Tuesday, 30 September 2008

What I've been trying to say is..

Wordle. More fun than it looks.But I don't think the word 'angry' is emphasised enough (it's just to the left of the 'l' in World).

Because I am sooooo angry with these people who own and run the world.

Buddy, Can you spare me a dime......no, make that $700bn?

The Republicans have voted down the Paulson rescue plan, with a little help from the Democratic party’s ‘left’ wing. Paul Mason is calling this ‘plebeian radicalism’. It’s certainly a huge two fingered salute to the political and financial elites of the Western World.

The Left blogosphere is alive with excitement. The Morning Star is quoting Lenin on state-monopoly capitalism and calling for a freeze on prices. Socialist Worker helpfully tells us we should ‘fight back’. The Socialist Party (nee Militant) tell us,
The recent phase of accelerated globalisation and unfettered neo-liberal policies is drawing to a close ...... There will be even deeper tensions between the major capitalist powers. Prolonged stagnation, punctuated by weak recoveries and renewed recession, will provoke social crisis and mighty political struggles.”

So why don't I think anyone has yet told me the answer to my simple question: what is to be done? Either I'm being particularly dense, or there are a huge number of people out there who share my bewilderment and lack of confidence that a crash can be avoided. Saying the rich should clear up their own mess, and take their own pain, is quite some way from actually knowing how to go about doing this.

On another note,Ann Pettifor, in the Guardian, has called for the immediate exhumation of John Maynard Keynes. & it's true, as Paul Mason says, that governments have yet to really slash interest rates or start printing money.

So- what's it to be? Japan in 1990, or wheelbarrows full of notes a la Weimar? Or can our much discredited masters of the universe actually back down and agree to take enough of a hit to satisfy the angry daemons of Main Street?

Monday, 29 September 2008

Why Am I Blettering On...

So, time to explain where the blog title came from.

From 1976 I passed through, first, a number of left wing groups within the Labour Party and then, from just after the 1983 election, the Communist Party. In 1991 it all came to an end and I retreated to lick my wounds. In a move which faintly embarrasses me when I recall it now I even went round to Gordon McLennan’s house to resign personally, and accepted a glass of whisky from him as I blurted out that I was leaving.

We live in a world where everyone over 30 sat in front of their TVs and saw millions of people escaping from collectively run economies when the Berlin Wall came down. Economies run under the formal label of 'socialist'. & there is no coherent socialist economic policy which has ever since been developed which comes close to overcoming the effect of that sight. State run economies failed. Everything that I had spent so long attempting to understand, explain and promote had fallen apart. Perhaps Gordon was right to offer me that whisky after all...I'd had a big shock.

Oh I still called myself a socialist, even a Marxist influenced one, but in practice I undertook very little directly party political activity, although I did engage in various kinds of community politics, and even held down ‘political-with-a-small-p’ type jobs.

New Labour always left me cold. It wasn’t even a direct political rejection, just that they were always so distant from the sociological ‘feel’ of the labour movement I had spent so long in. I just despised them, faintly at first, and then with an increasing passion, especially after the decision to trick us into the Iraq War.

But now, in New Labour’s dying days, my interest has sparked again. This blog is not really about teaching myself economics or being a third rate commentator on the financial crisis, it’s about trying to work out what I now believe in. ‘Socialism’ - what’s that then the young people ask? & I can see their point. It’s been edited out of history as anything other than a monstrous perversion or, at very best, a charming historical curio that says nothing useful about out globalised world. It can offer nothing in allocating resources - apparently the basic job of our strangely de-politicised,technocratic politics. At best it is a private language of academic clerks, used in their mysterious temples of learning, through which to re-mystify a world which I find pretty bloody mysterious already.

But I do not accept that the problem of poverty has been solved - though it has of course been greatly alleviated. Equality - measured either globally or nationally – continues to increase, obscenely. Nor has the issue of meaningful work has not been solved by a very long chalk and may actually have intensified as a problem. We live in a world where it is patterns of consumption which defines people - this car, that watch, this new dress - not the meaning of work or production. I think this leaves many, many people with a deep inner sense of dissatisfaction. There are exceptions to this general statement, however, and it is in the sphere of *intellectual* production - where this distinction breaks down. If intellectuals can have meaningful work, why can't manual workers? Yes, there will always have to some 'cutting of wood and drawing of water', but why isn't society and economy organised to allow people's creativity to blossom at work? These feel like fairly traditional ‘left wing’ questions to me...

But they don’t constitute‘socialism’ in any sense. They are fragmentary responses to a world changed beyond recognition from my youth. I want to understand what the left has been doing since I've been away. & I suppose I want to find out if I can possibly feel part of it once again.

Economics 101 (pt2): International Development

Worldmapper - you've got to love it haven't you? Confirms all you always thought you knew in nice easy to grasp graphics.

Like these two. Guess which one shows the distribution of wealth in 2002 and which one shows the distribution of poverty in the same year...details of the precise measurements on Worldmapper.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

On Doing Economics 101 late in Life (pt1)

Risk. Simple word, isn’t it? But some very, very clever folk spend their lives earning fortunes trying to minimise it. This is called ‘financial innovation’ and it is praised to the skies over at Conservative Home’s CentreRight blog as the goose which lays the golden egg.

But risk can’t be eliminated from market transactions altogether- indeed rightwing analysts have a whole host of insult terms for the very idea of attempting to do so. The key words are ‘Moral Hazard’ which is A Very Bad Thing Indeed, apparently. Now you and I might think Moral Hazards might, just possibly, include a situation where c40% of all UK Footsie 100 gross profits over the last decade went to the financial sector, and 60% of this was paid out in bonuses to executives and traders. ( I quote from a poster on CentreRight blog). But, no, that’s not what’s meant at all, or at least not primarily (though Stumbling and Mumbling does go on about the ‘principal-agent’ problem at lot it must be admitted). Moral Hazards are things which stop the market working according to the pristine theory, when winners Win and losers, er, Lose.

So any regulation has to be scrupulously careful not to encourage Moral Hazard. Possible ways of introducing Moral Hazard it seems, include ‘rewarding failure’, or hinting at bail out possibilities, or supporting ‘markets’- such as the housing market - with explicit or implicit political guarantees. In other words, it seems to me, almost all centrist or Leftwing policy responses might count as Moral Hazards.

Bollocks. Whose risk has been minimised by all this fancy dan ‘financial innovation’? Not mine, not Bradford and Bingley’s staff’s, not the holders of sub-prime mortgages. Our risk remains and we’re gong to pay for it, so little Moral Hazard there. No, it is bankers getting off scot free with their golden eggs who face a Moral Hazard risk. In truth in any kind of morally ordered world they would now be cowering in their mansions listening fearfully for the approach of the mob with pitchforks and burning brands...

Saturday, 27 September 2008

South Bank Knees Up

Time for a personal note.

Today, we took the kids to the South Bank for a, erm, 'mass busk', led by the inevitable comrade Bragg. Apparently it's all part of the so called Cultural Olympics..Naw, it was just an old fashioned mass open air singalong, with 500-600 hundred people, 50-60 guitars, a smattering of ukuleles (!), 2 trombones, a trumpet and a very impressive kazoo player. & Bill's alright - a definite good sort: he's being much better at being an ex-pop star than almost anyone else I know.

A small thing. But a nice one - there are so few occasions when this sort of mass participation is celebrated.

But on the way home we saw Evening Standard billboards from Friday which said: " Waiting for Meltdown Monday". I can't help thinking it's going to take a bit more than a chorus to 'One Love - Drop the Debt and Everything's Gonna be Alright' to sort that one out.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Ah, someone has painted me a picture....

Paul Mason used this graph on Newsnight last night: it shows the ratio of debt to GDP in the US economy. The spike on the left is the Great Depression - the spike on the right is just before the current collapse. The economically literate can find a convincing (well, convincing to me, which might not be quite the same thing) technical analysis of its meaning over at the Naked Capitalism blog. The rest of us might be best employed digging out those old Dad's Army videos and practising our Private Frazer imitations: "Doomed, we're Doomed I tell you..."

Now the increasingly indispensable Mr.Mason is telling us that the banks themselves are saying America has a choice between nationalising them and letting them be acquired by the state funded corporations of other nations...

How can they possibly fight two wars and fund all this? The unipolar world with the States as global titan would seem to now rest, mainly, on some element of bluff, in much the same way the British Empire did for 25 years after the First World War.

Main St is Stirring

Now this is fascinating; the Republicans won’t support the Paulson/Bush plan, never mind the Democrats. Why? Well part of it is straightforwardly ideological: they don’t like the ‘creeping socialism’ of the plan. But ideology melts away in times of crisis and remains merely as the dressing of something deeper.

The Republicans since Regan have pursued a populist strategy, aligning their core defence of wealth and privilege with the cultural interests of ‘the little guy’ of Middle America. So it’s been up with guns, family values, religion and a folksy image - and down with those nasty latte sipping, abortion loving, unbelieving Democrats on the Coast. They’re the elite who are selling out the country, not the big oil man who's president or indeed the former Goldman Sachs head honcho who is his Treasury Secretary.

But this morning on Radio 4 we have a series of interviews with Conservative Republicans and their staffers who tell us that they won’t support the Paulson plan because their electoral base has worked out it is an excuse for the elites to take their money and run like fuck. Michael Hudson goes all biblical about this over at Counterpunch. We don’t need to go that far. It’s an election year and the Republicans need their populist base: having turned away from elite politics they can’t put the populist tiger back in its cage. & what we’re seeing is a fascinating occurrence – the development of class politics within a right wing party and cloaked, for the moment, in right wing language and policy responses. This could break the Republicans for a generation if it gets out of hand. It may be time for me to re-read the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon once again.

But it's a long way from over yet. There's a secondary game of 'pass the parcel' being played out: who takes the blame for the debt may be as important as what to do about it. It's by no means clear the Democrats have a better strategy - it's just that they haven't got such a politically toxic one as poor old Hank Paulson, once master of the universe, now reduced to going down on one knee to beg for help from Nancy Pelosi.

Oh - and yes, another huge bank has gone down.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Capitalism in Crisis: More Party Games

I'm no economist. So I've been trying to find out what people who claim to know what they're talking about think about the financial crisis.

It's becoming clearer and clearer that there is no mainstream - or Leftwing - consensus on what to do about the crisis. Bush was on TV last night telling everyone to back the Poulson plan - basically a 'reverse auction' of bad debt. But the very readable and honest Paul Mason says there are real doubts as to whether this can possibly work even on a purely technical basis.

The Democrats want to enforce a modified 'fire sale', so more of the losses stay with the banks - Bush wants to refund the banks (i.e. nationalise the debt) to restore systemic liquidity and re-float the system.The American Hard Right is against any rescue package - market discipline has to be seen to work apparently. But most people seem to think this would result in something not too dissimilar to the 'Shock Therapy' experienced by the former Soviet Union after its collapse.

Over at Lenin's tomb, they're treating the rescue package simply as a form of giant outdoor relief for the plutocrats. (Which is nice, as it allows them to bend this strange situation into an analysis which they had prepared earlier - e.g. they're against it. I do find the consistency of the SWP & their friends almost as comforting as I did the Blue Peter presenters of my youth...). Compass, on the other hand, are taking a fairly straightforward line, not a million miles from the sort of thing I heard in my CP days all those years ago: it's all about Finance Capital(bad) getting too big for its boots relative to Industrial and Productive Capital. Meanwhile that strange but well informed economic commentator Stumbling and Mumbling - can he really be a Marxist as he claims, or is it all tongue in cheek? - wonders if, actually, the links between a stock market crash and a downturn in the real economy are necessarily that automatic. But he seems pretty much alone in this thought - which, in any case, is more of a wondering out loud than a definite conclusion. Meanwhile the markets continue to slide and, we're told - or possibly threatened, depending on who you listen too - that failure of the Bush plan will mean Untold Carnage and The End of the World As We Know It.

Brown is going for a mildly Keynesian response as if this was, actually, 1929 redux. But is it? other commentators have been hinting at something closer to the sort of depression which hit Japan in the early 1990s. About which I must confess I know diddly squat, but I suspect someone in the media or blogosphere is going to educate me soon.....

So I'm not going to move away from my 'pass the parcel' analogy - it still looks like that to a economic ignoramus like me. But I'm beginning to understand our much vaulted experts of both Left and Right are a bit stumped about not merely what's in the parcel (no-one knows how much debt there actually is) but also about how to judge who wins the game they're playing anyway. So maybe it's class struggle as a version of 'murder in the dark' as well.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Dealing with that Debt....

Hank Poulson wants $700bn - $1trillion to buy out the bad debt of the American banks. Congress is cutting up a bit rough, wanting to decide what counts as a bad debt. A former editor of the Economist warns in today's Guardian that once this happens, no future President can afford decent healthcare programmes or research into alternative energy.

This is class struggle as a form of that old party game 'pass the parcel' - when the music stops, someone is going to have huge losses in their hands. How do we stop the bankers taking the music away and calling a halt to the whole damn party if it is them?

Sunday, 21 September 2008

I'm Gonna Party Like It's 1929..

So...a real old fashioned 1930s style economic crisis. Lots of press telling us Things Will Never Be the Same & the Old Paradigm is Broken. Squillions of zlotys of debt 'nationalised' on both sides of the Atlantic. This - we're told - has stabilised the situation: but stabilised for whom? Can massive spending cuts be far behind?

& calls for socialism? Keeping listening, there a squeak coming from Manchester where the dear old Friends House is playing host to a 'Convention of the Left' as a sort of counterpoint to the Labour Conference which is also in town. Unity and Fraternity dominated the opening proceedings. I'd say even the most mouse like market dealer with the the smallest surviving appetite for risk would go short on those themes lasting the week...

Anyway, the problem, as far as I can see, is not with the soon-to-be-squabbling denizens of Friends House. The only real question there is what is going to be the label affixed to the next vehicle for testing to destruction, after the Socialist Alliance and Respect. It's the lack of any anti-recessionary economic policy around which the Left might rally. I'm investigating this lot now - I'm rather hoping they might help me think this through....

Oh - and a poll of 35,000 people say Labour's going to lose the next election worse than it lost in 1983, after the so-called 'longest suicide note in history'. 160 seats will be left with a Labour MP, and the Tories will have a majority of 146.

Personally, I feel this could yet be a over-estimation of the remaining support for New Labour in the country.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Brown Out for Labour?

New Labour is decomposing. Each day Brown's position is undermined a little more, either by another back bencher calling for a leadership contest or simply because the big beasts of the World's financial sector are going belly up. (That doesn't really work for our Great Helmsman as he's spend a decade boasting about his 'special friend',Prudence).

Can he get through Labour Party Conference at the end of this month? Conferences are great places for plotting after all. I think he will because it really isn't going to be easy to dump him, elect another leader and still pretend a general election isn't necessary. You can't change Prime Minster twice on one mandate without getting pilloried in the Press. & the one viable tactic for Labour whoever is leading them surely has to be avoiding an election for as long as possible. People have stopped talking about 1983 - which was a better outcome for Labour than the sort of result currently suggested on websites like Electoral Calculus - and started muttering about 1931 (52 seats for Labour).

This has happened in other countries - whole historic parties have been almost wiped out in single elections in my life time in both Canada and Italy. I know it sounds ridiculous to imagine it might happen here - but a perfect storm is brewing for New Labour. There is a gathering sense of the economic crisis of 1929 being re-run in miniature(well, I hope it's in miniature..). The SNP look and sound like a social democratic party of government on a European model. Labour's old 'core' manual working class vote is slipping away, mainly to apathy but sometimes to the BNP, and the 'aspirational' classes are turning Tory again.

But most of all New Labour no longer has a coherent and trustworthy political story, just a bunch of increasingly panicky policies that change, it seems, from day to day. It could really all go tits up for them.If (and it's a big 'if') they lose the Glenrothes by-election I predict Brown will fall. & then Miliband or Cruddas or whoever it is will be forced to go to the polls in months and get massacred....

Or Glenrothes will be held. & then we will face a sort of re-run of the last 18 months of the Major administration: government by 'waiting for something to turn up'...But in either event, I can see no circumstances under which New Labour can possibly win the next election. It's just a case of them choosing when and by how much they might lose.

Friday, 12 September 2008

"The first role of the revolutionary..."

....& so to the Trots.

Both Militant and the SWP have gone through evolutions since I last considered them, and have, in their very different ways, tried to 'turn outwards' . I'll detail these turns in another post, but they don't feel to have been that successful to me. Today it seems the SWP is gearing up for an spot of internal blood-letting as the 'afters' to the collapsed Respect project. Splintered rips into them of course. There's a lively debate - couched in language I recognise as that of the authentic Kremlin watcher - about all this going on over at the Socialist Unity blog, which includes this classic contribution from 'tonyc'

"The first role of the revolutionary isn’t to fight against the bosses - it’s to develop an ability to fight against the revolutionary leadership."

I spent 7 years of my youth sharing a flat with a former Militant 'supporter', and a subsequent 7 years sharing with someone who had been in the SWP. Both of my flatmates had dropped out of activity - but both somehow internalised this as somehow being personal failures, rather than because their revolutionary organisation was necessarily wrong about anything.

To be fair, I don't think this is uncommon: not everyone actually likes political activity - it's not so much the boredom and repetitiveness of,say, paper selling or rote learning 'the line' as the psychic pressure created by always being in conflict - 'merciless criticism of all things existing' being Marx's recommended method. It wears you out, it really does.

& I'm glad I never shared a flat with tonyc...

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

My favourite blog of the moment...

Ah, now that would be Belfast based one time SWP dissident,philosophically inclined Republican Splintered Sunrise, whose trainspotterish knowledge of the Irish Left has me in stitches. He's also fun when taking apart the so called 'Decent Left', of Eustonite fame.

Yeah, he is, or was, a Trot of course and it shows in how he thinks. & some of those pictures of young women are a bit near the knuckle. But basically he's a 'must read'.

Monday, 8 September 2008

What the Labour Party has been upto Whilst I've Been Away

The old Labour Party was always a sociological alliance between, in the main, manual workers and middle class state-orientated Fabian social reformers. Both elements contained their 'Left' and 'Right', so old Labour produced Bessie Braddock and Dennis Skinner, as well as Anthony Crosland and Tony Benn. But time, and Thatcher, destroyed this sociological base, or at least decreased its overall weight in the population so it became incapable of projecting itself as a 'national' party. As a consequence it turned in on itself in a fratricidal civil war which took up much of the 1980s. Even those few shoots of modernity that appeared on the Left during this time - Livingstone and the GLC foremost amongst them - got smothered, or at least muffled, by inescapably getting caught up in this internal conflict. Kinnock stabilised the situation but little more.

Blair and New Labour took a different approach. More or less his first act was to symbolically rip up the Holy Grail - Clause 4. But this wasn't him taking sides in the old civil war, or at least that wasn't its primary meaning - it was him rejecting the whole prior sociological base of the party, and indeed its whole prior modus operandi of relating to the electorate. Henceforth New Labour was going to be about 'aspiration' and 'Middle England'. But it was going to reach out to them as a centralised marketing campaign, not grow out of them organically. Harold Wilson famously said 'the Labour Party is a crusade or it is nothing'; Tony Blair proved 'nothing' could still sell toothpaste quite successfully. (I'm using 'toothpaste as a metaphor for managerialist, technocratic policies.)

But now New Labour has run out of time, of options and, yes, out of toothpaste. It has very weak resources to fall back on: a (much smaller and sullenly depoliticised) manual working class that correctly thinks it's been ignored; the grandchildren of Fabians staffing the welfare state who feel alienated and attacked by the marketised version of 'public sector reform'; Middle England who feels its 'aspirations' aren't being met.

The historical conditions which gave birth to and sustained the Labour Party no longer pertain. It only has a ghostly after-life as a sort of zombie version of the American Democratic Party to look forward too.... A general election defeat of the scale of 1931 is not impossible.

Apolitical Politics

I follow a number of Leftie political blogs, notably A Very Public Sociologist (AVPS). This is a quite well informed site maintained by a couple of Socialist Party -i.e. Militant - folk in Stoke, at least one of whom is doing a PHD in Sociology @ Keele.

Once upon a time I knew quite a lot about both Militant and academic Sociology. It would be fair to say I retain a general distaste for the one, but relatively fond memories of the other. But AVPS is an unusual and interesting place, characterised by intelligent postings, not the robotic repetition of 'the line' with which I associate the Militant Tendency of the 1980s. I still disagree with their politics though - the idea of Transitional Demands always makes me groan, and I'm even further away from workerism having any appeal than I was 20 years ago.

Anyway, all this is by way of introduction. There is a posting on AVPS about an academic seminar at Keele where the author heard about work being done to investigate micro politics in the 'neighbourhood polity': largely about how interest groups intersect in a regeneration area. The spice comes from the fact that Stoke has some BNP councillors, who take part in these exchanges, and who - at the level of the 'neighbourhood polity' seem relatively innocuous. So a national call for a focus on those of a 'Christian background' translates into a local sponsorship of Easter Egg hunts.

This is fascinating. Anyone with any experience of ‘neighbourhood’ politics (or school governing bodies, ALMO boards, Tenants Associations , community groups and the like) will be familiar with the convention that everything is done in a ‘non political way’. There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. First, it remains a truism that most people other than activists hate, absolutely hate, the practice of conflating the need to get something done with the making of wider political points. It seems like ‘grandstanding’, and it pisses people off. Second, it is genuinely true, in most of these situations, that the choices on offer are severely constrained by funding arrangements or limited powers – no matter how much a, say, school governing body might want to change the curriculum it’s actual power to do so remains minimal. So this foregrounds consensus, or ‘professional’, ‘de-politicised’ type decisions. This doesn’t mean the Left should simply ‘let it lie’ in respect of the BNP, nor that we should eschew involvement in such community groups. It means when we operate in such contexts we should seek examples of apparently ‘professional’ good practice which make the racists – and others on the Right - more likely to reveal their true colours and leave them outside the apparent ‘apolitical’ consensus of such community politics. For instance, if there is a youth club on an estate that is being regenerated we should ask for figures not merely on how well used it is, but whether there are groups of young people who aren’t using it (which might generate a discussion on how the club might better serve, say, Muslim girls). If the headteacher presents figures on SATS results we should ask for some kind of breakdown by obvious categories (ethnicity, gender, class indicator proxies like Free School Meals etc), and inquire about the school’s plans for dealing with any obvious disadvantages. (Actually, this might well mean concentrating resources on White working class boys at the moment, but that’s another story). This is not easy - it can backfire and make it seem that the Left are the ones outside the 'apolitical' consensus. But we have to try to bridge this gap between 'politics' - seen as sterile name-calling and windy generalities - and 'getting things done'. We have to make people think there is a point to Leftism.

Is this reformism? Perhaps AVPS would say so. But even someone more convinced than me of the relevance of the reform/revolution distinction might want to think a bit more deeply about why the Left are primarily seen as either posh newspaper op-ed columnists or street corner propagandists with nothing useful to offer 'on the ground'.

Sunday, 7 September 2008



Anyone under 35 would have been barely post-pubescent at the time the Soviet Union collapsed. They have grown up in a world where, basically, there is only one way of doing things.

Just imagine.

Anyone under 45 would have trouble remembering the Bullock Report - that unimaginably British phenomenon, a Royal Commission on Industrial Democracy.


No-one under 50 can remember when living in a Council house was seen as a slight mark of social superiority.

This blog is going to an act of remembering, and wondering about the future by a middle aged, ex-working class, long ago political activist of the Left.