Category Archives: capitalism

The C Words

Nick Cave once sang that he doesn’t believe in an interventionist god, and neither do I. But if I did, it would be very easy to read something into Hurricane Sandy hitting the Eastern seaboard five days before a Presidential election where any mention of climate change has been notable for its absence. Hurricanes hitting the Caribbean in October are not the result of climate change. But it’s undeniable that a warmer ocean, more moisture in the air and rising sea levels have contributed to make storms like Sandy both more ferocious and more frequent than previously. This is the biggest storm to hit New York in decades, and it comes after a year that included the worst Midwestern drought since the Depression, and the Arctic ice sheet shrinking to the lowest point in recorded human history.

Not every natural disaster is “because” of climate change, but more extreme weather is a consequence of it. And if we think the record heatwaves, droughts, floods and hurricanes of the past few years are bad, we really haven’t seen anything yet. This is the result of raising the Earth’s temperature by 0.8 degrees Celsius, and even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, temperatures would continue to rise by another 0.8 degrees. A two degree rise is the absolute maximum we can safely raise temperatures by, and even then it will involve major changes to the earth’s weather systems. This is not a foretaste – this is the start.

The economic facts are these. There is $27 trillion worth of fossil fuel left on our planet, and to avoid less than a 2 degree temperature rise, we can burn approximately one fifth of it. We need to use this amount to quickly transition to a low-carbon economy, and leave the rest alone. I think the survival of the human race comes down to whether enough popular anger can pressure Governments into forcing oil companies to write off about $20 trillion dollars worth of assets before it’s too late. Considering that oil companies essentially fund the political system of the world’s only superpower, it’s not surprising that the C words remained absent from the stump speeches and Presidential debates of this election. Obama, at least, is making and will continue to make moderate efforts. But to change public discourse, if he is re-elected, he needs to use his platform to make the case for the desperate urgency of fixing the climate crisis. Romney will presumably continue to avoid any reality-based discussion of climate change until the effects become too devastating to ignore, by which point his Presidency will be over and he’ll be safely ensconced in one of his many houses safely above sea level. Then it’ll be up to the next generation (my generation) to deal with this complete catastrophe.

 

Oh, and the headline of the Daily Mail today? A Tory MP says “enough is enough” when it comes to windfarms. Never mind the possibility of large swathes of the planet becoming uninhabitable due to the global warming caused by burning fossil fuels, what about the effect of wind farms on house prices?

I have nothing more to add to the debate than that my thoughts are with those affected by Hurricane Sandy, and that I despair.

LINKS:

Despite the mainstream media’s appalling inability to properly report on climate change, there are some excellent articles on the subject which can be found here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/hurricane-sandy-climate-change_n_2038859.html

http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2012/01/climate-coverage-2011

http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2012/10/watching-hurricane-sandy-ignoring-climate-change.html?mbid=social_retweet

and especially

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

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We are the 22%

“If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. We don’t need to sit around scratching our heads about what the problem is – the problem is sexism. That’s literally it. We’re not making it up.”

It would be hard to improve on Bidisha’s closing statement at the recent ‘We are the 22%’ event at Warwick University. I chaired a panel of four female speakers; Gabrielle Shiner, writer for Spiked, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a journalist and trade union organiser, Professor Shirin Rai, from the University of Warwick and Bidisha, the broadcaster, writer and journalist. 22% referred to the average level of women’s representation across the board in professional and influential industries. This level has stagnated for years; the debate was about why, and how to change it.

The first question of the evening came from Welfare Officer Izzy John, incidentally the only female member of the seven Sabbatical Officers at Warwick.   She asked what the panel thought of the phrase ‘glass ceiling’. They were pretty unanimous in hating it – ‘instead of smashing the glass ceiling, we need to blow up the whole building’. As with so many gender-based issues, instead of examining the structural inequality of a system built by men in the first place, the glass ceiling narrative refocuses the problem on women’s behaviour. It elucidated a wider debate about whether the problem of a lack of female participation in politics is a problem to do with women or a problem to do with  politics itself. I am certain it’s the latter.

This argument can come off as essentialist and patronising. I don’t think women (or men) are essentially anything, and I don’t think women are incapable of debate, combativeness or self-assertion. By blowing up the entire building, I mean that our entire conception of what it takes to ‘get ahead’ and what we mean by ‘success’ needs to be redefined. Part of the problem with masculinity is that is has been characterized by dominance, competition and acquisition for a very long time within our culture. This is not only bad because it hinders women from success in life, but it’s bad in itself because that whole definition of success is wrong.

We see a successful businessperson as someone who has acquired vast amounts of capital, and a successful politician as someone who has defeated his opponents and managed to hold onto power for as long as possible. This is the crux of capitalist ideology, which commodifies the idea of accomplishment like it commodifies everything else.

Men are trained to achieve this commodified success to a greater degree than women are. Women are encouraged to put more store by personal relationships, to co-operate instead of competing, and to put other peoples’ needs ahead of their own. The only reason these attributes are seen as weaknesses is because the dominant ideologies of capitalism and patriarchy have for a long time needed the model of masculine-provider and female-consumer-and-nurturer to sustain itself, and have rendered feminine-coded behaviour as inferior.

Most feminists agree that femininity as a social construction socialises women, generally, to act in certain ways that are anathema to what is needed to achieve what our society terms ‘success’. Thus, they can accept that women are largely socialised to be co-operative and not to put themselves first, without accepting that men’s socialisation is equally constructed, and possibly equally damaging. Furthermore, it’s not clear that a more feminine-coded way of doing things, is necessarily less productive or effective, particularly in terms of personal happiness, as the higher rates of male depression, alcoholism and suicide would attest to.

On a societal level, what with the crisis of capitalism and all, it seems as though the tide is turning towards more co-operative and collective methods of getting things done. Discussion of how feminine traits disadvantage women is far more common than discussion of how masculine traits disadvantage men, both individually and as a community at large. Yes, these traits may help men (and women who possess them also) to achieve what is commonly thought of as success, but the structure of achievement is all wrong in the first place. We live in a society where a hedge fund banker is described as more “successful” than a midwife, when it’s really not clear that the first deserves to be more celebrated.

Accomplishments such as a happy family, wonderful life experiences and a positive difference made to the lives of those around you fit uneasily into our capitalist model that defines success as accruing capital, and more readily equips men with the traits needed to achieve this. Depicting the mass acquisition of capital as the primary goal of human existence is threatening not only to our society, but now, through the threat of climate change, civilisation itself. Instead of smashing the glass ceiling, let’s deconstruct the whole building, and make something else – a “pagoda of equality”, perhaps.

What would this pagoda look like in terms of political life?

We currently have around 22% of female MPs, and a political culture that rewards winning arguments instead of finding solutions. How exactly does the jeering Punch and Judy culture of Prime Minister’s Question Time, with its emphasis on putting down one’s opponent, help to advance political debate?

Furthermore, our electoral system discourages coalitions, meaning that as long as a party can win about 35% of the vote, they need not take into account the ideas of any other party.  Even if women were rendered physically incapable of holding any professional position whatsoever in society tomorrow, the power structures of politics, business and the media would still need to change. That’s the thing with privilege – it allows the bad behaviour of privileged groups to be seen as the problems of individuals, whereas the behaviour of marginalised groups is used as evidence for their inferiority as a group. Ultimately part of the problem is the structure and behaviour of the dominant community in and of itself.

I love a good debate, and I don’t subscribe to the opinion that civility is always the most important thing even when confronted with bigotry and ignorance, but I do think that the best debates are conducted with the aim of furthering the pursuit of truth, and not of winning. This was exemplified by the one I chaired. The four panellists frequently disagreed – yet there was no talking over one another, no aggression, and no mockery.

Politics should be about finding solutions to the only question which matters, that of how we ought live, together. It should attract people with convictions, intellect and organisational skills; it currently attracts self-aggrandising people who aren’t put off by the expectation that they defend their beliefs incessantly despite all evidence to the contrary. The ability to perform Oxbridge-style rhetorical fireworks, much more easily acquired with access to all kinds of privilege, not just male privilege, don’t seem to have produced the best politicians we could possibly have. The best cohort of politicians we could possibly have would be 50% female, because women are just as capable as men of running the country, and the world.

The focus should be on structural issues, not women’s behaviour. These structures are bad; they exclude women, but they are also often just bad in and of themselves. They derive from a masculine culture that has as many mistaken stereotypes at its heart as does femininity.

Traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity can be damaging to men and women, hence why a lot of them need to be deconstructed and done away with. But we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we think that the solution is getting women to ape the selfish, aggressive, combative dick-waving that characterises so much of our political and business life.

Listening to other people, caring about what they have to say, and essentially, recognising we really are all in this together, is the solution – not only to the divisions within feminism, but perhaps to most of the crises caused by late capitalism. That women are taught to do this from an early age is not a weakness, it’s a strength.

Why Occupy?

So it turns out the BBC don’t have to reply to your complaint in 10 days… I don’t know what kind of reply I expected, anyway. An Occupation has started at my university! I’m not staying there, but I have been down every day for General Assemblies and to help out in other ways, and I’ll be dragging my more apolitical friends to every talk I can persuade them to attend. We’ve got lecturers from loads of different departments doing some really good talks, and my big idea is to try and get some, essentially, free-market cheerleaders in to debate with us “unwashed socialists”, as a charming member of the Conservative Party Society here at Warwick referred to us. This was followed by a suggestion (ironic, of course) that someone should come along in the middle of the night and gas everyone sleeping in their tents. I guess raising that level of vitriol from the right must mean we’re doing something to challenge their worldview (subconsciously, of course). Anyway, I think it’d be great to have a big debate going in a public space, where passing students can listen and join in, and find out just why so many of their fellow students feel so strongly about these economic issues that we’re willing to sleep outside in November.

So, my thoughts on the situation. What I am desperate to do is get as many people as possible on our side. I want to make people understand what is happening, and I know that the message needs to be clear and concise if the Occupy movements have any chance of fundamentally changing the narrative, and we need to change the narrative before we can change anything else. People, ordinary people, need to get really angry before change will come about. People who have never protested before need to realise the extent of the problem, and we need to get those people out on the streets. And this might sound simplistic, but the most important thing I want people witnessing the protests to come away with, is a sense that the current system is something that can be changed.

Free-market capitalism has sold itself as the logical outcome of every other economic and social order that ever existed. For me, this demonstrates its moral and intellectual failings; it is presented as the only option we have for organising society, rather than one of many. If Cameron would stand up and make an intellectual argument about the benefits of privatising the NHS, we could prove his points wrong. It would also simply be  a nice change to hear the man announce his real beliefs for once, but that’s another story. It’s clear that he wants a smaller state, it’s clear that he thinks the unemployment and disenfranchisement of millions of people is a price worth paying to keep a wealthy elite as rich as they are now, and he no doubt justifies this to himself through calling himself a realist, doing nothing more than following the dictactes of global capital, which is apparently now the main responsibility role of any world leader in 2012.

Being brought up in a society where you are made to believe that not only you, as an individual, are powerless to change anything, but that people as a whole have no power to shape their own societies and economies, is criminally dispiriting. It’s a huge sapping of morale and resistance. Dictatorships expend a lot of energy indoctrinating their citizens with propoganda about how their tinpot country is the greatest and best in the world, constantly beseiged by enemies. We aren’t even given a moral or intellectual case for the neo-liberalism we live under. There is no alternative. There is nothing to argue against. There is no debate. It’s a sad intellectual climate to grow up in. This isn’t to negate or ignore the left-wing sentiment that exists all over the world, and in Britain. But it’s simply that free-market capitalism can only be understood as a totalizing theory in a way that a mixed economy or socialism aren’t. You can’t argue that capitalism works brilliantly for some things, terribly for others, and needs to be regulated heavily in any case due to the inequality it causes, within the ideological framework of free markets. Most mainstream views of socialism aren’t anti-capitalist at all, they just see capitalism as one element within a balanced society, not a way to organise the entire thing. It’s this attempt to explain everything through one totalizing system, despite the huge human suffering it causes, that I think will make the next century look back on the intellectual prison of classical economics in the same we consider doctrinaire Marxism today.

We are told to believe that all we can do is make conditions as favourable as possible (essentially, by getting rid of workers’ rights and welfare systems) for the forces of global capital to be attracted enough to our country to invest in it, as if instead of the “markets” being about the decisions of a minority of property-owning individuals, they were simply like iron filings irrestibility drawn to the most magnetised states – magnetised being a metaphor for the most neoliberal. And in case you start to wonder about the possibility of living in a society where the distribution of resources had more to do with human need than with the bizarre ideology that considers the desire to acquire vast amounts of wealth for oneself not as a pathology, but the principle around which all of society should be organised, you needn’t bother. We need to make savings. We’re broke. There’s no money left. Obviously there was the £1.5 trillion we added to our debt to bailout the failed banking system, but if we did anything to regulate it after the crisis, well, those natural forces of global capital would depart and OMGZ GREECE. I’d sum it up more eloquently but you’ve read this far, you know the story.

The current system doesn’t work in the interests of most people; only the 1% want it, and yet even Labour politicians tell us there is nothing we can do about it, essentially. The best we can hope for is to try and attract global capital and skim off more of it than the Conservatives would to pay for “non-productive parts of society” like schools and hospitals. Those were the actual words of a Conservative MEP on Question Time this week – this is the rotting effect of neo-liberalism on peoples’ minds – what a failing of intellect, but mainly of empathy, to consider the saving of lives and the education of the young to be non-productive! It makes sense if your only measure of the usefulness of any activity is the capital it produces. To me, that’s an understanding of human experience so limited as to be suggestive of pathology.

If you want a smaller state, argue for it. If you think that taxpayers collectively paying for a free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system is a luxury society can’t afford, and yet bailing out a failed banking system and not making it repay the taxpayer is just the kind of blip we can expect in an otherwise wonderful capitalist system, you need to make that case. No one does, of course, because it’s completely logically inconsistent. So they fall back on TINA – “there is no alternative”. It seems to me that making people believe that the current system is the only viable way in which society can avoid an enormous, yet unspecified, catastrophe is usually more of an indicator of a dictatorship than a democracy.

On a related note, I think the only time I’ve felt respect for a member of the GOP was when John McCain was asked in a debate some bullshit question about Obama being a Nazi or a Kenyan or a Muslim and McCain’s reply was “I may disagree profoundly with Obama’s beliefs and convictions, but he is a good person and you have nothing to fear from his becoming President”. That is having the courage of your convictions, and that is the kind of reasoned line rarely heard from the mouths of free-market cheerleaders.

If I had a daughter, I would tell her this – you are allowed to talk back to your own culture. All of this There is No Alternative bullshit serves to make you believe that resistance is futile. And so you do the best you can in a country with rising unemployment and a world with rising sea levels, and you try and put aside some money for your children and don’t stick your head above the fence. And when school playing fields are sold to Tesco, and when every High Street in the UK contains exactly the same shops, and when train fares go up by half as much again and when the higher fees have made you feel a bit more strongly than university isn’t for everyone, that’s just the way it is. That life is all you can hope for, apparently. That is considered by this ideology to be enough to provide a full human existence. It isn’t.

This is why I’ll be at Occupy Warwick this weekend, and why I’ll be urging everyone I know to listen to the talks, and come to the picket line on Wednesday to support University staff – because accepting that there’s nothing I can do to change the society I live in would make me feel like I was less alive, less human. If the neoliberal worldview managed to provide every human being on Earth with a decent standard of living and a solution to climate change, I would still consider it an ideology that does criminal damage to humanity because of the way it understands all human activity and perception in terms of money. There is nothing that cannot be understood through the medium of the commodity. They seek to turn education into a commodity. As much as I rely on Facebook, the way it has commodified human relationships makes me uneasy. Public space is privatised; the commons are eradicated, and this also has, of course, the side effect of making street protest illegal. To tell people that their moral convictions are pointless is, I think, more damaging than telling them they are wrong. This poisonous ideology renders the oppressed utterly powerless, and the oppressors completely vindicated – they never have to answer the uncomfortable question of just how they sleep at night while their policies damage so many peoples’ lives; after all, There Is No Alternative.

The Occupy movements feel like a small breathing space in the intellectual straightjacket of neo-liberalism we increasingly live under.

To quote Thomas Docherty, an English professor at Warwick, who told us that the purpose of universities was the pursuit of three things, the good, the beautiful and the true, and not a monetary investment, he also said “So next time someone tells you that old lie, Tina, that There Is No Alternative, tell them – What about H.o.p.e? By which I mean “Hey, Other Possibilities Exist”.