To baldly go. Jeff Bezos’s final frontier.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Possibly Voltaire, definitely Spider Man, but not, it seems, Jeff Bezos.

Jeff Bezos, in an interview with Business Insider in 2018 (when he was “worth” $132 billion) said, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel. I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.”

There is a current among the uber wealthy to project space as their future – as though they can avoid the problems involved in destroying the conditions for human survival on Earth by getting “off world”.  As though they were exposed to too many plays of “The Final Countdown” at an impressionable age. The fantasy in that song, that – having trashed the Earth – everyone could head off to live on Venus (not an enticing prospect with an surface temperature hot enough to melt lead, air pressure at ground level 92 times greater than Earth’s – and enough to crush anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on it – and an atmosphere largely comprised of dense clouds of sulphuric acid) and that the Venusians would be welcoming to a species that had just destroyed their own habitat and wanted to have another go in theirs; is only marginally less absurd than the idea that life on Mars (with virtually no oxygen, no water cycle, no vegetation, an average temperature of -67C and dust storms thousands of kilometres wide that last for months) would be remotely desirable compared to living – say – in an upscale part of Seattle.

In an interview with CBS News in July 2019 Bezos said “Human beings are in the process of destroying this planet” and – in a leap of imagination that treats planetary destruction as a given premise instead of an avoidable problem – produces a wild fantasy of off world manufacturing, with factories on the Moon within a few hundred years. Seeing William Shatner echoing these delusions this week was like hearing an echo of the blithe optimism of the 1960s that his character in Star Trek embodied- in which the future was all flying cars and galactic exploration – well out of its time. Kirk out.

What Bezos seems to be missing here is that the Amazon – the other one – is on fire NOW; and we don’t have a few hundred years to deal with keeping our planet habitable. We have a decade to make a serious dent in greenhouse gas emissions if we are to have half a chance of getting through to the end of the century with a civilisation intact. Recognising that business as usual – including his business as usual – is “destroying this planet” would probably make most people think that anyone with a spare $132 billion might want to put most or all of it into stopping the destruction. This does not seem to have occurred to him.

Its the phrasesmy financial lottery winnings from Amazon” and  the only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource” that stick out from his original quote (my emphasis).

His “winnings” from Amazon are not a lottery but the result of profoundly ruthless and dehumanising management systems that are part of the reason our planet is being destroyed in the first place. Mr Bezos’s “winnings” are the flip side of the following.

  • Amazon pays 15% below average wage rates for warehouse workers.
  • Workers employed at the Amazon depot in Dunfermline were found sleeping in tents near the factory because the cost of transport took such a huge chunk out of their meagre wages that they couldn’t afford to commute.
  • In Ohio, 700 of their workers are on food stamps.
  • Workers are often employed as “permatemps” to minimise their legal rights at work.
  • Delivery workers are paid by the package, putting them under huge pressure to zip round as quickly as possible – the implications of this for safe driving should concern everyone.
  • In 2013, they had the second highest turnover of workers of any company in the Fortune 500 Index. According to a Study by Pay Scales, the average Amazon worker can’t stick it out beyond a year.
  • Warehouse workers are tied to electronic monitors that keep them to targets that are set just beyond what they can do if they work flat out without a breather. Some workers have taken to peeing in bottles so they don’t lose the time taken in going to the loo.
  • As a result, in the UK, there have been 600 ambulance calls to Amazon Warehouses in the last 3 years. Just over one every other day. The Rugely depot in particular looks like a place to avoid getting a job if you possibly can – with 115 call outs.

The “logic” of this is – while the company is waiting for robots to take over, they will treat their workers as much like robots as possible. Seen this way, people are robots with needs that present as flaws.

Treating workers as throw away resources is of a piece with treating the Earth’s resources in the same way.

Amazon made $3 billion profits on $180 billion in sales in 2017. It paid no Federal taxes in the United States in 2017 and 2018. In the UK between 2016 and 2017, even though business increased by a third, the tax paid was halved – to a tiny £4 million (about the same as the annual budget for one medium sized secondary school).

So we have a company that treats its workers like robots, burns them up and spits them out, does not contribute to the social costs of creating its labour force or the infrastructure that sustains them, or the transport infrastructure along which the company’s goods are delivered, or anything else. An essentially parasitic relationship.

And we have an owner who thinks he, personally, has the right not only to keep his “lottery winnings” but to blow them on space exploration rather than the million and one tasks that face us in keeping this planet habitable for the next generation.

The sheer entitled self indulgence of people like this shows them up as unfit to control such concentrations of wealth; and any society that sets them up as “aspirational” role models – because what else should you aspire to if not to become filthily, selfishly, rich – is dooming itself to self destruction. A future future determined by people like this is not  good enough for humanity, nor is it viable. Saving ourselves means becoming more human, more social, less robotic, less exploited and exploiting.

We can do better than them.

Round the twist and up the spout. Why the mental health crisis?

Keir Starmer’s pledge in his Party conference speech that a Labour government would make sure that anyone needing mental health support from the NHS would get it within a month, is a reactive response to an increasingly evident mental health crisis that until recently hardly dared speak its name. However, it is also a fire fighting response to symptoms; implying no attempt to look at causes.

That requires a deeper look at what’s going on, what is the scale of the problem, why it is happening, what are the “solutions” that are currently being tried; and what are they trying to do and whether they work (and who for)?

What’s going on?

The MHFA in England reported the following before the pandemic.

  • 1 in 4 people experience mental health issues each year.
  • At any given time, 1 in 6 working-age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health.
  • Mental illness is the second-largest source of burden of disease in England. Mental illnesses are more common, long-lasting and impactful than other health conditions..
  • People with a long-term mental health condition lose their jobs every year at around double the rate of those without a mental health condition. This equates to 300,000 people – the equivalent of the population of Newcastle or Belfast.
  • 75% of mental illness (excluding dementia) starts before age 18.
  • 70-75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment at all.

When considering young people.

  • 12.8% of young people aged 5-19 meet clinical criteria for a mental health disorder. 
  • Women between the ages of 16 and 24 are almost three times as likely (26%) to experience a common mental health issue as males of the same age (9%). 
  • The percentage of young people aged 5-15 with depression or anxiety increased from 3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017.  
  • About 20% of young people with mental ill health wait more than six months to receive care from a specialist.
  • In a 2018 OECD survey of 15-year-olds, the UK ranked 29th for life satisfaction, out of a total of 30 OECD countries.
  • About 10% of young people aged 8-15 experience a low sense of wellbeing. 

Not surprisingly, research carried out in the UK by NHS Digital between February and March 2021 found a very high and incidence of sleep problems, eating disorders and loneliness among young people aged 6 to 23; and that these had risen very sharply since 2017.

Four things jump out from this.

  1. It is widespread.
  2. It is damaging.
  3. It is expensive.
  4. It is growing fast.

Why is it happening?

It is apparent that, as a general rule, people with less social standing, wealth and power get more depressed than people with more. The Joseph Rowntree Trust reports:

Across the UK, both men and women in the poorest fifth of the population are twice as likely to be at risk
of developing mental health problems as those on average incomes.

Material disadvantage (with low educational attainment and unemployment) was associated with common mental health problems (depression and anxiety) in a review of population surveys in Europe… and is more marked in women than in men”.

So, the worse off you are, the more likely you are to suffer depression and anxiety.

So, though individual mental frailty or a chemical imbalance, or genetic predisposition can be factors, the main underlying factors are primarily social conditions that can be exacerbated or ameliorated by policy.

Its not hard to work out why. If you have resources, a comfortable place to live, assets in the bank, secure well paid employment, a role in society that confers respect, smart clothes, time and money to pursue culture and (sometimes) power over others; you live in a different world to someone who has no job, or a zero hours contract, or casual employment, scraping along on benefits, owing money to a loan shark, having to use a food bank, paying rent at an extortionate rate with no security of tenure for a gaff with mould that is ruinous or impossible to keep warm, wearing clothes until they wear out, and looked down on as a person worthy of no respect or value, no matter how much they graft. Being in the “Precariat” can be like standing on the edge of a precipice being relentlessly nudged towards it, while a rock capable of crushing you hovers over your head; and every system you try to use to navigate your way out presents itself as a labyrinth of tricks designed to frustrate you. Not this office mate, down there…Hopelessness, powerlessness, frustration.

And, women get more depressed than men. Which reflects the patterns of wealth and power, in society and the family.

And People on the receiving end of racism, are also hit harder than average.

  • “Black men are more likely to have experienced a psychotic disorder in the last year than White men
  • Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than White people
  • older South Asian women are an at-risk group for suicide
  • refugees and asylum seekers are more likely to experience mental health problems than the general population, including higher rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD.”

So far, so structural.

When we look at trends, its clear that increased impoverishment combined with disempowerment lead to an epidemic of mental ill health in the last decade; as any notion that the future offers hope to people at the bottom of the heap is closed off. Hopelessness tends to depression or rage, or sharp veers between the two.

Increases in child poverty since 2010 are continuing, and sometimes given a push by government legislation – like the restriction on benefits to larger families that came in in 2017. The Joseph Rowntree Trust has these figures for before the pandemic.

  • Poverty rose from 13% in 1996/97 to 22% in 2018/19 in lone-parent families working full time.
  • Between 1998/99 and 2010/11, the child poverty rate in lone-parent families working part-time more than halved from 52% to 22% but it has since risen back to 41%.
  • Poverty among single earner couples where one parent works full-time rose from 29% in 1996/97 to 38% in 2014/15 and remains at this level in 2018/19.

This is what the UN Special Rapporteur concluded about the UK in 2018.

14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials”.  

The pandemic is reckoned to have put a further 200,000 children below the poverty line.

The impact of the pandemic has also generated greater inequality and mental illness, hitting the poorest, women and ethnic minorities hardest – in cases, deaths, long Covid, bereavements, job losses, increased debt, increased workloads. This study in the Lancet shows that the countries with the worst infection and death rates have had the greatest increase in depression and anxiety and spells out the reasons this has hit women harder than men. “Women are more likely to take on additional carer and household responsibilities due to school closures or family members becoming unwell. Women also tend to have lower salaries, less savings, and less secure employment than men”.

At the same time, the number of billionaires in the UK increased by a quarter; and people with secure settled jobs they could do at home on a laptop piled up additional spending power. The combination of being more vulnerable to illness and increased insecurity on the one hand, and declining social standing on the other is potentially devastating for those losing out and left below.

And hovering over everything, the impact of the climate crisis is now unmissable. Even the Murdoch press in Australia has began to wake up and move in. Turn on the news and there are pictures of cars being flooded down German streets like so many paper boats, Chinese tube trains filling with water, London streets flash flooding, towns in the North Western USA burned out in minutes, plagues of locusts in East Africa. As a consequence, recent survey of young people showed that 75% globally (and 72% in the UK) are frightened of the future, 54% think that humanity is doomed and 39%, as a consequence, are planning not to have children. “No Future. No Future. No Future for you” as the song went. Climate anxiety is a live discussion in schools. This is not a false anxiety, not a mental disorder, but a completely rational response to a real threat.

The consequence of a continued failure to develop a social mission to avert climate breakdown is likely to be an increasingly pathological society; as a fatalistic or defeatist acceptance of impending civilizational breakdown leads to a last days of Nazi Berlin hedonistic frenzy. The field full of discarded single use plastic tents at the end of the Reading Festival at the end of August could stand as an early sign of this.

None of this is down to chemical imbalances or personal frailty. All are consequences of political choices.

These are huge over arching issues. There are other, smaller but no less real factors gnawing away at people’s self respect and security bound up with the way work is organised. All advanced economies are predominantly service sector. Thomas Piketty has pointed out that improvements in productivity are relatively straightforward in manufacturing. Invest in more modern and effective machinery and the production per worker increases. This is not so straightforward in services.

In education, for instance, it has been argued that, although the quality of learning has gone up, the scale of input needed to squeeze each additional measurable point in performance from students gets greater and greater. So a class of 30 kids with one teacher in 1990 would get to a level lower than a comparable class in 2020. But that has required a massive investment in IT – whiteboards etc – and additional personnel, Teaching Assistants; which is positive and gives children a richer experience. But it has also come with a bunch of people in the Senior Management Team whose role in life is to walk round with clip boards measuring everyone’s performance.

This application of Taylorism to teaching has made it increasingly mechanical, squeezed the life out of pauses and reflection, put enormous pressure both on educators and students, both of whom have been disempowered by the process; as appraisal is constant for the staff and testing constant for the children. UK children are the most tested in Europe. Tests for 4 year olds (imagine trying to do one – have Ministers ever met any four year olds?) and a return of Key Stage 3 SATs are the latest wheezes. Is it any wonder that children in the UK come 29th out of 30 in life satisfaction in the OECD. To put it another way, we are a world leader in the unhappiness of our children.

At the same time there is an equally relentless pressure – and this is common to the entire service sector – for compulsory happiness. What might be called a “smile though your heart is breaking” policy.

I stress this point about education because another reference in Starmer’s speech was to a return to the formulas of the Blair years; that squeezing additional performance out of the education system would underpin the programme of any future Labour government. If this is to be done in the same way, what might be summarised as OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED; this will compound the problem.

Particularly when you consider that what comes to the front of Starmer’s mind when considering curriculum review is that students should get “life skills” training, like how to fill out a mortgage application – indicating an imaginative horizon bounded more by Moneybox Live than IPCC Reports. The need to review the whole education system, so that our society can rise to the challenge of climate change, passed him by.

But this loss of control is widespread and counterproductive. Even noting that working from home, which gives workers more control over pace, timing, cutting themselves a bit of slack when they need to, working intensely when in the zone, has led to an increase in productivity of around 15%; companies are investing in software that enables supervisors to check up minute by minute on what their workers are doing; thereby killing the autonomy and (accidental) sense of trust that has generated the productivity increase in the first place. Its as if they are afraid that people will notice that this sort of role isn’t needed.

Its even worse for workers in warehouses denied union representation, controlled by wrist monitors dictating a pace of work that has them peeing in bottles, who are not in much condition to generate a sense of well being and fulfillment from their work.

So, the mental health crisis is being driven by the dynamics of the system we live in.

What is being done?

Driven by the economic costs – estimated to be £105 billion a year – and the need to keep the show on the road, the approach is to aim to patch up the people who crack up under the strain enough to make them once more functional, productive members of it – or at least not out of control and a danger to themselves and others; like the nearly 60,000 that were sectioned in 2019-20. This might be described as the Craiglockhart method; after the centre that treated victims of shell shock (PTSD) in the First World War; so they could be sent back to the front line and shelled again. The problem is individualised and the task is to make the patient fit back neatly into the systems that caused them distress in the first place. Starmer’s pledge is an indication of how far this inadequate framework is under resourced and under strain.

According to the Mental Health Foundation in 2014;

“The proportion of people with a common mental health problem using mental health treatment has significantly increased…. It is estimated that 75% of people with mental health problems in England may not get access to the treatment they need.” 

There are two main methods. Tablets or talk. Sometimes both.

Prescribing tablets is the first reflex.

This report from NatCen in 2019 shows that

  • The number of antidepressant prescriptions dispensed each year in England doubled between 2008 and 2018
  • Survey data show that the proportion of adults reporting use of antidepressants in the past year increased in the 1990s, and again between 2007 and 2014
  • The average length of time that antidepressants are continuously prescribed to people for has increased over time.

Public Health England reported “that, in 2017 to 2018, 11.5 million adults in England (26% of the adult population) received, and had dispensed, one or more prescriptions for ….antidepressants, “.

Confirming the analysis above they continue “Prescribing rates for opioid pain medicines and gabapentinoids had a strong association with deprivation, being higher in areas of greater deprivation. Antidepressant prescribing had a weaker association with deprivation. For benzodiazepines and z-drugs, prescribing rates slightly decreased with higher deprivation. For all medicine classes the proportion of patients who had at least a year of prescriptions increased with higher deprivation.

The questions that arise are obvious;

-if a quarter of your population has to be prescribed drugs to be able to cope with everyday life, what’s wrong with the system and what changes need to be made?

At the same time, 1.4 million people were referred to talking therapies in 2017 and just under a million started treatment. The most common form of this is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. These are time limited sessions, geared to teaching mental techniques to help people cope with pressures that might otherwise prove overwhelming. Its not the same as psychoanalysis and doesn’t seek to cure anything deep seated; more to train the brain in mindfulness and relaxation methods to make the otherwise unbearable bearable. While this is often essential so that a lot of people can cope with everyday life as it is currently lived – and preferable to old fashioned coping strategies like getting drunk – which never worked but had a massive negative knock on effect on personal health and domestic violence – its role is to enable people to get by, not to remove the source of their problem.

So, the approach to mental health is the same as the approach to COVID. Find ways to live with it.

What else might we do?

“We need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in”. Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

We might add, many of them are being pushed.

If the underlying sources of anxiety and depression are primarily social, so are the solutions. Poverty, inequality, sexism, racism, disempowerment of people at the bottom of the heap (and the individualisation of their problems) are built into capitalism and daily regenerated by it. So, we can’t expect a top down solution.

However, societies with a shared collective purpose at times of danger have lower levels of mental illness. We are at such a time of danger now with climate breakdown. Anxiety is the only sane response to it. Taking collective action to transform our world is the only way to stay sane while it is happening.

And that applies to every other form of oppression and exploitation. We need to reach out and join up. Humans become more human, creative, empowered, respected when acting in solidarity. Acting together to put things right gets us out of the black box of solitude.

Avoid the tabs, organise!

Insulate Britain. Wrong targets. Right demands.

Listening to Boris Johnson make his conference speech, as inverted a pyramid of piffle as any he has made; anyone would think 72% of young people in the UK were not afraid of the future, and almost two in five planning not to have children because climate breakdown means that they would be bringing them into a world that will be nightmarish by the time they are adults.

Barely addressing the climate crisis – for what could he say -and skidding swiftly over thin ice – as he tends to do – he tickled a few reliable rabid reflexes of the Tory faithful instead.

No reflection at all on the gravity of the situation, the impacts that are already hitting home. That there has been more disruption to normal traffic from flash floods in the last couple of months than from the actions of Insulate Britain. Yet we have no reflection on the former, just a little dig at the latter.

And no comment – of course – on the government’s abject failure to retrofit the leakiest, draftiest, most expensive to heat homes in Europe. They have tried twice since 2010, and failed ignominiously both times. And they currently have no plan at all.

Insulate Britain have two demands.

1. That the UK government immediately promises to fully fund and take responsibility for the insulation of all social housing in Britain by 2025

2. That the UK government immediately promises to produce within four months a legally binding national plan to fully fund and take responsibility for the full low-energy and low-carbon whole-house retrofit , with no externalised costs, of all homes in Britain by 2030 as part of a just transition to full decarbonisation of all parts of society and the economy.

This is because, as they put it

The UK has some 29 million homes and they are the oldest and least energy efficient housing stock in Europe. Every year vast amounts of precious energy are wasted in heating and, increasingly, cooling our buildings. 

In order to meet UK commitments under the Paris Agreement to stay below 1.5C, and legal obligations under the Climate Change Act 2008, as amended in 2019, emissions from heating and powering homes must be reduced by 78% in less than 15 years and then to zero by 2050. 

​Nearly 15% of the UK’s total emissions comes from heating homes: an overhaul of the energy performance of the UK’s housing stock is needed to reduce the energy demand.

The UK needs a nation-wide programme to upgrade almost every house. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) 2018 report, Scaling Up Retro fit 2050, advises that nearly every home in the UK needs to be upgraded with energy efficiency measures. That is 1.5 homes per minute to the year 2050.

Any government serious about the scale and urgency of the climate crisis would be doing this already.

People supergluing themselves to motorways is a desperate measure for desperate times, coming from a justified anxiety that the scale of the response from a blustering and blithering government is completely out of whack with the scale of the problem. People not in denial about the implications of “code red for humanity”- and alarmed by it – will increasingly take actions that disrupt the flow of normality. Because it is “normality” that is stoking the crisis. As the Dennis Price character says in Kind Hearts and Coronets: “The prospect of impending execution concentrates the mind wonderfully”.

The problem is that action directed at people just trying to get by in someone else’s world annoys them directly and gives those responsible for the crisis a way to divert anger at it onto the people trying to change it; thereby diverting attention from their failure to deal with it and giving them a chance to bring in more repressive legislation directed at protest, with the general public cheering on the restriction of their own rights. The Conservatives are very practiced at this.

Polling indicates overwhelming support for insulating homes, but equally overwhelming condemnation for the actions. YouGov Polls show 53% have an unfavourable view of IB, with just 16% favourable. The scale of this varies from a 7:1 unfavourable view from Conservative voters to a 2:1 unfavourable view among Labour and Lib Dem voters; just over 4:1 among over 65s and 2:1 among 18-24 year olds. YouGov put their questions about the protests first, and the issue second – just so everyone can be prompted in the most negative way. In a local poll in Newbury Today framed as “Would you take tougher legal action against the Insulate Britain environmental protesters” 87% voted “Yes, their tactics are too disruptive to the public” and just 11% “No, they are fighting to save our planet”. The framing of the narrative is the “Eco mob” vs you and me. Anyone arrested at a protest who has ever driven a diesel vehicle or cooked with gas is gleefully “exposed” as a “hypocrite” in the written lynch mob tactics the tabloids have honed to perfection over the years.

The issue here is that the initial framing of XR’s direct, peaceful disruptive action strategy was that it was designed to be disruptive enough to make the powers that be accede to their demands as a easier option than carrying on with business as usual. This always over estimated the potential for this and under estimated the determination of the ruling class to keep their show on the road even as they began to see that it is running over a cliff. However, even this strategy was contingent on the generation of mass support. The tactics deployed therefore needed to be carefully chosen, so that mass sympathy for the issue could be further generated by the example of the sacrifice of the people carrying out the actions. The actions of the most conscious, determined and disciplined people had to act as a catalyst for mass pressure in the right direction. A misjudged action – like the attempt to stop the tube at Canning Town in November 2019, which led commuters to physically attack protestors – acts as a catalyst for reaction.

Action to insulate homes is a priority. For reducing carbon emissions. For creating jobs. For cutting bills. It is being blocked by a government unwilling to invest in it. As a demand it has mass support. The question for the whole movement is how to mobilise that support in campaigning on a mass enough scale to make continued delay politically impossible.

Stephen Kinnock goes full Royston Vasey.

Change the word “British” to “American” in this quote from Stephen Kinnock’s pean to Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech, and you get a sentiment that could easily have been expressed by Donald Trump or Steve Bannon.

“Turning to our sense of national security, there is an equally compelling story to tell. For decades, unfettered globalisation has been allowed to rip through our communities, off-shoring jobs, tearing at the social fabric of our towns, and complacently inviting Chinese state-owned enterprises to dominate our supply chains and insert themselves into our critical national infrastructure. The British people are crying out for a government that will stand up for their interests on the global stage.”

Lets look at this in detail.

It follows a paragraph in which he rightly notes “there can be no doubt that for decades people’s sense of local and national security has been eroding, to the point where we now live in what the economist and author Paul Collier calls the ‘Age of Anxiety’. But he does not examine what it is that is causing that anxiety – and indeed, growing mental health crisis – particularly amongst those being impoverished and disempowered.

That is probably deliberate, because spelling them out would lead to very different conclusions from the ones he wants to draw.

People in the developed world are now on the receiving end of tactics long employed by business in the Global South. In the same way that soldiers in Europe in the First World War found themselves on the receiving end of military technology previously deployed exclusively by them against “lesser breeds without the law” in the colonies. In the end, it all comes home to roost. So, insecure employment, zero hours contracts, hire and fire, weakened unions and bullying managements, stagnating wages, “in work benefits” as a subsidy to employers, food banks, a social security system worn so thin that the fabric is long torn, are all a feature of workers experience across the entire system; regardless of locality or nation. Its not China that is “tearing at the fabric” of our high streets, its Amazon. Its not China that is “offshoring Jobs” its businesses like Dyson. People are anxious about whether they will keep their jobs, whether their children will find decent work or housing, how they will be cared for in old age. All this is global. Not local. Not national.

People are also anxious that the future feels more like a trap than a promise. Since 2008, neo liberalism has been incapable of inclusive growth. Climate breakdown is increasingly apparent. 75% of young people globally say they are frightened by the future. 39% say they are planning not to have children. This is global. Not local. Not national.

For Kinnock, this is not about capitalism, its about “unfettered globalisation”; an enemy of the local and national. That would be the “unfettered globalisation” that Tony Blair argued for in his 2005 Labour Party conference speech. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” This was before the 2008 crash. When Blair and those like him believed that it was possible to eliminate “boom and bust” and sail ever onwards and upwards, and the accession of China to the World Trade Organisation would slowly but surely turn the entire world into one gigantic American suburb. It didn’t turn out like that.

so, now, we find economic nationalism back in a big way. A dog whistle in Starmer’s speech about how awful it is that wind farm components are “towed in from places such as Indonesia”. So, workers in the developing world, getting a toe hold on industrialisation, are the threat to workers here; setting them head to head in a zero sum competition rather than complimentary parts of a global division of labour that could be win win for all of us. And what a wonderful phrase that is; “places such as”. Places that were once colonies, places that “we” could once happily disregard as far away countries of which we knew nothing and cared less, but now that they are getting uppity and wanting work, should be put firmly back in their place.

Starmer seems more concerned with jackets and towers for wind farms being made in Indonesia and Vietnam, than he does about the more lucrative and skilled jobs making the motors being done in Europe. This is a dangerously misleading trope with a racist whiff. A study on the reality of offshoring by multinationals carried out by the University of Nottingham in 2005 found that of 925 UK Multinational firms in manufacturing and 1,928 in services

  • 96 per cent of UK multinationals in the manufacturing sector had at least one subsidiary within OECD member nations, while just 20 per cent had subsidiaries within non-OECD countries; only eight per cent had subsidiaries in either China or India.
  • In the services sector, 95 per cent of UK multinationals had at least one subsidiary in OECD member countries; only 18 per cent in non-OECD countries; and just 4.5 per cent in India and China.
  • They concluded that “these findings refute the common misrepresentation that the UK is offshoring jobs largely to ‘cheap labour’ markets” and that “the truth is that the most frequent locations for foreign affiliates are other developed countries, mainly other European nations and the US.”

And Kinnock does not notice the irony in his speech. “Chinese state owned enterprises” have done rather well since the crash, primarily because they are state owned. Time was, Labour was in favour of that. Kinnock is painting a paranoid picture – two parts “Yellow Peril” to three parts “Red Menace” -akin to that of the Base Commander in Dr Strangelove. It was, of course, a dreadful thing that Chinese steel maker Jingye invested £1.2 in saving British Steel in Scunthorpe, and the 3,000 jobs that went with it. And China’s offer to build HS2 in 5 years at a fraction of the cost currently projected is obviously an evil plan to infiltrate our precious bodily fluids.

On the basis of seeking truth through facts:

  • In 2020, China accounted for 12% of the UK supply chain (imports) – the same level as Germany. The problem for Kinnock is that this proportion is growing on the basis of normal trading relations. If he wants to launch a trade war on Trumpish lines, the net effect would be the same as in the US, increased costs for consumers and an increase in economic insecurity.
  • This graph shows the sources of FDI into the UK in 2019. China’s contribution is somewhere in “other” and below that of France. So, less than 4.6% and and not exactly “commanding heights”. Kinnock seems unconcerned that US capital is inserting itself “into our critical national infrastructure” on a very large scale indeed.

It is his final sentence that is most concerning. “The British people are crying out for a government that will stand up for their interests on the global stage.” It reads like a Daily Mail or Express headline. Its as if he watches Henry V every morning before breakfast. “The British people”. As though it were a single entity with a single voice, with no contradictions and no arguments on the way forward. This is unreconstructed nationalist populism; a leading Labour politician allowing himself to be used as a ventriloquist dummy for the posturing imperial nostalgia of Boris Johnson; a kind of viagra for a sense of resentful national decline. The belief that we still live in a time in which sending a big gunboat to the South China Sea and being a mini-me for the New American Century is a route to “security” is deluded. There is nothing quite so dangerous as a faded imperial power trying to strut its stuff and strike postures “on the world stage”.

This isn’t a performance. If we want security, we have real problems to deal with – climate breakdown, Covid, poverty, racism, stopping a new Cold War. At the UN last month, Xi Jinping called for global co-operation to deal with all of them. That is the path to security for all of us.

A Mask and a Bowl of Mince

In the 1990s, there were just two curry houses in our local drag of shops. The one nearest the park was a rather dusty, sleepy place called Lahoria that had had the same decor since it opened at some point in the seventies; and almost certainly the same menu. It was run by a plump, tired old bloke, with a rumpled face and rumpled tank top, who presided over the small groupings of tables from the sanctuary of a hatch; beyond which lay the mysteries of the kitchen. The food was similarly tired. It was usually empty. We went there occasionally because life can sometimes be too exciting, and we liked the old bloke; who was always friendly and a bit wistful. At the other end of the strip was the Lahore Kebab House of East London. A strange title for a restaurant in NW9. Part of a very small chain of two. This place was hopping. Spiced up to the pain threshold, sizzling on baltis, crowded out with the first generation of Asians who didn’t feel they’d be better off making it at home for nothing. It was a gold mine at the time.

As the Millennium turned, unviable small businesses – a plumbers emporium, a newsagent, an old established hairdressers (Lord Andre) that all seemed a bit like time capsules – gave up the ghost and were replaced by Lahore Kebab House clones. Lahore Spice busy and bustling on the corner, Sheikhan overextended and smart minimalist, stretching across two shop fronts in the middle, affecting an upmarket style but padding their dishes with chick peas quite a bit we thought. Lahoria was bought up by a bloke who renamed it Chili Masala, tore out the partition, set up outside tables, plugged in an ice cream fridge and sold it from the pavement outside; opened late, late, put in a big screen showing Bollywood films and ran lots of promotions to get bums on seats at the formica tables. Even the big old white pub opposite the Green, with its air of lonely desolation, was reborn as one of those upmarket places with fake marble floors and big screen TVs showing the football, or films with the sound down; and a Shisha bar for the smart young set at one end (migraine inducing milkshakes and strobe lights a speciality).

Lahore Kebab House was suddenly empty. About ten years ago, just before he sold it, we had a chat with the owner. He was managing to get by, but talked sadly about how he’d lost a huge part of the money he’d made by investing in a flat that hadn’t been built yet in Dubai. The sky was the limit. But, along came the 2008 crash and the company building the block went bust, taking the money he’d already paid with it.

Last night, after sunset but before it got properly dark, venturing out to get a take out on a Friday night I walked down the hill into into the delusions of the “post pandemic”, in which everyone seems to think that if they act like its all over, it will be all over; and the strip is as lively as it ever gets. What looks like a hen do queuing at the cash point. A steady trickle of shoppers in and out of Costcutter. Vans parking on mysterious business. Cars accelerating a little too urgently. A jumble of people at the bus stop. Passing buses are crowded. The passengers seem edgily lively in the orange light. Few masks. I venture into Lahore Spice for a variation on our usuals – if it has paneer in it, we’ll eat it – and I am the only person with a mask. I get looks. I feel like an unwelcome reminder that is probably bad for business.

As the restaurant is built on the side of a steep hill, what’s ground level at the front quite quickly becomes cellar like at the back. The kitchen is crowded with burly men in their forties, busily manhandling steaming woks and sizzling kebabs over hellish grills and flames, all clattering metal and hissing steam on one side and deftly and industriously wrapping food containers for the take outs with kitchen foil on the other. The skinny young lad who waits table and is definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, manoeuvres elegantly, if nervously, around them. He is the only one watching where he is going. The others move like they are in their own world and it is everyone else’s job to get out of their way. Beyond the kitchen there is a set of prolapsed stairs climbing up to a narrow nether region out the back lined with doors to unmentionable places. A worker carefully comes down them carrying a large plastic bowl of raw mince; which makes me very grateful to be a vegetarian.

Laundrie van, and other psychic shocks

On the way down the hill, a small white transit van of the sort driven by Brian Laundrie heads past, giving rise to a small shudder of false recognition and slight fight or flight response. Its obviously not that van, as the FBI has impounded it and will be going over it with minute forensic attention, but its identical appearance gives rise to a shudder. It must be disconcerting to have to drive it. It would be hard to feel affectionate to a van like like now, sweet and dinky looking though it is. A bit like the way that actors who play characters who do abusive things being treated with caution; as if it were them really doing it.

The pavements outside the library are being roped off and sawed up again. Blokes in hard hats and high viz jackets stand, shake their heads, rub their chins and suck their teeth. They have a plan, but seem to be making it up as they go along. An elderly Gujerati gentleman stands looking on with his hands behind his back and an air of lugubrious despair – as though he is dying to say “I suppose you know you’re doing that all wrong”, but can’t summon up the energy.

Outside Aldi, a four or five year old girl is perched atop one of the new stone benches with the local history notes built in. The Aldi, which used to be a Sainsburys was originally an Odeon cinema. She is playing at reading the newspaper*. Perhaps she can read the headlines, big enough print, short enough words, if not the text. She gives the pages a shake, then turns them carefully over and smooths them down, a pitch perfect imitation of her elderly relatives who still read newspapers. That’s the way to do it.

I see that Nadine Dorries, our new “Culture Secretary”, has accused the “snowflake left” of, among other things, “dumbing down panto”. I’m not sure how that might be possible – it would be like dumbing down the Metro – so all I can say is “OH NO THEY’RE NOT!”

*It’s the Metro, so that’s a loose description.

Paddington and bigotry by rail

At Paddington Station I take my hat off to Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s statue in a show of respect to a man that could design a palace to steam like that without recourse to hallucinogenic drugs. He has taken off his own, far more impressive, hat too; and sits smiling amidst the wonders he has made.

“01042010 – 250 Paddington Station – Isambard Kingdom Brunel statue” by failing_angel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The statue of Paddington Bear on the opposite side is light and shiny on the nose, crown and brim of his hat where the kids have touched him.

Reading town centre has a noisy, slightly manic quality, generally quite smartly turned out people making a sharp contrast with some striking looking serious drunks. One stares out blearily from under a hoody, with a red and weather beaten face that makes him look like Aragorn grown old as Strider. Another tall, stringy looking man walks along with an ID tag around his neck showing he is functional at least some of the time, while talking to himself and taking rather wide steps that waver tentatively before making a commitment to coming down. Every pace an adventure.

The train to Reading is named after a community activist who fixed things for his neighbours and played music in the streets, which may be the future. The train back is named after a GWR employee who won the VC in the First World War. Three other employees who died in it are commemorated along the body of the locomotive with brief biographical notes and photos of lugubrious looking men with walrus mustaches; who are definitely the past.

As was the frustrated football fan on the Euston to Watford line who looked like a bitter and twisted version of Andy Parsons and decided that the carriage would benefit from his slightly inebriated rant against woke this and anti- British that; partly directed at his mates; but using them as a backdrop and back up to talk to everyone who couldn’t avoid hearing. At one point, he looked directly at me, perhaps because I was wearing a pink shirt and was therefore a living rebuke to all things masculine. His most ironic line was that if Britain hadn’t defeated Hitler, no one would have the nerve to pull down statues. Which I guess means that Hitler was on his side in that. No one rose to his bait. He was, of course, not wearing a mask.

Autumn

Outside Hendon Magistrates Court the ornamental Fuschia hedge has grown through the railings in a riot of drooping magenta flowers. Getting ready for an Autumnal return to normal, a young worker with a hedge trimmer is squaring it off as a metaphor for a legal system with a limited imagination. He is wearing ear protectors. Less than a metre away from him, the old lady, young couple and small child lined up by the bus stop, are not. Confused bees waver around the cauterised bristling twigs where the flowers used to be. The young worker sweeps them up from the floor. Tidiness before life.

Beside Chili Masala, the small patch of waste ground has some fitful grass bravely trying to compete with a jumble of liberally discarded plastic bottles and beer cans, like a miniature replica of that field at the Reading Festival left full of single use tents. A sole cabbage White butterfly flutters gamely around it showing what life could be about instead.

Outside our flat, bees are weaving in and out of the flowers in the hedge. One blunders into one of the many webs strung across it with a huge tiger striped spider hanging motionless in the middle. Immediately the spider, twice the size of the bee, is on it and wrapping it up in a silk coffin with busy legs moving quickly up and down like a sewing machine. The bee is quickly reduced to future packed lunch in a silk sarcophagus in about ten seconds, and the spider lowers it down out of sight for later, before climbing back up to wait.

Looking down from the top deck of the 83 from the bridge over the wide stretch of tube lines by Wembley Park. A pair of Jubilee line trains snaking slowly round the curve towards the station, framing a line that dives steeply down to an opaque rectangular maw of a tunnel that looks like a portal to somewhere grim.

At the bottom of the hill, the first crane fly of the season. It half flies, is half blown hither and thither, long spindly legs wavering around and small wings whirring frantically. It seems far more alone than it should do.

Afghanistan – Xinjiang.

The mainstream coverage of the Afghanistan collapse has played down both the direct impact of the US/NATO invasion on Afghans and drawn a veil over where all the money went. Instead, we have had a narrative that resurrects the image of “the West” as the defenders of Afghan women and children, as a cover for maintaining an over the horizon military capacity through drone strikes and an aid and financial freeze that puts their lives even more at risk.

This is not a claim that stands up to much scrutiny. As Tariq Ali noted in New Left Review (1)

As for the status of women, nothing much has changed. There has been little social progress outside the NGO-infested Green Zone. One of the country’s leading feminists in exile remarked that Afghan women had three enemies: the Western occupation, the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. With the departure of the United States, she said, they will have two. (At the time of writing this can perhaps be amended to one, as the Taliban’s advances in the north saw off key factions of the Alliance before Kabul was captured.) Despite repeated requests from journalists and campaigners, no reliable figures have been released on the sex-work industry that grew to service the occupying armies. Nor are there credible rape statistics – although US soldiers frequently used sexual violence against ‘terror suspects’, raped Afghan civilians and green-lighted child abuse by allied militias. During the Yugoslav civil war, prostitution multiplied and the region became a centre for sex trafficking. UN involvement in this profitable business was well-documented. In Afghanistan, the full details are yet to emerge.”

And an article published at www.german-foreign-policy.com points out that,

“US drone attacks…. caused numerous civilian victims. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism…. lists more than 13,000 of these attacks in Afghanistan. The number of victims has been calculated at between 4,100 and over 10,000, the number of proven civilian victims at between 300 and 900. According to research by the online platform The Intercept, this would be an under-estimation. Already in October 2015, the Intercept had reported – citing documents furnished by a whistleblower – that from January 2012 to February 2013, only 35 of the more than 200 victims of the US drone campaign in northeastern Afghanistan had been listed as US targets. In the course of five months, the portion of unintentional drone victims was nearly 90 percent.”

So, nine out of ten victims were collateral damage. This pattern has continued with the drone attack last week supposedly targeting a “suicide bomber” managed to kill 10 civilians including 6 children. The chilling effect of the drone threat extends beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Zubair Rehman, a 13 year old student from the Pakistan borders said in 2013

“Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear. Children don’t play so often now, and have stopped going to school. Education isn’t possible as long as the drones circle overhead.” (2)

This assessment from the Socialist Economic bulletin reveals that

  1. Afghan GDP has plateaued since 2011.
  2. GDP per head has barely risen since the invasion in 2001, and is running well below that of Pakistan and Nepal.
  3. Unemployment has remained at just under 12% throughout the period of the invasion, three times the level in Pakistan and Nepal.
  4. The actual level of schooling for Afghan girls is just 1.9 years, compared with 6 years for boys and around four years in Pakistan and Nepal.
  5. So, where did the money go? “If highly regarded economists place the cost of the war in the trillions of US Dollars, and yet…the Afghan economy has been shrinking to a level below $20 billion annually, then funding must have left the country. In effect, the taxpayers of the US and elsewhere were not funding nation building in Afghanistan, they were funding US defence contractors, the Pentagon war machine, and a whole raft of ancillary suppliers, of everything from ‘security personnel’ to beer and burgers. That is where the huge bonanza of public money went”. 

Its very strange how the currents – on the right and the left – that are most vocal about the Western defeat at the hands of the Taliban (and often support Islamophobic Laïcité in France) are also the currents that give most credence to Jihadist separatists in Xinjiang.

The standard trope in the Western media is to present the Western intervention in Afghanistan as developmentally positive – while the picture painted of Xinjiang is done in the bleakest hues. The claims of Western Intelligence assets and jihadist separatists about Xinjiang that are taken as such an article of faith in the UK, from the Alliance for Workers Liberty, through the Labour front bench all the way to Ian Duncan Smith and beyond, also don’t stand up to much scrutiny; which is why they are never given any in the mainstream press. This measured assessment by UK Academics provides a more balanced view and is worth a thoughtful read.

A comparison with Afghanistan after 20 years of Western intervention and tutelage is also something of a corrective to the notion that a “genocide” is taking place.

Xinjiang is one of China’s poorest regions. Along with Tibet, it was only in the last year that extreme poverty has been overcome for all citizens. Nevertheless, although life expectancy in Xinjiang has not yet caught up with the Chinese average of 77 years; at 72 it is a full 7 years more than in Afghanistan. It should be noted also that Afghanistan has suffered 7,101 deaths from Covid. The total figure for Xinjiang is 3 (out of a total population of over 25 million). A comparable death rate for the UK would be less than 10, rather than than the 150,000 plus we have actually suffered under our definitely non genocidal government.

When it comes to girls education, boys and girls in Xinjiang have equal access; and almost twice as many years in school as Afghan boys, and more than five times as long as Afghan girls. (3)

Large families in developing countries tend to be a marker of poverty and underdevelopment. Keeping birth rates low has been an aspect of China’s poverty reduction policies for years, with the one child policy only recently reversed. It should be noted that ethnic minorities were exempt from that policy and until the wider availability of contraception in the last decade, families in Xinjiang tended to be large, which kept women in the home and out of employment. The number of children per woman in Xinjiang is now low (at 1.3 children) but not quite as low as the Chinese average (1.2).

Similarly, accusations that China is committing “genocide” against the Uighurs sit oddly with figures for child mortality which are not only significantly lower than those for Afghanistan, but half that of India (29/thousand).

Average income in Xinjiang is almost twice that of Afghanistan and the trend is for an ongoing rapid increase, with an annual average growth of over 8% between 2014 and 2019. (4)

If the strategy of the West is to squeeze Afghanistan economically – as a punishment for defeat – the only prospect for Afghan development is through integration into the Belt and Road initiative via Pakistan. The impact of such development on Afghan society – if this course is followed – can’t help but be more positive than the last twenty years of intervention and war.

  1. NLR Sidecar. Debacle in Afghanistan.
  2. Cited in Like ordering Pizza. Thomas Meany on the war in Afghanistan London Review of Books 9/9/21
  3. http://toronto.chineseconsulate.org/eng/news/t1884310.htm
  4. https://disputedline.com/employment-labour-rights-xinjiang-2017/

Street Wedding Music

At closing time outside the NatWest Bank by Kingsbury Circle, a line of young men lean against the wall, whip smart in black suits and bow ties; like a team of rather slender bouncers, or a small gathering of the Nation of Islam waiting for Malcolm X to speak on a street corner in Harlem in 1961. Either the Nat West has suddenly enforced a seriously enhanced dress code and all its male staff are lining up as a public display of it, or there’s a wedding in prospect. The latter possibility is confirmed by the presence of one young man in a bright gold Shalwar standing slightly in front of the others like a commanding officer.

Soon enough, they all climb into a jostling queue of cars sounding their horns. One guy in the lead car stands up so he is out through the sun roof filming backwards. Two others – in a display of insouciant bravado -sit sideways out of passenger seat windows as the cars, all of them shiny, some of them seriously sleek and expensive, head off towards Northwick Park and points West in a convoy of overpowered metal. The horn blasts are loud, but somehow harmless, happy and harmonic; like a piece of minimalist music. Sonata for car horn and car horn. Even the people complaining and holding their hands over their ears at the bus stop are laughing.

A builders van parked opposite advertises the prospect of work on basements, decoration and refurbishment, with a company name that is hopefully not an onomatopoeic prediction of what happens to their work; KRK.