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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“Why Don’t People Like Vegans?”

I tried to be vegan for a bit but then I ended up working in a restaurant where I got given leftover food at the end of the day and that included really tasty meat. It was a slippery slope back to a pretty meaty diet. But I shan’t bore you with my personal history instead I want to flag up a documentary of epic proportions called Simon Amstell: Carnage. It’s over on the BBC and Amstell the comedian wrote, directed and narrated it (his name in the title might be slight overkill though) and it is fuming hilarious. The blurb reads: “It’s 2067, the UK is vegan, but older generations are suffering the guilt of their carnivorous past. Simon Amstell asks us to forgive them for the horrors of what they swallowed.” And whilst it’s largely fictitious and the talking heads tend to belong to people who don’t exist I think it’s one of the best arguments I’ve come across in favour of veganism.

The show speaks for itself so I think the simplest thing to do is just watch it. However, for me, what it did was brilliantly re-present the argument by showing it the other way around. Rather than have lots of meat eaters make fun of those silly, vegan hippies it had those highly intelligent, compassionate vegans boggle over our manic, meat and dairy eating habits. It flipped the narrative and revealed our obsession with torturing and forcibly impregnating livestock to be pretty messed up. It made me sympathise more with cows, pigs and chickens. So now, when I go into a supermarket and see that pack of smokey bacon, yes, I’m thinking how blooming tasty it would be in a sandwich but I’m also thinking that those slivers of meat are basically the product of suffering and torture, rashers of pain if you like.

However, there is still one very important question that needs answering: “Why don’t people like vegans?” Kirsty Wark, non-fictitious presenter, asks it during a faux Newsnight interview in Carnage and it’s a good question. Perhaps it’s because their lifestyle appears to be a threat to ours and when they talk about soya milk we start to feel a latent guilt related to animal suffering that we’d rather deny. Maybe it’s because some people think veganism is a cult. Maybe it’s because we work in the dairy industry. Or maybe we should just live and let live, and realise that should include the lives of animals too. Cows, pigs and chickens don’t need to die for our gustatory pleasure when there is just so much other ace food out there. And I’m not saying this to be moralistic or judgemental because one thing I certainly am not is a vegan but I still feel pretty terrible about all that slaughter. And let’s face it, vegans aren’t the threat here, especially as they’re not the ones running an industry that kills millions of animals, pollutes waterways and is a huge contributor to climate change. So, go on, try some nut cheese, it’s much tastier than churned up cow pus.

Ending 2016 With Lorde

So, it’s the end of 2016, which at times seemed like a pretty apocalyptic year. Trump got in, Brexit got voted for, Syria still rages through war and not to mention the 6th mass extinction and resource depletion. It seems all those stories about humans conquering the world, about technology solving all our problems, about the forward trajectory of human civilisation, well, they turned out to be pretty shoddy stories with a shed load of plot flaws and inconsistencies. Fortunately, we’ve got Lorde, the singer songwriter, to offer us some guidance and it comes in her song Team.

The video and the lyrics go hand in hand as they paint a picture of faded grandeur. A city that’s slowly falling apart, the sort of place “you’ll never see on-screen, not very pretty,” – nothing like the Kardashians’ numerous houses. It’s a place where guys joust with baseball bats on motorbikes and grin chipped tooth smiles as the blood trickles down their noses. It’s an apocalyptic rite of passage as people get initiated into meaningless. “Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams” and that’s where we seem to be retreating these days, to inside our heads, far away from the dangers of the world, far away from the grim realities of climate change and refugee crises. Although even for Lorde that palace in her dreams is falling apart. It seems nowhere is safe anymore.

But maybe, in and amongst the debris, there’s hope. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air, So there.” Maybe Lorde’s bored of being told to give up and surrender, maybe she does want meaning in a culture that’s regularly telling her nothing matters and we should all just give up. Sure, the old stories might not make sense – that everything would end happily ever after – but the people telling those stories were clearly quite deluded (and probably very privileged). What if it’s this naive belief in stories – that life has clear and well-structured beginnings, middles and ends, like fairy tales – that’s the problem. What if finding meaning in today’s world will take more than a simplistic story structure.

“And everyone’s competing for a love they won’t receive, ‘Cause what this palace wants is release.” Lorde’s right again, we are competing, constantly hoping this life of high consumerism, economic reductionism and endless comparison will give us meaning as we shove one another aside to get what we want and get happy trying. That seems so much to be the dominant story of now. But beyond the credit card transactions and the debt, like Lorde, we crave release – release from these highly conditioning bonds of consumer capitalism. Or maybe this is just an exceptionally self-indulgent blog written by a directionless yet privileged millenial – a bit like the sort of people Lorde sings about perhaps.

But, as self-indulgent as I can be, I do want to do something about the mess we’re in, even if the contribution is small and it still all ends in apocalypse (bearing in mind that countless people are already living and dying through various incarnations of hell on earth). And I think Lorde’s song holds the key. She offers us the answer for getting out of this debt-heavy, meaning-lite existence because “you know, we’re on each other’s team.” Somewhere beyond the narratives of endless competition there is a story of teamwork, a more meaningful story in which we join forces and learn to share. And it will be so much more than a story, it will be real human experiences of compassion and community. Better to rebuild ruins together than be forced to live in them alone.

These Are The Christmas Adverts!?

It’s that time of year again, still pretty far away from Christmas but our economy’s on the rocks and we need to get people shopping pronto. The lights are up in the streets, Paris is ordering another giant, green butt-plug and Black Friday is looming. To fuel this pre-Christmas consumption extravaganza the propaganda machines, I mean televisions, are doing their best to spew out an array of emotive adverts to get us racing further into debt. Here are some of the highlights (well, lowlights).

Sainsbury’s and the 4th Industrial Revolution: this Xmas ad is a simple one, an overworked Dad who works in a toy store (as if we have those in Britain anymore) gets worried he won’t be able to spend enough time with his family at home. As stresses mount and this unforgivably long advert unfolds the Dad’s solution is to automate himself, yup, riding the trend of replacing humans with robots he gets a drone to do his shopping, machines to run the factory production lines and a nodding dog to do his ‘yes-manning’. This radical transformation of our society is being heralded by the World Economic Forum (self-important 21st century Adam Smith types) as the 4th Industrial Revolution but to those of us who aren’t super rich and who don’t work in think tanks it heralds loss of jobs and increased social atomisation. Thus, rather than an uplifting advert this is actually a bleak prophecy of things to come, worthy of a Black Mirror episode, but Sainsbury’s do give a great nod to diversity in British society as people of colour and different faiths appear in this advert, of course, the protagonist is still a white guy proving that the supermarket will go some of the way but not all of it.

Lidl/Aldi: Nostalgia and the Dangers of Anthropomorphising Vegetables: at least these ones are short. Lidl’s is called Homecoming (yup, it has a title) and is about a family redecorating their Grandad’s old cottage out in the countryside in time for Christmas day. This is a blatant play on British nostalgia for the countryside and ‘family values’, which today are, of course, being trashed by urbanisation and rural poverty, which are both exacerbated by supermarkets taking jobs away from farmers and forcing them to engage in unsustainable farming methods. This advert is effectively a nostaligc lie about what our past once was but probably actually wasn’t. Meanwhile, Aldi’s advert (Aldi is another German superchain and Lidl’s top competitor) shows a carrot running across a Christmas table laden with food – he runs past the corpses of other carrots, the mashed remains of dead potatoes and even gets the skin of his back grated off – all so he can reach the plate by the fireplace with a mince-pie for Father Christmas on it. The carrot gets its wish and, unlike all his dead and eaten friends, ends up caught in the antlers of a reindeer at the front of Santa’s sled, perhaps a subtle nod to the idea of the carrot and the stick, and this time the carrot is incentivising us all to eat loads and buy even more. Whilst funny this advert does highlight the dangers of anthrompomorphising vegetables because, ultimately, we kill, cook and eat them.

M&S Does Sexism: I would mention the Waitrose and John Lewis adverts but their over-reliance on creepy CGI animals and their unrealistic plots really let them down this year (a normal robin would not survive that journey and besides the fact animals don’t use trampolines they also don’t get on that well: the badger would attack the foxes, the foxes would eat the squirrel and the second the hedgehog landed on its back the foxes would be eating that too). Although, this US election result take on the JL advert is inspired and depressing! Instead, it’s M&S, which shows Santa Claus heading off to do the rounds leaving Mrs Claus at home. Not only does she lie to him when he asks if any “last requests” have arrived in the post and she says “no, just bills” – actually, there was a letter addressed to her and unless her bank uses crayons it’s pretty clear it’s not a bill. It turns out a young boy threw his sister’s trainers at a dog and she cried a lot (typical girl, amirite) so could Mrs C sort this out. Sort it out she does: changing into a highly impractical dress given the weather, getting on a jet-ski, into a helicopter and flying half way round the world to add a final present to the pile her husband will have just put under the tree. She even has a cheeky bite of mince pie but not a big one because women have to be dainty in their eating behaviour, amirite! Naturally, the sister is overjoyed because all girls care about is clothes and shoes, amirite! So, not only does Mrs C do the dirty work of a young boy too lazy to buy his sister a present but just before Mr C gets home from his worldwide trip she hides all the evidence: her secret HQ (think bat cave meets festive cheer), her cool dress and even the letters she receives from kids all vanish behind the wall. She even pretends to have fallen asleep whilst reading a book called ‘Fifty Shades of Red’ (because women only care about sex with sociopaths, amirite) and when Mr C asks how her night was she says, “oh, you know, quiet.” Um, not true! So why is she lying? She tells her husband it “wouldn’t be fun if you knew all my secrets” whilst giving the audience a knowing look and she’s basically asking us to collude in patriarchy, where men’s egos are so fragile the thought that a woman can contribute to the working world is just too much. Mrs C would rather weave an incredibly elaborate web of lies and deceit rather than have her husband know quite how resourceful and independent she can be. Talk about #masculinitysofragile. Either that or she’s just very bored of her marriage.

What Will The History Books Say?

If you’d turn to page 342 we will briefly examine that calamitous time in history at the start of the 21st century. It was a time of economic instability, ecological collapse, war and the end of the Great British Bake Off. It was a difficult time and it’s a minor miracle that we made it into 2116 at all. Nevertheless, what I want to focus on is the period known as the Rise and Fall of the Middle Classes.

So, who were the middle classes? Well, after the Second World War of 1939 – 1945 the largely flooded landmass formerly known as the United States of America realised that the machines they’d use to mass produce weapons and vehicles for fighting in battles could also be used to mass produce household items and other more peaceful commodities. Twin this with the continual ascent of money and we have what was called consumer capitalism: people got paid to make stuff and then the same people paid to buy stuff. All sorts of stuff: fast food, cars, trips to the Amazon, inflatable sex dolls, the works. But the religion of money was never a fair one and some people started off with lots and lots and others started with none. Usually things stayed like that and those who had got given more whilst those who did not have, lost. But in between the rich and the poor a new group emerged, the middle classes. These were the sorts of people who got paid a bit more for the work they did so they could buy more stuff but they didn’t get paid so much more that they could take on the role of the idle rich.

Now, the middle classes were fed a very important lie and it is because they believed this lie that Western Civilisation ultimately fell apart. They were told that if they worked very hard and got lots of money they would achieve stability, status and happiness. Thus, as they were distracted in the pursuit of money and the consumption of things so they forgot that what really tied people together was being nice to one another and trying to do good. Meanwhile, the superrich carried on waving the carrot of success at the middle classes and hitting the poor with the stick of failure, whilst rigging the system to ensure nothing was fairly distributed. But the middle classes were not content with believing just one lie they also chose to believe in another: the lie of progress. Namely, that by sending their kids to school and getting university degrees and buying houses the world would become a nicer place. It didn’t occur to them that the cost of their land of milk and honey was poverty and struggle for so many others. They were far too nice to think on such horrible things.

Unfortunately, to make matters worse the duped middle classes committed another vital mistake: they made a culture. Within this culture there were an awful lot of films about aristocrats and Queens and hardly any on miners’ strikes and civil rights. There were many television shows about buying houses and fashion but also lots about ugly and stupid poor people. There were many articles in newspapers that ridiculed, mocked and tokenised the poor, and transformed any one who spoke on their behalf into some sort of monstrous, loony party pooper. This culture used fancy words learned during fancy degrees at fancy institutions that took themselves a little too seriously. Middle class culture became a kind of club that many were excluded from. Now, I know, it was hard for the middle classes, they just wanted to get by, they just wanted a house, they just wanted security for their kids but in the end wanting a nice life for themselves made fuck all difference.

The catalyst that toppled this world of milk and honey (built on an empire of blood and suffering) happened in a very little country, what we know as England but back then was called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In that country there was an important vote to be held about whether England would stay in the European Union…sorry…yes, um, to be honest I’m not entirely sure what the European Union was but it had something to do with keeping bananas straight and trains filled entirely with gravy. Anyway, all those nice middle class people, full on milk and honey, were very surprised when the poor people, who didn’t have any milk and honey, voted to leave. They were also surprised when all those very rich people they had aspired to be like also voted to leave. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t believe that the poor people hated them and the rich people didn’t care about them. And so those nice middle classes got squeezed and whilst they tried to keep their nice lives together it seemed the pillars of what made their nice lives possible kept tumbling down. Soon the poor of the former United States of America revolted but accidentally voted for a superrich person who cared about them even less than the middle classes. Then the French did the same. And it was like a row of dominoes tumbling down. With everything the middle classes held dear vanishing it wasn’t long before the world was just divided between the rich and the poor, and sadly the former had all the weapons. For a while things had been good and for a while the middle classes believed things could only get better. But soon all those dreams of mortgages, salaries and nice suburban lives far from nasty poor people but closer to those brilliant rich people became just that: dreams. As for those middle classes? Well, they wished they’d woken up earlier. Now, if you look at the holo-screen you’ll see the recordings of a wise sage Queen of that era who recorded all these things in a catchy song. Enjoy.

Turns Out We’re All Insecure

We have a habit of projecting success onto others. We see our facebook friends’ holiday pics and assume their lives are just fantastic – they have the best holidays, they have the most fun friends and they have a monopoly on the sun. We see attractive people walking down the street and assume their lives are great – with a face like that they must get invited to all the best parties, have no self-esteem issues and have great sex. We see our hyper-successful boss and assume they’ve got it all sorted – a big salary, a big house with equally big happiness to boot. And all the while as we project success we internalise failure, telling ourselves our lives aren’t busy enough, we haven’t got enough friends and we’re just not good enough (or whatever our hook-ups are). But the thing is, it turns out we all do this because everyone’s insecure.

It’s not that we’re the only ones failing to find that abundant happiness we assume everyone else thrives in, it’s actually that we are all subject to the same slings and arrows of consumer capitalism. It makes us all feel inadequate, even those at the ‘top’ because there’s always more to buy, more money to make, the possibility of looking a bit better, having more friends, the list goes on. It’s a zero-sum game and there are only a few seats at the top table. But no one really wins and the very idea that society is predicated on the concept of winning, that it’s a competition, makes its inherent madness all the more obvious.

However, insecurity goes much deeper than the effects of living under capitalism, it goes right to the heart of the human condition. Regardless of how many holidays we go on, how often we shop and how ‘good’ we look, there are things universal to being human, namely ageing, illness and grief. We all get old, we all get ill and we all lose people we love. All of these are perfectly normal and natural but that does not make them easy. It’s not just that advertising campaigns make ageing a sin it’s also that losing things you once enjoyed is tough. Meanwhile, illness can knock us for six and, depending on its severity, change our lives forever. And loss. That empty feeling that can overwhelm our hearts when we lose a loved one and struggle to comprehend what death actually is, that is also very, very tough. Living, whilst often flipping fantastic, can also be devastating and difficult. Thus, interwoven into the very fabric of our being is the fragility and vulnerability of being alive. Our insecurity is part of who we are (not to mention the fact that we all die but that’s another blog, or book).

We are all insecure and for so many reasons. We all have different histories, no two experiences of grief will be the same, just as ageing and illness will affect us all differently. As will enduring and attempting to thrive in the zero-sum world of competitive capitalism. And why is it useful to know this? It’s not to make us feel better by luxuriating in the suffering of others instead it’s to let us all off the hook a bit. We can stop pretending everything’s ‘fine’ when it’s not and ask for help instead. We can also be a little more compassionate towards others recognising that no matter how irritating they are they will have their issues and sufferings too. So if I am going to make any categorical statement about the human condition on this blog it will be this: that, on the surface and in our deepest depths, we are all insecure.

What Is True Love?

It’s a question on many of our lips as we navigate the marketing campaigns, movies and relentless narratives of heteronormative patriarchy that tell us true love is something to be shared with one other person of the opposite gender for the rest of our lives. True love will involve a white wedding, 2.4 children and a mortgage. True love will look good in public and any problems will be hidden behind closed doors. True love will be shared on Facebook and Instagram whilst the passive aggression happens off camera. Fortunately, P!nk and Lily Allen aren’t buying into this bullsh*t.

Well, ok, I think both Lily Allen and P!nk are married with kids although they probably own their houses outright rather than have mortgages. However, there’s a lot of angst in this song as they complain about how irritating their partners are, how infuriating, how stupid and a whole load of other negative things (there are also quite a lot of domestic abuse references as well as some causal anal sexism, but that will be another post). And at least they’re honest. Love isn’t all roses, doves and honeymoons it can be annoying, smelly and sometimes quite disappointing. But I do like the idea of taking the rough with the smooth and committing to something bigger than  just two (or multiple) people, where 1 + 1 makes more than 2 (or 1 + 1 + 1 etc for those in polyamorous and/or open relationships). I think that’s something worth committing to and not that crass and crushing heteronormative, consumer capitalist version of “true love” created to make us buy more stuff and go to bed feeling guilty and alone. And I don’t think that better kind of true love (maybe just call it love to sound a little less presumptive) has to last forever either, what a sad benchmark for a relationship’s success if it only counts if it ended at death. It also doesn’t need to involve kids and a mortgage, dogs in a housing co-op are ace too. And it certainly isn’t just for straights. Queers welcome.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not against people marrying, having 2.4 children and getting mortgages. It’s often a brilliant and inspiring (and very, very difficult) thing to do, hats off to you. But I do mind if that’s all you do, if you’ve just glanced at the ‘true love’ manual (aka watched a few Julia Roberts films and dressed your son in blue and daughter in pink) and taken it at face value. Worse still, not just read the manual but started to recite it as well, as you take for granted that society (and this includes politics, economics and culture) is often weighted in your favour (but only if you’re wealthy enough). I reckon the best thing you can do is acknowledge that space has been made for your type of love, enjoy it, and then set about helping create space so others can enjoy their types of love too. In brief, as with most posts on this blog, check your privilege and don’t be prejudiced. Then we can all have a go at mucking up true love (p.s. and yes, this post was basically an excuse to post that song, it’s just so catchy).