Sunday, September 18, 2016

a guide to our future?...

Essentially, this is an extended review of Paul Mason’s book “Postcapitalism”. Reading it was a bit like reading a PhD thesis (actually, I’ve never read one… but this is how I imagine the experience might feel!). He paints a picture of capitalism today (as well as charting its chequered history over the past 200 years or so) and reckons that its long-term prospects are extremely bleak.
He contends that the series impacts of climate change, demographic ageing and population growth kick in around the year 2050… and that “if we can’t create a sustainable global order and restore economic dynamism, the decades after 2050 will be chaos”.

Mason, born in Leigh, Lancashire in 1960, is an articulate, intelligent and fascinating bloke. He graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in music and politics in 1981 and went on to work as a music teacher and lecturer in music at Loughborough University. He became a freelance journalist in 1991 and went on to join BBC2’s Newsnight as Business Editor in 2001. In 2013, he became Channel 4 News’s culture and digital editor and later became the programme’s Economics Editor. He left Channel 4 in February 2016 in order to be able to engage more fully in debates on the political left without the constraints of impartiality placed on UK broadcasters. He’s a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and describes himself as “radical social democrat”.

I found the book absolutely absorbing… and decided that I should jot my thoughts on it in a little more length than my usual one paragraph book review summary. In the book, Mason describes capitalism as a “complex, adaptive system which has reached the limits of its capacity to adapt”. He looks back on the growth of capitalism over the past 200 years or so… and refers to a whole host of key players who he sees as being influential in the development and understanding of the subject – the likes of Piketty, Kondratieff, Nachimson, Slutsky, Schumpeter, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Bukharin and Varga (no, I’d never heard of them either!).
Even though I struggled to understand some of the financial complexities, it was all fascinating stuff!

I stopped scribbling in my books a very long time ago(!), but I KEPT on coming across interesting/depressing/startling/powerful/frightening extracts and, so, my copy has become absolutely covered in pencil underlining and notes! These are just a few “tasters” to give you a (somewhat random) flavour – look, I know this makes it a pretty lengthy blog post(!)… but I think he makes several important points:

“Neoliberalism is the doctrine of uncontrolled markets: it says that the best route to prosperity is individuals pursuing their own self-interest, and the market is the only way to express that self-interest. It says the state should be small…; that financial speculation is good; that the natural state of humankind is to be a bunch of ruthless individuals, competing with each other”.

“…The long-term prospects for capitalism are bleak. According to the OECD, growth in the developed world will be ‘weak’ for the next fifty years. Inequality will rise by 40%. Even in developing countries, the current dynamism will be exhausted by 2060”.  

“The main contradiction today is between the possibility of free, abundant goods and information and a system of monopolies, banks and governments trying to keep things private, scarce and commercial. Everything comes down to the struggle between the network and the hierarchy, between old forms of society moulded around capitalism and new forms of society that prefigure what comes next”.

“The elite and their supporters are lined up to defend the same core principles: high finance, low wages, secrecy, militarism, intellectual property and energy based on carbon. The bad news is that they control nearly every government in the world. The good news is that in most countries they enjoy very little consent or popularity among ordinary people”.

“…Then, through austerity programmes, they transferred the pain away from people who’d invested money stupidly, punishing instead welfare recipients, public sector workers, pensioners and, above all, future generations. In the worst-hit countries, the pension system has been destroyed, the retirement age is being hiked so that those currently leaving university will retire at seventy, and education is being privatized so that graduates will face a lifetime of high debt. Services are being dismantled and infrastructure projects put on hold”.

Mason frequently refers to the 2008 financial crisis (note: according to the New York Times, only ONE top banker has ever been imprisoned in connection with the financial crisis!). The following quote refers to a Lehman executive running the ‘infamous Repo 105’ tactic in an email:
“The tactic involved hiding debts away from Lehman’s balance sheet by temporarily ‘selling’ them and then buying them back once the bank’s quarterly report had been submitted. Another Lehman exec is asked: is the tactic legal, do other banks do it, and is it disguising holes in our balance sheet? He emails back: ‘Yes, no and yes’ :)”.

“We have to try to learn what’s urgent, and what’s important, and that sometimes they do not coincide. If it were not for the external shocks facing us over the next fifty years, we could afford to take things slowly: the state, in a benign transition, would act as the main facilitator of change through regulation. But the enormity of the external shocks means some of the actions we take will have to be immediate, centralized and drastic”.

“In this book, I’ve avoided ‘building in’ the climate change crisis until now… Industrial capitalism has, in the space of 200 years, made the climate 0.8 degrees Celsius hotter, and is certain to push it two degrees higher than the pre-industrial average by 2050… Either we react in time and confront it in a relatively orderly way, or we don’t – and disaster follows”.

“The lesson is: a market-led strategy on climate change is utopian thinking. What are the obstacles to a non-market-led strategy? … Between 2003-2010, climate-denial lobby groups received $558million from donors in the USA. ExxonMobil and the ultra-conservative Koch Industries were major donors until 2007, when there was a tangible shift to funds channelled through anonymous third parties, under pressure of journalistic scrutiny. The outcome? The world spends an estimated $544billion on subsidizing the fossil fuel industry”.

“There is, in short, a rational case for panic about climate change – and it is compounded when you consider the interrelatedness of climate and the other great uncontrolled variant: population… demographic ageing is set to make state finances unsustainable all across the developed world… analysts predict that by 2050, even with a pension cuts, 60% of all countries in the world will have credit ratings below investment grade: it will be suicidal for anybody who does not want to risk losing their money to lend to them”.

“We have not yet considered the impact of migration… By 2050, there will be 1.2billion more people of working age in the world than today… the population of Niger will have grown from its current 18million to 69million. Chad… will see its population treble to 33million. Afghanistan… will rise from 30 to 56million”.

I could go on… and on!
I think Mason is very good in his analysis of what’s “gone before” and in his assessment of the future alarming dangers we face. Looking into the future and pointing the way forward represents a truly massive challenge and he’s brave in his assertions. But, trying to outline these in a mere 30 pages (out of a book some 300 pages long) is perhaps a little over-ambitious. Having said that, he does at least TRY and, although I don’t pretend to understand all the intricacies of his arguments(!), he has thought things through in impressive detail.
To give you just a flavour, these are the sub-headings of his concluding chapter, entitled “Project Zero” (each of these really needs a few lines of explanation… but you’ve probably already lost the will to live!): Five Principles of Transition; Top-Level Goals; Model First, Act Later; The Wiki-State; Expand Collaborative Work; Suppress or Socialize Monopolies; Let Market Forces Disappear; Socialize the Finance System; Pay Everyone a Basic Income; The Network Unleashed; Is This For Real?; and Liberate the One Per Cent.

Whatever your thoughts about Mason’s left-leaning political stance, this is a powerful, thought-provoking book. I’m sure a right-wing political thinker could provide an altogether different view, but I think Gillian Tett (from the Financial Times) sums things up perfectly:
“Even if you love the current capitalist system, it would be a mistake to ignore this book… Politicians of all stripes should take note. And so should the people who vote for them”.
A brilliant, brave book in my view.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

captain fantastic…

Moira+I went to the Watershed again this afternoon to see Matt Ross’s “Captain Fantastic” – featuring the excellent Viggo Mortensen in the title role (I thought he was simply brilliant in “The Road”).
Mortensen stars as an idealistic survivalist father (Ben) raising six children “off grid and away from contemporary civilisation” (as the Watershed blurb puts it). He lives in remote forest in Washington State where he home schools them to be “fit in body and mind”. The children do outlandish things like read books(!), hunt for their food and justify their personal opinions. A family crisis forces them to re-enter the “normal” world that they’ve been long separated from. It’s a shock to the system: everyone seems to be overweight compared with them… and then there are the mobile phones, the violent video games and the loud music!
All the child actors are rather wonderful and are a perfect bizarre mix of characters (frankly, I wanted to be Captain Fantastic too - some hope!).
I thought it was an absolutely lovely film. It’s poignant and it’s funny… but it also asks hard questions about society and the way we bring up our families in the hard-nosed, selfish, materialistic world we inhabit today.
PS: The family travel around in a lovely, huge, battered bus (appropriately named “Steve”!). It left me feeling quite envious – I want one (and I’d still only need one Residents Parking Zone permit to park outside our house!). Obviously, we would spend most of our time in Leigh Woods and the Forest of Dean…
PPS: It seemed appropriate to see this film at the same time as I’ve been reading Paul Mason’s “Postcapitalism” – in which he suggests we might well be about to enter a whole new world of ‘post capitalism’ – where a technological revolution (something of an alternative ‘knowledge’ revolution) will reshape our lives.

Friday, September 09, 2016

grammar schools…

So, the Prime Minister has unveiled plans to allow a “new wave” of existing grammar schools in England to expand, new ones to open and some schools to select pupils by ability.
Such a policy fills me huge anxiety and sadness.
I passed my 11-plus and was one of the “lucky” ones who went to grammar school.
I certainly benefited from an excellent grammar school education and it enabled me to become the first member of our (working class) family ever to go to university.
Whilst my education is a matter of some pride (for me!), it also carries with it an ENORMOUS sense of guilt.
If I was one of let’s say 10% of pupils (it could well have much less) who passed the 11-plus and went on to grammar school, then there were 90% who didn’t. They were labelled as “failures” – and the education system clearly only favoured “successful” pupils. This might sound harsh, but it was absolutely true in the 1960s… and, in my view, would still be the case if grammar school education was extensively reintroduced today. Clearly, there are some pupils who managed to beat the system (my brilliant brother is one of these), but they are the exceptions and do so DESPITE the system… not because of it. I have a long list of old friends who failed to make the grade…
Apparently, Mrs May believes that the ban on new selective schools has been in place too long and has held bright poor children back – “sacrificing children's potential because of dogma and ideology”. She reckons she would ask grammar schools to “take a proportion of pupils from lower-income households”, set up or sponsor a primary feeder school in a deprived area and obtain sponsors for underperforming academies.
Well, I COULD write (extensively!) about my reservations on this latest Tory education policy… but, instead, I’ll try to sum up what other people have said about such a policy:
1.    As far back as 2007, David Cameron made clear his opposition to bringing back grammar schools: “parents fundamentally don't want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11."
2.    Mr Willetts (the Tory education spokesman back in 2007) also distanced himself from the traditional Tory belief in academic selection, saying it was "fantasy" to say selection at the age of 11, which takes place in grammar schools, could be fair.
3.    The current chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, says the idea that poor children would benefit from a return of grammar schools was "tosh" and "nonsense"… and that such a policy would “undo years of progress… My fear is by moving to a grammar and secondary modern system - because, let's face it, that's what well have if you divide at 11 - we will put the clock back, and the progress we have made over the past 10 to 15 years will slow."
4.    Labour's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: "By enshrining selection into our education system the prime minister is wilfully ignoring the overwhelming evidence that selection at 11 leads to a more unequal country." She also accused the Education Secretary of “a dangerous misunderstanding of the real issues facing our schools”.
5.    Kevin Courtney, leader of the National Union of Teachers, said opening new grammars was a "regressive move and a distraction from the real problems" of funding pressures and teacher shortages.
6.    Simon Jenkins (Sunday Times, May 2007): “At political meetings at the end of the 1960s, Edward Boyle (Minster of Education from 1962 to 1964) was torn limb from limb by conservative voters, infuriated that their children who had ‘failed’ the eleven-plus were being sent to secondary moderns, along with 70-80% of each age group. They had regarded the grammars as ‘their schools’. The eleven-plus, they said, lost them the 1964 election and would lose them every one until it was abolished.”
7.    Research suggests that just 3% of grammar school entrants are eligible for free school meals, compared to the national average of around 14%.
8.    Labour's shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “If you’re going to say, ‘there’s bright kids and there’s kids that are not that bright, and we need to segregate those kids, then say it’.”
9.    Education Secretary Justine Greening has recently been defending potential grammar school policies by quoting (old) research undertaken by the Sutton Trust. This has rather back-fired (according to The Independent newspaper, 8 September 2016): One of the Trust’s recent reports, “Poor Grammar: Entry Into Grammar Schools Disadvantaged Pupils In England”, found a clear correlation between higher incomes and likelihood of entry to grammar schools: the report warned that just 3 per cent pupils getting into grammar schools were from disadvantaged backgrounds. Even controlling for attainment, the research showed disadvantaged pupils were less likely to get places at the schools. Pupils were four times more likely to get into a grammar school if they attended a prep school – attended by six per cent of the population – than if they were on free school meals – which are claimed by 18 per cent of pupils.
10. Former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell said: “All the evidence tells us that, far from giving working-class kids chances, (grammar schools) entrench advantage and have become the preserve of the privately tutored”.
11. The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said: “Those who hold up grammar schools as the gold standard are less keen to talk about what happens to those children who, at the age of 11, are told they are not good enough … This rose-tinted view of grammar schools might play well for a nostalgic few on the right of the Tory party but make no mistake about it – they are not the drivers of social mobility they would like to claim”.

Apparently, the government intends to hold a consultation on ways to make new and expanding grammar schools more inclusive - so that places are not limited to families who can "pay for tuition to pass the test". Ah! So, no worries there then… and, OF COURSE, with all the pressures of SAT testing, the children are already perfectly used to pressurised learning!! “Johnnie, you REALLY must do well in this selection test… because, if you don’t, you’re likely to be doomed to failure for the rest of your life”.
If it was bad in the 1960s, it’s a WHOLE lot worse today (just ask ANY parent of ANY pupil at school today)!
I certainly don’t pretend that the existing comprehensive secondary education is working perfectly (don’t get me started on Academies!), but I DO think it’s the most sensible basis for avoiding inequality. I fear that the government’s policy will simply underline the widening gap between those who have and those who don’t.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

last cricket match of the season…

Chris and I were due to go to Taunton on the final day of the three-day game between Somerset and Warwickshire (my home county of birth). Due to his other commitments, it was the only day Chris could make it. However, after a bizarre first day (when 21 wickets fell!!), it was pretty clear that there wouldn’t be much of the game left (if any) by the final day… and so Chris generously suggested that I might prefer to see Day two on my own… which I duly did.
Well, it proved to be another highly-eventful day’s cricket.
In the morning, Somerset had resumed on 41-1 in their second innings (leading by 13 runs (Somerset had been dismissed for just 95… and Warwickshire hadn’t fared much better in reaching 123). Although the pitch wasn’t “dangerous”, it was one that had previously been “used” (when I looked at it closely in the lunch break, it did look very badly worn to me – and I don’t really blame the batsman for treating it with great suspicion!!) and certainly offered help to both seam and spin bowlers.
In the end, Somerset made 211 – largely thanks to captain Chris Rogers (who made 58, after being dropped the night before) and Peter Trego (31, which included two sixes) and set Warwickshire 184 to win. It was a target that SHOULD have been well within their capabilities, but they started disastrously and were soon 34-5… and then 61-8 - largely thanks to some pretty awful Warwickshire batting and to some impressive spin bowling by Somerset’s Leach (5 wickets) and Bess (2 wickets).
But then (in my view – and I’m an expert, of course!), after failing to take a wicket for maybe three overs(?), the Somerset captain Rogers decided to replace the impressive debutant Bess with another spinner, van der Merwe. His five, fairly innocuous, overs went for more than four an over and seemed to give the Warwickshire batsmen Clarke and Wright a new-found confidence. By the time I left for home, Warwickshire had slightly recovered to 86-8, but were still clearly going to lose the match…
In the event, the two batsman – somewhat incredibly, given what had happened earlier - managed to stay at the crease until close of play… and had taken the score to 131-8 (Clarke 42, Wright 38)… leaving just 53 runs for an improbable victory.
Who knows what will happen today (Warwickshire will probably lose their last wickets in the first over!)… but today proved to be a highly-entertaining, absorbing day’s cricket (in that quiet, gentle way that cricket has of doing things!).
“England, Their England” indeed!
Photo: Patel appealing against Trescothick in Somerset’s second innings.


Sunday, September 04, 2016

august-september 2016 books...

More book stuff:
Country Girl (Edna O’Brien): This is (yet) another purchase from the excellent £3 Bookshop. I’d never read anything by Edna O’Brien before but, having flicked through a few pages in the shop, this autobiography rather appealed. Published in 2012, O’Brien wrote it (somewhat reluctantly, it seems) at the age of 78. She’s clearly a very talented writer and I loved her “way with words” – and also her humour and her ability to recall and articulate small, incidental details from her life. Ultimately, she became an acclaimed writer of novels, plays and screenplays worldwide and something of a celebrity in her own right. At times, I felt that the book’s middle section seemed to be little more than a list of famous people with whom she regularly mixed (according to O’Brien, Jackie Onassis, for example, once told her that she was “one of the three people on the planet whom she loved most”) or, indeed, slept with!! I found this section of the book by far the least interesting. Much more impressive, for me, were the recollections from her childhood in Ireland, together with reflections from her later life. A very enjoyable book about what has clearly been a fascinating journey as a writer… I think it’s about time that I tried one of her novels!
Somewhere Towards The End (Diana Athill): Athill is one of my heroes/heroines. I’ve read a number of her books over recent years and found them in all, in their various ways, inspiring. This book (published in 2008), as the title suggests, is a book about her (attitude to) life in old age – happily, she’s still alive at the ripe old age of 98 (as I write this). It’s a brilliantly positive book for everyone – and especially those, like me, who see themselves as entering “old age”. She writes beautifully and has a wonderful, generous attitude towards life and other people. She’s also funny… and I particularly enjoyed her comments about how young people give her energy and enthusiasm; about her attempts to give up driving when she was 82 (note: I’ve resolved to do the same when I’m 72!); and about her enjoyment of drawing. This extract rather put me in my place(!): “That is why most people find it more interesting to draw other people, or animals, or plants and trees, rather than man-made objects such as architecture or machinery. (There are, of course, fine draughtsmen who specialise in those – and no doubt it’s a foolish quirk of mine that makes me suspect they will be bores)”! Wonderful!
Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey): This was another Book group book. A rich, complex, intelligent and powerful novel, set in the mid-19th century (largely set in Australia), about the undeclared love between a clergyman and an heiress. The flysheet of my own copy described the main characters as being “made for each other, the two are gamblers – one obsessive, the other compulsive – incapable of winning at the game of love”… which seems a fair summary. Frankly, I struggled for much of this long book (some 520 pages in length) – especially the first 100 pages or so. All too often, I found myself being irritated by Carey’s painstaking descriptions of minor characters which, although well-written, frequently felt like “padding” and slowed down the main story itself. I also often found myself exasperated by the Oscar character and didn’t find him particularly convincing. I’m still trying to make up my mind as to whether I found the book’s ending impressive or something of a cop-out (all along, I just knew it wouldn’t have a “lived happily ever after” tag!). Overall, I thought it was a hugely-inventive, clever, sad (but frequently amusing) and well-written book… I just wished Carey had reduced its length by 200 pages or so!
The Ghost Road (Pat Barker): This is the final book of Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy, set in the closing months of the First World War and follows the fortunes of shell-shocked British army officers. As in her previous two books, Barker explores ‘possible’ relationships between real people (eg. real-life psychoanalyst William Rivers, poet Wilfred Owen) and fictional characters (eg. working-class officer Billy Prior). Prior and Owen are about to return to combat in France, after being under the care of Rivers. The book’s title gives a powerful sense of the two battles involved (other than the war between nations) – the war between individuals and the psychological war within oneself. The final, futile battle scenes (which include the inevitable deaths of Prior, Owen and thousands of others) take place in the early days of November 1918 – a matter of just a handful of days before the Armistice was signed (on 11 November). Everyone knew that the war is coming to an end, but the Generals are adamant that “there is to be no retirement under any circumstances”. Prior observes: “That was the order. They have tied us to the stake, we cannot fly, but bear-like we must fight the course”… yet more soldiers’ names to be added to the appallingly-long list of deaths in a war that decimated a generation. An extraordinary, frightening, depressing, outstanding book (and trilogy).
Skios (Michael Frayn): I like Michael Frayn as a writer and bought this at the “Last Bookshop” for £2.50 – despite the fact that a) it’s a farce and b) I don’t particularly like farces! So… an internationally-renowned (male) academic arrives at the Greek island of Skios to give the annual lecture on the scientific organisation of science (or something like that!) to an important Foundation… but, at the airport, the Foundation’s attractive female PA confuses him with a much younger, charming character (who’s something of a womaniser) who is attracted by the woman’s smile… and decides to pretend to be the person she’s looking for. Meanwhile, at the other end of the island, a young woman waits for the very same notorious womaniser (she’s rashly agreed to go on holiday with him) but, of course, he fails to turn up… and yet, amazingly (due to a whole series of ridiculous mix-ups), the academic turns up at the villa of the young woman… and, oh, one thing leads to another… and another (oh, you get the idea!)! Sadly (for me), despite the intricate and highly-imaginative storyline, the book’s finale is somewhat fudged – almost as if Frayn had grown tired of it all and (literally) lost the plot! Let’s just say that it was an entertaining, light “holiday read” (retirement is a never-ending holiday, of course!).

Thursday, September 01, 2016

swallows and amazons…

Arthur Ransome’s book was never part of my childhood (we were more Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five”!) but, at some stage in my life, this children’s novel became a well-loved and enduring English classic for me. So, this afternoon (on the Watershed’s last  day of screening), Moira and I went to see Philippa Lowthorne’s film adaptation. It was a slightly surreal experience because (given it was children’s film!) we were probably the only adults there not accompanied by children (Iris, Rosa and Ursa all being on holiday).
It proved to be a very agreeable film – albeit without quite the “magic” of the stage version we saw at Bristol’s Old Vic Theatre in January 2015. For me, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t quite have the “feel” of Ransome’s 1929 book… in terms of innocence, fantasy and adventure. I also thought that the film tried too hard (and rather failing in my eyes?) to make the “baddies” more sinister and bizarre than Ransome had intended.
I was also somewhat taken aback by the following description in the Watershed programme about the cast “combining brilliantly to do justice to this beloved story – one that will have adults melting into laughter, teenagers grinning with sheepish self-knowledge at the eternal lure of puckishness, and young ones swept up in the thrill”.
I, for one, wasn’t quite melting into laughter… but it was a very enjoyable film nevertheless.
PS: I was also amused to note that the film changed Titty’s name to Tatty!