Tag Archives: Great Depression

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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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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As Nasty As They Wanna Be

Well, they managed it.  Cameron’s Conservatives – no doubt already wearying of the compassionate bit – have their ‘stealing the milk‘ moment.

Since Maggie snatched the white stuff from millions of schoolchildren way back when, condemning them to easily snapped arms and legs when they fell onto the rock-hard concrete in their playgrounds (youth of today, don’t know yer born!) her disciples have been on the lookout for their own really nasty moment.

Closing libraries, flogging forests and cutting benefits will only give you so much of a kick, after all, these are the kinds of things that most of us expect the Conservatives to do.  Where’s the buzz when you do something everyone has been anticipating since the election last May?  Nowhere, that’s where.  So you have to raise your game a little.

This should do it.  Removing benefits from cancer survivors after one year.  Simply put, if you are not on the mend after 12 months, the government thinks we can probably do without you and your weak-assed immune system malingering around.  Although perhaps, following this story, they are betting that the number of people reaching that milestone is going to be dramatically reduced anyway.  I wonder what the cancer survival rates were in the 1930s?  And isn’t it just as well TB isn’t on the rise, eh?  Oh.

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The art of surprise

The only surprise is that people seem to be surprised.

This is probably the third time in living memory, after all, that the Conservative Party has effectively told the poorer parts of the UK to fuck off and die, preferably quietly and out of sight, yet still some of you seem to be holding on to a belief that it wasn’t meant to be this way and that so-called ‘compassionate Conservatism’ can be brought to bear instead.

Unfortunately not.  Because you may think that you are nicely middle class, with your Ocado deliveries and eco-friendly holidays in Cornwall sans 4×4, but to our Tory overlords, you are as much of a dirt-eating peasant as the be-tracksuited hordes.  The battle-lines are being drawn and if your sole source of income is selling your labour, to them that makes you working class, regardless of whether you swing a hammer or pound a keyboard all day.

And anyone, yes Guardian lead writers I am looking at you, who thinks that the “Labour” Party has an opposing world view to offer clearly can’t have been paying very close attention for the last thirteen years.

Yet the problem doesn’t lie with the political parties, since they are just doing what they have to do in order to suck up to the people who really matter in a democracy: the people with the cash.  The problem is ours, for once again falling for the sweet nothings that they pour into our ears in order to get the necessary (or thereabouts) number of ‘X’s in the box.  When the Tories spoke of tax cuts for hard-working families, you might have thought they meant you, but actually they were referring to their poorer old school pals struggling by on just a few million.

If you re-read or read ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, you will see that there is a reason why ordinary people like us got together to fight for our rights against the party of the bosses: not to create some idle dinner party chit-chat, but as an essential means of survival. So here we go again, as if reading from the script of the Thirties and the Eighties, they attack the weakest and we fight back, having also read that script and knowing that together we cannot be defeated.

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Toerags unite!

If you haven’t read The Road to Wigan Pier yet, now might be a good time to add it to your reading list.  It isn’t just a searing indictment of everything that had gone wrong in the economic policies of the 1930s and their effects on the day-to-day lives of millions in that blighted Northern town.

The book is more than misery tourism for the titillation of the Left Book Club subscribers who first read it.  Instead, George Orwell was moved to take the train to Wigan by what he saw as the rich’s callous disregard for the plight of the unemployed.

In the 1930s, unemployment was heavily concentrated in the North of England and South Wales, while cities such as Oxford remained close to full employment.  This according to another essential read for all those concerned at how the coming years could pan out, ‘The Slump’ by Stevenson and Cook.  More prosperous parts of the country had little first-hand knowledge of the conditions of the worst-hit regions until hunger marchers, such as those from Jarrow, began to show up.

In such conditions, myths abounded and needed to be busted.  Canards like: ‘there is work available but they simply don’t want it’ and the indignation and misanthropy wrapped up in ‘but the dole is so high they can even get married on it!’, along with:

doubtless even at this late date the old ladies in Brighton boarding-houses are saying that ‘if you give those miners baths they only use them to keep coal in’

were all examples of an effective blame-the-victim strategy which has barely needed to be altered nearly 80 years on.

True, no-one is accusing the ‘toerags’ of keeping coal in the bath.  Perhaps that one could be changed to ‘cans of Stella’. For they are now permanently tagged as ‘the undeserving poor': cheap beer-swilling, Jeremy Kyle-watching, mindlessly shagging layabouts that our brand spanking new Big Society can ill afford to have laying on the sofa.

Such misinformation stank in 1936 and is no more fragrant now.  It wasn’t the unemployed that encouraged banks to act like casinos, or hospitals and schools to mortgage their futures with unaffordable PFI deals.  The poor didn’t see many benefits from the cheap credit that flowed during most of the last decade, as they were left to negotiate with the baseball bat-wielding loan sharks, rather than the ones in Gieves & Hawkes suits.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wondered what it would finally take to tip the British into revolution, lamenting that they had been so cheaply bought off with the illusion of wealth provided by a radio in every home and cheaper clothes and furnishings. Now it is a flippin’ huge HD plasma TV for all, Primark and Ikea that give us the warm feeling that everything is still ok, Jack, and there is no need to take to the streets in Greek-style protest as every service so hard-fought for by our grandparents gets stripped away in the name of debt reduction.

Well maybe there is a need.  Another feature of the 1930s was the dearth of ideas from anyone in Westminster, on the left or the right, on how to tackle the crisis.  It took the start of the Second World War to finally see off the Depression and no-one sensible should be suggesting that we go down that route now, however desperately they want to ape their Granny’s gravy-browning-and-eyeliner-pencil-for-stockings.  Instead what we need is the type of good old-fashioned, D.I.Y., ‘make do and mend’ mentality that sees us switching off the plasma screen and fighting our own corners for a change.

We can only achieve that if we stick together.  Refusing to sanction the branding of the worst off amongst us as cheats, scroungers and toerags is an essential first step.
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Building a dream

Diane Abbott called it right.  According to Paul Waugh on Twitter:

As well they might.  But do not be mistaken, although Liberal Democrats with narrow majorities over Labour MPs will be rueing the day they lined up for such a shafting, it is all of us who will be getting fucked.

Royally, in fact.  While the Queen struggles to get by on £7.9m, while the banks cough up an estimated £2bn per year in return for the £850bn they were gifted, pensioners, the disabled, the unemployed, those claiming housing benefit, lone parents and pregnant women – fat cats one and all – will be ensuring that Britain’s books are balanced by the time of the Olympics after the one we are still spending billions on.

Whatever else you think of it, it is no-one’s idea of progressive. Nor is the raise in VAT, of which the richest 10% pay one in every 25 pounds of their income and the poorest 10% pay one in every seven pounds.  Meanwhile our corporation tax will now fall to a level that, according to the Channel 4 News FactCheck, will make it the fifth lowest in the G20.  Hooray for corporations!

Still, at least the cider tax has been reduced.  I suggest you lay in a few bottles before the VAT goes up.  You will soon be needing the warm glow and sweet balm of oblivion that they can provide, along with this beautiful evocation of Depression-era survival techniques from Tom Waits:

A warning: the last time Conservatives tried cutting public spending in response to a global financial catastrophe, it did not end well.  See you on the bread lines.

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Pick a pocket or two

Gordon Brown taught Cameron and Osborne everything they know

Gordon Brown taught Cameron and Osborne everything they know

When the recession started last year, most British households cut their cloth accordingly. Reduced unnecessary outgoings, started to pay more off the credit cards and, despite rates that are the lowest since the Bank of England opened its doors, they even began bunging cash into the savings accounts.

But not the Government.

The Government couldn’t act like us because, if they had, we would now be looking at something much closer to the Great Depression than the Vera Lynn revivals and fascist outrages on the streets would have you believe we are. The taps had to be turned on. But even accounting for the bank rescues, the guaranteeing of the bonuses and the increased welfare costs, it is impossible to escape the fact that our debt as a proportion of GDP is growing to astronomical ‘chop-the-credit-card-with-the-kitchen-scissors’ levels and that, worst of all, we have next to no intention of paying it all back, preferring instead to let deflation take care of it and no matter if that screws the savers and the pensioners.

Still, at least our leaders and would-be leaders are, at last, pledging to get to grips with our free-wheeling, high-spending public services, because – you know – it was those hospitals with all the crazy drugs they were buying and the spendthrift social workers that caused the meltdown, not a bunch of over-paid coke heads in bad suits acting like their nations’ economies were a roulette wheel, right?

So, much as a couple argues the toss over classing spending on a holiday or that new plasma screen TV as ‘essential’, our politicians are now trying to convince us that the other side will do the evil cutting. Emotive accusations that they will stop paying to educate the leaders and wealth-creators of the future while they won’t be able to afford to have the bins emptied weekly will drive us all mental between now and Election Day. Meanwhile, each will be spinning that they are the only ones able to rid us of all the troublesome bureaucrats and unnecessary ‘costs’ that we won’t miss when they are snipped.

Instead of Tory Cuts v Labour Investment (as the last three elections have run) this time, they will be arguing debating the nuances of millions and billions spent on paperclips and kidney transplants in an attempt to persuade of the stirring ideological differences existing between them.

Don’t fall for the bullshit.

The Tories, always chief cronies to the wealthy, and Labour, up the arses of the fat cats for 12 years and counting, are not our friends. They are equally guilty of allowing the people who caused this shitstorm to run away laughing while we carry the can for their hubris. Not all bankers are evil, but the mud-slinging between them and the politicians over who to blame is the show to distract from the sleight of hand that picks our pocket, even as the seeds of the next catastrophe are already being sewn.

Stay alert and keep a tight grasp on your wallet.

Picture from Wikipedia


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Last one to Cable Street

Uncharacteristically, snow fell in London last October, for the first time since 1934.  It wasn’t the only harbinger of a return to Depression-era doom and gloom as the credit crunch™ began to bite.  The Observer ran an article claiming that eco-terrorists were plotting outrages, no doubt the precursor for the passing of yet more draconian laws, essential if even the tree huggers have a fundamentalist wing now.  The publication of the BNP membership list also seemed like a quaint reminder of a bygone age (oh, look, Fascists!) and made it much easier to organise a fight by text message, so, quick,

…last one to Cable Street’s a wanker

The halcyon days at the dawn of the new century seemed so far away as the flakes fell, the days when we had money to burn, lighting our cigarettes with rolled up twenties, floating on a tide of vintage champagne and ever more ludicrously distilled premium vodka and above all spend, spend, spending, gorging on STUFF like a WAG let loose in Liverpool’s Cricket boutique with her boyfriend’s plastic, nothing too trivial a frippery for us to splash the cash on.

‘Your more simplified life is in your hands.  YSL bag, $1,895.’

Despite the example of bubbles from time immemorial, the South Sea one, the Roaring Twenties, even the Dot Com one of recent living memory, we were confident that this one was going to be different.  Doped with the promised end to boom and bust, out of our gourds with the need to consume, high on the guarantee that we were worth it, damn it.  House prices were going up and up and up and you were an idiot if you didn’t agree to hand over most of your income in return for the keys to a former crack house in Dalston now an exclusive des res worth just shy of a mill.  If forking out that much of your folding each month left you without the necessary pocket money for the other trinkets so essential to your sense of self, well, hey, the banks could help you out there too.  Pay it back later, when the house trebled in value and you could borrow more from Peter to pay back Paul.  Simple.

The whole economy rested on it, people felt good because of it and they liked Labour because they were claiming responsibility for it.  There were no losers.

Lest we get nervous, the party of the workers famously declared itself ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, as long as they pay their taxes.’  Utilising the Whaaat? communal fag packet, we ran some numbers.  If this writer has been paying roughly 300 quid a month to the government over a decade of full time employment that makes £36,000.  And if there are 28 million people employed in the UK paying the same, then, gosh, that adds up to £1,008 billion.  An unreal number.  As are the numbers being bandied around for how much fixing this mess will cost.  And still, the sneaking suspicion that, for all the good it has done us, we should have spunked the lot on 500 million YSL handbags.

The Titanic analogy that keeps cropping up in the cartoons and op-eds is a good one.  We built the boat, paid our fares, counted the number of lifeboats and sailed off into the icy currents.  We knew enough to know what we were getting into.  So here we are, with nothing left to do but see who will sink and who will swim.  Got savings, low rate credit cards and a job that won’t easily transfer to the sub-Continent?  Lucky you.  Up to your arse in loans and the rest, needing to remortgage, with a boss that hates you?  That water’s going to feel pretty chilly.

What exactly have we achieved since the Thirties?

We are still as in hock to the never-never in the form of credit cards, still dreaming of the big win on the lottery that replaced the pools as a chance to save ourselves from the drudgery, still fearful of showing a spark of anything that might lead to us being given our cards, so we keep our heads down, mind our ps and qs, lest the bosses ship the whole concern out to India or China and leave us back where our grandparents started from.

With a little luck, though, that won’t be you; and as Polly Toynbee, friend to the poor, points out, 3 million could be out of work and 90% of us won’t even notice.  It will be unknowable, until some bold social warrior takes the Road to Wigan Pier to report back on the squalor and the shattered dreams while others stand wringing their hands over the failure of somebody, somewhere to do something.

So maybe that somebody should be us.  Maybe it is time to recognise that worshipping the market is a collective delusion.  To realise that money is as nebulous a concept as God.  Let’s wake up to the fact that ignoring the beauty of the world to sit staring at a computer screen all day to pay taxes for the government to hand over to the banks for them to lend back to us (or not) at 7% interest to be spent on yet more consumer goods is a Sisyphean endeavour.  We were meant for better than a life of ceaseless toil.

Bill Hicks was right, it is ‘just a ride’ and it only has one outcome, whether you smoke or not, eat your greens or not, go for a run or slob in front of the telly, it is going to end with your death.  Market conditions, consumer confidence, the value of your house can go up as well as down, no matter: it is all a figment of your imagination.  Recessions present opportunities other than cheap shares for those not too browbeaten to seize them; this one offers the prospect of reimagining and reclaiming our future from the greed heads and lifestyle peddlers, if only we dare.  So, ignore the adverts, put down the credit card and get on with it; throw yourself into life, stare into the face of death and laugh.

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