Saturday, 28 April 2012

On the personalisation of politics

A few days ago, the Conservative member of parliament Nadine Dorries once again made some impolitic remarks for which she wont be loved by her own party. Dorries described the Prime Minister and the Chancellor (members of her own party) as ‘posh boys who dont know the price of milk’. What she presumably meant by that is that Cameron and Osborne are ‘out of touch’ with ordinary people in this country. This is a line that has been relentlessly pushed by the Labour leader Ed Miliband and which culminated in his prompts to the ministerial front bench to reveal whether they would benefit from the reduction of income tax to 45% which is to come into force in April 2013. 
The public demand to reveal the income and assets of politicians has become stronger over the last months and you may think that this is the way is should go. However, I think it is mistaken for two reasons. 
First, it is a deflection from the real arguments that we should have: what are the benefits to society of particular policies and which groups may be disadvantaged or may inordinately benefit from them. Knowing whether any particular politician falls into one or the other group is of little use when assessing the overall impact of a policy on society. It does however personalise the debate. This focus on alleged individual benefits can only strengthen the suspicions of the wider public that politicians are engaged in conspiracies to further their own interest. This does not exactly serve anybody, given the low esteem politicians are held in right now. 
But personalising political debates also hints at a paucity of alternative arguments and it is a sign of the floundering tactics of Ed Miliband and his team that he favours this road. The facts of the last budget were portrayed in the public debate on a curiously lop-sided fashion. The centre-piece of the budget was the raising of the income tax threshold, instantly lifting the tax burden for 23 million people in the UK and taking thousands of the poorest families out of income tax altogether, a step that should resonate with Labour and its supporters. 
Yet it is probably a sign of the frustration that the coalition government has delivered some of what speaks to the core principles of the Labour Party that the shadow front bench have been left with little else to suggest in the public debate. Their fall-back strategy is to personalise some of the more marginal aspects of the budget (Labour leader Ed Miliband made much of a tax on pasties and visited a pasty shop on the day after the budget to drive his point home). Yet all this does is to bring about an unfortunate shift from debating policies to debating personal circumstances of politicians. Miliband and his supporters should be careful what they wish for.  

Once, and this is my second point, you start suggesting that it is the personal background of politicians which guides them in making national policy, this bandwagon may not be able to stop. If you argue that personal income guides taxation policy, why not reveal whether they are straight or gay when it comes to legislation on gay marriage? Or their medical records where health policy is concerned? 
It is also a terrain Labour would not necessarily do well in, given that Harriet Harman is one of the richest aristocrats in Britain and almost the entire front bench of Labour in the House of Commons has been educated privately (which puts them in the top 6% of earners in this country). And why stop there? Would the religious affiliation of politicians matter if they come to legislate on the reform of the House of Lords and whether or not the Bishops of the Church of England should retain their seats? Miliband is Jewish and I am sure he would agree that, say, discussing the religious affiliation of parliamentarians when legislating on the dis-establishment of the Church of England provides little to the public debate? 
So it seems the personalisation of politics is a dangerous path and does a monumental disservice to the conduct of political dispute in this country. Questioning the motives of politicians in making policy appears to run counter to the principles of mutual respect and rational argument. Let us hope that Labour turns its backs on this risky strategy. If they don’t, we all can only lose in the process. 

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Vote Plaid get Labour!

Today the new leader of the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru reiterated her offer to work with Labour and ruled out any co-operation with the Welsh Conservatives in local councils or in the Welsh Assembly. Leanne Wood, who belongs to the socialist wing of her party, said in an interview with the BBC that co-operation across party political boundaries had to be based on shared values and that Plaid certainly shared many values with the Labour Party. 
Her statement, coming close to the local elections in Wales, will create problems for some local councils where Plaid councillors have been working with their Conservative counterparts to bring about much needed change for local residents. Wood who seemed to categorically forbid Plaid councillors to work with their Conservatives colleagues has thus completed the shift of her party to the extreme left. 

The immediate beneficiary of this move is the Labour Party under Carwin Jones, whose Labour government has failed so far to present a legislative programme and who maintained a low profile since his re-elections last year. Jones, whose party does not have an outright majority in the Welsh Assembly, can now count on Plaid votes in the Assembly without offering the nationalists anything in return. 
As many of Wood's colleagues across Europe can tell her, ruling out political co-operation with specific parties can only reduce the party's flexibility for future party political negotiations and worsen her party's position with the electorate. As Wood makes her party increasingly indistinguishable from the Labour Party, voters across Wales will ask themselves what the point of Plaid really is. 

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Deja vu in France

Francois Hollande (left) and Nicolas Sarkozy (right)
Picture courtesy of  BBC

There you have it: Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, the candidates of the main centre-left and centre-right, are through to the second round of the French presidential elections. While Holland, the candidate for the Socialist Party does not exactly promise milk and honey to his French compatriots, he does want to roll back the modest reforms put in place under Sarkozy. In particular, the rise of the pension age from 60 to 62 (in Germany the pension age is 67) attracted the ire of some of the French electorate. 
We have been here before. The last Socialist President in France, Francois Mitterrand, equally promised a lot. After being elected he dramatically expanded the state sector to reduce unemployment, yet found that there was little money left in the state coffers and had to back-paddle very quickly to avert economic disaster. 
There is a significant difference between Mitterrand and Hollande however. As Mitterrand promised to commit more public money to correct the ills of the French economy, he only gambled the money of the French. Now France has the Euro and any public spending commitments that cannot be met from taxation and public borrowing within the rules of the austerity pact signed with other Euro member states, will have to come from somewhere else. 
Hollande thinks he has solved the dilemma. He announced that he wants to renegotiate the recently signed Euro stability pact to allow the European Central Bank to lend directly to the French government. In other words, he wants to be able to tap into the cheap money underwritten by a more competitive German economy and German tax payers while delaying or reversing the much needed economic reforms in France. 
Whatever he thinks he can achieve by increasing the already enormous mountain of debt of the French state, the past should be a reliable benchmark of his chances of success. Mitterand’s actions triggered a rocketing inflation that threatened to spiral out of control and throw the French population into a deep economic crisis. He reversed course within a year. It seems that Hollande has failed the test of any responsible politician even before he wins his right to move into the Elysee Palace: learn from past mistakes. 

How not to tackle crony capitalism

In the public debate there are largely two different types of arguments about how to tame ‘rampant capitalism’. Both approaches share the same diagnosis of capitalism's main problem: a managerial class taking more than their fair share of rewards while socialising the risks of entrepreneurial activity. Banks are an often cited example, but other large quasi-monopolistic service providers such as water, power and gas suppliers have come in for criticism too. 
The two arguments essentially run like this. For one class of observers and commentators, the excesses of capitalism are a symptom of poor regulation, insufficient oversight and lack of transparency in company governance structures which make it difficult for shareholders to exercise control over managerial decisions and pay. This type of argument is cumbersome, complex and not very sexy. 
The other argument offers a more simplistic account of the economy and the ills of capitalism. It goes like this. Large companies are run by a clique of evil selfish managers promoting their own narrow interests, are motivated by greed and ride roughshot over societies and communities.  Ed Miliband’s intemperate word about the ‘energy companies ripping off ordinary people’ is in this vein. 
Who is right? Essentially the opposing arguments offer differing interpretations or perspectives on the same phenomenon, a dysfunctional, insufficiently regulated capitalism that seemed to have produced considerably disparate results for honest work across the world. So in the battle between interpretations, observing the results of actual economic policies may help us to adjudicate. 

Argentina offers just such a case. In a unashamedly populist move, Argentina’s president Kirchner, suggested to push legislation through parliament that will allow her to nationalise a controlling share in YPF, the oil production company of Argentina, without compensating the Spanish shareholder, Repsol. 
The initial reactions across the world was condemnation on the right and widespread applause on the left. If Kirchner will get her way, this is the first large scale nationalisation of an oil company since the 1970s. 

The initial approval on the left has now however given way to some more balanced assessments and some serious reservations about Kirchner’s policies. The Observer’s Will Hutton, while broadly supportive of the move, calls it ‘clumsy and unfair’. 

However, the most significant hesitation about this re-nationalisation is articulated in between the lines in a different article the same edition of the Observer. Outlining the reasons for the original privatisation of the national company in the 1990s, Uki Goni writes that Argentina's ‘national economy was largely closed to the outside world and all utilities were state-owned, inefficient and overstaffed.’ Following privatisation, many jobs were lost as companies had to become competitive and eventually Argentina entered a boom phase. Year later and with the economy booming, Argentina started to engage in public spending largesse under the government of Kirchner’s husband, financed by government debt. Now Argentina faces the consequences of this profligacy, trying to rid herself of public debt by driving up inflation. 
In this context, Kirchner’s policy of nationalising YPF can only lead to disaster. Putting herself and some close advisers in charge of the oil company will allow her to avoid the difficult choices she refused to make so far. No doubt, she will now expand the number of employees on the government’s payroll, trying to alleviate the impact of mis-management and rocketing government debt. 

Sadly, Kirchner is not alone in thinking that nationalisation somehow permits her to escape the harsh realities of economic laws. Ed Miliband argues along similar lines in the UK. The fact is however that state companies, operating as monopolies in utility markets, are the worst of all worlds for customers and societies. 

Nationalisation means that governments arrogate an enormous amount of economic power in their hands, strengthening clientelistic (or outright corrupt) ties between government officials and company directors, and reducing transparency and independent oversight. As state owned companies expand their workforce at the behest of government officials who want to bring down unemployment, creating phantom jobs, prices for utilities actually increase, driving up inflation and exacerbating poverty and deprivation for the lowest paid in society. 
Will Hutton hints at his doubts about this policy as he dubs the nationalisation programme of Kircher ‘a move form crony capitalism to crony statism’. Or, to put it more bluntly, sexy solutions to complex problems are rarely the right ones. 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Pessoa once again...

I recently travelled to Italy for a conference and in a small bookshop in San Marino, high up on the shelves stocked with English language books, there it was again: Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’. On the cover, the editors assembled an impressive cast of commentators praising the book as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘like nothing else’. 
I have already mentioned that I do not think Pessoa’s writing works as well in prose as it does in poetry. The almost compulsive introspection and hyper-sensitivity may have predisposed him to wonderful poetic phrases, but did not capture my imagination when put into prose. The main flaw of the book is that it fails to tell a story and lacks any consistent narrative of personal development. There is some disagreement about whether Pessoa’s notes are autobiographical or whether his choice of pseudonym reflects his desire to distill his observations into a fictional account at a later stage (Pessoa did not publish the book or prepare any manuscript for publication). 
For me, Pessoa’s own voice is clearly articulated throughout the book, and it is the lack of cohesion or personal development which I think reveals it as autobiographical notes. There can be no doubt that Pessoa at times surprises with beautiful turns of phrases, fascinating observations and telling flashes of ingenuity. Yet, the constant introspection which uses mainly pseudo-psychiatric talk must wear any reader down. 
Consider this passage: ‘All I’ve ever done is dream. That, and only that, has been the meaning of my existence. The only thing I’ve ever cared about is my inner life.’ (194) How true, and yet Pessoa does not develop a suitable language to tells us anything about this inner life. The book oscillates between contradictory positions that are articulated with gusto but with little justification. He continues to dwell on the surface: 
‘Day by day, in my deep but ignoble soul I record the impressions that form the external substances of my consciousness of myself.’ (142) If he only had! In fact, he does not tell us anything about these impressions that clearly would be good to know if we are to judge his ruminations about his consciousness. One of the most revealing passages comes when he talks about tedium, a concept he wrestles with endlessly without ever getting close to any satisfactory description: 
‘No one has as yet produced an exact definition of tedium, at least not in language comprehensible to someone who has never experienced it.’ (122). One is tempted to say: well, go for it! But the nature of words is such that conceptual understanding is best done through the recognition of feelings that are set within real life contexts. Instead of providing us with an example of what he believes tedium may be like, Pessoa tries to define tedium by using other similar words. It is a process of hermeneutic approximation, championed by others in philosophy, but ‘tedious’ (excuse the pun) when used in prose. 
Yet Pessoa’s book does have its moments of insights. It seems fitting that those are mainly of the type we know from other writers in the inter-war period. The topos of the ‘misunderstood’ writer is much laboured by him as it was by others, claiming that he was way ahead of his time. Pessoa’s intellectual arrogance is also quite disturbing when writing things such as: ‘Between me and a peasant there is a qualitative difference, deriving from the existence in me of abstract thought and disinterested emotion; whereas between him [the peasant] and the cat, at the level of the spirit, there is only a difference of degree.’ (249)
What a breathtaking misperception of his own abilities. 

Pessoa doesn’t seem to have had much contact with other people and he comments on it throughout the book. If there is a lesson to be drawn it is this: a stunted social life may allow you to engage in some navel-gazing, but don’t expect much insight from looking there. 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

How much do we need to know about our politicians?

The London Mayoral contest has brought us some novelties in the way candidates present themselves. The most significant change is probably the disclosure of the candidates' income  statements. Although the Labour candidate Ken Livingstone has been less than forthcoming about his income, the leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband has argued that income tax submissions should be made public by all prospective candidates in UK elections. Miliband's intervention in the Mayoral election has form. It was the Labour leader who started this wave of revelations by asking the frontbench of the coalition government in his response to the budget whether they would personally benefit from the reduction in income tax. 
If all candidates for public office are in future required to reveal their income and the tax they pay, the UK would only follow in the footsteps of the US where income tax disclosure is common practice in elections. 
However, the argument put forward so far to support income tax disclosure strikes me as odd. Ed Miliband once again articulated the rationale behind this on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday. Voters, he said, should know if legislators would benefit from the laws they vote on. Asked by Marr whether this should include their medical history, Miliband tried to backpaddle, suggesting that medical history was an entirely different matter. 
But it seems to me that this position lacks coherence as well as plausibility. Such a policy can only be coherent if all aspects of the personal lives of legislators are revealed so that voters can see whether or not they benefit from legal changes they enact. Hence Miliband would be wrong to arbitrarily limiting disclosure to income and taxation. Clearly the rule of transparency would apply to all aspects of legislators' lives. 
Yet, the proposal also lacks plausibility in the first place. Legislators are human beings, living in the society on which they impose legal rules as part of their daily routine. The disclosure of whether or not a parliamentarian could potentially benefit from legislation applies to all domains of her or his personal life, and, according to Miliband, complete transparency is taken to be critical for public debate of proposed legislation. 

But why should that be the case? What does it add to our understanding of the proposals for, say gay marriage, whether or not a particular legislator is straight, married, single, gay, or divorced? Legislation is enacted on the merits of laws for the whole of society, not whether or not a specific individual benefits from it. 
The point becomes clear when we examine more closely how we discuss legislation in public debate. A particular focus of deliberating on the merits of proposed legislation is whether or not particular groups of people are being disadvantaged or disproportionately advantaged. But we do not inquire whether any specific individual is set to gain from it. The latter would be a clear indication that we believe the legislative process is corrupted, say by passing laws that only benefit one individual rather than society. Clearly Miliband does not want to suggest that legislators on the government benches are corrupt? 
So, focussing on personal gain or loss is  either indicative of a notion of a corrupted legislative process or it is simply a fishing exercise for party political gain. As the latter, it lacks plausibility. Needless to say, it may deter people from entering politics and shift the focus from assessing the effect of legislation for the whole of society to individuals. 

Watching Miliband's budget response, the main intention of this move becomes clearer. It is a piece of political theatre which remains one of the few avenues open to him as he is struggling to win arguments. Personalising politics is always a poor choice for any politician but with a leader who regularly fails to put in convincing performances, the Labour Party may have few other options than muck-racking. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The virtues of First-Past-The-Post

As the expenses crisis hit the political system in Britain, the new speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow said his main objective was to strengthen the role of the backbench politician. Less than a year later, the British public voted to retain the first past the post voting system with an overwhelming majority. About two years into the new parliament, parliamentarians and observers agree that Speaker Bercow, though hardly liked by his colleagues, has delivered. Backbenchers have been allowed to call debates at short notice and the speaking time granted to them, to the chagrin of the party whips, has increased significantly.
Contrast this with the recent developments in the German parliament where a spat between the speaker of the lower house (Bundestagspresident) Lammert and the chief whips of the main parties threaten to lead to new rules for parliamentary debates, potentially removing the right of the speaker to call backbenchers for debate at his own discretion and curtailing their speaking time to 3 minutes. 
The German and British parliaments differ in many things but probably nowhere more so than in the power of the party whips. While disenchantment with the main political parties is rife amongst the publics in both countries, the responses of the political classes has been markedly different. In Britain, it has led to a silent revolution in the distribution of power between backbenchers and parties, with the chief whips losing much of their say over who speaks in parliament at which debate. Coupled with the retention of the first past the post voting system, this seems to have strengthened the role of individual parliamentarians with backbench revolts against government backed legislation at an all time high
The story in Germany could be more different. Although Germany does elect a substantial number of parliamentarians through the first past the post system, overall it operates a mixed electoral system which puts the political parties firmly in charge of candidate selection. Smaller parties like the Greens and the Left party which traditionally have few parliamentarians elected with outright majorities in their constituencies, have only tenuous links with their voters, something that solidifies the power of the party whips. 
The spat between Lammert and the party whips reveals this trend of strengthening political parties over parliamentarians voting with their consciousness. In a recent debate, Lammert allowed some parliamentarians to articulate their misgivings about legislation brought by the government. The chief whips of the main parties, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, took that as an assault on their god-given right to determine who speaks in which debate. Consequently they now propose new rules which curtailed the discretion of the speaker to call individual members of the parties in any debate. In effect, through the new rules, party whips put themselves in charge of deciding who can speak in parliament and who cannot. 
The response of the party whips is telling in the wake of some devastating defeats in recent state wide elections in Germany. The Pirate Party, a motley crew of individuals who either reject parliamentary politics altogether or party politics in particular, has enjoyed some phenomenal success in Germany over the last year, seriously threatening the dominance of established political parties. You would think that the message of voters would have been clear: conventional parties are losing their connection with the concerns of ordinary voters. Yet the reaction is one of tightening the grip of political parties on their members rather than permitting more diversity of opinion to be reflected in parliamentary debate. 
Although this was rarely discussed when Britain voted in the referendum last year, it seems that the first past the post system is still the better system to guard against the overbearing power of political parties. Or perhaps, thank God for Speaker John Bercow. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Nothing wrong with payday loans!

The credit crunch has brought into sharp relief some questionable activities of the banks in the UK. But it is not only the high street banks that are in the spotlight. As people struggle to get credit from the main UK banks, people with poor credit history increasingly turn to loan sharks or payday loans. While loan sharks often operate in the murky zone of informal non-contractual credit agreements, payday loans are technically regulated contracts. Their agreements with customers are based on clear terms and conditions. Wonga is probably one of the best known in the UK.
Yet, pay day loan companies serve a difficult segment of the market. Their customers are mainly people who have been turned away by the highstreet banks and payday loans are temporary credit agreements which can only serve as a stopgap, not as a source of long term credit. Given their exorbitant interest rates (sometimes up to 4,000% p.a.) payday loan companies have come under fire from various campaigners. Most recently, the Labour MP Stella Creasy has argued that payday loan companies should be brought under the financial regulation as any highstreet bank (not that the regulation by the FSA made any difference to banking behaviour before the banking crash in 2008) and their interest rates should be capped by a fixed cash amount. 
At first glance, this seems one of those worthy campaigns that is driven by righteous indignation at poor people being exploited by ruthless companies. However, the first impression does not last once the reasons why many people use payday loans become clear. 
First, people who use payday loans do so because they fail to get credit from the main UK banks, often because of their poor credit history or previous default on credit agreements. Stella Creasy mentions the case of a young woman who has lost her home because of the demands of payday loans. This is difficult to understand for two reasons. 

First, payday loans provide cash to people who would otherwise get no credit at all. So, in a way they serve a community that is being failed by the main banks. 
Second, payday loans are unsecured loans which is one reason why the interest rates are so high. This means that if somebody cannot pay back the loan at the end of the month, the only consequence is that the company wont lend her money in future. Payday loan companies can employ agencies to recover their loan but they have no power over any assets people have, including property. So, in effect, if you default on a payday loan you cannot lose the home you own, no matter what happens. 
Remains the prickly issue of the high interest rates. In the wake of the financial crisis and the bailout some banks received from the tax payer, bashing a banker has been a popular sport in the UK. Yet payday loan companies are not banks, nor have they been bailed out. The reason they levy high interests rates is exactly because of the nature of their clientele, people who disproportionately fail to meet the repayment requirements. 

Payday loan companies calculate the interest rates by spreading the risks of their customers across their customer base. In a sense, they operate along the lines of insurance companies, socialising risk, rather than individualising it. So they use a risk spreading mechanism that should be close to the heart of any social democrat. The better off amongst their customers (who tend to pay back their loan) finance the loans of those who fail to repay. 
Seen this way, Stella Creasy’s campaign to cap the cash amount in interest to be paid on pay day loans reveals itself as a cynical ploy to hit the poorest hardest. If legislation was brought in to cap interest payments, loan companies would have to screen out those who are least likely to repay their loans. Which in effect means to close off the last chance to receive cash in difficult times for many of the poorest people. 
So is there no worthy cause Stella Creasy could turn to? Of course there is. Payday loan companies are here for a reason: the high street banks who refuse to lend at acceptable interest rates to ordinary people. It is the tightening of credit from the main banks that drives the demand for payday loans. 

Not that the likes of Barclays and HSBC differ much from payday loan companies. Using NatWest's unauthorised  overdraft facility can cost anyone up to 2,190% APR. Not a rate to be scoffed at. But presumably Stella Creasy doesn’t want to take the fight to the high street banks. That would involve a lot of protracted work with her parliamentary colleagues. Rather make some cheap shots at the bottom rung of financial services, it pays off with the Guardian readers. 

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Socialism reborn - Welsh Labour and the NHS

The NHS in Wales is in real difficulties. The budget has been slashed (before inflationary effects are taken into account) by about 9% this year. This spells trouble for the Welsh NHS. A medical service whose costs are constantly growing because of increasing demands from an aging population, requires more resources, not less. Yet the Labour Government in Cardiff thought it can get away with it. This onslaught on the Welsh NHS has been long planned and carefully prepared by the then Health Minister Edwina Hart. She made sure that the NHS now collects less performance related data than ever in its history. Transparency of the service and how it measures up to clinical benchmarks is at an all time low. Performance targets were removed by the Labour politicians in case they may turn out to embarrass them.
Yet for some, the dire straits of the Welsh NHS are all the fault of the evil doctors who work every day in its wards and clinics. The Bevan Foundation, a socialist Think Tank has just published a pamphlet by a Welsh clinician, Julian Tudor Hart (no relation), who argues that the NHS should be further nationalised and general practitioners, who are currently working under a contract with the NHS, should be forced to work as employees of the NHS with fixed salaries. 
His pamphlet is sprinkled with vacuous slogans, but the ultimate aim of his proposals for the NHS is revealed in the last paragraph. The document culminates in a phrase straight out of Stalin’s writings: ‘We need to make Wales NHS into the property of the people, personally and collectively – a national institution shared and owned by everyone... This is the only way to ensure it will never be taken away, and that Wales NHS can resume development as a potential birthplace for democratic socialism.’ Taken away by whom? Aliens? Evil doctors? Or even patients perhaps? 
Anybody remember what happens to institutions and organisations that are allegedly ‘owned by everyone’? Yes, no one feels any responsibility for it. The fact is that Hart’s wish to make the NHS ‘owned by everyone’ reflects a breathtaking ignorance of the dynamics of large scale organisations, of which, incidentally, the NHS is one of the biggest in the world with more than 1 million employees in the UK. If he thinks that commitment and work discipline can be instilled in the people who work there by telling them that ‘they own the place’ is naive at best, crooked at worst. 
As Leo Trotzky wrote long time ago about the Soviet soialism: if everyone owns everything, no one owns anything. We know where this all ended, don’t we?

Friday, 6 April 2012

The strange prose of Fernando Pessoa

Robert Musil once wrote that ‘if something is not a phenomenon worth talking about but merely beautiful, [people] choke. Thus emerge those Oohs! and Ahs!, painful syllables of suffocation!’ (Robert Musil, ‘It’s lovely here!’)
As a writer Musil was painfully aware of the difficulty to express certain things in language, especially if the object in question was beauty itself. His solution was to revert to narratives, telling stories that evoked the sense of beauty in us without trying to directly express the essence of it in words. I am sure literary theorists have a term for the inability of language to directly reflect the emotional inner-life of our minds. We can speak about how impressed we are by something, how happy we are, but feelings of awe and beauty escape our wordy grasp. In a way, our world of emotions represents the outer boundary of writing, something were words and prose prove futile and redundant. 
Prose writers learn this lesson early on. As Musil said, you try to express your sentiments once or twice but quickly realise that you can say ‘Ooh’ and ‘Ah’ only so often. The legitimate domain of prose is hence the narrative, while poetry can experiment with flights of linguistic fantasy. 
One poet I greatly admire is Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), the Portuguese writer who has achieved posthumous fame in his home country and beyond. Pessoa lived and died in Lisbon and this fascinating city was his main subject matter. His poetry is remarkable in that it captures the sound of a city which is equally vibrant and dormant, the latter mainly as a consequence of the choking lethargy that descended on the country during Salazar’s reign. 
So I was hopeful when I bought a copy of Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of observations and notes that he had written over a long period and which had been found and published only after his death. Edited as a ‘stream’ of notes with little narrative or chronological rationale, the texts are a mixture of real life observations and ruminations about inner mental life. And I regret to say that they are of mixed quality. 
Pessoa seems to have disregarded the fundamental rule of prose that Musil formulated when he spoke about the ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’: Do not try to describe the indescribable. Prose lives and dies with narratives, and emotions and feelings are evoked not by talking about emotions but by re-describing the situations in which individuals find themselves. What moves us to tears is not the phrase ‘she was moved to tears’ but a description of the tragic positions in which people find themselves. 
In a sense, Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’ at times reads like poetry and he is strongest when his writing approximates poetic wanderings of the mind. Some of his similes are powerful and evocative. He is weakest (and very weak indeed) however when he wants to tell us ‘how he feels in himself’ by endless introspective ruminations. There are flashes of ingenuity as  Pessoa writes about life in Lisbon or the inertia of ordinary life, yet his prose quickly regains a nauseating flatness as he reverts to continuously telling us ‘how tedious his life is’. In fact, I think the first 50 pages feature the word ‘tedium’ and ‘banality’ a thousand times, and after having read them just as often, the prose itself adopts this very quality. An indication of the impotence of language is when writers resort to acclamations of essentialism: ‘My life was tedium itself’. Pessoa’s prose is littered with these redundant phrases. 
His endless introspection is equally difficult to stomach often leading to a linguistic solipsism that turns back on itself. In a way his prose is an attempt to describe the relationship between mind and reality from a radically existentialist perspective. Heidegger tried something similar and thought he failed. Yet, in contrast to prose writers, philosophers employ a highly disciplined linguistic framework, pulled tight by numerous definitions and terminological strictures. Pessoa’s language remains loose around the edges, acknowledging the prosaic character of his writing. Yet, if prose has nothing of the rigidity of philosophical discourse, it must fail to effectively explore the boundaries between mind and reality. Hence Pessoa’s writings neither illuminate the existential realm of the mind nor do they tell us much about why we must fail to capture the essence of the soul in language. 
Sartre of course tried to approach this problem in prose as well. His novel ‘Nausea’ champions a similarly introspective perspective. Yet Sartre was aware that existential introspection substantiated in words betrays a monotony that is hard to stomach for readers. So he framed it with a narrative that, at times, relieves the existential heaviness. 
Pessoa seems to have thought that his introspective reflections are the most captivating, given that the ‘Book of Disquiet’ returns again and again to this theme. Yet the reader longs for moments of rare clarity where Pessoa tells us something about the life in his office (Pessoa worked as an accountant), a trip to the country side or the death of an errand boy. The fact is that for all the stasis of Portuguese society in the 1930s, the world was in fact turning upside down and the contrast between Portugal and the rest of Europe could have provided plenty of material for exciting prose. Pessoa, in the middle of this world spinning ever more quickly, only looked inside and missed the life around him.

Racism at the Met - the never ending story

The Metropolitan Police once again struggles with racism in its ranks. Today the Deputy Commissioner for the Met tried to reassure the public that the force would not tolerate racism by its officers. Few people believe him. The evidence against the Met is stacking up by the hour. More revelations have surfaced today and a total of 10 officers have already been suspended.
The row developed as it emerged that there was audio footage of a black man being racially abused in the most foul language. Shortly afterwards, an officer who was present at the racist incident then physically assaulted a black teenager in custody. The moment was filmed on CCTV but not released. 
What is most disturbing about these incidents is the cavalier fashion in which the Met treated these racist incidents initially. As the original complaints were made, the file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service which found that ‘there was no reason to prosecute’ despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 
It is hard not to think that this was a case of the CPS protecting their chums at the Met. The CPS has now announced an urgent review of the case. The fact is that any inquiry into the Met’s handling of the case wont do. It is the Crown Prosecution Service that has clearly acted improperly and should be investigated by an independent body. 
If you doubted the urgency of this matter, remember that the riots in London started when an unarmed black man in a taxi was shot by officers from the Met in broad daylight and the police then lied to the family claiming the victim had fired a gun at officers. The inquest into the death of the victim, Mark Duggan, recently heard that the police refuse to provide evidence that can be heard in court citing ‘security concerns’. A travesty of justice that beggars belief. 
The shocking complacency of the Met with which it treats racism in its own ranks and the questionable decisions of the CPS make for very disturbing reading. The Met needs to gets its house in order and fast! 

The white noise in our lives

I always wondered why I sometimes do not enjoy sitting in restaurants and talking to friends. A feature on Radio 4 this morning finally lifted the secret. Because often you cannot actually talk to your friends: it is simply to noisy. In fact, the feature explained that interior designers over the last decades have often deliberately planned restaurants that were inimical to human conversation to a certain extent. They would advise restaurant owners that interior walls and floors with hard surfaces would reflect the noise and talk of customers to such a degree that it would raise the customers’ stress levels and fatigue. The reason to create such inhospitable places? In encourages people to leave quicker which produces higher turnover. 
And I always thought it was just me! 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Ken Livingstone drowning in a sea of hypocrisy

The Green candidate for the London mayoral elections yesterday challenged every candidate to publish their personal earnings to end any speculations about tax evasion in a Newsnight debate. All candidates agreed to do so. Today, Boris Johnson made public what he had earned in the last year and the amount of income tax he pays. The accounts show that he pays full income tax and was right to reject Livingstone’s claim that he ran a tax avoidance scheme similar to that of the former mayor. 
To no surprise to most observers, Livingstone was not quite so forthcoming with the amount he earned. Despite his promise on Newsnight, today he only disclosed the amount he paid himself through a company, which is exactly the vehicle he used last year to avoid paying income tax to the tune of £50,000. What he really received we will never know since he refuses to reveal it. The partial account reveal that he paid 14.5% in tax, which is a lower tax rate than any dinner lady at City Hall would have to pay.
One of his strongest supporters, Steve Richards from The Independent called his decision to construct a tax avoidance scheme a ‘catastrophic error of judgement’ on Newsnight tonight. Many Londoners will have another word for it: hypocrisy. 

The riots - almost one year on

The fall out from last year’s riots is still being felt in some areas in the UK. There have also been some interesting studies that examined the causes of the unrest, most notably The Guardian’s Reading the Riots. Although some of the explanations rioters gave for their behaviour sound ‘rehearsed’, there can be little doubt that there are some genuine grievances in parts of the population about socio-economic inequalities and policing practices. 

As recent data suggests black young people are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched for police than their white fellow citizens. This represents a dramatic increase of about 300% in only two years (the comparable figure for 2009 in London is: black people were 10 times more likely to be stopped than white people). 

The practice of stop and search is also questionable in terms of its overall effect on knife crime for which it was re-designed after a spate of fatal stabbings in London. Only 0.5% of all searches led to the prosecution of persons for the possession of a dangerous weapon. So some grievances in the black community about policing seem to be genuinely justified. 

One interesting aspect of the available data however raises questions about any simplistic link between deprivation and rioting behaviour. The data suggests that around 46 percent of rioters were black, 42% were white and only about 7 percent were described as Asian. Whilst all current research indicates a strong link between poverty, lack of opportunities or employment and rioting, the ethnic composition hints at an additional underlying factor, such as the capacity for social control in families and communities. 
We know from other research in the UK that black teenagers are more likely to grow up in single mother households than any other ethnic group. This may significantly reduce their access to sufficient social and economic resources to learn, develop skills and take up employment opportunities. 
This is not to say that single mother households cannot serve as loving and caring environments which foster responsible social behaviour. Yet it may mean that social control is more likely to be exerted within functioning families where parenting tasks can be shared between several family members. Hence tackling the absence of fathers for many of our black teenagers must be a priority for the whole of society.

Kony 2012

The last months have seen a campaign to end the conflict in central Africa go viral on the net. While the campaign drew some criticism, it has undoubtedly already enormously increased the awareness about the LRA, an organisation that has terrorised the local populations of four central African countries for now 25 years.

At the end of last month, the African Union has agreed to create a task force to capture Kony, the leader of the LRA. Although there is an international arrest warrant from the ICC out on him and his lieutenants, the ICC does not have any policing or military power to enforce the warrant.

If you wanted to make up your own mind about the campaign to end LRA violence in the region you can check out the latest video from Invisible Children HERE.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Boris versus Ken - does Labour want to win?

Only less than a month to go to the London Mayoral Elections and most observers agree it is still too close to call. While the Labour candidate Ken Livingstone has been leading the pack in January, London Mayor Boris Johnson has closed the gap and many people now believe the election is his to lose. 
That is a remarkable situation in a city that is essentially solid Labour territory. Several factors may have contributed to this. There is first the mayor’s popularity. He is well liked by many Londoners and polls indicate that this appeal stretches across the party political divides. He has also consistently articulated a non-partisan vision for London and fought London’s corner with the coalition government. That’s why many people who consider themselves traditional Labour voters have in fact voted for Boris Johnson last time, and may do so again this May. 
The popularity of Johnson is matched by Livingstone’s lack of the same. He is widely seen as a divisive candidate and the polls indicate that he fails to command the support of many Labour voters. The reason for this is to be found in his fractious relationship with the Labour party (he left the party to become the Mayor of London fighting against the official Labour candidate), but also in some of his character traits. While Johnson often gives the appearance of a gaff-prone bumbling politician, Livingstone comes across as calculating. His recent remarks about the Jewish community in London echo his previous outbursts in public which many people perceive as close to anti-semitic. 
But more importantly, to many ordinary people his actions speak louder than words. While he previously publicly denounced tax avoidance schemes, he ran such a scheme himself since 2009. He also frequently uses derogatory language labelling bankers ‘rich bastards’ but gave his own partner the job of his personal assistant with an annual salary to the tune of £92,000 of annual salary. This salary is more than any Welsh minister would receive, and only fractionally lower than that of Cabinet ministers in Westminster. 
These are implausible actions for somebody who keeps praising his own socialist credentials. Given Livingstone’s difficulty with ordinary Londoners, the Mayor’s most recent outburst in a radio show may thus do Johnson no harm. In a way, it is a reminder that Boris does not suffer fools (or slander) gladly and it may count in his favour. 
Still, with Livingstone neck to neck with Johnson the outcome is not certain. The support afforded to Livingstone by the Labour leader Ed Miliband is nothing short of a gamble however. And one Miliband may wish he'd never made in the wake of one of the biggest by-election defeats in British history. As Labour was trounced last week in Bradford where its 40 year electoral domination was turned into dust by George Galloway from the Respect Party, Miliband must hope that Livingstone can pull it off. Or perhaps not. Miliband is Jewish and sometimes, standing next to Livingstone, looks like he wishes he was blessed with another candidate. He is not the first nor the only one in his party.