The Fall of the House of Murdoch

Paul Raven @ 11-07-2011

While I’m not so optimistically convinced as some of my fellow Brits that Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has been as badly bloodied as we’d all like it to be, there’s no getting around the fact that the last week has seen a pretty spectacular sea-change in the relationship between British politics and the fourth estate. The BBC’s Paul Mason has a long searching post on these events which – very sensibly, I feel – contains more questions than confident analyses, and is well worth a read. It is a remarkable thing to see not just a very conspicuous case of, as he puts it, “the network defeating the hierarchy”, but to see so many people who were previously sceptical of the network’s power scratching their heads and wondering where the next sinkhole is going to open up.

I’m not naive enough to believe we’re driving headlong toward some sort of post-pyramid social utopia… far from it, in fact, as I suspect that – despite the spectacular scale of these clashes – these are merely the first border skirmishes between the crowd and the ziggurat rather than the culmination of a war. But even so, the Rejectionistas and cynics who’ve been telling us that the power of the network is illusory are sounding more behind the curve than ever.

The only certainty from here on in is change. Wear a helmet.


In defence of libraries

Paul Raven @ 02-02-2011

US-based readers: please forgive the nakedly UK-centric nature of this post, though I imagine the sentiment is just applicable over on your side of the pond.

Futurismic veterans may remember that, prior to going freelance full time, yours truly used to work in libraries. But I loved libraries long before I worked in them – in fact, I loved libraries pretty much as soon as I knew of their existence. If you love books, how can you not love libraries?

I’m not going to open a debate here about whether or not there’s a genuine need for the austerity measures being introduced by the UK government at the moment; I’m not versed enough in the ways of economics to make an argument based on anything other than my own instinctive reactions and political leanings. Times are hard; I only have to look out of my window at the long line of “To Let” signs on the shops in the street where I live to see that. The country’s accounts need balancing, without a doubt.

But gutting public library provision, while seductively easy for media-wary local governments under pressure from Downing Street, is a choice that hits the most needy at their time of greatest need.

Here’s Philip Pullman taking the podium at FalseEconomy.org.uk:

You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone here is aware of the situation. The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship.

[ He’s not kidding; someone linked me to the 2011/2012 budget plans for Portsmouth, my long-term hometown to which I’m returning in a few months, and they’ve gone through the library service like a scythe through a cornfield. It’s harder for me to watch than for others, of course, because I know the names and faces behind those post titles and salaries; I know the years spent studying for a qualification that opens the door to a job you’d never take if chasing money was your prime career motivation; I know the years spent fighting similar attempts at reducing provision, and the determination to provide despite the steady erosion of funds. I know the gallows humour of an industry where the writing has been on the wall for years; I know the genuine grief of people who’ve spent their lives working for an ideal that shaped their own childhoods seeing that ideal written off as a red column on a balance sheet by accountants who earn far more than the jobs they’re suggesting be axed. And sure, yeah, someone somewhere can say that about pretty much every threatened service on the list. So maybe they should. We seem to have forgotten that They are supposed to work for us; They, of course, forgot that long ago, if they ever believed it at all. ]

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

Pullman and myself are probably preaching to the choir here, but nonetheless: the problem council beancounters have with libraries is that the social capital they produce doesn’t appear on spreadsheets. All they see is expenditure, a hole into which money is poured. They don’t see the benefits flooding outward: the gifts that Pullman is talking about, as well as the simpler (and yes, not so book-related) gift of a quiet space to retreat from the world outside that libraries provide for many of the most vulnerable and impoverished members of society. The ability to provide those gifts has withered over the years as acquisition budgets have been whittled away, buildings undermaintained until there’s “no other valid cure” but to sell them off… and with less books available in less locations, borrowing rates inevitably drop, and are then held up as proof positive that money spent on libraries is wasted. “Look, less people use them every year!” Well, of course; you’ve made them less usable. Bravo, you.

Pullman again:

I’m not praising the public library service for money. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

[…]

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

An anarchist aguing in favour of a fundamentally socialist institution like public libraries may seem inconsistent, and perhaps it is, if one assumes that anarchism (or any other political philosophy) is monolithic and unchanging across all of its adherents. I’m an anarchist because I believe in the power and ability of ordnary people to build a functioning society without the need for the guiding hand of career politicians whose first love is the party line. Until such a day as control has been wrested peacefully from the weasels in expensive suits, the best thing we can do is remind them – constantly, loudly – that their job is to enact the will of the people.

In this particular situation, then, I’d ask you – if you’ve ever had a moment of wonder or enlightnement or just plain old peace and contentment in a library, even so much as just once in your life – to tell them in no uncertain terms to take their hands off your libraries, the ones your taxes have paid for. If money’s short, there are plenty of places it could be found without punishing those already suffering the most, simply by making sure that the rates already set were paid by all who owe them: the Square Mile leaps immediately to mind, as do a number of notorious tax havens.

As a nation – and as a planet, to be honest – we’ve become very accustomed to shrugging off the caprice and arrogance of our political classes as one of life’s inevitabilities. Remember, though, that we pay their wages; as such, we can – and should – hold them to account for their work, and sack them for misconduct. Remember this, and remind them.

The libraries are yours. If you don’t fight for them, they’ll be sold off by those who have always been well enough off not to need them. And if you shrug, smile sadly, say that the cuts are terrible but inevitable, then you have fulfilled your own prophecy.

To attempt something is to invite failure;to not attempt something is to ensure failure.

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Who are Foundation X, and why do they want to buy out the UK government?

Paul Raven @ 04-11-2010

Chances are good you’ve seen this already, but for those of you who haven’t, well, it really needs to be seen.

We can thank Charlie Stross for spotting it while trawling through Hansard, the official transcript publication of the proceedings of the UK Houses Of Parliament; depending on just how conspiracy-theory minded you are, it’s either an astonishing revelation about an unnamed and extremely wealthy organisation (such as, hypothetically speaking, The Vatican) offering to buy out debt-beleaguered Britain with a no-strings-attached cash donation of stupendous size, or an obscure back-bench peer of the House Of Lords with something of a history for rambling non sequiteurs having what we might politely and euphemistically refer to as a very public “senior moment”.

Just go read the whole thing, seriously; if it was sourced from anywhere other than Hansard, you’d have to dismiss it as a missing (and suspiciously well-written) Dan Brown chapter. It’s gonna be providing novelists with a high-grade Jonbar Point for years to come.

Additional: Justin Pickard picks out a comment from the thread on Charlie’s post which suggests mashing up textual analysis software with the government transparency project They Work For You to allow real-time assessment of the sanity of our elected and non-elected representatives. An interesting and strangely plausible project, but one whose result would probably bear more bad news than we really need at this precise moment in time…


Building the Big Society: can reward schemes encourage civic volunteering?

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2010

While our American readers have their own political maelstrom to deal with at the moment, over here in the UK we’re starting to get our first stable glances at the Janus faces of our new coalition government. David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea aims to replace Big Government social schemes with localised and voluntary civic involvement… which on the surface sounds rather wonderful (in a utopian minarchist kind of way), until you realise that cutting costs in social welfare is primarily aimed at being able to avoid taxing the highest earners any harder (you don’t wanna upset that power-base, Dave). It’s all about how you sell it to the peons, after all.

Ignoring the politics for a moment, though,  it’s interesting to start thinking about how the kind of community self-support that the Big Society idea seeks to create can be encouraged. I’m always a little wary of anyone who starts harking on about The Good Old Days (you could leave your door unlocked all the time, apparently), The Blitz Spirit and so on, but I am fairly convinced that the much-lamented decline in our sense of community is a genuine phenomenon, encouraged by years of policies and law that effectively tell people that almost everything is someone else’s responsibility: take away that sense of ownership and communal responsibility, and you’ve disincentivized participation. (“It’s not my canal, so why should I fish shopping trolleys out of it? I pay taxes so someone else can be paid to do it; not my job, mate.”)

So the problem is: how do we encourage people to voluntarily contribute to the upkeep of their communities? One potential solution is being tried out in the Windsor and Maidenhead areas, and it’s already a familiar one from the world of commerce – a voucher reward scheme.

Officers are still working out the practicalities, but it is likely residents would get a loyalty card similar to those available in shops. Points would be added by organisers when cardholders had completed good works such as litter-picking or holding tea parties for isolated pensioners.

The council says the idea is based on “nudge theory” – the thought that people don’t automatically do the right thing but will respond if the best option is highlighted. Points would be awarded according to the value given to each activity.

Users could then trade in their points for vouchers giving discounts on the internet or high street.

The points would be given free by the commercial partner in return for the publicity and marketing opportunities, with the local authority picking up the relatively small cost of administering the scheme. The scheme might be extended to reward improved behaviour in areas such as school attendance and healthy living…

As Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber points out, there’s an obvious flaw with the idea:

Maybe the Council should have read more widely, since according to another body of literature (Bruno Frey, Sam Bowles ), they risk sending out a signal that only a mug performs good works for no reward.

Which is a good point, though I feel we may be a fair distance down that road already. Another valid criticism is that only the able-bodied will benefit from such a system, effectively recreating the social burden of welfare dependence and placing it on the shoulders of the not-quite-so-unfortunate members of the community, instead of on the shoulders of the government (who, it could be argued quite fairly, are the root cause of that hierarchical dependency in the first place). Think about it: anyone who’s getting by well enough to be meeting all their bills every month has no motivation to volunteer for food vouchers, so your volunteer pool is going to comprise those already closest to being welfare dependent themselves. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that such a system is going to enhance the stratification of society rather than help flatten it…. which may go some way to explaining its appeal to the conservative mind-set.

But as I said above, there’s a nugget of validity in the Big Society idea which, stripped of the politics and spin and hidden motives, might be well worth chasing after… because it implies that people are waking up to the idea that the old left-right polar politics is dead in the water. As Vinay Gupta puts it:

If the big society is not ever an alternative to the market, then it logically exists only in the space being relinquished by government through spending cuts and withdrawal of services. It exists purely to buffer public service cuts.

On the other hand, if the big society is sometimes an alternative to the market, then we are seeing government suggest that people turn away from market capitalism and the state for provision of some of their services.

In the first instance, Big Society would be an utter sham and a diabolical lie. The Tories would be suggesting that we simply work for free to do the things that government used to do for us rather than, say, taxing the rich to continue doing the jobs at hand. This accusation has become standard rhetoric already.

In the second instance, however, something more subtle is going on. The State is telling us to organize to take back territory from it and from the market. We can logically deduce that we must be in this second case, too, because the state has no power to compel the Big Society not to fill some needs which would otherwise go to the market.

Gupta is more optimistic than myself (and, it would appear, the British body politic), because everyone bar the Tories themselves seems pretty much convinced that the first interpretation is the accurate one. But Gupta’s second option has many of the hallmarks of an unpalatable and inconvenient truth, and is worth considering in more detail:

… this turn of the wheel is not privatization. Not even [the Conservatives] believe in the power of the market any more, and into this loss of faith rush new archetypes, which is to say old ideas reborn. No longer is the Market the panacea, the universal solvent for all of our social woes. They cannot sell it because they themselves no longer believe it. It has been tried, and failed.

[…]

The Big Society could turn out Victorian, Feudal, Democratic Socialist, Swiss, even Anarcho-Syndicalist. It could draw influences from anywhere. But it is unambiguously a move off the traditional left-right axis of politics and I believe this is why we are all so confused by it.

I’m inclined to agree, and I’d suggest that the confusion is born of suddenly finding that those who’ve always maintained their leadership over us by proclaiming that they had all the answers have pretty much called their own bluff. And as such, an opportunity arises for us to start taking back control of our communities from the apparatus of the state, an opportunity to start thinking – and working – for ourselves.

The council reward schemes mentioned above, whether by design or not, are a way of replacing the welfare state with a sort of feudal corporate patronage (one wonders what incentives participating corporations might be offered by the government in return for their freebies… perhaps Vodafone could answer that one for us?); they represent an abdication of responsibility for civic duties by both the government and ourselves, and I find myself thinking of remixed double-page spreads from the 2000AD comics wherein every tower-block is sponsored by a corporation, of which the government is simply one of many*. It might work, but it’ll be pretty grim if it does.

What would be better, I believe, would be to reinstate a sense of community which is its own reward, a sense of community where we look after ourselves without having to be bribed with junk food or consumer goods. I’m not claiming to know how to do it, either, but – given that it’s the option that reduces government power and our dependence on such – I think it’s a question well worth considering.

[ * Yeah, I’m a child of my generation, no mistake. 🙂 ]


High-street Hollywood: UK supermarkets as movie studios

Paul Raven @ 11-08-2010

While Hollywood dithers about, lobbying governments and suing its customers in an effort to maintain its box office numbers (which, despite all the moaning about piracy from them and about crappy cookie-cutter movies from us, are riding higher than ever before), new players are looking to get a slice of the action. Enter UK supermarket Tesco, who have started producing straight-to-DVD films for sale in their own stores [via TechDirt].

It looks good on paper – lots of middlemen being cut out of the loop, for a start – but quality control will be an issue, not to mention the VHS-era stigma around films that skip a theatrical release. But whether it works isn’t really the point: the point is that you don’t have to be in the movie business to make and sell movies any more… and that should be much more worrying to Hollywood than piracy.


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