March 27, 2011
The World Health Organisation has revealed that Glasgow’s wealthiest live on average 28 years longer than its most deprived inhabitants. The British government’s belief that a compassionate ‘Big Society’ will make up for savage cuts in public budgets is not likely to narrow that gap
Julien Brygo: writing in Le Monde diplomatique
And the British media have the cheek to portray anarchists as violent!
January 11, 2011
Save the Children revealed today that low income families are still paying more than wealthier families for basic goods and services, paying out nearly £1,300 more each year – a rise of more than 20% since the survey was last carried out in 2007. Services for the poor, from energy to insurance, carry a much higher premium and the poor are particularly susceptible to the robbery level interest rates charged by the legal-loan-sharks – or even, if they’re fortunate enough not to have to rely on the real deal!
The worst offenders are energy companies who charge a ‘poverty premium’ for their services. As the Save the Children article says:
Around 20% is the rising cost of gas and electricity . Average bills for poorer families are £1,134 per year, compared with £881 for wealthier families (before the latest hikes in heating prices are even taken into account). It’s feared that by 2020, the energy poverty premium could be as much as £1,800 per year. Many parents have to choose between a hot meal or heating. Cold living conditions increase children’s susceptibility to illness and damages respiratory health. Education is also affected if there is no warm, peaceful space to do homework.
“You have to prioritise heating because you have to have the house warm enough for kids”. – Lana, mum of two.
It seems very Kafka-esque to punish the poor with financial penalties for being poor (something that every single private company and local authority does on a regular basis), but in essence that’s capitalism - an all out war against the poor!
The only real, long-term defence is to organise against the rigours of capitalism. In impoverished communities this would mean regaining control of the local economy to stop the outflow of money, skills and resources. Most importantly we need to focus on creating bulk-purchasing groups for poorer communities, localised production of food and energy and re-skilling people so that communities are allowed to become ever more self-sufficient.
All debt – whether to privatised companies or central government – is a form of social cancer that debilitates both individuals and communities making them over-reliant on outside influences. Doncaster council – and the usual grant monsters who share their bed – have relied on hand-outs for too long and have failed to use the millions spent in regeneration funding to strengthen the local economy to the degree that we can operate without further hand-outs. Now that our region is facing some of the biggest spending cuts anywhere in the UK we’re screwed – unless we choose to organise effectively.
By effectively we don’t mean placards and protests. Fighting the cuts (aka neoliberal sructural adjustment policies) is important, but we must be honest and admit that ALL of the mainstream parties are comitted to implementing the same policies (the only difference being timescale), so it is unlikely that we will succeed in stopping all but the most vile of ConDem policies (which will be successes in their own right, but not of the kind which impoverished working-class communities really need). Long term the only hope is to organise sustainable, self-sufficient working class communities. We need something similar to the Transition Town movement, but with a much higher degree of class consiousness and the balls to oppose both the local authorities and the business sector if they stand in our way.
A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report confirms that there are now 2.1 million impoverished children in homes where parents are in work, an increase on previous years and a figure that is set to rise thanks to ConDem policies. A staggering 58% of impoverished children live in homes where one or both parents work, giving lie to the sick Tory myth that child poverty is the fault of idle parents. As co-author of the report, Tom MacInnes says:
“With more than half of all children in poverty belonging to working families, it is simply not possible to base anti-poverty policies on the idea that work alone is a route out of poverty … Child poverty in working households must be given the same focus as out-of-work poverty. Until this happens, debates about poverty will continue to be misleading.”
The groundbreaking findings presented in Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book, ‘The Spirit Level‘, shows exactly where the problem lies and what needs to be done to truly address this problem. The years of research behind this book have provided hard evidence to show how almost every social problem – from life expectancy to depression levels, violence to illiteracy, preventable disease rates to academic achievement – is affected not by how wealthy a society is, but how equal it is.
Britain in the third millennium remains stunningly unequal. Classism is as blatant as it is rife. It’s a word that’s out of political favour at the moment, but what we need is a new movement of ‘levellers’. What we need is an urgent and far-reaching levelling of socioeconomic inequality. What we need is class war!
September 28, 2010
What follows is a very sobering article from the ever-vigilant Media Lens. Things are about to get very, very tough for a great many people, and as usual it will be the most vulnerable who are hit fastest and hardest. We can either face this in the same way we have been doing for far too long – i.e. whine and do nothing – or we can fight. If you can get down to Brum this Sunday (October 3rd) for the Tory Party conference then that would be a good start. If, like us, you’re not able to make it, then you need to look at what you can be doing – right now, in your own community – to protect ourselves from the abuses of government and big business. We need to get organised; partly to resist the cuts, but more importantly to build local resistance to the ravages of capitalism and to create a resilient local infrastructure which will be essential for survival in a very different future. The time for talking is over, it’s time to fucking act!
“VEILED THREATS” OF “INDUSTRIAL CHAOS”
THE SUNDAY TIMES INTERVIEWS TUC LEADER BRENDAN BARBER
In a despairing article in the Guardian last week, George Monbiot described the true extent of the failure to respond to the threat of climate change. Beyond all the bluster and rhetoric, Monbiot wrote, “there is not a single effective instrument for containing man-made global warming anywhere on earth.” It is, quite simply, “the greatest political failure the world has ever seen”.
“Greens are a puny force by comparison to industrial lobby groups, the cowardice of governments and the natural human tendency to deny what we don’t want to see.” (George Monbiot, ‘Climate change enlightenment was fun while it lasted. But now it’s dead’, Comment is Free, 20 September, 2010; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/sep/20/climate-change-negotiations-failure)
The lobby groups are indeed powerful. But the notion of government “cowardice” is a classic liberal herring – the problem has always been the government +alliance+ with corporate power, not its “cowardice”.
Likewise, the primary problem is not the natural human tendency to denial; it is the natural corporate +media+ tendency to promote a corporate view of the world. What does it tell us when Greens are competing with an endless stream of ultra-high tech, ultra-slick adverts cleverly persuading us that the latest Renault, Audi and Ford are wonderful complements to our modern lifestyles? What does it tell us when the media is the corporate arm of the corporate system selling, not just these products, but this lifestyle, this way of looking at the world?
This problem has never been front and centre of Monbiot’s analysis as it surely would have been were he not an employee of that corporate media arm. In a discussion that is basically a battle of ideas, it is outrageous that Greens have almost nothing to say about the corporate nature of the media hosting the discussion.
But Monbiot is right when he comments:
“To compensate for our weakness, we indulged a fantasy of benign paternalistic power – acting, though the political mechanisms were inscrutable, in the wider interests of humankind. We allowed ourselves to believe that, with a little prompting and protest, somewhere, in a distant institutional sphere, compromised but decent people would take care of us. They won’t. They weren’t ever going to do so. So what do we do now?”
If “compromised but decent people” were never going to ensure even their own survival by standing up to state-corporate greed, what price action to save the billions of people who are impoverished and starving?
At the recently ended United Nations “poverty summit”, global leaders once again solemnly declared their commitment to the Millennium Development Goals for 2015, just as they did at a previous UN summit ten years ago; just as they did, with different verbiage, at innumerable climate change talking shops.
The first goal, to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger,” is now more distant than ever. Ten years ago, 830 million people were on the brink of starvation. This rose to over 1 billion during the world food price crisis of 2007-2008 and today remains at 915 million.
Another goal for 2015 is to cut infant mortality by two-thirds from the 1990 annual rate, when it stood at 12.5 million deaths. The current rate is a scandalous 10.5 million, and it is very unlikely that the 2015 target will be achieved.
These figures and failures offer a mere glimpse of the shocking reality of the destructiveness and instability of global capitalism. As ever, it is the poorest in “the Third World” who suffer most. But the First World is not immune. In the relatively affluent West, not just the poor but the middle classes are being hit hard. Here in the UK, the Tory – Liberal Democrat coalition government looks set to impose harsh cuts in the public sector of up to 40 per cent.
Writing in Red Pepper, former Financial Times employment editor Robert Taylor describes the “ultimate purpose” of the coalition: “to bury the British welfare state as we have known it over the past 60 years – based on a progressive and responsible state, redistributive taxation and social justice.” We will see the “wholesale demolition” of “the much-maligned public sector” with likely up to one million people losing their jobs. Many “victims of the government’s vicious attacks are going to be nurses, teachers, social workers and any others whose work is designed to help and protect the most vulnerable in our society.” (Robert Taylor, ‘Welfare to worklessness’, Red Pepper, 24 August, 2010; http://www.redpepper.org.uk/Welfare-to-worklessness)
Taylor warns that in the near future we will be hearing “terrible stories of how handicapped and sick people and those suffering from mental illness are being driven into destitution in what will look increasingly like a return to the coercive world of 19th-century Britain with its workhouses, soup kitchens and pawnshops.”
In light of the global failings to act rationally and compassionately, how seriously can we take government assurances that it is seeking to ameliorate the impact of cuts on the poorest and weakest in society? How seriously can we take the discussion offered by the corporate media?
The Spectre Of “Militant” Action To Oppose The Cuts
On 19 September, the Sunday Times ran a major interview with Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (Andrew Davidson, ‘King of compromise alone on a tightrope’, Sunday Times, business section, 19 September, 2010; online article is hidden behind a pay wall). The bias was clear even from the text immediately following the headline:
“Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, is not asking us to copy Greek workers in their fight against cuts. Yet plenty of his members want to do just that.”
The paper was thus quick to raise the spectre of British workers out on the streets, demonstrating against cuts in public expenditure.
As for Barber, although he may not be urging workers to “copy Greek workers”, it seems he cannot be relied upon to deliver a straightforward message. At the TUC annual conference in Manchester the previous week, Barber’s “mastery of the mixed message came to the fore again” as he stood at the lectern, “stern and menacing.”
Sunday Times interviewer Andrew Davidson interpreted this “mixed message”, noting that many of the 6.1 million TUC members want Barber “to stand and fight the coalition government – hence his tough talking. But his instinct is to find a compromise. That may not be good enough for some.”
“They will be drawn to the threats made by union militants – Bob Crow, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers (RMT), for one. Last week Crow called for a national campaign of civil disobedience, and backed joint union industrial action. Are we heading for a general strike? Barber shakes his head. ‘No, I don’t see that as being on the cards at all.’”
Davidson then puts the loaded question before his readers: “So can he [Barber] control militants like Crow?” The threat of uncontrolled “militant” workers is left hanging in the air.
The repeated use of the word “militants” throughout the piece is standard for the business-friendly press. So too is the use of scare words and phrases that are traditional warning signals of the presence of rabid unionists and other undesirables: “threats”, which are sometimes “veiled”, the prospect of “industrial chaos” and, perhaps the worst example in the interview, the fear that “TUC’s plan for organised protest” could “play into the hands of those who hijack legitimate demonstrations for their own violent ends”.
An Exchange With The Sunday Times Interviewer
On 21 September, we wrote to Andrew Davidson, author of the Sunday Times article:
Dear Andrew Davidson,
I was pleased to see your interview with Brendan Barber, head of the TUC ; it raised a number of important points. I hope you’ll respond to the following, please.
“Yet where is the public support for the TUC’s position? For every opponent of cuts, there are just as many who argue that the deficit must be reduced as soon as possible…”
Is it really a 50:50 split? Where is your evidence to back this assertion?
You seem to be unaware of the recent YouGov opinion poll finding that 74% of the population would support a proposed one-off tax on the richest six million people. 
As Greg Philo of Glasgow University notes, the proposal “offers a real alternative, to move debt off the government’s books, using money that is largely trapped in the housing market, from people who will not miss it.” 
Will you be addressing this in any future pieces?
Finally, your interview is peppered with pejorative phrases about “militants”, “threats” (sometimes “veiled”), Barber’s “careful delivery masking a degree of calculation”, and the prospect of “industrial chaos”. The most egregious example is when you scaremonger that the TUC’s “plan for organized protest” could “play into the hands of those who hijack legitimate demonstrations for their own violent ends”.
How do you justify this as responsible, fair and balanced journalism?
 Andrew Davidson, ‘King of compromise alone on a tightrope’, interview with Brendan Barber, head of the TUC, Sunday Times, business section, 19 September, 2010.
 Greg Philo, ‘Deficit crisis: let’s really be in it together. A one-off tax of the rich has strong public support and would solve the UK’s economic crisis at a stroke’, guardian.co.uk, Sunday 15 August 2010 19.59 BST; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/15/deficit-crisis-tax-the-rich
In his reply, Davidson first explained that he does not have a Sunday Times email address because he works on contract (our email to him was actually forwarded to his personal email address after we’d contacted the Sunday Times business editor, Dominic O’Connell). He then told us:
First up, editing. Dom [the business editor] was on holiday last week and the section was edited by his deputy Iain Dey, so best not to blame Dom for that.
Secondly, the piece was published as filed, so probably best not to blame Iain for any ‘slant’. I didn’t intentionally put any slant on it, I simply presented readers with my opinions on what it was like to meet the interviewee and what I thought of the problems and opportunities facing him.
On the public support for cuts, that was simply my opinion from assessing the political and media response to the cuts so far. At present, there are just as many who argue the cuts should happen. I suspect the arguments will swing to and fro as the effects of the cuts begin to be felt. I hadn’t seen the poll you mention. I need to know more about it before I’d admit I should have seen it!
As to the rest, I know you didn’t read it this way but I thought I had presented a balanced case, and pointed out that his arguments would win over many, unless they thought it was backed by veiled threats of militant action. Such action is usually unpopular. I think that is a fair point to make after the statements made by Crow and others backing strike action and civil disobedience last week. (Andrew Davidson, email, 20 September, 2010)
We wrote back the following day:
Many thanks for writing back – I appreciate it. It’s a pleasure to get such a friendly and reasoned response; I’ve had a lot worse from your colleagues in the media industry.
In your reply you use the phrase “veiled threats of militant action”. Why is it “militant” for citizens to stand up for their rights, even as those rights have been steadily and cynically taken away by successive governments? There is a long and honourable history of people being “militant” in standing up to their rulers, all the way back to Wat Tyler in 1381 and, no doubt, before even that! And you must surely be aware of the more recent history of the word “militant” as in “Militant tendency”. These are scare words – just like “Commie” and “Reds” from previous eras – that are designed to elicit fear and ridicule, with the aim of discrediting and undermining any opposition to elite power. I know you are not likely to be doing this deliberately or even consciously; but the fact that you see no problem in falling into this use of words would be no surprise to Orwell.
What would happen if you submitted a piece to the Sunday Times that labelled UK political leaders as “militant”, which you should given the extreme and unnecessary policies hanging over all our heads? Would you report the “threat” of state “violence” to public services and people’s livelihoods and well-being, with the savage cuts falling disproportionately on the poor? Would your journalism remain publishable?
I realise you’re utterly sincere in what you write, and that you delivered what you honestly feel to be a balanced piece. But if you thought any differently, and wrote from a different perspective, you would soon find that you would no longer be welcomed with open arms by the Sunday Times. All journalists feel that they are free to write what they want. But it’s true only up to a point. If you were to [breach] the acceptable bounds of reporting, you’d find your pieces being spiked and your suggestions for commissions falling on deaf ears. Just one example: look up the case of the US reporter Gary Webb.
Webb described his experience of mainstream journalism:
“In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckraking.
“And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.” (Webb, ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On’, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., ‘Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press’, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)
You write that your opinion comes “from assessing the political and media response to the cuts so far”. The fundamental problem is that what is called “mainstream” politics and media necessarily reflect strongly a pro-establishment consensus. And what passes for consensus is, in fact, a rather narrow range of views which has shifted noticeably to the right since the 1970s: to the extent that state policies, and the major political party manifestos, are noticeably to the right of public opinion on major issues like the tax system, public ownership, foreign policy, the environment and so on. This has all been documented. I’ve just finished reading a review copy of Dan Hind’s ‘The Return of the Public’ where he makes some vital points along similar lines – I’d strongly recommend getting hold of a copy. (David Cromwell, 22 September, 2010)
The Sunday Times business editor, Dominic O’Connell, offered to publish a slightly condensed version of our initial email to Andrew Davidson. We then sent him this email: http://www.medialens.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3122
To O’Connell’s credit, he published this letter on 26 September. But to date, Davidson has not responded further.
The Sunday Times interview is but one example of today’s business-friendly propaganda masquerading as journalism. The corporate media is providing a cover for the government’s assault on the public, with the most vulnerable lined up to be the biggest victims.
September 13, 2010
For all our anger and posturing we are politicised chiefly because we care about people and are appalled by the needless suffering created by a privileged minority. ALL hierarchical political structures – no matter how liberal they may claim to be – rely on division, privilege, poverty and fear to survive. The poor and powerless exist BECAUSE the privileged and powerful exist. Some people claim that this is simply ‘human nature’, but if this were the case the powerful wouldn’t need billy-clubs (be they sticks, swords or nuclear armaments) and prisons (be they walls of stone or mind forg’d manacles) to enforce their will upon the rest of us.
There is an alternative, and this is probably the first step…
We’ve been inspired by some of the things Vinay says, it’s made us think about the ways we can act within our own community (one of the UK’s poorest) to bring about positive change. We’re going to be working on a new project so this blog may go quite for quite some time (possibly forever). Meanwhile we’ll bid you adieu – NO WAR, BUT THE CLASS WAR!
If you’re working class and/or low-wage then you need to read this…
BROTHERS-IN-ARMS: CAPITALISM AND CORPORATE JOURNALISM
CRUSHING ECONOMICS, CHEERLEADING MEDIA AND A LOFTY DISMISSAL FROM THE SUNDAY TIMES
by MEDIA LENS June 16, 2010
An essential role of corporate journalism is to shore up public confidence in an unjust, crisis-riven financial and economic system. Although plenty of gloom and doom is permitted, especially in the face of obvious crisis, the legitimacy of the system is rarely questioned.
For example, a recent Sunday Times article cited approvingly the views of Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs. In a note to clients, titled ‘Why the World is Better Than You Think’, O’Neill tried to allay fears that the collapse of financial markets had made the world seem a “scary place”. It is not so bad; indeed, “global recovery” was underway.
The Sunday Times piece then quoted a hedge fund manager proclaiming “massively good profits in the US”, and beaming that “emerging markets [in Brazil, India and elsewhere] are still booming.” The article conceded “it could be a very nervous summer”. But for whom? The journalists certainly weren’t focusing on the pressing concerns of the general population – jobs, pensions, student loans. Instead, the principal “worry” was financial uncertainty “spooking the markets”. But despite the modicum of caution, the article’s message boiled down to “positive fundamentals for the global economy.” (David Smith, Kate Walsh and Michael Woodhead, ‘Merkel’s stab in the dark’, Sunday Times, May 23, 2010; http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/economics/article7133865.ece)
In the Financial Times, chief political commentator Philip Stephens was candid enough to warn of “austerity” and even a “ferocious fiscal squeeze” that “will bear down more heavily on those lower down the income scale.” (Philip Stephens, ‘Say goodbye to the politics of golly-gosh’, Financial Times, Published: May 24 2010 22:24 | Last updated: May 24 2010 22:59; http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/db0a01f8-6764-11df-a932-00144feab49a.html). But he took at face value political claims of moves towards “repairing the public finances”, a key propaganda message throughout the corporate media.
In reality, politicians have misappropriated public money to prop up a corrupt and inherently unstable financial system. As George Monbiot reported last September, the most recent figures available from the Office for National Statistics showed that the government’s interventions in the financial markets had already added £141 billion to public sector net debt. (George Monbiot, ‘One financial meltdown is, it seems, just not enough for Gordon Brown’, guardian.co.uk, September 7, 2009; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/07/financial-meltdown-gordon-brown-g20)
Stephens then made the absurd claim that “Mr Cameron has turned his party’s failure to win the election to the nation’s advantage.” The coalition government “looks as sensible and stable as most people could have hoped”. Cameron, we were told, was heroically “wrenching the Tories on to the centre ground.” The centre ground, presumably, is the very same “level playing field” promoted by the previous New Labour administration that saw corporate interests and financial elites prosper at the expense of almost everyone else; along with inflicting irreparable damage on ecosystems, species and climate stability. Policies enacted on this “centre ground” are supposedly “to the nation’s advantage”.
Meanwhile, the famously “impartial” BBC is relaying news that the Office for Budget Responsibility, the new UK fiscal watchdog, predicts a lower growth rate for the economy in 2011 than had been estimated in Labour’s last Budget:
“The lower figure will likely increase the impetus of the coalition government to cut public spending, as lower growth means fewer tax revenues.” (BBC news online, ‘Fiscal watchdog downgrades UK growth forecast’, 14 June 2010 16:48 UK; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/10305906.stm)
The warning is being delivered ahead of Chancellor George Osborne’s “emergency budget” next Tuesday in which he has “pledged to cut public spending to reduce the deficit”. In her “Stephanomics” blog, the BBC’s economics editor Stephanie Flanders stayed on-message, pontificating with gravitas on percentage points, central forecasts, structural borrowing, trend growth and spare capacity. (BBC News blogs, ‘OBR UK growth forecast downgraded’, 14 June, 2011; http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/stephanieflanders/). The approach is technocratic, and seemingly blind to the very real suffering imposed by a crushing system of economics that rewards a small minority.
These are but samples of media coverage on the economic crisis. The dominant theme is that, although markets are “uncertain” and thus “tough” economic decisions lie ahead, the system itself can and will be stabilised; always with the presumption of such measures being for the benefit of all. By contrast, those analysts who point to the systemic instability of capitalism, and the fundamental inequalities of corporate globalisation, constantly struggle to get their views across to the public.
Beyond Corporate Propaganda
In his latest excellent book, ‘Beyond the Profits System’, the British economist Harry Shutt observes that one of the most striking features of the financial crisis has been:
“… the uniformly superficial nature of the analysis of its causes presented by mainstream observers, whether government officials, academics or business representatives. Thus it is commonly stated that the crisis was caused by a combination of imprudent investment by bankers and others [...] and unduly lax official regulation and supervision of markets. Yet the obvious question begged by such explanations – of how or why such a dysfunctional climate came to be created – is never addressed in any serious fashion.”
“The inescapable conclusion [...] is that the crisis was the product of a conscious process of facilitating ever greater risk of massive systemic failure.” (Harry Shutt, ‘Beyond the Profits System: Possibilities for a Post-Capitalist Era’, Zed Books, London, 2010, p.6)
In several books and articles, David Harvey, a social theorist at the City University of New York, has cogently written of how capitalism has shaped western society, risking and even destroying nations, populations and ecosystems. Not only are periodic episodes of “meltdown” inevitable, but they are crucial to capitalism’s very survival. The essence of capitalism is self-interest; and any talk of reforming it through regulation or by imposing morality – a kinder, gentler capitalism – is both irrational and deceitful.
The bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008 triggered the latest crisis of capitalism. Drastic action was required to save the system. And so, observes Harvey, a few US Treasury officials and bankers including the Treasury Secretary himself, a past president of Goldman Sachs and the present Chief Executive of Goldman, “emerged from a conference room with a three-page document demanding a $700 billion bail-out of the banking system while threatening Armageddon in the markets.”
“It seemed like Wall Street had launched a financial coup against the government and the people of the United States. A few weeks later, with caveats here and there and a lot of rhetoric, Congress and then President George Bush caved in and the money was sent flooding off, without any controls whatsoever, to all those financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’.” (David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism’, Profile Books, London, 2010, p. 5)
Shutt translates “too big to fail”, that over-used defence employed by capitalists and their cheerleaders, as meaning that a tiny super-wealthy clique recognised that they risked losing vast fortunes if the markets were allowed to take their course free of intervention from the state. Wholesale nationalisation of insolvent banks would have posed an existential threat to elite power; or even led to the collapse of the capitalist profits system in its entirety. Rather than accept such a fate, rich investors tried to ensure that their toxic assets be “largely transferred to the state, thereby adding unimaginable sums – officially estimated at $18 trillion world-wide – to already excessive public debt.” (Shutt, op. cit., p. 36)
As ever, the public were made to pay the price for private greed. In simple terms: it’s socialism for the rich, and capitalism for the rest of us.
Time To Grow Up. We’re Not Students Anymore
On May 24, we wrote to David Smith, economics editor of the Sunday Times, and lead author of the gung-ho-capitalist article highlighted at the beginning of this alert:
“Thanks for your articles in the Sunday Times; but your perspective is too limited, too skewed. For instance, why give such prominence to the views of Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs – a major architect of the recent financial collapse? How about taking on board some of the arguments made by, for example, David Harvey in ‘The Enigma of Capital’?
“1. The endemic problems of instability arising from financialisation, leveraging and surplus liquidity.
“2. Repeating systemic cycles of crises.
“3. Capitalism feeding off wars and conflict.
“4. Inevitable victims: billions of the world’s population, ecosystems and climate stability.
“Food for thought, and newspaper columns aplenty?” (Email, David Cromwell to David Smith, May 24, 2010)
Two days later, Smith wrote back, adroitly dodging the question:
“Jim O’Neill is a good economist, irrespective of whether you like the company he keeps. David Harvey is not alone in seeing periodic crises for capitalism. So do the Austrian School or any number of economists brought up in the Keynesian tradition. What was interesting, to me, was Harvey’s rather despairing conclusion, which appeared to be a tribute to capitalism’s great resilience. He wrote:
“‘Capitalism will never fall on its own. It will have to be pushed. The accumulation of capital will never cease. It will have to be stopped. The capitalist class will never willingly surrender its power. It will have to be dispossessed.’” (David Smith, email, May 28, 2010)
But David Harvey is surely right. We might even recast the observation to make the same point about journalists in the profit-led media:
“The journalists of capitalism will never tell the truth on their own. They will have to be pushed.”
And although the Sunday Times journalist’s point about the resilience of capitalism is accurate, it is a red herring. We wrote back:
“But you’ve evaded my central question – why do you rarely, if ever, address the issues I put to you?”
His response was a lofty dismissal:
“Most of us get these things out of our system when we are students.” (David Smith, email, May 28, 2010)
And so when students graduate, they are supposedly mature enough to ignore capitalism’s victims and to be content with an appallingly unjust system of destruction and exploitation! This is the cold, heartless logic that seeps out from the symbiosis of capitalism and corporate journalism.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
David Smith, Sunday Times economics editor
Philip Stephens, Financial Times chief political commentator
Stephanie Flanders, BBC economics editor
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January 4, 2010
The BBC has reported that:
Persistent absence from school is five times higher in England’s poorest areas than in the richest, government figures show.
Some 50,000 children in the poorest neighbourhoods are absent one day a week on average, according to an analysis by the Conservatives.
The figures show 6.1% of children in the most deprived 10% of areas were persistently absent, compared with 1.2% at the other end of the spectrum.
The simple truth is that many kids from poorer areas don’t feel that school is there to benefit them personally. This is hardly surprising when we still have a situation where – as eight Italian boys from The School of Barbiana wrote in their book, Letter To A Teacher – “school is a war against the poor“. This book still remains relevant, perhaps even more so, to anyone who wants to understand the alienating effects our educational institutions have on poor working class kids. It really is a ‘must read’ for any parent.
Our education system has not developed greatly since it’s conception, and it remains glaringly obvious that it was conceived in unison with the our factory and prison systems. As they stand, our educational institutions are great for business, but are immensely damaging to human liberty. The main purpose of these institutions is to create high levels of conformity and uniformity and even the ‘succesful’ student is damaged by this. Meritocracy has more to do with creating parrots than fulfilling human potential.
Ivan Illich has made perhaps the best argument against compulsory meritocracy in the following (wordy, but highly recommended) lecture…
The Educational enterprise in the Light of the Gospel
Ivan Illich Chicago Nov 13th 1988
The spectacles of Holy Writ
David Ramage. I am your guest and I thank you for your hospitality. For this one evening you have, once again, appointed me to speak in a chapel, in downtown Chicago, with my back to the crux nuda, Calvin’s naked cross.
Last year I spoke here on the transmogrification of hospitality into hospitalization. This year you asked me to speak about schools. “Prompt and sincerely,” I “take my heart into my hand” and speak on the transformation of the old ideal of trusting obedience into institutionalized education.
I want to speak about education, conscious that I do so in a Chapel in the midst of Chicago’s Loop rather than in a University aula. I want to look at the present educational system through the spectacles of Holy Writ [ICR 1,14,1] rather than from the viewpoint of sociology, anthropology, economics or philosophy. in this experiential perspective which is part of the disciplina crucis [ICR 3,18,4) “we are not our own, but God’s” [ICR 3,7,1), and can thus recognize the present school system as one manifestation of a mystery of evil.
Education in the perspective of the dropout:
In the privileged perspective which comes natural to the reader of the Gospel Story, the socalled crisis in the Chicago Public school System does not appear as a local problem, but as a very clear indication of a worldwide phenomenon: societies which continue their commitment to, compulsory, universal schooling insists on a frustrating and ever more insidious enterprise of multiplying dropouts and cripples. From the point of view which I take, faith in schooling can no longer be innocent.
Half of all the children who enter Chicago’s public school system drop out before they can graduate from high school. Worldwide, three quarters of all children who register in first grade never reach the grade that the law of their country defines as a minimum. The institution held up as sacred creates and legitimates a world where the great majority is stigmatized as a dropout while only the minority graduate from those institutions which certify them as belonging to a superrace which has the duty to govern.
This insidious function of schooling has been obvious for a couple of decades. Periodically it attracts attention, as currently in Illinois. But it is consistently discussed from the point of view of the dogcatchers, be they schoolboards, PTAs or departments of education, and not from the point of view of those who left. This is so, in spite of the fact that many a student whom his wouldbe caretakers defined as a dropout, has long ago redefined himself as a successful avoider of a crippling and useless educational career.
This new self consciousness of the truant fits into an emerging cultural pattern in modern states in the late eighties. In poor countries modernized governments have recently suffered a catastrophic cavein of legitimacy for a very simple reason: the poor majorities have understood faster and clearer than the government’s experts that the development goals in terms of health, education, sanitation, transportation or housing have been stupidly defined, and cannot become benefits for the majority. Two-thirds of all voters in Mexico just voted for a candidate from whom they expect no help whatsoever, but whose dignity they admire. In the US more and more people discover that the freedom to drop out from any of our modern systems is sacred to them. More than half the citizens of the world’s proudest democracy did not find it worth while to vote in this week’s elections. Living wills to escape from the control by physicians and bioethicists have become standard procedure. More and more Americans consider it reasonable and virtuous to evade being diagnosed, cured, educated, socialized, informed, entertained, housed, counseled, certified, promoted, or protected according to the needs imputed to them by their professional guardians. The successful avoidance of clientage to disabling professions becomes a major aspect of the American ethos.
I want to call your attention to the experience of successful avoidance of imputed needs and their professional management. This ethos of avoidance is founded in the American ideal of the selfmade man. It consists in the enjoyment of the liberty to refuse compliance, to drop out and forego one’s rightful share of costly service. I choose this neglected subject because I believe that the poor deserve special consideration when they act in this way.
The great majority of all Chicago children who leave school before they graduate are Black or Hispanic, and slumbred. By the time they drop out they have been badly mangled in soul and body. Understandably they refuse further care after intensive remedial programs have forced them to acknowledge their incompetence to succeed within the system and to make it into society at large by those routes which their teachers approve of. For the rest of their lives a school record will dog them relentlessly. But these dropouts, in another way are also privileged: In school they have learned to fake almost anything, and to see the school system for what it really is: a worldwide soulshredder that junks the majority and hardens an elite to govern it. They recognize the schoolsystem as an evil, no matter how good or evil, effective or pleasant some schools might be for their pupils, and all schools, occasionally, for some kids. The reflective dropout learns to laugh about the pious platitudes praising modern education, when the enterprise which organizes it is by its very nature an instrument which compounds their truancy with psychological, social and economic discriminations.
American pluralism has a beautiful but limited tradition. Its enormous variety of educational, medical and ecclesial systems witness to it. But this pluralism has limits. Only in the domain of religion is the constitutional protection of the nonchurched atheist taken seriously. This society is gravely threatened unless we recognize without envy sublimated into grudge that dropouts of any description might be closer to Huck Finn than the church or the schoolgoers. I will now first explain why I want to speak about the dropout in the context of Christian salvation and then why, at this time in history, the school-dropout has even worldly wisdom on his side. I want to motivate Christians, who can claim a privileged understanding of evil to become leaders on behalf of the civil liberties of the Chicago dropout.
Last Saturday I arrived in Chicago by night coach at 3 AM. During the day I got my library card, a desk at McCormack and a box of granola and by evening was in a state of exhaustion. The friend with whom I had dinner suggested that I accompany him to a weekly book discussion. I resisted until he told me that the book under discussion was Schindler’s List.
The author of this remarkable book is Thomas Keneally, an Australian police reporter. It was first published in London in 1982 as a novel and given the title Schindler’s Arc. Simon and Schuster brought out the same book in New York as nonfiction and gave it a new title: Schindler’s List. The book tells the story of 1700 people who survived Hitler’s War and refer to themselves as “Schindler’s Jews.” Thirty years after the events, a few dozens of these people gave interviews to the Australian. From their stories he pieced together the figure of a barely credible man, the one man who had saved them all, a certain Oskar Schindler. Schindler had been born into the GermanCatholic minority Czechoslovakia, the so-called Sudeten Germans. They were generally known for their intense support of Hitler’s expansionism. With some money in his pocket, this Schindler came to Cracow in the wake the German army. In this Polish town he quickly set up a factory, and staffed it with the slave labor that was assigned to him by the SS. Schindler began to make quite a bit of money. As he prospered, all around him the machinery for the mass exterminations was prepared and set in motion.
At this point Schindler became the protector of the Jews that had been parked with him as laborers while the ovens were being built for their disposal. He began to watch over his Jewish chattel with a zeal which went far beyond any economic rationality. In the midst of informers, propaganda, police terror, and Naziparty meetings he acted as the cavalier keeper of his productive prisoners. He used uncanny wit, bundles of money, jovial charm, liquor, juicy blondes, and blackmail to bribe, bend, and intimidate the armed bureaucrats: his Jews were the only contingent whose working papers were constantly renewed, whose “selection” to the death camps were constantly rescinded. He took mad risks in the face of hunters for spies or disloyals where Aryan sympathizers of Jews or Poles were even more cruelly persecuted than Semites. And he was not satisfied with saving the men. He even ventured to rescue their women. By bluffing SSmen he had the women returned from Auschwitz and placed under his protection.
The man who did all this was, as we say, no saint. In the midst of hunger and murder and typhoid fever around him, he lived it up. Every one of his Jews remembers his partying and wenching. When Schindler saw that the Russian army was coming, and that his “list” – his assigned contingent of Jews – was threatened by the Soviets and not only by the Nazis, he resettled his factory further back in his native Sudetenland. Up to the last moment this playboy proprietor of a prison camp bought blackmarket food to feed slaves and kept the SS at bay. All that is certain.
By the time Keneally pieced together this story, Schindler was long dead. He had lived with a Jewish woman, failed in a couple of small business ventures in post-war Europe and went broke on a farm in South America. The genius of high-level risks did not seem to fit the prosaic demands of peacetime.The book is written as a series of understatements. It is full of dates and faces and clearly etched circumstances that have been preserved in the memory of the survivors. Keneally tells them in a dry voice: trivia come next to gratuitous cruelty, pitiable sentimental moments are narrated by the same policereporter who tells about incidents of unexplainable courage. This is how his informants lived these daily anxieties, and how they tell them forty years later – something taken for granted, something they remember, without getting upset or excited.
This is what gives its power and makes it pertinent to what I want to discuss. Each detail is clear, each event believable, each circumstance imaginable for the reader. Not only a crust shared among people who are desperately hungry, but also the sadistic deceptions to heighten the anguish of victims in a cattle car on the way to the selection ramp. Not only the triviality of bureaucratic evil, but Schindler’s playful daring. Believable details, however, are not enough to make sense. All these remembrances remain like the stones of a mosaic when seen close up. They do not coalesce to form an intelligible picture. The outline and shape of the holocaust remain more opaque than ever. And so does the personality of the Savior (the rescuer?) who whores and corrupts the SS while risking his skin for his workers.
This then was the book which was under discussion in an elegant suburban Jewish home. I sat in an armchair in the drawing room struggled against sleep, and listened to people, none of whom had been in Europe at that time. Why did Schindler do what he did? What gave him the stamina? The motivation? Did he act out of moral outrage? Or did he enjoy the gamble, deriving immense pleasure by outwitting the bureaucratic monster? Had this little German somehow fallen in love with Jewishness? Or, rather, was it guilt that drove him?
All these hypotheses were discussed while I teetered on the divide between reason and dream. And, I had come to Chicago to speak about schools, not camps. My theme was educational crippling, not Nazi murder. But I found myself unable to distinguish between Oskar Schindler in his factory in Crakow and Doc Thomas McDonald in Chicago’s Goudy Elementary, where he is the principal. I know Doc as indirectly as Shindler, I know him only from the Chicago Tribune, but I cannot forget him. And for some weeks now I have asked myself: Why does he stay on the job? What gives him the courage?
The hostess turned to me, not noticing that I was drifting of f, and I betrayed myself. I should have said “camps”; instead I said “schools.” I hope nobody noticed. I mumbled something, got up, excused myself went home, and fell asleep with the clippings from the Tribune.
MacDonald You surely know the series to which I refer. It appeared in the Trib early this summer reporting on the state of the public schools. By conventional standards they may be the nation’s worst. Certainly, children who attend them are placed at a greater risk to body and soul than children of any school district in Brussels or Bombay, Kiev or Mexico. Paradoxically slum schools in Chicago are many times more expensive and, yet, more destructive than their foreign counterparts.
I have shown these articles to foreign colleagues. Most recognized the high quality of the reporters’ work, and most were as bewildered as the readers of Schindler’s List. You really must be a tired, beat down inner city resident of Chicago or Detroit or NY to live with the fact that these schools are taken for granted by millions of people as a daily, trivial reality. What use to raise one’s voice? Each separate item is believable: rape and crack brooms flying through the classroom and spies in the toilets and terroristic counseling and sodabottles as the principal equipment in the physics lab. But, unless you have experienced them, lived in them, these details do not come together to form the frame for an imaginable human condition. The obsession of our society which forces slum children to attend slum schools is a senseless cruelty which, together with the heroism of a very few marvelous teachers exceeds the psychic amplitude of my colleagues.
Let me read the passage from the Trib which had intruded upon my daydream in the drawing room last Saturday: (I quote) “Principal McDonald reaches up to smooth a shock of white hair that has spilled onto his forehead. He notices the smudge of blood on his hand. Then he lunges, eyes flashing. ‘Give me that pipe!’ Circling him in the secondfloor hallway are two preteen students, Arnary Bibs, who is armed with a long, unraveled piece of cardboard tubing, and Morris Elliston, who is swinging a stubby piece of copper pipe… ‘Shut up,’ says Maurice… McDonald grabs the pipe.”
By confessing to my daydream, I know that I cannot but call for rebuttal. I know what I do. In a sense there is no way of comparing the class of historical events that go under the name of Hiroshima, Pol Pot Cambodia, Armenian Massacre, Nazi Holocaust, ABCstocks, or human geneline engineering on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the treatment meted out to people in our schoolrooms, hospital wards, slums, or welfare. But, in another sense, both kinds of horrors are manifestations of the same epochal spirit . We need the courage and the discipline of heart and mind to let these two classes of phenomena interpret each other. Consequences that are implicit in the ideology of the industrial mode of existence, and which by now are taken for granted, were simply not tolerated in 1940 except under the Nazi regime. The use of modern science and technology for the purpose of separating people into masters and slaves was then impossible except under the flags of Hitler or Hirohito. Under a different name this separation is now considered as an inevitable outcome of an educational system, which is part and parcel of the only social reality my contemporaries are able to conceive, which compounds majority status with the sense of failure. One thing which makes the Schindlers of the world alike is this: they expect nothing from an evil system in which they have made their career but the chance to make its total victims feel that they can beat it.
Mc Donald runs a “gravity school,” a sink for the school system’s dredges and wastes. He takes anything that walks in and assigns it to disciplinarians, psychowards. To “let Maurice jab the copper pipe at his behind” is part of the “endurance test” to which he exposes himself in his struggle for these kids. In the Trib articles McDonald came through to me as a distant relative of Schindler. But here as there, when you move away from the mosaic fragments, the personality just does not come together. You cannot but ask about the Chicago principal the very same questions my hosts had asked about the Nazi industrialist. Is it compassion that keeps him on the job? A cynical sense of duty? A dare-devil? A dragon fighter who takes on the Schoolboard instead of the Wehrmacht? Or is he driven by Oedipal guilt?
Behavior in extremis:
In relation to persons in extreme situations I believe that this kind of questioning is beside the point, indiscreet and useless. They have smelled out the radical evil of power, and by facing it, they have ceased to be understandable by ordinary standards. An attitude that in the forties was exceptional and fostered by Nazism, has now become an ordinary calling for the decent man.
Human experience and behavior in extremis has been studied by Robert Jay Lifton. He first looked at survivors in Hiroshima and discovered something, which for lack of a better word, he called “survivor’s guilt.” He recognized that the Hibakusha, the people who have gone through hell on earth, could never again recognize the innocence of the human condition. After the Hibakusha Lifton studied another group of survivors: physicians who had been in charge of experiments and executions in Auschwitz. What he found striking about several dozen of these men, whom he interviewed three decades after the facts, was the opposite. These people were practically indistinguishable from other physicians practicing in the later seventies. During the war they had been engaged as bureaucrats with special science related competence and from nine to five had engaged in mass murder. They had trained orderlies to inject the poison into the appropriate ventricle of the heart, and certified the death from asphyxiation of one load after another in the ovens. And after hours, even during the war, they had been tender fathers and devoted husbands. By accepting power within the Nazi machine, they had acquired the ability to “double.” I hear that Lifton is now studying the same doublingability which American surgeons acquire by accepting power in the hospital system. From nine to five they engage in exquisitely professional torture, and after hours they lead peacemarches. Both victimization by power and its exercise determine a kind of behavior that is not this-worldly. Most of the time, this unfathomable behavior in extremis has been studied when it is destructive. The opposite kind of behavior in extremis is just as unfathomable, and usually much more hidden. Under the name of heroic sanctity it has been studied by ascetical theology before this discipline went psychoanalytic. Only in the mirror of sanctity it is possible to grasp the mystery of evil. One could go on forever to discuss the systemic destructiveness of industrial age service systems: as Hannah Arendt has well understood, bureaucrats only manifest the trivial aspect of their evil. To understand that this evil is nontrivial, deeply human and demonic, you must look at it in the mirror of its “Schindlers.”
For me, Schindlers and McDonalds and their brand of anarchists have something about them that makes them “Christlike.” More than any of them, Jesus was an anarchist savior. That’s what the Gospels tell us.
Just before He started out on His public life, Jesus went to the desert. He fasted, and after 40 days he was hungry. At this point the diabolos, appeared to tempt Him. First he asked Him to turn stone into bread, then to prove himself in a magic flight, and finally the devil, diabolos, “divider,” offered Him power. Listen carefully to the words of this last of the three temptations: (Luke 4,6:) “I give you all power and glory, because I have received them and I give them to those whom I choose. Adore me and the power will be yours.” It is astonishing what the devil says: I have all power, it has been given to me, and I am the one to hand it on – submit, and it is yours. Jesus of course does not submit, and sends the devilcumpower to Hell. Not for a moment, however, does Jesus contradict the devil. He does not question that the devil holds all power, nor that this power has been given to him, nor that he, the devil, gives it to whom he pleases. This is a point which is easily overlooked. By his silence Jesus recognizes power that is established as “devil” and defines Himself as The Powerless. He who cannot accept this view on power cannot look at establishments through the spectacle of the Gospel. This is what clergy and churches often have difficulty doing. They are so strongly motivated by the image of church as a “helping institution” that they are constantly motivated to hold power, share in it or, at least, influence it.
Churches also have their problems with a Jesus whose only economics are jokes. A savior undermines the foundations of any social doctrine of the Church. But that is what He does, whenever He is faced with money matters. According to Mark 12:13 there was a group of Herodians who wanted to catch Him in His own words. They ask “Must we pay tribute to Caesar?” You know His answer: “Give me a coin – tell me whose profile is on it!.” Of course they answer “Caesar’s.”
The drachma is a weight of silver marked with Caesar’s effigy.
A Roman coin was no impersonal silver dollar; there was none of that “trust in God” or adornment with a presidential portrait. A denarius was a piece of precious metal branded, as it were, like a heifer, with the sign of the personal owner. Not the Treasury, but Caesar coins and owns the currency. Only if this characteristic of Roman currency is understood, one grasps the analogy between the answer to the devil who tempted Him with power and to the Herodians who tempt Him with money. His response is clear: abandon all that which has been branded by Caesar; but then, enjoy the knowledge that everything, everything else is God’s, and therefore is to be used by you.
The message is so simple: Jesus jokes about Caesar. He shrugs off his control. And not only at that one instance… Remember the occasion at the Lake of Capharnaum, when Peter is asked to pay a twopenny tax. Jesus sends him to throw a line into the lake and pick the coin he needs from the mouth of the first fish that bites. Oriental stories up to the time of Thousand Nights and One Night are full of beggars who catch the fish that has swallowed a piece of gold. His gesture is that of a clown; it shows that this miracle is not meant to prove him omnipotent but indifferent to matters of money. Who wants power submits to the Devil and who wants denarri submits to the Caesar.
This dropout from power and money is also a conscientious objector to force. Yet, just as he wants to be counted among the weak and the poor he also wants to be marginal, and be counted among the criminal. Listen to this. He spends his last night in a garden, on the mountain of olives. On the way he says to the company, “Now, let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one… And they said, look Lord, here are two swords. And He said to them: It is enough” That is what Luke (22:37) tells us. For decades I have puzzled over this passage. Why did Jesus want armed company? Then Jaques Ellul in a recent book that I am reading called my attention to the context, the following statement: “…so that the prophecy be fulfilled, and I be counted among the bandits.” That explains it: two swords are not enough to defend a small troupe of rabbis and are certainly insufficient to organize an uprising. But they are more than enough to brand you as an outlaw.
When, during the same night, the templeguards come to arrest him, Peter draws the sword, bungles the thrust, and cuts off the ear of a certain Malchus. Jesus glues it back and reprimands Peter. Not for missing but for attacking. He wants to submit to the Roman court, not because He recognizes its jurisdiction, but to show up the injustice of the best law courts of the time. Paul understood this. The established order of power is evil not because it is bad, but because it is a spiritual, demonic establishment in this world. The Kingdom of God is its opposite. Christ Jesus triumphs over the establishment, and does so by no half measures; his victory is achieved by submitting to the death on the cross.
This is the story that anyone can piece together from the Gospel. Its details are clean and unforgettable. Its essential outline is imitable, that is what the lives of the saints are about. But the person of Christ never comes together. Salvation is not offered through the power of his doctrine, but through trust in his person.
Modern English has lost the word for this kind of trust. The biblical word for it is obedience. Obedience in the biblical sense means unobstructed listening, unconditional readiness to hear, untrammeled disposition to be surprised. It has nothing to do with what we call obedience today, something that always implies submission, and ever so faintly connotes the relationship between ourselves and our dogs. When I submit my heart, my mind, my body come to be below the other. When I listen unconditionally, respectfully, courageously with the readiness to take in the other as a radical surprise, I do something else. I bow, bend over towards the total otherness of someone. But I renounce searching for bridges between the other and me, recognizing that a gulf separates us. Leaning into this chasm makes me aware of the depth of my loneliness, and able to bear it in the light of the substantial likeness between the other and myself. All that reaches me is the other in his word, which I accept on faith. But, by the strength of this word I now can trust myself to walk on the surface, without being engulfed by institutional power. You certainly remember how Peter, just walked out on the waves of the Lake of Genesareth on the Word of his Lord. As soon as he doubted, he began to go under.
This kind of obedience is the substance of the Gospel – the institutional power to teach is its counterfoil. Obedience is a loving response to an embodiment of a loving word. What we today call educational “systems” are the embodiment of the enemy, of power. The rejection of power, in Greek the an-archy, of Jesus troubles the world of power, because he totally submits to it without ever being part of it. Even his submission is one of love. This is a new kind of relationship, which Paul has well explained in Romans chapter 12. The new law demands love, even the love of our enemies, whom we love without being overcome by evil. We overcome evil by our love to the point of subjecting ourselves to the utmost of evils, namely authorities. This is the context in which Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Jesus has given the example for all times by submitting to Herod, Annas, Kaiphas, Pilate. Paul’s sentence is constantly used to seduce Christians in the name of the Bible to integrate into systems. In fact, it says that submission to authorities is the supreme form of the “love of enemies” through which Jesus became our Savior.
David Ramage.You have asked me to adress this assembly on Education as a Challenge. So I chose to say something about the educational system to understand what occurs in Chicago Schools. You asked me to speak about this subset in a chapel. So I try to look as Paul would have done. This view reveals the worldwide educational system as an excuse. An excuse for Paul is one of those powers that owe its existence and triumph to spiritual, demonic forces. You asked me to speak about this system as a challenge. Since its bad management, financing, organization, staffing and results are presently widely publicized, the Chicago School System is seen as a challenge by those who want to improve it. This is the challenge perceived by PTAs, teachers unions, bureaucrats and a large number of people with radically innovative educational ideas. It is however not the challenge which I wanted to address. I wanted to call your attention to the challenge which this system presents for those who recognize the very educational enterprise, as currently conceived, as an established evil.
For those among us who believe the Gospel message, this stance is a straight consequence of obedience. We recognize that the educational system is the outgrowth of an ideology, according to which God’s sons and daughters are born constitutionally defective in such a way that a bureaucratic agency must be established which is empowered to mediate between them and the reality which they are to live. We know that this enterprise constitutes the establishment of spiritual power, in front of which our obedience demands that we act as refusniks, to use the technical term coined by Ramage.
We know that each one of us, by his pursuit of personal powerlessness, poverty and marginality is called to invite young people to divest themselves from belief and entrenchment in this morass. But there are many more people inside and outside the Churches, who do not read the Gospel as I just did. They have not heard the voice of an anarchist Christ, do not feel called to obey him. They are inspired by Christ the sublime moralist, the great lover, the humble servant, the revolutionary who could not but end up on the Cross. For them, Jesus refuses to negotiate with the devil, whom he exposes as the father of lies. Jesus pays his taxes to Caesar to stress the separation of powers between State and Church. Jesus, by his example, shows his apostles that in a just cause weapons are needed, and that two might be enough. But even among these people, who do not look at the educational system with the eyes of the anarchist who recognizes the mystery of evil, but with the eyes of the worldly wise, there is an increasing number who now reject schools, or even the educational enterprise as such. These new critics have lost faith in the identification of man as homo of the species educandus.
When I speak of new critics I am not referring here to the gripers and busybodies that clog PTAs. Nor am I concerned with the pious reformers who valiantly tinker with curricula, teachers’ salaries, parent involvement, teaching methods, or educational research. And finally I am not speaking of the much more radical critics who organize free schools, education by TV and computers, home-education, or the new supermarkets that offer courses in everything from cactus growing to effective dating. These people, as different as they are, are and remain fundamentally, believers in homo educandus and heroes who sacrifice themselves at the altar on which they have enshrined this illusion about “children” – be these their own or those of others. They believe that “learning” happens in a sphere of existence that can be managed apart from the rest of existence.
This last type of people are true refusniks, for reasons which are as different as the personal experience of a Black Hispanic with his English teacher, and the insight to which a historian of mothertongues has been led after many years of study. What makes them allies is their ability radically to question the educational enterprise and not just its methods, theories or organizational forms. They question the established view of human nature as that of homo educandus rather than the techniques by which the educational needs imputed to them are being satisfied. The learned among these refusniks recognize the history of education as the history of a new way to salvation, which was proposed by John Amos Comenius, and other reformers – be they Protestant or Jesuit – during the late 16th century. According to this new idea about the nature of man everyone must be taught everything that is important for him in the course of his life. Man – well before the Enlightenment – was redefined by his new pedagogical caretakers as a being that which, after birth by his own mother, must be reborn through the agency of “Alma” Mater, a new “holy” mother, the School. During the next couple of centuries the new path to salvation became first a road for the privileged and then an unavoidable superhighway paved tightly with good intentions. All learning came to be perceived as a curriculum, a course or run. Learning henceforth was seen as an outcome of teaching by professional teachers, parents, or the milieu. By the 19th century a person who knew something for which no agent could be identified was defined by the American masturbatory fantasy as a “selftaught.” Close by, this story of the educational enterprise looks like the development of our current systems. But if the same story were told to a Brahmin or a bonze or one of my 12th century abbots, they would want to know how it was possible that in western Europe, and nowhere else, such a unique view of man and his relationship to society could have come into being. The story would have to be told as the secularization of the Church. That incomparable something, which we take for granted as the school system, cannot be understood unless it is seen as the perverse ecumenical byproduct of reformationtime Christian squabbling.
“Education” as an institution assumes that each one is born as an individual into a contractual society that must be understood before it is lived. According to this construct no one can become part of this kind of society except through some grace provided to him under the guise of education. This education is something for which he must work. But this education is also something that he cannot get except through the mediation of an agency: School, for homo educandus, is analogous to Church for the Christian. According to this reformed view of human nature, salvation still comes through the book, though that book is no more just a bible. The new book must be read in a new bookish way, and this kind of reading calls for long ceremonies that are performed in the classrooms.
To operate this new church a new clergy of teachers came into existence that feeds on the new needs defined by the new view on human nature. The new power of the new clergy required a justification. It was based on the dogma that proclaims bookish literacy as something that is necessary for salvation. The three R‘s remained a sufficient legitimization of compulsory schooling until the time of my grandparents. Then, in the course of this, our century, a new reason for universal and compulsory education was discovered. School was recognized as a necessary for work. Democratic socialization, bookish culture, and manpower training came to be compounded as rationale for the existence of the, by now, transnational church. Historians who study education usually tell us what teachers did then, and later and what they were credited to be doing. The result is a historiography that assumes that education knows no beginning and therefore will never end. Ordinary educational history castrates the dropout: it brands him as a deficient human
being, who through his own fault or that of society, lacks something that all human beings have always needed: instruction.
To transform the dropout into a proud refusnik the inverse approach to the history of education must be taken. To see more clearly, we would have to focus not on the histories of the educational clergy, its dogmas, and its liturgies but on the history of that particular way of life which takes for granted the existence of an educational system. As soon we thus shift our attention from the bureaucratic agency to the way of life within which this agency exists the past acquires a completely different character. The extraordinary novelty of our current mental dependence on the existence of “education” comes into view. The dropout discovers the privilege, the privilege of the outsider, who has effectively done away with a social reality which ordinary citizens as well as their professional guardians cannot imagine wishing away. The first step in the liberation of the dropout is the insight that he is in the majority both among contemporaries and among the dead.
When asked to remember the past people my age quickly become aware how unschooled the great majorities were at the beginning of this century, not just in Mexico but even in then highly industrialized countries. No one in his or her right mind could then have shed crocodile tears about a majority of Chicago poor children not getting a high school diploma. A small anecdote will stress this point. Twenty years ago, when I wrote the essays that were gathered in Deschooling Society I learned with surprise that the New York Sanitation Department was discriminating against trashcollectors without a high school diploma. I used this information to argue that the democratic machine used degrees to exclude Puerto Ricans from well paying jobs. When my book was translated into German, my editor, without consultation, just took out this sentence. When I complained, he justified himself. According to him, every normal German reader would have blamed me for inventing an impossible allegation. Things have changed. Just last month my 18 year old godson was refused the job of a driver in the sanitation department of a Mexican (and not an American or German!) provincial town on the grounds that he lacked a high school diploma.
Driving a sanitation truck has obviously no relationship to twelve years of class attendance. Vincente, my godson, knows this. He knows perfectly well that most people his age in Mexico will not spend their lifetime as regular employees. He knows this without having to listen to the director general of the World Labor Organization who declared that belief in the possibility of a future of full employment – in rich countries or in poor countries – was no more an excusable illusion, but a most objectionable creation of false expectations. The epoch of the identification of work with employment, and of employment with the expectation of secure salaries has come to an end. The idea according to which each one ought to earn a salary and live within the means that his income provides came into existence a century and a half ago. The dropout is in an exceptionally favorable position to recognize that by 1988 it is foolish. When pressed, economists still say that the salarysystem is needed because there is no more efficient way to legitimize the unequal distribution of society’s wealth. The dropout turns into a rational refusnik when, in spite of his teachers, he recognizes this simple fact: schools have lost their claim to be needed for man-power qualification. For the minority whom they privilege, learning would have happened better on the job, and required less nettransfers of public wealth to the climber. And for the majority certificates, at best are weak stakes in a joblottery. The job market is disappearing.
When I try to get teachers to look at their turf from the outside, I never attempt to discuss history. Typical teachers firmly believe that even cats educate kittens, and that parents “teach” their children to walk. But I sometimes succeed to make even teachers understand that, by now, schools socialize the majority into the acceptance of inferiority and that, by now, schooling provides few competencies that, a twenty years hence, their pupils will be grateful to have received. However on one point most teachers are adamant, no matter how I try: school systems, for them are a necessary condition to create a literate populace. I am told that the sole purpose of making society literate justifies all the nonsense and evil and damage wreaked by the system. The fewer nontextbooks my pedagogical interlocutor has read in the course of the last ten years, the more firmly he or she will fantasize on the teacher’s bookish mission. With very few exceptions, on this point children are under no illusion. If they have become bookish, they have done it on their own. I know of no more delightful task than reading with a true dropout. And I know of no better way to turn the dropout into a refusnik who enjoys his avoidance of school that would have interfered with his time, his enthusiasm, and his freedom to read.
Viewed from the outside school classifies people, browbeats them to accept bureaucratic judgments on their own abilities, prepares them for a world that will never more be, trains their ability to fake, but above all, school has ceased to be the right place to become a bookish man. Bookish reading, which was the new spirituality of the time education was born, has become a very special vocation for the few, who need something else than schools to indulge in this leisure.
George Steiner has made this point in a short talk given to the ast International Convention of Publishers. In this talk he argues as follows: “Bookish” reading is not the only way of approaching the written word. Bookish reading depends on a combination of special circumstances, which have existed for barely 400 years and now have disappeared. To read in this classical way, the book had to be accessible at home for rereading in silence. Today few people have homes, fewer have bookcases, and 85% of American students claim they cannot study unless they have music plugged into their ears. Silent and sustained attention is constantly chewed up by programmed noises flickering through the interstices of consciousness. Book culture also demanded stable companions, something like coffee shops and other echochambers, such as periodicals for writers and readers. Above all, book culture was dependent on a canon of texts and modes. Today the book is contested by competing media. The screen dissolves the text. The picture and its caption triumph. The culture of bookishness is under attack by movies and TV, democratic, populist protest and the noise, speed, informationdensity and specialization that prevail. A school that wants to be for all and to prepare for the world that exists cannot be the appropriate framework for the few with a vocation to classical reading. Libraries, small presses, paperbacks, homemade books and laud reading among lovers are some of the many signs of a new minority culture of bookish people that is now coming into existence. Something that resembles the monastic withdrawal from the world into “house of the book” (a Jewish concept) may be considered a hopedfor direction of a welcome exodus from the schools.
For all these reasons, withdrawal from the school and detachment from the educational model of mediation ought to be welcomed as signs of social health. In the schoolbred and now almost unavoidable twotier society and a world of increasing unemployment, the option for such a withdrawal could be more readily available for those of the labeled majority than for those of the certified and busy few. But hardly anybody is seriously reflecting on the conditions which could favor this route. Educational research in the US swallows more money than biology and chemistry taken together. Yet none of it is focused on the transformation of the status of the dropout from that of an escapee who must be caught and brought back into the fold into that of the world wise, reasonable person. I do not plead for some new form of institutionalized haven. I think of niches, free spaces, squatters arrangements, spiritual tents which some of us might be capable to offer, not for “the dropout in general” but each of us for a small “list” of others who, through the experience of mutual obedience have become able to renounce integration in the “system.”
December 21, 2009
Recent official figures show, yet again, that England’s poor white teenage boys are still dropping behind in education. The BBC has reported…
Poor, white, teenage boys in England have slipped further behind other youngsters in their GCSE exams, reveals a breakdown of this year’s results.
The official figures show that fewer than one in five who qualified for free meals achieved the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and maths.
The latest statistics back up the findings of the Runnymede Trust, which were published in their report, Who Cares About the White Working Class back in January (this should be compulsory reading for anyone who does claim to care about poverty in England).
Right-wing groups argue that scarce resources are given to minority groups at the expense of the white working class, whereas the mainstream left tend to ignore the white working class altogether (unless it is to falsely condemn them as thugs and bigots). The reality is that the poor white working class are subjected to widespread institutional classism (a form of bigotry so acceptable that our spellchecker doesn’t even recognise the word).
Not only do impoverished white lads have to put up with levels of stereotyping which would chill a liberal to the core if it were directed against race, gender or disability; they also have to contend with the widest ‘aspiration gap’ imaginable. In his groundbreaking book, ‘The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone‘, Richard Wilkinson shows that the level of poverty per se is much less important than the level of inequality within a society (i.e. it is ‘relative poverty’ which does the damage). Our society is still dominated by white affluent males, which places poor white males at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to the aspiration gap. This situation won’t get any better simply by throwing money at poor white boys; what we really need to do is stop throwing money at rich ones!
July 21, 2009
A cross party report headed by former minister, Alan Milburn has illustrated the fact that the top professions are becoming increasingly closed off to all but the most affluent UK families.
Milburn argues that in the past decade the government has done much to improve results, refurbish schools and raise standards. He says the number of failing schools is falling and city academies, located in the poorest areas, are helping to improve the GCSE results of children who receive free school meals at a faster rate than those who do not. However the fact remains that the chance of children who are eligible for free school meals – roughly the poorest 15% by family income – getting good qualifications by the age of 16 is still less than a third of that of their better-off classmates.
The report makes clear that a good start in education is crucial for access to professional jobs, but they also found that more than half of all the top professional jobs were still taken by candidates who went to independent schools – just 7% of all schoolchildren!
Prats like Chis Woodhead famously think that this is down to genetics, but having met many of these high flying professionals (among others we know a creationist paediatrician and a lawyer who specialises in arguing about who’s name comes first on film credits – priceless!) we can safely say that this situation is 100% pure nepotism. In fact the level of specialisation needed to become a ‘professional’ often requires an equal and opposite level of stupefication with regard to many, if not all other disciplines; but only a truly intelligent professional will ever admit this.
For every useful professional there are dozens who’s jobs are superfluous, if not completely redundant. It’s a crazy world where lawyers and accountants receive more public money overall than doctors and teachers. Many so called professional jobs equate to little more than dole for the rich!
But we digress, the real issue highlighted by this report is the two-tier education system presently in place in the UK. With regard to this Mr Milburn has said “We have raised the glass ceiling but I don’t think we have broken through it yet.”
Never mind the ceiling, Alan, it’s the glass fucking walls that we’re worried about!
No amount of tinkering from the government – left or right – will change this situation unless fundamental material inequalities are addressed. A child’s social class background at birth is still the best indicator of how well he or she will do in school and later on in life. At the risk of sounding like Witney Houston, the children are our future, fail them and we fail, period.
A social wage that guarantees a good level of of nutrition, health and access to relevant technologies is an essential first step. Only then, with the establishment of a level playing field for all of our children, could we begin to address education itself.
Unfortunately, given a political system that favours wealth and power, the second step is even less likely than the first. Born of the same mindset that created factories and prisons our education system has as much to do with population control as it has with learning. For years it’s routines and disciplines ensured fodder for the factories of the industrial revolution. Nowadays, in our service sector society, our education system seems more concerned with creating good little consumers. The expectations of both parents and the schools in poor areas often amounts to less than zero and aspiration in children is actively discouraged – it’s a running joke in Doncaster that we have the world’s first ‘University of Hairdressing‘. What is needed is exactly what all governments fear; an education system that encourages free, analytical and creative thought.
Anyone who has a toddler – with their incessant ‘Why? What? Why?’ questioning – will know that Homo sapiens sapiens – twice wise don’t you know – have naturally inquisitive minds. We’re also an innately inventive species, but so many of us will leave education with degrees in anxiety, alienation and mediocrity. An education system that does not allow children to reach their full creative potential has failed – or rather it has failed the children, but it has done exactly what is required of it by government.
Our schools should endow us with high quality analytical and artistic skills; we should have a working knowledge of our bodies, our minds and the physical universe (this is not to say that we can all be scientists or artists, but we can all achieve a level of scientific and cultural literacy that allows us to function as independent, dare we say enlightened, beings). As wealth freed up the time needed for a privileged few to explore science and the arts to create the first enlightenment, technology should now free up time for all of us in order to create a universal enlightenment. Anything less should be viewed as a form of mental child abuse. If an enlightened population proved too smart to produce shit for lesser men, then so be it. (This, of course, is why governments fear intelligent populations, they’re much harder to control. When it comes to controlling people ‘dumbing down’ has proved even more effective than ‘locking up’; for many entertainment is now held in higher regard than education.)
So there you have it; we believe that a social wage and a humanistic education system would change the world. But then who are we to decide? We’re not professionals!
It’s worth pointing out that these suggestions are not a matter of abstract political ideology, they’re about improving the overall potential of the individual human, which in turn improves the prospects of a given country. The real key to achieving human potential is accessibility. If you don’t believe that poorer humans have the same potential as richer ones then you’re probably Chris Woodhead
June 21, 2009
Economic inequality in the UK is at the highest it has been since records began in 1961. The gap between the rich and the poor in Britain has almost reached a record level. 2.9 million children are currently living below the breadline. A child’s social class background at birth is still the best indicator of how well he or she will do in school and later on in life. The gap in socio-economic circumstances between children growing up in social housing and their peers is greater now than for any previous post-war generation. The lower your socio-economic position the greater your risk of low birth-weight, infections, cancer, coronary heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, accidents, nervous and mental illnesses – in other words class kills.
Despite these facts Labour – a political party that once claimed to represent the working class and the poor – has abandoned its ambitions to halve child poverty by 2010. As we mentioned before this would have cost in the region of 3-5 billion, less than a 100th of the amount of public money given to bail out UK banks. Financial equality leads to a happier, more stable society, but when it came to the crunch Labour were all too happy to abandon the poor working class.
In truth the working class (especially the poorer sections of the working class) no longer have any form of political representation. All current political parties serve the same narrow interests; they exist purely to satisfy the needs of more privileged members of society. Support for poor communities now comes almost entirely from the voluntary sector – though even this is threatened thanks to the global recession.
But no amount of aid or charity work will bring about the changes that are urgently needed in our society if we are to truly combat poverty. Only an organised working class political movement could ever hope to achieve this. As the IWCA have recently pointed out in their excellent ‘Labour got what it deserved – and so did the BNP’ article…
“a progressive working class party [sic]t could very well mop up across entire boroughs where previously Labour and then the BNP had once ruled the roost. Why such a possibility exists is because as Searchlight admits ‘in some places such as Barking and Dagenham, one of the fundamental problems is the absence of any mainstream alternative to Labour, so the BNP is the sole beneficiary of the anti-Labour protest vote.’ As the big three continue to shed activists (according to one report the Tories have shed 40,000 members since Cameron took over) and atrophy in terms of popular support, it is a trend that can only become more widespread.
But how to get from the present to there is the tricky bit. One factor is certain. A long-term strategy is now required. It is unlikely there will be any short cuts. So it is the long game or nothing. A daunting prospect. But on the plus side the opportunities unfolding before our eyes do have an undeniable once-in-a-century feel about them.”
Anyone who is angered by poverty and inequality should read the full article and step up to the plate; it’s time to get organised. Get in touch with the IWCA and with local activists in your area (anyone who lives in sunny Doncaster should feel free to contact us via verymerrymen[at]gmail.com). Militant working class activists of all persuasions must come together if we are to seize this ‘once-in-a-century’ opportunity.