Category Archives: Politics

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, by Mark Fisher

I was at Morgan Stanley back in 2007 when the markets crashed. The first warning for me was when an email came round warning of problems in the money markets. The email didn’t make much sense to me, it wasn’t an area I worked in, but something about the tone made it clear whatever was going on wasn’t good. Of course I had no idea quite how bad it was going to get, few people did.

That wasn’t the first recession I’ve seen, and I doubt it’ll be the last. It was though the first I’ve personally seen where it looked like systemic contagion could bring down the entire global finance industry, with catastrophic effects (and not just for people like me, who work in it). Legislators took action with an urgency they’ve never shown in the face of humanitarian crises, banks were bailed out and capitalism was saved to profit another day. I kept my job, plenty didn’t.

Afterwards there was a sense in the media that things had to change. Global capitalism had come very close to coming right off the rails, to a major disaster that would have had devastating consequences. As it was we suffered a major depression, jobs were lost, wages stagnated, even now recovery is patchy and the benefits of it unevenly distributed. Politicians made speeches about needing to make sure it didn’t happen again, then implemented policies designed to get the housing markets buoyant again and to encourage consumer spending (which in the absence of wage growth means encouraging consumer debt). It turns out nobody with any kind of major public platform had any alternative to offer.

Capitalist Realism

Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism is an examination of the prevailing ideology of our times, the neoliberal consensus that is so frequently taken as simple common-sense, even at times in the face of considerable evidence against its core tenets. In the UK all three main parties are essentially neo-liberal in outlook, differing on points of detail but sharing a broad and fundamental consensus that there is no alternative to our current system. Politics in this sense becomes a choice not of how we wish to organise ourselves as a society, but of different management teams. At the same time, public protest is increasingly criminalised – either directly or by how protestors are treated by police while exercising their nominal rights. The result is an ever-increasing disengagement of the public from politics.

Fisher opens by considering Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film, Children of Men. In the movie humanity has become sterile and is drifting slowly to extinction. In the UK, where the film is set, the country’s art treasures are being gathered and preserved, pointlessly given there will be no future generations to enjoy them. Humanity here is facing an existential crisis, but everyone is carrying on as best they can as if it weren’t happening.

Watching Children of Men, we are inevitably reminded of the phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. That slogan captures precisely what I mean by ‘capitalist realism’: the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.

For Fisher, this capitalist realist apocalypse is in a sense already upon us. In Anglo-American public discourse art is widely described as content, artists as content producers. Art is justified not by aesthetics, but by its contribution to tourism and the creative industries. Capitalist realism is in part therefore a sort of crude postmodernism, where everything is commoditised, all viewpoints are potentially equal and enjoyment is frequently detached and ironic. The past, stripped of context, remains always with us in the form of heritage and disposable nostalgia. As Fisher says, “Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all.”

Fisher argues that capitalist realism is in fact a better term for this phenomenon than postmodernism. Capitalist realism’s fundamental tenet that there is no alternative means, if you accept it, that content, lifestyle and product consumption is the only cultural and political game in town, postmodernism accepted almost by definition that other approaches might also be valid. Postmodernism also of course existed in contrast to and in interrogation of modernism, but capitalist realism is self-contained and modernism now a “frozen aesthetic style, never … an ideal for living”. He also notes that we have had a demographic shift, someone born in 1989 at the fall of communism would now be 25 years old – an entire generation has grown up under an essentially unchallenged political ideology.

In this context even protest becomes subsumed into a wider capitalist realist narrative. I read years before this blog a book titled Bobos in Paradise (see wikipedia, here), about how many of the counter-cultural generation of the 1960s had maintained the trappings of alternative lifestyles while adopting a free market capitalist ideology. The book was published back in 2000, and examined how the result was a class of corporate elite many of whom thought of themselves as outsiders, as still somehow counter-cultural, but whose actual behaviour was essentially self-interested. On this view anti-capitalist protestors are similar to the new corporate elite, outwardly in opposition but internally accepting the dominant narrative:

Corporate anti-capitalism wouldn’t matter if it could be differentiated from an authentic anti-capitalist movement. Yet, even before its momentum was stalled by the September 11 th attacks on the World Trade Center, the so called anti-capitalist movement seemed also to have conceded too much to capitalist realism. Since it was unable to posit a coherent alternative political-economic model to capitalism, the suspicion was that the actual aim was not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses; and, since the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn’t expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005’s Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.

The green movement does offer a more genuine alternative, but one that few are actually willing to live with. For committed greens capitalism is inherently destructive (“The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.”) The difficulty is that it’s pretty hard to imagine what a sustainable society would actually look like, and the sacrifices it would require are far more than most people would be willing to make (say goodbye for starters to cheap flights, mass-imported food and consumer gadgets).

Generally I found Fisher’s analysis in this part of the book highly persuasive, and certainly well reasoned. I was however less persuaded when the book proceeded to an analysis of how capitalist realism might be a causative factor in the widespread mental illness found in capitalist societies.

Fisher says that “The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.” This however assumes causation, where there may only be correlation. It also raises questions of how we recognise mental illness, as with crime statistics a growth in reported crime may mean there’s more crime but it could also mean people are more willing to report it. Arguably an explosion in mental illness could be not an increase in those actually ill, but a greater willingness to recognise and help them.

Fisher is on stronger ground I think where he analyses how our culture views health generally, and the limits of what we consider acceptable intervention in other people’s lives. Where our forebears might have seen their own morality as sufficient reason to change how others (with possibly different moralities) lived, our own model is much more utilitarian:

It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives. But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling and looking good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to decorate their house, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist.

As that quote suggests, Fisher is also very strong on how all this manifests in terms of cultural impact. When he says – “On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate – the extirpation of the long term extends backwards as well as forwards in time (for example, media stories monopolize attention for a week or so then are instantly forgotten); on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty.” – I recognise immediately what he means. Similarly he makes a good point when he argues that:

In a seeming irony, the media class’s refusal to be paternalistic has not produced a bottom-up culture of breathtaking diversity, but one that is increasingly infantilized. By contrast, it is paternalistic cultures that treat audiences as adults, assuming that they can cope with cultural products that are complex and intellectually demanding. The reason that focus groups and capitalist feedback systems fail, even when they generate commodities that are immensely popular, is that people do not know what they want. This is not only because people’s desire is already present but concealed from them (although this is often the case). Rather, the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird. These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them; by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk.

Of course following that logic too far risks falling into a classic left-wing trap of assuming that a particular elite group knows what the mass of people want better than those people do themselves. The results of that thinking historically haven’t always been all that might be hoped (though I’d argue it’s Apple’s business model). There’s an element of paradox here. Just cater to what people want and all they get is what they already have, leading to cultural sterility. Tell people what they want though and you risk denying them the freedom of their own choices. In a healthy system the forces of paternalism and individualism would hopefully conflict and bring about some form of dynamic synthesis which, while never perfect, nonetheless broadly worked. I’d query if that’s the system we have.

Ultimately the point of a review isn’t whether I agree with Fisher or not (I largely do save possibly on the mental illness arguments), it’s to present what I think is the essence of the book so someone else can take a view on whether or not to read it (I see myself as a reviewer rather than a critic). On that front I’d say that Capitalist Realism is thought provoking, punchy, well argued and short – if the themes appeal it’s pretty much essential reading. That doesn’t however mean it’s always easy reading, you can’t have a book of Marxist analysis and not have the odd sentence like – “Jameson, of course, would argue that the ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ is one expression of the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’, a consequence of the switch into the post-Fordist mode of capital accumulation.” – although to be fair I understand that sentence perfectly well and I don’t have a better way to make the point it’s making.

Fisher doesn’t offer much by way of solutions to all this. but I’d argue that it’s useful and valid to point out that someone’s house is on fire, even if you have no idea at all how to put it out. Fisher is pointing out that our house is on fire. We have a system which is inherently unsustainable, which by its own logic must constantly expand but which exists in the context of finite resources. I don’t know what the answer to that is, or even that there is one, but if there is any kind of solution the first step to it must surely be understanding the nature of the problem. We have met the enemy and he is us.


Filed under Fisher, Mark, Politics, Zero Books

Information is alienated experience.

You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

This is a terrible, terrible book.

Jaron Lanier was a major figure in the development of virtual reality technologies, and is now something of a techno-philosopher. His 2010 book You are not a Gadget was well received (though how baffles me), and addresses the relationship of the individual to the new information technologies that are so rapidly developing around us. It’s an important subject, one that concerns a great many people. Unfortunately, the only reason to read this book is if you’ve already made your mind up that the new digital technologies are a bad thing and would like your biases confirmed without having to go to the bother of actually examining them first.


The problem with Lanier’s book isn’t immediately apparent. In fact, it starts well and opens with some genuinely fascinating thoughts regarding technological lock-in and how seemingly small choices made in the early development of a field can later seem like laws of nature. Lock-in is a problem because design choices are made before their consequences are wholly apparent, but the nature of the technologies involved may make it extremely difficult to later change course.

As Lanier notes “Lock-in … removes design options based on what is easiest to program, what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance.” Among his examples is the the seemingly fundamental concept of the file:

Once upon a time, not too long ago, plenty of computer scientists thought the idea of the file was not so great. The first design for something like the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, conceived of one giant, global file, for instance. The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. Instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over from the fellow who started it, the late Jef Raskin, and soon files appeared. UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. Files are now part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. In fact, our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light—but the file will likely live on.

Lanier focuses  on the downsides of the online space. He talks of how “Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.” I don’t actually think it has demeaned interpersonal interaction, but I think there is an ugliness to much of online culture which is profoundly unappealing.

That last quote though illustrates where Lanier goes wrong. He mistakes assertion for argument. Are our communications online fragmentary and impersonal? Some evidently are, youtube comments (never read them, seriously, never) and newspaper comment sections are good examples. Others though are persistent and relationship based. Blogging is one example of that, but so too are many specialist-interest web forums where regular users carry on conversations sometimes over years. Other media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, can be used in a fragmentary fashion to leave random comments about celebrities or can be used to keep in touch with friends and to make new ones.

There’s an argument to be made that online culture is fragmentary and impersonal, but there are counter-arguments too. Lanier makes no reference to them. Even if he’s correct (and I’d argue mobile phones have done more to atomise us than the internet), it’s far from clear that it has demeaned interpersonal relationships more generally, the vast bulk of our contact with other people after all continue to take place in the real world.

Lanier argues that the digital realm edits us, squeezes down our personalities to fit into pre-defined boxes and marketing categories. He sees this as a truncation of the individual. He sees the individual diminished too in the rise of an online philosophy that places its faith in the wisdom of crowds – the use of sites such as wikipedia to replace individual view points.

When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.

That’s a nice quote, but I’m not sure any of it is true. He contrasts Facebook with its predetermined fields to enter information into with Myspace where anyone could enter pretty much anything. He’s absolutely right that Facebook is a much more curated experience, and that Myspace gave more freedom for individualism. He ignores though that most of us lack anything by way of design skills, and that the result is that Facebook while constrained is usable while for many Myspace was an unreadable mess.

In that light Facebook isn’t necessarily a downgrade of the individual over the prepackaged, but an acceptable (to most, I don’t actually like it much) trade-off between personalisation and utility.

As for wikipedia, I simply don’t agree that there’s an implicit suggestion that a random crowd has a point of view. In fact, I think that’s a fundamental misreading of the philosophy underpinning that site. There are real issues with wikipedia, not least how easy it is to manipulate and how much weight users tend to place on it, but we kid ourselves if we think that the encyclopedias it replaced were themselves free of bias or occasional error.

Lanier makes further points regarding how we reduce ourselves in order to fit in to machines’ programmed/emergent expectations of us, but again he does so by simply stating his views as fact, without providing any evidence for them:

People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.

All that sounds good, but again is it true? Bankers mostly trusted other bankers. The senior management trusted the departmental managers, who placed their faith in quants whose work they didn’t understand and in traders running risk models that management didn’t understand. Is that faith in the machine though, or is it just once again forgetting that if something seems too good to be true it probably is?

Are standardised tests about making students look good to an algorithm, or are they rather about trying to be as fair as possible in testing students and seeking to remove local and individual bias? Is it an ideal system? Of course not, but is it about making information technology look good? I’m not remotely persuaded.

By the midway point Lanier starts to really warm to his themes, and it’s here the book becomes truly unstuck. To this point I’d found it frustrating, but Lanier did have some real insights even if he offered no arguments on behalf of any of them. He’s rightly sceptical of the economics underpinning much of the web, depending as it does on future advertising revenue streams that always seem to be just a few financial quarters away but which never quite arrive. He’s good too on how the question of whether something can be done becomes more important than whether it should be done (though that’s far from unique to computer science).

As he moves on though to stress the role of the individual over the technological, Lanier’s tendency to merely assert his views becomes much, much worse. In a particularly bad section he uses the analogy of the printing press, comparing its impact to the modern internet.

He talks of how “People, not machines, made the Renaissance.” I’ve never heard anyone say otherwise. He goes on to say “The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult.” That’s true, and I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that technology can’t be misused. His next sentence though is “What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.” and while it’s absolutely true that what’s written is what matters that doesn’t mean it’s not also true that the printing press was a hugely important invention. 

What he’s doing here is presenting an utterly false dichotomy. To say that the printing press revolutionised the dissemination of knowledge and opinion isn’t to diminish the authors who wrote what those presses printed. The internet, like the printing press, can be a tool both for propaganda and for revolution. The point is that it’s a tool, and the tools we have matter. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean diminishing the importance of people.

Lanier thinks it does diminish them, but again it’s assertion. He says “An individual who is receiving a flow of reports about the romantic status of a group of friends must learn to think in the terms of the flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at all.” That’s wrong again though, he has cause and effect backwards. People don’t receive relationship updates because Facebook tells them to, Facebook provides relationship updates because gossip about who’s with whom has been a fundamental part of human social experience for as long as there’s been human social experience.

Eventually it all starts to seem like a classic old man’s whinge. The youth of today have no respect, the world’s going to hell in a handcart, music today doesn’t have proper melodies. I’m not joking about that last one by the way:

There are new styles of music, of course, but they are new only on the basis of technicalities. For instance, there’s an elaborate nomenclature for species of similar electronic beat styles (involving all the possible concatenations of terms like dub, house, trance, and so on), and if you learn the details of the nomenclature, you can more or less date and place a track. This is more of a nerd exercise than a musical one—and I realize that in saying that I’m making a judgment that perhaps I don’t have a right to make. But does anyone really disagree?

I loathe the arrogance of that “does anyone really disagree?” with its implication that even if we don’t admit it we know deep down he’s right. I’m a huge fan of electronic music. Distinguishing between dub, house, trance and so on is not a nerd exercise rather than a musical one, these are different (though related) forms. If one has no interest in classical the difference between baroque and romantic likely seems wholly academic (and in fact I don’t know which is which). Similarly if one has no interest in dance music there’s no reason one should be able to (or indeed wish to) distinguish between trance and house. That doesn’t, however, make them the same thing.

From complaining about modern music Lanier goes on to explain about how he helps neurologists with their research. Some of this is frankly Pooteresque in its self-importance: “Sometimes I am designing tools for people to use, while at other times I am working with scientists trying to understand how the brain works.” 

Here he makes the classic error of assuming that expertise in one field lends itself to other fields. He talks at one point about how swearing functions as a brain activity:

There are specific neural pathways associated with this type of speech; some Tourette’s patients, for instance, are known to swear uncontrollably. And it’s hard to overlook the many swear words that are related to orifices or activities that also emit pheremonic olfactory signals. Could there be a deeper connection between these two channels of “obscenity”?

The first sentence there is correct. The second is mostly true, though he ignores the fact that swearing is culturally specific and that many cultures have extensive profanities based on animal comparisons or religious references. The third sentence is utter speculation. Lanier is now just free associating without any real knowledge of his subject matter and armed with an assumption that he has some peculiar insight that others lack.

He uses the last part of the book to speculate on matters as diverse as neurology, the evolution of language, and why cephalopods didn’t assume the ecological niche which humanity has taken. Each time his lack of specialist knowledge in the relevant field is painfully obvious. It reads, ironically, like a poorly researched blog.

Lanier is absolutely persuaded of his own insights. That’s the problem. He knows he’s right, so he doesn’t bother to show how he reaches his conclusions. Perhaps if he had he’d have examined them a little more, and they would be more than mere prejudice. As it is he presents his views to us like tablets from the mountain. The shame of it is he’s published a book, received positive reviews, and in the end it’s nothing more than the classic complaint of every person who’s got older and found the world no longer as it was when they were young. Stop the future, Jaron Lanier wants to get off.


Filed under Essays, Politics

I am a failure as a jobseeker and a citizen.

Non Stop Inertia, by Ivor Southwood
It’s oddly fitting that I’ve had to delay writing a review of a book about work because I’ve been too busy at work. Doubly so as it’s a review that won’t even interest most of the readers of this blog. Non-Stop Inertia is a part biographical and part academic left-wing critique of contemporary UK working culture. It’s an examination of concepts of precarity, and emotional labour. Those aren’t terms I’d heard before, but the concepts underlying them are ones I think most of us would recognise.

For me the yardstick for this sort of writing is Barbara Ehrenreich’s tremendous Nickeled and Dimed. If you’ve not read that book, it’s a sobering account of what living on minimum wage with minimal labour rights is actually like (in that case in the US, but the experiences Ehrenreich describes can certainly be extrapolated to the UK without much difficulty and I imagine to many other countries too).

Ehrenreich wrote from the outside in. She’s a respected writer and journalist who decided to write (among other things) about the lives of the working poor. Ivor Southwood by contrast writes from the inside out, he is one of the working poor. The subject matter is the same though, that hinterland (largely ignored by politicians) of people who slip back and forth between precarious employment and unemployment mostly just getting by, sometimes not getting by at all.

Here’s how it opens:

Business at the warehouse was going downhill rapidly. There had already been meetings on the floor and warnings about dire times ahead. I’d only been taken on from the agency and made “permanent” a couple of months earlier, and already I was expecting to be got rid of. I’d been applying for new jobs continuously anyway since I had started there. But for others who were more attached to the place, its social and historical solidity was dissolving before their eyes. We knew that sooner or later there would be a huge cull which would eliminate about a third of the workforce; but in the meantime people were being given notice in dribs and drabs, two or three every month, mostly people like me who had only recently been employed. Every day could be the day you got the tap on the shoulder.

Southwood takes his particular circumstances as a starting point to explore wider themes. Not just the precarious nature of much contemporary employment (when governments boast of how many new jobs have been created, they often forget to mention how many of them are temporary positions at minimum wage), but also the way in which the unemployed are expected to treat unemployment as if it were a job in itself, and the way in which whether in work or looking for it they’re expected to present an unfaltering image of bland positivity.

All of this of course takes place in the context of a wider culture in which the consumer is held out as king, and in which the values of consumerism seem to migrate into areas where they don’t naturally fit. As Southwood notes, “Even the Jobcentre calls its claimants “customers”.”

Part of Southwood’s thesis is the concept of emotional labour (he’s exploring the idea, he doesn’t claim authorship of it) and the “emotional labourer”. The point is that the employee increasingly is required not merely to turn up and perform their day’s work (with the concept of a day’s work of course becoming increasingly elastic, as home and workplace boundaries soften in the wake of new technologies), but also to present an appropriate emotional front while doing so.

In some professions this has always been true. A McDonalds’ server in the 1950s would have been expected to smile and welcome the customer just as much as one today. What’s new however is the way this self-commoditisation has spread into areas where traditionally one wouldn’t have expected it. Even in the most tedious of jobs employees are expected to show passion for the product, a commitment to the company mission, an emotional engagement in other words which may be wholly at odds with anything one could reasonably expect someone to actually feel.

This spreads beyond work into the search for work. The CV and interview (if you get one) become essentially performative; the prospective employee and employer both adopt a peculiar cod-management/cod-self help rhetoric which sits over the banality of the actual job being discussed. As Southwood says:

the most mundane experience becomes the occasion of a personal epiphany: “working in a busy café really taught me something about the importance of customer service.”

To put my own cards on the table, I think Southwood is right about this. It’s visible in exaggerated form in programmes such as The Apprentice (with the UK version being a bizarrely low-rent emulation of its vastly more moneyed US parent), but it’s true through much of the working world. It’s particularly true at the lower end of the job market (at the professional end your work likely is something you can emotionally engage with, and the connection between your activity and your company’s success is much more evident, so this kind of fake enthusiasm simply isn’t as required).

This isn’t just an issue for the employed. The job-seeker who doesn’t come across as sufficiently positive, who seems demoralised or depressed, risks seeing benefits cut due to a perception that they aren’t doing enough to cure their misfortune.

“Jobseeker”: a more demeaning label is difficult to imagine. It recalls a childish game of hide and seek, and the unemployed are indeed often treated like errant children who need to be kept in line by playground supervisors who make sure they go back into class promptly when the bell rings. There is also the spiritual connotation of “seek and ye shall find”: if you do not find a job this is not a reflection of any real social situation, it is simply a failure of faith on your part; you just do not really believe.

Southwood goes on to show how this system acts to displace analysis of the extent to which an individual’s joblessness may result (at least in part) from factors outside their control:

The only labour now exchanged at the Jobcentre is the performative sort: empty gestures, feigned enthusiasm, containment of hostility, suppression of resentment. The “customer” and “advisor” are required between them to conjure an interaction which is entirely fake, a form of surface acting stretched over the underlying reality of compulsion and surveillance. Posters and leaflets in the Jobcentre depict smiling figures in work-like scenarios, proffering handshakes or clutching official-looking folders. The discourse of customer service adopted by the staff presents an illusion of empowerment, as if the claimant were choosing to buy a product, and deflects any real criticisms of the system onto pseudo-issues of standards or quality.

The language of empowerment then is deeply political. If unemployment is treated as a personal issue, a question of commitment, skills and attitude, then that frames a debate in which the question of whether there are actually enough jobs to go round (and whether they pay enough to live on) isn’t asked. The focus moves from asking whether the economy is working, to asking why the individual isn’t.

This all makes the book sound rather a grim read, and it likely would be except that Southwood has a fairly lively sense of humour about it all. I loved asides such as this:

If the Jobcentre does indeed hail the benefit claimant as a customer, it is that type of shop where, having been monitored suspiciously by staff for signs of shoplifting, one feels obscurely intimidated and leaves the premises convinced that the theft alarm will go off, even if one’s pockets are empty.

Where Southwood explored his personal situation and used it to illustrate wider societal trends I thought the book worked well. Where he turned to the more academic side of his argument, however, I have to admit to flagging a little. Paragraphs such as:

The argument for a move from macro- to micro-politics represented an effort to divert the flow of the new liquefied culture, to claim the new politics of identity for those whose everyday lives had been routinely crushed by patriarchal-colonial capital.

are quite hard going if you’re not yourself an academic. Southwood explains all his points well, I was never lost even though in many cases he was drawing on a sociological tradition I’m not familiar with (not that there are any sociological traditions that I am familiar with), but phrases like “patriarchal-colonial capital” just don’t make my heart beat faster.

Equally, while I agree with Southwood that there’s something demeaning and ultimately dishonest about the faux-consumerification (great, I’m doing the jargon thing now) of what is frequently low-skilled and uninteresting work, that doesn’t mean the individual is entirely powerless. If there are no jobs you’re not going to find one however positive you may be, but equally while much of how our life plays out is beyond our control it isn’t all beyond our control. Southwood says:

But then I listen to the politicians and the lifestyle gurus and I think that perhaps my situation is self-inflicted. If only I hadn’t attempted to improve myself by going back into higher education – if I had learnt some practical skill to make myself easily employable, rather than fill my head with useless knowledge, or if I had spent the time between lectures doing part-time jobs rather than studying or, even worse, writing – I wouldn’t now be underemployed and trapped by debt.

The hard answer to that is, well, yes. If he had learnt a practical skill instead of going into higher education with no long term goal then he likely would have better employment prospects and less debt. It’s profoundly unfair of course that some people by virtue of birth need never worry about employability and can just follow their dreams and whims, while others must abandon deeply held passions in order to make a living. Profoundly unfair, but true for almost all history.

For a few decades after the second world war there was an expectation that society could and should be fair. If you look to nineteenth century or earlier fiction there’s no such concept, servants are servants and masters are masters. In the twentieth century, for a while, subsidised university education and full employment created a different world in which the servants could at least dream of becoming the masters (even if, if you look at the numbers, actual social mobility didn’t change much).

That dream is now closing and we’re returning to the world of the nineteenth century novel. The existence of a precariat, a class of people a single paycheck away from penury, is nothing new. Dickens would have recognised it in a heartbeat, he’d just have called it something else. Perhaps Southwood’s misfortune in part is to have the dreams of a man of the 20th century, but to be living in the 21st.

Still, Non-Stop Inertia is an argument, it’s not the entire debate. Southwood puts forward his perspective, but never claims that there aren’t others. He’s stronger on the personal side than the academic, but that’s the more interesting side anyway, and his analysis is much stronger than his few proposed potential solutions (as he himself admits), but that’s ok because the truth is that just because someone identifies a problem doesn’t mean they have to be the one to come up with an answer to it (or even that one exists). In the end when he writes about:

This constant precariousness and restless mobility, compounded by a dependence upon relentlessly updating market-driven technology and the scrolling CGI of digital media, together suggest a sort of cultural stagflation, a population revving up without getting anywhere. The result is a kind of frenetic inactivity: we are caught in a cycle of non-stop inertia.

I think he writes about something which is real and which may of us would recognise. That makes this a worthwhile book, and one I’m glad to have read.

For the curious, there’s an interesting interview with Southwood here and an excellent review of the book here.


Filed under Politics, Southwood, Ivor

A to the K

AK47, The Story of the People’s Gun, is a work of social history and reportage by journalist Michael Hodges. It charts the rise of the AK 47 from it’s creation in the post WWII Soviet Union to its present status as – according to Hodge’s thesis – one of the most ubiquitous weapons on Earth and a global brand of near unparalleled power.

Structurally, the book takes the form of a short introduction followed by eight chapters, each of which details part of the gun’s history through the eyes of someone whose story helps illustrate that history. The chapters break down roughly as follows: 1: a visit to Izhevsk, where the gun was originally manufactured, with a detour to the London launch of Kalashnikov vodka; 2: a history of how the gun was developed and an interview with General Kalashnikov himself; 3: a discussion of its use in Vietnam and how for a while it came to be viewed as weapon of freedom fighters, even in much of the West; 4: a trip to Palestine and a discussion of how the West came to see the gun as an instrument of terror; 5: takes us to Africa and to the use of child soldiers; 6: talks of how the Kalashnikov came to be used as a marketing tool for recruiting Islamic terrorists in London and elsewhere; 7: shows its use in Iraq, both by insurgents and the police; and 8: shows how it came to be ubiquitous even in in New Orleans and in the inner cities of the USA.

At its best, Hodge’s work is both fascinating and thought provoking. He charts the progress of the gun from popular weapon of liberation to simultaneous joint symbol of global terrorism and (depending on your perspective) armed resistance and is alert to the issues of perspective which can lead to one person regarding the weapon as a symbol of fear and cruelty while another views it as a symbol of manliness and independence. He is excellent on the societal role of the gun and how that has evolved, and happily (for my interest at least) spends relatively little time on the technical aspects of the weapon.

Relatively little time, but not no time. Hodges explains that the AK47 owes its success to its extraordinary reliability and simplicity of manufacture (and, therefore, of repair). The gun operates where others do not, after being dragged through mud, clogged with sand, immersed in water and given minimal maintenance. It works where Western issued weapons fail, and this reliability makes it perfect for use in the developing world where repair facilities are few and conditions often harsh. The AK47 allows a minimally trained child to lay down withering volumes of automatic fire from a weapon which can have received treatment which would render the bulk of contemporary firearms wholly inoperable. It is in that sense, as well as in the social sense Hodges goes on to discuss, that it is the people’s gun.

The first half of this work is much weaker in my view than the second. The trip to Izhevsk I felt only mildly interesting, although the interview with the General was valuable in providing historical context. The chapter on Vietnam, with its account of how an incident in which a Viet Cong soldier fired his AK47 at a B52 became a propaganda story about how a B52 was downed by AK fire, is fascinating, but much of it is not really relevant to the overall story the book is telling. The chapter about Palestine, unfortunately, lost my interest to such a degree that I put the book aside and only came back to it two months later out of a vague desire to push through and see if it improved.

It did, the remaining chapters build in power and interest, and if like me you struggle somewhat with those earlier sections that struggle is rewarded and pushing through is justified.

The difficulty with the Palestine section is that Hodges chooses to explore the issues relating to that conflict through the story of a French photojournalist. Where Hodges writes about Palestine, he is both chilling and effective, the story of the French journalist however simply left me cold and I found it hard to care about a man who seemed not so much a participant in events as a sort of tourist taking photos as much for personal aesthetic reward as for distribution to the wider world.

This chapter does contain some sections with real power, as quoted below, but I had to force myself through it in order to reach the far better chapters that followed.

At the entrance to the cul-de-sac a teenager chewing pistachio nuts sat on a white plastic garden chair outside the local Fatah office. He was an extremely serious youth, and to emphasise it he placed an AK across his lap. Pierre greeted him solemnly every time he passed. The youth would nod back, but seldom smiled. He spent much of his time looking at the sky waiting for an Israeli missile attack.

[Later, after the office “was destroyed by a rocket that killed the young guard”.]

When Pierre got to the office there was no sign of the youth’s body, but the plastic chair was still outside alongside his AK. In the wrecked interior of the building he could only find a burnt toilet brush and some papers to indicate that it had ever contained people. Pierre photographed the wreckage and sold the picture to an American agency. In 2001 pictures of burning buildings still sold well.

Once the book hits the half way mark though, it begins to really hit its stride. Hodges explores how the gun has come to be used in Sub-Saharan Africa, describing how in Mozambique and Angola, anti-colonial guerillas used to name their sons Kalash in honour of it, and how Mozambique came on independence to feature a Kalashnikov on its national flag (at least two nations have Kalashnikov’s on their flag to my knowledge, one of those rather chillingly with a bayonet attached). He tells the story of Sudanese child soldiers, sent over minefields before regular troops on the basis they were more likely to get through (being lighter) and detailing one disastrous battle the aftermath of which involved children committing suicide with their AKs due to thirst and hunger. He talks of Bob Geldof’s shameful decision to ban African acts from Live8 and this section of the book manages to be both a successful work of reportage and yet to be angry with what it has to tell (but then, perhaps a degree of anger is necessary for this form of reportage).

From there, Hodges visits the Finsbury Park Mosque and speaks with young men who have gone to terrorist training camps in Pakistan. They describe how they are trained with AKs, but the gun’s use is as a symbol, a recruitment tool, when the only weapon these young men are ever likely to use is their own bodies with explosives strapped to them. For these young men, the AK is an emblem of resistance to the West, training with it and the mere holding of it are gestures rich with significance for them, it’s utility to those who control the camps being more as an icon than as an actual weapon. Hodges also here describes how Pakistan and Afghanistan came to be flooded with AKs, in part through Western foreign policy designed to that end, and how that has come back to haunt us in the form of largely inaccessible territories filled with terrorist training camps, heavily armed militias and ungovernable tribal factions.

Moving to Iraq, Hodges develops the theme of the AK as symbol, describing the Iraqi custom of firing AKs into the air at weddings and celebrations and the disastrous consequences that custom has had when combined with nervous US forces with little understanding of local practice. He talks of how Iraqi police saw off the butts of the rifles so they can hold them pistol style, a habit which is thought to make the wielder look cooler but which also makes the gun hopelessly inaccurate. He talks of the pitiable faith of the Iraqi insurgents in the weapon, who treating it as a form of modern Ghost Shirt will stand in open ground firing upon armoured cars which they cannot possibly damage and of the devastating response that tends to follow and the collateral damage that can ensue.

During that long Sadr city night I’d listened uncomfortably to the ping-ping-ping that an AK round makes when it hits a steel door, but I had never been in real danger. The Bradley I drove in had been near impregnable. Only fools would attack it with AK47s, yet as I watched the al-Mahdi army fighters had come out to attempt it with almost transcendental arrogance. Across Iraq the resistance in its many forms, the militias and even the police force didn’t just fire their AKs but wielded them in the air, as if the very iconic nature of the semi-automatic rifle had entered into the men themselves. The Americans had killed five, just as they had killed as many as twenty fighters on other nights, but as the young gunner told me when we got back to War-Eagle and he pulled himself wearily out of his hatch, ‘Doesn’t seem to matter how many I kill – they keep on coming back, night after night, firing AKs at us.’
I had seen the AK become more than a gun. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the AK47 operates as a symbol of resistance to the United States, although in Iraq the symbolism of the AK sometimes seems to be of superior importance to its mechanical abilities. The Viet Cong did not knowingly raise up their AK47s as a signifier of their fight, but Iraqi resistance fighters do so regularly. America’s occupation has become one of the most effective marketing campaigns that the Kalashnikov has ever benefitted from. As long as American forces stay, be it for five or ten years, each day enhances the gun’s image, each Bradley mission into the heart of Sadr city confirms its potency and the threat it poses to those who wield power in the world. In Iraq the Kalashnikov has finally become, to the long-lasting detriment of the country and misery of its inhabitants, the people’s gun.

Finally, Hodges goes to the US, to discuss how the AK became commonplace on the streets of American cities and how following Hurricane Katrina it was once again used as a weapon by dispossessed people who considered themselves as waging a war of resistance against an occupying power, in this case their own government.

Hodges’ story then is of how a gun became a symbol, and more than that how it became a brand. His argument is that the brand itself has power, beyond its mere use as a weapon, and that today it is one of the most potent brands the world possesses even though few think it that way. His case is largely persuasive, his reports from London, Africa, Iraq and the US solid works of reportage (and in that context I mean solid as a complement). Although I found the first half of the book wanting, I will look with interest at Michael Hodges’ future reports.


Filed under History, Politics, Reportage

He’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkin

Originally posted 7 July 2008.

I rarely fail to finish a book, even works I don’t enjoy I generally persevere with as sometimes a novel or other work can be redeemed in whole by a single sentence near the end. Aldous Huxley’s novel Antic Hay is in many senses a repugnant work, filled with terrible people who are astonishingly self absorbed and difficult to spend time with. The novel is so unremittingly bleak for most of its length that it becomes genuinely challenging to care enough to turn the next page, but near the end it contains a sequence which redeems the entire novel, which casts into sharp relief the miserable solipcism of the bulk of its cast and which takes it from empty caricature to what is ultimately a powerful and affecting work.

Usually if a book seems terrible there is no such late payoff, but with most books I will persevere and try to give the work a fair chance.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man I abandoned on page 50, when the author has a vision of Jesus. A vision incidentally which changes his worldview, but which he fails to act on for around another 20 years or so. The book is ostensibly non-fiction, nothing in it though persuades me the author genuinely believed himself to have seen Jesus (I’m not personally religious, but I have no issue with the idea someone might believe themselves to have encountered Jesus in a personal sense) and indeed nothing persuades me that the book is anything more than a purely cynical attempt to make money by peddling conspiracy theories to the American left.

I did skim the remainder of the book, I read some sections after page 50, mostly to check that my view wasn’t dramatically changed. It wasn’t.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man is billed as an expose of the way in which the US government uses private corporations to lead third world countries into taking unwise development loans for US imperial benefit. John Perkins, the author, was one of these economic hit men (the term is he claims a term used in the real world by those who practice this profession), and in the foreword to the book he treats us to a conversation he has with his daughter where he worries that the “corporatocracy” to use his phrase will have him assassinated rather than let the book be published, but she persuades him to risk his life for our benefit. John Perkins, as of the time of this blog, is alive and well and selling alternative therapies and shamanic spirit-journey techniques in the US.

He is recruited in what even he refers to as a James Bond style interview, where a beautiful woman (actually, every woman in the book is beautiful, I don’t recall any other kind) recruits him to be an economic hit man explaining to him in clear detail that his job will be to produce intentionally misleading economic forecasts for developing nations, which forecasts will be used to mislead them into taking disadvantageous development loans. This is explained as being an intentionally cynical ploy designed to rob these countries of their wealth and as a deliberate act of American empire building – the US on his account having taken at government level (Republican, though since presumably Democrat administrations would be aware of this it seems odd none of them changed the policy in the last 50 years) a deliberate decision to create a global empire but deciding to do so through development loans rather than armies due to fears of the Soviet missile arsenal.

At this point my suspension of disbelief was already struggling. Not with the notion that development loans might be tied to preferential treatment of lender country corporations, they often are, not with the idea that development loans might often be made inappropriately and with disastrous consequences, certainly not with the idea that the growth forecasts driving them might be massively misleading.

What I struggled with was the James Bond villain-esque way in which all this is done. John Perkins as a young graduate is explicitly told he is being hired to be a bad guy, he is being hired to defraud nations. To put it simply, that’s just not very likely. Nor is it borne up by the book, where he describes his colleagues (and this bit I do believe) as fundamentally naive with a belief that they are helping debtor nations while showing no real understanding of those nations or the effects massive debt may have on them.

John Perkins has already told us in the foreword that he is risking his life for us, within a few pages he is (and I am not exaggerating) giving alms to lepers and showing his bravery by attending anti-US puppet shows. He is full of misgivings (unsurprisingly given on his account he was expressly told that he was joining the bad guys) though in practice he seems to reconcile them enough to continue in this industry for many years.

My objection to the book is not the subject matter, I think John Perkins has very cleverly taken a lot of truth and mixed it into the book, much of it taken I suspect from direct observation. Aid and development capital is routinely tied to economic benefits for the provider nation, projects are often encouraged which do not meet the real needs of the debtor nation, for example high quality train networks are built which only a handful of locals can afford to use while a far more useful local minivan bus service is left unfunded so leaving the majority of people without adequate transport (lowtech projects like minivan bus services really struggle to get international development money), motorways are constructed where there is no traffic to make use of them, massive container ports built where any impartial traffic forecast would show no meaningful prospect of their being meaningfully utilised. In these deals provider nation construction companies do make huge profits on occasion, while the host country reaps little real benefit. All this is sometimes true, and deserves much closer scrutiny than it sometimes receives.

But, it’s not all part of some dread secret conspiracy, revealed only to entry level economists. That’s a comforting myth, because if it were we could arrest those responsible and the world would be made right. Those who tie loans and aid to contracts for provider nation countries are typically quite open about it as they believe that’s an appropriate and right thing to do – it’s not a secret policy anywhere. Where it happens it is typically open government policy with those supporting it openly arguing for why they think those are appropriate conditions to aid and loans.

Equally, there is much to be said about developing world debt, how it is incurred, how the developed world may profit from it, about the ethics of that and the way the rich world profits from the poor. There’s much to be said about how trade barriers are used to protect developed world producers and prevent developing world producers from having fair access to free trade (trade barriers typically erected by developed world free trade advocates at that), there’s a lot to be said about how the developing world is denied access to healthcare, clean water and capital for appropriate development projects.

This book though does not really make those arguments, instead it posits a neat and convenient conspiracy of evil men (and their beautiful female agents) who conspire to deliberately defraud the developing world, the author is a messianic individual who when not providing alms to lepers claims he helped in this process by intentionally producing misleading economic forecasts (though on his own account his peers simply don’t think through their forecasts and simply produced what they thought their employers expected, a far more likely scenario in my view – Perkins appears to be the only person the conspiracy informed of its intentions, while he was a new intake economist), the author doesn’t persuade.

In my view this book is a calculated deception aimed at the American left, designed to appeal to the fears and concerns of that target demographic. It takes a number of very real issues, wraps them in an easily digested conspiracy framework which avoids the need to examine how developed world corporations and governments actually exploit the developing world and sells outrage and easy solutions to those who are not actually activists but who like to think of themselves as such. It’s no coincidence in my view that the author now sells spiritual transformations and spirit journeying techniques (quite how he reconciles that with his visions of Jesus I have no idea, he seems a man much prone to visions), I think he has identified groups that he thinks will swallow myths for cash, has taken his own real life experience working with developing nations and his own understanding of the issues surrounding the same, and has come up with a book which is essentially fiction but which is close enough to reality as to do little other than to obscure the very real ways in which the developed world takes advantage of the developing world.

It’s not a book I recommend.


Filed under Economics, Politics