In out, in out, turn it all about
+An old friend from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) reminds me of Jeremy Corbyn’s record as a member of that august body. He cannot remember one occasion when Jeremy attended a meeting of the PLP in 18 years, and in my mere nine years I cannot remember such an occasion either. Let’s face it, Jeremy was very much a detached member of the PLP, tolerated by the Blairites since he didn’t head up any significant faction, or at least no faction that threatened the Blairites. Jeremy voted against the whip more often than we ate hot meals—which makes his current bid to win back the whip highly ironic. But it’s also ironic from the party hierarchy’s position, since his regular rebellions should have led to multiple expulsions. What makes the hierarchy so intolerant now? Breaking the whip could always of course be done in the safety of numbers. Nobody was disciplined when half of the PLP voted against the Iraq war.
+Further to my piece on late capitalism on Friday, there was an obituary in the Guardian for Paul Moore, the ‘HBOS whistleblower who warned against the bank’s lending policy and aggressive sales culture.’ Mr Moore died aged 61, and it seems he became a bit of a persona no gratia in the banking world after he told HBOS’s board in 2004 that their practices were unethical. Moore was their head of regulatory policy at the time. I confess I can’t recollect hearing of him until now. He doesn’t sound like the kind of person to claim ‘scalps’ but his action probably led to the HBOS Chief Executive, Sir James Crosby resigning his post as deputy chair of the Financial Services Authority and handing back his knighthood. HBOS subsequently tapped the taxpayer for £21 billion. Socialist capitalism. Moore warned the HBOS board five years before the crash where their business behaviour was leading. He was sacked. Regretably, in those pre-crash triumphal years of Labour’s economic ‘success’ we all turned a blind eye. Mea culpa.
+If what is reported in the Skwawkbox website today truly records the words of a Keir Starmer speech to a meeting of the Jewish Labour (sic) Movement (sic) then I really will have to reconsider my determination to remain a member of the party. Apparently Starmer was opening the door to welcome back those ex-Labour MPs who went off to set up their own competing party— ‘Change UK’ —on the alleged basis that they were upset about the ‘rampant’ anti-Semitism in Labour. If Starmer’s view is that they should be back in, then after 36 years I have to say I’ll be on my way out.
As the horrors of capitalism grow ever worse in their impacts on people and planet it has counter-intuitively (it seems to me) become ever more common to hear talk of ‘late’ capitalism, which perhaps reflects some inexorable Marxist process taking shape, or the possibility, as some would probably argue, that capitalism with its destructive all-consuming appetite will burn itself up (and the rest of us with it). Since no-one can foretell the future I would venture to suggest that it is far too soon to talk of something as frenetically organic as capitalism being in its ‘late’ stage. I think I would be happier if people spoke about mutant capitalism, that is a form of capitalism that adapts to the circumstances--whatever they are. Since I am not an economist, I have no knowledge of whether what I describe as mutant capitalism is discussed in expert circles.
I am prompted to write about the subject after reading an article in the current New York Review of Books, ‘Getting Away With Murder,’ by Jed S. Rakoff (sic), reviewing a book called Corporate Crime and Punishment: The Crisis of Underenforcement, by John C. Coffee. Here’s a telling quotation:
‘Existing [U.S.] law provides that a pharmaceutical company found guilty of a felony can no longer sell prescription drugs through Medicare or Medicaid. But in the Purdue Pharma case, and in numerous cases of criminal misconduct by the pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer, the companies were able to convince prosecutors to let their guilty pleas be made by shell subsidiaries to avoid this severe penalty, which might cause the company to fail. In fact they were able to convince prosecutors that the draconian penalty of killing the companies would unfairly punish the innocent shareholders, the many equally innocent employees, and anyone who depended on regular doses of their medications . .’
In other words, by and large leading capitalist corporations have the state (and citizens) over a barrel, since the state’s legal powers are constrained by some very real practical concerns, not least of which is their simple lack of effective enforcement machinery when pitted against corporate lawyers in what can be termed ‘lawfare.’ In many cases there doesn’t seem an appetite for confrontation—not least when the likes of e.g. Pfizer are set to save us from doom. In the current pandemic another mutant (perhaps I should actually use the word ‘normal’ here) capitalism falls into the ‘crony’ capitalism category, fully revealed in the manner in which the Johnson government has rushed to reward friends and patrons with millions and possibly billions worth of contracts, some which have been unfulfilled (and once again insufficient enforcement will see many scamsters get away scot free). The relationship between governments and corporations as we know is often close, employing a multitude of revolving doors, cash and sinecures.
Occasionally significant challenges to corporations take place, but these, such as the anti-trust action to break up Standard Oil in 1911 are not challenges to capitalism as such but merely blips in the development of monopolistic tendencies. These monopolistic tendencies can re-emerge in many forms, in the case of the oil industry we can point to the behaviour of the ‘seven sisters’ - supposedly independent companies with their history of price fixing. Current talk of breaking up the tech giants does not fill me with any confidence that e.g. what is now termed ‘surveillance capitalism’ would be curtailed, not least since governments have put so much effort into surveillance technology partnerships with the private sector.
So I’m not satisfied that prefacing capitalism with the word ‘late’ actually signifies very much if we are meant to understand it as a state of approaching terminality. Far from it, we could talk as easily of ‘infant’ capitalism, since it’s only been around for about 300 years. The Roman Empire lasted for many centuries—add a thousand years if you consider Byzantium its natural heir. I wonder if Romans ever started talking about ‘late Roman’ times.
Could there be long term benefits from our current experience? The short term says no, all people want (with some justification) is for things to return to ‘normal.’ This normality is a life lived freely to intermingle and without care—which is not to say that I am painting everybody in their normal lives as being careless, but merely that in a ‘normal’ life one doesn’t have to go about one’s business factoring too much into what other people do so long as they don’t behave with overt stupidity towards oneself. These days it doesn’t take long to spot the people who do behave stupidly and anti-socially. They stand out a mile whereas before the pandemic they may have just been mild irritants in the background (like people who don’t clean up after their dogs). The pandemic seems like a giant housetraining exercise we’re performing on ourselves, and given the longevity of this experience perhaps it will have long term impacts on human behaviour.
This could operate at two levels, the micro and the macro. At the micro level, which is our individual personal behaviour I think it will be quite a long time before people generally (but there will always be idiots) feel inclined again to behave with a sense of unconscious trust in others, particularly strangers. Perhaps a new age of mask wearing in the West will take hold, and new norms of distancing will feel the right approach. Will pubs ever be the same again, even when close contact has become iffy? I’m not sure I feel keen on returning to previous habits.
At the macro level, which is to say our national and international politics the picture is no more certain. An intelligent strategy to take us beyond the pandemic would recognise that this economic upheaval provides boundless opportunities to shift the balance of the economy at a time when electorates wouldn’t object—a revolutionary moment presents itself on the back of a global disturbance which has already proven, well, deeply disturbing. One could say that we now do have a real choice with ample legitimate routes to follow away from our previous pre-occupations. The choice is crisis capitalism or environmentalism (in the fullest, most profound sense of that word). I have to be honest and say I’m not optimistic that the right choice will be made (although there will definitely be a bucket load of greenwash designed to convince us otherwise).
Forgiveness doesn't come cheap
+Trump may be on his way out, but how much longer will we have to suffer his ‘mini-me’ here in the UK? Johnson’s blessing of his Home Secretary, Pritti Patel after she was clearly found to have bullied her staff(unintentionally), in breach of the so-called ministerial code demonstrates once again an attitude which places his vastly inflated judgement before any standard of accountability. This may not be the biggest story around (apart perhaps for the victims of Patel’s gross behaviour) but it is just another telling sign how the supposed self-policing norms of our unwritten constitution operate. Except of course that the ministerial code is printed in black and white.
+Throughout the Thatcher years we were led to believe that the government’s budget was very similar to a household budget, and we had to keep it ‘in balance.’ Rishi Sunak in a mini-budget next week, according to rumour is going to start a new era of austerity to get the economy back on track after the pandemic, starting with a public sector pay freeze. This is because the cost of Covid has led to the overall UK debt level reaching 100% of our GDP. Well, I say let’s go back to household budgeting. I recall when I first applied for a mortgage in the 1970s I couldn’t borrow more than 3.5 times my annual wage. The very concept of borrowing such a large amount in excess of my income caused me no alarm at all, and I wasn’t forced to go short on baked beans or anything like that. But governments aren’t households and they can do whatever they want, in accordance with their ideology, which is what we’re about to witness. Rishi gives and Rishi takes away.
End the blockbuster!
One of the pleasures, nay privileges of having been a Member of Parliament was the opportunity to join the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Arts and Culture. This august body brought together a wide ranging group of MPs, and demonstrated that even Labour oiks could express as much interest in Poussin as they might in mushy peas (or avocado dip as Peter Mandelson allegedly asked for in a chippy up north). On pain of having to get to the gallery by 9am, members could beat the public to see all the blockbusters and roam the galleries without being squashed and Instagramed (or whatever is today’s vernacular) in front of works, which when ordinarily dispersed around many art galleries wouldn’t command the same extreme attention as they do when gathered together in a heavily promoted blockbuster.
I have gazed upon Bosch and both Breughel senior and junior in the Brussels Royal Museums of Fine Arts without interruption or cramming for 20 minutes, but put those pictures into a ‘blockbuster’ and any pleasure is drained away by the sweaty crush of phone wielding numpties welded together in arousal by the historic occasion of the celebration of some or other artist’s 100th/200th/300th/500th/500th birth/death anniversary. In my experience this was no truer than Bosch’s 500th celebratory blockbuster in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 2016. Each picture magnetised a joggling, ogling crush of 20 or so gasping trophy hunters, keen to be pictured with something or other which might say ‘here’s me ‘n’ Bosch – look at me!’ My eager anticipation of my visit to that exhibition was I have to say, bitterly deflated by the experience if it. But the gallery shop did a roaring trade, and it seems the only way to really see such an exhibition these days is to buy the expensive, hardbound catalogue (if you have the weight lifting capacity that is). The same experience was almost replicated in this year’s Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent, which I managed to see just before we all became Covid captives. It wasn’t as crowded as the Bosch, but the industrial throughput of visitors was handled with the same poultry farm techniques.
I hope that some part of the Coronavirus legacy will see the end of blockbuster exhibitions. I realise they are money spinners, but to what extent are they pleasurable experiences? Indeed, in some cases to what extent are they even honest experiences? I went to Tate Britain and saw the fake news ‘Van Gogh and London’ exhibition. Van Gogh! London! When can we see a Van Gogh and Milton Keynes exhibition I want to know? Surely there’s some connection which merits our attention? Then there’s always the chance to tie ‘blockbuster artists’ together like Van Gogh and Hockney, Turner and Hockney, Monet and Hockney, Picasso and Hockney, Freud and Hockney, Manet and Hockney, Warhol and Hockney, Hockney and Hockney, and yes – even Rembrandt and Hockney. My imaginary favourite would be to see Capstan Full Strength and Hockney, but this pairing has so far escaped the imagination of our finance funnel-vision’d curators.
I hope all this may now change. There needs to be a radical review of how it might. At pain of being pelted with noxious blobs of cadmium yellow, not least by my socialist realist friends, the offer of free entry to one and all to our main galleries must be questioned. Imagine this: what if we allowed free entry to Covent Garden? That is, what if people were allowed to pay nowt to enter and then to wander around as the mood took them, taking their snaps for Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram as their fleeting whims saw fit? No need to dwell on the performance, no need to linger whilst another freebie somewhere else beckons on their little blue screens? So why is visual art (hanging on walls, in the main) meant to be free when everything else isn’t? I have to say, anticipating an argument that I’m being elitist, here’s a short list of some of the things you have to pay for to entertain you in your leisure time:
Cinema, theatre, English Heritage/National Trust properties, opera, ballet, the BBC licence fee, Netflix, Sky, musicals, most foreign art galleries, football, rugby, cricket (yeah, most sport), zoos, the Cropton Forest Drive (yes that’s just a local thing), special exhibitions in art galleries (including of course blockbusters), and oh yes, in case you missed it most foreign art galleries – the list could go on and on. It is perhaps an interesting feature of imagined British values that we assume that free entrance to galleries and museums is an unquestionable civilising venture, whereas going to an opera or the cinema or a football game is a moral hazard which has to be paid for.
I began by saying how happy I was to have been a member of a certain privileged group. No doubt in some cynical minds that will have demonstrated how elites can acquire underserved advantage. That may depend somewhat on your political worldview. But what we need to learn from our experience is how to maximise the real cultural value of our art galleries. Are they merely to be showcases for marketing? Is a good art gallery the one which is jam packed? Surely some would say yes – and why, particularly in the case of local authority funded art galleries wouldn’t they want to pack ‘em in? The alternative might be closure.
I have to confess that the gallery visits that I enjoy most are the ones where I am most likely to be largely left alone with the pictures and artefacts. This makes me as comfortable say in Hull University’s recently recreated and delightful gallery as it does going upstairs in the ICA (always a good place to find oneself alone even if the visit only requires 48 seconds). But I recognise this kind of pleasure is not an economic proposition. Practically any and every visit to an art gallery is heavily subsidised. And without hesitation one might add, they always will be even with entry fees. In the United States, that great land of philanthropic art gallery sponsorship entrance fees still apply, and still don’t cover the costs.
In the coming world of recurrent plague, our galleries will be under enormous pressure, both from a drop in visitor numbers and probably from inadequate funding from any source. A crisis beckons, that is for sure. The question I would ask - and can’t provide an answer to, for now – is whose crisis is it? Perhaps the current members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Culture will organise a meeting to address the question? Their first consideration might be, post-Brexit, whether foreign tourists should be made to cough up, just as we do when we’re foreign tourists in their countries.
The Day After 2050
In Wednesday’s blog I wrote of my concern that climate change has passed an irreversible tipping point, meaning that nature is taking a course which is likely to swamp the benefits of human endeavours to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Today, in The Independent I read under the headline ‘Is the climate crisis pushing the world to a point of no return?’ some evidence to support my view. It reports ‘A new study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, makes the bold claim that, hypothetically speaking, we could “already [be] past a point of no return for global warming”. Using a simplistic mathematical model, it simulates what would happen in a hypothetical world where greenhouse gas emissions were stopped in 2020. It finds that, in the simulations, the world continues to heat up for hundreds of years as a result of positive feedback loops such as permafrost thaw.’ The news story then goes on to report countervailing views from other scientists, who suggest in effect that the study’s modelling isn’t up to scratch and needs further development. It is my fear that that critique might be of the sort that suggests it’s best to have 100% information before a watertight conclusion can be drawn. I’m not criticising any of the scientists involved—they’re all dealing with incomplete information after all. What does bother me is that when I was more closely involved in climate change fifteen or more years ago, a range of modelling outcomes were shown to be possible. Now we are finding that the outcomes being found in practice are likely to be at the top end of the modelling range. We now hear the phrase ‘worse than expected’ in relation to e.g. polar ice melt, ocean warming, permafrost melt, forest fires, etc., etc., etc. with alarming frequency. So called 100-year events happen routinely, overwhelming infrastructure regularly.
One of the study’s critics is ‘Prof Richard Betts MBE, chair of climate impacts of the University of Exeter and the Met Office, [who] told The Independent: “Having talked to various colleagues, we don’t think there’s any credibility in the model. “Feedbacks are important. The possibility of eventually becoming committed to long-term climate change is important. But there is no real evidence that this has already happened.”’ I recall a dispute between Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute and the Met Office over whether the Met Office had actually given due consideration to feedbacks quite some time ago, and I’m not convinced that now, it is correct merely to say that they are ‘important’ and can be contextualised in the sense of long-term climate change. We’re in the here and now.
It is my opinion that climate scientists, forced into a corner first by the deniers (now thankfully fewer in number but nowhere extinct least of all in politics) and the need to draw the backdrop to politically acceptable solutions are still hesitant, and naturally look for scientific consensus in their modelling, so debunking outliers. I think this strategy is well passed its sell by date. It gives politicians the elbow room they need to delay and delay and delay. After all, 2050 is 30 years away.
In the dog collar house
It was a pleasure to note that humanists have been allowed to participate in remembrance events this year. The message seems to be getting through to the powers that be that not all who fought and died ‘for democracy,’ e.g. in two world wars were white and Christian. So far as the UK was concerned in its colonial days, I suspect being white was an essential part of the definition of being Christian and vice versa. I suppose some of the current upturning of old conceptions drives the likes of Trump and Farage and countless Tory backbenchers into all sorts of frenzy. But my own little thought, based on experience suggests that ‘onward Christian soldiers,’ never held much water in modern history. When I signed on to join the RAF in 1971, I was asked to swear my oath (i.e. to die for the Queen) on the Bible. I said I didn’t believe in the Bible or God. The recruiting sergeant said that didn’t really matter, I could take the oath on a bottle of beer if that meant as much to me. Given this equivalence, I recognised that in the absence of a bottle of beer, a Bible would do. Later, in basic training, I was asked, for the purpose of allocating recruits to church services, which faith I belonged to. Since there were no church services for atheists, I was allocated to the Methodists, merely I imagine because Methodists were few and far between and nobody knew what a Methodist was anyway. The moral of this story is that the number of ‘Christian’ soldiers was artificially inflated, much to the satisfaction of the officer corps of padres. And I could never quite get my head round the sight of a military uniform bedecked with a dog collar.
On the same day that Rolls Royce announced plans to build 16 new nuclear ‘mini’ power plants my attention was drawn to a new campaign organisation called War On Climate Change (WOCC). The intent of WOCC is clear from its title, and reading its manifesto I heartily agree that its aims are commendable, even if it is my personal view that this war, however desirable is now facing an enemy over which it stands little chance of victory—namely nature herself. My pessimism is borne aloft by a tidal wave of news, delivered almost on a daily basis that climate heating has already reached a tipping point beyond reversal, to which the delayed human response is both inadequate and self-deceiving. Targets (where they exist) still seem formulated as if getting to net zero carbon emissions only by 2050 is the magic solution, which in practical terms means that the available carbon budget will expire long before then, such is the non-appetite for an ordered and inclusive approach suggested by the Contraction and Convergence (C&C) framework.
As a contribution to tackling climate change, nuclear power is supported by many environmental luminaries, not least the likes of George Monbiot and James Lovelock, so it has credible support from certain wings of the green movement. The problem, whatever your view about nuclear power, is that it cannot in the short timescale left do very much to assist in the war against climate change. Can you imagine the processes required to approve 16 new mini nuclear power stations around the UK? Rolls Royce reckon it would all be simpler and much less complex than building a new standard sized nuclear power station (where the UK is heavily reliant on the French and Chinese). My view, even though I am anti-nuclear generally, is that existing plant should be maintained as long as safely possible, but that’s all.
The co-incidental thing about hearing about WOCC and Rolls Royce’s proposal is that a co-founder of WOCC is Tim Yeo, the former Conservative environment minister under John Major, and latterly chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee until he retired as an MP in 2015 He was also a past chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I served. When it comes to climate change, I believe Tim ’gets it,’ but I am nervous that he is also the founder in 2014 of something called the New Nuclear Watch Institute which promotes new nuclear. The word ‘Watch’ in this body’s title seems a little curious. I have no doubt that Tim is sincere in his climate change commitment—he has supported C&C in the past—and this new body, WOCC is proposing some stuff that is even a shade radical.
So what’s the problem? The underlying problem is simply capitalism. There are views that there could be a green form of capitalism which doesn’t treat the planet’s resources as inexhaustible. Sadly, the nearest a developed country got to recognising the need to junk that idea met its end in the UK’s general election of 2019. Any significant threat to the capitalism we have will meet the same fate, and I challenge anyone to gainsay that assertion without performing a handstand whilst juggling ten plates at the same time.
In other words, we will remain ever hopeful that some enlightened form of capitalism will deliver the amazing new technology (like a vaccine) for us and save us all the effort of having to do anything else. It’s a dream.
The jury's in. Out. Whatever.
Inevitably there is a lot of headscratching going on about whatever happened to the ‘blue wave’ in the US which was meant to carry the Democrats, as per polling evidence to a clean sweep of Congress and the White House. What happened was a virtual disaster for the Democrats, despite their pyrrhic presidential victory. Across the country, in state houses and many parochial elections the Republicans did well, which means their gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts will intensify—more so indeed after Trump’s defeat.
Those celebrating Biden’s relatively marginal victory have convinced themselves that this repudiates the view that Sanders could have beaten Trump. The idea that somebody with (by American standards) a socialist agenda may have performed better than Biden is of course an unprovable thesis, since it will never be tested. Yet, for centrist commentators in the UK they seem to think they now have all the evidence they need to show that a left wing agenda is a vote loser, and inter alia that Corbyn supporters should pack their bags and slink away in disgrace. Or at least shut up, and allow the serious politicians (like Biden, like Starmer) to confront the right wing, populist appetite. They ignore the fact that Trump won more votes than most if not all previous successful presidential candidates. Even poor old Jeremy Corbyn won more votes in 2019 than did his party under three previous leaders.
I am prepared to admit that Jeremy didn’t quite look the part of a Prime Minister, but it would have been a bit of a different story had he not been undermined by the PLP and it appears from the leaked Labour report, by many party staff too, not to mention our dutifully Tory media. I wonder if Biden had had to face that triumvirate of forces over the Ukranian Hunter Biden corruption story for two or three years he would have overcome it. As it is, he was given a fairly soft ride on the matter, and of course it helped that his main accuser was a notorious liar.
With the presidency almost in Biden’s bag, one wonders what Trump will do after he is forcibly removed from the White House (notwithstanding my previous blog). If after his departure he retains any political ambitions he will probably try to create some sort of alternative White House. As is the case in the US he will continue to be called ‘Mr President’ even when he isn’t the president, and this will probably mean a lot to his fan base which is unlikely to whither away even as more stable Republicans distance themselves from Trump and begin considering how to repair the damage. How soon will a field of 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls emerge, and how will they depart (if they do) from the Trump years? Some of these hopefuls apparently exist in the Trump clan, another reason why the dynasty may seek to keep itself in the spotlight, much as the Bush dynasty did before it. I don’t see Trump himself actually running again, largely because he couldn’t face defeat twice, indeed he doesn’t seem able to cope with it once. On the other hand he’s a serial bankrupt so perhaps we shouldn’t discount the possibility.
Right now, all eyes should be on the special senatorial election in Georgia next January to see whether the Democrats can take control of the Senate. This will determine whether President Biden (or indeed President Harris) can get anything done, if indeed they should propose anything mildly radical. At least Biden could spend his first week in office reversing every single executive order Trump signed in the full knowledge that all of Trump’s orders by definition were borderline criminal, destructive, vindictive, senseless and self-promoting. In particular Biden does have the power to rebuild the Environmental Protection Agency, sack climate change deniers and halt the oil industry’s despoliation of Arctic nature reserves. He has pledged of course to take the US back into the Paris climate change agreement, but given how ineffective that agreement is, it won’t make a whole lot of difference (although in giving the impression that it is ‘action’ it may fool people into believing that something is being done sufficiently to tackle the problem). There also one or two deserving cases for a presidential pardon too, but I doubt Biden is any great fan of Manning, Snowden or for that matter Assange.