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.

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The Referendum Wasn’t Real

This is my 100th post and I’d planned the title to be “what’s the point of this blog?” and given the UK’s decision to leave the EU I think my comments on that might answer the question anyway. But, first things first, the Referendum wasn’t real, what’s that all about? OK. It was real, devastatingly so. It is already having vast emotional, social and economic ramifications. As Britain ‘goes it alone’ the pound has plummeted in value, the economy is wobbling and a shift to the right in mainstream politics is underway with the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove vying for power. Extremist right-wing parties like Ukip and their European counterparts are claiming this as a victory for xenophobia and hate. We’ve even recently witnessed one act of right-wing terrorism claim a life, that of Jo Cox. Uncertainty is rising as hope takes a blow to the chest. Yet, for all this, how can I claim the Referendum wasn’t real?

Because from the outset it was a farce. Firstly, democracy was boiled down to a single multiple choice question with only two answers, In or Out, that few people had actually wanted to be put to the public. This doesn’t respect the multi-faceted and multi-partied nature of our democracy it just promotes further divide and hostility as friends and families suddenly found themselves forced to pick a side. And asides for a select few bureaucrats in Brussels and maybe one or two British politicians no one, absolutely no one (myself very much included) could vote with a sufficient degree of knowledge – there are documents of tens of thousands of pages outlying all the treaties and clauses amassed over the decades Britain has been part of the EU and I certainly haven’t read them all. It’s funny that people were suddenly and arbitrarily forced to get knowledgeable and passionate about something they had not seemed to care that much about before.

Meanwhile, people who’ve lived in this country and contributed to its economy for longer than I’ve been alive weren’t allowed to vote. Teenagers weren’t allowed to vote even though they have more future to lose than the rest of us voters. Both campaigns used tactics of fear, hate and misinformation (aka lies) to cajole and manipulate. We’ve already seen Nigel Farage swiftly distance himself from the Leave pledge of £350 million to the NHS (but did we really think neoliberal parties would do an about turn on their views of the welfare state?). There were campaign posters that bore too much resemblance to ones used by Nazis and the media played on xenophobia, fear and outdated nationalistic sentiments to make people think that voting in the referendum was the equivalent to taking some sort of significant stand (it wasn’t, it just makes it easier for the rich to get richer whilst deepening austerity and rolling back the welfare state). Somehow the woes of neoliberal, consumer capitalism (see the rest of this blog for criticisms on that) were landed on the heads of some of the most powerless, namely refugees and immigrants, and a bunch of pro-establishment, old-Eatonians managed to dupe large chunks of the country into thinking voting Leave would lead us into a wonderful British revolution rather than entrenching inequality and recession. That being said, lots of utopic left wingers were somehow led to believe Brexit would yield a land of milk, honey and socialism (my fingers are still crossed). And let’s not forget why this referendum even happened in the first place: because David Cameron wanted to be Prime Minister and he needed the support of his more right-wing back benchers to get it, so he promised them a referendum to appease them rather than having the courage to say ‘no’ (he put it on our heads instead). That’s not democracy, that’s cynical party politics at the public’s expense.

So, yes, the referendum is real and it has happened and this is a rallying call for anyone of whatever political persuasion and however they voted in the referendum to choose peace and oppose the rise of extremism and the violence that goes with it. But, no, the origins of this referendum were neither hopeful nor fair nor democratic. So whatever people say, this was not a victory for the British and the public have not spoken because there was only 1% in it. Like austerity, the referendum is a story wrapped around an agenda. Many desperately believe in it, many just cynically use it to get more power, many misguidedly want it to become true in ways it never will but it is not ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ it is just one story among many. Unfortunately, it is a very powerful story and its repercussions will prove fatal for many. But Britain has survived two world wars and I think we can survive this too. Now here’s Lady Gaga because why not 😉

It’s All About The Money

Debt and money, two mainstays of human economies for many hundreds of years. Even without money people can still get in debt: with debt creating a two (or more) way relationship between a debtor and creditor, between the person owing something and the person who leant it. Without cash people might end up paying off their debt by giving hours of their labour, their property or their body. Money just facilitates this process, whether it’s cash in hand or digits on a screen. Because money and debt have been instrumental in human societies for so long it’s hardly surprising that their impacts have stretched far beyond the economic realm. They are also interwoven in our language and relationships.

Take the word ‘should’ for instance. “I really should go to the gym today,” “You really should be nicer to people,” etc. It’s used to indicate obligation, duty or correctness, often in moral situations which concern how we treat other people but also in more mundane situations like getting fit and eating less junk food. Etymologically speaking it relates to the Old English scyld which means ‘guilt’, the German schuld which means ‘guiltand ‘debt’, and the Lithuanian skeleit ‘to be guilty’ and skilti ‘to get into debt’. Thus, a simple word such as should has origins in both finance and morality, in both debt and guilt. Similarly for the verb to owe which we use both financially (“you owe me £5”) and personally (“you owe me a favour”), its history can be found in the Sanskirt ise ‘he owns’ and isah ‘owner, lord, ruler’, and the Old English phrase agan to geldanne ‘to own to yield’ (or ‘to have to repay’). These are two instances of the fusion of the financial and personal. It seems money and relationships go hand in hand.

In a previous post I commented on the book Debt by David Graeber – he highlights the history of debt and also the violence that goes with it. In many instances debt is a threat because those who don’t pay their debts are threatened with so much, e.g. a jail sentence, physical violence, being shunned. Graeber also traces the history to some of the ultimate debtor/creditor relationships, namely masters and slaves, in which the latter owed everything to the former – namely, their lives. This is hardly a happy history and certainly not a peaceful one, and it continues today. Slavery might be abolished (yet still practiced widely) but we still have to give up our time to get money from people with much more of it than us so we can afford life’s necessities. Worse still, because wages can be so bad we often have to take out loans and get in debt to banks to actually be able to buy these things. And when the system stumbles (as it does at every economic crash) the bailiffs come knocking and the reckoning is upon us – we have to pay off our debts one way or another or face the consequences. Jessie J knows all about this as is evidenced in her song Price Tag

“Seems like everyone’s got a price” she sings, in a world where “the sale comes first and the truth comes second.” And isn’t that a shame, that even in non-economic spheres of life, such as friendships, relationships, socialising etc, the ‘logic’ and discourse of money are still so powerful, even though one hopes that these spheres shouldn’t be predicated on the implied threat of violence. Jessie J hopes for something different, a world that’s “not all about the money.” She thinks it’s high time money and economics were put back in their place – an ambitious stance given we have a lot of reconceputalising to do, what with the money discourse being everywhere. But she knows we can do it and she knows that our relationships will be better off for it. “Forget about the price tags,” she sings: “We’ll pay ’em with love tonight.” And I wonder what an economy of love would look like…tbc.

The European Dream

The United States of America has one, a dream, “the ideal by which equality of opportunity is available to any American, allowing the highest aspirations and goals to be achieved.” It’s basically the Cinderella fairy tale made available to all Americans. By ‘all’ Americans I mean white, straight men born into wealth but sometimes a woman slips through the net and occasionally a person of colour does as well. That the dream is founded on huge levels of debt, totally unsustainable levels of consumption and dog-eat-dog capitalist politics is by-the-by, the point is America has a dream, a big one, and apparently it’s for everyone. But what does Europe have?

Europe also has huge levels of debt, totally unsustainable levels of consumption and dog-eat-dog capitalist politics but I’m not so sure Europe can simply adopt the American dream. For starters, Europe didn’t begin as one country (or at least one colonialist attempt to make a country), it started as many, often belligerent nation states vying for power with each other. A history of Europe is often a history of war until the end of WW2 when people had had enough. Successive generations of the same families had gone to war twice in the 20th century and people knew this couldn’t last. So, as I described in a previous blog, the beginnings of the European Union were formed to ensure Europe did not go to war again.

However, European societies are going through yet more social, political and economic upheaval following the 2008 financial crisis and ongoing policies of austerity. Similarly to after the Great Depression of 1929 countries are becoming increasingly isolationist and extremist parties are on the rise. Now, more than ever, does Europe need a dream because it’s clear we cannot leave things in the hands of Brussels based bureaucrats and technocrats. Sure, they get to swan around the corridors of the European Commission and Parliament looking all self-important but how many of them have tried to run a sheep farm, worked in a hair salon or held any number of ‘real’ jobs that people across Europe may have?

For those of us who care about Europe who, despite how disappointed they may be at the EU itself, believe it’s important to get on well with one’s neighbours and to form transnational organisations to combat transnational issues such as climate change, terrorism and corporatism, and to champion transnational solutions such as human and environmental rights, coming up with the European Dream is our responsibility. It will be different for all of us (and maybe that’s part of its strength) but, boy, do we need to start articulating positive and exciting messages about what it means to be European. So, I’ll take a stab but I reckon you should too.

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The European Dream: a continent where people are happy to make fun of one another’s accents and national cuisines knowing that underneath the banter there’s grim accord that the world is a dark place but if we work together we can make it lighter. We might often do things differently (e.g. how we do or don’t worship; how we eat our steak; how we do or don’t protest) and whilst we will talk about these things (eventually) we also know there’s nothing worse than tyranny, oppression and war. Europe has to be a family – a queer, straight, Muslim, of colour, trans, white, polyamorous, Atheist, monamorous, hippy, business family – and even if the siblings don’t always get on we’ll still stick it out for the sake of our brood. Perhaps, at its simplest the European Dream is to ensure a stable and prosperous continent upon which the inhabitants can freely and peacefully eat different dishes and make fun of each other for doing so. I mean, snails, gross.

Now, what’s your European Dream? You can write it in the comments below but because not that many people read this blog why not share it on your facebook, blog or twitter – get it out to your networks and see what else people come up with. Especially useful for us cynical Brits who talk of ‘continental Europe’ as if tiny island Britain is still its own Great Kingdom (c’mon, we can British and European at the same time!)

Why Life Is Like Monopoly (And Not A Box Of Chocolates)

So, you’ve got £200 in your pocket and you’re ready to Go. London unfolds before you – its Victorian terraces, towering skyscrapers, penthouse apartments, silver dogs and prisons. All that saving and you might finally be able to get a foot on the property ladder, it’s what you’ve always dreamed of. Yup, just a typical game of Monopoly, except this time I’m going to bend the rules a little to show the parallels between the board game and the game of life.

https://i2.wp.com/pic.lifetmt.com/2014/07/logo-monopoly2.jpgLet’s say there are 6 players and everyone is ready to get going. You, player 1, full of hope and aspirations start the game with £200. Next to go is Archibald, player 2, who already has £2,000,000. Why does he have such a high amount? He inherited it from a previous player. Whereas you’ll have to work hard to earn your cash Archibald will barely have to lift a finger. Unfair? Yup. That’s life. So, you keep trundling round the board just waiting to be able to buy your first little piece of land. However, it turns out Hugo, player number 3, is a member of one of the few land owning families in the country and it just so happens that his family already own a whole load of London. This means you won’t actually be able to buy the land you’ll just be able to rent it off Hugo’s family. Furthermore, because Hugo’s family have been hoarding land for so long it has become an increasingly scarce resource, meaning it’s very, very expensive because so many people want it. Better get moving round that board.

Fortunately, Hector, player number 4, is the banker and he’s there for you. He gives you £200 every time you pass Go to help you get your first foot on the property ladder. Of course, it’s not free money, it’s actually a loan and because the system isn’t that well-regulated Hector’s happy to keep loaning you money, he’ll even give you a mortgage, even though it’s unlikely you’ll be able to repay it. He also turns people’s dodgy mortgages into investment opportunities for rich people who want to get richer. Multiply this process by millions of people and when they start failing to pay off their mortgages the whole system comes crumbling down and lots of people get in debt, including you player number 1. Fortunately, Hector knows Bertie, player number 5, who is a politician, and rather than get Hector fired or even put in jail for corrupt behaviour he actually bails the bank out with public money – that’s right, he takes some cash from your hard-earned stash and gives it to Hector.

So, strapped for cash, in debt and struggling to get by you decide to make a stand. You wave a placard, you shout a slogan or two, you appeal to the better angels of people’s nature in the hope to make the system fairer. Enter Bobby, player number 6, he’s a policeman and he’s got no time for the likes of you. In fact, Bobby likes to uphold the rules of the game and he’ll lose his job if he doesn’t. So it’s off to prison with you for being a troublemaker. That’s what you get if you challenge the establishment and try to change the system. And let’s not forget some of the other players who haven’t been mentioned including Eric, the accountant and consultant who advises Archibald and his rich friends on how to avoid paying taxes; Rupert, who runs the newspapers and happily prints articles on how terrible and greedy poor people are whilst lavishing praise on the rich; and even quiet and unassuming Peter who actually works at MI5 and enjoys spying on groups of ‘subversives’ who think climate change and capitalism are somewhat problematic. He’ll happily team up with Rupert, Bobby, Bertie and the rest in order to keep the establishment in place and the masses at bay.

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Life, like a game of monopoly, seems to begin and end with money. People endlessly trudge around the board of life trying to make a decent living but there’s nothing decent about money, the system is rigged from the outset. It could take someone many lifetimes to earn what some people inherit at birth. Money is not fair – it is a scarce resource that is unevenly distributed and yet it’s the item we use to access key resources including houses, land and food. Thus, objects that could be in abundance (there’s enough food on the planet to feed everyone for instance) are forced into a system of imposed scarcity making it doubly hard to get by – first you’ve got to work to get a living just so you can get the money to buy the actual things you need. Perhaps you’re thinking what I’m thinking? That it’s time to change the rules of the game…

The Big Short: Another Film About Bankers

Some big spoilers on the way for the new film The Big Short – perhaps the biggest is that the 2008 housing crash and ensuing financial crisis happened and, as Ryan Reynold’s character reminds us at the end of the movie, it was immigrants, poor people and teachers who were blamed for it rather than bankers, regulators and hedge fund managers.

The Big Short is another film about bankers. Following closely on the heels of The Wolf Of Wall Street this film doesn’t set out to glorify the world of finance instead it explains why the financial crash happened. And it did this brilliantly. Some of the best bits came when the camera suddenly panned to a random celebrity who explained some complex financial instrument using a simple metaphor. Mila Kunis placing a bet at a poker table was used nicely to explain that the housing market was basically a series of increasingly risky bets placed on whether people would be able to pay off their mortgages (yup, bankers will find a way of making money from anything). Of course, given that the housing market was fraudulently and corruptly regulated and so many people who couldn’t afford to were being sold houses, it was only a matter of time till it collapsed. And this resulted in a simultaneous financial crash because so many ‘crafty’ bankers had been betting on the aphorism “safe as houses” remaining true. Turns out houses weren’t that safe at all.

The Big Short is about the men in the middle of it all – the few men who bothered to do their research and uncovered a system of corruption, fraud, greed and stupidity. And what did they do then? They bet against the housing market – they hoped that houses wouldn’t prove safe – and they made a lot of money. Of course, housing crises have more than financial repercussions – evictions, homelessness, unemployment, debt, social unrest, poverty and suicide are just some of the consequences. The film mentioned these things in passing but was more interested in telling a story of a bunch of wealthy, predominantly white, male hedge fund managers (another word for banker really). They even try to paint these men as morally superior because so many of them were shocked at how corrupt the system was, the system that they made lots of money from when it collapsed.

Yup, the film tried to make heroes out of hedge fund managers – people who get rich and get their clients rich by making money from money, by betting on the market. People who are rich enough themselves that they don’t need to worry about the implications of a housing crash. But they do, as do we all. Because after the crash governments around the world used public money to bail out the banks and didn’t do much to regulate them. So we can be expecting another housing crash anytime soon. And it’s not just houses at stake it’s the whole of society too – as public services are cut, as immigrants are scapegoated, as poverty and unrest rises, as extreme right-wing groups like the Neo-Nazis return, so darker days are coming. Remember what happened a decade after the huge financial crash of 1929…World War 2. I don’t know if we’re due another huge war but I do know that The Big Short barely scratched the surface of the issue. It explained the financial crisis very well but it could have done this in half an hour, but, like so many films today, it chose to focus on the actions and faces of white men with the occasional shot of a topless woman. It is a shame to realise that so many uninspiring, greedy and fairly stupid men were involved in bringing the world’s economy to its knees but do we really need another film about them?

Money Makes The World Go Round

In my previous blog You Don’t Own Me I cited the work of anthropologist David Graeber and his very big book Debt: The First 5000 Years. It’s not quite 5000 pages long but in his tome he explores the origins of money in debt, war and slavery. He suggests that debt existed before money and human societies have been divided between debtors and creditors for a long time. Debt peonage is when someone has to pay off their debts by working for someone else (i.e. if they can’t afford to pay off their debt with cash). It’s also known as debt slavery and people have been doing it throughout history – the priests of Sumerian temples would make peasants work the land and pay with produce in return for being able to live on the land and the Romans would often enslave those they captured and make them work in their houses. Slavery is the ultimate form of ‘ownership’ whereby someone has complete power over someone else’s life (the slave ‘owes’ their life to the their master). However, slavery wasn’t the only way to increase one’s power, money was also a good mechanism.

Let’s say the Roman Empire is expanding and they’ve just conquered Britain, the Roman Emperor won’t want to kill all the Britons because not only will many of them make good house slaves but they can also be used to ensure the British economy keeps going. Of course, that’s a British economy that now serves Rome. What the Emperor does is issue all his soldiers with Roman coins which he can let them spend in Britain. The soldiers will be expected to pay tax and they have to do that with Roman coins, so coinage in this regards is a good way of ensuring the soldier’s money goes back into the Roman Empire’s economy. Meanwhile, the Britons that haven’t been enslaved will want to attract the custom of the soldiers so they’ll get busy making and selling stuff for the soldiers, which will be paid for with Roman coins. Furthermore, the Emperor might also wish to impose a debt on Britain – the war machine costs a lot of money and invading Britain proved quite expensive, so he’ll make them pay it back. Yup, the conqueror is enforcing a debt on the people he just conquered. He can do this because he’s the winner and he’s got all the power in terms of brute military strength (the soldiers) and economically (in terms of all the Roman coins). So this is how you grow an Empire – conquer people, expand your currency and force your conquests into debt. It adds a twist to the famous phrase “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains”…or in debt perhaps.

And so on and so on for thousands of years argues Graeber. Even now we still live in a time of debt – whether it’s the banks offering giant loans to help people buy houses or it’s the World Bank loaning money to developing nations to help them get on their feet whilst ensuring they’ll be in debt for years. However, things are different now because the value of a currency is no longer defined in terms of some underlying precious material (i.e. gold) for which it could be exchanged. It’s not as if for every £5 we have there’s a £5 amount of gold hidden in a vault somewhere. We don’t have real money anymore, instead we have virtual money that exists as numbers on a screen. Sure, we still use coins and notes but those things themselves are worthless, it’s what they stand for that counts. However, as money is virtual it theoretically means there is no limit to how much money we can have – numbers on a screen are limitless after all. So we can keep spending more and more and getting in bigger and bigger amounts of debt for longer and longer, hurrah!

But why this brief history of money? Because money has been and continues to be a big deal – it makes the world go round, or so Liza Minelli sings in Cabaret. Currently, the US dollar is the most powerful currency in the world and the States put a lot of effort into ensuring it remains so (read that as military force, foreign policy and diplomatic effort). Money is one of the most important numbers we’ve got – it’s how we value almost everything, from the price of a lemon through to the price of an hour of someone’s labour. And because money has been such a big part of our societies for so long its effects have reached far beyond the economic realm into the political and personal realms as well. To be continued…