Archive for the ‘Denmark’ Category

Jeremy Corbyn Suggests Capping Director’s Pay – Media Goes Ballistic

January 11, 2017

Mike yesterday put up a piece reporting on another good suggestion from Jeremy Corbyn, and the predictable response of outrage and sneering from the meejah. The Labour leader had said on an interview on Radio 4 yesterday morning that he believed that there should be a cap on the pay earned by company directors and senior execs. The media naturally responded by pointing out that Corbyn has an annual pay of £138,000 a year, and tried to draw him into giving a price figure for what the maximum amount earned should be.

The story got onto the One Show yesterday evening, where they did a brief survey of people in the street. Opinions were, as they say, mixed. One elderly objected to the cap on the grounds that it might take away the incentive for people rising to the top. Looking at the headlines on the various papers this morning, it was very clear that it had riled someone at the Torygraph, as this was the story they shoved on their front cover. Other newspapers, like Mail, led by claiming that Labour’s policy in immigration was ‘in disarray’. Mike’s also written another article this week showing that’s also rubbish.

Mike in his article makes the point that compared to some of the vast, bloated salaries awarded to company executives, Corbyn’s own salary appears very modest indeed. He suggests that it is stupid to try to lay down a particular set figure – it should be based on company turnover and the lowest wage earned by an employee at that company. He also makes the point that the casting of particular star actors can make a great difference to how well a movie does, and that when this happens, everyone else who worked on the movie should also enjoy the films’ financial awards.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/01/10/if-we-examine-who-is-complaining-about-corbyns-maximum-wage-idea-well-know-why/

This is all correct. And there’s something else that needs to be added:

Japan already has maximum wage legislation.

Yep, it’s true. Japan is one of the world’s five wealthy countries with a very capitalist economy. The centre right Liberal Democratic party has ruled the country almost uninterrupted since the Second World War. And it also has a cap on how much company directors may be paid. I think it’s set at about 20 times that of the lowest paid employee, but I am not sure.

And the limitation of wage differentials is not something that has been simply added on in the course of reform, but an integral part of the dominant, guiding vision of the nature of Japanese society. East Asian societies can be extremely collectivist, stressing group loyalty over individual opportunity or achievement. In Japan the goal was to create a harmonious, middle class society, where there would be no extremes in wealth or poverty. This isn’t quite the case, as the Burakami, an outcast group rather like the Dalits in India, and those of Korean descent are still subject to massive poverty and discrimination.

The Japanese have also tried to justify their collectivist outlook through racist pseudo-anthropology. One school textbook claimed that Japanese society was more collectivist and co-operative because the Japanese people were descended from agriculturalists, who had to forge strong links with each other in order to cultivate and harvest rice. We Westerners, however, were all isolated individualists because we’re all descended from hunter-gatherers.

As anthropology, it’s rubbish, of course. Some social historians have argued that agricultural societies are more prone to tyranny and absolute government, which would include the type of Asian absolute monarchies described by Western observers as ‘oriental despotism’. But all human societies were originally hunter-gatherers, including the Japanese. And European society has practised settled agriculture since the beginning of the Neolithic 6,000 years ago.

The origins of Japanese and East Asian collectivism probably lie more in the influence of Confucianism, which stressed the right relationships between the members of society, such as between the prince and the people, and between elders, parents and children, and the still powerful influence of feudalism in structuring social relationships. Instead of a samurai warrior giving his loyalty and service to a daimyo feudal lord, it’s now the sarariman – the corporate warrior – becoming part of the retinue of company employees under the lordship of the director.

And European individualism probably comes not from any vestiges of our hunter-gatherer deep past, but from the effect of Hobbesian Social Contract political theorising and the free trade economics of the French Physiocrats and Adam Smith. Hobbes has been described as the first, of one of the first philosophers of the emerging bourgeois society of the 17th century. This was the period which saw Cromwell sweep away the last vestiges of feudalism in England, and the emergence of modern capitalism. But Hobbes’ philosophy views people as social atoms, all competing against each other, as opposed to other views of society, which may stress the importance of collective or corporate identities and loyalties, such as family, feudal lordship or membership of trade and professional bodies. Similarly, the founders of the economic theories of modern capitalism, such as the Physiocrats in France and Adam Smith and in Scotland, also stressed unrestrained individual competition. They were also specifically arguing against the mercantilist system, in which the state regulated trade. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries the British government enacted a series of legislation governing trade with its emerging colonies, so as to tie them to the economy of the home country, which would benefit from their products. Modern Western individualism come from these theories of capitalist society and the perceived operation of its economy.

The collectivist nature of Japanese society also expresses itself in other ways in the structure and management of Japanese corporations. Singing the company song in the morning is one example. Management are also encouraged or required to share the same canteen as the workers on the shop floor. Both of these practices, and no doubt many others, are designed to foster group solidarity, so that management and workers work together for the good of the company.

This isn’t a perfect system, by any means. Apart from the immense pressure placed on individuals in a society that places such heavy emphasis on the value of hard work, that individuals actually keel over and die because of it when doing their jobs, it has also made Japanese society and corporations extremely resistant to change. Confucianism places great stress on respect for one’s elders and superiors. While respect for the older generation is an admirable virtue, and one which our society in many ways is sadly lacking, in Japan it has resulted in a mindset which resists change or apportioning due blame for historical crimes and atrocities.

At the corporate level, the slow down of the Japanese economy in the 1990s meant there was no longer such a pressing need for company staff to work such long hours. However, so great is the corporate inertia, that staff still feel that they have to keep working past six O’clock in the evening, even if there is little or no work to do, because they don’t want to be seen as breaking with the approved practices of previous generations of employees.

And at the national level, it has been suggested that the exaggerated respect for one’s elders and ancestors is the reason why Japan has had such immense difficulty confronting the atrocities their nation committed during the Second World War. Japanese school texts and official histories have been criticised because they’d don’t discuss the atrocities committed by the imperial Japanese army. One school textbook even talked about the army’s ‘advance’ through Asia, rather than its invasion. The reason for this failure to admit the existence of these crimes, and criticise those who perpetrated them, is that respect for one’s elders and social superiors is so engrained in Japanese society, that except for a few extremely courageous mavericks, casting shame on those responsible for such horrors and, by implication, the whole of society during this period, is unacceptable. Even though many over on this side of the Eurasian landmass would consider that a failure to confront the atrocities committed by one’s nation to be even more shameful.

Japanese and Asian collectivism is not, then, perfect. But a maximum wage cap certainly did not hinder Japan’s advance to become one of the world’s foremost industrial countries. And the goal of creating a harmonious, co-operative society where there is little disparity in wealth is a good one.

The title of Mike’s article on Corbyn’s suggestion for a maximum wage states that the identities of those complaining about it reveal why they’re doing so. Indeed. The proprietors and leading executives of newspaper companies, like the Barclay twins at the Torygraph, have awarded themselves immense salaries. They’re multimillionaires. This wealth is increasingly not being shared with the hacks, who do the actual work of putting the paper out. The Torygraph has been particularly struck with declining sales to the point that Private Eye’s ‘Street of Shame’ column regularly reported further job cuts. Many of the big newspaper companies depend on the work of unpaid interns, particularly the Groaniad. And even if they’re not being threatened with the sack, conditions for the paid staff are becoming increasingly Orwellian. For example, the Eye reported a few months ago that one of the managers at the Torygraph had tried to install motion detectors on the staff’s desks to prevent them moving around too much, just like the staff at call centres are also monitored. The hacks were so annoyed, however, that management had to back down and the motion detectors were removed.

As for the film industry, the presence of big name Hollywood stars can sink a movie simply through the sheer expense of paying. For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger was paid $7 million for his appearance in the second Terminator movie. While that was a box office success, the presence of ‘A’ list celebrities in a movie does not guarantee that a film will be a success. One of the reasons why the film Ishtar became such a notorious flop in the 1990s was that the producers cast three major stars, who all commanded multi-million dollar salaries. This pushed the bill for the movie towards $20 million or so, even before the film had been shot. The film was thus under financial pressure from the start.

Apart from the Japanese, there are other, successful European nations that also deliberately avoid huge inequalities in wealth. One of these is Denmark. The newspapers have been full of articles analysing and celebrating the traditional Danish concept of ‘hygge’. This has been translated as ‘cosiness’, but it actually means much more than that. The way I’ve heard it explained by a Danish friend, it’s about being content with the homely necessities. I got the distinct impression that it was similar to the Swedish notion of ‘lagom’, which translates as ‘just enough’. You make just enough to satisfy your basic needs, but no more. And from what I’ve heard about Danish society, the social attitude there is that no-one should try to appear ostentatiously better off than anyone else. This is not to say that everyone has to do the same low-paid job, or that they should not earn more than anyone else. But it does mean that they should not be conspicuously more affluent.

This is the complete opposite from the values promoted and celebrated by Thatcher and the wretched ‘New Right’ of the 1980s. They demanded making conditions harsher for the poor, and giving ever larger salaries to management on the grounds that this would act as an incentive for others to do well and try to climb up the corporate and social ladder. The result has been the emergence of a tiny minority, who are massively wealthy – the 1%. Like the Barclay twins, Rupert Murdoch and just about every member of Theresa May’s cabinet. For everyone else, wages have stagnated to the point where a considerable number are finding it very difficult to make ends meet.

But wage caps and an attitude that discourages inequalities of wealth have not harmed Japan, nor Denmark and Sweden, which also have very strong economies and a very high standard of living.

The massive difference between the millions earned by the heads of the big corporations has been a scandal here in Britain, to the point where David Cameron and May made noises urging company directors to restrain their greed. Corbyn’s suggestion is eminently sensible, if Britain is to be a genuinely inclusive, prosperous society. The outrage shown by various media execs to it shows that the Tories are still committed to a policy of poverty for the many, riches for a very few. And all their concern at reining in executive pay is just platitudes to make it appear that they’re concerned when the issue becomes too embarrassing.

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Robothespian, the British Robotic Actor

October 25, 2016

Yesterday I put up a piece about a performance of Karel Capek’s classic play about a robot rebellion, RUR, at the Czech national library a few years ago by a theatre group, Café Neu Romance, using lego robots. The theatre company was the creation of Vive Les Robots, a Danish company set up to encourage public interest in robots and robotics. I said in the article that I thought it would be good if the play could be performed by full-sized robots, to give it the stature it deserves. I realise, however, that was unlikely given how massively expensive the animatronic technology is, that brings to life robotic puppets like Ry’gel from the SF series Farscape.

One British company, Engineered Arts, has created such a full size mechanical actor. It’s called Robothespian, and there are a number of videos about it on YouTube. The video below shows it, appropriately enough, talking about R.U.R. as part of Café Neu Romance, a robot arts festival, at the Czech National Technical Library in 2012.

Robothespian has also appeared on British breakfast television. In this clip from the Beeb’s Breakfast TV programme from 2014, the two presenters talk about, and sometimes to Robothespian with Dr Nigel Crook of Oxford Brookes University. The robot was created by Engineered Arts as a research project to explore the ways people interact with robots. Crook explains that it can respond to a number of voice commands, and the two presenters ask it questions such as what advantages robots have over human beings. Crook also explains that despite this ability, real intelligence is a long way off, and the problem of giving the robot the ability to hold a genuinely intelligent, wide-ranging conversation is very challenging. So right now, the machine responds giving the answers programmed into it by a human operator.

Robothespian, or Artie, as it is called, from RT – Robothespian – replies to the question about its usefulness that robots can perform simple, repetitive tasks accurately without tiring, or needing to go for breaks. They ask it if it could do their job. Its answer is that it certainly could, as all they do is read from an autocue. So when does it start?

The machine has a range of expressive hand gestures, a moving mouth, and two screens in its head, which show images of eyes. These blink, helping it show a number of expressions. They also show hearts, like those shown in the eyes of cartoon characters to indicate they have fallen in love. The two presenters are, however, advised to stand a few feet away from the robot. Crook explains it is compliant, which means that, unlike an industrial robot, it won’t blindly continue to perform a gesture if it accidentally strikes someone who happens to stand in the way. Similarly, it’s possible to pull the robot’s limbs away from where they’ve settled without damaging it. Nevertheless, the presenters were advised to stand clear of it just in case it accidentally flipped back and struck them.

As well as delivering monologues, Robothespian can also sing, giving a hilarious rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and do impressions, like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Crook explains that it was built to act as a guide at museums, festivals and exhibitions. The two presenters ask about its gender, and are told that it’s creators think of it as male, as it’s been given a male voice.

Also on the show is a little feature about a robot toy, Caspar, which is used in schools to teach autistic children. The toy was being tried out as a teaching tool as autistic people can find it immensely challenging understanding other’s emotions. They also like things in a very set order. Caspar is useful in that its responses, although intended to mimic those of humans, are always the same. For example, when it smiles, that smile is always the same smile every time it makes that expression. And this regularity and constancy of expression is intended to be reassuring and non-threatening, so that the child using it finds it easy, or easier to do so, than more conventional forms of interaction with people.

Robothespian isn’t cheap. Crook explains that it costs about £50,000. Despite this, Engineered Arts have built more than one of them. In this video from last year, 2015, two of them sing, ‘I Am Not A Robot’.

I find robots and robotics interesting, but I am very much aware of the problems they pose. There are the general philosophical issues like human identity and uniqueness – how long before they develop real intelligence and consciousness, start performing sophisticated task like creating art or composing music, or resent at their enslavement and control by humans? There are also the very real social and economic problems caused by their manufacture. The more industry is automated, the more real jobs, that could be performed by people, are lost. The Beeb a few months ago broadcast a documentary which forecast that in the next 15-20 years a third of all jobs could be lost in Britain. You can certainly see it in retail, where a number of companies have replaced human staff with self-service tills, where you scan in yourself the items you want to purchase into the machine, which then takes your money and hands you your change and receipt. If we aren’t careful, this will lead to the emergence of a society very much like that of 2000 AD’s Megacity One. Judge Dredd’s home city has, thanks to robots, a massive unemployment rate of 95% or so. As a result, most people’s lives are marked by boredom and despair, a situation brought home in the classic ‘Judge Dredd’ story, ‘Un-American Graffitti’, featuring Chopper, a teenage lad trying to escape this crushing social malaise through ever more daring pieces of graffiti artwork. 2000 AD and the ‘Dredd’ strip in particular always had a very strong element of satire and social commentary, and this was one of the most outstanding examples of the strip telling an entertaining story while also describing the real situation many of its readers faced for real due to Thatcherism.

And unfortunately, despite the boom years of the 1990s, the prospect of long-term unemployment and grinding poverty has got worse, due to globalism and the spread of neoliberalism as the dominant political and economic ideology. This will only get worse unless humanity finds ways to manage robotic technology wisely, to create jobs, rather than to the replace them.

Sandi Toksvig’s Public Schoolgirl Feminism and Support for Theresa May and Hillary Clinton

October 15, 2016

Sandi Toksvig, the comedienne, author, and host of Radio 4’s News Quiz in this week’s Radio Times. She is, apparently, due to take over from Stephen Fry as the host on QI. She and her partner also took time off the other year to launch the Women’s Equality party, and this is one of the topics covered in the interview. She particularly discusses her support for Hillary Clinton and, on this side of the Atlantic, Theresa May.

I have had very mixed feelings about Toksvig for a very long time. I’m not taking issue with her feminism – far from it. Women aren’t given the same status and opportunities as men, and there is widespread agreement that this is an issue that demands to be tackled. Moreover, while she is a lesbian feminist, she’s not the stereotypical misandrist. She makes it very clear in her general demeanour that she doesn’t hate men. She has a son, whom it is very clear she dearly loves, and indeed, she also talks about how her party has the support of many ‘wonderful men’.

On the other hand, I gave up listening to the News Quiz years ago for the same reason I stopped watching Stephen Fry on QI: I got heartily sick of the more or less constant sneering about religion every single week. And it is her endorsement of the above two politicians that I take issue with now.

Toksvig states that she believes that Theresa May is the right person for the job of Prime Minister. She claims that she was not responsible for the current economic crisis the country is in. She makes the point that the men, who were responsible all stabbed each other in the back, and then swam off as quickly as their blood loss would allow. it’s a lurid metaphor, but accurate for the way Boris, Gove and Cameron all betrayed each other over Brexit. She then goes on to state how she is not one of those people, who are immediately opposed to something because it’s Tory. Then she went on to talk about her support for Hillary Clinton.

Perhaps this shows my own narrow political views and prejudice, but it’s at this point that I gave up. Whatever their other merits, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton aren’t the right people for the job. Theresa May is a Tory, and she shares all the Thatcherite, neoliberal, corporatist views and policies of his male predecessors. This involves further cuts and privatisation, the dismantlement of the welfare state and the privatisation of the NHS. These are hurting, and in many cases killing, the poorest, most vulnerable sections of our society.

Ditto for Hillary Clinton. With Bill, she has also participated and backed government cuts on what little America has of welfare support. The anti-drug laws she introduced were devised by the right with the specific intention of targeting and incarcerating Blacks. She has also shown herself every bit as bloodthirsty and hawkish as her male colleagues, backing the Iraq invasion, and deliberately re-defining the coup in Honduras so that Obama’s regime could continue giving military aid to the military dictatorship running the country. This is a Fascist regime, that is imprisoning and murdering leftists, trade unionists and indigenous activists. She has also publicly endorsed and cosied up to Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s foreign policy advisor, who’s responsible for a whole raft of coups and genocides from South America to Asia. Among other horrors, Nixon and Kissinger backed General Pinochet’s Fascist coup in Chile, gave the nod and armaments to Pakistan’s massacre of about 3 million people or so in Bangladesh during their war of independence, and was responsible for the mass bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia in the Vietnam War. While Kissinger certainly didn’t back the Khmer Rouge, his bombing of Cambodia created the condition that thrust Pol Pot and his murderers to power. And there are others. Many, many others. Kissinger has been publicly told what he is – a war criminal – at demonstrations and protests by people like the young women from Code Pink, who disrupted a Democratic rally at which he was speaking. But this is the man Shrillary has publicly endorsed, who appears at her rallies to show his support for her, and with whom she and her husband have stayed.

Trump, of course, is certainly no better than Hillary. He’s a lecherous, sleazy, racist buffoon, who could easily bring America to the brink of a nuclear war. Clinton, by contrast, is a clever, calculating businesswoman, with a long record of public service. She is also a murderous butcher, outright Neocon, and could well bring to the point of nuclear war.

These are not the right people for the job. The right man for the job in the Democrat party was Bernie Sanders, who wanted to expand America’s welfare network and give the country the single-payer healthcare system over half of its people want, and which Hillary Clinton and her corporate backers vehemently oppose. He was stabbed in the back by a corrupt political establishment in the Democrat party led by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, just as Jeremy Corbyn was stabbed in the back, and is stabbed in the back, by a corrupt Blairite clique in the Labour party.

With Bernie gone, the best woman to run the country is Green Party leader Dr. Jill Stein. Not only is she an environmental activist, while both Trump and Clinton either deny climate change and environmental damage outright, or minimise the legislation against it on behalf of their corporate backers, but she’s also very involved in women’s and children’s health issues. She has also made it very clear that she backs a single-payer healthcare system, because America needs it. And like Bernie Sanders, she’s also shown an interest and solidarity with America’s indigenous peoples. Sanders would turn up on reservations to talk to First Nation communities about how their conditions could be improved, and the issues that matter to them. He did so when no, or very few other politicians did so. A few weeks ago, Jill Stein turned up to give her backing to the Sioux peoples in their campaign against the Dakota Pipeline, which threatens to destroy the water quality and the ecology of part of their tribal lands.

The fact that Toksvig backs these two shows the flaws and dangers in her brand of feminism. She wants women in power, and while that’s a noble aspiration in itself, it’s here coupled with an attitude that wants them in power, regardless of their personal suitability for the task. It’s a case of ‘my gender, right or wrong’.

On the other hand, there is also the possibility that the very qualities which make Theresa May and Shrillary Clinton absolutely repugnant candidates to anyone else with a sense of decency, are precisely those that appeal to Toksvig. Toksvig is an ex-public schoolgirl from a very elevated background. Privately educated, she’s the daughter of the Danish ambassador. Thus, despite some of the left-wing noises she made on the News Quiz with Jeremy Hardy and Francis Wheen, she’s very establishment. And from this is appears that she holds the very middle-class views the establishment wants everyone to hold: accept the wonders of privatisation, despite the fact that privatised services are rubbish and don’t work. Accept the privatisation of the health service and destruction of the welfare state, which will leave you faced with grinding poverty and a real danger of starvation, as well as sick, and receiving expensive, substandard treatment for your ailments. But the one per cent who run the big businesses want their tax cuts, and while it’s terrible for you, it’s what they want. And they make the rules, and are the only people that count. The rest of us don’t.

And so Toksvig is quite happy to back May and Shrillary, as they’re rich, establishment girls like herself, and they want to clear the way for further rich and establishment women in power. While at the same time keeping women from the lower and lower middle classes down, along with the rest of their class. And I’m sure that all the women in the countries America has invaded in the past few years, like Iraq, and those of the countries in the next war she starts will be terribly consoled when the bombs are raining down on them , and killing their daughters and sons, husbands, mothers and fathers, that the glass ceiling has been breached and there’s now a woman in the Oval Office. And all with the support of Sandi Toksvig and other media figures at the Beeb.

Because regardless of gender, it’s all about what the establishment wants.

The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills

July 16, 2016

Body Economic Pic

By David Stuckler, MPH, PhD, and Sanjay Basu, MD, PhD (New York: Basic Books 2013)

This is another book I picked up in the £3 bookshop in Bristol’s Park Street the other day. Written by two American health researchers, it examines the way economic recessions and austerity affect people’s health from the Great Recession of the 1930s, the Fall of Communism, Greece and Iceland, and today’s recession, which began with the banking collapse in 2008. The authors are medical researchers, whose own experience of poverty and ill health has led them to examine its effect on entire societies. They conclude that while recessions often lead to high – frequently devastatingly high outbreaks of disease and mortality, what is really crucial is the state’s handling of them. In countries which have a strong welfare state, and are determined to invest into getting their citizens back into work, such as Denmark in the 1990s, public health may actually improve. And as public health improves, the economy begins to pick up. In countries where the opposite is true – where the state just cuts, and is intent on dismantling the welfare infrastructure, like Greece and Cameron’s (and May’s) Britain, the result is higher disease and mortality.

As well as giving the impersonal stats, they also illustrate the damaging effects of austerity on public health through personal case studies. These include ‘Olivia’, a little girl, who suffered terrible burns when her unemployed father tried to burn their house down in a drunken rage, and an elderly Greek man, Dimitris Christoulas. Unable to see any way out of his poverty, he publicly shot himself outside the Greek parliament building.

One of the victims of austerity mentioned in the very first pages of the book is Brian McArdle, a severely disabled man, who was nevertheless declared ‘fit for work by ATOS. Basu and Stuckler write

‘”I will never forgive them,” wrote thirteen-year-old Kieran McArdle to the Daily Record, a national newspaper based in Glasgow. “I won’t be able to come to terms with my dad’s death until I get justice for him.”

Kieran’s father, fifty-seven-year-old Brian, had worked as a security guard in Lanarkshire, near Glasgow. The day after Christmas 2011, Brian had a stroke, which left him paralyzed on his left side, blind in one eye, and unable to speak. He could no longer continue working to support his family, so he signed up for disability income from the British government.

That government, in the hands of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron since the 2010 elections, would prove no friend to the McArdles. Cameron claimed that hundreds of thousands of Britons were cheating the government’s disability system. The Department for Work and Pensions begged to differ. It estimated that less than 1 percent of disability benefit funds went to people who were not genuinely disabled.

Still, Cameron proceeded to cut billions of pounds from welfare benefits including support for the disabled. To try to meet Cameron’s targets, the Department for Work and Pensions hired Atos, a private French “systems integration” firm. Atos billed the government £400 million to carry out medical evaluations of people receiving disability benefits.

Kieran’s father was scheduled for an appointment to complete Atos’ battery of “fitness for work” tests. He was nervous. Since his stroke, he had trouble walking, and was worried about how his motorized wheelchair would get up the stairs to his appointment, as he had learned that about a quarter of Atos’s disability evaluations took place in buildings that were not wheelchair accessible. “Even though my dad had another stroke just days before his assessment, he was determined to go,” said Kieran. “He tried his best to walk and talk because he was a very proud man.”

Brian did manage to reach Atos’s evaluation site, and after the evaluation, made his way home. A few weeks later, his family received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions. The family’s Employment and Support Allowance benefits were being stopped. Atos had found Brian “fit for work”. The next day he collapsed and died.

It was hard for us, as public health researchers, to understand the government’s position. The Department for Work and Pensions, after all, considered cheating a relative minor issue. The total sum of disability fraud for “conditions of entitlement” was £2 million, far less than the contract to hire Atos, and the department estimated that greater harm resulted from the accidental underpayment of £70 million each year. But the government’s fiscal ideology had created the impetus for radical cuts. (Pp. 3-4).

I don’t know whether Mr McArdle was one of those, whose deaths has been commemorated by Stilloaks on his blog, or whether his case was one of those which Cameron and aIDS laughed at when they were read out in parliament. But is notable that such cases are coming to the attention of health researchers and medical doctors, and are a cause of serious academic and medical concern.

Stilloaks, Mike, DPAC, the Angry Yorkshireman and very many other disability activists have covered individual cases, and the way the ‘fitness for work’ tests have been fiddled by Atos and now their successors, Maximus, in order to provide the pretext for throwing the vulnerable off benefits. Mike’s called it ‘Chequebook Genocide’. Jeff3, one of the great long-term commenters on this blog, refers to it as the Tories’ Aktion T4 – the Nazi’s extermination of the disabled during the Third Reich. There have been about 490 cases in which people have died of starvation, neglect and despair thanks to be thrown off welfare. And according to mental health profession, about 290,000 or so people have seen their mental health deteriorate – sometimes very severely – due to the stress of these tests.

Books like this show how counterproductive such austerity policies are, as well as their purely destructive effects on human life. But this will not be heeded by the Tories, nor by the baying, right-wing rabble who blindly follow them. They want to grind the poor even further into the dirt, to create an impoverished, desperate working class willing to take on any kind of work, no matter how low-paid, not-paid – think of all the unpaid ‘internships’ – and degrading. All so they cut taxes and give more power to the rich, the bankers, big business and particularly the hedge funds and vulture capitalists.

And so the many are killed, all for the privileged few represented by Theresa May.

Shirley William on Demands for Cutting Tax and the Myth of the Social Security Scrounger

May 26, 2016

SWilliams Book Pic

Yesterday I put up a couple of pieces from Shirley Williams’ book, Politics Is For People, in which she attacks the free market ideology of Milton Friedman, and notes how bureaucracy actually grew under the Tories, despite their declared concern for cutting it in the name of efficiency.

The former Labour MP and founder of the SDP also has a few critical observations of the various campaigns to cut taxes, and the myth that people on social security/ jobseeker’s allowance/unemployment benefit/the dole are scroungers.

She writes

A second line of attack, clearly closely related to the reaction against ‘big government’, is on the high public expenditure necessitated by the welfare state. The taxpayers’ revolt began in France with the Poujadist party, wand was later taken up in Denmark, where Per Glijstrup’s anti-tax party had a remarkable, if brief, period of success. it was an element in the 1976 defeat of the Swedish socialist government, and then reached its high-water mark in the triumphant passage of California’s Proposition 13 in 1978. Proposition 13 tied local property taxes to their 1976/7 level, and imposed a 1 per cent maximum on the annual increase, effectively halving the property tax yield. But as the effects of Proposition 13 have been felt on education and other publicly financed services, public enthusiasm for tax cutting has waned. An attempt to pass a similar proposal, known as Jarvis Two, to halve California’s state taxes was heavily defeated in June 1980. The recent history of anti-tax movements is one of dramatic advances which are not then sustained.

One particular form the attack on high public expenditure takes, one that is popular and easy to get across in electoral terms, is the allegation that many people are living off the welfare state who could perfectly well survive on their own. Popular newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic give a lot of space to individual cases – and there always are some – of people proclaiming how they have milked the social security system of thousands of dollars or thousands of pounds. Everybody has heard of somebody who can’t be bothered to get a job, or who stays at home living on welfare because his wage in a job would be little more than his welfare cheque. The ‘poverty trap’ – incomes-related benefits which are lost or reduced as the breadwinner’s income rises – provides a rationale for ‘scrounging’. It really is true that some heads of large families may be better off not working.

Yet the evidence for large-scale ‘scrounging’ is thin; most people much prefer a job to enforced leisure. Nor is the popular hostility against scroungers a by-product of the welfare state. It has a much older history. Ricardo himself inveighed against the Speenhamland system, under which wages were subsidized by the parish if they fell below a minimum level which was linked to the price of bread. ‘The principle of gravitation is not more certain than the tendency of such laws to change wealth and vigour into misery and weakness’, Richardo wrote in On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). It might be Professor Milton Friedman speaking. At the end of the eighteenth century, the indefatigable Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham turned his mind to the rehabilitation of convicts, many of them indigent people without work. He proposed to establish a panopticon, a sort of multi-industry establishment, which he described, chillingly, as ‘a mill to grind rogues honest, and idle men industrious’. Similar wishes are still expressed on the floor of Congress or the House of Commons by ardent Conservatives; only the language alters. (Pp. 30-1).

Williams here is exactly right. Mike over at Vox Political, the Angry Yorkshireman and many other bloggers have noted that Thatcher and the Conservatives have consciously adopted the Victorian principle of ‘least eligibility’ in their welfare reforms in order to make living on benefit as humiliating and degrading as possible for those on it, such as the disabled and the unemployed. The incident Mike reported on his blog on Tuesday, in which a woman with dementia was insulted by a member of the DWP, when she failed to answer a security question due to her disability, is an extreme example of this attitude. This just shows how long the Left have known about the extremely illiberal attitude to poverty at the very heart of Thatcherism and its explicit Victorian antecedents.

As for the Poujadists, they were a petit-bourgeois, anti-Socialist, anti-trade union party founded in the 1950s. Poujade was a French shopkeeper, who launched a campaign encouraging shopkeepers not to serve striking workers. One of the books I read a few years ago on Fascism included them as one of the forms it took in the post-War period. And Michael Heseltine was less than impressed with them, and used them as an insult in his spat with the Leaderene when she was goose-stepping around Downing Street. He called her a ‘Poujadist’, which accurately reflects her socio-economic background as the grocer’s daughter, and her petty hostility to the organised working class. It was a reference lost on the gentlemen of the press, however, who thought he meant she was a ‘putschist’. Well, that too, when it comes to petty Fascism.

Williams in her book has many good ideas. It was too bad that she and the rest of her cronies were more interested in splitting away to form the SDP and attacking Labour than squaring up to the Tories.

Shirley Williams on Milton Friedman and the Failing of Free Market Capitalism

May 25, 2016

SWilliams Book Pic

The supposed benefits of free market capitalism and deregulation are at the heart of the ‘New Right’ doctrines expressed in Thatcherism and Blairite New Labour. Thatcher took her credulous adulation of the free market from the American Chicago school of economics, most notably von Hayek and Milton Friedman. These doctrines became New Labour orthodoxy under Tony Blair following Labour’s defeat in the 1987 general election. Despite Gordon Brown, Blair’s successor, having lost the 2010 election, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn from the Old Labour Left as leader of the party, Thatcherite ideals are still espoused and promoted by the Blairite faction in the Progress ‘party-within-a-party’ in Labour.

Yet even at the time Thatcher was implementing the free market reforms that have devastated the British economy and society, it was obvious to the majority of people on the Left that the free market simply didn’t work. Shirley Williams, the right-wing Labour MP, who left to form the SDP with David Owen, now merged with the Liberals, was one of them. In her book, Politics Is For People (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981), she makes the following remarks and criticisms of Friedman’s grand notions of the effectiveness of the free market.

Professor Friedman, however, overstates his case – often to a ludicrous extent. There are many needs the market is incapable of meeting, because they are collective needs – for clean water, clean air, public health, a good transport system. The market is geared to individual demands and to individual purses; in meeting them, it does not count social costs or social consequences. Furthermore, there are individual demands that cannot be made effective because the individual cannot afford to satisfy them, typically, treatment for serious illness, chronic invalidism, care in old age. The market is a mechanics ill-adapted to the cycles of an individual’s life history, which move from dependence through independence back to dependence again, and also to the cycles of the economy. In his recent book, Free to Choose, Professor Friedman asserts: ‘Sooner or later, and perhaps sooner than many of us expect, ever bigger governments will destroy both the prosperity that we care for in the free market and even the human freedom proclaimed so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence.’ In an obvious sense, the Professor must be right. Total government, controlling the whole economy, would indeed be likely to destroy both prosperity and human freedom. But again his case is hopelessly overstated. In many European countries public expenditure constitutes 40 per cent or more of the gross national product. yet who is to say that Sweden or Denmark or the Federal Republic of Germany are less prosperous and less free than Spain, Argentina or Brazil, in which a much smaller proportion of the gross national product goes into public expenditure? Indeed the extremes of income and wealth characteristic of societies dominated by free market capitalism are not conducive to human freedom or to democratic political systems. Men and women without access to decent working conditions, education, housing and health do not fully share in their society. They are not accorded the human dignity that is intrinsic to the democratic process. their opportunities and their choices are crippled by the unequal distribution of resources. Even if such as country has some form of election, ostensibly based on a universal and secret franchise, the great disparities in economic power will influence the many who are weak to bow to the wishes of the few who are strong. (PP. 16-7).

And this is exactly what has happened. Britain has become much less democratic. Our leaders are rich and middle class elitists, isolated from the mass of the working poor in their own, sealed enclaves. The poor have become much poorer, and are increasingly seeing what few rights they have left stripped from them through Cameron’s reforms of the judicial system, trade union legislation and his assault on workers’ rights. Two decades ago there was a storm when someone announced that Monetarism had failed. Friedman’s free market economics are also an abject failure. They survive only because they sustain and empower a parasitical managerial class, ruling through elite privilege and toxic capitalism. It’s high time Friedman’s discredited ideas were very firmly dumped.

CounterPunch on British Spies’ Recruitment of Islamist Fighters against Syria

May 7, 2016

On April 5 CounterPunch posted an article on their blog examining the number of Islamist extremists, who the British intelligence agencies had tried to recruit, including a number, who had then been caught travelling to Syria. They concluded that there are very strong reasons for believing that the spooks are trying to recruitment them as part of a strategy to overturn Assad’s regime.

The article begins by noting that British intelligence was responsible for the ‘dodgy dossier’, the spurious intelligence document claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, which provided the pretext for Blair to join Bush’s invasion. They then note that 500 British citizens have gone to Syria, 50 of whom have subsequently been killed in fighting. They then discuss the individual cases of those who have been approached by the spooks. These include:

Michael Adebolajo, one of the killers of Lee Rigby;

Three sisters from Bradford, who decamped to Syria. It seems they had been contacted by NECTU, the North East Counter Terrorism Unit, who had actively encouraged them to go to Syria to contact their brother, who was already there;

Mozzam Begg, who claimed MI5 had given him permission to train recruits for Syria;

Aimen Dean, who in Radio 4 interview claimed he had been recruited by MI6. Part of his duties included training impressionable Muslims to fight in Syria;

Bherlin Gildo, who had been intercepted travelling from Copenhagen to Manila to attend a terrorist training camp. His trial at the Old Bailey collapsed when it became apparent that if it carried on, it would lead to embarrassing revelations about Britain’s spies;

Siddharta Dhar, who was caught trying to travel to Syria for the sixth time. The intelligence services had also attempted to recruit him;

And the original ‘Jihadi John’, Mohammed Emwazi, was also known to the British intelligence service, who had also tried to recruit him.

They conclude:

These cases demonstrate a couple of irrefutable points. Firstly, the claim that the security services would have needed more power and resources to have prevented these abscondances is clearly not true. Since 1995, the Home Office has operated what it calls a ‘Warnings Index’: a list of people ‘of interest’ to any branch of government, who will then be ‘flagged up’ should they attempt to leave the country. Given that every single one of these cases was well known to the authorities, the Home Office had, for whatever reason, decided either not to put them on the Warnings Index, or to ignore their attempts to leave the country when they were duly flagged up. That is, the government decided not to use the powers already at its disposal to prevent those at the most extreme risk of joining the Syrian insurgency from doing so.

Secondly, these cases show that British intelligence and security clearly prioritise recruitment of violent so-called Islamists over disruption of their activities. The question is – what exactly are they recruiting them for?

At his trial, Bherlin Gildo’s lawyers provided detailed evidence that the British government itself had been arming and training the very groups that Gildo was being prosecuted for supporting. Indeed, Britain has been one of the most active and vocal supporters of the anti-government insurgency in Syria since its inception, support which continued undiminished even after the sectarian leadership and direction of the insurgency was privately admitted by Western intelligence agencies in 2012. Even today, with ISIS clearly the main beneficiaries of the country’s destabilization, and Al Qaeda increasingly hegemonic over the other anti-government forces, David Cameron continues to openly ally himself with the insurgency.

Is it really such a far-fetched idea that the British state, openly supporting a sectarian war against the Ba’athist government in Syria, might also be willfully facilitating the flow of British fighters to join this war? Britain’s long history of collusion with sectarian paramilitaries as a tool of foreign policy – in Ireland, Afghanistan and throughout the Gulf – certainly suggests this may be so.

Go to their article at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/04/05/british-collusion-with-sectarian-violence-in-syria/ for further information.

As for the reasons why the British government should want to overthrow Assad, my guess is that a number of them are about the geopolitics of the Middle East, as well as the Neo-Con, Neo-Lib urge to get their hands on the Syrian state’s assets and then sell them off, just as they did to Iraq. Assad’s regime is Ba’ath, which is secular, Arab nationalist and Socialist. They’re allied with the Russians and, although the country has not been in military conflict with Israel for some time, technically it is still at war. And oil may still be a priority, due to the proximity to several pipelines. On several of the American Conservative blogs after the Iraq invasion there were demands for the war to be expanded to oust Assad. My guess is that Britain is covertly following this policy by arming and supporting Islamist fighters.

If this is the case, then there’s a huge irony here. Islamists bitterly hate the state of Israel, and yet if they are being recruited by the West to overthrow Assad, they are being so as part of a strategy to defend Israel from a nation that has supported the Palestinians. Which should be a good reason for any prospective jihadi to think better of it and stay at home. As well as not becoming a murderous thug, whose organisations have done nothing but spread brutality, chaos and murder amongst the already beleaguered and suffering people of the Arab and Muslim world.

Secular Talk on Obama’s Warning Against Democrat Party Becoming Left-Wing ‘Tea Party’

April 25, 2016

Barack Obama last week made a speech warning Democrats against becoming a ‘left-wing Tea Party’. He told the party that they should not adopt policies that would alienate the general public. He also argued that they should not go along with path the Republicans were much further along of adopting more extreme policies and positions. This was a system where you had to compromise, and sometimes you had to take half-loaves. When that happened, it was not because someone had sold you out.

Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski takes very strong exception to this statement, and shows not just why it’s wrong, but also how it supports those who are basically right-wing corporatists like Shrillary and Obama. The Democrats do not have extreme positions that alienate voters, and their most extreme candidates – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, would be considered centrist in most European countries. He states that if you talk to someone from Denmark, they’d say that Bernie Sanders was almost Conservative. Eighty per cent of Americans want the minimum wage to be raised. Free universal healthcare – Medicaid for all – is supported by 51 per cent. Sixty per cent of Americans do not want cuts to the social security and Medicaid budgets. But this is not reflected in official Democrat policy.

He states very strongly that Obama ‘doth protest too much’ when he claims that not having progressive policies is not due to politicians having sold out their political base. Both Hillary and Obama are heavily subsidised by Wall Street, and their policies reflect the concerns of the corporate donors, not want America, or at least, the Democrat base, wants. And so Obamacare, which was a Right-wing policy dreamed up by Richard Nixon, and supported by a whole raft of Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, is the furthest left America goes. But not to universal Medicaid. By the standards of everyone else in the world, Obama’s not ‘left-wing’. He’s centre-right.

Kulinski notes that there is a problem with authoritarian leftism, such as the demands for ‘safe spaces’ at colleges, and intolerant attempts to clamp down on free speech. But Obama’s not talking about that. He’s talking about policy. And the problem is that the corporatist system that pays him and Hillary so well is preventing America from developing the welfare network adopted by just about everywhere else in the world.

I’ve decided to reblog this, because it was noticeable that Obama during his visit to Britain last week met with Cameron, made his comments about why Britain should stay in the EU, but did not meet Jeremy Corbyn.

And I’m not surprised. Corbyn’s too left-wing for him. Obama is a creature of the corporatist system. That’s shown in his policies and his support for Shrillary. Corbyn represents the same threat to that right-wing anti-democratic business stance as Bernie Sanders does back in the Land of the Free. Hence the very telling snub.

Secular Talk on Alex Jones’ ‘Libs Are Demonic Villains Who Want Blood’

March 4, 2016

This is yet another piece from Secular Talk, and I’m reblogging it because it answers some of the accusations the American far right throw at anything even vaguely liberal or left-wing, as well as showing just how peculiar their opposition to Obamacare is.

Kyle Kulinski is here commenting and taking apart an interview on Alex Jones’ Infowars programme with a right-wing documentary film maker, Joel Gilbert, who has produced a movie, No Such Thing as Utopia, attacking the left and its economic and social doctrines. Jones and his guest accuse liberal policies of devastating the economy and deliberately attacking the family, leaving millions of families without fathers. Deprived of paternal guidance, the boys from these broken homes turn to crime. It was liberal policies, of course, that has left Detroit the wrecked, dying city it now is. They claim that liberals are all secret Marxists intent on a entering and corrupting mainstream political parties, like the Democrats. And then Alex Jones goes off on a mocking sneer about how liberals are like ‘gangster-type felons’, extremely bloodthirsty wanting to inflict a genocide, but in public affect a simpering attitude of ‘But I’m so Liberal!’

As for Obama, they claim that his intentions were ‘never good’, and that he only intended to cut the deficit in half.

It’s rubbish, of course. Kulinski challenges them to name one Marxist policy the Democrats have. There isn’t one. They are, in his view, centrist corporatists. As for the devastation of Detroit, that’s often been claimed by the right to be due to ‘socialist’ policies and the trade unions. The simple fact is that it was wrecked by NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The corrupt, corporatist system destroyed middle class, factory jobs that kept people employed. This meant that all the jobs were exported abroad. It wouldn’t have matter, who the people of Detroit would have voted for – Democrat, Republican, Fascist, Centrist, Communist. And the economy’s going to remain like that until another industry comes into to revive Detroit.

He also tears into the Republican accusation that Obamacare is a Marxist policy. In no way is it. This may surprise you – it certainly did me – but it was first suggested by – wait for it! – Richard Nixon. It was also supported by Bob Dole. Newt Gingrich supported it during the Clinton administration. Even the far right, all-American Heritage Foundation made notes on it.

Obama himself has honoured his promise to halve the deficit. Bush left the country with a staggering debt of $1.4 trillion. Under Obama, it’s gone down to $480 – $460 billion. As for Obama’s supposedly evil intentions, Kulinski states that it’s ridiculous, but the stance is also shared by people on the left. Everyone rationalises that what they’re doing is good for the country.George Bush, with whose policies Kulinski radically disagrees, thought he was doing his best for the country. Even Joseph Stalin rationalised his monstrous crimes against the Soviet people and the countries he conquered in this way.

And if you want to point to Detroit as an example of what liberalism does, how about Mississippi as an example of the effects of Conservatism. It is the poorest, most obese state in America, with the lowest levels of education and the highest rates of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. He also adduces the Scandinavian countries – Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. They have the best middle classes in the world, best standards of health care, best social safety nets and they’re people all self-report that they are the happiest. And they’re incredibly liberal.

The Young Turks on the Devastation Caused by the TPP

January 25, 2016

I’ve posted a number of pieces about the damaging effects on the projected TPP trade agreement now being considered by politicians across the world. Left-wing bloggers and social activists have criticised the agreement on the grounds that it gives private corporations the power to sue national governments for legislation that may harm their trade. In effect, it takes power away from national governments to regulate and control industry, and gives it to big business. There have been a number of petitions launched against it in Britain, most notably because of the threat it poses to the National Health Service. Campaigners are trying to get the NHS omitted from the deal, as they fear that the TPP will lock in the Tories’ steal privatisation of the health service.

The TPP is also controversial and unpopular in America. In this video from The Young Turks, the anchors John Iadarola, Michael Shure and Elliot Hill discuss the findings of researchers from Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Unit. The Tufts researchers found that the claims that the TPP would promote economic growth and jobs were all wrong. Instead, they predict that in America, GDP will be 0.54% lower than it would be without the trade deal. The Japanese would also be worse off by 0.12%.

The also state that there would be minimal or negligible economic gains for the participating countries. There would be less than 1% economic growth for the nations in the Developed World after ten years, and only 3% for nations in the Developing World.

771,000 jobs would be lost due to the deal. The most severe job losses would be felt in America, which would lose 448,000. The countries that did not participate in the trade deal would also suffer massive job losses. In the Developed World, GDP would suffer by 3.77%, and 879,000 jobs would be lost, mostly in Europe. In the Developing World, the economic losses would include 5.24% of the GDP and 4.45 million jobs lost in China and India.

The Turks acknowledge that there are other predictions that the economy will actually grow under the TPP, and state they merely want to start a conversation about this issue. But from this, it seems clear that the TPP will be devastating to nations right across the globe. The only people, who will profit from it are the leaders of big business. Everybody else seems set to lose their jobs and see their nations become even more impoverished.

The Turks also ponder how it can be that whatever the price of oil, it’s bad for the economy. When the price is high, it’s harming the economy. When it’s low, this also harms the economy. John Iadarola suggests, half-jokingly, that it’s time we stopped being dependent on oil. He mentions that he did a piece the other day on how Denmark got 42% of its power from wind. He doesn’t say this would be possible in America, but something should be done to make America less dependent on it.

This programme provides further evidence that the TPP is altogether harmful, and should be firmly resisted by everyone, whether they’re in Britain, America, China, Japan, India or wherever.