We Should be Working 15 Hour Weeks… but I’ll take 25.

overworked

“So, we are working harder and longer than ever, and although there’s an abundance of wealth out there, less and less of it is being paid in real wages.”

Imagine having lots of spare time. Now there’s a thought! Maybe it’s slipped from memory, but we’ve all had periods of our lives that came with enough free time to encourage us to develop in individual and sometimes eccentric ways; some learn to play the guitar or cook, others work their way through the classics of literature, or go travelling. Some people appear to do very little with their spare time; but physical inactivity shouldn’t be misunderstood; still waters run deep, or so they say.

These periods normally occur before the social pressure of getting a steady job, an extortionate mortgage and building a little family really begin to squeeze.  Of course, a full-time job these days comes with a UK average week of over 39 hours to go with it, which has the knock on effect of sending your spare time into outer space for about forty-five years.

But let’s just imagine we could have both: spare time to indulge our natures and the same standard of living. If you were working 20-25 hours a week with your current full-time pay, you would have time and energy to really enjoy the family, maybe get involved with the community or see old friends. There’s usually something people want to do but don’t have the time: learn a new language, write, paint, play a particular sport, complete a course on feminism… the list is endless. Trying to do any of these things and work almost 40 hours a week reminds me of the Woody Allen line, “I took a course on speed-reading and now I’ve read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.” What we are talking about is having the time to develop who you really are, instead of allowing ourselves to be defined by the means with which we exchange our labour for money.

John Maynard Keynes

John Maynard Keynes

This was part of how John Maynard Keynes saw our society unfolding, back in 1930. He thought that with our living standards set to rise like never before, we would be able to own or access the necessary material things of life and therefore have a greatly reduced reason to work. Consumerism, as we know it today, was just a hatching plan in 1930. Edward Bernays had a year before staged the famous ladies smoking their ‘torches of freedom‘ and with it the concept of Public Relations and advertising (as a means to influence) was born.

A few years ago, Larry Elliott in The Guardian suggested that the reason Keynes’ prediction of such a reduced working week had failed to materialise, was down to ‘our desire’ to work harder in order to keep up with our wealthier neighbours. There may be a tiny element of truth in this, but I think there is a whole bunch of other things being tactically ignored.

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I think first of all we have to look at wages. Real wages have been generally falling for nearly 30 years in the UK. That’s why two generations ago it was common for an average family to live on one breadwinner’s wage. Then we came to our parents’ generation, the baby boom, who found a full-time job now needed supplementing, usually with the other parent taking on part-time work. Our generation has normalised the idea of both parents going out to work full-time; you have to question if the social movement of workplace gender equality has been a victory for campaigners, or if it was politically allowed to increase government revenue in taxes and obfuscate the shrinking of real wages.

An average family starting out today (even with both parents in work), will have by comparison with their grandparents, shocking levels of debt.

Real wages, 1964-2012 (Office for National Statistics)

Real wages, 1964-2012 (Office for National Statistics)

The above graph shows how wages have compared to inflation. You can see how the ECG of the boom and bust years is replaced in the early 1980s by the spidery scrawl of a dying villain. These are the neoliberal years; the adoption by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party of the economic theories of Milton Friedman et al., which are still held deeply in the bosom of the current Tory government. But it was also embraced by New Labour, spearheaded by Tony Blair in 1997. Jeremy Corbyn’s recent election as leader of the Labour Party, has created a schism within the organisation, as Blairites repel the principles of peace, justice and democracy from the new leader. From 1988 onwards, the graph tracks a serrated, quarter-century journey, mostly downhill. We are looking at an obvious decline, culminating in the death spasms of the recent financial crash.

GDP per capita, by contrast, has risen almost without fail, year after year… until the crash in 2008, but it has now surpassed the pre-crash level, indicating the recovery that we are always hearing lots about, but seeing very little.

UK GDP per capita, 1964-2014 (ONS)

UK GDP per capita, 1964-2014 (ONS)

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So although we are working hard and long hours, and the obvious fact that there’s an abundance of wealth out there, less and less of it is being paid in real wages.

The very notion of a tax haven summons up images of sun-drenched remote islands, palm trees, anchored yachts and cocktails. But this stereotype has benefited those who take advantage of the reality. The truth is, Britain itself is a tax haven, with corporate and business tax breaks and avoidance schemes orchestrated from the City of London. At the Treasury Select Committee this year, George Osborne proudly stated that Britain has “one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the western world”.

When CEOs such as Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, who has a salary of £30million, earn 780 times more than their average employees, you begin to see how the huge gap between the top earners and everyone else has distorted the general equality that Keynes must have assumed was going to be a continuous aspect of social progression. That the present corporate world seems comfortable with the notion that one CEO can be as valuable as 780 employees, displays its lack of social conscience, not only in regards to employment level, but in the perpetuation of increasing global inequality.

I think the real reason Keynes’ vision failed to materialise has more to do with the advent of advertising and mass consumerism. Can he be blamed for failing to anticipate the uptake, through the ballooning influence of barely regulated or taxed financial institutions and corporations, of neoliberalism in almost all western governments, and their subsequent handing over of power (and mind-blowing wealth) to the banking and corporate world?

Heroes of Neoliberalism

Heroes of Neoliberalism

Sources:

http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_368928.pdf
http://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics
http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/31/real-wages-falling-longest-period-ons-record
http://highpaycentre.org/blog/ftse-100-bosses-now-paid-an-average-143-times-as-much-as-their-employees

http://topincomes.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/

The Great British Truncheon (part 1)

Orgreave-Battle-Picket-li-005

“I have no particular love for the idealised ‘worker’, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask which side I am on.”

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Growing up in the North of England during the 1970s and 80s seemed a fairly normal existence to me. Playing street-football in the evenings, watching T.I.S.W.A.S on Saturday mornings, and getting through the fights and scrapes of school was a pretty standard week. But behind all of that, a shift was spreading through the psyche of Britain. It emanated from Westminster, where the government was force-marching the country on a long journey right-ward. Songs of ‘personal freedom’, ‘personal wealth’, and ‘privatisation’ were perpetually sung by its leaders, and these catchy individualist tunes were beginning to lodge in the minds of much of the nation.

The council estate in Rotherham where I lived from a baby until 15, was populated with straight-laced, working-class people, tasked mainly with the gruelling labour of cutting coal from the earth, forging steel in the furnaces of British Steel and looking after their family the best they could. There was little crime that I can recall, so a police car parked on the street was rare. Yet the vast majority of these families were almost by nature distrustful of the police, referring to them in bad-news tones. We kids copied and did the same. I still do until I check myself. I don’t think this is unusual of working class communities. I think it’s older than the hills.

Today it’s easy to forget that each of the rights we now take for granted, has had to be fought and won, usually by the working classes, through protest and organised confrontation. British history is spilling over with the blood of up-risers, and at such flashpoints, since the mid 1800s at least, it has been the police who stands protector to the ruling classes, and therefore the opposer of any urgent demand for change from the masses.

In 2012, the South Yorkshire police referred itself to the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission – the body served with investigating complaints brought against the police). It did so in light of the investigative work of a local BBC journalist (click here to watch the documentary) and The Guardian. The charges are some of the worst possible for a police force to have levelled at it and include assault, perverting the course of justice and perjury. The criminal evidence unearthed (that the current South Yorkshire police force must feel substantial enough to effectively ‘turn itself in’) dates back over 30 years to the miner’s strike; specifically, one day in that strike.

On the 18th June 1984, a quiet northern village between Rotherham and Sheffield became the backdrop for the outpouring of violence that must, it seems, accompany any political ‘regime change’.

The strike was in its third month, and had started to gain some positive momentum from national and local papers, as well as increasing public support. Even so, a number of men going to the picket that day found it unusual that the police allowed so many miners to gather together without turning any away. The mass picketing at the coking plant had been going on for four weeks, and police had always tried to break up the number of pickets getting to the site by stopping cars, making arrests and even building road-blocks. But on this day, the police even escorted coaches full of miners off the M1, through the shimmering farmland, to the coking plant at Orgreave.

In South Yorkshire, industry and agriculture mingle together at their edges in acres of beautiful wasteland, meadows of wildflowers and stones. This was predominantly the terrain at Orgreave, the land cut across with winding country roads, and the the flow of the River Rother, towards the Don. As the gates opened to allow in the first truck carrying coal, some of the miner’s, as was routine, jeered and pushed at the police line in a halfhearted attempt to break through the police line and get to the truck. But on that hot day, instead of simply pushing the men back to the picket line as before, the police went berserk.

Within the police squads were British Army soldiers dressed in police uniform, minus the officers’ number badge. These soldiers had no policing training. They had no idea how to even make an arrest. As the violence increased, more and more police/army arrived at the site and were immediately sent into the fray.

orgreave truncheon

Wherever the miners ran, police lay in wait for them, usually on horseback, but sometimes with dogs. Men unaware of the police attack and walking back to the picket with cups of tea were suddenly ambushed by police with truncheons. Near the coking plant, a few lines of workers tried to rally, but were swallowed up by riot police and again the swinging truncheons. Throughout the day, the violence escalated, with with the police continuing it barrage of brutality. Some miners threw what looked like stones, which incurred yet more police battery raids.
By the end of it, men of both ‘sides’ needed medical care. Some miners had suffered broken limbs. The police figures had more officers reported hurt than miners. Ninety-five men were arrested that day, all charged with riot.

Why did this happened? Why did a police force, having sworn an oath to uphold human rights and maintain the peace, on that day throw it under the hooves of its police horses and the boots of its riot police? Well, as always, there’s a bigger picture.

In 1977 the UK police force was having serious problems recruiting and maintaining officers. The Labour government had commissioned a review that concluded the force required a 45% pay rise. Labour and the police force had parted ways when the force had been denied a union and the right to strike in 1919, so there wasn’t a great deal of solidarity between them. Instead of implementing the 45% fully, the government decided to phase in an agreed amount, which didn’t really solve their recruitment problem and did nothing for police/labour relations.

But then in 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, and one of the first things she did was grant the police the full 45% pay award. Whatever Thatcher was, she was no fool. She knew that in order to change Britain’s direction as much as she intended, she would need the police in her pocket. Five years later, at Orgreave, she got a HUGE return on that investment.

Another thing to know is that in 1972 the miners were involved in another strike, and their success was largely due to a mass picketing campaign at another coking plant – this time at Saltley, near Birmingham. Arthur Scargill, a senior officer of the Yorkshire National Union of Miners at the time, led the rally. It was an amazing union triumph, and perhaps the last great act of workers solidarity in Britain, as thousands of men and women in factories and other workplaces in Birmingham walked out too, most of them joining the other picketing miners at Saltley. Up to 10,000 protestors gathered there by the afternoon. The police could no longer secure the trucks leaving the coking plant and the gates finally shut to the roar of the crowd.

The government was also well aware of the significance of the coking plant, and the union victory it represented, and they were not prepared to see it happen again. The Ridley Report, commissioned by Mrs Thatcher, was an instruction manual on how to break down a strike and dismantle the unity of the working man. A couple of Ridley’s suggestions stand out: “The government should if possible choose the field of battle.”; and “Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.”.

It was a revolution-by-proxy, for it paved the way, with the unions castrated, from a shift of a nation of ‘producers’ to ‘consumers’. The full regime change. Uniforms aside, the strike pitted working men against each other. But who could really see that then. It was the short-sharp-shock version of culture change. I hope we all feel it was worth it.

At the time of writing the IPCC has given no new updates on it’s plans to investigate the crimes of 18th June 1984.

Please watch Yvonne Vanson’s brilliant Battle for Orgreave

Wednesday, 12th November, 2014

self imposed draft jpeg

Maybe it was just me, but I never really got the ‘army’ thing.

In the infant school yard, when I was 7 or 8, gangs of lads would roam around in a growing flock chanting, “Anyone! Playinat! ArrrMee!”

I’d sort of half get involved, loitering at the edges of the crowd all busily ordering themselves into two sides. Then suddenly it was war! and everyone just went wild with air-guns (as in air-guitar) and air-grenades, accompanied by larynx snapping sounds of explosions and death gurgles. It’s a bit of a shame really that even by such a tender age I seemed to have developed an self consciousness. I couldn’t quite give myself over to pretence; not for that, at least. Not for ‘army’.


Now, I can look back on the first invasion of Iraq in 1990, and see myself, nineteen and arrogant, watching the hazy, sepia images of buildings exploding on jet targeting systems, feeling nothing but a total disconnection with what I was witnessing. My mind had no genuine understanding that what was taking place on the TV, was doing so in a reality I was part of.

Warfare has settled into every crevice of our society. It is so omnipresent, it has become generally accepted as part of the human condition; a sentiment I refute with every cell in my body. When our politicians speak about ‘progress’, have you ever asked yourself where we are progressing to? And what ever happened to processes prior to conflict? Before we get to a warring stage, shouldn’t all other manner of dealing with the problem be exhausted first? Negotiations, international economic pressure, the non-violent strategic use of the UN, etc. This, in our enlightened Age of the Terrorist, has been circumvented so often that the strike-first-think-later route to war has too become accepted as necessary. So, even in its best light, war is a state of breakdown, a localised collapse of civilisation to its most base and barbaric. A place where usually young men, under the new appellation of ‘soldiers’, are given license to kill other, similarly young, renamed and permitted to murder, human beings. When this madness occurs in the 21st century, it is viewed by a British society predominately suffering from an emotional severance with humanity, quite like my younger self. Or maybe the news and the tabloids have got to you and you’re full of nationalistic pride for our heroes, forgetting there’s a difference between patriotism and nationalism. Or, just maybe you are one of the very few who can still taste the bile-bubbling disgust of the whole atrocious thing? image

The letter on the left appeared in The Daily Mail (5th September 2014). Whether from a genuine reader or not, I think it sums up the appalling state of global geo-politics. The kids in my school yard seemed to employ a similar strategy as they shot and grenaded anything that moved: mass confusion with mass aggression.

The concern is the situation is so insane that instead of inspiring outrage with the masses, it tends to inspire humour. The chortles of a joke not fully understood. It’s difficult for even the hardiest vanguard for war to support this tangled lunacy. Unless you’re an arms dealer, that is, or have lots invested in weapons manufacture and research…

Is it possible to suggest that the constant presence of war – even in those rare seconds when the British forces aren’t involved in some kind of conflict – is enough to permanently remind human beings of their barbaric potential, a sort of perpetual dripping tap? We have war movies, war west end shows, war historians, war monuments, war games, war museums… The list goes on. It has been well and truly embedded into the very fabric of western civilisation. A sort of singular imperialism that has been allowed to creep over us through the books of our intellectuals, the mouths of the politicians, and the glory of legend; like an ever darkening shadow.


What is the sole purpose of a gun?

With the answer still fresh in your mind, ask yourself another question: is it ok to teach children how to shoot them?

In 2011, the BBC revealed that in the UK shotgun licenses had been given out to children as young as 7. With parental permission, children of 16 can join the UK forces, despite not being perceived mature enough to vote, drive a car, or watch a horror film. Some organisations, such as Forces Watch and UNICEF, see this as adopting “child soldiers”, comparing the MoD to regimes like Iran and North Korea. They have also commented on the economic wastage associated with it, detailing up to £94m of unnecessary spending. Even though soldiers need to be 18 to be deployed in operations (this has only recently been changed. Soldiers as young as 17 were deployed in both Kosovo in 1999 and the first Iraq US/UK invasion of 1991. Also, at least twenty 17 year olds are known to have fought in the second Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, The Independent, May 2014), isn’t the concept of children being trained to kill a perverse one? When we add to this that it is far more likely to be soldiers enlisted from working class or disadvantaged families that see ground battle and witness the worst horrors of war, a far more sinister, socioeconomic scenario begins to emerge.

A recent study has suggested that there is a correlation between the young age of soldiers when joining the forces, their lower social class, and the development of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), depression, alcoholism and drug addiction on leaving. This appears to fly in the face of the permanent MoD line that the army is an excellent career choice for school leavers. For many years the film director David Lynch has been working with some of the world’s most desperate and damaged people. His foundation, which employs a simple but extremely effective meditative technique, has managed to turn around the psychological fate of hundreds of thousands of people. This has included over 10,000 US soldiers, returning from the Middle East and suffering from an array of mental and physical health problems. Through meditation, some distance is created between the mind and the culmination of trauma. This space can then be utilised to properly process and to some degree accept the events that led to mental breakdown. It has proven to be exceptionally successful.

What if we were to spin around the fall of events? In other words, offer meditative techniques to children throughout the UK from ages 10 onwards? The schools that have been involved with The David Lynch Foundation in the US have benefitted in a remarkable number of ways, including falls in absenteeism, reduction in violence and rises in academic performance. But also, the children themselves have reported feeling more calm, centred and able to engage with their own decision making processes. After all, if we are happy to accept a slow press-ganging of our children through a complex system of cadets, funded almost entirely by the MoD, then perhaps we can arm them not only with rifles but with a mind capable of deciding for themselves if ‘protecting’ our islands through wars of choice is how they truly want to spend their childhoods.


David Cameron in 2012 stated that the way cadets are funded will be changed. At the moment £26 million is pumped into 261 different schools (three quarters of which are private) that run CCFs (Combined Cadet Forces) through their education facilities. By 2015, there will be 100 more CCFs up and running in state schools, with another 250 to follow, so that, to quote the prime minister, “new horizons” can be opened up to our children leaving comprehensives.

The funding, however, will not be increased, sharing out the £26 million between all 611 schools. This has led to many private and public schools already stating that they will be forced to close down their cadet programs. If private schools slowly retreat from CCFs, it will leave the vast amount of 16 year old cadets going on to a career as full-time soldiers coming from state comprehensives.

It’s quite easy to envision this becoming a dragnet for the MoD, where, if a child is academically under performing, the school, due to its own great stresses, may be tempted to guide that child into the cadets rather than spending more time and resources on him or her. This would then widen even further the gulf between the number of wealthy and disadvantaged entry level soldiers, and our society could find itself developing a self imposed military draft of our most deprived children.

A Search for Quality

“Farewell to the besoms of heather and bloom

Farewell to the creels and the basket

For the folks of today they would far sooner pay

For a thing that’s been made out of plastic”

Ewan McCall

 

 

There is a small 7mm ratchet spanner on the side of the desk in the department where I work. It was forgotten by an engineer that came to service some equipment a few months ago. I like to pick it up and hold it. It has a weight that gives you a pocket of confidence in your hand. It is stainless steel and shines. The switch that alternates the ratchet is a dark alloy; it reassures the thumb as it snaps left to right. The reason it feels so good to hold is because the design is ergonomic, mimicking the space around your hand. The weight balanced. The function clear. Its moving parts fluid and strong. It is a high quality tool that as you hold it, feels like a natural extension of your hand.

There is something else which makes this little ratchet special. In 2014, this kind of quality is rare.

 

I spoke to my friend Tom recently, a highly skilled joiner and craftsman. I’ve watched him carefully repair all our sash-box windows over the last 2 years. He showed me a tool box set aside in the back of his Transit. “These I’ve had since I started.” He opened the lid and disclosed a variety of old, but extremely well looked after hand tools. Twelve solid steel chisels with boxwood handles, their edges gleaming; hand drills with chucks still hungry and ready to bite; a claw hammer on a hickory shaft, its patina a testament to servitude. There were others buried beneath, but the back of the van was dark. “All the others,” he motioned to several other buckets filled with screwdrivers, Stanley knives, drill bits, saws, and other bits and pieces, “need replacing every couple of years.” He clunked shut the Transit’s wonky back door.

 

Samsung seem to have raised the bar on marketing strategy. Forgive me if there is a company that spends more on advertising, but at $14billion for 2013 I doubt anyone is even close. Samsung’s budget has increased 14 fold since 2003 taking spending in this arena to a new level. There are a cluster of other super-corporations all jostling around the $2.5 – $4billion mark. Now that someone has made a move, surely the others will follow.

Maybe 100-120 years ago, marketing and advertising behaved differently to what we see today. It saw itself more of an advising and describing role. This was mainly because as a consumer it was assumed you knew pretty much what you wanted to buy, and the advertising helped you out with the fine tuning, making sure the product came as close as possible to matching your original needs. This allowed the consumer accurate information before buying. This remains the philosophical backbone of advertising. Except these days, it doesn’t really work that way.

The nature of the economical market means that competition always gives rise to competing brands. Take for example shampoo. I have no idea how many different brands there are out there of ‘hair soap’, all probably purporting to be, usually through pseudo-science, different to their rivals. But really, although there will be some variety in quality, all shampoo does the same thing. It cleans your hair. What advertising is doing now, and spending billions to achieve it, is convincing us otherwise.

With this arrangement it would be difficult for quality to be anything other than a market novelty or so expensive as to make it an unlikely purchase for the average consumer. However, there is another, more underhand technique employed inherently into almost all the goods we buy. Its called planned obsolescence, and although economists advocates this ploy through the philosophy of Philip Kotler et al, to me it is quite obviously unethical. The basic idea is that whatever you purchase has a predetermined lifespan before becoming obsolete. Be it having to upgrade your computer’s operating software or a deliberately designed weakness in a mechanism; it all leads to the same thing: a perpetual cycle of purchasing semi-disposable or ‘faulty’ items. I don’t have to mention the Black and Decker Workmate, do I? If anyone compared the version from the 80s to the one of today, it would probably be inferior in every way.

 

So what’s my point? Ok, so they don’t make things like they used to. So what?

Well I think there is a point to be made here. When we hear western leaders (and by that I mean any country that has allowed itself to be governed by money) talk about ‘progress’, we have all naturally assumed that they had in mind somewhere we were progressing to. Somewhere better. I no longer think that is the case. Instead, we are tracking along on a conveyor belt of consumerism, struck senseless by a global barrage of $500billion worth of advertising. The longer we sit on this banal ride the further we move from quality and closer to a degrading of our way of life. To see human design fail us the way it currently is may have unknown effects on society as a whole. Our consumer driven, disposable culture has distanced us from quality, perhaps even lowering other baselines as it went? Surely it’s not difficult to imagine that inferior tools lead to an inferior job? Let me give you an example. The NHS in Britain has, for the last decade or so, been going through a constant process of planned obsolescence. By that I mean almost all safe and robust systems of practice have been replaced with flimsy, but cheaper, replicas. When these begin to break, they are simply replaced by an even inferior model that runs along for even less time before showing signs of strain. When these weak systems fail completely, it is staff that becomes the focus of the problem, not the blunt and broken tools they are left holding.

 

And what about the conveyor belt? Anyone interested in where it is carrying us? You could ask your politicians, but their answer would be the usual confused rhetoric. Instead, let me tell you: it goes nowhere, just around and around until it splutters and stops.

Here’s a better question to ask. What’s your definition of progress?