30 March 2010

Useful Work and Useless Toil - William Morris

Thoughts on Useful Work V Useless Toil

In his essay ‘useful work and Useless Toil’ William Morris says:

“Let us grant first that the race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis; we must win it by toil of some sort or degree. Let us see, then, if she does not give us some compensation for this compulsion to labour, since certainly in other matters she takes care to make the acts necessary to the continuance of life in the individual and the race not only endurable but even pleasurable.”

Before continuing to examine his thoughts on the nature of labour. I feel compelled to examine how class societies have in various ways prevented the enjoyment of food and sex.

The enjoyment of food is for a large part of the human race not attainable. Food is so hard to come by that merely satisfying the calorific needs of the body is difficult. Even in the west food is a ‘problem’ with some of us struggling with obesity while in one profession at least (modelling) lunch may take the form of biting a sandwich chewing it and spitting it out so fearful are they of gaining an ounce that will render them unemployable. Even ordinary men and women are so fearful of eating too much fat they often actually do not consume enough to allow the body to repair itself (we need some fat to make the lipo-proteins that make cell walls).

In some parts of the world women’s bodies are mutilated in the name of keeping them ‘pure’ for their husbands. This certainly destroys the enjoyment of sex for the women and I doubt if it does much for the men either. In the west ignorance and the worship of female virginity has prevented full enjoyment. My memories of teenage dating in the fifties consist largely of him trying to get into my knickers and me stopping him because I had been taught that nice girls ‘didn’t do it until they married’! Ghastly! I can also remember reading articles about the large proportion of women who reported that they had never had an orgasm. Elderly women used to boast that ‘he doesn’t bother me with that any more’ eight very sad words.

So we can see that even in the case of sex and food human enjoyment is often denied in various ways.

It is therefore not be wondered at that as Morris says:
“…there is some labour which is so far from being a blessing that it is a curse…”

He goes on to explain the difference between work that is a blessing and work that is a curse. The former has three hopes – hope of rest of product and of pleasure in the work in sufficient quantity and quality.

In our post-industrial societies we are still denied these hopes, target led check list obsessed managements have even taken much of the joy out of professions like teaching and nursing.

You can get hold of this (and other essays by Morris) in a little book from the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series. ISBN 978- 0 – 141 – 03670 –0 The essay was first published in 1888 and remains relevant today. Its worth a read!

16 March 2010

The Problematic Language of Languedoc

Georges Frêche was there at the birth of the Parti Socialiste in the late 1960s, and has held a bewildering array of positions in regional politics since 1973 – member for Herault in the National Assembly until 2002, Mayor of Montpellier from 1977 to 2004 (resigning to become President of the Languedoc-Roussilon region), and councillor and representative at several other levels.

While the PS celebrates giving Sarkozy’s UMP a bloody nose in the first round of the regional elections, the result in Languedoc is a bit of an embarrassment – the PS polled over 25% in every mainland region except Alsace (19%) and...Languedoc, where the PS list of Montpellier Mayor Hélène Mandroux got a wincingly bad 7.74%. They are joined in the grey area caused by the ‘deux tours’ electoral system by the Eco-Europeans (Greens) and Front Gauche (Left Alliance) on 9.12% and 8.59% respectively.

(A little about the system – votes are cast for lists. If one list gains an absolute majority, the seats are shared out proportionally to all lists getting over 5% of the vote. If no list wins outright, there is a second round, to which those lists getting over 10% in the first round go through, and the lists can then be amended to include representatives from the lists in the first round that got over 5%. So if you fall in the 5-10% range, you then have to decide if you want to cosy up to one of the lists going through.)

Why did the ‘traditional left’ take such a kicking? The Front National got 12.67 (11.7% overall), perhaps not unexpected in a region with hideous unemployment and numerous social problems, where the diversity of the population can be used as a handy recruiting tool, but Sarko’s ‘Majorité Presidentielle’ (UMP) got only 19.63. Frêche, booted out of the PS in January 2007 after a racially dubious public comment too far, and his personality-driven list of disaffected former communists, greens and outlying conservatives, took 34.28% of the vote.

Frêche is a confusing figure – referred to by some as the ‘Le Pen of the Left’, he presided (or claimed to preside) over Montpellier’s growth to be the eighth biggest city in France, the development of new quartiers (Antigone, Millenaire), retail / industrial areas (Odysseum), tramways (the longest line in Europe, he said, “you enter it in France, and come out in Ouarzazate” – equating the area of La Paillade with a town in Morocco), an olympic swimming pool (the reasons for which are a bit murky), and media/cultural spaces (Centre Emile-Zola, Corum). His last act as mayor was to pass an ordinance banning all-plastic furniture for bars / eating places in the city – why? I asked when helping Caro, the friendly but slight manager of the Shakespeare pub, as we fought to set out the heavy new metal / MDF tables on the terrace one day. She just rolled her eyes significantly and muttered something my knowledge of French swearwords was not enough to understand. He had previously declared that he would put up a statue of Lenin in one of the many squares in the city, to educate the young. Later, he mused, maybe one of Mao. After that, perhaps, one of General De Gaulle...

‘Maverick’ doesn’t really cover Frêche – understanding the nuances of political speech in a foreign language is difficult, but I think I can identify a dark sense of humour underpinning some of his more eccentric public pronouncements. In 2007 he boasted that he had freed Montpellier of ‘d’Eretz-Israel’, while proclaiming himself a friend of Israel, and congratulating the nation for having elected a Jewish President (as he meant, not entirely accurately, Sarkozy, one can assume some irony was being deployed). He always has a good ‘leftist’ rationalisation for his statements – when in 2006 he referred to Harkis (Algerians who sided with the French in the Algerian War) allying themselves with conservative groups wanting schools to stress the benefits that the French brought to their colonies as sous-hommes (‘sub-humans’), his reasoning was that « Ils ont massacré les vôtres en Algérie et vous allez leur lécher les bottes ! » (“They massacred your own in Algeria and now you lick their boots!”) – ah yes, they should have more solidarity, a good, leftist, anti-colonial sentiment...but, as ever, his epithet of choice was very problematic. In one of the many cases and official complaints resulting from his public statements, the court found in 2007 that he had been speaking to two particular individuals, not to the Harki community, let alone the Algerian community, at large.

Later that year he was fined for defaming the French police (saying that in 1968, they had started the fires on the barricades). This came after the PS had kicked him out, finally, after he had observed in 2006 that there were nine black players in the national football team, when the ‘normalité’ would be three or four. This was not a complaint about the black players, he stressed, but a complaint about white people – «c'est parce que les blancs sont nuls. J'ai honte pour ce pays. Bientôt, il y aura onze blacks. Quand je vois certaines équipes de foot, ça me fait de la peine. » (“because white people are hopeless. I’m ashamed of this country. Soon, there will be eleven blacks. When I see certain football teams, it pains me”).

Most recently, in early 2010, he has allegedly declared he will ‘karcheriser des Libains’, thus pissing off the Lebanese community (but, again, talking specifically about certain local politicians of Lebanese extraction, he says, not the community in general). I had to look ‘karcheriser’ up. A ‘karcher’ is a powerful water-jet, used in cleaning. It can also, it seems, mean a water-cannon. And he’s having a tiff with Laurent Fabius, former Prime Minister (and Minister of the Economy), about whether or not each would vote for the other if they had the chance. This would be nothing, compared to his previous, if Frêche hadn’t observed that Fabius «a une tronche pas catholique» (“his face is not catholic”).

But his biggest conflict has always been with the PS – despite being in at the beginning, and elected to at least one office as a member since 1973, he has never held national office. He annoyed too many people, but he also stood up against the sometimes murky financing of the party. Having put up with him for many years, the PS said that his statements in 2006 were a step too far (“not compatible with equality and human rights”) – but some believe that they were simply grateful for an excuse to get rid of a man who had become a pain in the cul. If they were thinking he’d quietly return to teaching at the University, they were very wrong. When Martine Aubry, head of the PS, told Mandoux to form the PS list for the regional elections, they failed to take account of the stubbornness of both Frêche and the local electorate. In the run-up to the election, many local shops have been displaying a positive autobiography of the man who has run Montpellier politics for so long. Alternative ‘exposés’ by the local press are hidden on the more difficult-to-reach shelves.

All the criticism of his alleged racism, bullying manner, occasionally strange investment decisions (an olympic pool, really?) seem to fade away next to the prevailing belief that Frêche may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch. The Languedoc may be seen as a bit chippy (the old language still crops up from time to time, Paris is abroad, northerners are fair game for laughter or exploitation), and the PS has discovered to its cost that expecting its electorate to be good little lambs was unrealistic. Now they have to decide whether to crawl back to Frêche to try to get into the second round (the Greens have already said this is out of the question) – whether to risk him, in a very strong position and likely to pick up the majority of the leftist voters whose first choices missed the cut who bother to vote next time round, telling them to...

Well, we can imagine what he might say. It would undoubtedly not be pretty.

11 March 2010

Saving Adam Smith

When I arrived at University with solid left wing familial credentials to my name, my first reaction on hearing that Adam Smith would be an integral part of my first year politics studies was one of repugnance. Was Smith not the godfather of Thatcherism? Was Smith’s theories not adopted by the neo-liberalists to wreak untold havoc on my home town and the British Working class in general? Indeed Margaret Thatcher’s favourite think tank took Smith’s name- the Adam Smith Institute. To someone of my background who had experienced the wholescale socio-economic demolition of his hometown, the name of Adam Smith was synonymous with all that I detested about Thatcherism, Reaganomics and supply side economics. Indeed does Adam Smith not appear on that great symbol of Government subjection to big business, the £20 Bank of England note?

However, as I studied both Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and Theory of moral sentiments I began to come to the opinion that not only was Smith erroneously adopted as the godfather of right wing neo-liberalism but was wholly undeserving of left wing vilification as a right wing demagogue. From even the most basic reading of both wealth of nations and moral sentiments it becomes clear that Smith, far from promoting the neo-liberal consensus which corrodes the very fabric of our society; would in fact be horrified at the neo-liberal experiment and it’s socio-economic consequences. In this sense it is important that Smith be rescued from both his neo-liberal hijacking and from left wing ire.

I profess to being neither an economist nor an economic expert but if this piece goes some way to dispelling some of the popular preconceptions of Adam Smith as the neo-liberal father of contemporary Capitalist society then I will consider this piece to have done its job.

"Neo-Liberalism" means we are talking about a new kind of liberalism. So what was the old kind? The liberal school of economics became famous in Europe when Adam Smith, a Scottish economist, published a book in 1776 called The Wealth of Nations. He and others advocated the abolition of government intervention in economic matters. No restrictions on manufacturing, no barriers to commerce, no tariffs, he said; free trade was the best way for a nation's economy to develop. Such ideas were "liberal" in the sense of no controls. This application of individualism encouraged "free" enterprise," "free" competition -- which came to mean, free for the capitalists to make huge profits as they wished." - Elizabeth Martinez, left wing activist and feminist.

This wholly erroneous left wing interpretation of Adam Smith is borne out of his adoption by the Chicago school in the 1950’s as well as Thatcher and Reagan as the prophet of free trade, unrestrained capitalism and laissez faire Government. If we accept this view at face value, it is not difficult to make the logical leap between Smith's writings and the appalling exploitation of men, women and children from the earliest period of the Industrial Revolution to the vast socio-economic inequalities being wreaked by today’s neo-liberals across both the developed and the developing world. However, is this a gross misinterpretation of Smith’s theories and analysis of Political economy?

The wealth of nations written in 1776, was based on Smith’s perception that the 50 miles between the Clyde and the Forth was an International market with the port of Glasgow importing sugar and tobacco which was then sold on to England and Europe. Whilst local industry produced cloth, pottery and hardware, Highlanders drove cattle into the Forth/Clyde plain to sell and fishermen landed their catches. Smith’s observations of the economic forces at work in this International market led to his account that in comparison with the three previous epochs of economic history- the age of Hunting, the age of Sheperding and the age of Agriculture, (Smith’s lectures on jurisprudence) the contemporary epoch- Commerce was creating more wealth and being of greater benefit to Society than any of the previous three epochs. The wealth of nations was an investigation into the processes involved in this new age of commerce and Smith’s views on how all society could benefit as a result.

Much of the misinterpretation of Smith’s economic theories come from misreadings of his famous ‘’invisible hand’’ passage:

“Every individual...generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” (Book IV)

Conservative and neo-liberal thinkers adopted the ‘’invisible hand’’ passage wholesale as the model for the elimination of tax and spend Government, unrestrained and unregulated free market activity and laissez faire Government, arguing that the benefits of unrestrained markets will trickle down to the lower echelons of society. The "invisible hand" clearly shows that pursuing private interest unwittingly or not, benefits all of society and so all business and individuals should be free of Government fetters in order to enrich themselves with the added benefit that as a result it enriches the rest of society. This is the basic model of supply side economics, Thatcherism and Reaganomics.

But is this the central economic and social theory theory that Smith espoused? The famous ‘’invisible hand’’ passage arrives at a time when Smith argues that markets can raise productivity and promote economic growth and that how in certain circumstances private pursuit can unwittingly create economic benefits for others. It is the only time in the entire book that Smith makes mention of ‘’the invisible hand.’’

What the neo-liberals either unwittingly or purposely fail to address is that Smith spends several chapters in the wealth of nations critiquing the private interests of businessmen. In several chapters Smith makes clear that left alone to do what they want, businessmen and companies form monopolies, cartels, powerful lobbyists and can easily undermine the public interest:

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary"- (Book I)

Additionally, Smith makes clear that businessmen:

’’ generally have an interest to deceive and even oppress the public and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it’’ (Book I, Ch XI)

Tellingly, on the subject of taxes, Smith’s view that:

"The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state."

is completely at odds with the tax avoidance/tax evasion practices carried out by most Big Business interests in today’s neo-liberal environment. Smith makes clear that it is a moral duty to contribute in taxes in proportion to what you receive from trading and pursuing your economic interests in the nation state. This is anathema to the neo-liberal agenda of concentrating wealth and removing it from the country of origin into tax havens.

Indeed, Smith next underlines the concept of progressive taxation as a desirable pursuit for Government to help the poor in Book V:

"The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion."

Again, totally at odds with the low taxation agenda of neo-liberalism and showing great awareness of the plight of the ordinary person in the Commerce age.

In Smith’s view, only a well run and ordered Government and Polity can curb the worst excesses of business interests whilst ensuring economic growth can be of benefit to all of society.

But what of the ordinary worker, where do they fit in, in the grand scheme of "Commerce"? Smith whilst admiring the "division of labour" in which most "common people" were involved in, was also aware of the alienation that repetitive actions involved in specialisation can create. Whilst division of labour creates greater production and wealth, it also creates alienation-

"their labour is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to, or even think of anything else" (Book I, ChV

Smith argues that an economic system that would stunt the minds of its workers is morally unacceptable. Inherent in this theory is that the modern tendency to create economic models without regard to their moral defensibility (eg the first great neo-liberal experiment of Pinochet’s Chile) would be repugnant to Smith.

Smith believes the cure for alienation is publicly funded education and that an educated nation is the most efficient and well governed. Smith’s solution to the worst effects of alienation can be construed as paternalistic and simplistic, however when comparing his arguments in favour of education for the workers with the conditions of the working classes at the height of the Industrial Revolution, it is clear that the so called "godfather of capitalism" is distinctly out of synch with the ethos he was supposed to have created. The ethos of the ‘undeserving poor’ found no truck with Smith as he constantly argues in favour of intervention to improve the conditions for the workers.

So what is the central message of Adam Smith? Smith believed that whilst the "Age of Commerce" was the most beneficial to contemporary society in comparison with previous epochs, he believed at the same time that society should be for the benefit of all and not the few:

"what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable."(Book I Chapter VIII)

I hope to have argued that Smith would have found the living and working conditions of millions during the Industrial Revolution in the name of free trade Capitalism abhorrent. Additionally, his concepts of progressive taxation, interventionist Government to curb the selfish excesses of the businessman and to promote Commerce for the good of all society, are completely at odds with the socio-economic mantra espoused by those neo-liberal dogmatists who would take Smith’s name in vain. I also hope that I have argued that Smith is undeserving of the left wing ire that is directed at him.

I finish with a quote of Smith’s which proves incredibly prescient in the light of contemporary neo-liberal society’s love and worship of the rich whilst at the same time its detestation of the poor:

"This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise, or, at least neglect persons of poor and mean conditions, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments."(Theory of Moral Sentiments)

It is right and good that Adam Smith should be rescued from the neo-liberals.

05 March 2010

Perfidity, perjury, punishment and proportionality.

  With the 'revelation' of Lord Ashcroft's non-dom status, amidst all the mudslinging, point scoring, 'Your donor is richer and more of a tax-dodger than mine…' and general yah, boo, sucks! it is easy to loose sight of the fact that a peer of the realm, who could easily be a powerful player in the governance of the country openly does not keep promises and blatantly thinks they are in the right, firmly denying the pervasive mood of the country.  Like our old pals and their expenses, he may be within the letter, but is very far from the spirit, of the law.


A shift of scene, six or seven years ago, with Lord Ashcroft's promise to become a UK taxpayer from 2001, a fleeing memory, the city in which I lived, or more precisely it's council, changed their housing benefit policy. Rather than receive the amount of rent.  You now would receive a flat rate, and either have to make up the short fall, or if the flat rate were more than the amount of rent you could keep the difference.


At this time I lived in a shared flat with an extremely honest flat mate, he had lived off savings for a year before even claiming HB and could not believe that this money was his to keep. He spent a few hours on the phone trying to find who to return the money to. No one seemed interested, in fact many with whom he spoke were amazed that he wasn't happy to keep the money. Eventually one council worker said, why don't you keep the money aside and look for a nicer flat?


My pal didn't take this advice, but I did. Not long after I found a flat share out of town and made plans to move.  Moving is a big hassle and quite an expense, and here, hands up, is my dishonest downfall. When I returned to my old flat to pick up the mail, there was a fresh HB cheque. I know I shouldn't have, but I was skint, I'd just moved...


Only once I told my self, after the third time the cheques stopped coming.  Then I got a few letters at my new address, and a visit from HB investigators, they offered me an option of re-paying the overpayment with an 50% surcharge, which I accepted, but having insufficient income, I could only manage a token sum, when I moved again, I took an un-authorised repayment holiday.


At my latest address, the council took me to court, where I agreed to pay back the 150% amount, plus further fees, at a set amount per month, which I did until I lost my job. Go on to miss 2 payments and there is a letter from the Sheriff’s Officer demanding the full amount in 14 days, or wages may be arrested, and goods seized, leading even to bankruptcy. My friends say the best option is to move, and not register to vote, as the electoral roll is how my creditors, those who've bought my debt and their agents, have tracked me down.  Many with bigger or smaller debt than mine have dropped off the radar, to avoid or delay legal action, I foolishly perhaps, think my vote is still worth something.


The next day, too soon for action for many people I presume, and certainly for me, two Sheriff’s officers arrive with the same papers, adding their own fees to the total. I know these are just guys doing a job in hard times, but it is hard not to think of the words vultures and jackals. And wouldn’t the effort to pursue me, be better spent collecting tax from the super rich tax avoiders?


Good news, I got a (part time - seasonal - temporary) job! I start in 4 weeks, but, less good news, I won't get any money for 6 weeks.  The dole will stop the day I start work, the bank will not extend my overdraft or consider a loan.  I've been trying to sell a few items of small value online since Christmas, but no one's buying... If I had my tax rebate the wolf could be kept from the door, but that cannot be claimed until next month.  The amount I now 'owe' has almost doubled from the original overpayment. In all that time I have earned very little above minimum wage or been unemployed.


What would be the amount of Lord Ashcroft's taxes if he had paid them as a full UK resident from the day he became a peer?  What would be the amount if this were doubled with fees, and surcharges? And lastly what would be the actual effect on Lord Ashcroft's life if he had to cough up the full amount in 14 days, or else; "wages may be arrested, and goods seized, leading even to bankruptcy"?  I’ll pay this debt off, it’ll take 5-6 years, but if I’m on the electoral roll I’ve little choice.


Only the choice to drop off the radar and loose what feels like an increasingly worthless vote… Unlike our MPs I don't have the means to simply write a cheque for the full amount concerned in the 'misunderstanding'. On the day one of the last socialists died, the day my papers were served, should I give up my tiny voice in government? While fatter cat's by far, pocketing tens of thousands of times the amount I’m pursued for, prepare to take that Government's reins.