Tag Archives: David Graeber

the betrayal of Corbyn and the left by Labour HQ: newly leaked document confirms suspicions

As someone who devoted a great deal of time and effort during the 2017 General Election, delivering leaflets, canvassing on doorsteps, and generally working hard in the hope of a Corbyn-led Labour victory, it comes as no surprise whatsoever to learn that a faction within our party were actively working to stop Corbyn.

I have written many previous articles discussing the manufactured smear campaigns and how these were upheld and further amplified by the so-called liberal media which managed to portray a man who has spent his entire life fighting against racism as a racist.

And amongst so many rumours, we also knew with certainty about one of the plots being hatched behind the scenes: the secret weekend gatherings of twelve MPs at a luxury retreat in Sussex, whose number included Liz Kendall, John Woodcock, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, and Gavin Shuker. It was always evident therefore that a sizeable faction within the PLP would have preferred to spilt the party (as three of the above attempted to do shortly afterwards) than accept the twice elected leader.

However, fresh evidence which is encyclopaedic in scope, comes to our attention thanks to a leaked release of a 860-page internal report innocuously entitled “The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014 – 2019” that was published back in March and intended for submission to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It shows a level of treachery by Labour headquarters (HQ) including the governance and legal unit (GLU) when Iain McNicol served as general secretary that is frankly sickening.

To sift through all of the revelations will take considerable time, and we must anticipate new findings coming to light as the document is more carefully scrutinised. Reprinted below is just a single extract drawn from just one summary section that runs from pages 29– 32: be aware that LOTO refers to ‘the office of the Leader of the Opposition’ (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn and his advisors). But you could drop your finger anywhere randomly and find sections equally or still more inflammatory.

If the Labour Party is to move forward, then it must hold a full and transparent inquiry into the evidence presented in this suppressed report.

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Labour Party staff, who are employed by the Party rather than as political advisers to politicians, are expected to act impartially and serve the Party, regardless of the current Leader, much as the civil service is expected to serve the Government under whichever political party is in power. However, this section shows that much of the Labour Party machinery from 2015-18 was openly opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, and worked to directly undermine the elected leadership of the party. The priority of staff in this period appears to have been furthering the aims of a narrow faction aligned to Labour’s right rather than fulfilling the organisation’s objectives, from winning elections to building a functioning complaints and disciplinary process.

Labour Party staff based at Labour HQ were not obeying secret directives from LOTO. On the contrary, all of the available evidence points to the opposite conclusion – that Labour Party staff based at Labour HQ, including GLU, worked to achieve opposing political ends to the leadership of the Party. This included work to remove supporters of the incumbent leader during the 2016 leadership election, and work to hinder the leader’s campaign in the 2017 General Election. The attitude in HQ towards LOTO could be summed up in one comment from a senior staff member, who said “death by fire is too kind for LOTO”.

Labour officials, including senior staff, expressed hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn and his staff, towards Labour MPs including Andy Burnham, Ed Miliband, Sadiq Khan, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler. Staff described “most of the PLP” as “Trots” or called them “totally useless” in 2015 for not having yet launched a coup against Corbyn. As one staff member commented, “everyone here considers anyone left of [Gordon] Brown to be a trot.”

Staff repeatedly used abusive and inappropriate language about the leader, MPs, Labour members and about other staff. For example, staff discussed “hanging and burning” Jeremy Corbyn, calling Corbyn a “lying little toerag”; said that any Labour MP “who nominates Corbyn ‘to widen the debate’ deserves to be taken out and shot”; and stated that a staff member who “whooped” during Corbyn’s speech “should be shot”. Senior staff also said they hoped that one Labour member on the left of the party “dies in a fire”. Senior Labour staff used language that was considerably more abusive and inappropriate than that cited as justification for suspending many Labour members who supported Jeremy Corbyn in 2016.

In August 2015 senior staff explored delaying or cancelling the ongoing leadership election when it looked like Jeremy Corbyn was going to win. When Corbyn was elected staff discussed plans for a coup; one staffer said “we need a POLL – that says we’re like 20 points behind”; another suggested a silver lining for Remain losing the 2016 European referendum would be that Corbyn could be held responsible; and another hoped that poor performance in the May 2016 local elections would be the catalyst for a coup.

Staff described “working to rule” when Corbyn was elected and “coming into the office & doing nothing for a few months.” During the 2017 general election, staff joked about “hardly working”, and created a chat so they could pretend to work while actually speaking to each other – “tap tap tapping away will make us look v busy”. Senior staff coordinated refusing to share basic information to LOTO during the election, such as candidates’ contact details. Labour HQ operated “a secret key seats team” based in Labour’s London region office in Ergon House, from where a parallel general election campaign was run to support MPs associated with the right-wing of the party. The description of the workload and budget involved in this “secret” operation contrasts with the go slow approach described by other staff regarding work on the official general election campaign which the leadership was running to return a Labour government.

One senior staff member implied that he would support the Conservatives over Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, saying “who votes for JC? If it’s a choice btwn him & TMay how do WE vote for him?”. Staff sent messages expressing their wish that Labour would perform badly in the 2017 general election, saying “with a bit of luck this speech will show a clear polling decline” and “I CANNOT WAIT to see Andrew Neil rip [Jeremy Corbyn] to pieces over it tonight”. Senior staff commented that the huge rallies for Corbyn late in the election made them “feel ill”, and they reacted to the polls narrowing with dismay, rather than optimism.

On election night on 8 June 2017, when the exit poll predicted a hung parliament, General Secretary Iain McNicol, Executive Director for Governance, Membership and Party Services Emilie Oldknow (who was responsible for overseeing GLU) and other senior staff discussed hiding their reactions, saying “everyone needs to smile” and “we have to be upbeat. And not show it”. Oldknow also described Yvette Cooper and other Labour MPs’ support for Corbyn after the election as “grovelling and embarrassing”.

In January 2017, Iain McNicol, Emilie Oldknow and other senior staff discussed preparing for a leadership election if Labour lost the Copeland and Stoke-on-trent by-elections, and setting up a “discrete [working group]” to determine the rules and timetable. Iain McNicol discussed this with Tom Watson and told him “to prepare for being interim leader”. During the 2017 general election the Director of GLU John Stolliday then drew up these plans, including a rule change to replace the one member one vote system with an Electoral College system to help ensure that a MP from the party’s left could not win.

GLU staff talked openly with each other about using the party’s resources to further the aims of their faction. The Director of the Unit John Stolliday described his work in GLU as “political fixing”, and described overhauling selections of parliamentary candidates and overturning CLP AGM results to help the right of the Party. Emilie Oldknow and GLU staff discussed keeping Angela Eagle MP’s CLP suspended, at Eagle’s request, in order to give her team more time to organise against left-wing members before the AGM. Staff also discussed organising NEC Youth Representative elections on a different election cycle to other NEC elections, to ensure a left-wing candidate would not win, and noted that this was signed off by GLU’s Director.

Staff applied the same factional approach to disciplinary processes. One staff member referred to Emilie Oldknow expecting staff to “fabricate a case” against people “she doesn’t like/her friends don’t like” because of their political views. During the 2015 leadership election GLU and other Labour staff described their work as “hunting out 1000s of trots” and a “Trot hunt”, which included excluding people for having “liked” the Greens on Facebook. One prominent GLU staffer, Head of Disputes Katherine Buckingham, admitted that “real work is piling up” while she and other staff were engaged in inappropriate factional work.

Factional loyalty also determined key recruitment decisions, including in GLU, where people were appointed to senior roles with few apparent relevant qualifications. This had a severe impact on the Party’s ability to build a functioning disciplinary process over the following years.

This section demonstrates that the party machine was controlled by one faction which worked against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and to advance the interests of their faction, and that LOTO did not have authority or influence over GLU or the party machinery more broadly. Factional work appears to have come at the expense of work the staff were being paid to do, including – as will become apparent in Sections 3–6 – building and maintaining a functioning complaints process.

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A helpful summary of some details contained in the report can be found at LabourList.org. Reprinted below are summaries of the actions taken with regard to some of the more prominent Labour activists who were wrongly suspended and dispelled during the witch hunt:

Jackie Walker

 

There is also a section on Walker, a party member who was first accused of antisemitism in 2016.

  • The report says it was decided in May 2016 that Walker had not breached party rules when expressing a belief that there was a “Jewish particularism” about antisemitism. It was recommended that her suspension should be lifted.
  • Walker then attended party conference as a member and made comments about Holocaust Memorial Day that attracted press attention.
  • The report asserts that Walker’s case was “deliberately delayed by GLU staff until Jennie Formby became general secretary, and then again by the NCC”.

Walker was ultimately expelled from the party in March 2019.

Moshe Machover

The report confirms that in the case of Moshe Machover, a Jewish academic who was auto-expelled rather than suspended by the party, LOTO actively raised concerns – as opposed to other cases where LOTO was approached by HQ.

It says that LOTO raised concerns with HQ about the auto-exclusion, which was later reversed. It concludes that the case was mishandled because, among other reasons, expertise was sought but not used.

The report says the Community Security Trust was consulted for the cases of both Walker and Machover, but this advice was not shared with LOTO, the NEC or the party staffer who made the decision to lift Walker’s suspension initially.

It says the “GLU could have subsequently brought disciplinary proceedings on the basis of antisemitism allegations [against Moche Machover] but chose not to.”

Chris Williamson

 

On the case of Chris Williamson, who had been a Labour MP, the report specifies that Corbyn-aligned general secretary Jennie Formby said in 2019 that he had brought the party into disrepute.

Formby told staffers that she had personally warned Williamson that it was “completely inappropriate for him as an elected MP to campaign with Labour Against the WitchHunt”.

Williamson was suspended and removed as a parliamentary candidate at the 2019 general election.

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Important update:

The original statement released by campaign group Labour Against the Witchhunt (which is maintained below) has since been replaced with a “Joint statement by Labour Against the Witchhunt and the Left Labour Alliance”.

The new statement reads:

We demand a full investigation into the witch-hunt and the election campaigns!

Now all disciplinary cases of the last five years must be reviewed!

As experienced activists in the Labour Party, we knew that the right in the party was plotting against Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters from day one. We knew, because we were the victims of their wrongful suspensions, their expulsions and their public smears and lies, all based on the flimsiest of evidence.

The report ‘The work of the Labour Party’s Governance and Legal Unit in relation to antisemitism, 2014 – 2019’,  produced in response to the investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, now gives us irrefutable proof of the plotting and outright sabotage committed against Corbyn and the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to fight for socialist and democratic change.

It is a crying shame that this report was produced only in the last days of Corbyn’s leadership. It is based upon primary evidence showing serious wrong-doing by senior party officials. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the left to radically transform the Labour Party and effect progressive change was ruined by the right in the party.

At the same time, supporters of Corbyn were vilified and slandered, their voices silenced and their votes nullified. Unfortunately, it appears that this was sometimes done with the knowledge and occasionally even with the participation of the Corbyn leadership, as in the expulsions of Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson.

Keir Starmer must ensure the immediate publication of the report and a full enquiry into the facts:

*** The report describes how “the pro-Corbyn left decisively won” at Brighton CLP’s annual general meeting (AGM) in July 2016. Afterwards, two high-ranking Labour officials discussed how to overturn the result: “I say act now and worry about [rules and legal issues] later, so long as we don’t do something that’ll end up f[***]ing everything else up.” Party officials then overturned the AGM’s decisions, the old executive was restored and the local party split into three separate CLPs. (p113)

*** Labour officials discussed how to continue the unlawful suspension of Wallasey CLP, where the left “are properly organised” – in order to save the local right-wing MP, Angela Eagle, from being challenged. (p114)

*** We read that, “in many cases party members at all levels request the suspension of another party member as a way of escalating or indeed resolving a dispute. There is a wrongly-held view that political opponents can be ‘taken out’ of a contest or stopped from attending meetings by making a complaint with the intention of achieving a suspension of that member.” (p533) Clearly, this is exactly what has been taking place, even as recently as during the March 2020 NEC by-election. Half a dozen of the candidates were suspended in the middle of the contest, before any investigation was launched.

*** Sam Matthews, then head of Disputes, was able to single-handedly suspend Glyn Secker (secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour) as recently as 2018 – the case was so weak that he had to be reinstated almost immediately: Following on from a report produced by the disgraced right-wing Corbyn critic David Collier into the Facebook group ‘Palestine Live’ (of which Corbyn was a member), “documentary evidence shows that it was only because James Schneider, Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson, urged [Sam] Matthews to take action, that the report was examined at all. Of all the examples of extreme antisemitism in the report, GLU picked Glyn Secker, even though the report did not contain allegations of antisemitic comments by Secker and the report stated ‘Glyn Secker has had minimal interaction on the site’.” (p428)

*** The ‘Disputes’ unit desperately looked for reasons to expel the prominent Israeli Jew Moshé  Machover. Because of his background, they found it difficult to charge him with racism: “The anti-Semitism stuff just clouds it in my view”. (p373) Instead, they decided to auto-expel him over his alleged membership of the “Communist Party of Great Britain Marxism-Leninism” (they got the wrong CPGB, incidentally) – but he was able to quickly disprove this claim. As party officials “found themselves inundated with emails about the case, including from Jewish socialist groups”, there was pressure to drop the case and rescind his expulsion. Many other, less prominent members, found it much more difficult to challenge their auto-expulsions.

*** We learn that despite some reforms under Jennie Formby, there are huge, ongoing problems with the way the party handles disciplinary cases. For example, the Governance and Legal unit uses a list of “investigatory search terms” to “vet” members, which includes words like ‘Atzmon’ and “a list of 57 (later 68) Labour MPs and their Twitter handles”. In other words, staff “initiate cases themselves by proactively investigating social media comments by Party members” (p17) to create a body of evidence where no basis for a case exists. The report also makes various positive references to Dave Rich from the Community Security Trust (CST), whose views are still being routinely sought as “expert opinion”. But the CST is not a neutral body – it is a pro-Israel charity, which the Tory government started funding in 2015 and has given at least 65 million pounds since.

*** Jackie Walker’s case was deliberately delayed by McNicol and his staff. They were determined to get rid of Tony Greenstein and Marc Wadsworth first in order to build a campaign to justify Jackie’s expulsion. However, the report also states that, “LOTO [Leader of the Opposition’s Office] wanted Walker to be suspended and had briefed the media to that effect”. (p366) In April 2018, “Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby met with the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and the Community and Security Trust” and agreed to their demand that “the Party should expedite Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker’s cases. LOTO and Jennie Formby agreed”. The report quotes questionable evidence by Dave Rich, which implies that Jackie’s views are similar to those of Louis Farrakhan, but omits evidence given by black Jewish Professor Lewis Gordon, a world-leading academic on Jewish/black relations, which contradicts every claim by Dave Rich and supports Jackie’s case.

*** In the case of Chris Williamson, it appears that Jennie Formby was the one driving his expulsion. The report approvingly quotes her long chart sheet against him: “Several of these [complaints], if taken as an isolated incident, may have resulted in no action. However, taken together they add up to a pattern of behaviour that is not only reckless, it has brought the party into disrepute. I would also add that I personally spoke with Chris only two weeks ago and asked him to stop aligning himself with Labour Against the Witchhunt and speaking about antisemitism in the way that he is, because as an MP he does not have the privilege of behaving in the same way as an ordinary lay member does.” (p826)

These examples show just how futile it was of Corbyn and his allies to try and appease the right by going along with some of these injustices – when they should have taken them on in a decisive manner. There can be no compromise, no unity with those who would rather sabotage our party than see a radical Labour movement.

We demand that:

  • Keir Starmer must officially publish this report and condemn the campaign to undermine and sabotage Jeremy Corbyn and the left.
  • All disciplinary cases processed during the last five years have to be overturned, pending unbiased re-examination.
  • We urgently need a radical overhaul of the party’s disciplinary system. Disciplinary procedures should be carried out in accordance with the principles of natural justice, and be time-limited: charges not resolved within three months should be automatically dropped. An accused member should be given all the evidence submitted against them and be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. Those aspects of the Chakrabati report must finally be implemented.
  • All those mentioned in the document who took part in this sabotage and who are still in their post must be immediately investigated for gross misconduct. That must include Emilie Oldknow (Executive Director for Governance, Membership and Party Services), who is being touted as Keir Starmer’s preferred choice as new general secretary and who is shown to have actively taken part in the witch-hunt against Corbyn and his supporters.
  • All those involved who have jumped ship and now enjoy well-paid positions in different companies must be named and shamed. They include:
    • Iain McNicol, formerly General Secretary, now a member of the House of Lords
    • Sam Matthews, formerly head of Disputes
    • John Stolliday, formerly Director of the Governance and Legal Unit

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Here is the initial statement released by campaign group Labour Against the Witchhunt:

The 860-page report concluded factional hostility towards Jeremy Corbyn amongst former senior officials contributed to “a litany of mistakes” that hindered the effective handling of the issue.

The investigation, which was completed in the last month of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, claims to have found “no evidence” of antisemitism complaints being treated differently to other forms of complaint, or of current or former staff being “motivated by antisemitic intent”.

The examples from chat archives published in the document include:

– Conversations in 2017 which appear to show senior staff preparing for Tom Watson to become interim leader in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn losing the election
– Conversations which it is claimed show senior staff hid information from the leader’s office about digital spending and contact details for MPs and candidates during the election
– Conversations on election night in which the members of the group talk about the need to hide their disappointment that Mr. Corbyn had done better than expected and would be unlikely to resign
– A discussion about whether the grassroots activist network Momentum could be ‘proscribed’ for being a ‘party within a party’
– A discussion about ‘unsuspending’ a former Labour MP who was critical of Jeremy Corbyn so they could stand as a candidate in the 2017 election
– A discussion about how to prevent corbyn-ally Rebecca Long-Bailey gaining a seat on the party’s governing body in 2017
– Regular references to corbyn-supporting party staff as “trots”
– Conversations between senior staff in Lord McNicol’s office in which they refer to former director of communications Seamus Milnes as “dracula”, and saying he was “spiteful and evil and we should make sure he is never allowed in our Party if it’s last thing we do”
– Conversations in which the same group refers to Mr. Corbyn’s former chief of staff Karie Murphy as “medusa”, a “crazy woman” and a “bitch face cow” that would “make a good dartboard”
– A discussion in which one of the group members expresses their “hope” that a young pro-Corbyn Labour activist, who they acknowledge had mental health problems, “dies in a fire”

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Update:

With the honourable exception of Sky News which reported on this story from the beginning, most other media outlets have shown incredible reluctance to even acknowledge the leak of this very serious document. When the BBC did quietly publish an article the following day [Monday 13th], it appeared on the ‘politics’ page of their website and tucked away as a secondary item.

But there is more to consider about the BBC piece, which I would say is even titled in deliberately confusing way as: “Opposition to Corbyn ‘hindered’ anti-Semitism action”. Reading this the first time, one wonders, who is ‘hindered’? And why the quotation marks?

It gets much worse, however, before we reach the unashamedly politicised ending. Having failed to reference a single iota of the main content regarding the machinations against Corbyn by Labour HQ, or to offer much insight into the kind of chicanery which ranged from the misallocation of funds to instances of actual bullying, the piece abruptly concludes as follows:

Ongoing row

Labour has been plagued with allegations since 2016.

Mr Corbyn held an internal investigation early on in his tenure, but it was widely criticised by Jewish members of the party, with a number – including MPs – leaving over his handling of the row.

The party’s new leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has apologised to the Jewish community for the ongoing issue.

He has been praised by leaders for “achieving more in four days” than Mr Corbyn did “in four years” on tackling anti-Semitism.

Any excuse, of course, to raise the spectre of Labour as an incurably anti-Semitic party, but in this context the same allegation is repurposed in order to sideline the report itself, presenting it merely as a ploy that in turn is intended to divert attention from the more fundamental issue of Labour’s deep-seated racism. In short, this article is actually a textbook example of the kind of devious meta-reporting which the BBC now unfortunately excels in.

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Novara Media seems to be providing the most detailed scrutiny of the report I have come across so far, and Monday’s Tyskie Sour show includes an interview with founder of Momentum Jon Lansman.

However, I have paused the video to begin at an earlier point where we learn that members of Labour HQ actively conspired with C4 News reporter Michael Crick in attempts to bully Diane Abbott. This incident apparently happened after Abbott had broken down in tears in the aftermath of receiving really disgusting racist abuse:

I would also recommend reading Aaron Bastini’s own initial response to the leak, which is entitled “‘It’s going to be a long night’ – How members of Labour’s senior Management Team Campaigned to Lose”. It includes the following revelation:

“It’s going to be a long night” was the reaction of the party’s general secretary [Iain McNicol], after Labour had deprived the Tories of a governing majority and seen their highest share of the popular vote in twenty years. While an outrageous comment, given McNicol’s elevated status within the party, it is perhaps outdone by Julie Lawrence – former director of the general secretary’s office – who appears to have actively feared Labour entering government. Meanwhile, Emily Oldknow, now assistant General Secretary at UNISON, apparently saw a silver lining, saying: “at least we have loads of money now”.

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain

The Great NHS Heist

“Once judged as the finest, most cost efficient health service in the world, the NHS is now in mortal danger – due to ruthless government privatisation plans. Are the British people fully aware of this? Or have they been sidetracked by the propaganda of so-called austerity. A group of doctors and health care professionals are dedicated to getting the truth out. Please support this film.” — John Pilger

THE GREAT NHS HEIST is an independent production designed to expose the covert destruction of the English National Health Service. Post-war Atlee’s government implemented Aneurin Bevan’s ambition of an NHS in July 1948. It meant everyone in Britain could get free medical care and this successful revolutionary social advance was copied across the world.

From the beginning there was strong political opposition and from the British Medical Association. Throughout Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, forces determined to replace the NHS with an American style, profit making, private insurance-based system gathered momentum.

In Britain’s Biggest Enterprise (1988) Oliver Letwin MP outlined the plan which required stealth, complexity, deception and co-operation of consecutive governments to avoid a public backlash. We witnessed the new corporate managerialism and marketisation of healthcare, shrinkage of the NHS bed capacity, and transfer of assets into the private sector using Private Finance Initiative and NHS land sales. Private operators expanding their grip on the NHS, securing contracts for the provision of ancillary and then clinical services, rapidly accelerated by the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

The privatisation lobby crafted effective cover stories and carefully managed the national debate to maintain public ignorance and remained largely unchallenged by a compliant mainstream media. Successive reforms were presented as essential improvements while disguising the reality of creeping privatisation. The stage was set for the heist of NHS land, patient medical data, and the £120 billion annual tax-funded budget for US corporate raiders.

Screenshot from the documentary ‘The Great NHS Heist’

The American medical-industrial complex is expensive, dysfunctional and endemically fraudulent yet it is the model being replicated in England. Over thirty million Americans have no medical insurance or government funded care, millions more also financially ruined by medical bills despite having insurance. Hospital providers over investigate and over treat to increase profits by defrauding and potentially harming the sick – while insurers try to avoid seriously ill and expensive people and deny payments when policyholders become too costly. In America, life expectancy, infant and maternal mortality measures are much worse than in other countries where expenditure on healthcare is vastly lower.

Nevertheless health policy in England has accelerated in the wrong direction under the cover of austerity. Chief Executive of NHS England, Mr Simon Stevens, former head of global expansion for US health insurance giant UnitedHealth Group, has progressed the insurance industry designed changes in the NHS, introducing their personnel, IT systems and business methods. The final legal changes to create American Health Maintenance Organisation models, called Integrated Care Systems, are underway. Aligning financial incentives for providers with those of insurers to increase profits by the denial of care to the sick.

In the documentary, patients, health professionals, campaigners and experts from England and America including former Labour Health Secretary Frank Dobson, filmmaker Ken Loach, Anthropologist David Graeber and economists Yanis Varoufakis and Steve Keen deliver a comprehensive exposé of the three-decade long heist of our nation’s proudest achievement, as summed up in this warning from former US insurance industry executive turned whistleblower, Wendell Potter:

“In this country we scare people by saying we don’t want to go down the slippery slope to socialised medicine. Well I tell you something, (what) scares me even worse is going down the slippery slope to the American healthcare system.”

The notes above are adapted from those available on the official website for the documentary.

The full documentary is now uploaded on youtube and embedded below:

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Filed under Britain, did you see?, neo-liberalism

all work and no play

The following article is Chapter Six of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race which I am posting chapter by chapter throughout this year (and beyond). Since blog posts are stacked in a reverse time sequence (always with the latest at the top), I have decided that the best approach is to post the chapters in reverse order.

All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a brief introductory article about the book itself and why I started writing it.

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BOSWELL, “But, sir, the mind must be employed, and we grow weary when idle.”
JOHNSON, “That is, sir, because others being busy, we want company; but if we were all idle, there would be no growing weary; we should all entertain one another… But no man loves labour for itself.”
1

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Leaving aside the various species of bats and whales, very nearly all mammals are land-dwelling creatures. In fact, nearly all animals – meaning quadrupeds – spend their lives earthbound. For millennia humans too occupied the same earthbound sphere alongside fellow ground-dwelling organisms. So consider then the following: at this precise moment upwards of six thousand scheduled airliners are aloft in our skies, and at peak times as many as ten thousand are flying high above the clouds. Each of these airborne vessels is packed with many hundred perfectly ordinary human beings sat in rows, hurtling above our heads at altitudes exceeding thirty thousand feet and speeds above 500 miles per hour. This sum equates to literally millions of people airborne at each and every moment of each and every day – a significant proportion of the entire human population!

Now consider this: prior to December 17th 1903, only a handful of our species had ever lifted off the surface of the planet by any means at all and not a single human being had ever experienced powered flight. But then, on that fateful day, Orville and Wilbur Wright made three successful flights between them. On his first take-off, Orville covered 120 feet, remaining airborne for just 12 seconds. On the final flight, he valiantly managed 200 feet, all at an altitude of only ten feet. A century on, we have Airbus – take note the humdrum name of the company! – and the launch of its A380, the world’s largest passenger jet, which accommodates between 525 and 850 individuals, and is capable of flying approximately 10,000 miles nonstop. Thus, thanks to technology we have grown wings and been transformed into a semi-airborne species; entirely forgetting to be astonished by this remarkable fact is perhaps the final measure of our magnificent achievement.

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“The world is undergoing immense changes. Never before have the conditions of life changed so swiftly and enormously as they have changed for mankind in the last fifty years. We have been carried along – with no means of measuring the increasing swiftness in the succession of events. We are only now beginning to realize the force and strength of the storm of change that has come upon us.

These changes have not come upon our world from without. No meteorite from outer space has struck our planet; there have been no overwhelming outbreaks of volcanic violence or strange epidemic diseases; the sun has not flared up to excessive heat or suddenly shrunken to plunge us into Arctic winter. The changes have come through men themselves. Quite a small number of people, heedless of the ultimate consequence of what they did, one man here and a group there, have made discoveries and produced and adopted inventions that have changed all the condition, of social life.”

These are the opening paragraphs from a lesser-known work by H.G. Wells. The Open Conspiracy, an extended essay written in 1928, was the first of Wells’ most earnest attempts to set the world to rights. Stumbling across it one day, it struck me that this voice from ninety years ago still chimes. I couldn’t help wondering indeed if we aren’t still in the midst of those same “immense changes”, being swept along by an, as yet, undiminished “storm of change”.

Wells, who uses the word ‘change’, in various formulations, no less than seven times (in a mere eight sentences), goes on to compare our modern wonders to the seven wonders of the ancient world, intending to emphasise their novel potency:

“Few realized how much more they were than any “Wonders.” The “Seven Wonders of the World” left men free to go on living, toiling, marrying, and dying as they had been accustomed to for immemorial ages. If the “Seven Wonders” had vanished or been multiplied three score it would not have changed the lives of any large proportion of human beings. But these new powers and substances were modifying and transforming – unobtrusively, surely, and relentlessly – very particular of the normal life of mankind.”

Wells had been trained as a scientist, and more than this, a scientist at a time when science was reaching its apogee. At the Royal College of Science2, he had studied biology under the tutelage of T. H. Huxley, the man who most publicly defended Darwin’s theory. In the debates against the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, it was Huxley who challenged and defeated the permitted orthodoxy of divine creation by showing how Science makes a better account of our origins than religious authority; so in an important sense, Huxley must be seen as one of the pioneers of this scientific revolution. With religion rather abruptly and rudely dismissed, it was open to the scientists and technologists to lead us all to salvation.

Wells was keen to get involved, if only as one of science and technology’s most passionate and outspoken advocates.  Growing up in late Victorian Britain, he was well acquainted with how systems of mass production had mostly superseded manual methods to become the predominant form of industrial process. Likewise, he had witnessed the spread of agricultural machines for planting seeds and harvesting crops, and of automotive machines transporting loads and providing ever more reliable and comfortable means for human transit. These innovations had led to a dramatic increase both in production and, more importantly, in productivity, and machine processes were set to become ever more versatile and reliable.

Wells was amongst the first to seriously consider how these new modes of manufacture with their greater efficiencies and capacities for heavier constructions, not to mention for longer range transportation and communication, would bring rapid and sweeping changes to ordinary life. Most importantly, he understood that since technology potentially allowed the generation of almost limitless power, its rise would unstoppably alter human affairs forever, and by extension, impact upon the natural world too.

Quite correctly, Wells went on to forecast an age to come (our age), in which ordinary lives are transformed to an extent so far beyond the technological transformations of past ages that life is unutterably and irreversibly altered. Yet the widespread access to these “wonders”, as he insistently calls them, causes us to regard them as so ordinary that we seldom, if ever, stop to wonder about them.

For machines are nowadays embedded quite literally everywhere – one is in fact translating the movement of my fingertips into printed words, whilst another happens to be reproducing the soulful precision of Alfred Brendel’s rendition of one of Franz Schubert’s late sonatas on a machine of still older conception (the piano) via yet another machine that preserves sound in the form of electrical impulses. Thanks to machines of these kinds, not only the sheet-music – those handwritten frequency-time graphs so painstakingly drafted, perhaps by candlelight, and very certainly using only a feather quill and inkpot – but thousands upon thousands of musical (and other) performances can be conjured up with literally “a click”. The snapping fingers of an emperor could never have summoned such variety. But then the internet is a wonder far exceeding even H.G. Wells’ far-seeing imagination.

*

More than a century ago, the poet, satirist and social commentator Oscar Wilde was another who looked forward to a time of such “wonders”. For Wilde, as for Wells, they presented reasons to be cheerful:

“All unintelligent labour, all monotonous, dull labour, all labour that deals in dreadful things, and involves unpleasant conditions, must be done by machinery. Machinery must work for us in coal mines, and do all sanitary services, and be the stoker of steamers, and clean the streets, and run messages on wet days, and do anything that is tedious and distressing… There is no doubt at all that this is the future of machinery; and just as trees grow while the country gentleman is asleep, so while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure – which, and not labour, is the aim of man – or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work. The fact is that civilization needs slaves… [But] Human slavery is wrong, insecure and demoralizing. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.”3

Wilde and Wells were optimists, but cautious ones, and each foretold new dangers that potentially lay in wait for us. Wells wrote:

“They [the new “wonders”] increased the amount of production and the methods of production. They made possible “Big-Business,” to drive the small producer and the small distributor out of the market. They swept away factories and evoked new ones. They changed the face of the fields. They brought into the normal life, thing by thing and day by day, electric light and heating, bright cities at night, better aeration, new types of clothing, a fresh cleanliness. They changed a world where there had never been enough into a world of potential plenty, into a world of excessive plenty.”4

Wells believed that the very successes which brought about large-scale manufacturing and distribution, as well as commensurate developments in fields such as agriculture, sanitation and medicine, ones that were already extending the average life-expectancy, might still feasibly bring heavier burdens to bear on the planet. Left unchecked, he argued, our species would finish using up everything, whilst, exponentially crowding ourselves out of existence. So these new “wonders” were a double-edged sword. And then what of “excessive plenty” – of too much of a good thing – how do we avoid replacing one set of miseries with another? Such were Wells’ concerns, but then Wells owed a great deal to the eternal pessimist Thomas Malthus.

By contrast, at the dusk of the Victorian era, Wilde is not much bothered as Wells is, by the prospect of society overrun by a burgeoning and profligate mass of humanity, but by how we can ensure the new prosperity, so long awaited and desperately overdue, could be fairly distributed. After all, progress had until then been primarily technological in form and not social, and it appeared to Wilde that the costs of industrialisation were still hugely outweighing its benefits.

The centuries of Industrial Revolution had claimed so many victims. Not only those trapped inside the mills and the mines, the wage-slaves working all the hours God sends for subsistence pay, but those still more benighted souls incarcerated in the workhouses, alongside their malnourished children, who from ages six upwards might be forced underground to sweat in the mines or else to clamber about in the more choking darkness of chimneystacks.5 Industrial development meant that for the majority of adults and children (boys and girls) life was sunk into a routine of unremitting hardship and ceaseless backbreaking labour, as the poor were ruthlessly sacrificed to profit their masters – one big difference today, of course, is that our own sweatshops are more distant.

To abolish this class-ridden barbarism, Wilde therefore proposed an unapologetically radical solution:

“Up to the present, man has been, to a certain extent, the slave of machinery, and there is something tragic in the fact that as soon as man had invented a machine to do his work he began to starve. This, however, is, of course, the result of our property system and our system of competition. One man owns a machine which does the work of five hundred men. Five hundred men are, in consequence, thrown out of employment, and having no work to do, become hungry and take to thieving. The one man secures the produce of the machine and keeps it, and has five hundred times as much as he should have, and probably, which is of more importance, a great deal more than he really wants. Were that machine the property of all, everyone would benefit by it.”6

*

In case Wilde’s enthusiasm for collective ownership encourages you think it, then please be assured that he was not exactly a Leninist (as you will see), nor, in any traditional sense, was he a fully-fledged Marxist. In fact, if anything Wilde was an anarchist, heaping special praise on Peter Kropotkin, whom he once described as: “a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia.”7

Now it is interesting and worthwhile, I think, to compare Wilde’s views, writing just a few decades earlier, with those of H.G. Wells, for both held notionally left-leaning sympathies and both were broadly hopeful; each underscoring the special importance of science and technology when it came to achieving such desirable goals as ending poverty and rebuilding a fairer society. For in some regards, Wilde’s perspective is orthogonally different to Wells – and it is Wells who made the better communist (though he remained deeply antagonistic towards Marx for other reasons).

For Wells was an unflinching collectivist, and thus forever seeking solutions in terms of strict autocratic control. For instance, in one of the concluding chapters of The Open Conspiracy, Wells outlines “seven broad principles” that will ensure human progress of which the sixth reads as follows:

“The supreme duty of subordinating the personal career to the creation of a world directorate capable of these tasks [ones that will ensure the betterment of mankind] and to the general advancement of human knowledge, capacity, and power”8.

Wilde, on the contrary, unswervingly insisted that above all else the sovereign rights of the individual must be protected. That personal freedom must never be horse-traded, since “the true personality of man”, as he puts it, is infinitely more precious than any amount of prospective gains in comfort and security. This is precisely where Wilde is at his most prescient, foreseeing the dangers of socialist authoritarianism a full two decades before the Russian revolution, and instinctively advising a simple cure:

“What is needed is Individualism. If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first.”9

So compare Wilde’s earlier views to those of Wells fifty years on, by which time the Soviet model was up and running, and yet he is still advocating the need for a more widespread and overarching central authority: ultimately, a world government to coerce and co-ordinate the masses into the new age of socialism; even to the point of eradicating misfits for the sake of the greater good.

For Wells, every answer for resolving humanity’s problems involved the implementation of top-down governance, with the patterns of individual behaviour controlled by means of an applied political force-field, whereas Wilde was equally insistent that individuals are not uniformly alike like atoms, and must be permitted, so far as is humanly possible, to organise ourselves. It is a fundamental difference in outlook that is reflected in their attitudes towards work.

*

The inherent value of work is rarely questioned by Wells. In his earlier fictional work A Utopian World he answers his own inquiry “will a Utopian be free to be idle?” as follows:

“Work has to be done, every day humanity is sustained by its collective effort, and without a constant recurrence of effort in the single man as in the race as a whole, there is neither health nor happiness. The permanent idleness of a human being is not only burthensome to the world, but his own secure misery.”10

Wells is expressing a concern that once the labouring masses are relieved of their back-breaking obligation to work, they may “develop a recalcitrance where once there was little but fatalistic acquiescence”:

“It is just because labour is becoming more intelligent, responsible, and individually efficient that it is becoming more audible and impatient in social affairs. It is just because it is no longer mere gang labour, and is becoming more and more intelligent co-operation in detail, that it now resents being treated as a serf, housed like a serf, fed like a serf, and herded like a serf, and its pride and thoughts and feelings disregarded. Labour is in revolt because as a matter of fact it is, in the ancient and exact sense of the word, ceasing to be labour at all.”11

For these reasons, Wells senses trouble ahead, whereas for Wilde, these same changes in modes of employment serve as further reasons to be cheerful:

“[And] as I have mentioned the word labour, I cannot help saying that a great deal of nonsense is being written and talked nowadays about the dignity of labour. There is nothing necessarily dignified about manual labour at all, and most of it is absolutely degrading. It is mentally and morally injurious to man to do anything in which he does not find pleasure, and many forms of labour are quite pleasureless activities, and should be regarded as such. To sweep a slushy crossing for eight hours on a day when the east wind is blowing is a disgusting occupation. To sweep it with joy would be appalling. Man is made for something better than disturbing dirt. All work of that kind should be done by machine.”12

In his essay, Wilde, unlike Wells, is unabashed in confessing to his own Utopianism, writing:

“Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”13

But then, both Wilde and Wells were dreaming up Utopias during an age when dreaming about Utopia remained a permissible intellectual pursuit. So it is just that Wilde’s dream is so much grander than any visions of Wells. Wells was certainly an astute forecaster and could see with exceptional acuity what immediately awaited humanity around the next few corners, but Wilde, on the other hand, sought to navigate across a wider ocean. He did not wish to be constrained by the tedious encumbrances of his own time, and regarded the complete abolition of hard labour as an absolutely essential component of a better future. Even then, he was far from alone.

*

Writing in the thirties, Bertrand Russell was another outspoken advocate of cultured laziness. Russell, who is now venerated by some almost as a secular saint was nothing of the sort. Many of his views on politics and society were highly disagreeable and he was arguably one of the dreariest philosophers ever published, but this aside he was a supreme mathematician. It is noteworthy therefore that in order to support his own expressed desire for reducing the average workload, he did a few very simple sums. These led him to what he regarded as the most important, yet completely overlooked, lesson to be learned from the Great War.

At a time when the majority of the able-bodied population were busily fighting or else engaged in other means of facilitating the destructive apparatus of war, new modes of production had maintained sufficiency, and yet, as Russell pointed out, the true significance of this outstanding triumph of the new technologies was altogether masked by the vagaries of economics. He writes:

“Modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labour required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone. This was made obvious during the war. At that time all the men in the armed forces, and all the men and women engaged in the production of munitions, all the men and women engaged in spying, war propaganda, or Government offices connected with the war, were withdrawn from productive occupations. In spite of this, the general level of well-being among unskilled wage-earners on the side of the Allies was higher than before or since. The significance of this fact was concealed by finance: borrowing made it appear as if the future was nourishing the present. But that, of course, would have been impossible; a man cannot eat a loaf of bread that does not yet exist. The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed.”

And so to the sums – easy stuff for a man who had previously tried to fathom a complete axiomatic system for all mathematics:

“This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose. No wonder the result has been disastrous. Let us take an illustration. Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

His conclusion is that everyone could and would work a lot less hours, if only the system permitted us to:

“If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment – assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure.”14

It was still only 1932 remember – technology’s “wonders” have moved on a lot since Russell’s day…

*

Apis mellifera, the honey-bearing bee, is the paragon of industriousness. It’s a pleasure just to watch them humming their way from flower to flower. Working all the hours the apian god sends, without a care in the world. We ascribe tremendous social virtue to our arthropodous familiars, the busy, busy bees. However, if we are to judge bees fairly then we ought properly to consider more critically what it is that our conscientious little friends actually get up to day in, day out…

For though we say that the bees are “at work” – the infertile females who carry out the majority of tasks technically denominated as “workers” – their most celebrated activity, the foraging for nectar from flowers, can hardly be considered a “real job” at all. Unless by “real job” we allow that gorging oneself on the sweetest food available automatically qualifies as work. For, after supping up an abdomenful of nectar (I exaggerate a little for effect), these “workers” then return home to empty the contents of their bellies, as any professional drinker might. Back at the hive, their sister bees also collaborate in the transformation of the incoming nectar, collectively “manufacturing” honey by means of repeated consumption, partial digestion and regurgitation – and apologies to anyone who has suddenly lost their appetite for honey, but bear in mind that milk and eggs are no less strange when you stop to think about them.

By chance, it happens that humans (and other creatures) are partial to the sticky end product of a bee’s binge drinking session. I personally love it. And so we steal away their almost intoxicating amber syrup and attach an attractive price tag to it. The bees receive compensation in the form of sugar, and being apparently unaware of our cheap deception, are extolled as paragons of virtue.

In fact, whenever we take to judging or appraising human conduct of any kind, there is a stubborn tendency to take direction either from Religion, or, if Religion is dismissed, to look for comparisons from Nature. If doing something “isn’t natural”, a lazy kind of reasoning goes, then evidently – evidentially, in fact – there must be something wrong with it. For it cannot be right and proper to sin against Religion or to transgress against Nature. Thus, behaviour that is unorthodox and deviant in relationship to a received normal is denounced, in accordance with strict definition indeed, as perversion.

This fallacious “appeal to nature” argument also operates in reverse: that whenever a particular behaviour is thought virtuous or worthwhile, then – and generally without the slightest recourse to further identifiable evidence – ipso facto, it becomes “natural”. Although of the tremendous variety of human activities, work seems outstanding in this regard. For throughout historic times, societies have consistently upheld that work is self-evidently “natural”; the Protestant “work ethic” is perhaps the most familiar and unmistakeably religious variant of a broader sanctification of labour. Although it is surely worth noting that God’s punishment for Adam’s original sin was that he should be expelled from Paradise “to till the ground from whence he was taken.”15 (Most probably booming “the world doesn’t owe you a living, my son!” before slamming the gates to paradise shut.) Protestant mill-owners, of course, found it convenient to overlook how hard labour was God’s original punishment.

But then, atheistic societies have been inclined to extol work more highly still, and not simply because it is “natural” (the commonest surrogate for Religion), but because atheism is inherently materialist, and since materials depend upon production, productivity is likewise deemed more virtuous and worthwhile. Thus, under systems both Capitalist and Communist, work reigns supreme.

Stalin awarded medals to his miners and his manufacturers – and why not? Medals for production make more sense than medals for destruction. Yet this adoration of work involves a doublethink, with Stalin, for example, on the one hand glorifying the hard labour of labour heroes like, most famously, Alexey Stakhanov, and meanwhile dispatching his worst enemies to the punishment of hard labour in distant work camps, as did Mao and as did Hitler. “Arbeit macht frei” is an horrific lie, yet in some important sense the Nazi leaders evidently believed their own lie, for aside from war and genocide, the Nazi ideology once again extolled work above all else. In the case of Communism, the exaltation of the means of production was to serve the collective ends; in Fascism, itself the twisted apotheosis of Nature, work being natural ensures it is inherently a still greater good.

Yet oddly, whenever you stop to think about it, very little modern humans do is remotely natural, whether or not it is decent, proper and righteous. Cooking food isn’t natural. Eating our meals out of crockery by means of metal cutlery isn’t remotely natural either. Sleeping in a bed isn’t natural. Wearing socks, or hats, or anything else for that matter, isn’t natural… just ask the naturists! And structuring our lives so that our activities coincide with a predetermined time schedule isn’t the least bit natural. Alarm clocks aren’t natural folks! Wake up!

But work is indeed widely regarded as an especially (one might say uniquely) exemplary activity, as well as a wholesomely natural one. Consider the bees, the ants, or whatever other creature fits the bill, and see how tremendously and ungrudgingly productive they all are. See how marvellously proactive and business-like – such marvellous efficiency and purpose! In reality, however, the bees, ants and all the other creatures are never working at all – not even “the workers”. Not in any meaningful sense that corresponds to our narrow concept of “working”. The bees, the ants and the rest of the critters are all simply being… being bees, being ants. Being and “playing”, if you prefer: “playing” certainly no less valid as a description than “working”, and arguably closer to reality once understood from any bee or ant’s perspective (presuming they have one).

No species besides our own (an especially odd species) willingly engages in drudgery and toil; the rest altogether more straightforwardly simply eat, sleep, hunt, drink, breathe, run, swim and fly. The birds don’t do it! The bees don’t do it either! (Let’s leave the educated fleas!) Nature natures and this is all. It is we who anthropomorphise such natural activities and by attaching inappropriate labels transform ordinary pleasures into such burdensome pursuits that they sap nature of vitality. So when Samuel Johnson says, “No man loves labour for itself!” he is actually reminding us all of our true nature.

*

Whether or not we welcome it, “manpower” (humanpower that is), like horsepower before, is soon to be superseded by machine-power. Indeed, a big reason this profound change hasn’t made a greater impact already is that manpower (thanks to contemporary forms of wage slavery and the more distant indentured servitude of sweatshop labour) has remained comparatively cheap. For now the human worker is also more subtle and adaptable than any automated alternative. All of this, however, is about to be challenged, and the changeover will come with unfaltering haste.

To a considerable extent our switch to automation has already happened. On the domestic front, the transfer of labour is rather obvious, with the steady introduction and accumulation of so many labour-saving devices. For instance, the introduction of electric washing machines, which eliminate the need to use a washboard, to hand rinse or squeeze clothes through a mangle, spares us a full day of labour per week. When these became automatic washer dryers, the only required task was to load and unload the machine. In my own lifetime the spread of these, at first, luxury appliances, is now complete throughout the Western world. Meantime, the rise and rise of factory food and clothing production means ready meals and socks are so inexpensive that fewer of us actually bother to cook and scarcely anyone younger than me even remembers what darning is. The bored housewife was very much a late twentieth century affliction – freed from cooking and cleaning there was suddenly ample time for stuffing mushrooms.

Outside our homes, however, the rise of the machine has had a more equivocal impact. Indeed, it has been counterproductive in many ways, with new technologies sometimes adding to the workload instead of subtracting from it. The rise of information technologies is an illustrative example: the fax machine, emails, the internet and even mobile phones have enabled businesses to extend working hours beyond our traditional and regular shifts, and in other ways, work has been multiplied as the same technologies unnecessarily interfere to the detriment of real productive capacity.

Today’s worker is faced with more assessments to complete, more paperwork (albeit usually of a digital form), more evaluation, and an ever-expanding stack of office emails to handle – enough demands for swift replies to circulars and a multitude of other paper-chasing obligations that we spend half our days stuck in front of a monitor or bent over the office photocopier. Every member of “the team” now recruited to this singular task of administrative procedures.

But these mountains of paper (and/or terabytes of zeroes and ones) needing to be reprocessed into different forms of paper and/or digital records are only rising in response to the rise of the office. In fact, it is this increase in bureaucracy which provides the significant make-weight to mask the more general underlying decline in gainful (meaning productive) employment. Yet still, this growth in administration is a growth that only carries us so far, and a growth that can and ultimately will be eliminated, if not for perfectly sound reasons of practicability, then by automation. Ultimately, office workers are no more immune to this process of technological redundancy than the rest of us.

First broadcast by Channel 4 in 1993, the final episode of Tim Hunkin’s wonderful “Secret Life of the Office” served up a humorous take on the social engineering that led to the Twentieth Century’s rise of the office:

*

That the robots are coming is no longer science fiction, any more than the killer robots circling high over Pakistan and Yemen armed with their terrifyingly accurate automated AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, are science fiction. In fact, all our future wars will be fought by means of killer robots, and, unless such super-weapons are banned outright or, at the very least, controlled by international treaties, subsequent generations of these ‘drones’ will become increasingly autonomous – the already stated objective is to produce fully autonomous drones; an horrific prospect. It is also a prospect that perhaps most graphically illustrates how sophisticated today’s robotic systems have become, even if, as with all cutting-edge technology, the military enjoys the most advanced systems. In short, the grim robots fleets are with us, and set to become swarms unless nations act to outlaw their deployment, whereas more beneficial robotic descendants still wait more placidly in the wings. The arrival of both fleets heralds a new age – one for the better and one decidedly for the worse.

Of course, the forthcoming workforce of robots might also be for the worse. Yet the choice is ultimately ours, even if we cannot hold off that choice indefinitely, or even for very much longer. For all our robotic rivals (once perfected) hold so many advantages over a human workforce. Never grumbling or complaining, never demanding a pay rise or a holiday, and, in contrast to human drones, never needing any sleep at all, let alone scheming against their bosses or dreaming up ways to escape.

And the new robots will not stick to manufacturing, or cleaning, or farming the land, or moving goods around in auto-piloted trucks (just as they already fly planes), but soon, by means of the internet, they will be supplying a host of entirely door-to-door services – indeed, a shift in modes of distribution is already beginning to happen. In the slightly longer term, robots will be able to provide all life’s rudimentary essentials – the bare necessities, as the song goes. Quietly, efficiently and ungrudgingly constructing and servicing the essential infrastructure of a fully functioning civilisation. Then, in the slightly longer term, robots will be able to take care of the design, installation and upgrading of everything, including their own replacement robots. In no time, our drudgery (as well as the mundane jobs performed by those trapped inside those Third World sweatshops) will have been completely superseded.

This however leads us to a serious snag and a grave danger. For under present conditions, widespread automation ensures mass redundancy and long-term ruin for nearly everyone. And though there are few historical precedents, surely we can read between the historical lines, to see how societies, yielding to the dictates of their ruling elites (in our times, the bureaucrats and technocrats working at the behest of unseen plutocrats), will likely deal with those superfluous populations. It is unwise to expect much leniency, especially in view of the current dismantlement of existing social safety nets and welfare systems. The real clampdown on the “useless eaters” is only just beginning.

It is advisable, therefore, to approach this arising situation with eyes wide open, recognising such inexorable labour-saving developments for what they are: not merely a looming threat but potentially, at least, an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity. However, this demands a fresh ethos: one that truly values all human life for its own sake and not merely for its productive capacity. More specifically, it requires a steady shift towards reduced working hours and greatly extended holidays: a sharing out of the ever-diminishing workload and a redistribution of resources (our true wealth), which will of course remain ample in any case (the robots will make sure of that).

This introduction of a new social paradigm is now of paramount concern, because if we hesitate too long in making our transition to a low work economy, then hard-line social and political changes will instead be imposed from above. Moves to counter what will be perceived as a crisis of under-employment will mean the implementation of social change but only to benefit the ruling establishment, who for abundantly obvious reasons will welcome the rise in wealth and income disparity along with the further subjugation of the lower classes – the middle class very much included.

As physicist Stephen Hawking said in response to the question “[D]o you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated?” and “Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done?”

“If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”16

It is an answer that closely echoes Wilde’s foresight of more than a century ago; the difference being one of placing stress. Hawking emphasises the threat of what he calls the “second option”, whereas Wilde encourages us to press ahead in order to realise Hawking’s “a life of luxurious leisure” for everyone.

Of course, there will always be a little useful work that needs doing. Robots will ultimately be able perform all menial, most manual and the vast majority of mental tasks far more efficiently than a human brain and hand, but there will still be the need and the place for the human touch. In education, in medicine and nursing, care for the elderly and sick, and a host of other, sometimes mundane tasks and chores: emotionally intricate, kindly and compassionate roles that are indispensible to keeping all our lives ticking pleasantly along. The big question for our times, however, is really this: given the cheapness and abundance of modern labour-saving equipment, how is it that, even in the western world, instead of contracting, working hours are continuing to rise? The question for tomorrow – one that the first question contains and conceals – is this: given complete freedom and unrestricted choice, what would we actually prefer to be doing in our daily lives? As Bertrand Russell wrote:

“The wise use of leisure, it must be conceded, is a product of civilization and education. A man who has worked long hours all his life will become bored if he becomes suddenly idle. But without a considerable amount of leisure a man is cut off from many of the best things. There is no longer any reason why the bulk of the population should suffer this deprivation; only a foolish asceticism, usually vicarious, makes us continue to insist on work in excessive quantities now that the need no longer exists…”

“Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”17

*

I was about twelve when I took my first flight. It was onboard a Douglas DC9 and I was travelling to Vienna on an exchange trip. I was so excited and not afraid at all – or at least not afraid of the flight. Indeed, I recall how this was the main question older relatives kept asking and I found their obsession puzzling more than anything. But as I have grown older I have sadly developed a fear of flying. This is annoying in the extreme. Why now… when I’m middle-aged and have so much less to lose? But fear is only seldom a purely rational impulse.

Not that it is half so irrational as we are told to have a severe anxiety about being catapulted inside a thin metal capsule six miles up and at close to the speed of sound. Statistics are one thing but being in the presence of sheer physical danger is another. That said, fear of flying is surely as much about loss of control as anything. For why else did my own fear of flying worsen as I got older? Children are more accustomed than adults to feeling powerless, and so better able to relish the excitement of situations totally outside of their control.

Whole societies – or at least majority sections of societies – also suffer with phobias. Like our private fears, these collective fears held by social groups are frequently rooted in some sense of an impending loss of control. Fear of foreigners, fear of financial collapse, and fear of “terror”. But seldom considered is another societal phobia: our collective ‘fear of flying’. Flying in the poetic sense, that is: of fully letting go of the mundane. Instead, it seems our common longing is to be grounded: an understandable desire.

Why else, scarcely a century since the Wright Brothers’ miraculous first flights, do today’s air passengers find flying (that ancient dream) so tiresome that our commercial airlines serve up non-stop distractions to divert attention away from the direct experience? Indeed, listening to those familiar onboard announcements bidding us a pleasant flight, we are inclined (and very likely reclined) to hear the incidental underlying message: “we are sorry to put you through the dreary inconvenience of this journey”.

We fly and yet we don’t fly – or not as those who first dreamt of flight imagined. Flight has instead been transformed from visionary accomplishment into a nuisance and taken entirely for granted by the clock watchers impatiently kicking our heels beneath the slow-turning departure boards.

And just why are today’s airports such sterile and soul-destroying anti-human spaces? Presumably because this is again what modern humans have come to expect! The same can be said for so many facets of modern live. If we can transform the miracle of flight into a chore, then it follows that we can turn just about any activity into one.

Next chapter…

*

In 1958 Mike Wallace interviewed psychoanalyst and social critic, Erich Fromm. What Fromm says about society, materialism, relationships, religion, and happiness is remarkably prescient, as is his analysis of a growing alienation as we become diminished to the role of products in an age of consumerism:

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Addendum: the future of work and Universal Basic Income

Due to its historical roots in workers’ movements18, the political left has tended to hold a somewhat inimical position when it comes to appraising the value of work. The understandable and perfectly legitimate elevation of the worker has had a countervailing effect in terms of accentuating the virtuousness of work per se, thereby adding to the weight of received wisdom that to endure toil and hardship is somehow intrinsically valuable. This is why the left has fallen into the habit of making a virtue out of the central object of the oppression it faces.

So what is the goal of the political left (of socialism, if you prefer)? What is its aim, if not, so far as it is possible, to fully emancipate the individual? For whatever dignifies and ennobles labour, and however understandable it may be as a strategy, to celebrate work for its own sake, disguises the base truth that only seldom is it edifying, and more often just a millstone, frequently a terrible one, which, if we are ever to become truly “free at last”, ought to be joyfully laid aside.

In 2013 Anthropologist David Graeber, professor of anthropology at LSE, wrote an excoriating essay on modern work for Strike! magazine. “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” was read over a million times and the essay translated in seventeen different languages within weeks. Embedded below is a lecture Graeber gave to the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) to expand on this phenomenon, and explore how the proliferation of meaningless jobs – more associated with the 20th-century Soviet Union than latter-day capitalism – has impacted modern society:

Since writing most of the above chapter the Zeitgeist has shifted remarkably. Suddenly technological unemployment is treated as a serious prospect and debated as a part of a wider political discourse on future trends. Introduced into this new debate, especially on the left, is the proposal for a ‘universal basic income’ i.e., money provided to everyone by the state to cover basic living expenses. Importantly this payment would be provided irrespective of how many hours a person works and has no other (discernable) strings attached.

UBI is certainly a very bold initiative as well as a plausible solution to the diminishing need for human workers in the coming hi-tech era. Unsurprisingly, I very much welcome it, at least in principle, but wish also to offer a small note of caution. Before large numbers of us are to able to live solely by means of a state provided UBI it will be essential to adjust societal norms relating to work. There can be no stigma in idleness. For if UBI is seen as merely a state handout and its recipients as welfare dependents, then we put them all into severe danger.

After all, work historically equates to status and money and until this ingrained relationship is eroded away, anyone subsisting on UBI alone would rather quickly sink to the level of a second-class citizen. Which is why I propose the better approach to UBI must aim to advance by taking baby steps: reducing days and hours, increasing holidays, lowering pensionable age, as well as expanding education – we must in fact think of eventually offering the luxury of lifelong education for all. Given where we start from today, to attempt to leap to it with one giant stride is surely too much of a risk. If UBI is truly our goal then we might reach it best by trimming work back until it barely exists at all.

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Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.

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1 Quotes taken from The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D by James Boswell (1791). In the original version, the section substituted by ellipsis reads as follows: “There is, indeed, this in trade:– it gives men an opportunity of improving their situation. If there were no trade, many who are poor would always remain poor.”

2 Now part of Imperial College (my own alma mater).

3 Extract taken from The soul of man under socialism by Oscar Wilde (first published 1891).

4 The Open Conspiracy was published in 1928, subtitled “Blue Prints for a World Revolution”. These extracts are taken from Chapter 1 entitled “The present crisis in human affairs”. Interestingly, in a letter to Wells, albeit a begging letter, Bertrand Russell said of the work: “… I do not know of anything with which I agree more entirely”. The Open Conspiracy was later revised and republished as “What Are We to Do with Our Lives?” in 1931. http://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/Wells_The_Open_Conspiracy.pdf

5 Many boys and girls suffocated and others fell to their deaths. This was not helped by the practice of master sweeps to light a fire beneath them in order to force them to climb faster.

6 Quote taken from The Open Conspiracy.

7

“Two of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience are the lives of [the French Symbolist poet, Paul] Verlaine and of Prince Kropotkin: both of them men who have passed years in prison: the first, the one Christian poet since Dante; the other, a man with a soul of that beautiful white Christ which seems coming out of Russia.”

Taken from “De Profundis”, meaning literally “from the depths”; Wilde’s celebrated cri de coeur was intended, in part at least, as an extended letter and impassioned rebuke to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. It was written during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol between January and March 1897, and has since been publicly released in various expurgated versions, the first of which was published in 1905. A complete version was finally released in 1962.

8

From The Open Conspiracy by H.G. Wells. The full set of seven “broad principles” reads as follows:

(1) The complete assertion, practical as well as theoretical, of the provisional nature of existing governments and of our acquiescence in them;

(2) The resolve to minimize by all available means the conflicts of these governments, their militant use of individuals and property, and their interferences with the establishment of a world economic system;

(3) The determination to replace private, local or national ownership of at least credit, transport, and staple production by a responsible world directorate serving the common ends of the race;

(4) The practical recognition of the necessity for world biological controls, for example, of population and disease;

(5) The support of a minimum standard of individual freedom and welfare in the world; and

(6) The supreme duty of subordinating the personal career to the creation of a world directorate capable of these tasks and to the general advancement of human knowledge, capacity, and power;

(7) The admission therewith that our immortality is conditional and lies in the race and not in our individual selves.

In light of what was about to come, this last item of the seven is perhaps the most perturbing. Wells introduces it as follows:

“And it is possible even of these, one, the seventh, may be, if not too restrictive, at least unnecessary. To the writer it seems unavoidable because it is so intimately associated with that continual dying out of tradition upon which our hopes for an unencumbered and expanding human future rest.”

9 Extract from The soul of man under socialism by Oscar Wilde (first published 1891).

10 From A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells (published 1905). The same passage continues:

“But unprofitable occupation is also intended by idleness, and it may be considered whether that freedom also will be open to the Utopian. Conceivably it will, like privacy, locomotion, and almost all the freedoms of life, and on the same terms – if he possess the money to pay for it.”

11 Extract from The Open Conspiracy by H.G. Wells (first published 1928).

12 Extract from The soul of man under socialism by Oscar Wilde (first published 1891).

13 Ibid.

14 Extract taken from In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell (1932). Note that Russell’s reference to pin manufacture is a deliberate allusion to Adam Smith’s famous hypothetical pin factory in which he illustrated the benefits of ‘division of labour’ in The Wealth of Nations.

15 From Genesis 3:23 (KJV)

16 In answer to a question posed during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session on October 8, 2015. https://www.reddit.com/r/science/comments/3nyn5i/science_ama_series_stephen_hawking_ama_answers/cvsdmkv

17 Extract taken from In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell (1932).

18 Without an upwelling of righteous indignation amongst the oppressed rank and file of working people, no leftist movement would ever have arisen and gained traction. Yet, the political left also owes its origins to the early co-operative movements, a spontaneous awakening of enlightenment humanists, to the Romantics, and most importantly, to fringe religious groups. Tony Benn famously said that the formation of the Labour Party in Britain owed “more to Methodism than Marx”.

In 1832 six agricultural labourers formed a friendly society to protest against their meagre wages. George Loveless, a Methodist local preacher, was the leader of this small union – the other members included his brother James (also a Methodist preacher), James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield (Methodist and co-founder of the union) and Thomas’s son John. These men were subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to transportation. Three years later, and following a huge public outcry which involved a march on London and petitions to parliament, they were issued pardons and allowed to return to England as heroes. This small band of men is now collectively remembered as the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

But the origins of socialism in Britain can be really traced as far back as the English Civil War and indeed earlier again to Wat Tyler’s Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when the workers of the Middle Ages, inspired by the teachings of the radical priest John Ball, took their demands directly to the King Richard II who reneged on his concessions and had them hunted down.

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David Graeber on debt and why it must be cancelled

Back on September 10th, David Graeber, a lecturer in anthropology at Goldsmiths College, and the author of several books, including his latest, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (published in July), talked to Max Keiser about the relationship between money and debt, and what he sees as historical shifts from credit systems to cash systems and back again.

Graeber claims that this current “virtual money” credit era, which began about forty years ago, is not radically new, and only different in that during former times there were periodic debt jubilees. That in today’s system, without such regular debt cancellation, there is no safeguard against an otherwise inevitable descent into a debt trap.

And Graeber believes that the banking crash of 2008 has radically altered many people’s perspectives on money. He told Keiser that the world isn’t short of smarter ideas for economic alternatives, which is one of the reasons he remains optimistic about what’s now happening in Europe and elsewhere:

“I mean what we have in Greece, what we have in Spain, and it’s beginning to spread to other countries. The way I like to think of it is – I think in 2008 they kinda let the cat out of the bag. You know, for all these years they’ve been saying that markets run themselves and the people in charge, they know what they’re doing – they might not be very nice people but they’re incredibly competent. In fact they’re the only people who know how to run an economy.

And of course we were also told debts are sacred and have to be repaid. What we learned with the crash was that none of those things were true. People had no idea what they were doing; they did get bailed out; the markets didn’t run themselves.

So once we understand that money is actually a political arrangement – it’s a social set of promises that people make to one another – well, if trillions of dollars worth of debt can be made to disappear, if that’s convenient for the big players, then I think what people are saying is: well, alright fine, if those are the new terms that makes sense, but if democracy is going to mean anything now, it’s means everybody gets to weigh in on how promises are made and how they’re renegotiated. And that’s what people are calling for and demanding and I think it’s very promising for a sort of new political movement.”

Graeber has been personally involved in organising the “Occupy Wall Street” protest, as he explained on yesterday’s Democracy Now!

And with regards to precedents for debt cancellation, Graeber says:

Well, the interesting thing is that most of the developing nations have actually pulled themselves out of the situation. Structural adjustment has come home to Europe and America. I think it would be a great idea. I think it would bring home that we really are in a different age, that money doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to. And there are people who have tried it. Saudi Arabia, actually most dramatically, that was their reaction to the Arab Spring: they declared a debt cancellation. So there are precedents. I mean, they kind of don’t want people to know that they did it, for obvious reasons, but they did.

Click here to read earlier posts on the #occupywallstreet protests.

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Filed under debt cancellation, Europe, Greece, Max Keiser, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Uncategorized