Thursday, 1 December 2016

How Anger Trumps Anxiety

There are people who are prone to anger. They can be furious about all kinds of thing, and once their fuse is lit, they won’t listen to facts or reason. They want to hear that they are right to be outraged about immigrants, refugees, abortion, gun controls, gay marriage, being soft on criminals, not bombing hostile countries, and all that negative talk about fossil fuel. And they want someone to echo their rage and help them shout down anyone who thinks they are not entirely correct.

Then there are people who are full of anxiety. They are worried about everything, and the moment they read another distressing report, it’s added to their ‘to do’ list. They need to know what is going to be done to tackle social injustice, xenophobia, misogyny, gun crime, homophobia, neglect of rehabilitation, bombing civilians, and all that climate change denial. And they need someone who will not only understand those problems, but can prove to them that he or she will deliver all the necessary solutions.

With the angry mob, you can just press a button here and there, lead the ranting, and they adore you as one of them. It does not matter if you have nothing to offer to lift their wages, so long as you despise those immigrants, you’re alright with the gang. It does not matter if you give the biggest tax cuts to the richest few, so long as you condemn abortion vitriolically, you’re their hero. It does not matter if you have behaved abominably to women, so long as you hate gun laws with a vengeance, they’ve got your back.

But with the anxious cohort, the minute you outline one plan to solve one problem, they ask you about the next one on their list. It does not matter if you are better in so many ways than the other one, if you’re weak on one policy issue, they cannot in good conscience support you. It does not matter if you’re the only hope of holding back an avalanche of bigotry nationwide, if you’re not convincing enough in their last analysis, you don’t get their vote. It does not matter if the ideal candidate who ticks all the boxes is not an option here, if you’re not the ‘one’, they can’t help you.

Elections can be won and lost by the smallest of margins. Indeed, with some arcane system, they can be lost even if you win more votes, so long as you don’t win enough of them in the right places. And in too many of those places, alas, the hesitancy of the anxious allows the rampage of the angry to seize the day, the months, and the years to come.

Of course if the angry mob had lost, they had threatened to reject the results and back open rebellion. By contrast, the anxious are now desperately looking for some evidence that things might not be as calamitous as so many had warned if they were to abstain. Sadly, it’s going to be as bad as it gets. But that’s what happens when the obsession with waiting for the perfect candidate gets in the way of stopping power from falling into the hands of the worst.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Brexit-Trump Regression

2016 is the year of the UK’s European Referendum and the US’ Presidential Election. To lose one contest may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both certainly looks like carelessness.

A new industry has sprung up to explain the victories for Brexit and Trump, so dramatically snatched from the jaws of countless opinion pollsters. On the surface, there is much agreement. Millions of people are frustrated and angry. For decades they have been told that corporate freedom and liberalised trade would help everyone become better off. Year in, year out, they are sold the line that they must be more flexible as workers to help improve productivity and competitiveness, which will in turn bring prosperity for all. Yet while they have worked longer hours, taken on more part-time roles, agreed to unwelcome shifts, things just got worse.

Wages became stagnant; jobs more insecure; public services were repeatedly cut; and the prospects of a home for their children, care for their parents, adequacy of their own pensions, were all fading fast.

But why then did people not give their political backing to someone who would deal with the causes of these problems? Why did they not support those who would ensure there are fairer remuneration policies with worker participation, tackle tax avoidance and evasion that cost billions of pounds and dollars, invest in health and housing to give everyone a greater sense of security, stop banks gambling irresponsibly with savers’ money, promote multi-stakeholder cooperatives that deliver greater economic and environmental benefits?

The short answer: no one has come forward with such a political platform. Corbyn in Britain took control of the Labour Party but then has not managed to engage the wider public with any clear vision or convincing policy proposals, leaving him the most unpopular leader of the Labour Opposition since polling began in the 1950s. Sanders in America came closer to formulating a coherent alternative, but the Democrats picked Hillary Clinton instead to run against Trump.

Into this regrettable vacuum came the likes of Farage and Trump, peddling a simple spell for salvation: blame it on foreigners – who were imposing bad trade deals on us; coming over here to take our jobs; cheating their way through our border control by pretending to be refugees whose lives were at risk; encroaching on our culture with their alien customs; claiming benefits and using our cash-strapped public services.

Never mind the lies and distortions that were concocted to feed these allegations. The underlying strategy is to divert the despairing and the furious from the real causes of the problems, and turn them to vent their feelings at scapegoats who ‘don’t belong here’.

It’s hardly a new tactic. Tribal nationalism has been around since the emergence of democratic politics in the 19th century made it impossible for the power-hungry to take over as rulers by force or through deals with the elite in society. So tribal nationalism was adopted as a populist tool to win votes. And it worked in France in the mid-19th century and Germany in the early 20th century, until it brought those countries to their respective ruin.

The Brexit-Trump phenomenon should be seen for what it is – not some unprecedented anti-establishment movement, but a regression to the old tribal nationalist formula which targets the vulnerable, gratifies the lowest common denominator among the disaffected, and serves the demagogues pulling the strings and anyone in the establishment willing to collaborate with them.

If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is this: tribal nationalism inevitably brings intimidation, the spread of hatred and prejudices, and violent conflicts; but if no one will come forward with an authentic agenda to tackle the problems we face, it will continue as the list of ‘others’ grows and persecution becomes the inescapable norm.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Dr. Frankenstein, I presume

When the wealthy elite were looking to gain more political power in the 1970s, they realised that since they were a tiny minority, unless they gambled on bankrolling a military coup, their best bet was to come up with something that a large enough majority of the electorate might fall for.

Along came the creators of the New Right and their idea of political fusion. In short, they proposed to gather together motley parts from the electoral landscape and fuse them into an irresistible force. What these ideological Frankensteins set about cobbling together, with the financial backing of the superrich, was a political creature who would vote for anyone prepared to denounce all the horrid threats against ‘traditional values’, and never ask a single question about why the people they elect would make them poorer while helping the superrich get even richer.

So what are these threats against the ‘traditional values’ so beloved of the ‘moral majority’? Homosexuality, compassion for the poor, foreign customs, immigrants, any religion other than Christianity (or worse, no religion at all), women’s right to make decisions about their pregnancies, the evil of taxation, any preference for diplomacy over wars, scepticism about capital punishment, and additionally, in the US, any form of gun control.

Press the right buttons, and the progeny of the New Right will rise, shout down anyone presented as posing or backing one or more of the above threats, and vote without a second thought for the candidates financed by the plutocrats to enrich themselves further.

But while it worked up to a point for the Thatchers and the Reagans, everyone knows that Frankenstein experiments don’t tend to end well. So in the 2010s we witness in the campaigns that led to Brexit and Trump becoming the Republican Presidential nominee, signs that things are getting out of control.

Establishment Tories and Republicans identify above all with the interests of big business, and they have only gone along with the stoking of bigotry because it helped them win elections. But the monster they tactically unleashed, fuelled by ever more hatred and anger, was no longer following its master’s tactics.

As the economy is endangered by reckless demands, vital investment jeopardised, the contributions of migrant workers rejected, and the business environment undermined by extreme political uncertainties, New Right leaders in Westminster and Washington are beginning to get worried. Yet as the whirlwind of prejudices and rage wreak havoc everywhere, they are too afraid and incompetent to do anything.

In the UK, the Brexit vote emboldened bigotry and hate crime rose by 41% in the fortnight after the EU referendum [Note 1], accompanied by the pound sinking to a 31-year low as confidence in the British economy dissipates [Note 2]. In the US, Trump (vocally backed by Farage) not only endorsed violence perpetrated by his supporters, but actively promoted the notion that the Presidential election is rigged, leading to many of his followers openly discussing violent rebellion against Hilary Clinton [Note 3].

Many of us would indulge in a little schadenfreude given the self-inflicted plight of the New Right’s very own Dr. Frankensteins, if not for the fact that we too are afflicted by the chaos and misery they have brought about.

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Note 1: Hate crime rose by 41% in the fortnight after the Brexit vote compared with the previous fortnight: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/brexit-hate-crimes-racism-eu-referendum-vote-attacks-increase-police-figures-official-a7358866.html

Note 2: Drop in the value of sterling post-Brexit vote: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/pound-sterling-value-dollar-brexit-euro-single-market-eu-withdrawal-cost-uk-a7355056.html

Note 3: Trump’s talk of rigged elections and his supporters’ reactions: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2016/10/15/1581936/-Trump-is-blaming-a-rigged-election-and-his-supporters-pivot-to-discussion-of-violent-rebellion

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Pathology of Marginalisation

What have the following got in common?

• Abused spouses refusing help from law enforcement agencies and staying with perpetrators of violence who, they insist, love them very much.
• Followers of cults rejecting advice that they should withdraw and continuing to give over their money and devotion despite being exploited.
• Young recruits of criminal gangs pledging their loyalty to their ruthless leaders and accepting that they, in their lowly position, will be treated with contempt.
• People consumed by anger joining extremist groups, parties, or campaigns dedicated to hounding scapegoats, and ignoring the fact that such activities will only lead to their own conditions worsening.
• Alienated loners embarking on destructive actions from property damage to mass killing, and telling themselves that it is for some great cause.

In all these cases, we have people who are opting for what will damage their own wellbeing, and give succour to those unconcerned with the harm they inflict on others. While the severity of the suffering caused varies, there is an underlying psychological pattern. Identity ideologues may want to explain these disturbing social phenomena in terms of gender, religious, age, or racial characteristics, but the relevant factors cut cross these demarcations. We can look at these more closely by distinguishing four inter-related components

First, marginalised individuals who feel unloved and discarded can reach a point where they feel so isolated that they are desperate to have a connection with someone who will pay them serious attention – even if it is attention that would be rejected by most other people.

Secondly, they encounter someone who wants to bring them into something ‘special’ – an unbreakable relationship, a closed group, a feared organisation – that will give them a sense of belonging they have for long craved.

Thirdly, their attachment becomes so precious that they are willing to endure considerable pain, and even humiliation, as the price to pay for remaining a partner/member alongside the one calling the shots.

Finally, they come to associate the pain they suffer as itself a manifestation of the closeness they have attained to the one who holds power over them. They will make whatever sacrifice is asked of them to secure what they view as love and validation.

Commentators and policy advisors often react to such self-destructive behaviour by calling for tougher intervention. They want people who have these behavioural tendencies to be told quite firmly that they should leave the unsavoury characters they defend before it’s too late. They want to put a stop to the brainwashing, initiation, radicalisation, or whatever it is called in each context, so those who are duped would open their eyes and walk away.

But the problem is that unless there is somewhere welcoming for them to go to, they cannot bear to move away from their ‘home’. They close their eyes to the suffering they cause themselves and possibly others, because the reality of their predicament is too painful to contemplate. The only true way out is to help them find an alternative where they will be unconditionally loved and appreciated for the kindness they can bring to others, and not used for the gratification of some manipulative controller.

In parallel with offering such sanctuaries to those who have endured too much marginalisation for too long, we must do more to prevent people from being marginalised at home, at school, in their neighbourhood, at the workplace, or in the twilight zone of extortionate loans and paltry benefits.

The contagion that feeds off marginalisation is not something new and unfathomable. It has been around for centuries, used by sweet-talking abusers, charismatic cult and gang leaders, racist demagogues, and fundamentalist agitators, to trick others into doing their dubious bidding unquestionably. To end the vicious cycle, tough action is needed, and it needs to be directed at these shameless manipulators.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

‘Gains’, ‘Losses’, & Real Value

Political analysts and media commentators have made it their business to assess every party manifesto commitment, policy proposal, and budget initiative by setting out who will gain/lose by how much financially. So we are told on some proposal, young couples with no children will ‘gain’ X £ or $, while those aged 70+ with nothing but a state pension will ‘lose’ Y, etc. On other proposals, there will be different ‘gains’ and ‘losses’ calculated for a variety of demographically defined groups.

But why should we accept this approach at all?

Imagine a woman went into a shop to return a product which did not work to her satisfaction and got a refund of £100, while a man paid £100 for a similar product that did the job he needed it to do. Do we say that the launch of that product has left the woman £100 better off, and the man £100 worse off? Of course not. We cannot ignore what is of real value here. The man has paid £100 for something which meets a need, and if pressed to quantify it in crude monetary terms, he might say that it was worth more than a £100. By contrast, the woman has had to waste her time with a product that didn’t do what she wanted it to do, and she has gained nothing at all.

So much of contemporary assessment of public services makes exactly this mistake of ignoring real value. People pay their respective share into the public pot because it then provides the collective resources to fund services and secure outcomes that cannot otherwise be achieved. Isolated individuals with no taxes to pay would not be able to buy into a comprehensive health service, an impartial judicial system, policing and security at all levels, education for children and inspection of care quality for the elderly, and countless other benefits. Without the guaranteed organisation provided by the government, maximum profit will be squeezed out of those who can afford to pay the charges demanded for some of these provisions, while the rest will be left with no support at all.

Instead of quantifying the impact of public policies in warped monetary terms, commentators should learn to describe them in terms of lives saved, protected, improved, and enhanced. If they were incapable of doing that except where they could calculate some monetary equivalent, they could undertake projections of how much it would otherwise have cost to secure similar outcomes without public bodies delivering them. What profit-making doctors, commercial security firms, or private educational facilities would charge in the absence of public services would then provide a financial yardstick, albeit a crude one, of how much value we derive from our public providers.

Ironically, such value is not counted as part of the wealth of a nation unless the provider is in the private sector. For example, a public service doctor saves a life in a public hospital would be chalked up as a ‘loss’ of thousands of pounds. But a private sector doctor doing the same for a patient who covers part of the bill with commercial health insurance and part with dwindling family savings would be classified as a ‘gain’ for the economy.

If we are to value our public services, we must brush aside crass conceptions of ‘gains’ and ‘losses’, and start focusing on what is of real value in our lives.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Vote is Not Enough

Must we go along with every decision that is backed by the majority of votes cast because that is the democratic thing to do? But is it democratic if some who will be affected by that decision are denied a vote? And what if the vote is given to people who for whatever reason cannot comprehend what the vote is about and will use it arbitrarily? In any case, should the ballot be secret to prevent votes being cast under duress, or open to ensure transparency? What if only a small proportion of those eligible to vote have come forward to cast their vote? Which case should be decided on a simple majority, two/thirds majority, or unanimity? Would it make more sense in some cases to limit the vote to electing people who will then make the decisions? If so, should whoever gets the most votes in a single round wins, or would it be fairer if second/third etc. preferences be transferable in determining who would get the greatest support overall?

For anyone who thinks that ‘the majority are with me’ is a simple cast-iron licence to act, answering the above questions is just a start. There are numerous other factors that may affect the legitimacy of decision-by-voting under different conditions. For example, if a juror who refuses to pay any attention to or cannot follow the evidence presented in a trial may be disqualified, should there not be some form of independent overseeing to ensure the proceedings leading up to any vote are not derailed by ignorance, unreliable information or deception? To what extent should those with more money or other forms of power be allowed to use them to get what they want by coercing, bribing or deceiving others to vote accordingly? If formal education and the media generally are failing to help people understand how they are to vote responsibly on different occasions, should these be given a specific duty to raise citizens’ awareness about social and political issues? And where the vote is to elect a representative who will go on to take specific decisions, are we clear what the appropriate qualifications are for standing as a candidate; if there should be a limit to how many terms they can be elected for; and what arrangements should be in place for recalling them or revoking a decision they make?

To understand how these issues are to be addressed, we need to recognise there is no universal blueprint that can be applied to all individual cases. Instead, we have to comprehend what improvements democracy is meant to deliver, and hence consider in different circumstances what conditions have to be in place to maximise the likelihood for those improvements to be realised. There are three main improvements that a move towards democracy will render more likely to happen:

1. Curbing Oppression: to prevent some (a dictator, an elite group, or a large mob) from imposing their decisions on others and making them suffer without ever being held to account, democracy requires decisions to be authorised only when those affected by the decisions give their consent on an informed and un-coerced basis.
2. Correcting Errors: to stop any individual or group of individuals from claiming infallibility and making mistakes that can have undesirable consequences for themselves and others, democracy opens the way for everyone with any relevant idea or evidence to contribute to collective judgement.
3. Cooperating to Build Consensus: to resolve differences and facilitate give-and-take trade-offs without some being placed in a disadvantaged bargaining position, democracy provides a level playing field on which agreement can be reached between people through respectful deliberations.

By assessing how well any given decision-making arrangements help or hinder the three democratic objectives outlined above, we can determine how authentic they are in embodying the spirit of democracy, and what needs to be reconsidered and further revised.

So instead of proclaiming every majority vote as inviolable, or rejecting all attempts at democracy as inherently flawed, we should examine the voting arrangements put forward for local and central political decisions, elections, referenda, etc., and identify the areas where changes need to be made if the core democratic objectives are to be attained. Where voting outcomes have been arrived at as a result of one or more critical distortions, far from invoking democracy in validating those outcomes, we should stay true to our democratic commitment and question their legitimacy.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Automation, Immigration, & Civic Remuneration

Jobs with decent pay are getting harder to come by. Some blame immigration [Note 1]. Others criticise employers for moving jobs abroad. But the underlying problem lies with the widely accepted profit-centric economic model, which considers the cutting of labour costs as inherently positive.

It follows that commercial intermediaries (they who make money as the conduit between workers and customers because they own the design, the production facilities, or the distribution outlets) will keep seeking out new ways to have fewer workers and pay less to those they have to retain. Unfortunately, as less is being paid to workers, fewer workers will have sufficient income to buy what is produced. The production surplus then threatens to drive down prices, pushes more cuts for workers, and demand falls even further. And the vicious spiral of recession is in motion.

And the most powerful factor in labour marginalisation is pervasive automation. Exponentially rising processing powers, self-improving programmes, computer-led engineering, and unprecedented access to solar energy, are combining to give us automated mechanisms for virtually every form of production and service delivery. These mechanisms are not just making things we want, they can deliver online or via drones, they take feedback and rectify problems, and they offer a calm interface in providing advice and carrying out orders.

As automated processes radically cut worker costs, it accelerates the decline of purchasing power, and brings us ever closer to a world of plenty that very few can enjoy – unless we change the economic model governing our lives. If instead of pegging pay to activities involving commercial transactions, we link remuneration to contributions valued by society, we can attain a win-win position. Once work in the outmoded sense is no longer needed to be carried out by people, we can focus on what we do value about our fellow citizens – the care, respect, responsibility, creativity, sociability, we cultivate and share with others. A guarantee for civic remuneration can be given to everyone, so people can use it to acquire products and services that can be made available with no labour costs. The more automated innovation happens, the greater the stock of utilisable value there is to be distributed through civic remuneration.

The innovators who design or organise the automation can have a larger share of civic remuneration, so long as they don’t take such a large share as to leave nothing for others. There will be some who feel that without the old profit system, they cannot be motivated to come up with any innovation. But we know that there are always people who invent things like penicillin treatment, higher yield crops, or the World Wide Web, for the common good without insisting on vast monetary rewards for themselves.

Economic systems must adapt to be of use. Before market transactions became dominant, people fed themselves on what they grew; and before that, people gathered fruit and hunted for meat to share amongst themselves. As production processes change, we should leave aside ideological dogmas, and explore how new levels of innovation can be harvested to benefit all, especially when the alternative will pit a profiteering few against the discarded majority with nothing left to live for.

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Note 1: According to the Office of National Statistics, while the number of EU workers in Britain rose by 700,000 between 2013 and 2016, they were outnumbered by the extra one million Britons who went into employment in the same period. In 2016, the number of British citizens working in the UK labour force is at the near-record level of 28 million: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/20/reality-check-are-eu-migrants-really-taking-british-jobs; and Dean Hochlaf and Ben Franklin (authors of the Immigration: Encourage or Deter report) have used the Office for Budget Responsibility projections to calculate that by 2064-65, the UK’s GDP would be 11.4% (£625bn) larger with high migration than it would be with low migration:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-referendum-immigration-immigrants-jobs-brexit-remain-what-happens-unemployment-a7091566.html.