Monthly Archives: January 2007

Going on strike

A 1971 strike in Knoxville, Tennessee
Industrial action is pointless, wasteful and destructive – and essential for a healthy society

Why do people still go on strike? Haven’t we got past all that? Didn’t we leave the pointless conflict of boss and worker back in the eighties? Obviously not. Cabin crew at British Airways are flexing their muscles (although their strike is off for the time being). Railway workers are staging one-day strikes. Civil servants are at it too. New Yorkers are into it too. We don’t seem to be able to transcend the wasteful non-communication of labour vs capital. Sooner or later (at least where unions still exist) push comes to shove and labour is withdrawn. Strikes do permanent damage to reputations, jobs and the bottom line and they hardly ever produce the effect desired by workers. Everyone suffers. So why do we keep doing it?

A strike (a dispute, a standoff, a work-to-rule… Any kind of labour-side argy-bargy) is a response to some kind of imbalance… an asymmetry. These asymmetries used to have simpler names: exploitation, inequity. They were about unequal access to resources – shitty pay, diabolical conditions, long hours. That’s why trade unions came into being. These days the asymmetries are subtler. Circumstances have changed and it’s usually about unequal access to information, poorly distributed knowledge or failed communication.

Capitalism is imperfect. Markets are powerful tools for producing and distributing value but they do it mechanically and arbitrarily. Capitalism, of course, actually depends on these asymmetries. Between the value of an asset to you and its value to me. Between businesses with pricing power and those who follow. Between those who make efficient use of capital and those who waste it. Without asymmetries opportunities never arise. Capitalism conducted without unequal access to one kind of resource or another is unimaginable.

In a capitalist system – let’s get this straight – value can only be created where there is a useful asymmetry to exploit. So, while these critical asymmetries produce economic value, labour must retain the last resort power to challenge an injustice, to rectify an inequity, to face down capital. Strikes may be crude and often counterproductive but any reading of the contemporary economy must acknowledge that they’re a necessary and proportionate corrective to out-of-whack capital. Strikes are an awkward holdover from the first half of the industrial revolution but, it turns out, they retain their value. Strikes are aggressive and negative and messy but they’re also direct, appropriate and authentic: we’re pissed off and we’re not going to take it any more…

The pic is from an excellent flickr set about Knoxville, Tennessee in 1971 by willie_901.

Leave the Catholics alone…

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Catholic Archbishop of Westminster
Should a modern nation allow religious groups an exception from laws protecting minorities from discrimination? Should groups professing essentially 1st Century prejudices be exempt from 21st Century legislation?

You can’t innoculate a society against intolerance. It’s probably written into the genome by hundreds of thousands of years of adrenaline-fueled tribal existence and by the pretty basic caveman fear of the unknown. Prejudice towards minorities is atavistic – a throwback to simpler, scarier times when the unknown might… well… eat you.

You can aspire to transcend your intolerance, though, and our body of laws expresses this aspiration. Permitting Catholics (or Muslims or Scientologists) to opt-out and ignore these laws is a crappy compromise with the history of bigotry but probably a necessity. I hate the idea that loving couples ready to care for needy children should be shown a big ‘No Gays’ sign by these backward adoption agencies but, on balance, I think we need to be tolerant even of backwardness occasionally.

Taking a legislative cosh to the Catholics would be mean-spirited and unhistoric. Seeking proposals for reform and setting reasonable deadlines would be better: a grown-up approach, respectful of the church’s difficulty reconciling the here-and-now with ancient doctrine.

Magnus Linklater in The Times is worried about the consequences of a possible Kelly resignation. Stephen Bates in The Guardian knows that the Archbishop of Canterbury has personal experience of the quality of gay parenting. The Beeb has a handy gay adoption Q&A.

What does a deliberative democracy look like?

Britain's new deliberative parliament
Well, I reckon it’ll probably look a bit like the last ten days of Celebrity Big Brother. Why? Well, look at what happened: an ugly incident of racist bullying took place on national TV (the kind of incident, by the way, that probably happens all the the time but usually without the cameras) and the incident produced a huge and inclusive public debate about racism and a wave of support for the abused party.

No organised debate or formal consultative process could have come close to the number and variety of contributions from all corners of society that we’ve seen in the last ten days. Channel 4′s entirely spontaneous ‘big conversation’ has been more useful and more productive than anything organised by a politician for decades. Friday’s big Shilpa vs Jade vote was a proper referendum on racism in Britain – and one that went better than almost anyone could have hoped.

The opportunistic politicians calling for Channel 4 to be censured, managers sacked and shows cancelled are either confused (they don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the medium and the message) or venal (they see political advantage in looking tough on racism). I think Andy Duncan, his commissioners and producers (and his board) have done Britain a great service and, in the future, the whole episode will be remembered as a case study in the value of a second public service broadcaster.

Fair enough…

No old men with guitars and no yodelling
Sometimes I burn a CD for Olly, my eight year-old, to listen to in bed if he can’t sleep. Couple of nights ago he asked me to choose some tracks for him but specified, firmly, “no old men with guitars and no yodelling“. How’s that for an eight-word summary of my musical taste?

Unhelpful message

eleven diet-obsessed women's magazine covers, January 2007
There were 11 weekly women’s magazines on the shelves in our local supermarket this afternoon. Take a look at these pics and see if you can find the one that doesn’t have a feature about a celebrity eating disorder or a great new diet or a dieting disaster (clue: there isn’t one).

Celebrity democracy

Leo Sayer
We make a deal with celebrities. We provide them with a good living (often an insanely lavish living) and the proper measure of adoration and they promise to lead their lives like Roman Emperors or Mediaeval Popes. They promise beauty, grace and eloquence but also decadence, arrogance and self-hate. They make a very public gift to us of their poor judgement, their indiscretion and their immaturity. And we love it. We soak it up. Celebrities act out the lives we don’t dare live. They make lifelong the infantile fantasies and unreasonable demands that the rest of us set aside as adolescents. And it fucks them up. And we love that too.

But we’re unforgiving. So when our celebrities do what the deal ultimately requires of them and flip out or get busted or lose it over a pair of underpants on a reality TV show we turn on them sharply, revoke the terms of the deal and dump them in the metaphorical gutter. In the demented hyperdemocracy of reality TV, of course, we can act on our disappointment. We can translate our momentary disillusion into a direct statement of our displeasure (at a cost of 25p plus standard network rates: ask bill-payer’s permission) and vote them out. It’s instant retribution, a kind of premium rate climate of revenge. It can’t possibly do us any good and, as a model for the democratic process, it’s rubbish. It’s about instant judgments, brutal summary action and short-term, memoryless culture. If that’s what comes after slow, increasingly irrelevant representative democracy then you can keep it.

Xmas presents we liked 1: Carl Hiaasen’s Flush

The front cover from the hardback edtion of Carl Hiaasen's excellent Flush
Flush, by Carl Hiaasen

Easing myself back into blogging in ’07 with some reviews of the best Xmas toys and books and stuff (maybe some of the total rubbish too – one of my most popular entries ever is this Rainbow Art slating from a couple of years ago).

Hiaasen is a slick, funny thriller writer – one of the elite of sophisticated American thriller writers who get good reviews in the broadsheets and sell by the wheelbarrow-load in supermarkets too. His kids’ books (this is his second) are brilliant. Now that it’s OK for serious writers to knock out children’s books (see Elmore Leonard’s equally great Coyote’s In The House – the Harry Potter effect, I guess) we’re going to see lots more of these crossover works from established adult auhors.

This one is a fast and funny crime thriller with a green theme (sewage, greed, the everglades) and has the usual mix of Hiaasen types: the stoical hero, the wise rogue, the venal capitalist and assorted meatheads, innocents and sidekicks. The principal characters here, though, are kids and the environmental theme is one they easily connect with. I’m reading Flush to my seven year-old girl and eight year-old boy and it’s a real pleasure to read something that’s sharp and grown-up while still within their range.

I usually stop at one chapter per night but the kids are finding it easy to push me to read another with this one. It’s also really interesting to learn that a writer can paint a very convincing, quite dark and urban canvas without the usual cast of prostitutes, drug dealers and rapists. The wild side, here, is limited to booze and tattoos and I haven’t found myself explaining any dubious practices to the kids. The best book we’ve read together since, well, probably since the last Hiaasen: Hoot (which also has a green theme – endangered owls and greedy property developers).