Freedom And The Divine Right Of Kings

“We live in capitalism. It’s power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of Kings.”

So said Ursula Le Guin in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards back in 2014. And, as ever, she was right. Capitalism, as the prioritising of money over everything else, and the toxic cultures it creates has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, pushed countless people into poverty, sent countries to war, corrupted democracies, eradicated species and destroyed so much of the earth. Hand in hand with authoritarianism, racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, imperialism, aristocracy and a whole host of other unjust power structures the grip of capitalism is agonising. But beyond despair Le Guin believed in the possibility of change.

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

However, as the UK endures another Conservative majority government so change is harder to imagine but, for those of us that can, we must do our best to try. We must imagine a time beyond systemic racism, beyond rape culture, beyond the devastation of public services, and beyond capitalism. We must imagine a time where the leading values aren’t selfishness, greed, prejudice and violence but compassion, empathy, kindness and resilience, the exact values we’ll need as we build the worlds we want. And if you need any tips on how to exercise and expand your imagination, Le Guin has more advice to offer:

“Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling.”

Taken from her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, this quote reminds us that however sure we are of our truths – that all people are equal, that everyone has a right to free healthcare, that no one should face violence – we still have to communicate them well. Whilst the facts are vital and telling them is crucial so too is transforming those facts into stories which will engage people’s imaginations and emotions, allowing them to see and feel the change we care so passionately about. Stories are the bedrock of empathy, which facilitates our ability to care about others.

And the more of us that care the more of us there will be to take action and challenge the racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism and other forms of discrimination that are on the rise. The more of us there will be to question our privileges and redistribute them so as to increase equality. The more of us there will be to actively resist the oppressive and dangerous policies of this bigoted government. Change and resistance are possible, we must never forget. Indeed, for many who lived during the reign of King Charles I of England and Scotland it might have seemed impossible to imagine a time when this divinely appointed despot wouldn’t have so much power over their lives. And today, it might seem impossible to imagine a time when Borish Johnson, who rules with all the arrogance of someone who has been divinely appointed, doesn’t have so much power over our lives. But, following two civil wars, Charles I was found guilty of high treason as “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy” and beheaded on 30th January 1649. And I don’t think it will be long before Johnson is metaphorically beheaded (probably by his own party) as he fails to deliver on the lies he promised. In the meantime, we must keep imagining, keep hoping and keep doing the work that needs to be done so we, like Le Guin, can be the recipients of that most beautiful of rewards: freedom.

Not Canaries In The Coal Mine But Cats

Trump is still President. Johnson is Prime Minister. The UK’s in another “record-breaking” heat wave. Mussels are being cooked in their shells on the beaches of northern California (and not by chefs). Brexit is Brexit (apparently). And now the trailer for the Cats film has been released and it’s awful. I’m no Cats fan and the musical didn’t do much for my youth but I respect my friends for whom it revolutionised their lives. They deserve better than human faces badly copied and pasted onto the bodies of real people (I mean, why not just cast good singer-dancers to play the roles, y’know, like in the musical?) set in some oddly dystopic and weirdly proportioned doll house. But the odd thing is that the rise of the demagogues and the rise of global temperatures are inextricably linked to this awful film. It would seem the canaries in the coal mine have been eaten by the cats.

For decades now Hollywood has been churning out countless remakes, reboots and cookie-cutter blockbusters for the sake of making a quick buck. The MCU Universe is now almost as big as the actual universe, the Bond franchise staggers predictably onwards and Ridley Scott foolishly decided to spray the Alien series with acid blood. It was only a matter of time before the corporate-consumer capitalism machine chewed up those alley cats and spat them back out via some grim production line. Screw originality when you can make money. Meanwhile, mainstream politics and economics offer more of the same and worse. Patriarchy’s abhorrent behaviour is lauded and venerated as proud racists and sexists take over positions of extreme power as that age-old and highly unoriginal story of greed and oppression continues to play itself out towards its dystopic conclusions. The mainstream is categorically failing to offer us anything original. Instead we get Cats.

Wonderful Woman

There’s something about watching demi-goddesses beat the living crap out of each other and not even get a scratch that is really quite exciting (btw, spoilers!). Yup, the first twenty odd minutes of the new Wonder Woman film are dedicated to the all-female clan of Amazon warrioresses created by the gods of Mount Olympus to protect humankind. Needless to say humankind swiftly became mankind, which quick got to relentlessly killing itself and so the Amazonians retreated to the hidden island of Themyscria where the eponymous heroine of the film is born. Unfortunately for Wonder Woman, aka Diana (played by Gal Gadot), WW1 blasts its violent way into her peaceful life. She chooses not to take things lying down and teams up with US spy Captain Steve Trevor to go and put an end to the war. Cue trenches, machine guns, mustard gas and a host of nefarious villains.

There are so many things to praise about this film. It passes the Bechdel test without being a film that tries to pass the Bechdel test because it is inherently a film about women (well, one woman to be precise). It also features a Native American smuggler, a marksman with PTSD and a Moroccan spy who are all given enough wiggle room to express characterhood without being reduced to stereotypes. A few hurdles it falls down at are lazily equating facial scars with villainy as Isabel Maru, a chief villain who loves gassing people to death, wears a mask over part of her face and doesn’t get to do much other than be a ‘deformed’ psychopath. It also completely buys into conventional representations of ‘beauty’ with a ‘golden couple’ at the heart of the film. Also, given that lady-on-lady romances would abound on Themyscria why not just come out and say it? And, even if Hollywood is desperate to have a man-on-woman romance, why not make Diana proudly bisexual?

One area in which I think the film excels is in the portrayal of Diana’s relentless optimism. Her chief goal in the film is to find Ares, god of war, and slay him, believing that in killing him the war will end as will mankind’s belligerence. At first she’s a bit naive about this, assuming that human’s are inherently good, but as the plot progresses she comes to realise that humans are neither inherently good nor bad but that they have the ability to choose how to behave and can be encouraged to choose good. I like the nuance and I like the shots of troops from the Allies and Central Powers shaking hands once Ares has been slain (fyi, Ares turns out to be a British politician and not the nasty German general proving that all countries were complicit in the atrocities of WW1). And this links to a fascinating bit of history that during 1918/9 there were an abundance of strikes and revolutions in Europe (including Britain!) as soldiers and civilians alike got so fed up of fighting the establishment’s war. These strikes often failed or ended with another bunch of bastards taking political control but they prove the moral shades of grey at the heart of the ‘war to end all wars’ and that the capitalist elite’s exploitation of workers transcends national borders. Imagine a sequel that goes from here rather than just introduces a new super baddy and rehashes the same plot, maybe in WW2. In summary, there’s so much to like when it comes to Wonder Woman not least its breaking of boundaries and box offices. Of course, what is not to like are Gal Gadot’s seemingly naive views on the Israeli Defence League and the huge number of civilian deaths in Gaza (giving more than enough reason for many people to boycott this film). Diana constantly reminds her fellow characters that war is wrong and not inherent to human nature, now let’s apply that logic to the real world.

Why Life Really Is Like A Twisted Monopoly Game: Part 1

What’s the link between Brexit and the price of a tin of Baked Beans? The short answer is money. That seemingly simple thing that the rich have lots of and the poor not so much, which actually turns out to be kinda confusing. For starters, take the Brexit vote. It happens and then the pound sterling loses value. Suddenly Britain’s currency is worth less in the world and it gets pricier to import goods, so businesses put their prices up to recoup the loss and the consumers end up having to pay more on everyday goods. Meanwhile, the Bank of England recently edged a little closer to raising interest rates, which would make it more expensive to borrow money, again making it harder for everyday folk to take out loans. But what does all this financial malark mean? Well, here’s an over-extended metaphor involving Monopoly to try to explain it.

You’ve got your typical game of monopoly with plenty of players, lots of streets to buy and a bank dishing out money. So far, so simple, but now imagine that the board gets bigger. As the game progresses so new streets are built and one player, Mr Top Hat, wants to build an epic new street full of shops, houses and hotels. Mr Top Hat doesn’t have enough cash under his mattress so he approaches the bank to take out a loan. Mr Bank is pretty excited by this new development and decides to issue the loan. Hurrah, Mr T-H has the money (the credit) but is also in debt to the bank because he’ll have to pay it back with interest. Mr T-H builds the street and it’s epic. Other players buy houses and hotels on the street and Mr T-H makes a bunch of money. He pays the bank back with interest and pockets a tidy profit. Now, the other players are so impressed by Mr T-H’s success that they start doing it too and take out loans to build streets with cool amenities on them. Mr Bank sets a favourable interest rate (i.e. making it easy to take out money) and things start booming. However, because the board is growing the money supply needs to grow as well and Mr Bank creates some more cash (just like that!). More money in the economy gets Mrs Supermarket excited and she puts her prices up meaning goods become more expensive. So Mx Average Jo suddenly has to spend more money on a tin of baked beans. This whole process of rising prices and falling purchasing power is called inflation.

The players keep nipping around the board and the board keeps growing in size, as does the amount of money in the game, so inflation keeps going up too. However, too much inflation is not a good thing so Mr Bank decides to increase interest rates to make it harder to borrow money. The point of doing this is to keep inflation rising at a steady and manageable rate. Of course, it’s alright for Mr Top Hot, who is very rich, but not so good for Mx Average Jo who will have to wait for another burst of growth to inspire a drop in interest rates. But the irony of this all is that whatever Mr Bank does inflation is always increasing and whether Mrs Supermarket puts her prices up if there’s more money in the economy or Mr Bank puts interest rates up because there’s too much money in the economy, the one who loses out is always Mx Average Jo. Economic growth and inflation are two sides of the same coin. Now, what about Brexit, fluctuating currencies and economic recessions? That’s Part 2 and involves an important new player, Mr Speculator.

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Is Voting Conservative An Act of Terrorism?

Bear with me. Terrorism is defined as the “unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”. We might associate it with the ongoing bombings and shootings taking place in European capitals. We might associate it with ISIS and Al-Qaeda and other groups of extreme Islamists. We might be less likely to associate it with similar acts of terror taking place in countries such as Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. We might also not associate it with right-wing terrorism in the US (claiming more lives since the September 11 attacks to June 2015 than jihadist terrorism). Our media inclines us to believe certain things about terrorism whilst ignoring others. And one thing our media never inclines us to believe is that our government may be guilty of it.

If you remove the word ‘unlawful’ from the definition of terrorism to leave “the use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” it’s not too much of a stretch to see how various  policies pursued by the Conservative government over the past few years might fit this bill. The Tories have cut, amongst other things, spending on schools, disability benefits, social security, the NHS, housing benefits, the social housing stock, and support for women and children. In essence, they’ve cut spending on the threads that keep the social fabric together (and remember, they’re cutting because the banks were bailed out after the 2008 crash and never made to pay the money back) and the consequences have included death. One study suggests that 30,000 deaths in 2015 could be attributable to the “relentless cuts” the NHS faced. Of course, the results were contested but it’s worth asking that if there aren’t enough beds at your local hospital, the A&E waiting time is too long and without sufficient money to buy private healthcare where do you go to get support? A local example for me would be the cuts to the organisations in London who help people struggling with mental health problems and/or HIV, again, without this support system where do vulnerable people go to find community and care? It’s also worth noting that hand-in-hand with the cuts goes an increase in privatisation of services. This means what was once free at the point of delivery becomes priced, immediately making it harder for people on lower incomes to access, and it’s also led to people having exceptionally unpleasant and dehumanising experiences at the hands of companies such as G4S and Serco.

So, as the rich get richer but for everyone else the social fabric tears, I argue that one of the consequences of this is terror. People are dying because they’re not getting the support they need, that’s terrifying. Despite the incredible material wealth in 21st century Britain people are still in poverty, that’s terrifying. Local communities are falling apart and we’re turning on each other as a consequence, that’s terrifying. And our government’s solution is to exacerbate the problem, that’s terrifying. The Tories are implementing violent and intimidating policies to further their political aims except they are considered lawful because they’re the government – the ones that make the law! For this reason if you were to vote Conservative on 8th June you will be an active participant in this terrifying process.

However, I doubt that Theresa May sits with her Cabinet (and David Cameron sat with his) and asks, “How can we terrorise the poor today?” or “Who should we murder with our policies?”, instead, I think she and her party genuinely believe that what they’re doing (slavishly adhering to an increasingly feudalist form of neoliberal capitalism and market idolatry) is for the best. Quite how/why they believe is for another post but I think the one thing they lack, which terrorists do not, is intent. So, no, I don’t think the Tories are involved in a class war that involves murdering their opponents with economic policies but I do they are involved in a class war that consists of defeating their parliamentary opposition and its support base with economic policies that kill. Which makes the answer to the post’s title a no – voting Conservative is not an act of terrorism but I think the consequences of doing so will continue to be terrifying.

Now, on the off-chance any of my Tory-voting chums are reading this (and I do have some because I went to boarding school in Kent…but that’s for another post) I might hear them offer this question: weren’t the Labour Party under Ed Miliband committed to the cuts as well? My answer to this would be another question – what does it mean that back at the 2015 general election both of Britain’s major political parties were wedded to destabilising society? My Tory chums can answer for themselves but, if you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I like to look to the context and Britain’s current political context is one of different shades of capitalism. We were told this system would redistribute scarce resources into the hands of those that needed them but when money itself, the oil of the machine, is a scarce resource it’s no surprise that it’s the needs of the wealthy that are being met especially as they’ve managed to buy up so much of the market, media and politics for themselves. That’s also terrifying.

Terrorism is a tragic and horrific force in our world and every time anyone in any country dies at the hands of an extremist it is a tragedy. Every time anyone is injured by an act of terrorism it is a tragedy. Every time anyone loses a loved one due to terrorism it is a tragedy. This post categorically does not intend to diminish that truth by perhaps glibly referring to Tories and terrorists in the same sentence (as much as Tories like to compare, say, rail or mining strikers to terrorists and use anti-terror laws to silence opposition and protect corporate interests etc). However, history shows us time and time again that the self-interested pursuit of capital yields only inequality and that rising inequality leads to people taking more extreme actions to express themselves. Of course, the reality is far more complex than that but if we can’t see how these things connect then we won’t be able to change them and history will just repeat itself. However, a vote for any party but Conservative (and Ukip!) on June 8th might be a step in the right direction.

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Why Is The Cure For Cancer So Expensive?

I don’t normally do this. Get out of bed at ten past six in the morning to go and join a protest against Roche, the giant pharmaceutical company. But yesterday I am very glad I did. One bus and one tube later and I was standing outside Westminster Cathedral with an eclectic group of activists, doctors and charity workers. The most striking were those who’d donned the custom-made fluorescent pink dresses with added boobs. I wore a modest headband with messages stuck to it including ‘Pharma Greed Kills’ and similar protestations. Then off we went, marching from the Cathedral to the revolving doors of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Donna
Donna, in all her bright pink glory!

The groups on the march included Act Up London, Treatment Action Campaign and Stop Aids, all united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and all aware that the greed of pharmaceutical companies affects people with so many other illnesses as well. Also present were Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-led organisation working to improve access to and affordability of medicines. And it wasn’t just London in protest there were groups in Brazil, France, Malaysia, the US and Zambia. Meanwhile, the crowds gathering in South Africa were not only just making demands of Roche but were commemorating Tobeka Daki, a passionate activist who sadly died from cancer unable to afford the treatments.

Back in London we started chanting as we marched, “Say no to Pharma Greed, Give us the cancer drugs we need” and other less catchy numbers that didn’t rhyme. We got stared at, photographed, laughed at and cheered by various members of the public. At 8.30 in the morning we did make for a nice change from the usual grey of the morning commute. We overshot the ABPI building but quickly backtracked to set up shop. Whilst others chalked on the pavement in pink, gave speeches and waved placards I handed out leaflets and the message was clear: Roche can profitably manufacture a year’s supply of Herceptin® (unbranded it’s called Trastuzumab), a cancer fighting drug, for £190 yet it is currently costing patients tens of thousands of pounds annually. People are dying from a disease that can be treated because Roche is putting profits before people. Justice for people with breast cancer, that’s what we want.

Many people avoided my gaze as I tried handing out the flyers whilst others just carried on listening to their music (seriously, I spotted so many of those fancy, giant ambient-noise blocking headphones than ever before). Some did take the flyer with an awkward smile whilst others stopped to find out more. That, for example, the development of Herceptin® and other vital cancer treating drugs depended on public sector support, philanthropic donations and the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Whilst Roche and one of its subsidiaries, Genentech, also invested in the development of these drugs for some reason they hold the patent so can set the price. And that price is high, they’ve already earned more than $60 billion in profits from the sale of Herceptin® alone. Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, isn’t doing that badly either. Back in 2015 he took home a nice salary of $12 million. So, whilst Roche could easily cut the cost of these drugs and still make a profit they just aren’t.

pharma-greed
Pharma Greed Kills

But it’s worse than that because Roche aren’t just keeping the prices artificially high they are fighting dirty to ensure they have a monopoly over these drugs. In India Roche have embroiled the country’s drug regulatory body and producers of similar products to Trastuzumab in long-running and complex litigation to prevent the widespread availability of potentially affordable versions of the drug. In Brazil and Argentina, Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies litigating against those governments for their attempts to use legal international safeguards to protect public health and make Trastuzumab more accessible. In South Africa Roche holds patents on Trastuzumab that will last until at least 2033. In essence, Roche are fighting tooth and nail to keep the prices high even whilst so many people die. It turns out that ill and dying people are profitable.

Chalk
Innovative use of some pink chalk

Back on the grey streets of London I was very grateful every time someone took a flyer. Because even if they just put it in the recycling bin when they get home what is important is that more people are aware. Cancer is a disease that touches the lives of all of us. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 870 men will receive this diagnosis. We may have lost someone we cared for, we may know someone who has it or a friend of a friend, or ourselves. And whilst it is risky to talk of a ‘cure’ for cancer there are so many life-extending medicines out there which can treat it and improve the lives of those who have it. So it’s not that the cure doesn’t exist it’s that the cure is too expensive. However, at 8.30 am on a grey, Tuesday morning in February I did not always have the time to explain this as people passed me by. But many did stop to look at the giant pink banner: “Pharma Greed Kills” is a simple and shocking statement and it is true. Profits are being pitted against people and profits are winning. Until we can contain and control money we will keep being forced to fight this ruthless, tragic battle because too many people love money more than they love others (or even themselves). I hope one day Severin Schwan wakes up and does the right thing. Until then I’ll keep doing my best to wake up before the sun rises so I can join those bright pink many-boobed beacons of hope.

How Do We Beat Trump?

It’s going to take anarchy to defeat Trump, real anarchy. And that begins with the absolute freedom of the individual. In previous posts I’ve written about how money makes the world go round and whilst it dictates all our financial relationships it also affects our personal lives as we come to view friendships and partnerships as cost benefit calculations. We quantify the unquantifiable and enumerate what others mean to us. We refer to this as social capital and there’s even natural capital when it comes to measuring the use of the environment. Jessie J was right, everything has a price. I’ve also posted on the concept of debt, which is crucial to our monetary system, and how key to any debtor-creditor relationship is the threat of violence. Just as the master can threaten the life of their slave, so the bank can threaten with fines, the boss with unemployment, the government with benefit cuts and so on. Crucial to debt is the nature of ownership – that a boss can own a company or a master can own a slave, that anything can be anyone’s property. It is clear Trump, with his billions, thrives in such a world but there are others. In anarchy, where the principle of absolute freedom of the individual is realised, no one would own and no one would be owned. Can you imagine that?

Given we live in a world ruled by money and private property it’s hard to imagine absolute freedom. It’s the opposite of ownership, a world with no masters and no slaves. We would all be free. And whilst anarchy is often misunderstood as chaos and disorder there is one vital thing it would have in common with the current world ‘order’ of capitalism. Namely, relationships. If the bonds of capitalism are dependent on money, debt, ownership and the threat of violence then, I imagine, the relationships of anarchy would be dependent on trust, choice, freedom and the possibility of ceaseless love. Jessie J said it first – if it’s not about the money then “we’ll pay them with love tonight.” And can you imagine that, an economy of love? It sounds like a utopian dream and it sounds great.

We’d need to agree on some core principles such as equality for all – not just equality for the rich, or the white, or the male, but equality for all. This would mean we’d all be fed, housed and watered, no one would go hungry whilst others gorged. There would be enough for everyone. We would all have access to meaning, work and leisure. Competition would be replaced with collaboration. We wouldn’t hoard, we would share. We would all be loved. And whilst we’d still bicker, fall out, shirk and fight, we’d do it with the goal of absolute freedom in sight and not whatever the goals of today are. We’d do all this in honour of the generations that have gone before, for the sake of the ones to come, in reverence for the world we live as part of and we’d do it for each other and ourselves. And we would do it not because someone was holding a gun to our head or because the rules say we have to or because our masters forced us to, no, we would do it out of choice. Can you imagine that, such choice, such responsibility, such freedom.

I will leave you with the words of a character in The Dispossessed, one of Ursula Le Guin’s award winning sci-fi classics that compares the planets of Urras and Anarres, the former a mix of capitalist and communist states and the latter a world of anarchism (I’ve slightly edited the quote so it is suitable to all genders, not just men). It is an amazing book that asks us to imagine a world without earning and deserving yet a world in which all are free. It’s hard to get your head around it but I have a sneaking suspicion so many of our hearts are already there. Because to beat Trump and the system of which he is a puppet, figurehead and ruthless profiteer, we must at least be able to imagine an alternative. I dare you.

A thin, small, middle-aged man beside Trepil began speaking, at first softly, in a voice hoarsened by the dust-cough, so that few of them heard him. He was a visiting delegate from a Southwest miners’ syndicate, not expected to speak on this matter. “…what [people] deserve,” he was saying. “For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever pulled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving whiles others ate? No [one] earns punishment, no [one] earns reward. Free your mind of the ideas of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.” They were of course Odo’s words from the Prison Letters, but spoken in the weak, hoarse voice they made a strange effect, as if the man were working them out word by word himself, as if they came from his one heart, slowly, with difficulty, as the water wells up slowly, slowly, from the desert sand.