The many boxes of Maria Miller

Maria Miller. Many readers will give up after only one sentence. Maria Miller. The name smells of dust and feels like boxes. She is boring; her name is boring; her actions as culture secretary are petty, boring and over.

Miller, like most MPs, compartmentalised. Help for disabled and workless people goes in one box. Handouts for Maria and her mates go in the other. She was clear which box she wanted to fill.

This is what it’s like inside Maria Miller. If you open the boxes there are only more boxes.

In April 2013 she gave the arts a collective telling-off for failing to “hammer home the economic value of culture”. Entertainers’ union Equity has printed several documents doing just that, not least the Manifesto for Theatre. Miller refused to meet with us. But now it is Maria Miller who has failed to hammer home the economic value of Maria Miller.

As David Cameron watches her sulk out of his favourites box and into the bin, he feels compelled to drop Michael Fabricant in with her. (Fabricant’s name makes him sound like he was grown in a vat. Maybe he was. The man is like a third-generation photocopy of Boris Johnson: unintelligible and streaky.) In sacking him, Cameron is like the child who whines he wasn’t ready after losing a game of slaps. No one is impressed when he slaps extra hard just a moment too late.

Still, at least Miller might have had some friendly company as she cleared her desk into a box.


I’m Glad She’s Dead

The nation’s cathartic surge of relief and joy at Thatcher’s death is overwhelming. It should not be unexpected.

Our reasons for celebrating are so numerous and manifest there is no real need to list them. Plenty of prominent writers have put out excellent summaries. Owen Jones has it pegged in calling Thatcherism “a national catastrophe that still poisons us.”

Of course a puny and unrepresentative cabal of repellent reactionaries and hand-wringing, liberal damp cloths will try to spoil the party.

The Mail has led the predictable outpouring of bullies’ hurt, magnificently quoting Socialist Party general secretary Peter Taaffe describing the Witch of Grantham as “seen by many as a kind of modern-day Genghis Khan.” Of course Paul Dacre is perfectly capable of dishing it out, less than a week ago equating benefits claimants with child murderers, calling the serial abuser and homicidal sociopath Mick Philpott a “vile product of welfare.” But the minute the bullied stand up and express pleasure at the demise of our chief persecutor, the reactionary right turns on the waterworks.

Ritzy Cinema, Brixton

A public announcement at the Ritzy Cinema, Brixton. The Ritzy was initially advertising its Argentine Film Festival on the night. If anything that was more fitting.

We are right to express our happiness that Thatcher is gone. And here is why we are right.

It’s sick to celebrate a death!

It’s sick to lionise a woman responsible for mass joblessness, misery and yes, even death. It was Thatcher who closed the pits. It was Thatcher who first put the clock back on gay, women’s and workers’ rights. And it was Thatcher who initiated the running down and privatisation of the NHS. It would be sick to treat this life-wrecker with any kind of respect.

Note that great frothing slabs of Britain’s hard-right, vociferous minority took very public delight in the death of the flawed-but-progressive, left-populist Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. That doesn’t justify us, we have our own concrete reasons which transcend tit-for-tat. I’m just saying.

She was a frail and senile old woman!

She also presided over some of the most divisive and destructive political shifts of the 20th Century. We all get old and frail. We don’t all force millions into unemployment, misery, and death.

We can’t isolate people into convenient chunks. And we mustn’t let the progenitor of such enormous, widespread and persistent human privation go without comment.

Thousands die every day. We don’t see Cameron and his brood screwing fists into their eyes over carpenters and clerks. The minute some vile, destructive, arch-reactionary brute pops her 40-year-overdue clogs it’s all onions and hankies.

You’re just jealous!

Not quite. Here is a woman who was comfortable and powerful for most of her life, and whose policies systematically deprived and disempowered the rest of us. Jealous? Is the victim jealous of the thief? On one level, yes. But there is so much more to it than that.

You weren’t even alive when she was in power!

Well actually, yes I was, I was just small. But the end of Thatcher’s premiership wasn’t the end of her power. Thatcherism is the ideological lynchpin of today’s Tories, Liberals and Labour Party.

Tony Benn relates that “Margaret Thatcher said Tony Blair and New Labour was her greatest achievement.” I have lived under Thatcher, and under Thatcherism, my whole life. University fees? Thatcherism. Privatisation? Thatcherism. The anti-union laws? Thatcherism. Mass unemployment? Thatcherism. The breaking up of the welfare state? Thatcherism. The crushed and tattered social agency and self-esteem of too, too many of my friends? Thatcherism.

I am a trained and skilled artist and worker. I have had to couch surf because I couldn’t afford rent. I have had to submit to underpaid toil with bullying bosses. I have had to scrape and struggle just to meet the rocketing demands of private energy and transport providers. This is what Thatcher means to me, and to millions of others. This is why I am glad she is dead. I only wish Thatcherism had gone with her.

And all this says nothing of the beaten and discarded dockers, miners and industrial workers of Britain’s former heartlands. Or the thousand-odd Argentinian conscripts drowned in her attack on a retreating ship. Or the countless Chileans tortured, raped and killed by Thatcher’s mate Augusto Pinochet.

*

Of course, there are some things we should be sad about on hearing of the Iron Handbag’s passing.

What about her family?

On a very basic human level, all death is saddening. But you can’t just remove someone from their social and historical context. I’m sure this is a difficult time for Thatcher’s racist daughter Carol and arms-dealer son Mark. With only their celebrity, enormous wealth and aristocratic titles to fall back on. In fact, I really hope this is a difficult time for them.

Endless media tributes

We now have several weeks of unwatchable TV to endure. The major outlets will inevitably stuff their schedules with heartbroken, confessional retrospectives and interminable, priapic puff pieces. No wonder people were switching off their sets and hitting the streets, popping cheap champagne and chanting “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie — dead, dead, dead.” You’ve got to drown out the snivelling apologia of the feral overclass somehow.

Dying die-hards

There is a generation of hardened working-class warriors who have been bitterly clinging on to see this day. I only hope her death can lend these quiet heroes a new lease of life, instead of cueing their final release.

Thatcherism not dead

As many have remarked, though the Lady is gone, her ideas remain. That, of course, must become our focus. As former Militant MP and Socialist councillor Dave Nellist says:

The people I have sympathy for today are those working class people whose lives have been blighted by her policies.

The real tragedy is that while she may be dead herself her ideas are still alive and well in the form of the Con-Dem coalition and New Labour.

She was a determined fighter for her class, the 1% of very wealthy people at the top of society. The Socialist Party wants to build a movement that does the same for the 99%, working class people.

We want to build a mass movement that will take the wealth from the super-rich and that dismantles the project she embarked upon.

We want to use that wealth to provide jobs, services and a future for working class people.

Too true, Dave. The Tories are a party in historic decline, wracked by internal factionalism, and now threatened from the right by UKIP. The last bastion of Thatcherism is Labour. Ed Miliband, standing proudly in the tradition of Labour leaders in blithely squandering an opportunity, issued a simpering paean expressing “respect” for “her political achievements and her personal strength.” With the party unlikely to be reclaimed, following its decades-long campaign against socialism and internal democracy, there is a vacuum on the left.

This vacuum does not yet have a mass organisational response. We cannot just snap our fingers and recover from the body blows of post-Stalinism and Thatcherism. But that is the way the wind is blowing.

With Thatcher behind us, let’s kill her legacy of filth and misery as dead as her. There is no more fitting tribute.


All I want is a room somewhere

Far away from the cold night air…

With an affordable rent; working heating and electrics; no rat, mouse, or venom-spitting cobra infestations — and a landlord who doesn’t view me actually residing in the house I pay him for as some barrier to the proper task of squeezing me for cash to feed his uncontrollable Brylcreem habit.

Oh wouldn’t it be loverly?

The mouse has done poos in the boiler. Perhaps this is what broke it.

The mouse has done poos in the boiler. Perhaps this is what broke it.

Falling employment rates, a floundering economy and feeble pay have been forcing young people and families out of homes since at least 2008. The first reported victims were the low-earning families evicted for defaulting on their subprime mortgages. As the crisis initiated by the related financial collapse goes on, we hear more and more about young people forced to remain or move back in with their parents. Finally, there is the growing number of ‘hidden homeless’, endlessly moving from couch to couch or squat to newly-illegalised squat.

In a remarkable display of sympathy and taste, Observer columnist Barbara Allen suggested in June that that those struggling to live independently should “get a life“:

“They can’t get on to the property ladder?” Boo-hoo. Most young people in previous “luckier” generations weren’t anywhere near the property ladder. “The cost of living… blah, blah.” Again, so what? When are young people going to realise that roughing it and feeling permanently broke when you’re starting out has always been with us. It’s not some ghastly new concept exclusively devised to torture the youth of 2012.

Doubtless she is right! If an opinion writer for a national Sunday newspaper can scrape up enough to get her own place, surely young workers and low-paid families forced into the indignity and stress of living with mum and dad just need a good kick up the arse.

Allen’s focus on the “property ladder” rather than the difficulty for many of even renting somewhere betrays her rarefied milieu. That perceived laziness may be true of her upper middle-class mates. But for working-class and many middle-class people, things ain’t that clear-cut.

And those “previous ‘luckier’ generations” were children of the post-war boom. Employment was high, the unions were strong, and the welfare state owned a decent stock of council housing. The situation today is opposite, although the unions at least show signs of getting off their knees.

Although less rabid than their conservative counterparts, the Guardian and its sister paper have never been particular friends of ordinary people. They cater to the kumquats-and-Keynesianism section of the liberal intelligentsia. Nonetheless, the out-of-touch flippancy of Allen’s attack was surprising. I had an article in the Socialist last month detailing some of the effects of the housing crisis for those not ensconced in Castle Broadsheet:

The hidden homeless

You will say to me, “James, how on earth did you get the frankly fucking shit sentence ‘dancing against this backdrop is the cruel can-can of squat clearance’ past the editors?” Well, I don’t know.

Since writing that I have been lucky enough to find medium-term accommodation with friends, living in the spare room and contributing to rent. I also plan on moving into somewhere I can actually be on the contract later this year. I spend almost nothing on frivolous things like theatre tickets, electronics, clothes, etc. Crap pay and meagre benefits mean it’s only with parental support I can afford to stay in London where the work is. Even so it’s a struggle. But they should not have to subsidise a moderately-educated, hard-working 25-year-old. And they won’t be able to do it forever.

Part of the solution is finding more secure, better-paid work. For anyone in this period that is tough. For actors, who have to be able to up sticks at short notice or leave the profession, it is doubly so. But fundamentally housing has still to be addressed.

The new Labour-left thinktank Class, founded by socialist Owen Jones and others, has recently published a “think piece” on this:

Time to step in

James Murray’s assertion that “the market will fail to meet our housing challenges: the government must step in” is entirely correct. As a potted history of the inability of the housing market to provide social homes, the document is also not bad. If only Labour’s left were in a position to offer us more than a thinktank discussion.

But they are not. The Labour Party has been structurally and constitutionally altered beyond all recognition, a process that began in the 80s with the expulsion of the Militant. Ordinary members have no real way to influence policy.

To task left-wing intellectuals at the top with change is patently unreliable. Not least because the very author of this piece is a councillor in Islington, and so one of the overwhelming majority of local politicians refusing to stand up to central government cuts. While Cllr Murray’s group was happy to share a platform with anti-cuts activists, it has also had those same activists expelled from the council chamber and “physically prevented from exercising their democratic right to protest”.

So clearly a promising left alternative to the Coalition.

It’s not going to be easy. But the task ahead for all of us who want to make genuine change is to build a new mass organisation where we can actually participate. TUSC, a new electoral formation of trade union and socialist forces, is a tentative step towards this.

Maybe one day we could stop worrying about hanging onto our homes in an apparently first-world country, and get on with the actual business of living in them.

Loverly, loverly, loverly.

Wouldn’t it be loverly?


Capitalism’s utilities pipe dream

Bourgeois politicians remain intent on making a market of every utility. This in spite of the overwhelming discrediting of privatisation. Endless surveys indicate people no longer hold with the notion of the profit motive improving services, and rightly so.

In The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell famously suggested that

if it had been possible to monopolize the air and compress it into huge gasometers, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work in order to get money to buy air to breathe.

This looks less and less like satire. But private ownership as a route to service efficiency, with or without market competition, remains a fantasy.

According to the GMB, “less than 1% of the UK rainfall is diverted to be collected and stored to be used for human purposes”. Even so, Thames Water has us down as decadent wastrels who go through water like it’s water.

The latest shower, coming off the back of the various -lympics, is below:

It's neither a marathon nor a sprint. It's an umbrella.

It’s neither a marathon nor a sprint. It’s an umbrella.

I wrote an article for The Socialist on the nonsense of British droughts back in May. Read the full piece here:

Water waste of money!

Other potential ‘jokes’ that did not get worked in included “throwing the bath water out with the baby”, “come hell or Thames Water”, and “the rain in Spain falls mainly into the reservoirs of its publicly owned water network (though even this faces privatisation)”.

You will say to me, “James, those are all shit.” Ah, but that is why they were not used.


Porno Dickens

As part of my ongoing drive to be relevant, I have scheduled this post to coincide with Charles Dickens’s 200th-birthday-plus-12- days.

  • Sex-jizz by Boz
  • The Prickwick Papers
  • Oliver Tryst
  • Knickerless Nickleby
  • The Old Bicuriosity Shop
  • Bare-naby Rudge
  • DVDA Christmas Carol
  • Martin Guzzledick
  • Dombey on Son
  • David Cockerfield
  • Bleak Whores
  • Hard-on Times
  • Little Dildo
  • A Tale of Two Titties
  • Great Sexpectations
  • Our Mutual Masturbation
  • The Furry Fetish of Edwin Drood

I think it’s important to draw a distinction between the word ‘porn’, which is a noun, and ‘porno’, which is an adjective. The adverb is ‘pornily’.


N30 turnout: do the unions have the right?

So the Coalition wants public sector workers to work harder and pay more for a smaller pension.  So that’s fair enough.

This is supposedly to help resolve a financial mire engendered by the vagaries of an economic system they neither chose nor control. So that’s fair enough.

Some magnificent strike action in defence of the beleaguered pensions is lined up for the 30th November (N30), with even Tories downing tools, so the government is rolling out all the old cant, including the bit about turnout.

NOT EVERYONE VOTED IN YOUR BALLOT, UNIONS, they froth, SO IT DOESN’T REALLY COUNT. YOU MUST ACCEPT OUR GREASED-UP AUSTERITY PACKAGE INTO YOUR WARM, SOFT PENSION-HOLE.

Distasteful? Certainly. Really if the Coalition wants to be taken seriously it shouldn’t resort to such open innuendo.

The argument goes that in spite of overwhelming mandates for strike action, low turnout means that most of the membership in affected workplaces must not have voted for the strike. The usual counterargument is “Oh, so that means you weren’t elected to parliament then.”

Clearly the turnout argument is a nonsense, an effort to paint the unions as undemocratic. Perhaps they have a point. So since they’ve invited the comparison, let’s make it.

The Government

Figures from the BBC.

Turnout at 2010 election
65.1%

Popular vote share
Tory: 36.1%
Labour: 29.0%
Liberal: 23.0%
Others: 11.9%
Coalition total: 59.1%

Popular support share as proportion of total electorate
Tory: 23.5%
Liberal: 15.0%
Coalition total as proportion of electorate: 38.5%

Popular support for Coalition’s economic management (ComRes November 2011)
28%

The Unions

Figures from the Society of Radiographers, Times Higher Education (UCU) and union press releases (NUT and PCS).

Unison
Turnout: 29%
For strike: 78%
As proportion of electorate: 23%

EIS
Turnout: 54.2%
For strike: 82.2%
As proportion of electorate: 44.6%

Nipsa
Turnout: 43%
For strike: 67%
As proportion of electorate: 28.8%

AHDS
Turnout: 38%
For strike: 60%
As proportion of electorate: 23%

NAHT
Turnout: 75.8%
For strike: 53.6%
As proportion of electorate: 40.6%

Society of Radiographers
Turnout: 58.2%
For strike: 81.2%
As proportion of electorate: 47.3%

AEP
Turnout: unknown
For strike: 64%
As proportion of electorate: unknown

CSP
Turnout: 66%
For strike: 89.1%
As proportion of electorate: 58.8%

SCP
Turnout: 52%
For strike: 85%
As proportion of electorate: 44%

FDA
Turnout: 54%
For strike: 81%
As proportion of electorate: 44%

Prospect
Turnout: 52%
For strike: 75%
As proportion of electorate: 39%

TSSA
Turnout: unknown
For strike: 77%
As proportion of electorate: unknown

GMB
Turnout: 33%
For strike: 83.7%
As proportion of electorate: 27.6%

Ucatt
Turnout: 27%
For strike: 83%
As proportion of electorate: 22%

Unite
Turnout: 31%
For strike: 75%
As proportion of electorate: 23%

NASUWT
Turnout: 40%
For strike: 82%
As proportion of electorate: 33%

NAPO
Turnout: 45%
For strike: 83%
As proportion of electorate: 37%

POA
Turnout: 24%
For strike: 75%
As proportion of electorate: 18%

NUT (June 30 mandate)
Turnout: 40%
For strike: 92%
As proportion of electorate: 37%

PCS (June 30 mandate)
Turnout: 32.4%
For strike: 61.1%
As proportion of electorate: 19.8%

UCU (June 30 mandate)
Turnout: 36.3%
For strike: 65%
As proportion of electorate: 24%

Totals
Better turnout than 2010 General Election: 3/21
Better mandate for strike than combined popular vote for Coalition: 20/21
Better vote for strike as proportion of electorate than combined vote for Coalition as proportion of electorate: 7/21

Popular support for N30 strikes (ComRes November 2011)
61%

Do the unions have the right?

The majority of strike ballots show a lower turnout and lower overall support (as proportion of electorate) as compared to equivalent results in the 2010 General Election. However, every union but one* has a better mandate for strike action than the combined popular vote for the Coalition parties. It shouldn’t be forgotten, of course, that the Coalition Government doesn’t even have a mandate, formed as it was from two minority parties, after the election took place.

Even with lower turnout and lower support as proportion of the electorate, the unions have operated within reasonable democratic practices. The argument as ever is that minority election turnouts still return MPs, so minority ballot turnouts still decide on action.

Clearly a system which requires an overall majority in any vote is unrealistic; it is a cornerstone of democracy that abstention does not equate to support for either side. Not voting for a strike does not equal voting against the strike; by that logic, 76.5% of people voted for David Cameron not to lead the country. So a clear victory for the right there.

One of the key differences between a strike ballot and government elections as they currently stand is that in an election you can’t vote ‘no’ to all the candidates, but in a ballot for industrial action you can vote ‘no’ to action of any sort. If grassroots union militancy were genuinely as low as the government tries to depict it, then more people would have voted against the strikes.

Finally, if opposition to action by ‘overpaid’ and ‘unsackable’ public sector workers were as pervasive as the political and media establishments like to claim, why is support for the ‘greedy’ strikers not only a majority, but more than twice the support for Coalition economic policy?

This brand of obfuscation has at times seen trade unionists and socialists trampolining in impotent rage, as the bosses’ line is bought wholesale by the press and left largely unchallenged. The harsh reality of the Coalition’s cuts and privatisation agenda has, of course, led to a growth in political consciousness in the working class. As the writer and Welshwoman Rhian Jones put it to me: ‘See also: “If wealth is created overwhelmingly by the private sector, and the public sector merely consumes and sponges for its gold-plated pensions, then why is the government fussing over how much the strike will cost the economy?”‘ Why indeed? Clearly the lies aren’t being bought any more.

So do the unions have the right?

Unquestionably, yes.

* NAHT, the headteachers’ union. Presumably out of an instinctual opposition to truancy.


‘Hypercapitalism’ is hyperdaft!

Today we’re going to discuss the word ‘hypercapitalism’ and why it’s wrong.

Hypercapitalism is a term used to define capitalism as it has developed today as different to earlier forms.

Why exactly this is varies from pseud to pseud, but simply, the argument is that because market forces have now penetrated every aspect of our life like an unusually thorough lover, all companies have merged into one and we have to pay for intangible things such as World of Warcraft and happiness. So there are two key elements to the concept of hypercapitalism: one, that there is more capitalism than there used to be, and two, that it’s making us pay for things that aren’t real.

But is hypercapitalism different to capitalism?

“Yes,” say proponents.

“Some companies now are bigger than they were and are in different countries all at once! The advancement of their profit has become more important than other things!” Frightening words like ‘corporatism’ and ‘fascism’ are bandied about, and people mutter about single world currencies, Lord Lloyd-Webber, etc. This bit of the argument, let’s be clear, is a) not fundamentally different to older ‘capitalism’, and b) a big bag of balls.

However, take the advent of advertising as an industry! Posses of coke-stoked tailored dicks purport to sell us sexy glamorous ‘lifestyles’ rather than lacklustre quotidian ‘products’.

Add to this the countless images, videos, sounds and texts available on the Internet. They also cannot be physically owned; money changes hands in exchange for access alone. Plus all this happens in “hyper”-text, and if that’s not hyper then who knows what is!

Clearly these are a different class of transaction to buying a yoghurt; money changes hands in exchange for the physical yoghurt, which you can then parade around town as the proud owner. But this charge for an immaterial experience rather than a tangible product or service is not a new levy; selling lifestyles is no older than producing the church donation bowl; selling MMO accounts is no older than theatre ticketing.

It’s obvious that capitalism has advanced in its scope and complexity since the term was coined in the 19th Century, which was bare years ago. In the first world we have advanced from industrial capitalist economies to increasingly post-industrial, rentier capitalist economies. This was foreseen by Marx, Lenin et al as an inevitable development in the march of capital.

Perhaps there is a case to be made for the concept of hypercapitalism, and perhaps there isn’t. Really it’s irrelevant intellectual quibbling. So what exactly is my issue?

My issue is this: hypercapitalism is a silly word.  It has “hyper” in it, which is a prefix that only medics and computerists seem to be able to get away with.  I said “hypercapitalism” once and was immediately thrown out of the bedroom without even an opportunity to hoist my discarded trousers.  The word that had got me in there in the first place? “Charcoal.”

I think that’s a lesson for us all.


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