Monday, 31 January 2011

neoliberals, privatisation and magic

David Cameron: "If you look at the growth of the elderly population, look at the new drugs that are coming on stream, the new treatments, if we keep the system we have now and don't make changes to cut bureaucracy and waste, I think it will become increasingly unaffordable"

Labour, Lib Dems and the Conservatives have spent decades associating privatisation with efficiency, and the public sector with bureaucracy and waste. It is such a well-worn trick that at this point nobody even asks them what the fuck bureaucracy and waste has to do with bringing in the private sector. There's no demand for statistics or proof that the private=efficient, public=wasteful idea is actually true, nor even for some sort of theory as to why it might be. It has become an unchallengeable assumption among the political class that it is true and uncontestable.

But it's a completely counter-intuitive theory if you give it even a moment's thought. Organisations, private or public always have inefficiencies, things that need to be fixed about their management structure, their ways of operating. That's inevitable. There are plenty of large, successful businesses that waste money and time on things that don't fulfil their primary purposes. That's life, we're people, not machines. There's nothing inherent about operating for profit that makes you more efficient at providing a public service for a low cost.

In fact the only difference is that operating for profit really makes is that it changes the goals of your organisation. The goal of a public institution is pretty simple. It is supposed to provide the public with the best possible service, making the best use of the resources available to it. In doing this it should make policy decisions in line with what things that are most important for its service users. So for example, the NHS is not going to spend billions of pounds on deluxe rooms for all its patients that would leave it short of money for important operations.

The goal of a private, for-profit public institution is different. It's aim is to maximise profit. Nothing else. Full stop. Maximise profit. There are no other goals. Now, this does not always result in poor service or high prices, sometimes maximising profit involves attracting clients, which means you have to reduce prices or improve service. But the overall aim of the organisation is that the greatest proportion possible of their income is profit. That is, a private institution will always actively try to take money out of the system, rather than actively trying to spend that money on care.

So, your bet, if you are a privatiser, is that the motivation to make money is so efficient, that not only will it enable the private provider to take as much money out of the system as they possibly can, that competition will make them so much more efficient that this will also reduce the cost of providing the same (or better!) service. It's a gamble that firstly there is so much fixable inefficiency in the system that fixing it will allow the companies to generate a profit, and secondly that the competition for the healthcare market will be so fierce that it will force down costs, without affecting service. Oh, and you also have to hope that healthcare companies won't take the easy way out and just take their cut from workers, patients or by reducing the quality of services.

Now there is not one case of a privatisation of a public service improving service and reducing costs in the history of this country (trains nope, utilities nope). The US system, based on this principle, is much more expensive and much less effective than its European equivalents. So, you'd have to have pretty compelling evidence to present to convince people that there was a case for it here. Which the Tories don't have and aren't bothering to make.

The logical, common-sense thing to do here, if the NHS does have massive institutional problems (also unevidenced by the coalition), would be to fix them in the NHS as it is, without trying to magically find simultaneously both money for profits, money for improvements and efficiency savings all at the same time.

Zeitgeist and other stories

Re-blogging of something I wrote in 2009 on Zeitgeist / The Venus Project:

A friend of mine recently excitedly pointed me in the direction of Zeitgeist: The Movie, a viral internet phenomenon that has conspiracy-hungry internauts all excited and dropping spam-like links like a little spider-bot army.I missed the first part, which apparently focuses on the fact that the Christian religion is a bunch of lies (fabricated from bits and pieces from preceding religions), and that therefore our current system is also based on lies.

I ended up watching the ´meatier´ Zeitgeist addendum which deals with how the system enslaves us all and what we can do about it. Now, credit to the film-makers, though referencing them, they´ve avoided the major banking conspiracy pitfalls, that is, attributing things to the Jews, the lizards, the illuminati or the Bilderberg Group.Their principal target is the major banking institutions like Citibank and JP Morgan.

It´s good that they´ve avoided this, because the idea that the enslavement of humanity is the result of banks making money out of thin air, putting us all in debt and meaning we all have to work to service debts, is a staple of conspiraloon anti-semite, ufologists. Rather than put on my amateur economists hat, I´ll let other people, just as opposed to capitalism as these Zeitgeist fellas, explain why it´s nonsense:

The booklet explains that US banks are required by law to keep a “fraction” of deposits as “reserves” in its vaults and/or a balance with the Fed, and says:

“For example, if reserves of 20 percent were required, deposits could expand only until they were five times as large as reserves. Reserves of $10 million could support deposits of $50 million” (p. 4).

This is a very misleading way of putting as it could suggest that if banks receive total new deposits of $10 million they can immediately proceed to make loans of four times this. This is not so, and not really what the booklet meant to suggest. What it means is that the banks can immediately lend out only four-fifths of $10 million, or $8 million, and that this circulates throughout the banking system leading in theory to new loans totalling in the end $40 million, bringing total “bank deposits” up to $50 million.

Please note. I´m not citing a pro-capitalist source. These people have no vested interest in the status-quo, nor in preserving the rule of elites. They aren't brainwashed by capitaism, quite the opposite in fact. It's just that they understand economics better than the Zeitgeist people (read it, in full, it´s a really good explanation). Fractional Reserve Banking, far from enslaving is, is simply a limit on the amount of loans that a bank can issue from any given deposits. It's actually a good thing that regulates the banking system.

This is really the crux of the film´s case. From the Federal Reserve fraud conspiracy (a staple of Paulianism too), we move onto IMF loans and coup d´etats in Latin America, and how the secret cabal organised those to maintain control for the bankers (who obviously control the government through campaign contributions). There´s a mixture of the true and the misunderstood in there, which gets us smoothly into the station at SECRET-CABAL-RUNNING-THE-WORLD-UNDER-LYME.

After that we throw in the ´planned-obsolescence´conspiracy that must have been doing the rounds since the beginning of the 20th century at least (coming as the EU bans old-style lightbulbs), and contains the absolutely true idea that we could do more about climate change and scarcity if humanity as a collective actually wanted to, rather than just focusing our efforts on getting by / enriching the minority.

This all ends by advocating utopian technocracy The Venus Project or as they call it a Resource Economy. Then some ideas for joining groups, spreading the word, making converts and boycotting stuff.

Fine. It´s one of the least offensive conspiracy theories I've heard. They've avoided anti-semitism or any of the more ludicrous ideas people have come up with over the years to explain who runs the world.

We are though, still stuck on several points. Firstly, not to the dredge the old man up but, "philosophers have interpreted the world, the point is to change it", it's all very well identifying the evil cabal running the world, but if you´ve no analysis of how social relationships work in society, then you're no closer to breaking them. Your research isn't (as Harry Cleaver says) putting a weapon in people's hands.

Secondly, even if the monetarist conspiracy was true (which it's not), it doesn't explain the historical presence of hierarchy and domination in human society that predates the existence of the banking firms. Feudal domination was a social relationship, just as early capitalism was, and, in reality, modern capitalism is. It's not a trick devised by a small cabal, but how our lives interact with each other, the contested relationships of power between us. Imagine we shut down the federal reserve (and I presume, though the film doesn't make it explicit, the equivalent institutions around the world). What would change? If the principle of private property persisted, we would still be divided into classes. The people who own the things we need to produce, and the ways in which you distribute them, would still be in charge. So, I would still wake up, needing to earn money to survive, which I could only obtain by working for a capitalist.

The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they're all rendered pointless by one fundamental, unarguable element of capitalism. That it is, whatever else you have to say about, positive or negative, a system of elites. It has elitism coded into it´s DNA, from the smallest company, to the largest multinational, from the political system to the culture. It's purpose is to promote elites. It does this legitimately within the logic of the system. It does this publicly, lording super-capitalists like Bill Gates or even for a time, Enron boss Ken Lay. It lays its theories of elitism out for all to see, in policy projects, in university research, through political theorists.

It has no interest in secret cabals, or conspiracies. It has no need for them. It is a system openly, and publicly, run by elites. They might go home at night and secretly dine with their illuminati, lizard-jew, Bilderberg Group friends, and laugh about how they've taken over the world. It doesn't matter to me or you whether they do or not. They are the elite, and we can see who they are and how they live their lives. People know that we live in a system of elites, that acts in its own interests, according to the logic of the society they dominate. Everyone who looks around know this. We don't need internet documentaries to tell us that we're dominated, we just need to go to work, or walk through a posh neighbourhood or have a run-in with any politicians, big businessman or even a celebrity to know that. What we need are weapons, ways of challenging that domination, so maybe we don't have to live under it forever.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

All In This Together

We are all in this together (WAAITT) must be the words that come back to haunt George Osborne. They should be THE slogan on the lips of every activist for the duration of this economic crisis and this government (probably the latter will end first). They are just the perfect soundbite for any movement against the pure injustice that the Condems are about to dish out.

They are perfect because WAAITT states perfectly what a fair government would do. A government that wasn't a naked expression of privilege and entitlement would make those words a reality. They would state quite clearly that nobody should be in a position to take advantage of the British people whilst we work together to achieve economic recover. That the pain of paying off this debt should be felt equally by all of us. No, more than that, the people with the most resources should take as much of the strain as they can, to shield the vulnerable from the worst of it.

After all, a recession hurts the people at the bottom of the pile more. Those with the worst jobs, are those with the most precarious jobs, so they are more likely to find themselves unemployed. They are the ones with the least savings so they are the most likely to find themselves dependent on state assistance should the worst happen. They are the ones with the least qualifications so the most likely to find themselves out of work for the longest period (whatever their efforts).

So, a fair government would say WAAITT, and they would act on it. They would place the burden of the crisis on those best able to carry it.

This government, on the other hand, has shown that it is determined to do precisely the opposite. It is not a fair government. It will not act on the principles of WAAITT. The burden of the crisis will not fall on those best able to carry it. It will fall, almost universally, on those with the least capacity.

Their cuts to public services will affect the social groups that use them most, that is, the people with the most need of state assistance. Their cuts to benefits and attacks on claimants will effect those with the least income. Their tax rises will be based on the most regressive of principles, indirect taxation. They will claim the money they need back through VAT, a tax that falls disproportionately on the poor. Whilst having the audacity to actually lower corporation tax. They will make no effort to close the tax loopholes that the ultrarich take advantage of, as they take advantage of them themselves.

They will do everything in their power to prevent finance capital from paying for the crisis it caused. Everything it does will expose WAAITT as a lie.

And every time they do, someone should be there to expose that lie. WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. We, the 90% of ordinary citizens whose profits don't grow in a recession. Who don't generate those profits speculating on which country's economy will collapse next. We, are all in this together.

Monday, 3 January 2011

anarchism: autonomy, pluralism and de-centralisation

20th Century anarchism, the majority of it anyway, drew principally on one main source for its ideas about organising. That source, surprisingly, was not any of its most famous adherents. As a rule whilst the likes of Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, Mikhail Bakhunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had a lot to say about how society was at the time, and how they wanted it to be, they didn't have very much specific to say about how an actual anarchist organisation should be. There's no Lenin or Trotsky to go back to and say: "this is the role of the party", "this is how we should make decisions", "this is what a united front is for" "this is how we act in the trade unions".

No, when anarchists organised the ideas on how to do it came out of working class experience. The most significant things that anarchists have ever done came not out of applying works of theory, but on generalising activities that were already happening and developing them. The main current of 20th Century anarchism was anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-syndicalism as a form grew out of French trade unionism at the turn of the century. In an earlier life modern Stalinist monolith the CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) was the model for most of last centuries anarchism. (If you want to know more about the history read this article I wrote a long time ago)

The ideas behind syndicalism were simple. Form a trade union that mirrored the structure of the society that you wanted to create. The early version CGT had several main features:

1 - It was industrial and regional - unlike earlier trade unions which organised workers based on what they did, the syndicates organised them on where they worked and in what industry they were part of. The Bourses de Travail (Labour Offices) then organised them regionally.

2. They were federal and decentralised - Modern trade unions elect a permanent leadership to make formal policy and decide on union strategy. After creating the network outlined above, the CGT made sure that every group was autonomous, controlling their own funds, and that what formal policy that existed came from the bottom upwards.

3. They had mandated delegates and direct democracy - to overcome the difficulty of operating a direct democracy among half a million workers, the CGT invented a system of mandated delegates, in which workplace groups elected people to represent them in regional, industrial and national forums. Crucially, they didn't just elect people, they discussed and agreed upon (in advance) the decisions they were going to take and the things they would argue for. Finally they had the right to withdraw a delegate at any time, if they strayed from their mandate.

4. They were unaffiliated - despite electing a succession of anarchist General Secretaries, the CGT did not have a specific ideology, and did not support a political party. Each political current was free to organise within their ranks, and argue their particular ideals and policy. Directly supporting electoral candidates and political parties was outlawed in their constitutions. This was an organisation for the entire working class.

5. They made decisions - although the CGT was a pluralist, de-centralised organisation of hundreds of thousands of people, it had a functioning decision-making structure. At a workplace level it was able to agree through majority voting on the policy that individual syndicates wanted to follow. Through the system of mandated delegates they were able to create a coherent national policy that derived from the base of the organisation and could not function outside of their wishes. It wasn't a case of everybody wander off and do whatever they like, but of an organised democratic system of solidarity and mutual aid. People were free to hold whatever political views they liked, and knew they had a forum to express those views, both in their workplace and higher up the chain.

These groups used democratic and anarchist methods of organising to empower all of the members to form and act on their needs and desires. They used robust forms of decision making because their working lives were often precarious (job security? living wage? Pah!) and their class struggle brutal (kettling? Try live fire and saber charges!).

These forms of organising, taken directly from what workers did anyway, were adopted in various forms across Europe (famously in the Spanish CNT). I mention them now, not because I think they should be held up as a model for anyone to follow, (they grew up, as any form does, in particular historical circumstances) but because they outline what hard-headed organisers our anarchist predecessors were. They didn't let anything and everything go so as not to tread on anyone's toes, they made an organisation that was fit for purpose. It was non-sectarian because it's basis for unity was strong. It was autonomous and anarchist because it gave its component parts the ability to take their own decisions and direct their own resources. It was democratic because it had adequate structures for people to express their democratic opinions in an open forum. It was organised because it had mechanisms to make decisions and then stand up for them.

It was an organisation that had a clear idea of how to organise people and what for. Which is something that all organisations eventually have to do. You have to decide: is your group a social movement? Is it something aimed at organising a particular constituency and expressing as directly as possible their needs and desires? Does it have the structures to do this? Is it fit for this purpose? Or is a publicity campaign aimed at spreading a certain message? If so, is the message it spreads a coherent one? How do you come to decide what that message is and continue to hold your adherents together?

20th Century Anarchist organising was about the abolition of hierarchy and authority, it was not about the abolition of organisation, coherence or formal decision-making. Anarchy, as they said, was the highest form of organisation. It never meant, nor should it mean now, a complete free-for-all.