Thursday 27 October 2011

On the poverty of anti-capitalist imagination

Europe is in turmoil. The financial system is close to collapse and the watchwords are solidarity, anti-capitalism and greed. You could be forgiven to think that this is a scenario written by Marx and his followers. Yet, the default position of every politician in East and West is repair and reform, not revolution. Why? What happened to the convictions of the left? Where are the radical plans for the social and political transformation of our societies? 
The most striking aspect of the deep political, economic and social convulsions across Europe and America is the almost complete absence of communist, socialist and leftist voices in the debate about how to change our societies for the better. To be clear, there are many who are bearing the anti-capitalist banner. The anger and disillusion with capitalism is real and palpable. Yet prick those anti-capitalist discussions and the hot air escapes instantly, deflating the big balloon of anti-capitalist rhetoric. There is not a single serious proposal for social, economic and political re-structuring that has not been either already adopted by the moderate centre ground (banking reform; taxes) or is itself a beacon of moderation (pension reforms in the public sector). 
What happened to the great ideological struggles, the antagonistic clashes of the past? And where are the socialist blueprints of Jerusalem? After the election of Tony Blair, many commentators complained that the main political parties had become less tribal, crowding together in the centre ground. Has the population followed suit? Are we becoming more moderate in our political convictions? 
There are several factors that may have contributed to the slow death of socialism as a radical political transformative force in developed countries. The first is welfare and the increase in wealth. As a greater section of society becomes better off, those who only have to loose their shackles (Marx) become fewer. The most vocal supporters and campaigners for a left cause are now sons and daughters of the middle and upper middle classes, and you cant help feeling that their convictions have more to do with youthful rebellion against their parents than with their familiarity of the Marxist analysis of the accumulation of capital. 
Another important factor is the decline of labour struggles as manufacturing, and the friction that comes with employment issues, has been exported to China and the emerging economies. In its wake Western societies have become far more adept at developing mechanisms for resolving labour conflicts, while governments have also largely accepted that the spill over effect of prolonged labour disputes into the economy should be avoided. This tempers everyone’s taste for fights on the streets. 
The most important factor however may be something else: a widespread acceptance that communism does not work, a lesson learned across Europe as the legacy of Post-Communist Revolutions makes itself felt. You only have to visit Lithuania, Estonia or Poland to see the remarkable transformations of those societies that have toiled for decades under communism. They are the striking examples of how communism worked under a false premise: that making everyone more equal economically also meant that everyone was better off. Under communism all these countries faced an enormous amount of problems: economic, social, political, and environmental. What killed ‘real existing socialism’ in the end was the inability to change. 
That’s why socialism is so absent from our debates on how to change societies today. Socialism has no answers to the most important question for the survival of any society: how to maintain change. It is essentially a doctrine of stasis, simultaneously failing to demonstrate a path to a better society and, once established, how to keep it alive through constant reform. 
Marx was deeply hostile to the idea of reform and change. He fought many of his philosophical struggles against those who developed a blueprint for gradual change of capitalist society. This lack of thinking about change became the achilles heel of communism. Only radical and sudden revolutions could bring about communism, and once established, there were no plans to evolve in the face of difficulties. It was a recipe for ossification. 
Hence socialist and communist proposals on how to deal with the current crisis are absent. The idea that we simply throw out anything we know and start with a blank sheet on Monday has lost its appeal long time ago. Those who blame capitalism for the latest crisis know this and therefore their shouts for anti-capitalist solutions never advance beyond those words. Regret it or not, he highpoints of our debate on solving the current crisis are provided by Red Tories and Blue Labour philosophers. We have lost a radical critique of capitalism but perhaps we are the better for it. 

Tuesday 25 October 2011

How Fox News made me love the BBC

I love watching the news and political features and when it comes to news providers, I am all for diversity and choice. Having recently installed a Sky dish I noticed that I have added to the menu of news programmes. Sky feeds in CNN and Fox News! Pure bliss! So I thought. 
While most CNN programmes are often bordering on the soporific, and I quickly tired of seeing repeatedly the same ad of another Thai holiday resort, I finally gave Fox News a try. 
Now, before you say it: I am keenly aware of its reputation, but I also think it is a good thing to judge for yourself and so I tuned in as an analyst was talking about Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for the presidency. His comments were balanced, sounded scrupulously fair and his conclusion, that Romney stood a better chance against Obama than the Texan governor Perry, was probably spot on. No mention of Romney's Mormon faith or his health reform in Massachusetts which are highly controversial on the right side of the Republican Party, let alone the Tea Party movement. So far so good!
This was a promising start; there were no obviously tendentious comments and it seemed Romney got fair deal. Cynics may point out that selecting Romney by the Republican Party may just suit the proprietor of Fox News (Rupert Murdoch) given that Romney appeals to some moderate Democrats. He may just defeat Obama in November next year. 
Be that as it may, the programme made me skeptical of all the high strung criticism of Fox News and I decided to stick with it for the evening. Coming up next was a feature on why the US pays development aid to China. This was topical. We have a similar debate here in Britain about the restructuring of aid to countries like Russia, Pakistan and India. So again, this was something I was interested in and I put the kettle on while an sheer endless number of flashy graphics swished across the screen advertising other Fox News programmes. 
Returning just in time with my tea and settling down in front of the telly I looked forward to learn more about the debate in the US on development aid to countries that had a trade surplus with the US. The programme started with a still picture of a Chinese street with lots of red lanterns and an off screen voice talking about the extent of the trade surplus of China with the US (25 billion US dollar in 2010) and the amount of development aid spent in China (about 275 million US dollar per annum). It then cut to a clip of some poor Washington bureaucrat who said something along the lines that China still had pockets of immense poverty. The feature then showed a house representative who denounced the aid to China without really saying anything else. 
So far, the feature had lasted about 3 or 4 minutes and I thought the analysis of these positions would start imminently. Sipping on my tea, my hopes were still high as a guy with a funny hairpiece suddenly appeared on the telly and shouted: 'Why are we giving aid to China? It's stupidity!'. Apparently afraid the audience may not have understood this fairly straightforward remark he felt compelled to repeat it: 'It's stupidity, nothing else!' he barked. I was slightly taken aback, not knowing what to make of this guy who had appeared from nowhere. Not least I was afraid for his hairpiece which seemed to move precariously as he got increasingly agitated. 
The programme cut to an advert on diapers and I was left stunned in front of my TV not sure what to make of it, when, in between baby pooh and happy cats in cat food adverts it finally dawned on me that this was it! This had been the feature on US aid to China. No half an hour in depth analysis of a political or social issue, no Panorama style detailed investigation, just a guy with a hairpiece shouting at his audience: 'It's stupidity! That's what it is!' 
In case you wanted to know, I have now cancelled my Sky subscription and went back to another provider. I hope this will save me from stumbling over another Fox News feature or anything similar. For now, I think I stick with the good old BBC; in fact, if need be I take my cheque for the license fee personally down to the post office, if it keeps me and this country from the mad men at Fox News passing themselves off as journalists. 

Newsnight anyone? 

Saturday 22 October 2011

Why higher taxes wont help the poor

About two weeks ago Dave and Angela Dawes from Cambridgeshire won the lottery. The final amount they bagged was more than 101 million pound sterling. It made them one of the richest couples in the UK. It certainly, in case you wondered, put them into the top 1% of people who are called by the protesters outside St Paul’s the ‘filthy rich’. 
When asked about what they would do with the money Dave Dawes, a Chelsea fan, mentioned that they may buy a house near the Chelsea football ground. Chances are that, once they have spent their win, or invested it somewhere, they will not have gained entry to what Pareto long time ago called ‘the elite’. As they may or may not find out, to get access to power, money is in fact of little consequence. 
Presumably, that is not what the protesters outside St Paul’s think. Their anger is firmly targeted at the inequality that comes with income. We have been here before. In 1974 the Labour government under Harold Wilson identified the root cause of all social injustice: personal riches. It took to tax everyone into oblivion. The top rate of income tax reached the dizzying height of 83% with a marginal top rate of personal income tax of 98% including investments. 
While this meant that government expanded exponentially, income redistribution to the poorest in society (in the age before tax credits) did not improve. In fact social mobility was affected very little. The main beneficiaries were people in the middle income bracket who gained big pay rises and generous pension settlements through their employment in the public sector. 
What is so puzzling about the obsession of the ‘Occupy London’ campaign with money is that taxes as a primary mechanism to transform society have long failed to show any results. Income inequality may be bad or good for society, taxing the super rich however does not tilt the balance of power in favour of the poor. 
Marx knew a thing or two about this. He had very little interest in money as such; the cause of power imbalances, so he argued, was ownership of means of production. In our times, you may call this access to resources, educational, economic and social. They’re the things that make a difference to your chances in life as you grow up, and the record of any UK government, Labour or Tory, is pretty bad at transforming the life chances of the bottom rank. 
Top schools and universities in the UK are still fiendishly out of reach for ordinary people, social networking amongst the country’s elite still significantly contributes to the chances you have in landing a plum job in the city or in government, and with the banking sector ever more reluctant to lend money, establishing a business (still the most important route out of poverty) is near impossible. 
So where does that leave the ‘Occupy London’ campaign? Their ignorance of the Marxist critique of capitalism is mind-boggling. Marx was full of disdain for ‘re-distributive policies’. He clearly saw that any preoccupation with income and taxes is likely to fail to make any significant dent in the distribution of economic, social and political power. And he was also (famously) critical of any moral case for re-distribution of income. Taxing the ‘rich’ may conspicuously be in line with our immediate sentiments of equality, yet, he was convinced,  it would leave the fundamental iniquities in place. So whether or not the ‘Occupy London’ campaign will be successful in making the case for more taxes, chances are it wont change a thing for the bottom 1 per cent of this country. 

Friday 21 October 2011

Are Assembly members bored?

Some people think that tribal politicians are bad. But I think there is a worse kind. I call them ‘entrapment politicians’. They are those who design legislative motions that everyone feels compelled to agree with. Those motions usually have a strong moral undertone, and to reject them is tantamount to being heartless. In most cases, if these motions are passed into law, they linger on the statute book like a festering wound, undermining the notion of law since they often cannot be enforced, or no one really wants to enforce them. They are examples of gesture politics, contrived to ‘entrap’ your political enemy.
Peter Hain is a good example of an ‘entrapment’ politician. I remember when the Welsh Assembly seriously moved to force every house owner to install sprinklers in their homes, and some poor panel member on Question Time gently suggested that there may be more worthwhile issues the Assembly could deal with, Hain shouted: ‘So you want people to die in their homes, do you?’ 
Gesture politics is a corrosive disease in our politics, but it is usually held in check by the tough timetable of the members of parliament in Westminster. The list of pressing problems is long and that has a disciplining effect on all members. That’s different however for the Welsh Assembly. In the Assembly, gesture politics is a popular pastime for some political parties. The reasons for this are not quite clear. After all, the Assembly and the Welsh Government (Labour) has plenty of things it needs to do. Education is in a downward spiral with the gap between Welsh and English GCSE results opening up further by the year and the University of Wales practically closing down in the midst of the worst scandal in higher education in the country. 
The NHS in Wales is heading for a perfect storm created by severe cuts to funding (courtesy of the Labour Government in Cardiff Bay) and a legacy of endless organisational tinkering by the former Health Minister Edwina Hart. Health care remains a festering legislative wound in Wales, mainly because of a lack of courage to drive through effective change that can address the challenges of a rapidly aging and more demanding population. 
And so the list goes on. However, this week the Welsh Assembly has found a topic that is seemingly more important than health, education or the economy. It’s whether or not child smacking should be proscribed by law. Needless to say that this is a prime example of the ‘entrapment’ politics we identified above. Who on earth would want to stand up and reject legislative plans to outlaw such a cruel practice? Politicians may just as well rip up their re-election plans. 
While there were a few brave members of the Assembly (amongst the Conservative and Labour ranks) who disagreed with the proposal, there is, believe it or not, cross-party support for such a motion. Even harder to believe is that, while the Welsh Assembly spends precious time on discussing this legislative nonsense, it may not even have the power to enact a law in this area. Constitutional scholars are split on the issue. If the Welsh Assembly does indeed adopt such a law against child smacking, it may find itself embroiled in a long legal battle with Westminster. 
Yet, the worst aspect of this proposed legislation (which even a straw poll amongst Guardian readers rejected with an overwhelming majority of 75%) is the impression it gives of the Welsh Assembly and its Government. What started out in 1999 as a body with a collaborative spirit focussing on the things it can and should do for the people in Wales, has now become a talking shop at worst, at best a production site for gesture politics, haplessly tossed about by the waves of educational, economic and health crises with a Government that has lost any will to make a real change to the lives of the people in Wales. In the big void that has opened up at the heart of the Welsh Government’s agenda, legislative proposals of infinite irrelevance reflecting increasing tribalism are thrown. It leaves you wondering: Are Assembly members bored? 

Thursday 20 October 2011

What Libya tells us about interventionism

As the first pictures of Colonel Gaddafi's corpse flashed across the world media, the mood in Libya was one of joy, while in the West it was mainly relief. Undoubtedly a debate will now take place on the rights and wrongs of Britain and France's participation in the uprising in Libya and their active support through massive airpower. 
The feuilletons of newspapers in the years to come may, however, focus on a completely different narrative that is nevertheless, I feel, the more important one. That narrative is about the resuscitation of Western interventionism in the fight for freedom across the world. 
George Bush and Tony Blair's ill-fated war in Iraq seemed to have buried any opportunity to develop a viable interventionist strategy where un-democratic regimes took up arms against their own people and engaged in large scale killings. However, it seems that a new avenue for interventionism has taken shape, designed and defended in the form of a supportive tactic to supplement indigenous rebellions against dictators. 
Slowly, but steadily, international interventionism is about to recover and Libya may just have played a critical role in laying the ghost of Iraq to rest. The developments around Syria will either confirm the contours of this more 'muscular interventionism' or demonstrate its inherent limitations. 

Sunday 9 October 2011

What's a vulnerable person?

The recent Health and Social Care Bill currently debated in the House of Lords prompted some charities to call it an onslaught on the most vulnerable people in society. They argue that the reduction in public services hits the most vulnerable because many of them depend on support that is provided by public services. 
Some commentators even accused the government to jeopardise the support structures for those unable to care for themselves, such as people with physical and learning disabilities. They maintained that there is a direct link between public services and the ability of this group to live a decent life. 
This argument goes to the heart of the issue at stake in the current public service reforms: What does it mean to be vulnerable and are public services effectively reducing vulnerability for those they care for? 
I have some doubts that vulnerable people are always served well by support structures as they currently exist. Let me illustrate this point with an example from my own work. 
People with learning disabilities are shockingly underrepresented in the world of work. Optimistic estimates indicate that only about 12% of all adults with learning disabilities known to social services are actually in some time of employment. Most likely many of those are however in voluntary or part time work which may amount to as little as a couple of hours per week. There are many reasons for this, not least that traditionally the benefits system in the UK has strongly militated against full time work for this population group. 
Inclusive research however shows clearly that many people with learning disabilities want to work, and even young people with disabilities who still live with their families have a strong interest in obtaining a job after school or college. Many of them grow up in families where their non-disabled siblings go to college and then gain employment and they do not understand why they shouldn’t do the same. 
One curious aspect of the benefits and support system in the UK is however that a discourse of ‘vulnerability’ discourages employment for this group. People with learning disabilities are supposed to be either ‘not ready for work yet’ or work is deemed to be an ‘unsuitable’ option for them altogether. Work programmes which are geared to get other long-termed unemployed people into work often do not offer the additional support that is necessary to train, place and maintain a person with a learning disability in a job. 
The biggest hurdle however is the fact that we, as society, are afraid of challenging people with learning disabilities to overcome their own barriers. The current benefit system distinguished between people who are deemed to be ‘fit to work’ from those who are thought to be ‘unfit’. In the case of people with learning disabilities, rarely anyone who wants to work is ever declared ‘fit to work’. Their alleged vulnerability is often the decisive factor that determines their fate to remain on benefits. 
This is significant since without being declared to be ‘fit to work’ you cannot draw on support that is in fact available to get you into work. Even more so, without passing the ‘fitness’ test, the authorities have no obligation to support you to gain employment. So, since employment support programmes for people with learning disabilities are costly, everyone involved (apart from the person with a disability) has an interest in preventing people with learning disabilities to be declared ‘fit for work’. 
Of course, benefit receipts outweigh the costs for employment support in the long run but benefits are being paid out of the treasury coffers while employment support programmes would partially be resourced by local authorities. So a conspiracy of silence is maintained to keep people with learning disabilities out of work. 
The vulnerability argument reinforces this situation. Where people with learning disabilities want to work, they need to overcome the battery of assessments for work fitness AND need to demonstrate that they can cope with the demands of the workplace, something that many charities argue would be cruel and inhumane to ask of them. Is it sheer coincidence that those same services and charities that advance the vulnerability argument to ‘protect’ people with learning disabilities also have a strong self-interest in keeping their clients in semi-dependent positions out of work? 
There is a strange confluence of argument and interest here as the organisations who maintain their services to people with learning disabilities out of work, and hence without proper income that could increase their autonomy and independence, retain their jobs themselves. 
To be clear, there are some excellent organisations in the UK which have tirelessly campaigned for a change in the benefits structure and for extensive funding for employment support programmes for people with learning disabilities. Yet as long as we stress their vulnerability rather than their ability we will always fall back into the instinctive reflex of protecting people rather than confronting the challenges with them. 
The default position for this group should be that people with learning disabilities can and should work. It is then up to us to ensure that we provide the support for their employment ambitions, and stop to cocoon them in a language of vulnerability. 

Thursday 6 October 2011

Can we have your liver please?

The Welsh Government is currently putting on the finishing touches for its legislation of presumed consent for organ donation. If the new law is passed, Wales will become the first part of the UK where the state has the right to remove organs from deceased people regardless of whether or not they have consented to this.

There has been an unusual consensus amongst the politicians in Cardiff Bay that 'presumed consent' is the way forward for organ donation. Why they are so certain that this is a good way to increase organ supply is not quite clear however. More recently, the critical voices have become more prominent.

First, while there is widespread acknowledgement that more organs are needed, presumed consent is a highly controversial way of going about it. Advocates of presumed consent often point to the success of Spain in increasing donations substantially after introducing similar legislation. However, a more detailed look at Spain's success story reveals a variety of factors that contributed to the increase of years (BBC presumed consent controversial).

The expert behind the Spanish success in fact pointed out a while ago that the critical factor for better organ supplies was not legislation for presumed consent, but the sensitive and helpful advice and guidance nurses gave in hospital environments to the family of the deceased (BBC The Spanish model of organ donation). It is up to the nurses and doctors in moments of grief to respond to the emotional need of family members yet also to explain the benefits of helping others through organ donation. This is not an easy task and requires specialist training, something that lies at the heart of the Spanish success story.

The Welsh Government has failed to listen to other concerns as well. The most important one is that presumed consent may lead to a backlash that could eradicate the significant progress in organ donations Wales has seen over the last decade. People may not like that the state can simply take your organs without asking for approval, and many people may rush to record their opting out of presumed consent as the law is passed. This would be counterproductive, not least because Wales is in fact the home nation with the highest number of organ donations already. Complicating the matter is that Wales goes this alone, so there may be issues around whether the law would stand if organ donors happen to be across the borders in England at the time of death.

So, without serious consultation on how best to achieve a clearly desirable increase in organ donations, the Welsh government is heading for a PR disaster. The best that can be said about this legislation is that, if Monty Python is right, it only takes a good song. You can see their approach through the link below but, careful, this is not for the faint hearted!


Sunday 2 October 2011

What's wrong with greed?

According to the Christian doctrine it is one of the mortal sins. You may think that with the decline of christianity as a lived doctrine, talk about sin becomes less fashionable as well. Yet, greed is back and since the financial crisis in 2008 it dominates headlines and public debate whenever people talk about bankers and their behaviour. 
The main accusation is that those who were dealing with our money (pension funds and the like) were guided only by instant monetary gratification. Enormous bonus payments were the motivation for their actions, rather than any concern for sustainable banking practices. What makes ordinary people so angry is that, while the bonuses were still being paid, governments all over the world had to foot the bill for dubious banking deals that carried little actual value. It seems, so people believe, there was a dissociation between what bankers did (allegedly in the interest of their clients) and the result of their actions. 
If you ask ordinary people, they may say that greed appears to be the primary motivation of what bankers did every day. And their indignation may be spurned by a vision of a lost society where work contributed to the wealth of the nation as a whole, not just a few. But did we really just have ‘the wrong bankers’?  
There are two strange assumptions that lie at the heart of this idea that all is the fault of the greedy bankers. The first is that the outcome would have been different if we had had bankers with a stronger moral compass. Second, that our economy would be better if there was no greed. Both assumptions I think are questionable.
For Christian theology greed is one of the mortal sins and so those acts that are motivated by greed are condemnable. However, as theologians tell us, greed is not something we can simply shed off in the morning as we get out of bed. In fact, the doctrine of original sin articulates the opposite notion, that we are all prone to commit sins in our life. Christians are adamant that there can be no person who stands outside this circle of potential misconduct. While not all may share the Christian doctrine of original sin, this narrative tells us an important insight into humanity: to think that some people are innately morally better than others, is bound to disappoint. 
Scientists who study large organisations use a different language to theologians but their claim is very similar: individual actions may have intended consequences for the whole system. Pinning blame on individuals who operate within the rules is hardly helpful. Specialisation and rationalisation of processes in large companies lead to a fragmentation of tasks. Marx’s ‘process of alienation’ for the worker still echoes faintly in this idea. 
If they are right, then it must be foolish to think that we only need to get ‘moral’ bankers to have a better banking system. Blaming the banking crisis on ‘sinful’ bankers fails to recognise that everyone may have done the same in their position: to get the best results within the parameters set by current regulations. There is nothing greedy about this. We do what we are told to do, and some of us do it very well indeed. That does not exonerate people from the consequence of their actions. It does, however, shed some light at the way in which presumably innocuous behaviour can have unintended consequences for the whole system. 
The second questionable assumption is that economic relationships should be marked by morality, not greed. Ed Milliband’s recent comments on ‘bad’ and ‘good’ entrepreneurs at the annual Labour conference publicly rehearsed this idea. 
I believe he is wrong on two counts. First, it suggests that to be moral makes a better entrepreneur. But how can we judge this? What is the benchmark for morality in economic transactions? Are we supposed to examine the immediate actions of entrepreneurs or their ultimate consequences? If a company relocated their production line to overseas to cut costs and jobs are lost in the UK, yet in the process becomes more efficient and manages to expand its research and development section, hence creates other jobs here, should we condemn this? On Milliband’s simplistic terms, such a company acts ‘immorally’. Yet, judged by the outcome of their actions, the company is very moral indeed. In other words, we get into deep philosophical troubles if we try to interpret utilitarian economic exchanges with the benchmark of inter-personal morality. 
Second, injecting morality into the economic arena may lead us to misunderstand the need for regulation in the first place. Big companies do engage in social responsibilities schemes but their motivation is arguably not to be ‘morally good’ but to create a positive brand identity. It’s just part of the daily competitive struggle in the market place. If we thought all we need are company directors that are cut from our own moral cloth, we overlook that the purpose of envisaging economic relationships outside the moral domain is to highlight the need for a stable and compelling regulative framework. 
It is our responsibility as a society to define what we want the economy to achieve within the framework of free and fair market exchanges, yet it is the task of entrepreneurs to be successful and contribute to the wealth of the nation. While we should set the regulative framework for economic transactions, it is up to them to freely engage in the market place to pursue their economic interests. To conflate morality with the economy is to absolve us of the most difficult task: to define what wealth creation is for. The answer to this cannot be found in the economy, no matter how moral we want our entrepreneurs to be, sinners or no sinners.