Category Archives: Miniplenty

Bulletins from the Ministry of Plenty

Tough on clever, tough on the causes of clever

It may not surprise you to learn that I was a voracious reader as a kid, with a book addiction far beyond what my pocket-money and the resources of my relatives could support. The kind of child who reacted with delight rather than groans to gifts of book tokens each birthday and Christmas, one who always had a well-maintained ‘to read’ list close at hand.

But we were never mega-rich and – without wanting to recreate the Four Yorkshiremen sketch – birthdays and Christmases didn’t seem to roll around fast enough back then. So the local library saved us. I got enough to read and nobody went bankrupt buying me books. Getting my first library card felt like a huge deal, for the promise it held and perhaps most of all, the freedom it offered. My parents would head towards the grown up books while my brother and I would be left in the kid’s section, where we would usually read a couple of books while we were waiting, eventually whittling down a huge pile into the four we were allowed to take out that week. Mum and Dad would cast an eye over our choices and sometimes make suggestions, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me what to read. For the clever, bookish kid I was, and hopefully still am, it was a little slice of heaven.

That said, I don’t want to you to think that this is some misty-eyed, far off reminiscence. More recently, when I was saving money to retrain as a teacher and come to Japan, quickly realising that the whole plan would fail unless my bookshop habit was broken, it was Hackney Central Library that came to the rescue. A bit different to the one of my childhood, with its architectural wonder of a building and electronic cards, my inner child still jumped for joy on hearing that you could take out 12 – 12!!! – things at once, including CDs and DVDs. And my outer grown up was incredibly grateful for the ability to renew everything online, especially when having to work late on the day it was all due to be returned. It was a love rekindled.

The final stage of my library romance before I left the UK took place, fittingly you could say, in one of the most beautiful buildings in my home city of Liverpool, the Central Library. I was lucky enough to become a member shortly before it was closed for a major refurbishment, enjoying the atmosphere as much as the books I took home. There has been some disquiet about what the redevelopment plans might mean for the library’s collections as, perhaps inevitably, the focus moves away from the printed word towards providing access to other forms of media. I am inclined to be pragmatic, if that is what is needed to keep the library open, then I am for it.

For it should be clear to all who love borrowing books, even if only as a fond memory, that it faces a grave threat. If today’s children are to have that joy of books revealed to them in the same way, we who love libraries need to join the fight and soon. It seems someone has decided that the handing out of books for free is a luxury from a bygone age that can no longer be afforded. In scenes that call to mind other historical outrages, Brent Council in North London launched a ‘cowardly’ midnight raid on Kensal Rise library, despite a campaign by local residents to save it from closure which made the news as far away as Toronto. Stripping the building of books and furniture, which campaigners say the council had promised to leave behind, as well as removing a plaque commemorating the library’s opening by Mark Twain, are unforgivable acts of cultural vandalism. The forces of stupid have won another victory.

As one commentator on Twitter noted:

I know that you might be thinking that while there are massacres in Syria, police beating protestors in cities from New York to Athens to Cairo, economic meltdowns, actual nuclear meltdowns and a thousand other stories of death and destruction, what difference does it make if some children don’t have access to free books, or pensioners don’t have somewhere to go for a sit down and a chat with friends? Books are the past, baby! Everyone has access to all the libraries of the world via their smartphone, libraries are yesterday’s news.

But no.

The decisions we take today have consequences far beyond what we imagine. At present, with the array of problems – economic, political, environmental, technical – that we face, it is incredibly important that we do not do anything which amps up the stupid any further. We need minds open to discovery, wonder and ideas which break away from the norm. Libraries give us that. Often you find books in libraries which you cannot find anywhere else – as I did when I stumbled across a recent reissue by a long-forgotten Liverpool author and friend of George Orwell, James Hanley, in the Central Library – and crucially, you find things you weren’t expecting when you are looking for something else. That would seem very inconvenient and inefficient to the Google algorithms, I am sure, but I believe that it is essential to human endeavour. The things we discover when we believe we are looking for something else entirely are often the most valuable.

So, join in. Kensal Rise has a ‘Friends of’ group which is seeking to run the library for the benefit of local residents. Perhaps your own local library is also being threatened. Or perhaps it isn’t under threat at all, and is still happily open to the public, but you haven’t visited for ten or twenty years. In which case, I suggest heading down there as soon as is reasonably practical.

You never know what you might find.

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Kicking the crutch

Bankers, the targets for so much vilification, are not usually noted as great philosophers.  But perhaps they have been judged unfairly if this observation, by former Deutsche Bank CEO Hilmar Kopper, is true:

As a banker, you have no lack of opportunities to look into the human soul.

Although what the bankers see there is unlikely to inspire much compassion for one’s fellow humans, if his next comments – taken from a candid interview with Spiegel International – are anything to go by:

This entire nation, the entire world, is ultimately running after money. The amount of influence money has on people has always fascinated me. You forget almost everything while in its shadow.

Yet chasing money has never seemed so futile as it does once it is revealed how much of it is controlled by so few.  The publication of a study showing that a core of 1,318 companies control 20% of global operating revenues directly, with perhaps another 60% via shares, should make it obvious how stacked the dice have been in this particular casino.  Compared to such power, political influence is puny and easily bought off.  Money and the control of it have become more important than the lives sacrificed on the way to a balancing of the metaphorical books.  This is nothing new, but while times were good we could convince ourselves that all was fine, so long as it wasn’t your head in the vice.

The economic crisis has thrown that complacency out of the window.  Once-great nation states have been reduced to the status of housewives, clucking over their shopping lists while wondering if the grocer will extend enough credit to keep meals on the table until payday arrives.  And while economists bicker over whether we are in or out of recession, whether inflation or deflation or stagnation is the biggest risk and whether too much or not enough austerity is the best cure, the real effects are felt very far away from the boardrooms and treasury offices.  As Thompson writes:

Government borrowing… replaces a lack of private sector spending. It is a crutch. If we kick out the crutch out from under the economy, it’s possible that this patient will learn to walk very, very quickly.

Or it is equally likely that it will fall on its arse.  From Spain to Ireland to Portugal and the UK, the argument that austerity is killing Europe seems unassailable.  Yet adding additional borrowing to the terrifying debt mountains in an attempt to spark more growth brings its own misgivings, not least because it seems like robbing future generations to pay for such essentials as the Olympic Games and bank bailouts.  The UK’s Coalition Government has been quick to seize on these misgivings as justification for their zeal in cutting budgets to ‘make savings’.  These claims have been challenged by a report commissioned by disability activists – nicknamed the ‘Spartacus Report’ – which notes that:

Cuts to DLA [Disability Living Allowance] cannot cut disability, they simply shift the costs elsewhere. One in three disabled people already live in poverty and many feel [the] proposals… can only see this increase.

This demonstrates a move from a metaphorical kicking away of the crutch to an actual one – with even massive public opposition, including that of their own supporters, failing to prick at what remains of the Coalition’s consciences.  Instead, politicians are demonstrating compassion towards the captains at the controls of our current financial tailspin, while stamping down hard on the unfortunate ones with chronic conditions or terminal illnesses.  This will save £94 per week per cancer patient so that the millions can still be handed out in bank bonuses.  It is  little wonder that bankers see chasing money as a futile endeavour, when they can screw everything up so royally and still have it land in their bank accounts!

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Tyrants destroy their own freedom

Seeking to rebalance the world and make the major changes needed to bring about financial justice are laudable aims, but rarely achieved easily.  Those ‘doing quite nicely, thank you’ out of the current system can hardly be expected to hand over the reins of power and, more crucially, the cash, without putting up a fight.  Meanwhile those involved in the Occupy protests are discovering that the police forces of the world have amassed some astounding toys to use against people armed with nothing more threatening than placards and a belief in a brighter future.

This has led to some shocking, but perhaps not surprising, incidents at the sites of protests.  In the States, University of California students were on the end of some particularly vicious police actions.   As Conor Friedersdorf writes:

The U.C. police officers are dressed in riot gear. They’re given guns, batons, body armor, face shields, and spray canisters of pepper spray. And they’re sent out in force. If they were in a video game they’d be ready to face off against some bad-ass foe with machine guns and assault rifles. We’re used to seeing officers like that in pitched battles on the street, or about to rush into a house filled with drug dealers. These guys are facing teenagers blocking a sidewalk.

The riot gear itself demands a significant response, whether the situation warrants one or not.  And if the pictures being sent from phones to generate a howl of outrage also convince a few would-be protesters that demonstrating isn’t worth getting a plastic bullet in the head for, then the actions have succeeded, according to Glenn Greenwald:

If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed… many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power.

Perhaps with a similar motivation, UK protesters have been caught up in protracted legal battles following arrests.  The case against the ‘Fortnum and Mason 145′ took a year to rule that members of UK Uncut protesting against tax-dodging were guilty of intimidation – for outrages including a game of volleyball – and to fine them £1,000 each towards the cost of a prosecution which can only have run at a loss.

Similarly, UK Uncut protesters in Brighton waited months to learn that they were to be acquitted of criminal damage for gluing themselves to the windows of tax avoiders Top Shop, although five of the group were convicted of recklessly causing criminal damage for knocking over some mannequins.  For such temerity they were fined £200 each, after a two-week trial the costs of which will have run into thousands.  In such trying financial circumstances as the UK finds itself, spending such sums can only be justified for the message it sends to others thinking about involving themselves in dissent.

The title of this post is taken from ‘Killing an Elephant’ by George Orwell, quoted in the Atlantic article above, in which he notes that all this weaponry and repression creates a prison as much for those wielding the power as those being crushed by it:

Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd – seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.

We all have to live in the same society, after all, and even if you have oodles of money in your own bank account, it can only do so much to insulate you from the suffering of your neighbour.  When even the mega-rich can see that things are broken, how long can change be delayed?  As Matt Taibbi observes:

…the powers that be in this country are lost. They’ve been going down this road for years now, and they no longer stand for anything.

All that tricked-up military gear, with that corny, faux-menacing, over-the-top Spaceballs stormtrooper look that police everywhere seem to favor more and more – all of this is symbolic of the increasingly total lack of ideas behind all that force.

In that case, every baton charge, pepper-spraying and trumped-up arrest brings us closer to the moment when we realise that to live as if money is more important than people, putting our faith in the markets and failing to provide for the many so that the few can live gilded lives behind gated community walls, is beyond stupid.  Those taking such treatment from the police and standing firm are to be applauded and supported in whatever way possible, as for now, they are all that stands between us and what Hunter S. Thompson knew:

In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together:

Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely…

If these protests have ‘them’ so riled, they must be doing something right.  How to turn the anger on both sides into a brighter future for the many will be the next, greater challenge.

Artwork by Barney Meeks

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Occupy everything

At first, like Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, some of us could confess to having had mixed feelings about the Occupy movement.  For me, these may have been caused by distance and time difference getting in the way rather than anything more concrete, although other questions have surfaced about what the protesters stand for and what they could likely achieve.  Still, they seem to be annoying the right people, with Mayor Boris Johnson deriding the London wing of the movement as ‘fornicating hippies’ (ironic given the number of notches on his own bedpost).  Add in almost no-one’s favourite Blackshirt-lovers at the Daily Mail winding themselves up into apoplexy at the apparent emptiness of the tents (at 11pm, hardly a point at which your average protester would be tucked up with the cocoa) and it becomes easier to see the Occupiers as A Very Good Thing.

Mail-baiting aside, however, there are more positives to the movement.  Never has a motley collection of tents garnered so much commentary on what it could all mean and what the outcome could be.  Back to Mr Taibbi, who thinks:

This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it.

I think he is right.  This is a generation up to their eyes in debt, not because they bought eighteen-hundred dollar handbags, because often they needed the cash to cover the essentials.  Such fripperies as a roof over your head, a good education – or in America, healthcare – easily become millstones when the economic dice are so loaded.  I see the Occupy movement as an attempt to reimagine life, to try to envisage a world run for the benefit of the many and then bring it about.

Some have decried Occupy for a focus on the economic, when there are other matters of equal importance, however activist Silvia Federici, interviewed on libcom, notes:

…the economic crisis is bringing to light, in a dramatic way, the fact that the capitalist class has nothing to offer to the majority of the population except more misery, more destruction of the environment, and more war.

Occupations, in this context, are sites for the construction of a non-capitalist conception of society…

Sharon Borthwick, writing in The Commune, highlights another important function of the Occupy London site:

There are all manner of signs, some large ones, intricately written with many paragraphs describing their anti-capitalist message. The message is spreading. Londoners are stopping to read these long missives. They are also stopping in the street to talk to each other about how their lives are being run. They are in dire need of these alternative means of information.

The ‘Big Lie’ currently being peddled is that the responsibility for our ongoing economic woes can be laid almost anywhere except where it really should be planted.  The disinformation is spreading that governments or irresponsible borrowers or the welfare system was somehow to blame for banks deciding to follow a financial model more suitable to a casino.  Now overwhelmingly, it is the elderly, the young and the ill who are paying for the failure of that model, as the ones who created it skip off with the proceeds.  Matt Taibbi again:

People want out of this fiendish system, rigged to inexorably circumvent every hope we have for a more balanced world. They want major changes.

So what could victory look like?  It is difficult to say, since few past movements have even got close.  They have all ended up co-opted, watered down and bought off in the end.  Hopefully this one has a greater chance of success because it is attracting such a broad base, however, that is by no means assured. For now, I think it is enough to have our rulers clearly unsettled by the tents, while they are used to engage in a conversation about what comes next – especially with those who claim not to ‘do politics’ – and to be creating a space where people matter more than money.  To that end, perhaps the message should be moving from that of occupying the individual cities to one of ‘Occupy Everything’.  At this stage, there is little left to lose except our chains.

The other likely ending for any spontaneous movement is, of course, brutal repression.  ten minutes hate will be covering the authorities’ responses to the Occupy sites in another post soon.

Illustration by Barney Meeks

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Gizza job?

New figures just released show that if you were born in the UK in the last 25 years, you had better hope that you have incredible talents.

The jobless total for 16 to 24-year-olds hit a record of 1.02 million in the quarter and female unemployment was at its highest for 23 years.

To make anything of yourself in these challenging times the ability to sing or kick a football well should stand you in good stead.  Failing that, try to ensure you were born rich.  Britain has never really, despite some chatter about a meritocracy and a classless society, been very comfortable with allowing all and sundry to have access to the upper echelons.  Far too American a concept, although even there that now seems to be falling by the wayside.

The real tragedy behind the numbers is, of course, the wasted potential of so many lives and the detrimental effect on Britain’s economy for years to come.  This poverty of ambition, coupled with the more tangible effects of financial poverty, is going to be the Conservatives’ real legacy for the country unless their austerity programme is derailed – and soon.

Again, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

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On repeat

Perhaps this should come as little surprise.  A new study has discovered that the popularity of far-right groups is on the rise across Europe, even in the parts previously considered too enlightened to go in for that sort of thing, such as Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

Of particular concern is that the responses were gathered in July and August, so before Europe’s financial position performed an even more graceless nose-dive.  As the situation worsens, these parties are likely to increase in attractiveness and should – according to the study – experience little difficulty in translating their online support into ballots.

In evaluating possible responses to this news, perhaps we are in a way lucky.  We have a wealth of historical information and experience to call on and can have no doubts over the results of appeasing fascists.  Jamie Bartlett of the Demos think-tank who carried out the study, is right to say:

Politicians across the continent need to sit up, listen and respond.

But the response of non-politicians will be of greater importance.  Sitting back and letting fascism rise unchecked while we assume someone else will take care of it ends in a place no-one should be keen to revisit.  So the question must be, what can be done?

Knowing the enemy is essential.  While a lot about them remains the same as the 1930s, today’s fascists have shifted their attention from International Jewry to Islam, as well as tweaking their message for the new era.  Expert Matthew Goodwin from Nottingham University, quoted in The Guardian’s story, notes that:

What some parties are trying to do is frame opposition to immigration in a way that is acceptable to large numbers of people. Voters now are turned off by crude, blatant racism – we know that from a series of surveys and polls.

[They are] saying to voters: it’s not racist to oppose these groups if you’re doing it from the point of view of defending your domestic traditions.

Yet underneath this seemingly ‘acceptable’ message lies a well-established truth.  Fascism has never been solely a racist agenda.  For fascists, racism, xenophobia and nationalism are tools, they are not of themselves the final aim.  In an essential essay on the ‘Property is Theft’ website, Phil Dickens quotes militant anti-fascists Antifa:

The reason fascist groups tend to attack ethnic minorities and immigrants in this way are because they want to divide the working class. By sowing the seeds of division, fragmentation and suspicion in working class communities they undermine notions of solidarity and cooperation thus strengthening the status quo and perpetuating existing inequalities in society.

And so it naturally follows that the English Defence League in Liverpool have recently made:

…an open declaration of war against organised workers willing to stand up for their interests

by attacking workers protesting against job cuts.  When fascists lay claim to addressing the concerns of a working class they accuse other political parties of abandoning, this real agenda must always be thrown back at them.  They pay lip-service to worries over issues like housing, welfare and jobs, but their economic and social policies show that they remain a party of the bosses, not the workers.

It is down to all of us who love freedom and hate bigotry to tackle fascism in all its forms.  Whether it is that friend you haven’t seen for years posting a Facebook status about ‘them’ stealing ‘our’ jobs, or the EDL planning a march through your town, this is the time to stand up for what you know to be right.  Their propaganda must be countered and their shows of strength combatted, until they get the message:

They shall not pass.

Picture borrowed from here.

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Road to nowhere

For all of those readers who aren’t students of the 1930s – and why wouldn’t you be, given that we seem to be hell-bent on recreating it? – all I can say is, well.

Be warned, the last time foreign creditors tried to circumvent the democratic institutions of a sovereign nation in order to impose ever-increasing deprivation on its working and middle-class population, via a series of coalition governments lacking clear mandates to do so, it did not end well.

And that’s putting it mildly.

Picture borrowed from here, also well worth a read.

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