Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Alt Take

A General, All Purpose, Omni-Directional, Jazz-Rant, Expressing My Dissatisfaction On a Number of Matters of Current Importance

[Alternate Take]

Any idea, however brilliant, epoch making, or profound, has a half life, a period over which it becomes less relevant.

Any idea, however brilliant or epoch making, can become irrelevant over millennia or milliseconds, but so long as the arrow of time points forwards, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics must be obeyed.

An idea may be brilliant, but ideas get old.

Or they evolve. Look at imaginary numbers. The square root of minus 1. An impossible number. A mathematical curiosity, nothing more. Then the dawning of the digital age and it turns out that this seemingly redundant branch of mathematics is the key to the kinds of data compression needed to download data at the speeds we've been experiencing in recent years. So, every time you download a podcast or stream a TV show online, you're using imaginary numbers, ironically, to simplify the types of calculation your computer is required to perform. It's a healthy advert in favour of research for research's sake.

Fifteen years ago, when I was an astrophysics undergraduate, theories about superstrings and hyper dimensional space were at the fringes of scientific thought and broadly ridiculed by the mainstream. Today, superstring and hyper dimensional space are the mainstream, and Michio Kaku, author of 'Hyperspace', the book I was reading as I started university, is a household name.

Newer, more relevant information becomes available. What we take to be true today turns out to be nonsense tomorrow. Yet what remains entrenched in our psyche and our cultural identity can seem like a marvel. Some ideas are spellbinding. They seem to be doing most good usually when doing most harm.

A few weeks ago I was watching something on television. I forget what it was, but the chairman of RBS was being interviewed. During the interview, he uttered the immortal line that I have heard repeated at regular intervals throughout my life:

Capitalism may not be perfect, but it's the best system we have.

Surely 'the best system that we have' would demonstrate a little better common sense than we've seen in recent years?

In the last twelve months, I've seen something of the top of society and something of the bottom. Working PPI claims for a bank, I got to see how a bank can mishandle the mishandling of its PPI mis-selling. I've blogged about this in the past (here). However, I recently heard that the Financial Ombudsman's Service upheld 86% of all complaints they've received about the bank I worked for, so it really is worth taking matters all the way. It also costs them money.

(incidentally, does it strike anyone else as a coincidence that the government is talking about re-privatising  RBS and Lloyds TSB, right as their PPI projects are coming to an end? - I wonder how much that has cost the public purse, the government said it wouldn't cost us a penny, so I'm guessing £billions. It's something to think about.)

There are people, mostly in the north of England, who take the piss out of George Orwell for moving to more squalid lodgings when he was writing 'The Road to Wigan Pier'. Yet what else was he supposed to do? He was writing a book about poverty, what writer worth the name wouldn't want to see life lived at its most extreme? Of course Orwell did that, it's why he's remembered today and why it's gone three in the afternoon and you're still sitting in your pants.

Also, this is to ignore the tradition out of which Orwell was writing. Orwell's great influence was 'The People of the Abyss', Jack London's report on the conditions in the East End slums at the beginning of the 20th century. London had come to the English capital that shares his name to report on a conference. The conference was subsequently cancelled and London found himself wandering among the East End and moving into the area to write his great work of anthropology. Both Orwell's 'The Road to Wigan Pier' and 'Down and Out in Paris in London' were written with that same dedication to research.

I've always liked to kid myself that I'm the Jack London of office work (if Jack London had mainly worked in the North West of England). I always take mental notes on my surroundings, whatever sector I end up working in, for recall and use later. Six years ago I could get a phone call on Friday and be in a job Monday for anything from a day to three years and always be sure of finding something else. Since the recession, the public sector has shrunk and what few jobs there are now involve going through tortuously tedious competency based interviews, which are designed to ensure middle of the road types, less likely to go walkabout to another job, costing the organisation further recruiting costs.

So I'm struggling to find a job, but since I'm in the area, I've been taking notes. For a start, trying to get housing benefit has been a Kafkaesque journey through the halls of bureaucracy. Four months to process a claim that should have taken two weeks. Always requesting more information about the tenancy agreement, but not actually writing to tell me that, so back to stand in the queue at the council offices for another half hour, waiting to find out what they need this time. At time of writing, the council still owe me three weeks back rent and have cost me a couple of hundred pounds in late fees and fees for being over my overdraft limit.

In the meantime, I had my benefits stopped for a month, because I failed to attend an appointment. The encroaching changes to the benefit system worry me. If you want to see what a society really is, take a look at the way it treats its most vulnerable people. The nature of the work I've done over the years has meant that I've signed on from time to time, a fortnight here, couple of months there. So I've seen some of the ways benefits have changed over the years. Since the current government came to power, they've barely stopped changing.

There was a time when you had to see an advisor every three months. Then it was every six weeks, once a month, now it's every two weeks. Often the advisor can't see you on the same day that you sign and so you have to come back. When it is on the same day, it's usually scheduled for first thing. I sign on in the afternoons. So it's easy to get confused. In the past, they'd let you rebook and it was fine. To be honest, my interview is usually a waste of time. I usually spend longer waiting for the interview to begin than in the actual interview.

This time I was due to sign on Bank Holiday Monday and so the adviser was saying over and over, you don't need to come Bank Holiday Monday, you're excused signing, like it was some kind of special treat. Then she scheduled an appointment for the next day, which hasn't happened before. Bank Holiday Monday used to mean no signing day and no interview.

Not this time though and the rules have now been changed and tightened and all failures to attend, rather than being dealt with sensibly, as in the past, have to go to an adjudicator. When the government say they want to cut the benefit bill, what they really mean is that they want to redirect it. I understand that the people who adjudicate on such issues are private, third party companies, who presumably are in it to make a profit for themselves and their shareholders. I've never really understood how a profit making organisation is better for the public purse than a non-profit making government department. I'm no economist, but even I can see that this makes no financial sense. It's not that we want to cut the benefit bill, but that we want to keep as much of it away from the poor as possible.

I remembered on the Wednesday that I'd missed the appointment and went up to the benefits office and spent a long time sat down with the guy there (and they are generally very helpful people at the place I go) and he wrote out quite a long declaration on my behalf to make sure I wouldn't be sanctioned (an Orwellian word, meaning penalised) for an honest mistake.

When the decision arrived in the post, instead of making reference to my detailed explanation, the letter merely said that when asked why I had failed to attend, I said, 'I did not attend the appointment'. It then goes on to say that 'the law says' this is not a valid reason for failing to attend and my benefits were to be stopped for a month. If I did it again, they could be stopped for three months. So apparently not only did I fail to turn up to one my many appointments, but I'd also broken the law. Unemployed now equates to criminal. I waited in all weekend, but the police failed to arrive and arrest me.

In the end, they paid me four weeks benefits two weeks later. I'd been sanctioned, but not penalised. Well, apart from that day I had so little money that all I had to eat was a bowl of tomato soup and the two bits of bread that hadn't gone mould in the breadbin. 

Why does a bully bully? Same reason a dog licks its bollocks. Because it can. For the same reason, the lives of the poor, the unemployed, the disabled are continuously fucked with by people who evidently didn't get enough hugs when they were young.

What this government amply demonstrate is that all the money, education and privilege in the world can't buy one any class. Cameron, Gideon and 'Gradgrind' Grove ('Now what I want are facts. Facts are what's important') and the rest are the last people on Earth who should be running things. Education should be in the hands of teachers, the NHS run by ex nurses and GPs. Not this current crops of chinless wonders, few of whom have ever had to live in the real world and so are ill-equipped to manage things.

"While money doesn't talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony."
Bob Dylan

In the end, I've had to move back home for a bit. Now, don't worry about me, I'll be fine. This isn't about me (although even by saying that, you should know that it's a little bit about me). I'll soon find a job and get back on my feet and the bills will be up to date in no time. I'm quite stay at home anyway. I spend most of my money rescuing secondhand books from charity shops.

The people I worry about are the ones that are left behind. Not just the unemployed, but the disabled too. The ones who are going to have to navigate the new universal payment system. I was told the other day that eventually you won't even have to sign on to get paid, but you will still have to attend an appointment, presumably now every week. Being on benefits is like being on probation. Tagging of the disabled to follow shortly.

Tagging the disabled my sound melodramatic, but then we have already seen the unemployed working as indentured servants for Aldi and Poundland and the like. In America, the richest country in the world, the most powerful in a system where accumulated wealth is the only consideration that counts for anything, nearly 2% of the population, 10% of the African-American population, is in prison. Capitalism there has led to the bottom fifth of the population being rendered as surplus to industrial requirements and locked up for the crime of being poor. Of doing the kinds of things that poor people do to try and relieve the monotony. Slavery had been effectively reinvented and used to provide cheap labour for the commercial sector. It's not something I want to see ending up happening in this country.

Wouldn't our best system, having once abolished slavery, feel no need to reinvent it? Hasn't something gone terribly, terribly wrong?

If you were to ask me, I'd say I'm a misanthropic socialist. I don't know what you take socialism to mean, it's one of those curious words, like communism or anarchism or feminist, which were named by their enemies. Using ism and ist makes the supporters of such movements sound like fanatics, lowering their credibility. 

I take Bertrand Russell's definition of Socialism, as modified by George Orwell. To be a Socialist, Russell said, one needs only believe in three things:

Social Justice

Actually, I would modify the definition once again:

Freedom of choice
Equality of choice
Social Justice

And that's it. If you believe in those three things then you are a socialist. Moreover, if you don't believe in these three principles of society, what do you believe in and why am I even sharing a society with you? Socialism is much maligned, largely because its ethos is in sharp contrast to the corrupt brand of capitalism that we've inherited. Yet when you break it down, when all the rhetoric is wiped away, socialism is simply the process of being part of a society. Pick up your neighbour's shopping or let someone cross ahead of you at an intersection and you are engaging in socialism. Yet because the market wishes to rob us of even our sense of community, the co-operative spirit is called being a lefty, or a red, and maligned and discouraged. If you don't want to be socialist then get like Robinson Crusoe and maroon yourself on an island.

I say to hell with it all. I've got social networking and my own blog. Governments are terrified of new media. It means they can't manage the way that news comes out, like they were once able. Twenty years ago, we'd be hearing about the Syrian conflict about now. New media makes news available almost as soon as it happens. How long did it take before the News of the World folded? Two weeks of sustained pressure on the advertisers maybe. This is where the capitalist bear (why not?) can be hurt. Stock is only as good as its image. If its image becomes toxic, the stock becomes worthless and it ceases to have power. Why bother to hack a company and cause it some mild discomfort, when enough dissatisfied customers can make a company do things it doesn't want to do, just to protect its image?

Hey, did you know that the US Constitution was based on Native American principles? The different states on the east coast initially lived in opposition to one another, like a mini version of Europe, but that wasn't working out so they took their cue from The Iroquois Great Law of Peace. Just a good example of how a fresh approach can be the making of a country.

I mention this partly as free advice, but mainly as an example of how a fresh approach to old problems can encourage growth. For some capitalism has been a godsend. For many others it has been a plague and the plague is only intensifying. Ideas evolve or they decay. When I hear people talk about tradition or the way things have always been done, it tells me that no one has had a new thought in quite a while.

Ultimately I hate the idea that capitalism is the best system we have because it's a statement of ownership. A message to ordinary person to say, we own you, and don't you ever do anything to try and change that. Mostly what it makes me want to do is to try and change the system to a more fair and equitable system.

Besides, in a properly functioning Capitalist state, wouldn't there be no poor people? Isn't that it's one measure of success or failure? So what the hell is this?

Isn't it time for some new ideas?

Or make the ones that we have finally work for us?

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