Friday, June 5, 2009

Layer 165 Gender Politics, The Chinese Model, Bankrupted Practices, A New Idealism, Transition and an Obama Speech.

Charlie Brooker's article in G2 this week was very funny, as usual, and contained some thought-provoking ideas about the state of the world and the role of men in messing up the planet. It works well as a polemic, and hopefully challenges readers to think about the differences and similarities between men and women, particularly those who supposedly represent us in Parliament.

Presumably no sane person is going to take his suggestion at face value – that men should now step back from running the affairs of the country and hand everything over to women to see what they can do. One thing we have to thank Thatcher for is clearly establishing that the kind of women who manage to climb to the top of the greasy pole are as likely as men to be raving egomaniacs with no ability to direct the ship of state along a course aimed at social justice, sound economics and excellent public services.

Hazel Blears, who wore her usual stupid fixed grin and an idiotic badge saying “Rocking The Boat” on the day she finally resigned this week, brilliantly reinforced our understanding that both men and women in politics are incredibly lacking in anything resembling social, emotional and spiritual intelligence, lacking in decency and even lacking in plain old intellect.


Madeleine Bunting's article today has the strapline, “It's been a truly disastrous week for women at Westminster. How did things go so badly wrong?”


Three Models of Politics.

Timothy Garten Ash wrote an interesting article this week comparing three models of politics – Chinese communism, American conservatism and European social democracy. For Oxzen, at any rate, the Chinese model is now the interesting one – we're already very familiar with the other two. Leaving aside the issue of how the members of the government are elected under the Chinese system – which is the only issue for nearly 100% of western commentators – the really key issue is whether or not the national wealth is held and used in the name of the people, the majority of the population. This of course was the major concern of Marx and Engels.

In Europe and America the vast majority of the nation's wealth is held by a relatively small number of private individuals, either directly or in shares and other investments. As we know, over time the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, especially when the tax system is as regressive as ours. The rich can avoid paying taxes almost completely, and meanwhile a loaf of bread and indeed a TV set are very expensive for a poor person, whereas they cost quite trifling amounts as far as the rich are concerned. 15% or 17% VAT is a huge amount for a poor person, whereas the rich often manage to pay no VAT because they buy things on “expenses”.

Capitalism claimed that communism and socialism are not only undemocratic (which of course they don't have to be – Britain could elect a communist or socialist government if we had a mind to) but they also promote a very inefficient way of running an economy (i.e. through state intervention and state ownership) or of running an individual business enterprise. Prior to 2008/9 this claim was never queried. We've now woken up to reality.

China now has the fastest growing, or the slowest declining, industries, a vast amount of national wealth held in cash in places like the USA, a thriving mixed economy, and a population that's clearly becoming wealthier and better educated at a tremendous rate. America, meanwhile, is seeing its major corporations, its banking and finance sector and its biggest mortgage companies go completely kaput and therefore in need of state takeover. America is willy nilly starting to emulate the Chinese model.

America is a huge debtor nation. It owes the rest of the world incredible amounts of money. America is also seeing its people declining into poverty at a tremendous rate, and has an education system that's in continuing crisis and offering a poorer quality of education with each passing year. The same applies to Britain, of course, since we've been copying the American model, though not to Germany and France, which, though they have centre-right governments, maintain a commitment to social democracy, fairer taxes, state intervention in the economy, and high quality public services.

Prior to the election of Obama, America couldn't even claim that it has a proper democratic system for electing its political leaders, since we all know that Bush stole the first election and won the second one on the basis of people's ignorance and fear, thereby becoming the most shameful and hated president ever, not just in his own country but around the world.

Which of these political and economic models are the developing nations likely to look to as models for their own development? We can already see that in South America there's a real chance that social democratic and indeed socialist ideologies have taken firm root, since those countries have historically been the biggest victims of the USA's imperialistic Shock Doctrine and neo-conservative ideology, they've taken very careful note of the spectacular implosion of capitalism, and also the fact that capitalist countries are only managing to keep some sort of status quo on the back of vast injections of public wealth into their economic systems.

In other words, the only way the USA and Britain, and others with similar systems, have kept from falling into total chaos is by using ordinary people's wealth, and their future wealth, to prop up a corrupt and spectacularly unfair economic and social order. Meanwhile the fat cats keep their riches, increasingly move them to offshore tax havens, and don't pay a penny to atone for their greed and their catastrophic ruination of an already bad and incredibly under-regulated system. It seems we can't touch these criminals because they worked within “the rules”.

What I find really interesting is the fact that in the USA and Britain there's virtually no chance that our politics and economics will change to the point where we commit to emulating the socialist model, since the power of capital and the power of the current social and political establishment is so strong, and the population so brainwashed. Therefore these countries are locked into a system that can ultimately only lead to their continuing decline. The USA might at present be adopting the practices of the Chinese, but their fat cats will ensure that there will be a return to conservatism and full-on capitalism as soon as practicable. Ditto lapdog Britain. Unless we do something about it, of course.


The Transition Movement

Madeleine Bunting wrote an interesting column this week, in which she said,

Beyond Westminster's bankrupted practices, a new idealism is emerging.

Progressive politics will take root from the rubble of a Labour defeat. The Transition movement is giving us a glimpse now.

Something remarkable has happened. Politics has become entirely unpredictable. Suddenly all manner of political reform is back on the table, a new urgency has been infused into tired debates about political disengagement and apathy, and radical reforms are being proposed to reinvigorate the hollowing out of political institutions.

New Labour, which built its fortunes on "there being no alternative", is now being forced into the humiliating circumstances of having to find one.

Let's sketch out how that might develop, and offer . . . a first draft of what a 21st-century utopian politics might look like.

It will be hard to mourn the defeat in 2010 of a political party that lost its moral bearings in its bid to woo middle England, slavishly reflecting back what it believed this narrow constituency wanted to hear. It won ballots by flattering and indulging a mythology of the good life as individualistic aspiration and material enrichment, and never challenged the multiple erroneous assumptions on which this was based. On the two vital progressive issues of its age – inequality and the environment – it wasted a crucial decade and squandered parliamentary majorities on contradictory and inadequate gestures.

What it palpably failed to grasp was how crucial political reform was to regenerate progressive politics. A party that had been professionalised and managerialised in the 80s, not surprisingly, did not understand how to respond to people's appetite to participate, and author their own lives. It only knew how to manipulate and manage public engagement, and earned deep resentment for doing both. Only out of the rubble of defeat in 2010 will a new progressive politics begin painfully to emerge well beyond the bankrupted conventions of Westminster politics.

If you want to catch a glimpse of the kinds of places outside the political mainstream where that new politics might be incubated, take a look at the Transition movement. Ed Miliband, the energy and climate change secretary, was one of the first to spot its potential when he described this young and fast-growing movement as "absolutely essential". Other politicians have been similarly intrigued, and last year The Transition Handbook came fifth in MPs' list of summer reading. It isn't hard to see why politicians are so interested. The Transition movement is engaging people in a way that conventional politics is failing to do. It generates emotions that have not been seen in political life for a long time: enthusiasm, idealism and passionate commitment.

Within three years it has gone from an idea to having 170 towns, villages and cities signed up as transition communities, working in 30 countries, and thousands more all over the world using the transition model. It is viral, catching on faster than its founder, Rob Hopkins, can track. Its message is that peak oil and climate change demand dramatic changes in the way people live, and, given that no one has the answer, communities themselves must start working out how that change might come about. It offers no answers, no solutions, only some tips in a handbook for how to get started. Transition lays the challenge squarely at the door of everyone. This is too big and difficult for government alone to tackle, too overwhelming and depressing for individuals to face alone.

Transition is rooted in a new politics of place: geography matters again as people look to the community immediately around them to devise the solutions for sustainability and resilience. At one level it works as a way of regenerating social capital, building up relationships with neighbours, working out how to collaborate again on common interests – community gardens, recycling, waste and strengthening the local economy. At another level it is about educating people about the challenges of peak oil and climate change, but the mobilisation and consciousness-raising is directed towards optimism and hope, not despair: how can this community use its skills and imagination to build its future?

The result is a proliferation of experiments, all of which are charted on their wiki websites: the collaboration is both local and global. Communities in Somerset can swap ideas and get inspiration from Brazil, Australia or the US. It's a world away from the smooth presentation of party politics, and transitioners are quick to point to the disclaimer on their site – they have no idea if the movement will work. They're organising local food festivals now, but tomorrow it could be community renewable energy. The emphasis is always on conviviality and enjoyment; on learning skills that have been lost over the last few decades – how to cook, grow food, repair and make things. Scotland has funded several transition organisers to work across the country. This is an unusual thing: local grassroots environmentalism that is full of hope for the future.

Their meetings don't have agendas or presentations – Miliband came to their annual conference recently as a keynote listener. They use what's called open space technology, in which everyone brings their ideas and everyone participates. Humble, self-organising, the movement owes much to the idealistic thinking of the early 70s. This is a time for revisiting those alternatives, which have been so contemptuously dismissed for a quarter of a century.

Part of its growing success is how it meets several needs simultaneously. It tackles social recession – the sense of disconnection and fragmentation of community – at the same time as it collaborates on the huge behavioural change that will be required for a low-carbon society. The latter is far more likely to come about in the context of personal relationships than as a result of discredited politicians dictating change. It is fulfilling an unexpected appetite for political engagement at a time of widespread disillusionment with the conventional political processes.

Hopkins is emphatic that transition groups refuse all political affiliation; they must build alliances to work across all parts of their community. But it is intriguing to see how the movement is experimenting with the sorts of ideas those in conventional politics are talking about – localism, decentralisation of power to communities, an environmental politics that is utopian and hopeful rather than gloomy. Of course detractors can point out its wholemeal worthiness, but it is stubbornly swimming against the tide of pervasive political pessimism, and given the unpredictability of the times, who knows where it will end up?


The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sachs, was on Thought for Today talking about the Middle East, Obama's speech and destructive emotions – instinctive reactions to fear - flight and fight. Nation States' powers of destruction grow ever greater. Everyone needs to raise their levels of social, emotional and spiritual intelligence.


Barack Obama made a great speech in Cairo yesterday:

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