, of course; there’d be many vested interests of the bad sorts out there who’d fight tooth and nail to prevent any such changes.  But for others, others we need to reach out to, eschewing greater regulation in favour of the innovation good capitalism has always been characterised by would surely get more than a few dyed-in-the-wool capitalists onboard.

And it would allow them (us!) all to deal with goals such as social justice within the framework of capitalism: at its very centre and core as well; not just tagged on as lame corporate social responsibilities.


the final phase: passive-aggressive capitalism

Chris Dillow suggests, quite accurately too, that these days capitalists don’t bear the greatest risk any more.

Capitalism, in its wisdom, has moved from outsourcing water-cooler supplies and maintenance to outsourcing transport infrastructures, communications networks, health and education services, welfare, worker training programmes and – ultimately – its only inarguable value-adding upside (to date, anyway) of taking responsibility for the consequences of ongoing failure.

Yep.  Capitalism has reached its final phase: that of passive-aggressive capitalism, where even with respect to corporate wealth itself, the capitalists refuse to take ownership for its occasional stuttering.  Whilst they enjoy access to such wealth and its benefits as they continue to exist, above and beyond the workers’ rights to do the same, their privilege is nevertheless also protected from disproportionate loss whenever this might happen.  As Chris indicates:

Better Capital’s stake in the firm took the firm of a secured loan, which means they’ll get first dibs on its residual value. Thanks to this, Jon Moulton, Better Capital’s manager claims to stand to lose only £2m – which is a tiny fraction of his £170m wealth.

By contrast, many of City Link’s drivers had to supply capital to the firm in the form of paying for uniforms and van livery, and are unsecured creditors who might not get back what they are owed. Many thus face a bigger loss as a share of their wealth than Mr Moulton. In this sense, it is workers rather than capitalists who are risk-takers.

Of course, it depends a degree to the structure of each company, and City Link’s structure isn’t one which exists across the corporate board.  But I’d be inclined to think this outsourcing of risk – as well as other matters – to workforces is a tendency we’ve seen for quite a while now, and not one which will go away soon.

I only have to think about what two of my offspring’s working in fast food means for the rest of the family to give you an idea how this trend to outsourcing has extended – and is, indeed, extensive.

They work part-time; their shifts change from week to week; their place of work is a way from home.  They are sometimes phoned the morning of a shift to be asked to come in an hour or two earlier.  In one case, they have three changes of clothing.  In the other, two.  Ten hour shifts are not unheard of.  Six hour shifts incur no break.

One now has a motorbike and is mobile enough to get to work by themselves.  The other tried using the local bus service at the start: it was a fiver return; more often than not half an hour late; not to be relied upon; and so the parents became taxi-drivers.

Taxis themselves are just really, prohibitively expensive.

If the starting-time changes, that’s a parent’s day which gets interrupted.  If a shift is added, that’s a night-time wash which needs to go on; a morning in the drier; an ironing for the clothes; food which needs to be bought and/or prepared at an unexpected time so the worker goes fed to work.

These, and more, are all support services the corps are getting for nothing.  No wonder that so many of these companies should now be looking to outsource capitalism’s only clearly remaining raison d’être: that of a final “the buck stops here” inconvenience, traditionally assumed (or so we thought) but – it seems – no longer to be contemplated!

No longer shall this breed of capitalists be able to proudly proclaim their condition as “risk-takers”.  Perhaps “risk-makers” would be a good place to start; in the light of City Link, though, and I guess other experiences shortly to make the news, “risk-outsourcers” wouldn’t be the least accurate way of describing them.

So are there any decent capitalists left who still believe in taking the downsides on the chin in order that the extreme nature of their blessed upsides might continue to be morally justifiable?

Or have the workers become so distanced from their masters and mistresses that morality – even Friedman’s shareholder morality – counts for little these passive-aggressive days?