Shaun Bythell (2017) The Diary of a Bookseller.

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Remember them, booksellers before Amazon? On 1st Septmeber 1962, 250 000 Glaswegians gathered in the driving rain to pay homage to the last run of the tram cars. Who will honour our booksellers?

Shaun Bythwell likes being his own boss. He is the owner of The Bookstore in Wigtown, which he bought in November 2001. His employees like him too, which makes him one of the good guys. Amazingly I’ve heard of the Wigtown Book Festival. His bookstore is the second biggest independent in Scotland and his diary dates from 2014 when the nation had a vote on Independence. We lost, but maybe next time. Shaun is still there.

George Orwell also had a job selling books. His ‘Bookshop Memories’ acts as a counterweight to Bythwell’s diary musings. Here in February 2015, for example, Orwell writes of his experience during the nineteen thirties:

The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman. But the hours of work are very long – I was only a part-time employee, but my employer put in a seventy hour week, apart from constant expeditions to buy books – and it is an unhealthy life.

Selling books is one of those jobs I could imagine doing. The thrill of the chase, the knowing and not knowing what you will find in the next book haul which Bythell experiences. But the long hours and the bad back hauling books. 172 000 miles on clock of his old van. 100 000 books in the shop. Nah, doesn’t sound that great. What is harder to imagine is how Bythell makes a living.

Amazon, of course, are like the orcs invading Middle Earth. ‘Cut-throat and barbaric’ notes Bythell in November 2014. An earlier entry 9th September states Amazon sells books cheaper, ‘for less than the cover price’. No book store can compete with that. No publisher can resist Amazon’s advance. No writer, with the exception of James Patterson, who campaigns against them, can fall out with Amazon. Amazon’s unique selling point is we’re cheap, but at what cost?

An analogy here is with Blythwell and his (ex-) wife Anna arguing against windfarms on Wigton Bay in a place dependent, almost totally, on tourism. Thursday, 22nd January:

At 4.30 p.m. a friend [who] lives right in the middle of the proposed site and estimates that if it goes ahead it will reduce the value of his house to almost nothing.

Scotland’s future, I believe, the future of an independent Scotland lies not in the black, black oil of the North Sea or the fossil fuels, but in renewable energy, wind and wave, but the land is owned by a handful of people with the murky past of the aristocracy. Here we have one of the smaller breeds of orcs, the developer of the proposed wind farm.

19th Janury…began by telling me, ‘I’m not here to try and change your mind’, then spent the next three hours trying to change my mind. Anna was very impressive dealing with him, asking how much he was going to get paid for allowing them to build on his land (over three times what the rest of community will receive each year) and whether he would be able to see them from any of the properties on his estate. He looked at the floor and sheepishly admitted that he would not be visible from any of the numerous properties he owns.

Standard bookish and Amazon fare, one guy gets paid more than the entire community, moves his money offshore, pays no taxes, but moans about it being too much and asks for a block discount, and doesn’t have to live with the monstrosity that he benefits from. Aye, right.

The leaven in the books is provided not by the customers, but mainly by Nicky, an employee who seems more like a member of Bythell’s extended family.

Friday 28th November: Nicky decided to stay the night so we could drink beer and gossip. Predictably we both drank too much. I offered her a bottle of Corncrake’s Ale and told me she doesn’t like any beer that has a bird’s name in it. This is the kind of logic that she applies to all her decision making.

Till total £62.50

5 customers.

I was surprised to read in the epilogue that Nicky had left The Bookstore for a job with Keystore ‘closer to her hovel’. Shaun Bythell split up with Anna, but they remain friends and The Bookstore goes from strength to strength. Ahh, a happy ending. Read on.

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whose party is it in 2018 anyway, Willow?

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To my niece Willow, I was born on the 10th December 1962. Fifty-five years ago not only was my mum Jean alive, but she had given birth and was nursing me back to health somewhere in darkest Braeholm. I wasn’t expected to live. I don’t remember the reasons why.  Yeh, we showed them mum. What we showed them I’m not really sure. I’m nearer death than birth now. Life is the miracle. And I’m not likely to forget you birthday, Willow. It’s also the 10th December.  And as the Bible, book of Timothy, suggests ‘We brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it’.

So baby Willow, I’m 55 years older than you, let’s play a game in which you sit wherever you are in 55 years’ time and look back and tell me what the world looks like. I don’t remember any of this but we had the Cuban Missile Crisis and later the assassination of the President John F Kennedy. I’m hoping you don’t remember President Donald J Trump. Shakespeare knew his villains intimately. He portrayed Richard of Gloucester  as ‘the bottled spider’, vainglorious, treacherous, ruthless murderer and usurper, but nobody’s fool. President Donald J Trump is everybody’s fool. His claim to fame is dropping ‘the mother of all bombs’ in Afghanistan and taking money from poor people and giving it to the rich. I’m not sure why bombs are called mothers. But I hope Willow you see your fifth birthday. Like me, I hope you sleep securely through threats of Armageddon and nuclear winter and the world keeps turning.

Prospero and Brave New World and the closer we get to utopia the closer we get to dystopia is something you’re going to have to live with Willow.  George Orwell, I guess got it nearly right with his three shifting blocs. The axis of the world is shifting and I’d guess China is where America was before the start of the First World War. Perhaps there will be a transition, such as Fritz Laing’s Metropolis, but the future is one in which we are equal but some are more equal than others. Deep machine learning and the use of pattern recognition software will serve your needs before you know what they are. Your body will no longer be your own. Behaviour will be monitored.  Healthy and wealthy will be conflated into flawless new bodies and flawless new babies in smart cities.

‘Hoist with his own petard.’ I’m of average intelligence and can guess what that means. I google it and see it’s from Hamlet.  But intelligence will no longer have any meaning. Machine learning how to play the game ‘Go’ shows it is possible to beat intuition as it is possible to surpass the logic of the best human chess players. Machines will be connected to other machines and humans will be part of that loop. Just as the Wright brothers took off in their flimsy craft, flew and crashed it was possible to predict air flight, quantum machines no longer need to play humans to master the precepts of ‘Go’. Machines play themselves and work out first principles. When, and if, deep learning machines master the problem of consciousness then humans need no longer be in the loop. That’s a different kind of Armageddon.

Willow, what we do know for sure is machines will do most, if not all, of the work we take for granted. How many angels fit on a pinhead? How many doctorates can fit on a subatomic particle? Masters of pattern recognition predict the future and make it happen. Energy usage will be the only transferable currency. All that green crap, waves, wind, water and sun will be the stopgap until the machines figure out something better. Nature will be a treasure trove of a different kind. Picked apart for its lessons and reconstructed. The sea will be harvested as the earth has been.

‘Gentleman, it’s your duty to make yourself rich!’ says one of Anthony Trollope’s characters in The Way We Live Now. It’s your duty to make everyone else poor. Make the world warmer and vast tracts of land uninhabitable. That’s not what Trollope said, but we’ve had our Silent Spring moment with Trump’s refusal to sign the Paris Accord and Global Warming Agreement on fossil fuels. No one can make the super rich do what they want to do. Monopoly holders of data work by their own rules.

But the problem of making everyone else poor, with no work and no surplus value, as they’d say in Marxist ideology is when everyone’s poor and wealth accumulates with the super rich as Thomas Picketty showed in his constant rate of return in his model of Capitalism is stagnation. Not enough money to buy all these surplus goods. But, of course, there’ll be no money. Not as a store of value, but as a shifting energy equation, this will be related to land use and global warming. The problem will be how to find new ways of punishing the poor for being poor.

What is materially damaging to the rich will in an Orwellian way be regarded as an attack on equality of accord.  But I lack the scrivener’s art, the means to look into the future Willow. When I was growing up in the 1970s I never imagined the internet, but neither did I imagine Britain regressing to a state where the poor need to go to a church hall to get food to last them a few days, nor that so many children would be living in sub-standard housing and poverty. Four in ten children. I expected things to get better and I hope you’re not one of them. Outside this shiny vision of the end of scarcity is a dystopian vision. When poverty because a digital country and not an economic and social relationship then that’s where we’ll all live and only the rich will float above it.  We come into the world with nothing. We go out of the world with nothing, Willow it is compassion which makes us fully human. Live in the here and now and not in a simulation of now. That’s a different kind of Armageddon. The church my mum brought me up in called it limbo. It was a sin to be truely selfish.  Put yourself out on a limb, Willow. Dare to be you and not a slice of identifiable code.

 

the end of the world as we know it – but I feel fine.

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The Second World War is a fading memory and America rules the world. Bill Bryson (2007) The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid: Travels Through My Childhood shows how it was won and it’s not on the front cover with a kid with a hard plastic hat painted silver, aerial attached, Pegasus’s ears pasted on, his face screwed up as he points a plastic ray gun of brightest gold, while behind him sparks fly and a surreal red and white star explodes, in an understated way,  KAZAMS. Rather, it’s low key, black and white picture, double spread, to raise a chuckle, husband in his shirt and tie holding a metal shopping trolley, filled to the gunnels with food. His wife standing beside him, almost touching, holding hands, hat on her head, swing of handbag on the other arm, smiling at the camera to beat the world. Their son stands in front and to the right of them and the trolley, hands tucked inside the pockets of his thick jacket, cap on his head, smiling self-consciously. Behind the nuclear family food is stacked to the ceiling to show what the average American eats in a year. You bet they won the war, not only is their cup overflowing, everything else is too. Racks of meat and bird, eggs, milk, potatoes, veg, exotic bananas and every kind of fruit from the backyard of the world. To the victor the spoils.

Communist China is no longer communist. Chairman Mao his long walk and great leap forward forgotten. Loop past  The Cultural Revolution to President of The People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping. Substitute a Chinese man and his wife in the picture. The One Child Maoist policies fallout dictates it’s likely to be a son standing in front of them. Racks of meat and bird, eggs, milk, potatoes, veg, exotic bananas and every kind of fruit from the backyard of the world. To the victor the spoils.

One nation takes plenty for granted. One nation plans for famine, remembers tens of millions starving when children banged pots and beat birds from the trees with sticks in the mistaken belief they ate crops. I recently went to a talk, and appropriately old-fashioned slide show (no fancy PowerPoint production) in the basement of Clydebank library given by Callum Christie. Christie in his book Goodbye Colonialism Farewell Feudalism, takes us back to a different century, Barotseland in (now Zambia) a Protectorate of the British Empire where he worked as a District Officer from 1959-1962.  British film maker Amma Asante covers similar ground and is in the same time frame: A United Kingdom a romance between an African prince studying law and meeting a white woman in London, who he plans to marry, before returning to Bechanuland (which became Botswana) as king. My question to Christie was along the familiar lines of was colonialism a good thing? The answer, as you’d expect, differed from the George Orwell of Burmese Days. A British Protectorate was a good thing because it protected the people of Northern Rhodesia from the Arab traders and raids from other tribes that sold black people into slavery. Wrong century, but moving swiftly on. I asked about neo-colonialism and possible Chinese investment in Zambia. Copper mines in Zambia are one reason why Chinese investment helped pave the main roads through the country. But I’d guess the other reason is food, from a ‘Land of flooded valleys and rivers’.  Africans may starve as millions did during the Irish potato famine of 1845 onwards, but food was still exported to the British paymasters. When the rains fail, Chinese still need to feed an estimated third of the world’s population of almost two billion.

You can see some of this posturing with Putin’s Russia sending submarines to plant flags on the seabed to claim disputed coastal water and the potential riches of fossil fuels and seafood for his nation. China is building atolls off its coast. The future is unknowable and we need to think and plan for it now.

There is no Second World War bomber droning overhead or the cry of ‘gas boys, gas,’ shouted from First World War trenches and no quick fix to the bleaching of coral, or the end of ice and dying of our kindred species. Another movie, another white, American hero, Tom Hanks as Sully in Clint Eastwood’s film. ‘This is the captain, brace for impact.’

Sullenberger had less than three minutes to decide where to land a plane that had no engines. Test pilots appointed by the Civil Aviation Authority in simulated flights were able to steady the falling plane and land it at La Guardia airport and not in the Hudson River.

Peter Wadhams in A Farewell to Ice accuses The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the same dishonourable tactics, running simulations until they get a palatable approximation of the truth. We’re all going to get back to La Guardia and brush our clothes down and step off that falling plane. Our blue planet keeps turning. I’m not going to be able to change things. But as a writer I’m obliged to read the small print and say this is the way it’s going to be.

Paul Mason (2015) Postcapitalism: A Guide To Our Future.

Paul Mason is an optimist. I’m a pessimist.  He outlines the problems mankind faces in the future and suggests as a utopian solution of free money and us all working together in a non-working world. I tend more towards the four horseman of the apocalypse scenario.

Mason suggests there are a number of negative feedback loops that will work together to make the world a much poorer place for 99% of humanity, but if we reverse engineer this process we can all become richer and make a fairer and more prosperous world for all. ‘Neoliberalism is Broken’ is the title of his first chapter. We all know how this works. We’ve being doing it for the last thirty years and the process has accelerated since the financial meltdown of 2008. Work longer hours for less pay, or no pay. Sing hallelujah, and thanks boss, as money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate.  Thomas Piketty, Capital, did the maths. Algorithms rule the world.  But Mason sees a chink of light in the information age. Technology that puts at least fifty percent of the workforce out of work, (timescale by 2050, or at cinema near you soon) will, as work itself become redundant, give us more leisure time. When the distinction between work and leisure becomes blurred creativity will flourish. Examples, oh dear, ‘people will blog, make movies, self-publish books’. Shit. I’m already doing all these things. I must be living in the future. It’s Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots, but with a happy ending. The robots won’t gain an awareness of themselves as a singular being, in the singularity, and mankind as being a species that has reduced the planet to a giant hamburger, and instead of keeping mankind as a pet, they’ll not do the logical thing and mine us for the energy in our hair and skin and meat and reduce the world to something like a boxset of hell played on an endless loop, but instead of that, our android friends will free us from work.

The merit in that argument is it is logical. William Shakespeare’s Brave New World  before Brave New World has Ariel working for the man, Prospero, in  The Tempest.  All utopias are a bit like that. Prospero might have stolen an island home, but it was from an evil witch, and give him his due, he did give gainful employment to the witch’s son, and became master of the monster, Caliban, who he used as another source of free labour. Prospero was free to do what he willed, as we will be in a prosperous new age based on exciting new technologies. Fritz Laing, Metropolis. As above, so below. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell both envisaged a time when work would be something that would be optional – for the elite. As it always has been, but Mason argues that the problems facing us are global problems and unless we face them together they will defeat us and the capitalist system will fall apart.

Global warming is an example of this. Mason doesn’t think the market can work well enough to allocate resource so everyone can meet their energy needs and keep enough fossil fuels out of the air and keep the temperature of the earth below an increase of around two-degree centigrade level. After that runaway global warning will take place. Being born in a particular location will be the equivalent of a life in poverty and death with millions of refugees on the move. I called this melodramatically, The Third World War, and suggested it’s already begun. I think it’s a war already lost. Human casualties, I’d guess, somewhere in the range of the Black Death, one in four. I can be bland about it because I’ll be dead by the time this is fully realised. But if you’ve children of grandchildren, be very afraid. Mason suggests that we leave all fossil fuels in the ground, turn to solar, wind, and sea, as Germany has done, with up to 50% of its needs being met in this way. So it is possible, but is it probable?

China and India playing catch up and building or having recently built hundreds of coal-fired stations.  But as Mason states ‘Between 2003 and 2010, climate change lobby groups received $558 million in the US. Exxon Mobil and the ultra-conservative Koch industries were major donors…’ What’s in it for them? Simple. Leave fossil fuels in the ground, or as Mason suggests in his chapter ‘Project Zero’ and Exxon Mobil will be worth zero on the stock market of any market. Far simpler to go out and buy a politician, or president.

One of interrelated problems Mason identified was workers in the Western world are getting older. Gee whiz, you may be saying, my hips killing me, I sure know about that. ‘Futureproofing’ on Radio 4 that around 50% of children born today will live until they’re 104. Great news for them. Around 4% of those born at the start of the last century lived long enough to collect their pension. So work hard and don’t collect your pension was the order of the day. Think about this. One in two hospital beds are filled by our fossil fools. Piketty suggests that rich countries growth will fall to around 1% to zero or negative growth. That’s where we are now. More must be done with less. That’s where we are now. Piketty also shows that the equation that you put into the system early and take it out in your later years, in health deficits, no longer works, or can be taken seriously. Mason shows that six of eight nations with populations under 30 are in Africa. Throw in India and US and the equation that one worker will be supporting one pensioner (around four workers fill those positions now) and you’ll be able to determine it doesn’t add up. Mason also shows that all that money invested in government bonds and shares and other financial assets are, in the longer term, worthless as the International Monetary Fund recognises. The bearer will not pay on demand.  When it unravels, as it will, then the provider of last resort is the government.

Here’s another of my favourites. The problem of supply is one of demand. Rosa Luxemburg, and all that. As Apple who make those nice phones and tablets and were the richest company in the world find to their cost, unless poor people have money in their pockets they can’t afford to buy those shiny new toys. One in eight workers in the US have at one time worked for McDonalds. Tens of millions wait for food stamps and flood into Walmart, who tell their staff to claim for food stamps. In our country we’re looking at the same solution: the race to the bottom. The solution, increased liquidity, give more money to the rich in the hope that it trickles –eventually- down to the poor, doesn’t work. It’s never worked, but is  neoliberal ideology in action.

Mason takes a hint from that well-known libertine, Friedrich Hayek, and suggests that citizens should be issued with an income to do with it what they liked by the government. Imagine if universal credit really was universal credit and how work would become an optional choice. But it’s another of Hayek’s truisms Mason challenges. Only the market can allocate resources. Computing power, argues Mason, can now do that just as effectively, or more effectively than any free market. Facebook and Google, for example, can anticipate our every need before we can even voice it. Their algorithms are getting better. What we think of choice is just a bit of camouflage as the servant serves us more of the same, but in a different colour. But imagine Mason suggests harnessing this power. Imagine the government building more houses. Imagine the government taking control of the money supply and instead of trying to sell banks we already own, lending money to rich people, lending it to fund social projects. Imagine the government running the energy industry for our benefit. I know, I know, it’s a bit much to take. Especially, the bit about taking money from the 1% who are rolling in it. There’s a loss of liberty there. Liberalism. Liberty. More equality.  Mason thinks that the threats that we face will allied with the technologies that we have developed will make it brave new world with everyone sharing in the fruits of non-labour. I’m more cynical. We’re at the Wright brother stages with the first aircraft. New technologies will enrich us, but not us all. The world is a more stratified place and will become even more stratified and uneven. Four horsemen on the horizon. Not even that far. I think I can hear the thunder of hoofs. But I hope Mason is right and I’m wrong, as I usually am.

Why I hate Downton Abbey

I know it’s the last series of Downton Abbey. It sells big in America where people like former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin things we live in stately homes.  Lots of people here watch it. It’s won sacksful of awards for best drama. I’ve never seen more than a clip of an episode, yet Downton Avenue has me reaching for my Kalashnikov.

There’s nothing down town about Downton Abbey. It’s a showcase of beautifully dressed people with impeccable manners showcasing all that was great about Great Britain. Let’s start at the top. Take away the gold frame from around the jug ear of Prince Charles, our future king, and perhaps someone can explain what particular skill set he, or his forebearers brought to the Industrial revolution, or to the modern world? There’s no answer to inherited land and inherited wealth. The people that own the land, like those portrayed in Downton Abbey, also owned the people on the land. Attend the right sort of schools. The right sort of University. Pull on a graduation robe and take the prizes of  public office and the trappings of power and the promise of yet more wealth. Look no further than our Prime minister and his Chancellor of Exchequer.  As Thomas Piketty, among others, have shown in the modern world wealth begets wealth, in spite of, not because of who owns it. Briton is a good place to be rich.

It’s not a good place to be poor. The antithesis of programmes such as Downton Abbey show mainly on channels 4 or 5 with the tagline ‘benefit’ attached. Type it into a search engine and see how many hits you get. Then add the Jeremy Kyle effect. There’s a Victorian cruelty to these programmes, a type of bear baiting, in which the working class are prodded and poked and made to dance and squeal for our master’s entertainment.  Upstairs, Downstairs, and while they are in the ascendency we’re downstairs where we belong, read the subtext, because we’re thick and left to ourselves would be primitive savages, what right wing commentators Charles Murray call a ‘feral underclass’. A recent poll at the Edinburgh Festival found the majority thought  Waynes and Waynettes and foul mouthed Vicky Pollard are not seen are representatives of Little Britain, but embodiments of the working class. But it fits a larger narrative.

To paraphrase R.H.Tawney (1913) what rich people call a problem of poverty is what poor people call a problem of riches.  A general post-second world war consensus and belief in a subsistence minimal under which no individual living in the UK should fall. The level at which national assistance or supplementary benefits were set as a monetary equivalent of a poverty line. Even then, in the 1950s, one in twenty household were said to be below it. And when Peter Townsend’s seminal work Poverty in the UK was published in 1979 seemed to be a call to arms. With empirical data, our Labour government would right a great wrong.

Yet, as Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack show in Breadline Britain in 2012 three in twelve fell below the poverty line. And the problem of child poverty has been solved, by our Eton-educated betters, by re-categorising it as a problem of poor parenting that can be solved by parenting classes. A moral problem. A story many of us are familiar with.

I’ve got a mate that’s got cancer and I’ll expect will die this year. He’s been knocked off the sick, told he’s fit to work. He’s appealed that decision. But in the meantime has zero income. His housing benefit is no longer paid. Local authority housing employees send him threatening letters demanding increasingly larger sums of money. He’s been told by his medical consultant to eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of fluids. He’s a causality, one among the many. Classifiable in that old throwback to Victorian society and notions of the deserving and undeserving poor. The underserving poor where those thought able to work and not willing to work. Those like my mate.  And the place for them was prison –for vagrancy – or the poor house, cast in with the old and sick where they’d be made to work. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London, trailing and documenting these spikes prior to the Second World War, showed what little work there was for the men (and it was mostly men), wasn’t worth the cost of administration or effort, but it had to be seen to have a salutary effect as not being a soft option. Language we are familiar with today.  Weighty matters such as how much salt should be added to the gruel and whether sugar was a luxury inmates would come to depend upon where debated at parish level. Scotland was the most frugal of nations here.

The privilege of being rich and owning land and the servants on the land as they do in Downton Abbey extends to a policing role of the morals of the lower classes. Sarah Waters gives a fictional account of this in her novel The Little Stranger set in a decaying aristocratic pile, Hundred Hall, just after the end of World War Two. Doctor Faraday who visits the Hall, in a professional capacity, recounts to Lady Ayres how her mother had worked as a nurse maid in the same house in which they were sitting. She wore an identical uniform to the other nurse maids and had to stand with her hands out each morning while the housekeeper examined her fingernails. How the former Lady Ayres would often come unannounced into the maids’ bedrooms and go through their boxes one by one.  Dr Pamela Cox in the BBC programme, Servants – the true story of life below stairs, shows that such experiences were not unusual. It really was an us-and-them world. In 1911, one and a half million worked as indoor servants. Cox suggests that few in Britain would have an ancestor that was not a servant. When I watch clips of Downton Abbey I don’t see the leading actors, I look for subterranean tunnels, damp basements and attic rooms. I look in vain for a serving class on their feet and at the beck and call of their masters for sixteen hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week. I look for servants that cringe at the behest of the master and mistress and are urged to make themselves invisible – until needed. I rejoice that those days are gone, but mourn the lesson of two world wars have been forgotten and they have returned under the guise of neoliberal orthodoxy and extended choice.

Linda Tirado, who works –among other jobs –as a waitress, in the introduction to Hand To Mouth, feels the need to remind readers, ‘I’m a human after all’ and most poor people start their day in debt and end their days in debt and in between isn’t much fun either.  Her chapter titles show where the fault line in the propaganda war against the rich has been lost and the poor routed and tagged with epithet worthless, subhuman, scrounger.

‘It Take Money to Make Money.’ This is not Thomas Piketty telling the reader that money flows from the poor to the rich at an increasing rate, but a working- mother’s view from the bottom rung, two jobs, living on fresh air and foodstamps. No matter which way you cut it, isn’t going to make any difference. Her car gets towed and she can’t afford to pay to get it out of the compound. You need money for that. More than she makes in a day. Martin Ford shows a different pattern. Waltmart is busiest at midnight when food stamps are first issued. Stores are least busy in the week before food stamps are issued. The end of the month is the end of the line for tens of millions.

‘We Do Not Have Babies For Welfare Money.’ What Tirado does not say is that she has the wrong kind of babies. Babies that are born poor, are likely to grown up to be poor as Robert Putman, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, shows.  She admits this herself. ‘Poverty is Fucking Expensive.’ They don’t swear like that on Downton Abbey, but then again, perhaps they don’t need to. Tirado in her penultimate chapter sums up where the propaganda war has been won and lost, ‘Being Poor isn’t a Crime – It Just Feels Like It’. Let’s be as honest as Tirado, when you’re the servant of the rich you’re going to get screwed, whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing much you can do about it. Rich men hold all the trump cards and they have a big stick at their back. The propaganda war was lost a long time ago. Hunker down or rise up. Winners such as those in Downton Abbey write the history and talk about traditions. It leaves a sour taste, but I don’t have to watch it – not yet. But it’s hard to hold your tongue or listen to such claptrap getting cheered.

A budget holiday for the rich

george osborne budget

Thornwood (Steve) in AbcTales posts I hope the Tories have a change of heart about the planned cuts. 38 Degrees send me an email suggesting I contribute money so they can take out advertisements extorting George Osborne to think again. Dream on.

Notes on poverty (in no particular order).

Orwell suggest we need to state the obvious. Richard Hoggart wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier. ‘Each decade we shiftily declare that we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty’. Orwell, like Huxley, saw no way forward for the common working man in the 1930s. Mechanization would make him surplus to requirements.  There are parallels with the contemporary  turmoil in Greece. Then as  now, for example, with around  twenty-five percent of the population unemployed and fear for their future. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath caught a country’s angst. It described the  pre-war United States experience before and after Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Second World War parodied in Orwell’s 1984, in which each warring state blows up most of the products it produces, did save capitalism. The fall of the Berlin wall left it the only game in town.

Richard Titmus dictum: ‘service for the poor would become poor services’ have never seemed more apt.

Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack in Breadline Britain point out the obvious: Britain spends below the average on benefits as a proportion of GDP.

The poorest fifth in Britain, for example, are poorer than Scandinavian countries, which you’d expect. But look at our close neighbours. Forty percent poorer than those in Germany or Austria and a third poorer than those in France.

Levels of statutory sick pay, short-term incapacity benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance have been described as ‘manifestly inadequate’ by the Council of Europe which is hardly a hotbed of socialist revolution.

Jimmy Reid dead but still red.

To the students I address this appeal. Reject these attitudes. Reject the values and false morality that underlie these attitudes. A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings. Reject the insidious pressures in society that would blunt your critical faculties to all that is happening around you, that would caution silence in the face of injustice lest you jeopardise your chances of promotion and self-advancement. This is how it starts and before you know where you are, you’re a fully paid-up member of the rat-pack. The price is too high. It entails the loss of your dignity and human spirit.

Robert Burns address To A Mouse ends in a field in Dumfries, a bleak December wind and a looking backwards and forwards and the realisation that the poor wee beastie, for all its troubles, is untouched by the past or future

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!

The present only touches thee:

But Ouch! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho I cannae see,

I guess an’ fear

Robert Tressel Noonan’s classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist fills many a void.

“Poverty is not caused by men and women getting married; it’s not caused by machinery; it’s not caused by “over-production”; it’s not caused by drink or laziness; and it’s not caused by “over-population”. It’s caused by Private Monopoly. That is the present system. They have monopolized everything that it is possible to monopolize; they have got the whole earth, the minerals in the earth and the streams that water the earth. The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, and we should have been compelled to work for them in order to get money to buy air to breathe. And if that seemingly impossible thing were accomplished tomorrow, you would see thousands of people dying for want of air – or of the money to buy it – even as now thousands are dying for want of the other necessities of life. You would see people going about gasping for breath, and telling each other that the likes of them could not expect to have air to breathe unless the had the money to pay for it. Most of you here, for instance, would think and say so. Even as you think at present that it’s right for so few people to own the Earth, the Minerals and the Water, which are all just as necessary as is the air. In exactly the same spirit as you now say: “It’s Their Land,” “It’s Their Water,” “It’s Their Coal,” “It’s Their Iron,” so you would say “It’s Their Air,” “These are their gasometers, and what right have the likes of us to expect them to allow us to breathe for nothing?” And even while he is doing this the air monopolist will be preaching sermons on the Brotherhood of Man; he will be dispensing advice on “Christian Duty” in the Sunday magazines; he will give utterance to numerous more or less moral maxims for the guidance of the young. And meantime, all around, people will be dying for want of some of the air that he will have bottled up in his gasometers. And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of th gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order, and after doing your best to tear him limb from limb, you’ll drag him, covered with blood, in triumph to the nearest Police Station and deliver him up to “justice” in the hope of being given a few half-pounds of air for your trouble.”

Owen’s fictional harangue seems rather dated and overblown. Let’s put it into modern parlance. George Ritzer’s attack on the fast-food industry and McDonaldisation as the ‘irrationality of rationality’. Let’s talk about leverage. In 2014 the UK’s GDP was £1.8 trillion. The financial sector was £20 trillion. Companies like Apple are listed on the stock exchange and worth nearly £1 trillion.

Jan Zalasiewicz’s research shows the earth is on the brink of the sixth mass extinction. The fault lies with us. Humans and the land vertebrates that we keep as a cash crop and to eat –pigs, cows, sheep, poultry etc—have pushed what we think of as wild animals such as elephants, giraffes and tigers to the fringe. We take ninety-five percent of resources and this is increasing and they take up five percent.

Pork, for example, is mass produced from cradle to grave. Ted Genoways shows how worker’s wages are driven increasingly downwards, their workload increased year on year by increasing line speed. Profits are increased, allowing vertical integration the takeover of more land, the growing of more corn crops to feed the pigs they produce and the use of their excrement as fertiliser to feed the land. One of the problems he identifies is the runoff of fertiliser (pig shit) from the land results in water pollution and leaving water undrinkable.  Half a million people in Des Moines, for example, could no longer safely drink their water because of an increased level of nitrates and E coli. Enforcement of the Clean Water Act was hampered by sacking workers who monitored the rivers. The kind of light-touch regulation we are familiar with. A saving and win-win situation. Only poor people drink water.

Catch 22. Major Major (senior) is a farmer in Mid-West. He hates Medicare. He hates social services. He hates the unemployed getting a hand out. He liked getting paid for not growing alfalfa in his fields. The more money he gets for not growing alfalfa the more fields he buys not to grow alfalfa. He knew how to make money and how not to make money. The poor were poor because they were lazy and didn’t work hard enough. Something needed to be done about them.

Corporate Ag gag laws where a triumph of corporate practice that even Joseph Heller would have chocked on. Cruelty to humans results in cruelty to animals as sure as pig follows shit. Animal abuse isn’t animal abuse if we don’t see it. Whistle blowers such as PETA who film or record such events are reclassified and prosecuted by the state as terrorists indulging in terrorist activity.

We are what we eat. Closer to home we eat the poor.

Rohan Silva: It’s no surprise that between 2010 and 2014 workers in London saw their wages fall in real terms by more than £3000 per year, even with (perhaps because of) global capital pouring into the city. Karel Williams of the Manchester Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change suggests the size of Britain’s bank fundamentally distorts its economic model. Let’s look at it sideways. Fifteen- percent of the population take seventy percent of all flights. Ninety-five percent of public expenditure on public works is spent on London, with this likely to increase with  Heathrow likely to add another runway. Daniel Boffey reports in The Observer the UK government has increasingly hampered progress in tax avoidance. To paraphrase R.H. Tawney the problem of poverty is the problem of riches.

They have fostered a climate of fear and mistrust. Al Alvarez in  The Writer’s Voice, discusses Edmund Wilson’s critique of New Criticism, but it works equally well with the politics of our Tory leaders and masters.

How, you may ask, can we identify this elite who know what they are talking about? Well, it can be said of them that they are self-appointed and self-perpetuating and that they will compel you to accept their authority. Imposters…demagogues [preaching] varieties of no nothingism.

Tory’s plan to redefine child poverty out of existence. One in five children live in a home that is cold or damp. Two-and-a half million children in poverty is not a true reflection our Tory masters claim. The Fabian society claim cuts to tax credits will hit the lowest paid, the working poor, and the largest group in society. Look back to the 1960s and 1970s and seismic influence of Peter Townsend’s The Poor and the Poorest, which became Poverty in the UK. Something had to be done. National soul searching. Debate. An increase in benefit levels.  Needs change over time but we all need to eat and have a roof over our head. With rising housing costs and reduced benefits, more people chasing fewer jobs, more people chasing fewer homes and almost a third of the population locked into wage and benefit free-fall something had to be done now. We’re budgeting for it.

Take for example the Mail on Sunday’s exposure that almost anyone could walk into a Foodbank and claim to be hungry and be given a free packet of pasta. No check on credentials. They could have been reporters that drove away in a car worth £30 000 and nobody stopped them. I must admit I’d like to have broken a wing mirror or two. But I’m not a pasta thief taking food out of the mouths of the hungry.

When I think of how our Tory leaders murder language and define poverty I think of my school days and the catch 22 before we were in a modern comprehensive secondary. The worst crime at school wasn’t burning down the school, it was refusing the belt for burning down the school. You could plead innocence. Become a grass and name the culprits. Tell the teacher you didn’t have any matches and were scared of fire and flames. The truth is you’d refused the belt and that was worse than burning down the school. Poverty is no excuse for poverty, it’s personal.

The Tory government focus on problem families. In a jointly funded church report The Lies We Tell Ourselves troubled families were estimated at around 120 000, and with typical Tory inflation this went up to 500 000. The flip side of that is these troubled families become the cause of the nation’s ills. Fecklessness became the common currency of what they were talking about and whom. They were infecting society. Benefit Street or any other documentary on Channel 4 or 5 will show the truth is out there. In the thirties this would have been called propaganda. Now its mass entertainment.

Owen in Tressel’s classic addressed it in this way. ‘What is the cause of the lifelong poverty of those who are not drunkards and DO work? Why, if all the drunkards and wont-works and unskilled or inefficient workers could be by some miracle transformed into sober, industrious and skilled workers tomorrow, it would under the present conditions be so much the worse for us, because there isn’t enough work for ALL now and those people by increasing the competition for what work there is, would inevitably lead to a reduction in wages and a greater scarcity of employment. The theories that drunkenness, laziness or inefficiency are the causes of poverty are so many devices invented and fostered by those who are selfishly interested in maintaining the present state of affairs…

Why is it…we are not only deprived of nearly all the benefits of civilisation, but we and our children are also unable to obtain even the bare necessities of existence.

If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessities of existence, that’s man’s family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilisation, he might just as well be a savage, better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is deprived.’

How wealth is generated matters. As Henry J Ford, hardly a revolutionary figure says ‘if an employed does not share prosperity with those who make him prosperous, then pretty soon there will be no prosperity to share. Joe Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winning economist who predicted the 2008 crash and forecasts another, says much the same thing

Roman Abromavich docked his yacht Eclipse and took a cycle round the Isle of Arran this week. Let’s look at Bill Browder’s take on corruption. He spotted there was a killing to be made in the old Soviet Union of the 1980s and made hundreds of millions of dollars. The average gap between rich  and poor proletariat Russians was a factor of six. The richest Soviet citizen were worth six times the poorest paid. Poor old Roman. He cashed in his chips and jumped ship. Now according to Forbes he’s worth $9 billion. He did in one generation what it took the aristocracy far longer. The new rich meet the old rich in cities like London were wealth can be laundered.  His Eclipse eclipses the newly revamped Southern General Hospital which cost almost £200 million. But the Southern General Hospital is an asset that employs tens of thousands and generates disposable income that is spread in and around that area. The engine of the economy is disposable income. When people have nothing they spend nothing. But it doesn’t work in reverse gear. When the rich money has something he doesn’t spend.

Pope Francis who knows a thing or two about miracles describes ‘trickle down economics’. I’ll paraphrase in terms of Pinocchio, just when the snot of trickle is about to happen the needs of the rich man grows. His nose grows commensurately and he tells you he has not enough to meet his needs. Somebody else pays. The common man. The poor pay for the roads and docks and infrastructure and they educate rich and poor, but not alike. But in the current egalitarian tax system there is a  reversal of who pays more. In the 1960s and 1970s the top fifth paid more tax than the bottom fifth. That has been reversed. The rich man orders a tax avoidance scheme from an accountant in the same way that a bespoke suit used to be made by a skilled tailor.

Piketty shows that in mature economies such as Britain money grows at increasing speed and rate to the one percent that have money and own the land and assets that go with it. The answer is to tax the rich. Simple.  It would be a start. I wish some political party would start thinking in that way and not the hot air of no nothingism that we’ve come to expect so we no longer listen.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole