25 July 2007

Lilley's Little List

I had the unpleasant experience yesterday of having to endure listening to a Tory being compassionate. This is always a nauseating experience. For those of us over 40 Peter Lilley must be best remembered for his appalling rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan at a Nuremberg-style Tory conference in the 1980s. A hate-list including single parents and the work-shy. No wonder his concern for the world's poor and his magnanimous offer to solve their problems through increased trade rings hollow.
The evidence to support his view that poor countries can grow rich through trading with rich countries is simply not there. The World Bank’s many papers showing improvements in absolute standards of living in developing countries are subject to question. There is a strong suspicion that the only way they can be shown to have grown richer is by a classic tactic of corrupt science: averaging. Based in the utilitarian paradigm which assesses the overall rather than the individual good, this tactic is clearly part of a capitalist worldview which privileges the needs and benefits of the elite over those of the mass. It is from this perspective that a national income measure that has increased and can then be divided equally between all the heads in the country—even when the wealth itself is clearly not—can indicate an improvement in the poverty situation facing that country.

This represents a tactical change for capitalist apologists on the issue of poverty, foremost among them the economists of the World Bank. It has proved necessary in the face of the striking evidence of starvation, destitution, and death. The claim is now that some in the poorer nations may have grown poorer while the country as a whole has improved its position. As well as the averaging problem this line also has the benefit of being conducted at the level of macroeconomic indicators, which are far easier to manipulate and obfuscate than starving children. So, the evidence that the gap between rich and poor is widening is irrefutable, although in some, but not all, of the countries following the IMF model the poor may be becoming better off in absolute, and usually monetary, terms.

Direct evidence of the impact of trade shows that this small and distorting increase in national income is bought at a high price. An UNCTAD report in 1997 showed that out of a sample of ten Latin American countries, in nine of them the differential in earnings between skilled and unskilled workers had increased as a result of opening up markets to international trade and that in most of the countries the real purchasing power of the least skilled workers had actually declined, in several cases by more than 20 per cent. International Labour Office data show that of 30 countries studied in Africa, Asia and Latin America, wages in two-thirds of them had fallen between the late 1970s and late 1980s, and the wages of the least skilled had fallen fastest.

In 1999 a paper from the World Bank reported on data for a sample of 38 countries between 1965 and 1992 to show that opening markets up to trade had reduced the incomes of the poorest 40 per cent of the population, while increasing those of the richer groups. The World Bank’s commentary was that ‘The costs of adjusting to greater openness are borne exclusively by the poor’. Mies and Shiva argue that the liberalization of markets is a deliberate policy to reduce subsistence and force the poor of the world into the capitalist labour-market, ‘The displacement of small farmers is a deliberate policy of GATT’. The policy has had a serious and negative impact on levels of hunger: ‘A conservative estimate of the impact of so-called liberalization on food consumption indicates that in India, by the year 2000, there will be 5.6 per cent more hungry people than would have been the case if free trade in agriculture was not introduced. Free trade will lead to a 26.2 per cent reduction in human consumption of agricultural products.’

Developing countries have spent these thirty years on the economic rollercoaster of international trade, because of the dogma from international bodies suggesting that this will end poverty, while at the same time the richest people in these societies have used this international game to increase their own wealth while the poor in the same societies have grown poorer. The overall gains from trade are minimal to the countries producing agricultural products: between 1986 and 1996 Ghana increased its exports of cocoa by nearly 80 per cent but only earned 2 per cent more in return.

16 July 2007

The Beauty of Thrift

I spent the weekend camping in rural Hertfordshire. I suppose it is difficult anywhere in the home countries to feel really in the countryside, but we were in a meadow full of wild flowers with a woodland and vegetable patch nearby.

Lydia has created utopia in a small patch of the South-East. Thrift Cottage is named after Anne Thrift, who left to Lydia the right to inhabit a small patch of Welwyn which she had enjoyed since before the passing of the Town & Country Planning Act in 1948. It so aptly describes the approach Lydia, and more recently her husband Robert, have taken to building the home they share with Scarlett.

Regular readers will wonder about my scatological tendencies, but I none the less need to share my excitement with Lydia's bathroom. Her toilet is a long-drop compost loo. You sit on a beautiful piece of retrieved hardwood which is always warm to the touch. You sprinkle a small quantity of fragrant sawdust, rather than flushing away your shit. All this takes places in an environment of tranquility, with wooden bookshelves and built-in wooden cupboards.

The whole eco-house exemplifies the attitude towards life that we need to foster to live in balance with nature. Opportunism is a key feature, with bricks, slate and wood scavenged from local skips and building sites. This is the Robinson Crusoe approach to building—making use of what your local environment provides—rather than driving to a builders’ merchant to buy building materials made elsewhere in the world—who knows where? I recently saw building stone wrapped in cling-film. It seems superfluous to mention the embodied energy both in the manufacture of bricks and blocks, and in their transport.

Other highlights included an outside bath: fill first and then heat by lighting a fire underneath, a summer pudding made with fruit picked in the local fruit patch, and a relaxing time spent on the turf roof.

Due to inept maintenance of the tracks and unfriendly timetabling I was forced to spend three hours of my homeward journey in Stroud. It was like a journey from the heights of the human spirit to their miserable depths. While I confess it is hard to imagine what the vernacular building style of Swindon might be, I cannot believe that it could be worse than the uniform blockwork, steel and glass, interrupted by mislaid tent-like structures, that is the landscape of Swindon today.
I made one of my increasingly infrequent visits to Tesco to buy an apple and noticed that the local media story was of a local murder by a young man of his mother and father. It felt possible to understand how somebody living in that degraded environment could be driven to such a level of cruelty and despair.

11 July 2007

Hell fire or a bottle of Bulgarian red on the beach?

The early industrial workers were faced with a stark choice: a joyless life of work or an eternity of hellfire. It is unsurprising that so many took Kierkegaard's way out and struggled to keep a faith in eternal life. In a similar way many lives are being stolen today by an economic system which finds its own supportive ideology in the forced-work ethos of New Labour.

Like the beliefs of their Protestant antecedents, Labour's apparent belief that work is a universal panacea to solve all our social and economic problems can only have its source in faith. It has no basis in either fact or experience. As Brother Gordon intones from his postmodern, designer pulpit to the faithful journalists, the glint in his eye gives a clue to the messianic origin of his political project.

In fact the obsession with work pervaded Christianity for only a small part of its 2000-year history. Despite the odd desperate Biblical reference to his training as a carpenter, it is obvious that Jesus Christ himself was the prototype hippy. It was Jesus who advised his disciples to "Consider the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin". He spent most of his adult life telling stories, discussing the meaning of life, begging food from friends; and he had long hair and wore sandals.

The problem with religious commitment, however, is that it does not allow this sort of argument. We are not permitted to take issue with our Prime Minister about how we would like to spend our short span here on earth, either we take up our oars on the slave-galley of the economy or we are wicked sinners to be cast into outer darkness. Like Torquemada, enforcing belief in an insane ideology with the fire of the Inquisition, to be acceptable in New Labour Britain we must spout the litany of holy work: yes, I enjoy my job; since beings made redundant I have spent every hour on my bicycle seeking work; I don't enjoy being unemployed; I wish I could spend all my waking hours licking up toxic waste like you do (melody available on request).

The political commitment to work for all is taking on totalitarian dimensions. It is becoming almost blasphemy to suggest that we might not want to work, might not enjoy work, might rather sit on the beach and listen to the sea, or even (out come the garlic and crucifixes) prefer to stay in bed with a bottle of Bulgarian red. But New Labour ideology, like all religious ideology, is no diversity. Those who use their own energy to bolster an impossible belief cannot afford to listen to opposition. They will not enter the arena of rational debate. If it makes Blair, Brown and their brethren feel good to work hard all day then not I would not wish to stop them. What I would challenge is their right to impose their choice on the rest of us.

My own view is that most of the work that is carried out in a modern, advertising-led, consumption-based economy is both environmentally and socially destructive. Would we really rather that the uncountable unemployed all found jobs in the factories of transnational corporations making cars? Aside from the corporations' profits, who benefits from their work? Wouldn't they be better off living on a citizens' income and enjoying their lives? As I sit patiently at my postmodernised "work-station", watching my life tick away on the office clock, I think venomously of this crusade for jobs. And I rage against the New Jerusalem Labour has led us into.

5 July 2007

Time for trade

There are many reasons to yearn for a relocalisation of our economies. Beyond the immediate importance of reducing the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the pointless transport of goods across vast distances when those goods could be made domestically, there is also the building of community that emerges when we engage in economic relationships, and the increased awareness of our environment that comes when we use its resources to meet our needs.

Although the barriers to rebuilding local economies seem great, they are in fact mainly mental barriers. We are no more useless than our ancestors: we could make the things we use in our everyday lives. The reasons we exploit Chinese people to do this work for us, leaving them poor and ourselves alienated and unskilled is merely because we go along with the rules of this economic game. We need to step outside the game.

One important first step is to think of what we do when we make useful things as a hobby rather than a job. If we operate according to the 'time is money' mantra of capitalism we would never do anything, since it will always be cheaper to buy stuff from a corporation that employed children poverty wages to make it somewhere in the Far East.

Next we need to decide what our role will be in the new local economy. It is no good bemoaning the loss of local economies and repeating how much you would like to buy more local products. If you are not a producer as well as a consumer the local economy will not happen. Deciding whether you are to become a forestry manager or a cosmetics manufacturer is necessarily a rather intuitive process! Go with your passions, backed up by a little smart thinking about unused local resources. If your product is made from something other people locally view as waste, so much the better.

And finally, you need to exchange with others locally. The Argentinian model of the barter market is useful for this. It is something like a table-top sale but where exchange takes place in local 'money' or coupons you have produced yourself rather than in pounds sterling. This recreates the genuine markets of old, and is a fun and sociable way to buy stuff, as well as meeting our ancesteral longing for flocking and foraging!

So get creative! Get active! And most of all: get trading!

1 July 2007

New Labour's Puritan Agenda

It was the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who said that the more insane and irrational a proposition the more faith is required to believe it, and the more effort required to prop up that belief. He was, as the forerunner of existentialist philosophy in an era dominated by the established church, referring to the Christian doctrine. But we might make a similar critique today of the Labour government's ideology of work which has been redolent of the frenzied rhetoric of the lay preacher, in the case of Tony Blair, and the musty smell of the manse that hangs around Gordon Brown.

John Smith, Blair's predecessor as Labour leader, was also a fervent member of the Church of Scotland. In 1993 he edited a collection of essays entitled Reclaiming The Ground: Christianity And Socialism. The book was produced by the Christian Socialist movement, which numbers many leading Labour ideologues amongst its members, most prominently Tony Blair. In his foreword to Smith's collection Blair wrote:

"Christianity is a very tough religion... It is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language. But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgements. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian Socialism." Yes, Tony, and that would also be the explanation for the horrendous misjudgement to invade Iraq.

In terms of their denomination, most of the contributors to this short but telling book are Methodists. Paul Boateng begins his essay with the statement that "The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism". So it is worth noting that doctrines of Methodism were taken by EP Thompson in his classic study The Making of The English Working Class as the prototype of the disciplined worker. The creation of the punctual and punctilious workforce required by capitalist production systems was far from straightforward, as our ancestors were understandably loath to give up the many "holy days" they enjoyed each year.

This problem was solved by the invention of the ideology of work. It was the Methodists who invented the concept of the "calling": one's work-role in life, as assigned by God in some lottery that was both random and unavailable for inspection. The role of the good Christian was to work hard within whatever calling "God" had assigned, hence the following lines, typical of many Methodist hymns: A servant with this clause, Makes drudgery divine; Who sweeps a room as for thy laws, Makes that and the action fine The "clause", of course, is to perform the act in God's name.

Perhaps the line about making drudgery divine is most telling in terms of Labour's attitude to work policy. It is particularly sickening to learn that the author of this simple hymn, George Herbert, was himself a wealthy aristocrat and MP for Montgomery.

According to the 17th Century theologians, to question one's position in life, particularly one's work-station, was to question God's plan, and hence blasphemous. This was the ideological justification for the creation of disciplined workers, but the weapon that was used to achieve it was fear. Success in one's allotted station was taken as a sign of being favoured by God, and so increased one's likelihood of finding a place in heaven after death. People's energy and time was to be stolen here on earth in return for a promise of eternal life. No wonder Thomas Paine wrote that: "Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave and seeks to pursue us into eternity."