Tag Archives: economic woes

A sense of belonging

In the coming year, I really want someone to stand up – and I really hope it will be Ed Miliband – to say something along the lines of: I’m a migrant, you’re a migrant, some of my best friends are migrants. Some came as children, some fleeing, others as students. They have brought things to us and have adapted to the ways in which we do things, strange though we have sometimes found each other.

Some of them came further back in the past, to fight alongside us when things were dark. They fought against an ideology that said that some people were made superior by blood and biology and that put millions to death to preserve this nonsensical pseudo-scientific theory of racial purity.

We, the descendents of those that fought together against it, refute that ideology completely. We know that although we are an island, we have never been insular. Rather, our influence has always extended beyond our shores. Our language has travelled around the globe and, despite the fact that our influence has not always been benign, our hope is that our words can become something of a unifier.

What would Britain be without immigration? Perhaps our roads would be muddier and wonkier, our castles made of wood, not stone, and large swathes of it might be forest, not farmland. More recent arrivals have brought food, music and literature: the joys of life. Migrants, their children and grandchildren, have nursed us through sickness, taught our children and built our houses. They serve as magistrates, stand as MPs, read the nightly news. They are as bound into the fabric of our country as a plant from the Americas is to our soil and our diets.

Anybody with any sense can see that strength comes from this, not some outdated, horrendous notion of ‘purity’ or ‘separateness’, but a blending and mixing of backgrounds, experiences and histories that creates a patchwork, linking us to Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. We are joined via great-grandparents who perhaps had to leave or perhaps chose to, and decided to come – perhaps a little reluctantly – to the industrial powerhouse that we were, leaving behind more pleasing scenes that would never entirely leave their hearts.

Perhaps those migrants came because they believed us when we spoke of our love of fair play and justice, of ‘live and let live’. They might have come because we never surrendered, never gave in to the jack-boots, because we fought on the beaches. That makes it even more ridiculous to me that today, the political descendents of those who did take money from fascist dictators, who donned their black shirts and silver flashes, who shouted ‘Death to Jews’ or trumpeted ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, now seek to convince us that they hold the key to what Britishness is and that they are the keepers of the flame. It is rubbish.

Not our Briton of the Year

Not our Briton of the Year

It doesn’t matter if you drive a white van or a vintage Jag, if you believe that there is a ‘THEY’, who can be ‘SENT BACK’ to some imaginary ‘OVER THERE’ and all problems will be magicked away with them, you are being sold a pup. The problems that afflict our society don’t stem from Europe or the Middle East, or anywhere else. They don’t come from people of a different colour, or religion, speaking a different language to you. They have been caused by mostly old, mostly white, mostly men – certainly greedy – taking more than they are entitled to and leaving the rest of us to fight over the scraps. Migrants didn’t crash the banks, vote to sell off the NHS to healthcare companies they own shares in or spend your money on duck homes or moat cleaning.

We can continue down this road to the end, refuse every visa to every scientist researching medical cures, every student attracted to our universities, break apart more families, close the doors and say no more. Our country would be no richer and certainly far poorer. Or we can draw a line, say no more ground will be given to the racists and nationalists. Of course we need to set criteria, but they will be fairly applied. Of course we need to verify information, but you will be treated with dignity while we do. If you are looking for a base for study, for innovation, for entrepreneurship, to love who you want to, to raise a family in peace and freedom, as so many have done before you, join us. Welcome. We come from many places, but we all belong here.

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Changing Times, Changing Lives

The Citizens Advice Bureau celebrated 75 years of giving assistance this September. Not bad for an agency that was originally only established as a temporary measure. This Ministry of Information film from the IWM archive shows how the CAB evolved from its wartime beginnings:

CAB is a charity for the community. Their manifesto is to provide the advice people need for the problems they face and to improve the policies and practices that affect people’s lives. Free, independent, confidential and impartial advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities.

On 8th July 2014 a report detailed that 9 out of 10 CAB’s (92%) are finding it difficult to refer people to the specialist legal advice they need, since cuts to legal aid came into effect last year. In some cases legal aid is now not available for help with getting employers to pay outstanding wages or challenging unfair benefit decisions.

ten minutes hate caught up with Kristian Khan, Deputy Manager of Liverpool Central Citizens Advice Bureau, to discuss his work at the charity, particularly in light of the recent severe cuts to funding that are having a significant impact.

Kristian Khan
10mh: How does he find working in the busy Central office?

Challenging, rewarding, exhausting, satisfying and exhilarating.

The CAB is currently facing particular re-occurring issues such as:
• Impact of the Welfare Reform Act and the changes to welfare benefits.
• Priority and Non Priority debts – last year Liverpool Central CAB alone helped clients deal with £12.8 million worth of debt.
• Payday lending.
• Housing possessions and evictions.
• All aspects of consumer matters.
• Immigration and Asylum queries.

The CAB provides the nation with an invaluable service, as Khan details,

• We provide advice to approximately 2.1 million people nationally every year to help them solve 6.6 million problems.
• We give 22,000 people the chance to volunteer in their local communities and they provide £109 million worth of hours a year between them.
• We campaign on the big issues that are affecting our clients and last year an estimated 8.2 million people benefited positively from our policy work.
• We make people happier and healthier; forty-six per cent of people felt less anxious, less stressed, or had fewer health problems after receiving help from a CAB.
• We take the strain off other local services in many ways, for example by preventing homelessness, avoiding legal action and helping people to fill in official forms correctly
• We contribute to the local economy by helping clients to manage their debts and maximise their incomes.

The general public can help the CAB to continue its invaluable work
by donating what they can – time, money or other resources – and by raising awareness of the fact that they are a registered charity. The CAB is also seeking volunteers,

Don’t worry about your level of formal qualifications – real life experience is also essential for this work. You will get out what you put into it. Your experience here may not change your life but it will certainly give you a unique insight into people and their problems.

I asked the Deputy Manager what has been his proudest moment to date during his career?

Stepping into the role of Acting Chief Executive where I was ultimately responsible for all aspects of the bureau and ensuring that our clients’ experience of us was a positive one – 14 years of CAB experience had brought me to that point.

I wonder what the CAB will be like in another 75 years? Khan has an idea,

I think we will be a more streamlined agency with a greater number of ‘districts’ rather than individual bureau. We will be at the forefront of instant access to advice for clients through a number of channels and we will continue to campaign on the big issues that are affecting citizens.  We will still use volunteers as this is integral to all that we do.

To mark the anniversary, the CAB have released a film called ‘Changing Lives’, showing more of their work:

 

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Give Me Some Truth

I discovered a collection of essays by George Orwell on Project Gutenberg Australia this morning, some familiar and some new to me, so everything else I was planning to do today has pretty much gone out of the window.

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering what he would make of recent events, when the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee is being called out on a speech which contain more lies than facts, and the same campaign’s pollster can espouse a breezy disregard for those who seek some kind of factual basis for the claims made in political advertisements.

It looks like the era of ‘spin’ is finally over, not with a return to honesty, but because politicians have realised that they don’t have to give much more than a slight appearance of sincerity. Lie with a knowing wink, the loyal base believes whatever matches their own set of values and prejudices, the other side howls and the partisan bun-fight continues for another news cycle.

Forty years go by and you realise how little has changed:

Truth has now become such a debased currency, relative to who is making the claim and who to, that I almost hesitate to recommend an article which takes as its headline ‘The Truth About Mitt Romney and Bain Capital‘. Yet Taibbi’s writing about the antics of Wall Street – before and since what he calls The Great Recession – has been consistent, long after other commentators have ducked out of an examination of what went wrong.

In this latest article, he shows how Wall Street darlings such as Bain Capital operated – with a ruthless sensibility – closing previously healthy businesses, paying huge bonuses despite looming bankruptcy and never being unafraid to take a government bail-out:

A takeover artist all his life, Romney is now trying to take over America itself. And if his own history is any guide, we’ll all end up paying for the acquisition.

It is the exact opposite to the image the candidate projects and one I doubt many avowed Republicans will be able to stomach, instead preferring to attack the bias of the writer, as evidenced by the comments section below the article. We all hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest, as Paul Simon sang. So it looks as if the short-haired, yellow-bellied sons of Tricky Dicky will be with us for some time to come.

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I’m wicked and I’m lazy

Recently returned from a deliciously lazy holiday, during which I swapped the noise of Tokyo for a room with a tinkling river running past, where everything as far as the eye could see was green and the most pressing decision was which restaurant to head to for dinner. The weather co-operated – or didn’t, depending on your point of view – so the torrential downpour which lasted about 20 hours from my arrival meant that there was little else to do other than get wrapped up in the cotton yukata provided and read, nap, write, nap, drink tea and… nap.

I have a gift for idleness, which often gets overlooked in this fastest of all the fast-paced cities. Forget New York, Tokyo is the city that really doesn’t sleep, unless it is catching a few winks of shuteye on the train, in the coffee shop or slumped on a bench. The first six months of this year have whipped by in a blur of writing, volunteering, working and socialising – all essential and mostly enjoyable – but it was equally as rewarding to drop out from the world for three days and indulge my gift completely.

So I was heartened to read this NY Times opinion piece, in which the writer laments our furiously busy lives and the diminished returns we suffer from living life at such a pace. This quote is of particular interest:

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body…

Especially in light of this nonsense from British Foreign Secretary William Hague, exhorting business leaders to ‘stop moaning and work harder’ to restart the country’s flat-lining economy. Running ourselves into the ground in the name of increased productivity, more of the same as went before this latest economic crisis, seems only doomed to bring about the same effect a little later on down the line.

Instead, I call for more laziness, more time spent musing, reflecting, pondering. Less time rushing means more time to spend with those we care about, or nose deep in a book, or sitting idly watching the rest of the world race by. It will continue without us, for a time, and those insurmountable problems should seem easier to contend with when using a refreshed and recharged mind.

Start this weekend by indulging your lazy and wicked side.

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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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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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