Thursday, 30 October 2008

Another 'British Economic Miracle' Bites The Dust

I had meant to type a lot today but I feel like I've got a slight chill, so I'm not going to do as much as I'd hoped. However, I will give you something to chew on about the current economic situation. We may have averted a total collapse of the global financial system (courtesy of obscene amounts of money donated by taxpayers, which never seems to be available for help pay for schools, hospitals, pensions, renewable energy, anti-crime initiatives etc) but it doesn't look we're going to avoid a recession here in the UK. At least we'll be spared the expression "No return to boom and bust" for a while...

The markets are clear: Britain is mutton dressed up as lamb
Labour has failed over 11 years to build an economy fit for the 21st century. And it seems no one has learned the lessons
Larry Elliott, The Guardian, Wednesday October 29 2008

Repossessions up 71%. Activity in the high street down for the seventh month in a row. Short-term working at Honda's Swindon plant. An estimate by the Bank of England that losses from the financial turmoil now stand at $2.8 trillion. Just another normal day in the economy.

For most people, $2.8 trillion is a meaningless number, as is the news of BP's £10bn profit. What they want to know is how bad is it going to get, who is to blame and whether life will be any better when the economy emerges, as it eventually will, from its problems.

The answer to the first question is simple: for the UK this is going to be a painful reality check after all the years of living on tick. As things stand, the economy could contract for at least four of five quarters, leading to rapidly rising unemployment. Falling house prices will expose more and more families who bought homes from 2005 to 2007 to the perils of negative equity. After 15 years of growth, prolonged austerity will come as an almighty shock.

Gordon Brown has no doubt who is to blame for all this: the irresponsible bankers who invested unwisely in all those US sub-prime mortgages during the boom years. Britain, he insists, is being sucked down by global forces beyond the control of a government doing its level best to help. Not all of this is piffle - although much of it is.

Clearly, Britain is not alone in going through tough times: the fact that there are daily bulletins on the economic health of Iceland, Hungary, Ukraine, Argentina and Turkey, in addition to the usual diet of gloomy news from the G7, is evidence that this is a global downturn of some severity. Yet, as Warren Buffett once put it, when the tide goes out you learn who's been swimming naked - and as the water has receded rapidly down the beach, it has been possible for the first time in many years to see the UK economy as nature intended. And it is clear we are not getting a glimpse here of Botticelli's Venus.

The markets have certainly come to the belated conclusion that the UK is mutton dressed up as lamb. Shares have bombed in London over the past month because of the recognition that the UK corporate sector is about to endure a long and painful recession, which will lead to a sharp reduction in profits. Sterling fell against the dollar last week by more than it did in the immediate aftermath of Black Wednesday in September 1992. Why? Because the UK has papered over the cracks of a hollowed-out industrial base by taking risky bets in the global financial markets. The epic scale of the UK's trade deficit has been disguised, up to a point, by the willingness of the City to act like a hedge fund - borrowing for short periods and lending for long periods. Hedge funds are risky businesses; they thrive in the good times but can go bust when the weather changes, as it has over the past year. In those circumstances, the foreign holders of sterling seem resolutely unconvinced by Brown's claim that Britain is better placed than before to ride out the storm. They have had a quick squint at the 6% of GDP trade deficit, the debt-sodden consumer, the crashing housing market - and headed straight for the exit.

Again, it would be fatuous to make Brown the scapegoat for structural problems that have been long gestating. The brutal fact, though, is that the economy is more unbalanced after 11 years of Labour government; this is not, despite the hype, a knowledge economy fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century, it is a debt-dependent economy once again about to go into rehab.

The cold turkey will be all the more painful because of the mess the Bank of England has made of setting interest rates. Monetary policy was kept far too tight for far too long: something only one member of the MPC appeared to realise as the economy headed unerringly towards the rocks over the past six months. While the Federal Reserve in the US was cutting interest rates aggressively to cushion the impact of recession, the MPC here was twittering away about inflation. The bank normally moves rates in quarter-point moves: it is now under pressure from the markets to reduce borrowing costs by a full point next week in order to make up for lost time. That's how far behind the curve it now is. If Mervyn King had been managing his beloved Aston Villa rather than a central bank, he would have been fired by now.

And after the deluge, what then? It would be nice to report that lessons have been learned and that the future promises tougher controls on credit creation, the renaissance of the industrial base to meet the environmental challenge, the permanent cageing of the City. But do you honestly believe that is going to happen, whoever is in charge? No, me neither.

Larry Elliott is the Guardian's economics editor

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

When I hear the word 'recession' I reach for my culture...

The Boys From The Black Stuff, 1982: Looks like the catchphrases 'Gissa Job' and 'I Can Do That' might be back...

Do economic downturns create great works of art? Two takes on this question. First, from John Harris:

And now for the good news: The West End's struggling, the art market's faltering ... but might the slump be a boon for culture? John Harris reports
The Guardian, 21st October 2008

Last week, the director Richard Eyre sent an email to a friend. With governments busy nationalising banks, and the consumerist boom giving way to a new sense of dread, he decided that now was the moment to cast the net for material that captured the spirit of the times. Was anyone already on the case, he wondered. "It's only - what? - 20 years since the death of communism and socialism was announced," he says, "and now the age of the self-regulating free market turns out to have only lasted 20 years. Right now, I think that's The Great Subject."

Eyre has yet to discern the kind of clear plotlines that might make for compelling drama. "'String up the bankers' would be pathetic, but kind of understandable, because of all that very visceral rage and despair," he says. "But I think what we're looking at is similar to the response to global warming: the sense that people feel terribly impotent. I suppose you're looking for someone who expresses that, and it's difficult to dramatise despair, confusion and uncertainty."

"But I'm optimistic," Eyre maintains. "Cometh the hour, cometh the genius."

Across the arts, consensus has yet to emerge about what the slump may bring. There is anxiety about ticket sales, sponsorship and subsidy - but also, in some places, optimism about a rising public need to seek solace in a music download or a trip to the cinema.

Lean times, many observers point out, tend to lead to a surge in creativity. The Roaring Twenties have their fans, but plenty of people prefer the stuff that came in the wake of the Wall Street crash: the politicised plays of Clifford Odets, John Steinbeck's novels, the songs written by Woody Guthrie, even Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. The New York that still partly grips our imagination is not the gentrified, upmarket city of the early 21st century, but the graffiti-strewn, crime-ridden place of the 70s and early 80s, which catalysed the art of Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the first stirrings of hip-hop, and the music of Blondie and the Ramones. Similarly, thousands of people still get misty-eyed about the explosion of British creativity prompted by the messy end of the postwar consensus and the battles of the 1980s: drama written by Alan Bleasdale, Howard Brenton and David Edgar, the confrontational sculpture of Tony Cragg, or the sparse, cutting songs written and sung by the young Billy Bragg.

Like all of those names, Bragg is still very much with us, cited as an influence on a new crop of rock groups - the Enemy, Hard-Fi, Arctic Monkeys - whose social-realist songs served early notice of the insecurity that preceded the financial plunge. Bragg discovered the Enemy, he tells me, when he was handed a promotional flyer linking their music to the closure of the Peugeot factory in their native Coventry. It is voices like theirs, he believes, that will most convincingly soundtrack a recession.

"What happens in times like this is that songwriters go from staring at their belly-buttons to staring at the TV," he says. "When the economy is relatively stable, there's plenty of room for 'poor pitiful me'. But when times are hard, it becomes 'poor pitiful us'. People are going to have to start articulating these things, because what's happening is going to affect everybody. It's going to be very, very interesting."

If some of music's loudest voices were almost prophetic about the downturn (have a listen, for example, to Hard-Fi's 2006 hit Cash Machine, complete with its refrain, "There's a hole in my pocket") , the fortunes of the record industry have also been ahead of the curve. It has been in the midst of lay-offs and budget cuts for at least five years.

Sounding a note of optimism, Paul Williams, the editor of trade magazine Music Week, points to creditable recent sales for the likes of Oasis and Kings of Leon, and a pre-Christmas schedule that includes records by such big sellers as Beyoncé and Snow Patrol. But he also admits to the key difference between recessions past and present. "If you look at downturns in the past, there doesn't seem to be any great evidence of declines in music sales," he says. "But what's different this time is file-sharing and what it entails. It's illegal, of course, but there's now the possibility of getting hold of free music. From that perspective, the industry is entering into the unknown."

Should the music industry nosedive, it may not be a calamity for creativity. "What you need in difficult times is a hard edge, and strong integrity," says Bragg. "If you have those things, I think you'll find an audience, particularly because of the internet. More and more will recognise the viability of doing it themselves."

In the art market, there are no signs of panic just yet. Some insiders insist that the arrival of blue-chip collectors from eastern Europe, India and China will cushion the top end against recession, citing as evidence the recent Damien Hirst auction at Sotheby's, and steady trading at last week's Frieze art fair. Then again, another Sotheby's auction last week, including works by Hirst and Andy Warhol, saw sales falling well short of predictions: the total take was £22m, against estimates of as much as £43m. On Sunday at Christie's, Lucian Freud's portrait of his friend Francis Bacon fetched just £5.4m, near the low end of the £5m-£7m guide price.

There is also a lot of anxiety about "the death of the middle", where artworks trade for between £5,000 and £50,000. The over-arching prediction seems to be something serious, but not drastic: a pronounced slowdown rather than a crash.

What will definitely suffer, it seems, is the kind of art that sits well outside the market, and depends on sponsorship and subsidy: the series of giant installations in Tate Modern backed by Unilever, for example, or Antony Gormley's Angel of the North.

"The idea of creating very expensive, ambitious installations and grandiose public projects and sculptures - by definition, during a recession that has to decrease," says Tim Marlow, director of exhibitions at London's White Cube gallery. "Artists will have to start thinking, 'Can we actually justify doing something that exists, will then be destroyed, can't possibly be sold, and gets lots of public money?'"

Marlow adds that anyone looking to art for commentary on the economic crisis will be disappointed. Partly, he says, this is because of the democratisation of video and photography, and the profusion of images on the web. "If you want something much more explicit, that's the place to look."

Perhaps, I suggest, contemporary art has proved much more suited to documenting boom rather than bust. One thinks of the overblown excesses of that former Wall Street broker Jeff Koons, or, more recently, Damien Hirst's £50m diamond-encrusted skull.

'I'd actually argue that the skull contained within it the inevitability of bust," says Marlow. "One of the whole points about it was, 'You can't take it with you,' and Damien said so. It subverted the idea of boom, and hinted at a downturn."

It's a description that rather brings to mind the title of Hirst's most famous installation, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.

"Exactly," Marlow agrees. "The physical impossibility of bust in the mind of someone booming."

What about the theatre? The West End is already suffering, with a string of shows ending their runs early, ranging from Girl with a Pearl Earring to the musicals Never Forget, Avenue Q and Eurobeat. One recent report in the Times claimed that every theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue had tickets to spare - even productions with big-name leads such as Rain Man, with Josh Hartnett.

At Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, artistic director Sarah Frankcom does not need much persuasion to sketch out the anxious times ahead. Her theatre's current three-year agreement with the arts council is up for renegotiation in 2010, and there are worries about a possible cut in funds, not least because of the diversion of £675m of lottery money from the arts to pay for the Olympics. She sounds even more fearful about the prospects for corporate donations to the Royal Exchange - which last year totalled £500,000, and included gifts from Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays.

"That money is vulnerable, and it's going to be dramatically cut, one would think," she says. "I don't think you'll see signs of it right away, but for the next generation of actors, directors and writers, the sources of money that support them in the early part of their careers will either dry up or be drastically reduced."

On the plus side, the Royal Exchange is attracting more people than it has done for four years. "I think our audience is facing a sense of uncertainty, and they seem to be responding to big plays and big themes. That's very interesting: from what I'm told, in the recession of the early 1980s, a lot of theatres were encouraged to move their repertoires towards entertainment, but the people who are coming through our doors at the moment are very hungry for plays that make them think." She mentions the 2,000-plus new scripts that have just been entered for the Royal Exchange's biennial playwriting competition, sponsored by property company Bruntwood - brimming, she says, with work that "wants to make sense of what's happening with the world: globalisation, social exclusion, personal responsibility, political accountability".

Though all that suggests rude creative health, it rather bumps up against a fear that runs across all areas of the arts: that what recession will really cause is a desire to escape into an all-singing, all-dancing fantasy world. "The other day," says Eyre, "I was looking at an advertisement for Hunger, the Steve McQueen film [about the Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands], which I hear is magnificent. And I was thinking, 'Aren't they on a hiding to nothing?' I would love to think that people are queueing round the block for it, but I have a feeling that the Fred Astaire syndrome is coming shortly."

Which brings us to cinema, and an old statistic that is being endlessly quoted in an attempt to raise the industry's spirits. In the year that followed the Wall Street crash, US cinema audiences rose by 58%. That is not quite enough to allay worries that the more challenging end of film-making will be hit by a fall in subsidies, not to mention the drying-up of credit from the banks.

Looking into the more recent past, there may be a few causes for optimism. During the long period of crisis and uncertainty that stretched from the mid-70s into the 80s, there was an upsurge in the idea of film-making as social commentary, seen in such classic New York movies as Taxi Driver and The Warriors, and brilliant British films such as The Long Good Friday and Mike Leigh's Meantime. Critic Mark Kermode, however, points out that that this wave of "meaty films dealing with topical subjects" was accompanied by the rise of escapist blockbusters such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Think about Indiana Jones - it looks like an old B-movie. As opposed to being low-down and gritty, those films were spectacular."

Today, Harvey Weinstein is preparing a movie version of Nine, the Broadway hit set in 1960s Venice, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench. There are also reports of imminent remakes of Fame and Footloose. As Variety magazine recently put it: "It's beginning to look a lot like the 1930s: the economy is in the toilet and Hollywood studios are filling their pipelines with upbeat dance films, particularly teen hoofers."

If such news doesn't fill you with excitement, one thing has to be said: compared with some of the stuff that will boom despite the bust, films like those may well look like great art. "In terms of cinema that makes money, look at Transformers," says Kermode. "That's where we are right now: great big, infinitely stupid films about robots from outer space hitting each other. The other thing is, it's not coincidental that the Superman series has been revived, and so has Batman. Even if it's postmodern and ironic, that's going to continue, because it's what people want in times of crisis: superheroes."

Chaplin's Modern Times

Second, this from Boyd Tonkin:

A call to account: In search of a Dickens or Trollope for our times
As financial markets crash in chaos, can any of today's writers come up with a crusading saga of the morally bankrupt City and its debt-crushed victims to match those of the great Victorian novelists?
By Boyd Tonkin, The Independent, Friday, 24 October 2008

I have never met Sir Fred Goodwin, but I feel that I know him pretty well these days. Thanks to his job – which ends next month – at the head of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, the high-flying but fast-falling banker wielded control over much of my savings. Risk-averse innocents (such as me) used to think of his institution as the Edinburgh epitome of sobriety and stability. "Suckers" is the technical term, I believe. By Friday 10 October, it became clear even to the most blinkered depositor that Fred the Shred's buccaneering years at the helm had played a large part in bringing my bank to the brink of the biggest corporate failure in European history. It was like discovering that your Presbyterian maiden aunt had been running a chain of casinos.

When a stranger drives you unasked to the edge of an abyss, it's natural to seek to understand a bit about the chap. Now, I think I do. Leaving to one side the question of whether the US regulatory authorities investigating the sub-prime mortgage debacle may in due course have plans for the Paisley dynamo that involve something worse than dirty looks at the golf club, one thing struck me above all. Whether or not Sir Fred ends up in court, he should indisputably end up in print. What a novel his rise and fall, and the backdrop to his truncated career, would make. But who, among living British writers, could settle this account? Although the subject hardly has much in common with his usual beat, perhaps Irvine Welsh might have a crack at it.

Now, above all, is the time for alert and ambitious novelists to make a killing in the City; to clean up at Canary Wharf. Stripped of its mysteries, the story-arc of the past decade – of expansion and explosion – stands revealed along straightforward, almost classical lines. Nemesis has duly caught up with hubris. Pride came before the fall. And, as the binge ends in crash, the hangover will last for years – for everyone. In an interconnected world of debts and savings and mortgages and pensions that make millions of civilians share the fate of those disgraced masters of the universe, the art of fiction has a special power to join the dots, complete the picture, and do justice to the raw emotion that seethes and churns behind economic life. The challenge for novelists lies not just in showing how rogue or reckless tycoons and wheeler-dealers first boomed and then bust, but why their acts caught the spirit of an age – and sucked the rest of us up into their delirious slipstream.

With exquisite timing, Margaret Atwood has just published Payback, a series of radio talks (Canada's equivalent to the Reith Lectures) which she chose to give on "debt and the shadow side of wealth". Major writers can sometimes display a prescience that almost beggars belief. So it is with Atwood's analysis of the many ways that debts produce plots: of obligation, guilt, retribution or escape. "Any debt involves a plot line," she argues: "How you got into debt, what you did, said and thought," and then "how you got out of debt" or else "got further and further into it until you became overwhelmed."

Payback must be the first time that the toxic residue of the sub-prime mess (when "large financial institutions... put this snake-oil debt into cardboard boxes with impressive labels on them") has coincided with The Merchant of Venice, A Christmas Carol and the Eumenides of Aeschylus in a critical study of money and morality. Atwood demonstrates that the love or loss of cash carries storms of passion in its wake. For her, debt as a cultural force – and you might say the same for finance as a whole – "magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear". After heady years of the first, we have now witnessed a month of the second – with a vengeance.

Let's hope that Atwood converts her insights into art and gives us a masterwork of fiscal fiction. We could certainly do with a few more. In Britain especially, the sudden promotion of "financial services" from upper-crust character part in our national drama to above-the-title headline star has gone more or less unnoticed by most of our leading novelists. They don't do high finance and its human fall-out – or else, they do it merely as glib caricature. David Kynaston, the historian who wrote an acclaimed four-volume history of the City of London from 1815 to 2000, comments that "my beef as a general reader is a sense of disappointment that much modern British fiction has not done what it might have done". When future historians look for creative interpretations of the Great Crash of 2008, he adds, "I think it will be seen as a shortfall in the evidence."

From another, rougher kind of entrepreneurial culture, Aravind Adiga last week won the Man Booker Prize for The White Tiger: a fiction that tells the story of India's fragile economic miracle through the ascent of a charismatic go-getter out of the "darkness" of rural poverty and prejudice. Balram Halwai, the once-servile chauffeur who grows up (or down) into a swanky Bangalore Macbeth, will endure as an icon of his tradition-smashing times.

But where are his British counterparts: the wizards of the hedge fund (the Man Group's own business, after all), investment bank or private equity outfit whose sorcery on the balance sheets delivers magic or mayhem into many remote lives? Precious few, and far between. Earlier this year, former City dealer Nicola Monaghan published Starfishing: a scorching, high-octane novel of life a few years ago in the sweaty, sexist jungle of the London futures exchange. Less accomplished as fiction, but eagerly received by many of its subjects, Geraint Anderson mingled memoir and imagination in his raucous testimony of "beer and loathing" in the Square Mile, City Boy.

Far from the bonuses and the Bollinger, David Gaffney's Cumbria-set novel Never Never depicts the street-level scams and stunts that let a crooked debt-counsellor and his luckless clients take advantage of our now-burst credit bubble. Significantly, such books enlist the experience of (retired) low-level veterans to give the poor bloody infantry's view of finance red in tooth and claw. Any kind of wider panorama, seen from the glass tower's top-floor boardroom, remains vanishingly rare. Maybe we will simply have to wait.

Which British authors might find themselves best placed to alchemise crunch into creativity? Writer and critic DJ Taylor's forthcoming novel, Ask Alice, will revisit the City during the early-1930s slump. He points to the track record of Justin Cartwright, and the insider's insight behind his take on London corporate life – especially in his 1995 novel In Every Face I Meet. "That really does carry the tang of authenticity: he knows whereof he speaks." Taylor also recommends Ferdinand Mount's The Liquidator and Piers Paul Read's A Season in the West as persuasive recent fictions of life at the top of the money mountain, but warns that: "Given the fact that most financiers don't know how derivatives work, it's going to be difficult for novelists."

James Buchan, who dissected the emotional fallout from the 1987 crash in his novel High Latitudes and, as a journalist, writes incisive articles on the hidden stories of finance, looks a likely candidate. With his well-concealed business background, Welsh himself is not such an outrageous pick. Kynaston has high hopes of John Lanchester, the novelist – and banker's son – whose close-focus essays on the meaning of big money in the London Review of Books testify to his immersion in these deep waters.

Improbable though it may sound, I would love to see Sarah Waters invade this domain. With her Dickensian flair for clandestine connections and hidden affinities, her skill in dramatising the exchange between respectable public life and its secret shadow side, she commands all the necessary strokes. The downbeat 1990s aftermath of Thatcher's roller-coaster did yield some profitable fictions of financial temptation and transgression. Jonathan Coe's carnivalesque What a Carve Up!, Buchan's finely wrought High Latitudes and Taylor's elegiac Trespass were prominent among them.

During the Thatcher years themselves, however, British novelists typically fixed their dazzled eyes on the decor rather than the architecture of a newly roaring turbo-capitalism. Martin Amis's Money led (or misled) the pack. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Tom Wolfe seized hold of the mercenary but fearful spirit of the time with his blockbuster of a Wall Street merchant prince at bay in a feral Manhattan, The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1987.

Famously, Wolfe put in the hours –and months –of slogging research. That makes the ebullient New Journalist turned exuberant epic novelist a rarity indeed. When it comes to working and social life, most gifted novelists write of what they know – either at first hand, or from trusted sources. So, from Kingsley Amis to Zadie Smith, post-war British fiction stitches the universities up a treat. From Michael Frayn to the younger Amis, it does the media to a turn. From Alan Sillitoe to Pat Barker, it boasts an intermittently honourable record when it comes to the working-class grind of factory and mine, warehouse and shop. And, from PD James to Ian Rankin, its mighty criminal network reliably informs on the inside story of police and justice with a professional insistence on the accuracy and credibility of the report.

With rare exceptions, account books remain closed books to novelists. During his study of its past, Kynaston "came to the conclusion that outsiders looking at the City have found it, broadly speaking, a) boring, and b) incomprehensible. That's quite a double hurdle to get over." In addition, until the global weather-systems unleashed on the Square Mile after the "Big Bang" of the 1980s, "the City was traditionally very distant from the mainstream of British life. It was absolutely its own world."

Yet in previous periods, curious and visionary novelists worked hard to crack its code. As naked entrepreneurship took off in 19th-century Europe, writers thrilled to the almost demonic energies they saw in its champions. Balzac's sweeping novels of change in post-revolutionary France crawl V C with chancers with an eye on the deal. As his Père Goriot warns: "The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten – because it was done well." That could stand as a motto to Adiga's The White Tiger.

Hyped-up railway stocks were the dotcom speculations – or sub-prime debt packages – of the Victorian age. And the suicide of one railway swindler, the financier and politician John Sadleir, on Hampstead Heath in 1856 lies behind the mystique of two of the most memorable crooked bankers in 19th-century fiction: Mr Merdle in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, and Augustus Melmotte in Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Neither novelist delves very deeply into the innards of fraud, but both capture the echoing repercussions of a City downfall as dark deeds in a counting-house wreck innocent and distant lives. "Numbers of men in every profession and trade were blighted by his insolvency," Dickens laments after Merdle's death and exposure; "legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by this mighty scoundrel." When Little Dorrit reaches TV screens this weekend in Andrew Davies's new adaptation for BBC1, we might – costumes aside – mistake it for the news.

The speculative highs and lows of the last fin de siècle also left a literary mark. David Kynaston has "a soft spot" for George Gissing's 1897 novel of middle-class misadventures in the stock-market maelstrom, The Whirlpool. A decade later came EM Forster's great study of the dialectic between bourgeois and bohemian England: Howards End, where the something-in-the-City Wilcoxes come to depend on the refined Schlegels – and vice versa. John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga sequence, which began in 1906 with The Man of Property, exposes the fissures that opened up in elite English life when City wealth sought to brush the Square Mile's dust from its frock-coat and join the landed gentry. For Kynaston, the social-realist novel of the City and its people lingers until JB Priestley's Angel Pavement in 1930, with its shabby bit-part players of Clerkenwell, doomed to life on the fringes of serious money. "The trail goes fairly cold after that."

Of course, contemporary social realism is not the only road to understanding; the house of fiction has many mansions. But look, say, at the yawning chasm between the fertility of the campus novel since the 1950s and the debility of the City novel, and you see how talented authors with a flair for institutional scrutiny have stuck to the comfort zones of their upbringing, contacts and milieux. The academy, the media, the law, the arts, the Civil Service: all home turf for the mainstream literati. Even at a time when dozens of novelists have friends and acquaintances who chose to chase the salaries offered by the banks, funds and consultancies, the daily routines of such characters tend to figure as a perfunctory litany of clichés.

One prime current example comes from a novel that (although not strictly British) ran hard in the Booker race and takes place partly in the booming City. Joseph O'Neill's Netherland lavishes tender loving care on its offbeat motif of cricket in New York. This must surely be the first novel given a rave review in The New York Times that expertly alludes to the commentating style of John Arlott. However, when it comes to the Dutch narrator's Wall Street and City career as an equities analyst for a merchant bank, evasion and euphemism rules. It's weird: a hugely perceptive novel that refuses to stint on the – for Americans – outlandish arcana of turning wickets and extra-cover drives seems embarrassed to visit the office for a spell. As banker Hans himself says, his "exotic cricketing circle... made no intersection with the circumstances of my everyday life".

Do novelists really find this material dull? Then the fault lies within. As Atwood sees, money in the modern world creates open-ended networks of exchange: debits, credits, hopes and fears. It binds the high and the low, the near and the far. It forges coherent patterns out of disparate events, creates reverberating chains of cause and effect, and – as the past few weeks of mind-stretching write-down revelations have proved – often thrives on far-fetched fictions of its own. For a writer, what's not to love – and to use?

In his 2003 novel Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo lifts the thoughts and perceptions of his young speculator-hero into an almost abstract realm – until the brutal reality of New York streets intrudes. The book deterred or disturbed many critics, but DeLillo grasped that the almost metaphysical nature of the invisible trillions that slosh around our screens – and heads – right now might require an equally spaced-out style.

Alternatively, the old tycoon's trajectory – of soaring ascent, sudden collapse and final rehabilitation – may still exert its pull. More at ease with the self-made Midas, American novelists have done better with this icon of the capitalist age. Long before Wolfe sent his real-estate magnate Charlie Croker (from A Man In Full) riding for a fall down the runways and fairways of the rich new South, his forebears had relished fictional epics of fortunes won and lost. In 1912, Theodore Dreiser introduced his stock-market virtuoso turned streetcar king turned jailbird, Frank Cowperwood, hero of The Financier and two later novels. Or rather, Dreiser adapted him from a living, breathing original named Charles Yerkes. When the real-life Yerkes saw his Chicago transit empire founder in scandal and recrimination, he started over in London. His coups on these shores included the electrified underground railways that became the Bakerloo, Piccadilly, District and Northern lines. Now, surely that's a story to send panic-stricken commuters thinking – if not quite laughing – all the way to the Bank.

'Little Dorrit' begins on Sunday at 8pm on BBC1

How to make a killing: five authors who skewered the masters of the universe

Charles Dickens

Son of a chronic debtor, Dickens often draws on the dread of ruin. Generous merchant princes do figure in his fiction, but devious and sinister financiers leave a stronger taste. None casts a deeper chill than Mr Merdle, the lionised banker of Little Dorrit, whose fraud brings innocent victims down.

Anthony Trollope

Trollope's Palliser novels expose the channels connecting high finance, parliament and aristocracy, but his definitive City novel is The Way We Live Now, with its anti-hero Augustus Melmotte: the man from nowhere who builds a fortune and a social network on the basis of an enormous American scam.

Theodore Dreiser

Dreiser's chronicles of love, wealth and disgrace became monuments of American dreams – and nightmares. His trilogy that began with The Financier in 1912 captures the reckless spirit, borrowing from the life of Charles Yerkes, a Chicago stock-market wizard who later built much of the London Tube.

Justin Cartwright

Cartwright's novels of cash-rich 1980s London blend an insider's grasp with an observer's satirical detachment. Look At It This Way merges City themes into a tragi-comic panorama, while In Every Face I Meet stages a Dickensian collision between moneyed misery and the vitality of the unruly poor.

Tom Wolfe

In 1987, Wolfe unleashed his weapon of mass derision on yuppie New York: The Bonfire of the Vanities. With the danger that can grip a "master of the universe", he aimed to show how the fates of rich and poor in the city are entwined. In A Man In Full, he went to Georgia for a rich portrait of a property tycoon.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Letter of the Week/Month/Year

With all the hullabaloo about what Peter "Mandy" Mandelson, Nathaniel "Nat" Rothschild, George "Gideon" Osborne and Oleg "Richest Man in Russia" Deripaska said or didn't say on Oleg's yacht off Corfu this summer, (you can start here if you have missed it due to having other things to worry about in the last few days, like a possible world recession) I saw this letter in today's "Independent" which sort of sums up the whole tawdry saga for me:

The crony clique that runs Britain

Is it just me or do others also find that British politics is best summed up by Nathaniel Rothschild (rich financier from the well-known banking dynasty, and member of Oxford's notorious Bullingdon Club) meeting his good friends George Osborne (Shadow Chancellor, member of Bullingdon Club and son of a baronet) and Lord Mandelson (Labour cabinet minister, alumnus of Oxford, and grandson of Baron Morrison) on the luxury yacht of Russia's richest man off Corfu?

Why do we bother having democratic elections when we are ruled, as we always have been, by a sleazy clique of privileged public school/Oxbridge money-grabbers? The reek of cronyism and nepotism that surrounds British politics is overpowering. The obscenely greedy credit-crunch bankers (still demanding their vast bonuses despite their spectacular failures, and which the taxpayer suckers will have to pay) were green-lighted all the way by our venal political class, always with one eye on their next yachting excursion.

I for one won't be voting for any of these people. Isn't it time we were offered a new political dispensation? Can government of the people, by the people, for the people ever be advanced on the yachts of the super-rich of foreign powers? Just how gullible are we, the dumb electorate, the ultimate confederacy of dunces, being fleeced every day by our "betters"?

Mike Hockney

Newcastle upon Tyne

He said it, not me!

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Leafleting, Part 2

This Saturday gone I was in Kentish Town (train station above)for a few hours, leafleting for the Greens as there is a bye-election on October 30th. I seem to make people laugh when I say why it's occurring, so here's the story...

By-election triggered by councillor’s ‘foolish and naïve’ actions
Paul Keilthy, Camden New Journal 18 September 2008

THE revelation that a councillor was attempting to serve his Kentish Town constituency from Tucson, Arizona, has forced his resignation, hasty explanations from his Lib Dem bosses and an October by-election.

Ex-councillor Philip Thompson (above) announced his resignation on Thursday, 12 hours after the New Journal reported his intention to serve Kentish Town by email during a three-year post graduate course at the University of Arizona.

Camden chief executive Moira Gibb received his letter of resignation on Tuesday, triggering a by-election before October 25 under Town Hall rules.

Opposition councillors claimed Mr Thompson and his bosses had made an abrupt U-turn.
Labour leader Councillor Anna Stewart said: “Whether he would have resigned had there not been such public outrage over the idea of a long-distance, by-email councillor is questionable.

“He has been guilty of being naïve and foolish – but questions should have been put to him by the leadership of his party. They only appeared to backtrack when it became clear what the public reaction was.”

Before the story broke both Mr Thompson and his Lib Dem whip, councillor Russel Eagling, had told the New Journal that Thompson was still representing Kentish Town voters from the US state.

The Lib Dems appeared to be enabling him to continue in his post by removing him from the licensing committee but leaving him in place on others.

The 26-year-old would have remained eligible for his councillors’ annual allowance of £9,303, provided he attended just two council meetings per year.

But this week Mr Thompson’s former boss, Lib Dem leader Keith Moffitt, said the episode had been a “coincidence in timing”, with the story breaking as then-councillor Thompson was exploring his options in the Tucson university before realising he could not stay in post.

Cllr Moffitt also denied opposition claims that his party had known of the Arizona move but had hoped to defer a by-election in the delicately balanced Kentish Town seat.

Defending his former councillor, he said: “[Philip] never had the idea that he could be a full-time councillor if his studies required him to be permanently in the US.”
Mr Thompson won Kentish Town from Labour in 2006 on the back of active campaigning to save Kentish Town baths, in Prince of Wales Road.

It looks like being a tight battle with I guess a fair few people who voted for Mr. Thompson feeling somewhat let down, which cannot help the Lib Dems. It looks like being a battle between the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour (all three had stalls along the main drag Saturday morning) so I hope to get the train again to Kentish Town in the last few days of the campaign. More info about the Green campaign and the Green candidate Victoria Green, is available here.

Whatever the result of October 30th, I have started to think seriously about the next General Election, and the local campaign(s) around here. There is going to be a rather dramatic redrawing of the electoral map from last time around. Hampstead & Highgate is going to be broken up, with some wards in the east joining Holborn to make Holborn & St. Pancras, while the rest becomes Highgate and Kilburn, with three wards from Brent East, where I used to live. In a way I'm quite pleased, as it will mean that come next General Election, it will all be happening in my NW6 backyard. I don't mind heading out east to Kentish Town, Highgate, Archway etc to help out, but I feel a bit of a political commuter.

Anyway, without any further ado, and with a hat-tip to the local Conservative Party website, this is my new constituency:

For those of you not into maps, the wards from Camden are: Belsize; Fortune Green; Frognal and Fitzjohns; Hampstead Town; Kilburn; Swiss Cottage; and West Hampstead. The wards from Brent East are: Brondesbury Park; Kilburn (SNAP!!); and Queen's Park.

Now that the economic crisis appears to have stopped plots to depose Gordon Brown for the foreseeable future, it looks like it could well be a year, if not longer, until we have a General Election. I would think it would be good for the Greens to treat next June's European Elections as a trial run for the Big One, without bankrupting themselves in the process! GB may hold onto the last minute ie May 2010, when it would coincide with London's borough elections. It is hard, especially in an area like Hampstead & Kilburn, where all three main parties have a considerable electoral presence, to say what will happen at the next General Election. However, for those who wish to know a bit more about how things might go, the following articles from the New Camden Journal may be of interest:

An examination of Camden's Greens;

What a national poll of marginal constituencies suggests would happen in Hampstead and Kilburn if a General Election was held tomorrow;

The recent council bye-election in Hampstead Town, which the Lib Dems won; &

More evidence that the whole 'Respect' project is in its death throws.

Seeing that they have being paper selling on Kilburn High Road on Saturdays and been organising meetings (if the posters are anything to go by) in Kilburn this year, I think you have more chance of a Workers' Revolutionary Party (Newsline faction) candidate standing in Hampstead & Kilburn next General Election than any sort of SWP-backed front organisation (Left Luggage...Left List...Left Alternative seems to have gone into the same part of the SWP's deep freeze as the Anti-Nazi League). Indeed I think that ultimate 1980s throwback "Vote Labour, But Build A Fighting Socialist Alternative" could well make the front-page of Socialist Worker's "General Election Special" (without being "Special") next time around.

Leafleting, Part 1

The last two free Saturdays I've had off I spent leafleting for causes I thought worthwhile.

The first I spent up in Luton, where ITV were holding a mock referendum of 3,000 voters about the Lisbon Treaty and the EU. The Democracy Movement was organising the "No" vote and I joined a crack DM team of Marc and Stuart delivering leaflets to addresses around Luton where ballot papers had been sent.

The results were announced on ITV last night (a week later than scheduled- a postponed referendum on the EU? Whatever next?) and basically we won! As Stuart wrote on DM's Blog last night:

The DM has scored a resounding victory in the Luton EU referendum.

The head-to-head battle with the European Movement, filmed for ITV's Tonight programme, resulted in 63% voting 'No' to the Lisbon Treaty and a ground-breaking 54% voting to come out of the EU altogether.

The result reflects major disatisfaction not just with the prospect of further decision-making being passed to the EU but also with the extent of the EU's current powers, its costs and damaging effects of its activities.

The programme documenting the campaign was shown on ITV1 this evening and is typically seen by 3-6 million viewers.

Two questions were asked and the full results were as follows:

Question 1: Would you vote YES or NO to the Lisbon Treaty?

Yes: 27%
No: 63%
Don't know/Undecided: 10%

Question 2: Do you think we should stay IN or come OUT of the European Union?

Stay in: 35%
Come out: 54%
Don't know/Undecided: 11%

The DM's latest leaflet, headlined Break Free from the outdated EU (pictured above), was the main leaflet delivered by the 'No' side during the campaign.

Leading with the question What part of 'No' doesn't the EU understand?, it explains the real effect of the EU's powers and goes on to describe how a Europe of co-operating national democracies, free from the EU's superstate agenda and excessive cost, would benefit us all in many ways.

For example, more money for essential services, enhanced democracy, an improved environment, the protection of civil liberties, cheaper food and more effective international co-operation.

It was accompanied by a photocopied flyer accenting the sheer cash costs of the EU on one side, and explaining the EU's role in post office closures on the other.

With our Europeans for Diversity banner together with the involvement of friends in the European Referendum Campaign and clear solidarity with the French, Dutch and Irish peoples who have already voted 'No', the strong international theme of the 'No' side will also have played a major part in the success of the campaign.

The announcement of the result, with Marc talking about it, can be found here.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Canadian Elections- Plus Ca Change!

(Hat-tip: Vive Le Canada).

Well, Canada's Federal Election on Tuesday was very much like the one in 2006. Stephen Harper's Conservatives increased their percentage of the vote & number of seats in Parliament, but fell short of an overall majority. I thought that, rather than trying to repeat/rehash similar points to last time, I'd repeat what I said after the last Federal Election:

Wednesday, January 25, 2006 Canadian election aftermath

Well, I would advocate UDI for Victoria/Vancouver, but apart from that...

It could have been a lot lot worse! For a start, the Cons are far short of an overall majority. They will need support from other parties, which will basically mean the Bloc Quebecois & Liberals. Stephen Harper, although a sandwich or two short of a full picnic (evangelical Christian and all that), will have to hold back the crazies further out than him (first rule of politics- there are always crazies further out than yourself!) or his government will fall, and I'm sure no-one wants to go to polls for a few years yet. So Harper is pretty much boxed in (I could say "straight jacketed" but that would be a cheap shot!).

Furthermore, they only got 36% of the vote ie almost 2/3rds of the voters didn't vote Con. That suggests to me the vast majority of people in Canada are pretty liberal. Blame the first past the post electoral system. It really is a travesty of democracy. Back in May last year Tony Blair got an overall majority of 66 in the House of Commons over here on just 36% of the vote, so count your blessings Stephen Harper didn't get the same!

In addition, I'd be encouraged by the NDP & Greens increasing their shares of the vote. Neither are perfect (this from a recently joined member of the Green Party over here) but having pressure from "the left" (I try not using such meaningless phrases) might force the Liberals to sharpen up their act.

You may also have heard the phrase coined by one-time Labour PM Harold Wilson: "A week is a long time in politics." I was in despair in 1992, when the Tories scraped in for a fourth successive overall majority (I remember staying up watching the election coverage on tv with the Sex Pistols blaring on my headphones- songs like "Anarchy in the UK", "God Save The Queen", "Liar", "Problems", "No Feelings" & "Holidays In The Sun" ["I want to go to the new Belsen..."] seemed to make a lot of sense in the circumstances). The general consensus was that the Tories would stay in power for ever. Within 6 months they were broken (£ leaving the ERM after billions were wasted on the foreign currency markets; plans to shut down our remaining coal mines caused mass protests), went on to lose the 97 election (best night of tv ever!) and only seem to be coming out of a coma in the last few months. One-time Tory PM Harold MacMillan when once asked what he feared most was "Events, dear boy, events". So wait for "events"- even Stephen Harper praying to The Lord 10 times a day can't prevent them!

However, there are positive things to do apart from waiting for the Cons to collapse. This is from Naomi Klein's website from over 5 years ago, but her proposals suggest that not a lot has happened in Canadian politics since then!

Unlabelled the Left by Naomi Klein December 20 2000

Where do we go from here? There's a big space in the political landscape for a new party, one that looks at the calls for localization and doesn't see a dire threat to national unity.

There is a very simple reason to have a left-wing alternative to the Liberal Party: People are suffering. Despite all the wealth created by deregulated markets, many Canadians are seeing no part of it.

In fishing communities from coast to coast, on family farms, on the streets of large cities, Liberal Canada's recipe for economic growth has meant people being thrown into the global market without a net.

In response, we have seen a wave of political organizing and militant protests. Students blockade trade meetings where politicians are bargaining their futures away in exchange for foreign investment. In First Nations communities, from Vancouver Island to Burnt Church, there is growing support for seizing back control of the forests and fisheries—people are tired of waiting for Ottawa to grant permission that the courts have already affirmed. In Toronto, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is occupying buildings and demanding the shelter that is the right of all Canadians.

There is no shortage of principled, radical organizing taking place, yet it is almost completely disconnected from the major political voice of the left, the NDP. Listen to the people excluded from the Liberal mainstream and you hear ideas entirely absent from the NDP platform: the deep distrust of state powers, immigration crackdowns, police harassment, punitive welfare offices, and mismanagement of community affairs.

Surveying the rage directed at Ottawa from across the country, the NDP's only response has been an action plan for better central management. In its policy book, there is no problem that can't be fixed with a stronger, top-down government.

By consistently failing to speak to the hunger for local control, or to the well-deserved skepticism of centralized power, the NDP has yielded the entire anti-Ottawa vote to the right. The Alliance is the party that offers Canadians outside Quebec the opportunity to "send a message to Ottawa"—even if it is only by demanding a refund for poor service in the form of a tax cut.

A national party of the left could articulate a different vision, one founded on local democracy and sustainable economic development. But before that can happen, the left needs to come to grips with how Canadians see government. It needs to listen to the voices on native reserves and in non-native resource communities where the common ground is a rage at government—federal and provincial—for culpably mismanaging the land and the oceans from urban offices.

Government programs designed to "develop" the regions are deeply discredited across the country. Federal initiatives to get fishermen into eco-tourism, for instance, or farmers into information technologies are regarded as make-work projects, unresponsive and, at times, destructive to the real needs of communities.

Frustration with botched central planning is not just an issue in rural Canada. Urban centres across the country are being turned into mega-cities against their will, just as hospitals where cutting-edge programs once thrived are being amalgamated into inefficient medical factories. And if you listen to the teachers having standardized testing rammed down their throats, you hear the same resentment at centralized power, the same calls for local control and real democracy.

All these local battles are, at their root, about people watching power shift to points further and further away from where they live and work: to the WTO, to unaccountable multinationals, but also to more centralized national and provincial governments. What people really want are the tools, both financial and democratic, to control their destinies, to build diverse economies that are genuinely sustainable. And they have plenty of ideas.

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, they are calling for community fish-licence banks, bodies that would keep fishing rights in the community rather than selling them back to Ottawa or to corporate fleets. Native and non-native fishermen, meanwhile, are doing end runs around the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to try to save the salmon fishery by rehabilitating spawning grounds and protecting hatcheries. In other parts of British Columbia, they talk of community forest licences: taking away Crown land from multinational forestry companies that are interested in volume-based logging, and placing sustainable forest management in the hands of local communities.

Even in Newfoundland, long written off by Ottawa as Canada's welfare case, there was talk this election of renegotiating federalism to regain control over the province's rich energy reserves and what's left of the fishery. It's the same message from Inuit leaders determined to ensure that, as the oil and gas prospectors move into their territories once again, the benefits go toward regional development rather than simply enriching multinational corporations.

In many ways, these calls for sustainable economic development are the antithesis of the free-trade model pushed by the Liberals, which insists that increased foreign investment is the key to all of our prosperity, even if it means trading away democratic powers in the process. These communities want the opposite: beefed-up local control, so they can do more with less.

This is also contrary to the Alliance model of regional resentment and tax cuts—though for many, those aren't bad consolation prizes. But there is clearly a deep desire in this country to continue to act collectively, to pool resources and knowledge and build something better than any of us is capable of building as individuals.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for a left-wing party, an opportunity that has been entirely wasted by the NDP. There is a wide-open space in the political landscape for a new party, one that looks at the calls for localization and doesn't see a dire threat to national unity, but the building blocks for a unified—but diverse—nation. In these calls for self-determination, grassroots democracy, and ecological sustainability are the pieces of a national party platform, a coherent vision that includes many Canadians who have never before been represented by the so-called left.

Right now, we have federal parties that try to hold this country together against its will, and regional parties that pit the country against itself at its peril. A new party could do something else: show the country not the differences but the connections among these struggles for localization and articulate the progressive principles of economic sustainability, self-determination and participatory democracy. Rather than fighting localization, we need to spend national resources in a way that would systematically encourage creative, local solutions, making respect for the local the centrepiece of our national project.

What is needed is a federal party that would relentlessly champion the reinvention of local democracy with the same enthusiasm that the Alliance champions tax cuts. That doesn't mean abandoning strong national standards—and stable, equitable funding—for health care, education, affordable housing, and environmental protections.

But it does mean that the mantra of a political party of the left should change from "increase funding" to "empower the grassroots"—in towns, on native reserves, at schools, in resource communities, in workplaces. This project doesn't mean less government, just a different kind of government.

Its slogan: "Protect the Local, Nationally."

Although they hardly registered on the electoral map, I think the Canadian Action Party have some good ideas, at the national level anyway. Perhaps if I was Canadian I wouldn't have voted for them this time around, but if they got involved with the NDP and Greens they may be the catalyst for challenging the two main parties over the question of true patriotism and what it means to be Canadian.

Top Ten Reasons to Vote For CAP on January 23!

1-Freedom for all in a sovereign strong nation. Despite no taxpayer funding, CAP is the only party exposing the unaccountable, unelected rulers of Canada(that is the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, former government officials, business leaders, and academics). MP's are irrelevant, emasculated, and subject to corruption so long as they submit to that influence. As such they are no good to the citizenry.

2-Put your Money to work for You-Reinstate full use of the Bank of Canada-fund infrastructure and enable universal healthcare, education, environmental protection, full employment, and an end to the GST

3-Restore our civil rights and liberty-rescind all liberty stripping legislation including the anti-terrorism law, Public Safety and Preparedness Act. Prevent new laws that spy on law abiding citizens, such as surveillance legislation, tracking devices, biometric identifiers. Remove legislation that imprisons law abiding citizens in our own country, such as no fly lists, no passport lists, security certificates.

4-Restore Canada's Military Peace-Keeping role-Canada to stay out of Northcom, Star Wars, and to withdraw from the Binational Military Planning Group

5-Take Canada out of international agreements that are anti-Canadian, anti-democratic, anti-free trade, anti-environment, anti-universal healthcare-cancel NAFTA, FTA, the Smart Border Declaration,(signed in December 2001 by John Manley Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and Tom Ridge, Director of the United States Homeland Security Department); Withdraw from the Security and Prosperity Partnership Agreement, signed in March 2005 by Fox, Martin, Bush.

6-Electoral Reform-Restore democracy-revoke Section 550 of the Canada Election Act, that prohibits election promises to be accountable to the electorate-bring in proportional representation, recall legislation, direct democracy, all to provide transparent accountability to the people of Canada

7-Reinstate and enforce the four pillars of the Canada Health Act-including universality, portability, accessibility, fully funded public health programs with a ban on private healthcare(Bank of Canada)

8-Universal access to publicly funded education from pre-school through post-secondary including low interest student loans (Bank of Canada)

9-Providing and investing in alternative energy, research and development (Bank of Canada)

10-strong Voice of opposition- standing for peace, not WAR, and promoting real security and prosperity for the people not for corporate exploitation

Finally, some advice to the NDP in BC from Larry Gambone. I'm not sure when this was written but as BC is currently run by Liberals at Provincial level it must have some applicability! I'm sure it would be of use to NDPers/Greens/CAPers etc elsewhere in Canada as well.


The recent events in BC with the Liberal government are only the latest events in a 120 year history of mis-management, corruption and downright stupidity. One might well say that the present cut-backs are the fruit of this sordid mess. We, or more correctly they, since I languish in Siberian exile, did have 3 (or was it 4?) NDP governments and the situation could have been turned around. But the NDP didn’t. Now it shouldn’t be up to me to lay out a political program for social democrats, after all, I ain’t one ’o them, but the fact that an outsider can show them a thing or two, only points out what a bunch of unimaginative losers they must be.

What can a po’ provincial govt. do? Now we might bitch a lot about Ottawa and all its powers, and rightly so, BUT, the provinces do have a lot of power – at least 75% of the powers of an independent state. Look at Quebec. These are residual powers granted to each province by the British North America Act of 1867 and expanded on since. What are these residual powers? First off, the province can organize the lower level of government as it sees fit – as we have seen to our great displeasure here in Quebec with forced municipal mergers. Secondly, the provincial government itself, as long as it remains within the tradition of parliamentary democracy and does not overstep its constitutional limits visa-vis the Feds, can also organize itself as it pleases. A provincial police force, provincial pension fund and provincial banks are also constitutional. Once again, check-out them there Queebecers. Now you’d think wouldn’t ya, that anyone with an IQ a bit larger than their shoe size, could do a lot with all these powers – a lot of things to make life in BC pleasant.

If I must, I’ll spell it out simply. Government in BC is highly centralized, more so than in the East. Government is also highly undemocratic, virtually every govt. is a govt. supported by a minority, not a majority. Once in power, a party can do what it wants. Centralization and lack of democracy means less control by the people. Less control by the people means the government is free to reward its friends from public lands and taxes, ignore the environment, grab your property, impose expensive and useless mega projects, etc., etc. and etc. Furthermore, a govt. can introduce a reform, but the next party in power can undo it. What Our Lord the State giveth, Our Lord the State can also taketh away.

What COULD have been done is this: BC could be given a proper level of local government – counties and municipalities – which would be largely autonomous. These govts. would be based on real existing communities and not be artificial creations like at present. Much of what the prov. govt. does could be handed over to these local govts. Hospitals and schools could be de-nationalized (more correctly de-provincialized) and become the property of the community. Development, provincial lands and environment could also be the right of the community. Rather than govt. revenue being concentrated in the hands of the province – and therefore much of it getting wasted by bureaucracy and pet projects – it would be disbursed immediately to the lower levels of govt. to pay – at least in part – for the hospitals, schools, streets etc.

In order to minimize corruption at the lower levels of govt., the provincial govt. would maximize democracy at these levels. Small communities would replace the mayor and council with New England style direct democracy. All issues deemed controversial – by a simple petition of say 10% of eligible voters – would require a referendum which would need 66% of all eligible voters to pass. Large cities would be broken up into Neighborhood Councils, based on real neighborhoods, and elected locally. The Neighborhood Council would elect a recallable DELEGATE to the City Council. The position of Mayor would be abolished, instead a rotating Spokesperson. The Referendum Law would also apply at the Neighborhood Council and City Council levels.

The provincial govt. would undergo the following changes: A limited proportional ballot would be introduced. Any party with more than 5% of the vote would be given a seat. However, the vast majority would represent communities. These would no longer be artificial electoral districts (or ridings as they are quaintly referred to in Canada) but would be based upon real existing municipalities and counties. Each of these – as close as possible to rep by pop. - would elect a recallable DELEGATE to Victoria. Once again, the Referendum Law would apply. A Cabinet would be elected from the Legislature and the position of Premier stripped of any powers. The Premier would become an annually rotated spokesperson. The Prov. Govt. would engage in only those areas that the lower levels of govt. desired, such as collecting and disbursing revenue, provincial parks, highways, ferries, and the maintenance of standards, health and water inspection etc. (*)

These changes in government would be incorporated within a Provincial Constitution. To tie the hands of any future government who might try to destroy these freedoms any changes to the Constitution would require the approval of BOTH 90% of the lower governments and 90% of the eligible voters.

BC would withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and set up its own Plan like Quebec. Within no time this would become the largest investor in the province. A Ministry of Cooperative Affairs would be set up to encourage mutual aid, cooperatives and the general social economy. Rather than introducing private health care and privatizing auto insurance and BC Hydro, they would be mutualized, i.e., turned into client-owned and controlled cooperatives. With the Pension Fund, mutualism and community ownership, each person would come to own a share in the economy. In time, the bulk of the economy would be in the hands of the ordinary person.

The results? Government would be cheaper and more efficient. The environment would be better protected – who want’s to dirty their own nest? There would be less dissension since government would actually reflect the will of the people and not a minority. The economy would thrive since it would be owned by those who work it. Community would be re-inforced and rebuilt, resulting in less alienation and therefore less social problems. Voluntarism and mutualism would thrive as large, centralized institutions got broken down to human scale.

Like I said before, I’m not a social democrat, if any of you reading this are, well here’s your program. Take it, it’s yours. You don’t even need mention my name. In fact, please don’t or I’ll be forced to turn in my anarchist membership card. Claim it as your idea, for all I care.

*) Anybody thinking that I must be smoking something when writing this should be aware that a place governed on similar lines exists – It’s called Switzerland and happens to be the wealthiest nation on earth.

For what it's worth, if I was Canadian I would have voted either Green or NDP, not least as they are both opposed to the Security and Prosperity Partnership, the stepping stone from NAFTA to North American Union.

Monday, 6 October 2008

A Free Market Anti-Capitalist Writes...

Sometimes the gap between rhetoric and reality is unbridgeable ie 1956 Soviet tanks move into Hungary to save the people from themselves...

When the Chinese Communist leader Chou Enlai was asked in the late 1960s what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution, he said “It is too early to say.” Looking at the current economic crisis which has enveloped the capitalist world in recent weeks, most notably the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ ones (although anyone who has actually perused the history of Anglo-Saxon England would surmise that the pre-1066 equivalents of ‘short-sellers’, ‘hedge-funders’ and other speculators would have been strung up from the nearest tree ages ago), no-one can with certainty predict the future. All that can be said with certainty is that something of world-historical proportions has occurred.

With $700bn promised by the Bush Administration, Treasury, Federal Reserve and Congress to prop up the US financial system, it might be surmised that the economic system we have lived under since the 1980s has been saved. However, as no one outside the most far-out Marxist sects expected a crisis of this magnitude to occur, no one really knows if this (to sound Churchillian) is the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end.

What I would say, putting my head on the proverbial chopping bloc, is that I think the current ‘Anglo- Saxon’ economic world-view has been discredited in the same way that the events of 1956 discredited Communism. Although Soviet tanks were sent eventually into Hungary to crush the ‘national Communist’ regime of Imre Nagy, in the same way all that money has been sent in to bail the US financial system out, no-one can pretend that the current system of finance capital can survive without the backing of the state, whatever economists, politicians and assorted big business apologists may say to try to convince us otherwise. To argue that we now live under a free market system that does not really need state handouts is to employ the same rhetorical devices, and capacity for intellectual self-delusion, as those so-called Marxists after 1956 who claimed that the Eastern Bloc was run for the benefit of the working classes.

As a free-market anti-capitalist, it would be good to think that the current crisis will make enough people realise that Big Business and Big Government are (occasionally unruly) twins who adopt ‘planning’ or ‘the market’ as an ideological ruse for pursuing extra profits and power when they need it. Although I think the use of the phrase ‘Bolshevik’ in this context is hilarious, I am encouraged by the increasing numbers of people in the US (including members of Congress) who realise that the Bush/Paulson bail-out to the banks is a form of ‘socialism’, albeit one for the rich rather than the majority. I would like to think something similar might happen on Airstrip One, but apparently we always lag behind the Americans in economic and political matters…