Posts Tagged ‘Shops’

Corbyn – Regenerate High Street by Handing Vacant Shops to Community

August 24, 2019

Last weekend’s I, for Saturday, 17th August 2019, carried a report by Nigel Morris on page 4 about the Labour party’s plans to revive ailing high street. Under the scheme announce by Corbyn, the local authority would take over empty business premises to let them to new businesses or community organisations. The article read

Plans to revitalise “struggling his streets” by reopening thousands of boarded-up shops will be set out today by the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour would give councils the power to take over retail units which have been vacant for a year and hand them to start-up businesses or community projects.

Town centre vacancy rates are at their highest level for four years, and Labour says an estimated 29,000 shops across the country have been abandoned for at least 12 months.

It has also registered alarm over the preponderance of charity stores, betting shops and fast-food takeaways in areas which previously had a better mixture of businesses.

The plans, applying to high streets in England and Wales, will be set out by Mr Corbyn in a visit to Bolton today. He is expected to say that boarded-up shops are “a symptom of economic decay under the Conservatives and a sorry symbol of the malign neglect so many communities have suffered.”

Labour revive “struggling high streets by turning the blight of empty shops into the heart of the high street.” The proposals are modelled on the system of “empty dwelling management orders” which entitle councils to put unoccupied houses and flats back into use as homes.

Jake Berry, minister for high streets, said the Government had cut small retailers’ business rates, was relaxing high street planning rules and launched a £3.6bn Towns Fund to improve transport links and boost broadband connectivity. 

I think Corbyn’s idea is excellent. One of the problems of struggling high streets is the ‘smashed window syndrome’, as I believe it’s called. Once one shop becomes vacant, and has it’s windows smashed or otherwise vandalised, it has a strange psychological effect on the public. They stop going into that particular area for their shopping, and the other businesses start to close down. This is why it’s important to prevent it. Business rates might be part of the problem, but I’ve also heard that it’s also due to economics of the private landlords. I can remember my barber complaining to me about it back in the 1990s. He was angry at the increase in rents he and the other shops in his rank had had foisted on them by the landlord. He also complained that despite the high rents, there were shop units that were still unlet, because for some reason the landlord found it more profitable to keep them that way than to let an aspiring Arkwright take them over.

I’ve long believed in exactly the same idea as Corbyn’s. It struck me that with the expansion of higher education, we now have an extremely well-educated work force. But the current economics of capitalism prevent them from using their skills. If successive governments really believe that the increase in university education will benefit the economy, then graduates need to be able to put their hard-earned skills and knowledge into practice. They should be allowed to create businesses, even if these are not commercially viable and need community support. Because it’s better than forcing them to starve on the dole, or climb over each other and the less educated trying to grab low-skilled jobs in fast-food restaurants. And if these new businesses don’t make a profit, but keep people coming back to the high streets, but give their aspiring entrepreneurs skills and experience they can use elsewhere, or deliver some small boost to the local economy, then they will have achieved some measure of success.

This is an excellent idea. And if it’s put into practice, I think it’ll demonstrate that Socialists are actually better for business than the Tories.

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Regenerating the High Street through National Workshops

January 7, 2019

Last week Tweezer announced her plan to revitalize Britain’s failing high streets. Many of our shops are closing as customers and retailers move onto the internet. City centres are being hit hard as shop fronts are left vacant, inviting further vandalism, and further economic decline as shoppers are put off by empty stores and smashed shop windows. In America, it’s been forecast that half of the country’s malls are due to close in the next few years. Tweezer announced that she was going to try reverse this trend in Britain by allocating government money to local authorities, for which they would have to bid.

I’m suspicious of this scheme, partly because of the way it’s being managed. In my experience, the Conservatives’ policy of forcing local authorities to bid for needed funding is simply another way of stopping some places from getting the money they need under the guise of business practice or democracy or however they want to present it. It’s the same way Thatcher would always delay the date when she’d give local authorities they funding they needed for the next year. It’s a way of disguising the fact that they’re making cuts, or simply not giving the money that’s really needed.

As for how local authorities could regenerate their town centres, I wonder if it could be done through a form of the national workshops suggested by the 19th century French socialist, Louis Blanc. During the Revolution of 1848, Blanc proposed a scheme to provide jobs for France’s unemployed by setting up a series of state-owned workshops. These would be run as co-operatives. The workers would share the profits, a certain proportion of which would be set aside to purchase other businesses. This would eventually lead to the socialization of French industry.

Needless to say, the scheme failed through official hostility. The scheme was adopted, by the state undermined it through giving the unemployed on it pointless and demeaning jobs to do. Like digging ditches for no particular reason. It thus petered out as unemployed workers did their best to avoid the scheme. There’s a kind of parallel there to the way the Conservatives and New Labour tried to stop people going on Jobseeker’s Allowance by making it as degrading and unpleasant as possible, and by the workfare industry. This last provides absolutely no benefit whatsoever to workers on it, but gives cheap labour to the firms participating in the scheme, like the big supermarkets.

The national workshops, on the other hand, were at least intended to provide work and empower France’s working people.

In his Fabian Essay, ‘The Transition to Social Democracy’, George Bernard Shaw suggested that Britain could painlessly become a truly socialized economy and society through the gradual extension of municipalization. Town councils would gradually take over more and more parts of the local economy and industry. He pointed to the way the local authorities were already providing lighting, hospitals and other services.

I therefore wonder if it would be better to try to create new businesses in Britain’s town centres by renting the empty shops to groups of workers to run them as cooperatives. They’d share the profits, part of which would be put aside to buy up more businesses, which would also be turned into co-ops.
Already local businesses in many cities have benefited by some radical socialist ideas. In this case, it’s the local currencies, which are based on the number of hours of labour required to produce an article or provide a service, an idea that goes all the way back to anarchist thinkers like Proudhon and Lysander Spooner in the 19th century. These schemes serve to put money back into the local community and businesses.

I realise that this is actually extremely utopian. Local governments are perfectly willing to provide some funding to local co-ops, if they provide an important service. I’ve heard that in Bristol there’s a co-op in Stokes Croft that has been funded by the council because it employs former convicts and drug addicts. However, you can imagine the Tories’ sheer rage, and that of private business and the right-wing press, if a local council tried to put a system of locally owned co-operatives into practice. It would be attacked as ‘loony left’ madness and a threat to proper, privately owned business and jobs.

But it could be what is needed, if only partly, to regenerate our streets: by creating businesses that create jobs and genuinely empower their workers and provide services uniquely tailored to their communities.

Adolf Hitler, Fascism and the Corporative State

January 1, 2019

A week or so ago I put up a passage from Hitler’s Table Talk, in which the Nazi leader made it absolutely clear that he didn’t want Nazi functionaries and members of the civil service holding positions or shares in private companies because of the possible corruption that would entail. He illustrated his point with the case of the Danube Shipping Company, a private firm that got massively rich in pre-Nazi Germany through government subsidies, because it had members of the ruling coalition parties on its board.

Which is pretty much the same as the recent fiasco in which Chris Grayling has given 13,800 pounds of public money to Seaborne Freight, a ferry company that has no ships and no experience of running a shipping company, to run a ferry service to Ostend as part of the preparations for a No Deal Brexit. Other companies also wanted to be considered for the contract, like Brittany Ferries, but despite Grayling’s huffing that there were extensive negotiations, the contract wasn’t put out to competitive tender. It seems instead to have been awarded because Mark Bamford, whose maritime law firm shares the same headquarters as Seaborne Freight, is the brother of Antony Bamford, who is a Tory donor.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2019/01/01/the-corruption-behind-the-tory-freight-deal-with-a-shipping-company-that-has-no-ships/

When a monster like Adolf Hitler, who killed millions of innocents, starts talking sense in comparison to this government, you know we’re in a very desperate way.

Despite his desire to outlaw personal connections between members of the Nazi party and civil service and private corporations, Hitler still believed that business should be included in government. On page 179 of Mein Kampf he wrote

There must be no majority making decisions, but merely a body of responsible persons, and the word “Council” will revert to its ancient meaning. Every man shall have councilors at his side, but the decision shall be made by one Man.

The national State does not suffer that men whose education and occupation has not given them special knowledge shall be invited to advise or judge on subjects of a specialized nature, such as economics. The State will therefore subdivide its representative body into political committees including a committee representing professions and trades. In order to obtain advantageous co-operation between the two, there will be over them a permanent select Senate. But neither Senate nor Chamber will have power to make decisions; they are appointed to work and not to make decisions. Individual members may advise, but never decide. That is the exclusive prerogative of the responsible president for the time being.

In Hitler, My Struggle (London: Paternoster Row 1933).

Hitler here was influenced by Mussolini and the Italian Fascist corporate state. A corporate was an industrial body uniting the employer’s organization and trade union. Mussolini reorganized the Italian parliament so that it had an official Chamber of Fasces and Corporations. There were originally seven corporations representing various industries and sectors of the economy, though this was later expanded to 27. In practice the corporate state never really worked. It duplicated the work of the original civil service and increased the bureaucracy, as another 100,000 civil servants had to be recruited to staff it. It was also not allowed to make decisions on its own, and instead acted as a rubber stamp for the decisions Mussolini had already made.

Once in power, however, the Nazis quietly discarded the corporate state in practice. The economy was reorganized so that the economy was governed through a series of industrial associations for the various sectors of industry, to which every company and enterprise had to belong, and which were subject to the state planning apparatus. When the shopkeepers in one of the southern German towns tried to manage themselves as a corporation on the Italian model, the result was inflation. The Gestapo stepped in, the experiment was closed down and its members interned in Dachau. However, the Nazis were determined to give their support to private industry and these industrial organisations were led by senior managers of private firms, even when most of the companies in a particular sector were owned by the state.

Something similar to the Nazi and Fascist economic systems has arisen in recent years through corporate sponsorship of political parties, particularly in America. So important have donations from private industry become, that the parties ignore the wishes of their constituents once in power to pass legislation benefiting their corporate donors. The result of this is that public confidence in Congress is low, at between 19 and 25 per cent, and a study by Harvard University concluded that America was no longer a functioning democracy so much as a corporate oligarchy.

The same situation prevails in Britain, where something like 75 per cent of MPs are millionaires, either company directors or members of senior management. New Labour was particularly notorious for its corporate connections, which had already caused scandals under John Major’s administration. Tony Blair and his cronies appointed the staff and heads of various government bodies from donors to the Labour party, giving them posts on the same bodies that were supposed to be regulating the industries their companies served. The result of this was that the Labour government ignored the wishes of the British public to pass legislation which, like Congress in America, benefited their donors. See George Monbiot’s book, Captive State.

It’s time this quasi-Fascist system of corporate government was brought to an end, and British and American governments ruled for the people that elected them, not the companies that bought their politicians.

Latest Train-Wreck Idea from Hunt: Recruit Business Leaders as Ambassadors

November 1, 2018

I hope everyone had a great Hallowe’en yesterday. I can remember going to Hallowe’en parties as a child, and enjoying the spooky games and dressing up as witches, wizards, ghosts and goblins and so on. At the time, it was good, harmless fun, based on children’s fantasy stories. Adults had their own parties, of course, and there was also something in keeping with the season on TV or the radio. One year, the Archive Hour on Radio 4 looked back on the history of horror stories on the wireless, going all the way back to Valentine Dyall and The Man in Black, and Fear on Four. Actually, I think the only really frightening part of a genuinely traditional British Hallowe’en were the stupid section of the trick or treaters, who threw eggs and flour at your front door, and Carry on Screaming on the TV. This is the Carry On team’s spoof of Hammer Horror movies, in which Fenella Fielding appeared as the vampire Valeria. Fielding died a month or so ago. She was a very accomplished actress, but sadly got typecast because of her appearance in the movie. She was also a staunch Labour supporter, in contrast to her brother, who was a Tory MP. The film was a spoof, but it terrified me when I was in junior school. One critic of such movies once reckoned it was more horrific than anything Hammer produced. All good fun in its time, but I completely understand why some Christians and churches prefer to ignore it.

The Tories, however, chose yesterday to announce something equally ghastly. Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, has decided that he wants to create a thousand more ambassadorial posts. And he’s looking to fill at least some of these with business leaders.

Mike reported on this latest bad idea, and put up a few Tweets from Andrew Adonis. Adonis was a minister for New Labour, and he was very scathing about the idea. In one of them he said

we have 20 yrs experience of recruiting Trade Ministers from ‘business.’ Each of them have lasted about a year, having bagged the peerage & achieved little if anything. Think Digby Jones.

He also challenged Hunt to name one business leader who has been a successful ambassador, pointing out that they are different skill sets. It is, he said, the difference between being a successful foreign secretary and a student politician.

Mike also reminded everyone how the Tories tried a similar scheme with their free schools project. They decided to release free schools from all that stifling legislation the requires them to hire properly qualified teachers. The schools hired unqualified staff, and standards plummeted.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2018/10/31/hare-brained-hunt-wants-to-hire-business-leaders-as-ambassadors-remember-when-free-schools-hired-untrained-teachers/

It’s not hard to see that Michael Gove’s plan accomplished for schools, Hunt’s wheeze will do for British diplomacy. Ultimately, it comes from the peculiar social Darwinism the Tories share with their Republican counterparts over in the US. They consider businessmen the very best people to run everything, including essential state functions and services. Adam Curtis ripped into this idea, which was developed by the Libertarians in the 1990s, in one of his documentaries. This featured a clip of a Libertarian declaring that, in contrast to politicians, business leaders were better suited to running society because they knew what people wanted and were eager to give it to them through the profit motive. It’s a complete falsehood, as you can see from the way public services and the NHS have deteriorated thanks to Tory and New Labour privatization. Its part of the corporate takeover of the state, which has seen important posts in government go to businessmen and women, a process that has been extensively described by George Monbiot in his book, Captive State.

It also doesn’t take much intelligence to realise that not only are the skill sets involved in business and diplomacy different, but that the appointment of businesspeople in government leads, or can leads, to conflicts of interest. Trump caused controversy when his daughter attended him during talks with the Japanese. This was unethical and inappropriate, as she was the head of a business which could gain a material advantage over its competitors from the information she gained at these talks. Trade negotiations have always been a major part of diplomacy, with ministers and foreign office staff flying off to different parts of the world in the hope of achieving a trade agreement. It really isn’t hard to see how business leaders would be tempted to use their position as ambassadors to enrich themselves and their businesses.

And its also blindingly obvious that this situation will also lead to some deeply unethical foreign policy decisions. Just about the first story in this fortnight’s Private Eye is about how the government’s connections to the arms industry has kept them selling arms to the Saudis despite the butchering of civilians, including women and children in Yemen. Human rights activists and opposition groups have been calling for an end to the war and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. However, Private Eye notes that

The final decision on licensing falls to international trade secretary Liam Fox. His priority is business at any cost, and his department is judged on exports and investment into the UK.

See ‘Flying Fox’ in Private Eye, 2nd-15th November 2018, p.7).

Which shows you the Tories’ priorities in these cases: trade and business first, with Human Rights a very long way behind. But it will stop the government suffering embarrassments from ambassadors, who get concerned at the way the British government is propping up foreign dictators simply for the sake of profitable business deals. Like Craig Murray, who was our man in one of the new, central Asian states that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. He was appalled at the way Britain was doing just that with the local despot, spoke out, and was sacked and smeared for doing so.

It’s also a move which seems squarely aimed at preventing further social mobility. A few years ago, the government had a policy of recruiting ambassadors and staff from suitably capable people of working class background. I don’t know if the policy is ongoing. Somehow I doubt it, given the nature of this government. In theory, as currently ambassadorial staff are part of the civil service, anyone from any background can apply, provided they have the necessary skills and qualifications. In practice, I’ve no doubt most of them come from upper middle class backgrounds and are privately educated. But the ability of working class people to get these jobs will become much harder if they’re handed over to business leaders. A little while ago the newspapers reported that about half of the heads of all businesses had inherited their position. Also, by definition, working people don’t own businesses, though many aspire to have their own small enterprises, like shops or garages. But these posts are very definitely aimed at the heads of big business, and definitely not at the aspiring Arkwrights of these isles.

Hunt’s decision to start recruiting ambassadors from the heads of business will lead to the further corporate dominance of British government and politics, less social mobility for working people, more corruption and conflicts of interests. And Britain continuing to sell military equipment to despotic regimes that don’t need them and which use them to murder civilians in deeply immoral wars. But it’s a Tory idea, so what else can you expect.

Share and Enjoy! The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Predicted the Tutorbot

December 28, 2017

‘Share and enjoy’ is the company motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, a massive robotics conglomerate best known for its incompetence and shoddy workmanship in Douglas Adams’ Science Fiction classic, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The company and its products are so substandard, that its complaints division now occupies the major landmasses of three whole planets.

And while, according to Adams, the great Encyclopedia Galactica defined a robot as a machine designed to do the work of a man, the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation defines a robot as ‘your plastic pal who’s fun to be with’.

And we’re coming closer to that reality every day. Yesterday and today, BBC 2 have been running a short documentary series, Six Robots and Us, in which six families and other groups of people take care of six robots designed to help them with their particular problems. One of these is Fitbot, a robotic fitness instructor, which was given to a group of people trying to get fit. In tonight’s episode, the people of a shop take custody of Shopbot, are robotic store worker, to see how they get on. And there are two children with learning difficulties, one of whom is autistic, who are given Tutorbot, to see if it can help them overcome their difficulties at school.

Douglas Adams predicted something very similar in the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy way back in the ’70s-80s. In the second series of the radio version of Hitch-Hiker, there’s a device called an autoteach, a kind of computer teacher. It gives the student facts, and then starts asking questions to get the student to think through the issues. If the student gets an answer right, they get to press a button on the autoteach, which stimulates their pleasure centres. And at the end of the lesson, after the students has laughed and screamed with pleasure when they get the answers right, the autoteach asks them to press the other button. This give the autoteach itself a dose of pure pleasure, so that part of the story ends with the autoteach laughing like a maniac.

Ok, so Tutorbot, with its humanoid shape isn’t quite like that, and it doesn’t electronically stimulate the pleasure centres, mercifully. But the idea’s more or less the same: an intelligent machine to teach children.

As for the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, the Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy defined them as ‘a bunch of mindless jerks, who will be first up against the wall when the revolution comes.’

I didn’t see all of yesterday’s edition, because I went to bed early due to this cold. The next programme is on tonight, 28th December 2017, at 8.30. Aside from the cold, what went through my mind while watching the programme was all the jokes in Hitch-Hiker about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.

Here’s a clip from YouTube from the 80s TV version of Hitch-Hiker, where the Book talks about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation and robots.

Poll Shows 58 Per Cent of Russians Would Like Communism to Come Back

November 25, 2017

This is another great little video from Jason Unruhe of Maoist Rebel News. I’ve already made my opinion about Mao and Stalin very clear: they were mass murdering monsters, who made their countries great through the deaths of millions of their own countrymen. 30 million + soviet citizens died in Stalin’s purges and gulags. 60 million died of famine and in re-education camps during Mao’s wretched ‘Cultural Revolution’.

Nevertheless, these totalitarian states gave their people some benefits. And it shows in the nostalgia many people across the former eastern bloc feel for the old system. According to a poll by RT, 58 per cent of Russians said they would like the Soviet Union to return. 14 per cent stated it was quite feasible at the moment. Forty-four per cent said it was unfeasible, but desirable. 31 per cent said that they would not be happy even if events took such a turn. And 10 per cent could not give a simple answer to the question.

Unruhe then goes into the reasons why so many Russians want the USSR back. He points out that the majority of Russians are not Communists, do not identify with the Communist party and are not members of it. He says it was because there were better jobs, with better pay, far more stability, better vacation times and a higher standard of living. They also had a better infrastructure, which collapsed along with the USSR. He points out that we’ve all seen the images of abandoned, decaying areas which have had their funding withdrawn due to the collapse of Communism. They had a military that the world feared and that the Americans were terrified was going to destroy them all. They also couldn’t be bullied, and they were capable of retaliating in huge ways. Sanctions couldn’t hurt them, and couldn’t destroy their financial system. The Soviet people had a country they could be proud of, and although Putin is pushing Russian independence, he can’t do it nearly to the extent that the old Soviet Union could. And so it actually means something when people, who aren’t Communists, say they’re in favour of its return.

There’s a quote from one of the old Labour thinkers, to the effect that everyone, who believes in human rights must hate the USSR. But everyone, who genuinely has Socialism in his core also admires it.

As I understand it, They old Soviet system was massively sclerotic, with colossal overmanning in industry and enterprises. For example, you couldn’t simply pick up what you wanted at the shops. You had to queue to be served, then pick out what you wanted, and then wait for it to be served to you, and to pay for it. I’ve read of people in architect’s office spending their days transferring figures from one column to another, in what was supposed to be a good job that some people had been working towards for years. Utterly soul destroying.

But at the same time, the state was expected to provide full employment. And it did it, albeit at the expense of quality work. And I’ve no doubt that the pay was better, that people did have better holidays, organised through the trade unions and state leisure organisations. You could go and take a vacation down at one of the spa resorts on the Black Sea.

And everything he says about the Soviet Union’s industrial and military power is also correct. In the 1950s under Khrushchev, the Soviet Union made such rapid advances that the Americans were terrified that they would win, and overtake capitalism as the affluent, consumer society. Didn’t happen, but it would have been brilliant if it had.

And Unruhe is also correct when he says that the Russians were no threat to Europe or the West. They weren’t. After the initial expansion, the apparatchiks and nomenclature in the Communist party were content with simply holding the system together and feathering their own nests with Western goods they brought back from their diplomatic travels abroad.

As for the Russians not being Communists, I can remember being told by Ken Surin at College, who is now a writer for Counterpunch, that there were more Communists in America than the USSR. Having said that, Soviet citizens grew up in an explicitly political environment, where they were indoctrinated with atheism and the ideal of the Communist regime. Some of that is going to sink in, even if they are otherwise alienated from the Communist party.

But the introduction of capitalism under Yeltsin destroyed Communism, and dam’ near destroyed Russia. The economy went into meltdown, so that instead of paying their workers wages, factories paid them in kind. In one firm making sewing machines, they gave their workers those machines.

And the economic meltdown directly affected people’s health. Russia didn’t have a welfare state as such. There was no unemployment benefit, as you didn’t need one. Unless you were a subversive ‘parasite’ and an enemy of the system, the state found you work. But there was a free, state medical service, with more doctors than America. In practice, how well you were treated depended on your ‘blat’ – your clout, leverage, whatever. It was a very corrupt system. But this melted down along with the economy, and doctors started going private. Just as they’re continuing to do under Putin.

As a result, illness rates shot up. In Lukashenko’s Beloruss, which retained the Communist system, people remained as healthy – or unhealthy – as they were before Communism collapsed in the USSR.

And none of this was done for the Russians’ benefit. Oh, Yeltsin hoped that capitalism would improve things in Russia, but it was all financed, once again, by Clinton and the Americans, who poured tens of millions into political advertising.

I’ve already made my own low opinion of Lenin abundantly clear: but he was right in his pamphlet Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Russia, and other less developed nations like it, were held back by global capitalism. They were then. And it’s the same goal now, except that as Killary can’t have her way she’s starting a new Cold War.

Well, millions of Russians want their country back.
And they’re not alone. You can find roughly the same percentage all over the former Communist bloc. The former Soviet satellites hate the Russians, particularly in Poland. But they had a better standard of living, work, and a system that had larger ideals. They were told that they were the progressive vanguard leading humanity to a brighter, better future. Racism was there, but it was frowned on. Women were treated as second-class citizens, but at the same time the state and Marxist ideology was also concerned with their liberation and getting them into masculine jobs.

And some of the old Communist countries weren’t that far behind the West. I’ve read that if you tweaked the stats a little, then economically the old East Germany was about equal, or just behind, the north of England. Which isn’t an advert for Communism, but even less of one for Thatcherite capitalism.

In short there’s a saying going round eastern Europe: ‘Everything the Communists told us about Communism was a lie. Everything they told us about capitalism was true.’

Capitalism isn’t working. And the peoples of eastern Europe know this. It isn’t working here either, but we’re too blinded by the mass media, and the illusions of past imperial greatness, to realise it.

Fabian Pamphlet on Workers’ Control In Yugoslavia: Part 3 – My Conclusion

November 7, 2017

Continued from Part 2.

In parts 1 and 2 of this post I described the contents of the above Fabian pamphlet on Workers’ Control in Yugoslavia, by Frederick Singleton and Anthony Topham, published in 1963.

The authors attempted to show how, despite a very lukewarm attitude to the idea at the time, workers’ control could be a viable possibility for British industry. The authors’ noted that the very limited gesture towards worker participation in the nationalised industries had not gained the enthusiasm of the workforce, and in the previous decade the Tories had had some success in attacking the nationalised industries and nationalisation itself.

They argued that there was a tradition within the British Labour movement for workers’ control in the shape of the Guild Socialists and Industrial Unionism. The Fabians, who had largely advocated central planning at the expense of industrial democracy, had nevertheless put forward their own ideas for it. Annie Besant, the Theosophist and feminist, had argued that the workers in an industry should elect a council, which would appoint the management and foreman. This is quite close to the Yugoslav model, in which enterprises were governed through a series of factory boards elected by the workers, which also exercised a degree of control over the director and management staff.

The pamphlet was clearly written at a time when the unions were assuming a role of partnership in the nationalised industries, and had agreed to pay pauses. These were a temporary break in the round of annual pay rises negotiated by the government and management as a means of curbing inflation. This actually runs against Tory rhetoric that Britain was exceptionally beset by strikes – which has been challenged and rebutted before by British historians of the working class – and the unions were irresponsible.

The role of the factory or enterprise council in taking management decisions, rather than the trade unions in Yugoslav worker’s control also means that the trade unions could still preserve their independence and oppositional role, working to defend the rights of the workforce as a whole and present the grievances of individual workers.

The two authors acknowledge that there are problems of scale involved, in that the Yugoslav system was obviously developed to suit conditions in that nation, where there was a multiplicity of small enterprises, rather than the much larger industrial concerns of the more developed British economy. But even there they suggest that these problems may not be insuperable. Management now consists of selecting for one out of a range of options, that have already been suggested by technical staff and planners, and the experience of the co-operative movement has shown that firms can be run by elected boards. Much of the idea that management can only be effectively performed by autocratic directors or management boards may actually be just a myth that has developed to justify the concentration of power in their hands, rather than allow it to be also held by the workers.

They also note that the Yugoslav model also shows that the participation of workers in industrial management can lead to greater productivity. Indeed, the South Korean economist and lecturer, Ha-Joon Chang, in his books has shown that those industries which are wholly or partly owned by the state, or where the workers participate in management, are more stable and long-lasting than those that are run purely for the benefit of the shareholders. This is because the state and the workforce have a vested commitment to them, which shareholders don’t have. They will abandon one firm to invest in another, which offers larger dividends. And this has meant that some firms have gone bust selling off valuable assets and downsizing simply to keep the shares and, correspondingly, the managers’ salaries, artificially high.

They also present a good argument for showing that if workers’ control was implemented, the other parties would also have to take it up and preserve it. At the time they were writing, the Liberals were talking about ‘syndicalism’ while the Tories promised an Industrial Charter. This never materialised, just as Theresa May’s promise to put workers on the boards of industry was no more than hot air.

But some indication of how popular genuine worker participation in management might be is also shown, paradoxically, by Thatcher’s privatisations in the 1980s. Thatcher presented herself falsely as some kind of heroine of the working class, despite the fact that she was very solidly middle, and personally had nothing but contempt for the working class and working class organisations. Some of that image came from her talking about her background as the daughter of a shopkeeper. Another aspect was that in her privatisation of the utilities, she tried to persuade people that at last they too could be shareholders in industry. This was not only to the general public, but also to workers in those industries, who were offered shares in the newly privatised companies.

This experiment in popular capitalism, just like the rest of Thatcherism, is a total colossal failure. Newspaper reports have shown that the shares have largely passed out of the hands of working class shareholders, and are now back in the hands of the middle classes. As you could almost predict.

But the process does show how what popularity it initially had depended on Thatcher stealing some of the ideological guise for privatisation from Socialism. She had to make it seem that they would have a vested interest in their industries, albeit through holding shares rather than direct participation in management. She had no wish to empower the workers, as is amply shown by her determination to break the unions and destroy employees’ rights in the workplace. But her programme of popular capitalism depended on making it appear they would gain some position of power as individual shareholders.

The performance of the utilities following privatisation has shown that they are not better off under private management, regardless of the bilge spewed by the Tories and the Blairites in the Labour party. Under private management, these vital industries have been starved of investment, while the managers’ salaries and share price have been kept high again through cuts and increased prices. It is high time they were renationalised. And the nation knows this, hence the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.

And it’s possible that, if it was done properly, the incorporation of a system of worker participation in the management of these industries could create a real popular enthusiasm for them that would prevent further privatisation in the future, or make it more difficult. Who knows, if it had been done properly in the past, perhaps we would now have a proper functioning steel and coal industry, as well as the other vital services like rail, electricity, gas and water.

Hyper Evolution – The Rise of the Robots Part 2

August 5, 2017

Wednesday evening I sat down to watch the second part of the BBC 4 documentary, Hyperevolution: the Rise of the Robots, in which the evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod and the electronics engineer Prof. Danielle George trace the development of robots from the beginning of the 20th century to today. I blogged about the first part of the show on Tuesday in a post about another forthcoming programme on the negative consequences of IT and automation, Secrets of Silicon Valley. The tone of Hyperevolution is optimistic and enthusiastic, with one or two qualms from Garrod, who fears that robots may pose a threat to humanity. The programme states that robots are an evolving species, and that we are well on the way to developing true Artificial Intelligence.

Last week, Garrod went off to meet a Japanese robotics engineer, whose creation had been sent up to keep a Japanese astronaut company of the International Space Station. Rocket launches are notoriously expensive, and space is a very, very expensive premium. So it was no surprise that the robot was only about four inches tall. It’s been designed as a device to keep people company, which the programme explained was a growing problem in Japan. Japan has a falling birthrate and thus an aging population. The robot is programmed to ask and respond to questions, and to look at the person, who’s speaking to it. It doesn’t really understand what is being said, but simply gives an answer according to its programming. Nevertheless, it gives the impression of being able to follow and respond intelligently to conversation. It also has the very ‘cute’ look that characterizes much Japanese technology, and which I think comes from the conventions of Manga art. Garrod noted how it was like baby animals in having a large head and eyes, which made the parents love them.

It’s extremely clever, but it struck me as being a development of the Tamagotchi, the robotic ‘pet’ which was all over the place a few years ago. As for companionship, I could help thinking of a line from Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic Solaris, based on the novel by the Polish SF writer, Stanislaw Lem. The film follow the cosmonaut, Kris, on his mission to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The planet’s vast ocean is alive, and has attempted to establish contact with the station’s crew by dredging their memories, and sending them replicas of people they know. The planet does this to Kris, creating a replica of a former girlfriend. At one point, pondering the human condition in a vast, incomprehensible cosmos, Kris states ‘There are only four billion of us…a mere handful. We don’t need spaceships, aliens…What man needs is man.’ Or words to that effect. I forget the exact quote. I dare say robots will have their uses caring for and providing mental stimulation for the elderly, but this can’t replace real, human contact.

George went to America to NASA, where the space agency is building Valkyrie to help with the future exploration of Mars in 2030. Valkyrie is certainly not small and cute. She’s six foot, and built very much like the police machines in Andrew Blomkamp’s Chappie. George stated that they were trying to teach the robot how to walk through a door using trial and error. But each time the machine stumbled. The computer scientists then went through the robot’s programming trying to find and correct the error. After they thought they had solved it, they tried again. And again the machine stumbled.

George, however, remained optimistic. She told ‘those of you, who think this experiment is a failure’, that this was precisely what the learning process entailed, as the machine was meant to learn from its mistakes, just like her own toddler now learning to walk. She’s right, and I don’t doubt that the robot will eventually learn to walk upright, like the humanoid robots devised by their competitors over at DARPA. However, there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. People do learn from their mistakes, but if mistakes keep being made and can’t be correctly, then it’s fair to say that a person has failed to learn from them. And if a robot fails to learn from its mistakes, then it would also be fair to say that the experiment has failed.

Holy Joe Smith! I was also a reminded of another piece of classic SF in this segment. Not film, but 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. In its debut story, the aged robohunter, Sam Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ – his robometer, Kewtie and pilot, Kidd, are sent to Verdus to investigate what has happened to the human colonists. Verdus is so far away, that robots have been despatched to prepare it for human colonization, and a special hyperdrive has to be used to get Slade there. This rejuvenates him from an old man in his seventies to an energetic guy in his thirties. Kidd, his foul mouthed, obnoxious pilot, who is in his 30s, is transformed into a foul-mouthed, obnoxious, gun-toting baby.

The robot pioneers have indeed prepared Verdus for human habitation. They’ve built vast, sophisticated cities, with shops and apartments just waiting to be occupied, along with a plethora of entertainment channels, all of whose hosts and performers are robotic. However, their evolution has outpaced that of humanity, so that they are now superior, both physically and mentally. They continue to expect humans to be the superiors, and so when humans have come to Verdus, they’ve imprisoned, killed and experimented on them as ‘Sims’ – simulated humans, not realizing that these are the very beings they were created to serve. In which case, Martian colonists should beware. And carry a good blaster, just in case.

Garrod and George then went to another lab, where the robot unnerved Garrod by looking at him, and following him around with its eye. George really couldn’t understand why this should upset him. Talking about it afterwards, Garrod said that he was worried about the threat robots pose to humanity. George replied by stating her belief that they also promise to bring immense benefits, and that this was worth any possible danger. And that was the end of that conversation before they went on to the next adventure.

George’s reply isn’t entirely convincing. This is what opponents of nuclear power were told back in the ’50s and ’60s, however. Through nuclear energy we were going to have ships and planes that could span the globe in a couple of minutes, and electricity was going to be so plentiful and cheap that it would barely be metered. This failed, because the scientists and politicians advocating nuclear energy hadn’t really worked out what would need to be done to isolate and protect against the toxic waste products. Hence nearly six decades later, nuclear power and the real health and environmental problems it poses are still very much controversial issues. And there’s also that quote from Bertrand Russell. Russell was a very staunch member of CND. When he was asked why he opposed nuclear weapons, he stated that it was because they threatened to destroy humanity. ‘And some of us think that would be a very great pity’.

Back in America, George went to a bar to meet Alpha, a robot created by a British inventor/showman in 1932. Alpha was claimed to be an autonomous robot, answering questions by choosing appropriate answers from recordings on wax cylinders. George noted that this was extremely advanced for the time, if true. Finding the machine resting in a display case, filled with other bizarre items like bongo drums, she took an access plate off the machine to examine its innards. She was disappointed. Although there were wires to work the machine’s limbs, there were no wax cylinders or any other similar devices. She concluded that the robot was probably worked by a human operator hiding behind a curtain.

Then it was off to Japan again, to see another robot, which, like Valkyrie, was learning for itself. This was to be a robot shop assistant. In order to teach it to be shop assistant, its creators had built an entire replica camera shop, and employed real shop workers to play out their roles, surrounded by various cameras recording the proceedings. So Garrod also entered the scenario, where he pretended to be interested in buying a camera, asking questions about shutter speeds and such like. The robot duly answered his questions, and moved about the shop showing him various cameras at different prices. Like the robotic companion, the machine didn’t really know or understand what it was saying or doing. It was just following the motions it had learned from its human counterparts.

I was left wondering how realistic the role-playing had actually been. The way it was presented on camera, everything was very polite and straightforward, with the customer politely asking the price, thanking the assistant and moving on to ask to see the next of their wares. I wondered if they had ever played at being a difficult customer in front of it. Someone who came in and, when asked what they were looking for, sucked their teeth and said, ‘I dunno really,’ or who got angry at the prices being asked, or otherwise got irate at not being able to find something suitable.

Through the programme, Japanese society is held up as being admirably progressive and accepting of robots. Earlier in that edition, Garrod finished a piece on one Japanese robot by asking why it was that a car manufacturer was turning to robotics. The answer’s simple. The market for Japanese cars and motorcycles is more or less glutted, and they’re facing competition from other countries, like Indonesia and Tokyo. So the manufacturers are turning to electronics.

The positive attitude the Japanese have to computers and robots is also questionable. The Japanese are very interested in developing these machines, but actually don’t like using them themselves. The number of robots in Japan can easily be exaggerated, as they include any machine tool as a robot. And while many British shops and businesses will use a computer, the Japanese prefer to do things the old way by hand. For example, if you go to a post office in Japan, the assistant, rather than look something up on computer, will pull out a ledger. Way back in the 1990s someone worked out that if the Japanese were to mechanise their industry to the same extent as the West, they’d throw half their population out of work.

As for using robots, there’s a racist and sexist dimension to this. The Japanese birthrate it falling, and so there is real fear of a labour shortage. Robots are being developed to fill it. But Japanese society is also extremely nationalistic and xenophobic. Only people, whose parents are both Japanese, are properly Japanese citizens with full civil rights. There are third-generation Koreans, constituting an underclass, who, despite having lived there for three generations, are still a discriminated against underclass. The Japanese are developing robots, so they don’t have to import foreign workers, and so face the problems and strains of a multicultural society.

Japanese society also has some very conservative attitudes towards women. So much so, in fact, that the chapter on the subject in a book I read two decades ago on Japan, written by a Times journalist, was entitled ‘A Woman’s Place Is In the Wrong’. Married women are expected to stay at home to raise the kids, and the removal of a large number of women from the workplace was one cause of the low unemployment rate in Japan. There’s clearly a conflict between opening up the workplace to allow more married women to have a career, and employing more robots.

Garrod also went off to Bristol University, where he met the ‘turtles’ created by the neuroscientist, Grey Walter. Walter was interested in using robots to explore how the brain functioned. The turtles were simple robots, consisting of a light-detecting diode. The machine was constructed to follow and move towards light sources. As Garrod himself pointed out, this was like the very primitive organisms he’d studied, which also only had a light-sensitive spot.

However, the view that the human brain is really a form of computer have also been discredited by recent research. Hubert L. Dreyfus in his book, What Computers Still Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Intelligence, describes how, after the failure of Good Old Fashioned A.I. (GOFAI), computer engineers then hoped to create it through exploring the connections between different computing elements, modelled on the way individual brain cells are connected to each by a complex web of neurons. Way back in 1966, Walter Rosenblith of MIT, one of the pioneers in the use of computers in neuropsychology, wrote

We no longer hold the earlier widespread belief that the so-called all-or-none law from nerve impulses makes it legitimate to think of relays as adequate models for neurons. In addition, we have become increasingly impressed with the interactions that take place among neurons: in some instances a sequence of nerve impulses may reflect the activities of literally thousands of neurons in a finely graded manner. In a system whose numerous elements interact so strongly with each other, the functioning of the system is not necessarily best understood by proceeding on a neuron-by-neuron basis as if each had an independent personality…Detailed comparisons of the organization of computer systems and brains would prove equally frustrating and inconclusive. (Dreyfus, What Computers Still Can’t Do, p. 162).

Put simply, brain’s don’t work like computers. This was written fifty years ago, but it’s fair to ask if the problem still exists today, despite some of the highly optimistic statements to the contrary.

Almost inevitably, driverless cars made their appearance. The Germans have been developing them, and Garrod went for a spin in one, surrounded by two or three engineers. He laughed with delight when the car told him he could take his hands off the wheel and let the vehicle continue on its own. However, the car only works in the comparatively simply environment of the autobahn. When it came off the junction, back into the normal road system, the machine told him to start driving himself. So, not quite the victory for A.I. it at first appears.

Garrod did raise the question of the legal issues. Who would be responsible if the car crashed while working automatically – the car, or the driver? The engineers told him it would be the car. Garrod nevertheless concluded that segment by noting that there were still knotty legal issues around it. But I don’t know anyone who wants one, or necessarily would trust one to operate on its own. A recent Counterpunch article I blogged about stated that driverless cars are largely being pushed by a car industry, trying to expand a market that is already saturated, and the insurance companies. The latter see it as a golden opportunity to charge people, who don’t want one, higher premiums on the grounds that driverless cars are safer.

Garrod also went to meet researchers in A.I. at Plymouth University, who were also developing a robot which as part of their research into the future creation of genuine consciousness in machines. Talking to one of the scientists afterwards, Garrod heard that there could indeed be a disruptive aspect to this research. Human society was based on conscious decision making. But if the creation of consciousness was comparatively easy, so that it could be done in an afternoon, it could have a ‘disruptive’ effect. It may indeed be the case that machines will one day arise which will be conscious, sentient entities, but this does not mean that the development of consciousness is easy. You think of the vast ages of geologic time it took evolution to go from simple, single-celled organisms to complex creatures like worms, fish, insects and so on, right up to the emergence of Homo Sapiens Sapiens within the last 200,000 years.

Nevertheless, the programme ended with Garrod and George talking the matter over on the banks of the Thames in London. George concluded that the rise of robots would bring immense benefits and the development of A.I. was ‘inevitable’.

This is very optimistic, to the point where I think you could be justified by calling it hype. I’ve said in a previous article how Dreyfus’ book describes how robotics scientists and engineers have made endless predictions since Norbert Wiener and Alan Turing, predicting the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and each time they’ve been wrong. He’s also described the sheer rage with which many of those same researchers respond to criticism and doubt. In one passage he discusses a secret meeting of scientists at MIT to discuss A.I., in which a previous edition of his book came up. The scientists present howled at it with derision and abuse. He comments that why scientists should persist in responding so hostilely to criticism, and to persist in their optimistic belief that they will eventually solve the problem of A.I., is a question for psychology and the sociology of knowledge.

But there are also very strong issues about human rights, which would have to be confronted if genuine A.I. was ever created. Back in the 1970s or early ’80s, the British SF magazine, New Voyager, reviewed Roderick Random. Subtitled, ‘The Education of a Young Machine’, this is all about the creation of a robot child. The reviewer stated that the development of truly sentient machines would constitute the return of slavery. A similar point was made in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode where another ship’s captain wished to take Data apart, so that he could be properly investigated and more like him built. Data refused, and so the captain sued to gain custody of him, arguing that he wasn’t really sentient, and so should be legally considered property. And in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the book that launched the Cyberpunk SF genre, the hero, Case, finds out that the vast computer for which he’s working, Wintermute, has Swiss citizenship, but its programming are the property of the company that built it. This, he considers, is like humans having their thoughts and memories made the property of a corporation.

Back to 2000 AD, the Robusters strip portrayed exactly what such slavery would mean for genuinely intelligent machines. Hammerstein, an old war droid, and his crude sidekick, the sewer droid Rojaws and their fellows live with the constant threat of outliving their usefulness, and taking a trip down to be torn apart by the thick and sadistic Mek-Quake. Such a situation should, if it ever became a reality, be utterly intolerable to anyone who believes in the dignity of sentient beings.

I think we’re a long way off that point just yet. And despite Prof. George’s statements to the contrary, I’m not sure we will ever get there. Hyperevolution is a fascinating programme, but like many of the depictions of cutting edge research, it’s probably wise to take some of its optimistic pronouncements with a pinch of salt.

Anti-NHS Privatisation Graffiti in Bristol’s Stokes Croft

April 2, 2017

Stokes Croft is not a part of the city I go to regularly. It’s on the other side of Bristol from me. However, I was passing through it yesterday on the way to a conference at elsewhere. It’s a very bohemian part of town, with an ethnically mixed population as well as a large number of students. It’s also very left-wing. A few years ago the people there rioted against the opening of yet another supermarket, which they were afraid would destroy the area’s local shops. One of the companies down there is a cooperative, which helps drug addicts and criminals back on their feet through creating new pieces from old pottery. I’ve heard this company has actually called itself at time, ‘the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft’.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see, staring out of a window, several large pieces of graffiti protesting against the privatisation of the NHS. One of them said in large, blue letters scrawled across the front of a closed shop, ‘Kissing the NHS Goodbye’. Even before the bus got to Stokes Croft, there was a large sign up in the Horsefair, which is just outside, advertising a demo against it a year or so ago.

I haven’t, unfortunately, got any pictures of this. I will, however, take some the next time I go there. If any of the readers of this blog also have pics they want to send in, I’ll gladly post them up here with the proper credit.

This issue isn’t going away, and more and more people are organising to challenge it.

Max Beer on the Depression of the Lower Middle Classes by Big Business

August 28, 2016

I found this passage in Max Beer’s two volume book, A History of British Socialism, in volume 2, page 347. It’s part of a long discussion on how the early Labour party was assisted in its rise because of the way the working class and the lower middle class found themselves under similar attack and allied themselves against attempts by big business to reduce their independence and grind them into subservience. Beer’s book was published in Britain in 1920, but this passage could describe the situation of millions of office workers, sales assistants and small shopkeepers today. And especially the latter. I’ve already blogged about the way the predatory supermarkets are driving the small businesspeople into bankruptcy, and in so doing pushing up unemployment. In this passage, Beer talks about how the shopkeepers of his time were under attack from the department stores. He writes

In commerce and finance a similar process has come into operation. The wholesale traders are reducing the retail traders to the role of distributive agents working on commission. And the great manufacturers are gaining control both over the wholesale and retail trade. The great departmental store, the large importers, and the co-operative societies have been displacing great numbers of small shopkeepers. The tendency of modern times appears to be the displacement of the independent lower middle class by a salaried class of clerks, salesmen, official and civil servants. This process of concentration in commerce and finance could not escape the observation of a sociological writers like H.G. Wells. “Shopkeeping, like manufactures,” he declares, “began to concentrate in large establishments, and by wholesale distribution to replace individual buying and selling… The once flourishing shopkeeper lives to-day on the mere remnants of the trade that great distributing stores or the branches of great companies have left him. Tea companies, provision-dealing companies, tobacconist companies, make the position of the old-established private shop unstable and the chances of the new beginner hopeless. Railway and tramway takes the custom more and more effectually past the door of the small draper and outfitter to the well-stocked establishments at the centre of things; telephone and telegraph assist that shopping at the centre more and more… And this is equally true of the securities of that other section of the middle class, the section which lives upon invested money. There, too, the big eats the little. through the seas and shallows of investment flow great tides and depressions, on which the big fortunes ride to harbour while the little accumulations, capsized and swamped, quiver down to the bottom”.

I think Wells was the son of a shopkeeper, and so had personal experience and interest in what was happening to this class. And the description of how trade was moving away from the local area into the centre of towns, assisted by the trams and railways, along with orders by telephone and telegraph, could almost be a description of the ruin of modern British high streets by the construction of vast, out of town shopping centres and the mass ordering of goods by shoppers through internet dealers, like Amazon. We’ve been here before, folks, and Old Labour had the capacity and will to solve those problems. And it still has, if it can get past the Blairites and their intransigent advocacy of big business against the worker, the employee and the small businesspeople.