What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Grumble 4: Not Very Good

It’s a characteristic of modernity that I have noticed since I first noticed anything that things aren’t very good.

This used to puzzle me a lot when I was young growing up in the UK and I used to rationalise in this way:

What isn’t very good

Possible reason
The good teachers are at other schools

Adults generally other than parents

We don’t socialise enough
Service in shops
Perhaps there are better shops somewhere else

Perhaps they should be privatised (as the newspapers said)


If only we took The Times instead of the Daily Mail
We can’t afford better products

Social discourse/politics

Perhaps there are better thinkers and politicians in another country

The public library doesn’t have a big stock

Perhaps better programmes will come on when there are more channels

As readers can guess, when I got older I saw that these rationalisations were for the most part incorrect, and I continued to find that generally in society things ‘weren’t very good’.

One particular thing I noticed was a lack of choice at the very moment when choice was being trumpeted at the final word in political and social discourse. It used to make me wonder then, and I wonder still, why it is you can’t buy decent products in some categories at all and for the rest you have hunt around for them. For example 80%, at a rough guess, of the food in supermarkets in Australia isn’t really food, but ‘food like products’, so you have to waste enormous amounts of time buying what you can from supermarkets, and then hunting around in other shops for the real products that you want. Don’t get me started in toothbrushes and other toiletries, please, or the sad case of the decline of the desert boot.

Of course the other not-so-strange thing about choice is how, no matter how well it is packaged, each new choice seems to be more expansive than the last. For example currently I am negotiating a change to our internet access provider (not the ISP, the physical provider, wires and fibre-optics) and I’ve found it not surprising that whatever alternative is offered it is still more expensive than the current (unsatisfactory) ‘solution’.

What do you do in such a case of adolescent and young adult disenchantment? there are several things you can take refuge in, to be sure, literature and music perhaps. I’ll leave music till next week. As for literature I found that the productions of modernity were, if anything worse than the average of everything else; the literature I found described more or less well the dreariness of life and social productions, but didn’t offer any solutions. I also found that the nearer in time to the present you got the worse the writing got.

Just to digress for a moment, I find that the whole idea of novels quite absurd. If someone writes a novel describing the existence of people within society well, then all they have done is describe ‘what-is’ and this hardly deserve praise. However what is usually presented is some sort of rosy-tinted spectacle version of reality with some sort of happy ending aligned to some common ideology or other. For example recently I had the misfortune to have to read some piece of patronising and tedious drivel (which, of course has won many prizes), to help my poor teenage son through one of the rockier bits of the National Curriculum—the title of this non-masterpiece I’ll leave my readers to guess.

If I have to read novels I prefer novels from either end of the spectrum, the austerely socialist realist, such as C├ęsar Vallejo’s Tungsten (El tungsteno (1931)), or novels where the writing veers off into the poetic and almost incomprehensible, like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Poetry, in my view, is completely different from novelistic prose, because rather than describe the condition of people in society it plays with and deforms the language they use to describe their own situation, (or at least good poetry does). However, I will leave this theme for now I as intend to write a piece on literature in these blogs soon.

In the end, in my adolescence I moved away from literature and left the novelists to their novels and novel-readers, and started reading history, ecology, science. It was in those areas that I began to put the pieces of the picture together to come up with the views that are expressed in this blog: that is rather than out being uniquely clever and uniquely wise in our present historical situation we are in a uniquely awkward situation.

The basic problem we have with our society is that we have arrived at a point where the traditional means of wielding and demonstrating power and securing allegiance, namely using greater and greater resources, can no longer work because we have exceeded the biological resources of the planet. So the reason why nothing looks very good to a discerning eye is firstly because we have reached the end of using conspicuous displays of natural products: no more narwal tusks posing as unicorn horns, or bear skins all over the floor and walls, and so it is more difficult to see that we are connected to the natural world and need to move with it. Secondly it is because we know of our fatal disjunction from the natural world instinctively and know that everything we do with our ersatz emotions and products is just half-hearted and obviously second-rate.

We have no ethic that we can attach ourselves to, so we rest either in pure selfishness, or attach ourselves to various false idols. We live, in all things, as though we are not going to live much longer. We continue to defy and destroy biodiversity when biodiversity is all we have.

Next week: An Interlude from the Grumbles: Musical Aesthetics

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Grumble 3: the preference for private enterprise

I have already written about this in a previous blog, but I wanted to extend on my observations in more grumbling manner.

When I was growing up in Britain in the 1960s and 70s the government, or different parts of government, seemed to run most things. For example, with gas, there was the Gas Board. If you wanted to get connected you rang up the Gas Board, they connected you. There was one tariff and everybody paid the same price. People complained about the service all the time and Monty Python’s Flying Circus lampooned the bureaucracy associated with public utilities in the ‘New Cooker Sketch’ (Series 2, Episode 1), but how does the privatised world of modern utilities compare?

Well my experience of government-run services was better than anything I have known since (in the UK and Australia) with privatised utilities. For one thing then you didn’t have to spend hours trying to decipher pricing-schemes from different companies, all of which are designed to mislead. I don’t actually want a super deal (with some ridiculous strings attached, such as it only applies if I use gas between midnight and 1am in September). I actually want to phone up the one company, get connected and pay what everyone else is paying. I do not want to have to answer the door, or get unsolicited telephone calls, three times a week to hear salespeople trying to sell me some alternative package, and if I do get poor service I want the company not to contact me, rather than phoning up with questionnaires and asking how my experience of their service is going.

On a similar note you could also ask British people whether they preferred the much-grumbled at British Rail (1948-1994) to the post-privatised world of the various new railway companies?

An obvious thing for governments to run is access to the internet (as long as they don’t try to censor it, of course). I’ve lost cost of the number of times I’ve had to change ISP and e-mail just because stupid companies decide to go out of business or merge just to inconvenience me.

Another is insurance, if the governments insured everybody then they would have so many clients that premiums would be really low.

In fact any sort of privatisation annoys me intensely, if the government isn’t running schools, hospitals, utilities, the post office, what’s the point of it? No-one can feel any sense of identity with a myriad of merging and splitting private enterprises each of which will be known under a new corporate branding in five minutes time. Private enterprise seems to me to be expensive luxury that societies which don’t have much in the way of external threats can indulge in, but which isn’t a very efficient way of doing anything, especially in the world of ecological melt-down that is just around the corner. It wasn’t private enterprise that won the Second World War, after all.

As I have argued throughout these blogs, we are approaching a point at which ecological breakdown will result in massive societal upheavals. In these circumstances I anticipate that government will once again assume most of the responsibilities in the provision of services for their people, because private enterprise, fatally hamstrung by having always to make a profit, will not able to. I also anticipate that government will eventually employ most people on social wages.

The point of this train of thinking is not to argue for state control as a good in itself (I wouldn’t want to see the government running everything), but as a obvious historical outcome of the changes that are already happening in the world. Dystopian science fiction and common sense both agree that at no time can people identify emotionally with companies or corporations. In the First World War thousands of young Australian men volunteered for service and travelled to the Middle East and the Western Front to fight for the British Empire. I can’t think of a similar instance in history where so many people volunteered to serve in the armed forces of an entity that was not a national government or a body aiming to become a national government. This is because anyone can see that only a national government, or similar body, can represent the people as a whole.

Another reason why private enterprises can’t command loyalty is that each one only deals with a single facet of people’s life experience. People deal with many different private sector organisations and, even though many may be owned by the same corporation, they are still experienced as separate organisations. I suppose we might anticipate the emergence of lifestyle corporations or some such in the future… (shudder).

And again with private enterprises the deal is that you are expected to dispense with them if they offer poor service. For example, true to my status as an inner-city latte-sipping elite, I am a fan of Apple products: computers, iPods, iPhones; but if Apple products don’t suit my needs either because of price, or design, then I use products from other companies. Brand loyalty only extends to products.

The point is that with private sector organisations you only have obligations to them, and they to you, if you enter into a contract, which you don’t have to do. You are born into obligations towards government, to keep the peace, obey laws, pay taxes, but equally governments have obligations towards you, however much free-market-mania tries to remove these.

It would be my analysis that people at the moment are angry and fearful, and one of the principal reasons for this is the provision of services by the state has been wound back and wound back in the last couple of generations, and, partly as a result of this, people’s lives have become more uncertain and insecure. One of the symptoms of this, in Australia, at any rate, is the blurring that has occurred between state-provided and private enterprises. For example, in Australia the States provide public education, but the Federal Government also subsidises private school, so the public education brand is tarnished by the state itself, a ridiculous state of affairs.

In addition to such foolish policies, the market-worshipping right, in all English-speaking countries, has persuaded people that the problems they have in life are due to excessive government interference in their lives and excessive taxation. And the remedies proposed make the affliction worse.

This madness has gone so far that the right in the US are now attacking the Environmental Protection Agency, as though it is in the public interest to return to the days of unregulated environmental pollution.

Next Week: Not Very Good

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Grumble 2: Stupidity

You would have thought that stupidity would simply be an affliction, however, our society seems to treasure it as a normal state of being. I indicated earlier in these blogs how I thought that the media, instead of informing people, by its poor provision of information actually encourages and causes ignorance to be perpetuated.

Global warming denialism is a plant whose roots can only take in rich loam of stupidity that is produced by the low standards of our media and the low standards of public debate. For example recently Tim Flannery, the Australian Chief Climate Commissioner, was quoted as saying:

If the world as a whole cut all emissions tomorrow the average temperature of the planet is not going to drop in several hundred years, perhaps as much as 1000 years, because the system is overburdened with CO2 that has to be absorbed...

Instead of reacting correctly and saying ‘oh my goodness, the amount we have already added to the atmosphere, which has locked us in to a 2°C temperature rise, will persist for 1000 years, we better take action immediately to ensure that we don’t add any more’, the great unwashed of the media and the denialist parallel universe said ‘Flannery says action on the carbon is pointless’. Face-palm.

And out education system does little to wake us out of our intellectual slumber.

Another example of reign of stupidity is the current popularity of the Australian federal opposition in opinion polls. By any criteria, even ‘conservative’ economic orthodoxy, a Tony Abbott government would be a disastrous one for Australia and would plunge the country into turmoil. The correct reaction to the shortcomings of the present government would be for voters to indicate a preference rather for the Greens and other parties. I’ve already argued that that our bipolar two party system is one of the factors that prevents us from taking necessary actions.

Even on the level of particularities stupidity is a defining trait of our society. For example a common product in supermarkets around the nation is anti-perspirant spray. Think about it, why would you want to stop yourself perspiring? Body-odour is not caused by perspiration... go and research this for yourself and find the correct solution.

Flogging this thread until its dead... you could argue that the consumerist world of late modernity was created by marketing people when they devised a whole gamut of needs that don’t really exist (like anti-perspirant, which, if it worked, would kill you). Recently I was in a department store and saw a strikingly beautiful woman, yes, you’ve guessed it, browsing in the ‘beauty products’ section. I wanted to tell her she didn’t need any of them, but that would have been too forward.

How I wanted to end this piece was to talk about two common economic myths that are trotted out constantly, one is that of ‘comparative advantage’ and its crucial role in driving modernity. Common or garden advantage is where a region can produce some good or other because its found there, or it grows there. For example Cornwall used to export tin because it was one of the few places in Europe where tin was found. Similarly cotton can only be grown in the warmer parts of the world.

Comparative advantage is not like this, comparative advantage is where a region can produce a good at a lower price because of social factors, lower wage costs, preexisting expertise and capacity &c It is the basic argument behind globalisation.

The deification of comparative advantage is based mainly on low wages in some areas of the world. This is a historical anomaly, 20,000 years ago everyone had the same standard of living, even 200 years ago, I believe I remember reading, the poorest people in the world were only 6 times worse off than the richest. And in the future you would hope that disparities in wealth begin to reduce and more or less disappear. You would hope that human ingenuity and ‘progress’ is not simply built on exploiting the poor. (‘Fair Trade not Free Trade’, as the slogan goes). If progress progresses more slowly because of this I am all for it.

What people fail to note beyond this, however, is that another part of comparative advantage is the absurd cheapness of transport. I am quite prepared to believe that high tech manufactured goods (where transport is a tiny part of the final price) should be made wherever the technical expertise lies, but when I go into a supermarket in Australia and see garlic ‘Product of Mexico’, being sold, I am filled with sorrow. This is not because I don’t like Mexican garlic [Grangeros Mejicanos, me gustan sus ajos], or don’t want Mexicans to sell their produce, but to take garlic from Mexico half-way around the world is tragic waste of resources. The cost of the fuel for the container vessel must make up 99% of the cost of the product, which could be grown almost anywhere in Australia. You would hope that a properly designed scheme to tax carbon emissions would be able to eliminate such madness from the world.

In time to come, when global transport costs are very much higher than are now people will shake their heads at the thought that we used to transport vegetables around the world just because we could, or that a sacred belief of economics was based on nothing more than historical contingencies (low wages, the low cost of transport).*

The other common myth which feeds into the myth of the greater efficiency of the private sector is that of competition.

When I was a student in an English Midland city in the 1980s there was a bus company owned by the City Council that served the city. The fares were reasonable and the service was all right without being great. The Council decided that they would sell off the bus company and so, to have competition, two rival companies took over. For a few weeks the fares remained low and the service improved, with new routes and with buses departing more frequently. After this initial period one company withdrew, fares went up, routes were withdrawn and services became less frequent. So after a brief period of competition we had a service that was more expensive, had fewer routes and less frequent buses.

This, I submit, is the story of competition at all times, a brief period when a market opens up of strong competition, followed by the normal state of affairs, either a monopoly, or a state where several companies dominate a market, prevent new entrants coming into the market, and, largely, do not compete with each other.

Next week, in my third grumble, I will carry on on the theme of the private v the public sector in popular thought.

*Chinese people shake their heads at the memory that the Emperor Xuanzong of T’ang (r. 712–56) used the imperial courier service to rush lychees north from Szechuan for his favourite concubine. They believe that the An Shi Rebellion which ended his reign, and ruined the dynasty, was a direct consequence of such extravagance.

Next Week: the preference for private enterprise

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Grumble 1: End-states

Before I begin this series of grumbles I’d just like to say that I was filled with admiration a few weeks ago by an article on the ABC website by Jeff Sparrow. This puts so much more elegantly and succinctly than I did the case for considering conservatism and liberalism as two sides of the same coin: conservatism talks constantly about moral values, which are then overturned by the essential amorality of the free-market that liberalism embraces. However, the obvious fact that the market cares nothing for morality is disguised by conservative writers, who blame the left, the poor, the disadvantaged, immigrants, minorities &c &c for society’s ills (as in the recent reporting of the London riots).


In this first grumble I want to expand on a point I made earlier in these pieces about the end-states envisaged by different political philosophies. In an earlier piece I said that the Christian imperative was to believe, die and go to heaven. So clearly the Christian end-state is death (from a worldly perspective). Christianity’s offspring, capitalism, has, as we saw when considering Adam Smith, no end state either, because the great wheel of circulation must continue to circulate endlessly, for some reason or another. Here is a graph:

Like many a graph of modernity’s statistics—land-use for agriculture, GDP, energy use—this one tends upwards towards natural limits; plenty of things can be done to postpone the day of reckoning, but in the end it arrives.

By contrast, the political philosophy I am arguing for here foregrounds sustainability, and a steady state economy. With a low global population of around a billion people living at the same technological level and in societies of much greater social equality than today’s society, humanity would persist for thousands of years at a similar level of population, resource use, and economic activity. [‘Let the states be small and people few.’ (Daode jing 80)]

This isn’t ‘living in harmony with nature’, because there is no such thing as harmony, for any period. What it is, though, is making sure that humanity’s varying activities vary within certain limits. As technological progress in this type of society occurred it would probably demand greater use of resources (as progress does), but these would have to be paid for by a more restrained use of resources in other areas and progress would therefore be slower than in the present—which would be a good thing.

People in this paradigm would be comfortable living in a similar world to that which their ancestors lived in and could look forward to humanity continuing to live in a similar way into the future; by contrast I guess that a lot of angst and anger in the world now is caused by the fact that people recognise that a world constantly changing is one in which their lives will not be remembered and celebrated by posterity. Endless economic growth is not possible but, if it were, people of the present would be right to fear that they would simply be laughed at by future generations as clueless hicks (because this is how we think of past generations currently). Worse still, as endless economic growth is not possible, we will simply be derided by future generations as stupid vandals and wreckers unless we begin to change around the way we do things.

It is important to realise that as humanity has constantly been expanding its activities and population (especially in the last two hundred years), then really the people who rise up to lead and commission the history-books are the expansionists, as it were. This is a certain type of person, well-described in the Daode jing during an earlier phase of unwarranted expansion (C3 BCE in China):

The courts are swept very clean;
While the fields are full of weeds;
And the granaries are all empty.
Their clothing—richly embroidered and colored;
While at their waists they carry sharp swords.
They gorge themselves on food, and of possessions and goods they have plenty.

This is called thievery!
And thievery certainly isn’t the Way! (53)

By contrast in a steady-state future other personality types will be favoured:

Therefore, one who is good at being a warrior doesn’t make a show of his might;
One who is good in battle doesn’t get angry;
One who is good at defeating the enemy doesn’t engage him.
And one who is good at using men places himself below them.
This is called the virtue of not competing; (68)

For this new paradigm we certain need the ‘steady-state’ personality for the people who will lead: calm and resourceful people, ones not filled with drive and anxiety, and bullshit, as are the leaders we currently have:

Those who know don’t talk about it; those who talk don’t know it. (56)

Ironically one of the characteristics of the world of modernity-heading-rapidly-towards-destruction is an inability of change, to change course, to stop reproducing the same behaviours that have brought us to this state. Although our lives are vastly different from what they were even 15 or 20 years ago (I can remember a time before the internet and PCs), the conditions of them haven’t really altered—false wealth is still the idol that is worshipped.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s ‘Britain’ (as we called it then, not ‘England’) was a society that was moving towards a greater social equality than it had had for hundreds of years and a more rational way of living. This of course was turned on its head by eleven years of Tory rule and the governments that succeeded it have continued on this course. In Britain, seemingly, nothing can change for the better (with the possibly exception of self-government for Scotland and Wales): the House of Lords remain substantially unreformed; the absurd first-past-the-post electoral system remains in place; society remains wedded to producing profits for the rich and crumbs for the poor, and to a mind-set that can’t even conceptualise the notion of ecological deficit.

Likewise in Australia, I have had pretty much the same experience, society keeps on heading in the wrong direction, refusing to change, and have been few changes-for-the-better to celebrate (some of these would include an Australian Republic, getting rid of the States, proportional representation, ecological accounting used in government). Not all of these of course are necessarily connected with moving towards a sustainable future, but if some of them had happened then it might give more hope that really meaningful changes could be proposed and introduced without the absurd conservative heel-dragging that always goes on.

Common sense, as well as the weight of traditional advice contained in such works as the Yijing, the Daode jing and Ecclesiastes, tells us that people who cannot adapt to change will not fare well; we know this instinctively, and the fact that our society will not change in any meaningful way is a source of conscious or unconscious grief to us.

Next week: Stupidity