Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Last Days of the United Kingdom

Glasgow's George Square had a certain balmy calm when I arrived on Friday afternoon. The late summer heat had cast a faint grey mist across the sky, and there was a certain air of poignant expectancy as I wandered by the statues in front of the City Chambers, the great Victorian building that has for over a century and a quarter housed the council of Scotland's largest city. I reflected how, with the polls becoming ever tighter, it might be the last Friday that the city would see as truly part of the United Kingdom; for even if a Yes to independence vote still leaves months of negotiations before formal separation, no one would doubt that by Friday coming everything would have changed anyhow. "Scotland on the cusp of  making history" read the news-ticker above the corner of St Vincent Place.

Reaching for the future; Glasgow 13 September 2014
And on Saturday, the relaxed atmosphere of Friday evening transformed into something else - still oddly relaxed, yet passionate and positive too. Thousands of YES SCOTLAND supporters, swathed in blue saltires, or blue and white hats, scarves (in spite of the heat), tee shirts and tops, with balloons and flags, gathered on the steps of the Concert Hall. Cheery, singing everything from Flower of Scotland through Proclaimers' melodies to Singing I-i-yippy-ippy-i, there was almost two hours of simple communion. And smiles. Even when two BETTER TOGETHER supporters made their way into the middle of the crowd to hold up their Vote NO placards, the reaction was of  mutual amusement and pantomine, not the subliminal violence that the media has darkly suggested. But that didn't stop the Sunday Times the next day characterising the campaign as just so, in spite of offering little beyond some damaged posters and an egg broken across Labour MP Jim Murphy's highly sensitive shoulders.

So much for the traditions of Scottish politics where banter and flour bombs harmlessly demonstrated the passion at their heart. My own great uncle was arrested for impersonating former PM Asquith during the Paisley by-election of 1920 in a stunt that involved driving a coach and two horses through a crowd and ended with an evening in the police station. It was tame stuff compared to some of the events of those days, but likely to have seen him demonised as a menace to public order, or worse, in our era of corporately-owned, sanitised and paranoid politics.

Now, you shouldn't get too passionate about anything, because you need to be reconciled to nothing changing. Now, with this referendum, you are to vote NO out of fear of not being able to get a mortgage/ losing your job/ paying more for your milk and bread/ not being able to see Dr Who on the TV/ your telephones not working/ being more prey to terrorist attack/ facing border posts at Gretna Green/ experiencing massive economic collapse/ oil running out/ zombie plague attack...

But in the end, it isn't actually much about Scotland being separate or not. Not really. It is about a polity, a community democratically voting to defy the wishes of the Establishment - not just the political one, but the economic, the financial, above all the Corporate one too. They could countenance Scotland going - and some Tory MPs such as Nadine Dorries have sarcastically reiterated the old myth of Scottish dependency culture to ask "Why are we paying them to eat deep-fried Mars Bars when we don't have a decent NHS (in England)?"

But what they can't countenance is the massive blow to the Establishment a YES vote would be: at least in part because what has become an extraordinary mass movement might inspire similar demands  in other parts of the remainder of the UK, and even beyond - Catalonia especially is following the campaign closely, and on social and regional media the talk is increasingly of who next? Northern Ireland seems likely. Wales, possibly. But also there are stirrings for greater local governance in Cornwall, the North East, Yorkshire, and onwards, reflecting a reaction to the messy hodge podge of half baked devolution arrangements put in place by Labour and untouched by the Coalition.

YES supporters gathered at the Concert Hall
And so, in typical technocrat fashion, a plethora of tired out grey men in grey suits trooped up to Scotland to utter a myriad of panicky promises of future powers to the Holyrood Parliament. Lots of technical details about at least three if not more possible amendments to the remit of the Scottish legislature - a timetable even for its consideration; but nothing concrete, nothing agreed. And just as their pitch has been one of relentless fear of the future beyond a Yes vote, equally they have offered nothing meaningful in return - and nothing at all to foster any notion of a shared future, or celebrate the UK's achievements. It reached a culmination in a performance today by David Cameron in which the Prime Minister pleaded on behalf of the Union - supposedly the most successful democracy in the world, stopping slavery in the 19th century and facists in the 20th. 

But no mention of now - no mention of our becoming the second most unequal society on the planet; no mention of his Government's privatisation of our health service (hobbled with tens of billions of debt by the last Labour Government's Private Finance Initiative); no mention of the tax cuts for millionaires and the continuing assault on the poor which have been the hallmarks of the Tory-Lib Dem regime, and are set to continue with Labour signed up to the same spending agenda. And no mention of the true history of the British people - of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or the Peterloo massacre, or the Matchstick strikes, or the sufragettes, of the men, women and children who fought tooth and nail against Cameron's predecessors to wrest democratic rights and some limited form of social justice from an ever resistant elite.

And so on Thursday, Scotland's voters - people of all religions, origins and social classes -will  have a dual potency. First, to Scotland and deciding on a choice to retake their lost sovereignty; and second, to deliver a body blow to the smug, corrupt complacency of the British political class.Whatever the outcome, the political system of the UK is broken irreparably. The three Westminster parties will be - already are - in existential crisis. Fixed parliaments or not, the end of the Coalition and a General Election may be just a few weeks away.

These are the last days of the United Kingdom. However the vote goes - and it is to be hoped it will be "Yes" - nothing will be the same again. Whichever side of the Border we find ourselves on, the challenge is how we fashion what comes next and make it better for all our people, for the poor and the vulnerable, for the creative and, above all, for the generations to come. Whether Britain continues to exist as a political entity or not, surely that would truly be a legacy worthy of the best of what has gone before - the Britain of the NHS, of the welfare state, of free education and of social change?  A largely vanished Britain of compassion and progress, now little more than a finally fading memory. A golden isle set in a silver sea, a hope of what might have been, but sadly never was.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Scotland - Trust the Bankers?

The men who forgot Scotland
“All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.” 
- Noam Chomsky
Over a year ago in Weimar Britain and again in April this year in On The Eve, this author, like many other progressives, previewed the momentous times we are living through now. As our world and the societies within it continue to convulse and shatter in the face of the growing crises of an economic system in terminal decline, we have seen the panic of the banking collapse, the wars for oil, and the demolition of human rights to ensure control not only over terrorists but over peaceful domestic opponents as well - in particular opponents of corporate interests.

It was indeed all going as well as the Establishment could have hoped - better in fact, as the electorate continues, on balance, to be convinced by the espoused case for austerity and denigration of the public enemies of migrants, disabled people and the unemployed. With political revolt gingerly contained, even if only transiently, in the even more neoliberal Aunt Sally of  UKIP, the private island-owning, off-shoring elite has gleefully seen its wealth grow to become larger and more obscenely skewed than at any other time in British history. The "free trade" TTIP treaty is set to seal it all for good. Divide and rule indeed.

But then, last weekend, a YouGov poll put the pro-Independence camp in Scotland narrowly in the lead for next week's referendum. Of Scottish voters expressing a preference, 51% said they will vote in favour, while two thirds of those still to make up their minds were tending towards the independence option. It was just one poll, though it confirmed a trend of some weeks of rise in the Yes vote. But it slammed a Panic Button among the Establishment in Westminster and ever since, as Alex Salmond has put it, everything including the kitchen sink and the whole lounge has been lobbed frantically at the Yes Scotland campaign.

First we had the faux homage of the three Westminster leaders - Cameron, Miliband and Clegg - to Scotland on Wednesday, dramatically cancelling PM's Question Time to make apparently passionate pleas for the Union to be preserved.  

Cameron nearly wept as he begged Scots not to use the vote to "kick the 'effing Tories"; Miliband said he might even stay the whole week; while Clegg dashed just inside the Borders to promise, with the others, the exciting prospect of a timetable for proposals to give Scotland's devolved parliament additional powers, although none of them could quite explain what these would be. Labour's Gordon Brown was also wheeled out to remind people that he is Scottish too, although at least unlike John Prescott  he didn't need to remind himself that he was supporting the "No" campaign, Better Together by writing its name in biro on the back of his hand.

But much, much more has since been deployed to stop secession. The Governor of the Bank of England, a Government appointee, has warned of financial chaos for Scotland after reiterating that there will be no common currency; while Lloyd's Bank and RBS (bankers to the Tory Party) have said they will move their headquarters south if there is independence. Next, at Cameron's prompting, Asda has said its milk prices might go up in a separate country. Morrisons and John Lewis made somewhat more ambiguous statements about divergence rather than disadvantage, but the increasingly shrilly pro-Union BBC reported these as warnings of higher prices.

And yet, and yet... wasn't this entirely foreseeable? A combination of bribes and threats spawned the Union in 1707, so it seems appropriate and unsurprising that the descendants of the elite that pushed through the creation of the UK would use the same methods to prolong its existence. Even more so, in fact - there is a commonly held misconception that neoliberal capitalism seeks to minimise the state and its powers. In truth it minimises the state only in terms of its responsiveness to the masses and their needs and wishes. It maximises the deployment of coercive state power to ensure the continued dominance of the Establishment - and this has never been as nakedly in evidence in British politics as in the last few days over Scotland.

Bankers, politicians, city traders, journalists and multinational companies have come together to warn of everything from economic apocalypse to "difficulties" for Scottish viewers wishing to watch Celebrity Come Dancing on the TV. 

The bankers and traders whose sociopathic greed and lawlessness created the crash of 2008 and nearly busted the world economy; the politicians who deregulated finance so completely that the crash happened, and who then spent tens of billions of tax money and loans to bail the banks out before billing the rest of us for it; the industrialists who rage against any form of consumer or employee protection and who have plundered our society via PFI arrangements, outsourcing and tax evasion; and the journalists who, when they are not hacking celebrities' telephone messages are busy telling us all that there is no alternative to what we have got.

Yes, all the people who obviously have the best interests of the rest of us engraved on their cold, cold hearts and foremost in their absent consciences. These people are stepping forward to tell Scottish voters that they are too crap, too lazy, too...Scottish...to hope to govern themselves. And if they don't listen to their friendly warnings, there will be a less friendly price to pay. The bankers, traders, and industrialists will make sure their political puppets send the bill personally.

The message, of course, is not just for the Scottish voters. Indeed, if Scotland could be got rid off, perhaps tugged out into the mid-Atlantic and quietly sunk, many of the people currently hoarsley calling for the Union to be preserved would be first in the queue to pull the plug. However, as geography dictates otherwise, the last thing the Establishment want the rest of the UK to see is part of it defying our Masters' wishes and giving us ideas above our station. Even a mildly social democratic Scotland would not just be an annoying neighbour - it could become an existential threat to the neoliberal consensus. Hence, it must be strangled at birth - or preferrably before.

The big question is whether enough Scottish voters will be browbeaten or scared into voting against independence to stop it happening. The trend over the last fortnight has been a clear and big upswing for separation - one based on seeking a more inclusive, fairer society than the one emerging in the UK as a whole. It remains to be seen if the crisis response from Westminster and its paymasters will stem the flow, or be seen through as the insincere, last gasp blandishments of panicking machine men.

A frequent refrain from the Better Together camp is that an independent country would be moving into uncertainty; taking risks, and be a journey rather than a destination. But isn't that just life? Life for all of us. Salmond (who is no socialist but is equally no neoliberal either) has ackowledged that independence is the start of something, not the finish. Meanwhile the Radical Independence Campaign of leftwing parties like the Greens and Scottish Socialists as well as cultural groups like the National Collective positively embrace the nascent potential of such a future. 

Besides, if there are no guarantees for a free Scotland, what is guaranteed about Britain as it is? A harsh, low wage, "flexible" economy increasingly unkind to the poor and vulnerable, suspicious of strangers, and selling off what little remains of its public services? A State whose main functions involve spying on its own citizens and vying with the USA for the number one spot as the most unequal developed society on the face of the Earth?

Better together? For who?

Monday, 1 September 2014

You Will Be Commodified

CSR, corporate social responsibility, was the buzzword of the "Third Way" of the Clinton and Blair days. Grasping capitalism got a makeover as it moved its p.r. budget into sponsorship of everything from opera performances to litter picking, supposedly "giving back" to the communities it had expropriated its massive profits from. Its agenda was approvingly marked out by Tony Giddens, guru of the “Third Way” in his writings in the 1990s. Through an "End of History" prism so popular at the time, Giddens claimed that "when no one knows of any viable alternative to a market economy, demonising the corporations makes no sense.” He proposed that corporations should engage with the voluntary sector to foster social programmes, such as one from the US where a computer firm provided equipment to schools in return for a slew of exclusive advertising.

The cynicism of this seemed to bypass many writers on the genre. Giddens drew from the work of Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who identified a new, business focused strategy by corporations towards involvement in social development. Whereas the traditional approach to community involvement viewed the voluntary sector as “a dumping ground (for) spare cash, obsolete equipment and tired executives on their way out”, Kanter’s “new paradigm” involved using social needs as a basis for development of business ideas and opportunities. It has nothing whatsoever to do with "giving back" or discharging any accepted "social responsibility". Rather, it is simply a laboratory for profit maximisation - in the UK, Blair and Mandelson of course enthusiastically embraced, intensely relaxed as they were about the filthy rich.

Never mind that, around the world, most of these mega-monstrosities continue to rip off consumers, drive down wages and ravage our environment of irreplaceable resources: they give money to charities! They endow hospital wings (in place of paying taxes for public health). They plant trees, give kids "jobs" as unpaid interns...

Capitalism has much to atone for.
Capitalism is based on the commodification of everything that can be described as scarce. If something is not completely abundant, such as (for now) oxygen, it can be appropriated by someone who by the law of capitalist states becomes its "owner". That commodity remains in the ownership of that person (human or corporate) until it is sold with the seller's objective being to maximise the difference in value between what it took to acquire the item and what can be obtained from a purchaser. On such an elevated and considered level are the wonderful, diverse products of our unimaginably complex biosphere costed, traded and eventually used up, in spite of their often being irreplacable. This is why, for example, oil companies have no fear about the melting of the ice caps - rather they see this as a brilliant market opportunity to drill for oil in the deep waters of the Arctic.

Similarly, as water becomes scarcer, we have the head of Nestle, which uses massive quantities of water in Third World countries to produce fizzy drinks and even "water" for use by First World consumers, declare access to water is not a public right. Rather, it can be commodified, bought and sold by rich multinationals - and as this same corporatocracy has bought up governments as well, the law makes any attempt to bypass the overweening power of big business' ownership of even the basic essentials of human life increasingly difficult. For example, in one African country, a western firm running the privatised water industry for a time even succeeded in banning impoverished peasants from collecting rainwater. Popular protest led to their eventual ejection and the renationalising of the water industry. But it remains a fact that the neoliberal elite will happily deploy state power on behalf of itself - in fact, while preaching the virtues of free markets, these privateers in truth skew and bypass markets in ways Stalin only dreamt of. (It is notable that bans on "rainwater harvesting" are now spreading to states within the USA, with Utah and Colorado criminalising anyone who puts so much as a bucket out to collect water in the driest states of the Union - where water, as a commodity, could scarcely be more precious or profitable).

But in the midst of this we get companies claiming to care, offering well-branded "help" to the very people they are screwing over - like the fracking company Chevron, which sent a pizza voucher to residents after an explosion near their town. If it wasn't so devastatingly tragic, it might be laughable - but it isn't. It is real. Can anyone seriously argue that this system with its mindset of dog-eat-dog acquisition can be sustained or reformed? In any other context would anyone even remotely buy the farcical claim that lots of cut-throat competing individuals acting to the maximum of self-interest somehow synergise into fostering the public good? Or enhance and share the common weal?

This video by the Australian 350.org environmental movement sums up the truth and says what the sociopaths on the make who control such a swathe of our economic activity and own so much of our planet are really saying to the rest of us, the suckers they leech from day after day after day. Some of them are even trying to copyright our DNA - yours and mine; our very essence, owned by someone else. But then this is the very imperative of the system - to extract value from others and accumulate endlessly; to view everything as ultimately capable of being finitely priced; where need rewards greed. Where everything is costed, but nothing, in the end, is truly valued.

So watch this and get to the heart of how it works. No apologies for bad language. It's what they are doing to all of us, our world and its future right now as you read this.

My thanks to Jack Lindblad, candidate for Los Angeles City Council, for linking to this video. More on his campaign HERE