Oh well, back to the politics, the financial meltdown, the appalling lack of spiritual intelligence in our public life.
There was a fascinating programme on BBC4 last night (twice - I caught the late show) about Zen and wabi sabi, but I’ll come to that in a moment.
The front page headline on the Guardian this morning is “Brown: I should have done more to prevent crisis.” And “PM says he accepts ‘full responsibility’ and declares laissez-faire era over.”
"Gordon Brown attempts to launch a political fightback today by declaring that he takes "full responsibility" for his role in the banking failures that led to the global recession, and claims that the downturn marks the end of the era of laissez-faire government.
In an interview with the Guardian, the prime minister concedes that in retrospect he wishes he had mounted a popular campaign 10 years ago to demand more responsible regulation of the world's financial markets. He attempts to draw a line under calls for him to make an apology by admitting that the national system of regulation he helped establish in 1997 could not keep pace with the massive global financial flows.
In some of his most extensive comments on his role in the recession, Brown said: "I take full responsibility for all my actions, but I think we're dealing with a bigger problem that is global in nature, as well as national. Perhaps 10 years ago after the Asian crisis when other countries thought these problems would go away, we should have been tougher ... keeping and forcing these issues on to the agenda like we did on debt relief and other issues of international policy."
So what Brown actually said to the man from the Guardian was, “I take full responsibility for all my actions”. Of course he does. Why wouldn’t he? What he deliberately fails to say is that he takes full responsibility for all of his INactions which allowed and encouraged the bankers and the fat cats to ruthlessly exploit the gullibility and naivety of millions of ‘ordinary’ people - i.e. non-insiders (even people like Max Hastings, more of whom later) - and effectively rob them and steal from them their life savings in the capitalist casino, which, like every casino, operates for the benefit of those that run it.
He argues that "only progressive, centre-left governments can address the problems of the global change".
Brown also claims that "the 40-year-old prevalent orthodoxy known as the Washington consensus in favour of free markets has come to an end", but signals a refusal to return to Labour's comfort zone by saying there will be no return to "big government", or any let up in public service reform.
What a fucking nerve - suggesting that New Labour has been a progressive, left of centre government when we know damn well that it’s gone even further than Thatch and Major in its privatisations, deregulations, giving independence to the UK’s central bank, appointing useless bankers to key advisory and regulatory roles, etc. Bastard.
What a fucking nerve - telling us that the 40-year old ‘Washington consensus’ has (thankfully) come to an end when he and Blair did fuck all to try to end it when they came to power in ’97, as they should have done. As if he’s played any part in ending the era of voodoo economics and the reign of the Chicago School! He fucking supported it!
And now he’s opportunistically trying to follow Obama’s lead on everything - from suddenly adopting Keynesianism and ditching the Friedmanite Chicago School theorists, to advocating the end of the bonus culture, raising taxes on the rich and putting ceilings on executive pay. Bastard.
Jon Stewart on the Daily Show neatly skewered Brown last week by running clips of several of the bits of his speech to Congress that milked standing ovations, and then showed the much older clips of the bits of Obama’s speeches that Brown had copied word for word or plagiarised.
As Jon S put it, “What is this guy? A Barack Obama cover band?”
He said nothing original in that speech, and only stated the bleeding obvious when he called for concerted international action to deal with the world economic crisis. Big deal. We could all do that.
"Laissez-faire has had its day. People on the centre-left and the progressive agenda should be confident enough to say that the old idea that the markets were efficient and could work things out by themselves are gone", he says.
What’s this? You don’t say! Laissez-faire capitalism should have had its fucking day way back in the 1930’s - since it took a world war to kick-start economies out of the great depression that L-FC had caused, and post-war it took Keynesian enlightenment, the Marshall Plan and the creation of the United Nations and the IMF (before the Chicago Boys took up residence there) to pilot the world into a new era of peace and prosperity. These were institutions and international agreements that came into being because it was clearly understood back then that unbridled, unregulated capitalism could only bring misery, recession and ruin to entire populations.
And as for Brown saying that “people of the centre-left and the ‘progressive agenda’ should be confident enough blah blah” - WE fucking WERE confident enough to say that markets needed regulation and public accountability! Only Brown and Blair and their crew weren’t fucking listening!!
“The prime minister also argued that the world recession was changing the public's expectations of business values, and they no longer believe a successful economy has to be based on high levels of risk.
"Most people want business to have the same values as they practise in their everyday life. People would rather reward hard work rather than risk-taking.”
This is bollocks too. Maybe the world ‘recession’ (economic implosion) has changed Mr Brown’s ‘expectations of business values’, but WE, the ‘public’, i.e. the real people, have always espoused the values that he’s now, belatedly, proclaiming. It’s not the bloody public’s values that are now changing..
Brown also says, in the interview spread across pages 14 and 15, that “both government and markets have got to be underpinned by values”. That’s right, Gordo. Socialist values. Belief in fairness, social justice, the elimination of poverty, much greater inequality, the elimination of tax havens, tax avoidance and fat-cat bolt-holes, caps on executive pay, the elimination of the bonus culture, higher rates of tax for the rich, a much higher minimum wage, and so on. All the things that NuLabour has patently failed to even campaign about and argue for, let alone act on.
How this guy has the nerve to paint himself as a progressive and left of centre is beyond belief.
A couple of days ago I was reading the chapters in Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock doctrine” that deal with what happened to the so-called Asian Tiger Economies, which Brown refers to, during the late 1990’s. Read them and weep. Big business and big finance in the USA and elsewhere decided it wanted part of the action in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Phillipines and South Korea - places that had built thriving industries and public utilities that were at least part-owned by the state - and so set out to destabilise their currencies in order to force them to apply to the IMF for support. The IMF, of course, which by this time was firmly under the control of the Chicago Boys, told them that loans would only be available to them AFTER they’d agreed to sell off, to privatise, at knock-down prices, their state assets and their major industries. And guess who stepped in, bought them up, and asset-stripped them, as they had already done in Russia, Eastern Europe, South Africa, South America, and elsewhere? That’s right - fat cats, financial predators and oligarchs.
Two more recent columns in the quality press about the harmful effects of inequality, as researched and reported by Wilkinson & Pickett in ‘The Spirit Level’.
Will Hutton in The Observer:
‘Look no further than inequality for the source of all our ills.’
John Crace in G2:
‘The Theory of Everything’.
Simon Jenkins had another excellent column in The Guardian on Friday 13th, on the deeds and legacy of Thatch and her ilk.
“Where Thatcher - or rather her chancellor, Nigel Lawson - went wrong was in the reformed structure of City finance brought on by the Big Bang of 1986.”
No one was more traumatised by the miners' strike than two young Labour politicians, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. A year earlier, Blair had been elected for Sedgefield on a leftwing, anti-Europe, pro-union, pro-CND platform, to begin one of the most spectacular U-turns in political history.
By 1989 Blair was shadow employment secretary, and was demanding that his party quietly accept Thatcher's labour and privatisation laws. He and Brown visited Australia to study Labour leader Bob Hawke's ideal of Thatcherism with a human face. He declared, "We play the Tory game when we speak up for the underclass rather than for the broad majority." Meanwhile Brown demanded that the party "make an almost religious atonement for the sins of Labour's past", in the words of his biographer, Robert Peston.
Brown was so frantic to mimic Thatcherism as shadow chancellor that Peter Hain wrote in 1993: "There is little to distinguish Labour's macroeconomic policy from that of the Tories." John Prescott, Jack Straw and David Blunkett dismissed Brown in Tribune as a crypto-monetarist. He was against tax rises, for privatisation and an ardent defender of Kenneth Clarke's Treasury policies.
This is only relevant since whatever blame attaches to Thatcher for the financial chaos of the last six months attaches even more to Blair and Brown. In truth, Thatcherism was a consensus, built on the experience of the 1970s as the consensus of 1940s welfarism was built on that of war.
The difference is that Brown, in his semi-independence for the Bank of England, was super-Thatcherite. The Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 established the tripartite regulation that has so conspicuously failed. It went far beyond what Thatcher would have tolerated.
Meanwhile history is silent on the downside of the Thatcher era. The command structure she created to crush her foes became unrestrained, over-centralised and inefficient. Her evisceration of local democracy bred a cynicism among Britons towards political participation that remains unique in Europe. It also led to her downfall through the poll tax.
Thatcher was one of the great "nationalisers" of all time, taking control of the public housing stock, the rating system, a previously devolved hospital service, the universities, the courts, crown prosecution and, during the miners' strike, the police. It was Thatcher who turned Whitehall from an elite administrative corps into a demoralised, politicised officialdom which, under Blair and Brown, became besotted with targets, initiatives and useless IT systems.
Thatcher removed former nationalised industries from the state. But ask any doctor, farmer, lecturer, engineer or victim of the health and safety executive if, as a result of Thatcher, they feel less or more liberated from state interference. You will get a sick laugh.
Meanwhile, back at Max Hastings, “Winning the next election should be the least of Cameron’s worries.”
In his previous Guardian column Max, a life-long Tory, had described how he’s lost a shitload of his own money through trusting financial advisers and others who told him to invest in stocks and shares that are now worthless. He’s belatedly woken up to the evils of capitalism. He’s extremely fearful that as a result of the collapse of economies around the world we’re now on the eve of social, political and financial catastrophe.
Well, Max, I hate to say this, but I, for one, could have told you so. Many people in fact wrote books about it. Am I the only one who read “The State We’re In” - Will Hutton’s best-selling 1996 classic? Surely not.
Anyone who had eyes to see could have told Max that American and European economic imperialism and exploitation would one day come to a very bad end. And now it has. People like Max may have lost the most money, but they’ll still be better insulated from the effects than those who lost nothing because they had fuck-all to lose in the first place. Nothing except their jobs, their homes, their self-respect, their life chances and indeed their lives, in lots of cases. The rates of suicide during and after the Asian downturn and buy-out were phenomenal. Millions are still unemployed and impoverished all over the world, and it’s going to get a lot worse.
“We are in a phoney war period, comparable with the winter of 1939. Everyone recognises the gravity of events, but no bombs are falling. Although markets have crashed and unemployment is rising steeply, most people are still going about their affairs more or less as they did a year ago. Few national leaderships are yet thinking or acting with a conviction commensurate with the scale of the crisis.
It is hard to suppose this comparative normality will persist. Hundreds of millions of lives are going to be brutally changed. It is unlikely that any decisions taken at next month's London G20 summit will avert acute social pain. It is implausible that populations will respond stoically. This will be especially so if they see those who created the disaster, notably the banking community, still enjoying absolute or even relative opulence secured by false pretences.
A few years ago, many of us were naive enough to suppose that the global struggle between left and right was effectively over; that capitalism and social democracy were irrevocably triumphant. Peter Flannery's 1996 TV classic, Our Friends in the North, seemed to represent an archaeological dig through old British miseries. The rage of the left that it portrayed, the corruption of capitalism and of the police as its enforcement arm, the violence of the 1984 miners' strike, the class war cliches, were light years removed from the prosperous Britain of the Blair years.
As a Tory, I watched Flannery's series with some complacency. I was confident - and still am - that our side was mostly right in the struggles of the 1980s.
The left's view of capitalism as a conspiracy against working people looked ridiculous. Tony Benn was wrong about almost everything. After Thatcher's fall, for almost a generation, capitalism delivered on an extraordinary scale, conferring prosperity on all but the poorest members of society.
Today, however, few people even in Wall Street or the City of London dispute that we are suffering a historic failure. It cannot be blamed on political troublemakers, workers, asylum-seekers, terrorists or climate change. It is explicitly the responsibility of those who have conducted the world's financial machinery, indulged and abetted by governments. Tim Geithner, the US treasury secretary, speaks frankly of "a systemic failure of regulation".
In the face of this, the innocents who will suffer seem entitled to vent their feelings, armed with a moral authority a hundred times greater than that which provoked the turbulence of the miners' strike or, for that matter, the poll tax riots. To say this is not to countenance violence, but merely to acknowledge the justice of public anger.
It will be strange if, in a new and poorer world, voices of the left do not find audiences such as they have not known for 30 years. As public spending is cut, the jobless find it impossible to regain work, businesses of all kinds struggle for survival, the political map of many nations, notably including Britain, could be redrawn. In the decade ahead, no one will speak without irony of "the enterprise society".
The war had forced upon Churchill's government socialistic domestic policies. These will be equally inescapable amid the 2010 economic crisis.
Privately at least, most politicians acknowledge the probability of civil unrest.
Thus far, what seems most remarkable about the cataclysm is that few prophets have acknowledged how radically it could change the political landscape.
Right on, Max, my man. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Damn - I’ve run out of time and space to say anything about wabi sabi. Manyana.