Public Ownership as Aspiration

The latest explosion of ridicule and indignation finds its target in Jeremy Corbyn daring to speak about ‘public ownership of some necessary things‘. Media is abuzz with ideologues, lexical hair-splitters and supercilious interpreters making great effort to draw attention away from any constructive debate. If public ownership of natural monopolies had been advocated as a vehicle of Cameron’s Big Society I wonder whether the response would be this inane.

Clause Four! Clause Four! Oh, my good gods but the hysteria and vitriol, from both political wings, is woeful and tedious in its predictability. The capacity to focus in on the least relevant aspect of a message is remarkable. Clause IV (commitment to the “common ownership of the means of production”), re-nationalisation, pre-distribution, mutualism, socialism… Really, I don’t give a rat’s arse for the semantic games and the expedient framing they afford. The concept matters more than a loaded label, right now and ‘public ownership’ is an appropriate description. I care about the intention behind socio-political ideas, the mechanisms employed in manifesting them and their socio-economic effectiveness. Personally, it’s neither here nor there, to me, whether Labour feels a need to officially re-establish the principle behind Clause IV into its ethos. That’s for the Party to wrestle with. I am just glad that Corbyn is putting the basic principle front and centre.

As I’ve written, several times, over the last couple of years, I’d like for essential utilities and services, for example: energy, water, health, education, public transport.. to be in public ownership. You know: those upon which we all depend for national prosperity and personal well-being. How such public ownership is achieved, at this late stage, is probably going to vary according to entity, current systems, rational and legality so I’m not pretending that there’s a magic, one size fits all formula. However, the debate needs to be had. Rightists may have ‘won’ the argument once, a couple of generations back but it didn’t follow that they were wholly correct, did it..?

Why would the population of a country wish to create public ownership of those utilities and services deemed so essential to a civilised and prosperous Society? Why would such a population choose to hand over such responsibility, accountability, control and profit to (often) mercenary, private corporations? Why is it named ‘aspiration’ when it comes to the traditional reasons for individuals wanting to own their houses or to be self-employed/entrepreneurial but it is called a regressive notion for a whole nation of individuals to scale this up and share the responsibilities and rewards of collective interest?

As you know, I believe that it is We, the People, who are the State and that the Government and Official Opposition are supposed to be agents through which it is represented and its affairs managed. For a long time it has been self-interest that has been represented and public expectation that has been managed. We can’t say the People are represented when even the prospect of valid and valuable arguments is suffocated by the ignorance and hubris of the TINA Brigade and when all permissible discussion has to be funnelled, first, through an Overton Window of pro-exploitative, short-sighted and incoherent modelling. Markets, competition, the private and corporate sectors have their place but it is self-evident that they do not automatically constitute some socio-economic panacea and it is insulting and patronising to keep insisting that they do. I would rather the country comes to see public ownership as a matter of civic participation in an effort to better secure the collective pride and interest and the sovereignty of its citizens. The past and the present prove that the outsourcing of the most basic needs of Society does not.

Laborious

When I first joined Twitter I had a little refrain that went: Conservatives: they con us and serve themselves – Labour: making hard work of everything. I’ve seen many variations on the Tory one over the last three or four years. They are true, though, for both parties have become parodies of themselves, Labour being the most disappointing.

I really wanted to support Labour throughout the whole of the last Parliamentary term and, where possible, I did try but the Party made it so difficult that, in the end, I realised they were unlikely to provide the political answers and vision I was looking for. Though I exerted the majority of my contempt on the Cons because they were the ones in charge, I bashed Labour quite often on this site but, at the same time, I still hoped they would win this General Election because I knew that in a FPTP system, we needed them to, just to be rid of the Tories. Getting rid of the Tories became paramount. It was an odd circumstance, therefore, to ridicule and encourage, to bemoan and support Labour but I knew I couldn’t pretend they’d come good just because I wished they would. There can be a fine line between positive thinking and delusion.

Wishing and needing Labour to be the main governing party was, in the end, then, mostly to provide a brake; a breathing space. I remember writing that, when they won, we wouldn’t be able to relax for long; that we would have to push for the changes we wanted in all matters, from Foreign Policy to Social Justice; from democratic reform to environmental responsibility. I think all but the loyally blind knew this, too. Labour, in its present form, with its prevailing mindset, could only be temporary caretakers – willing facilitators at best – while we created something real and reflective of those who knew we could well do with turning ‘left’.

Like the neo-liberal groupthink of economics that thinks super-strength homeopathic treatment is appropriate when, really, we are in amputation territory, Labour seems intent on reaffirming the very characteristics that so many of its would-be, wanna-be voters have clearly and repeatedly expressed as loathing with a vengeance.

After the Scottish Independence Referendum, when Jim Murphy was installed as the Scottish Labour leader, I laughed and sighed and knew that the Party had learned absolutely nothing from the enduring impact of Thatcher and the negative effects of Blair. Since Ed Miliband resigned, the inevitable wallowing has begun and the Party is doing it again. They keep talking about how they must ‘learn the lessons’ and mustn’t go backwards but they can’t seem to move much beyond 1997. They are as misguided and nostalgic; as uselessly sentimental, in their own way, as Ukip and the Conservatives.

The Party still thinks and speaks of people in terms of top, middle or bottom boxes and of aspiration by categories of economic class. It still thinks of aspiration as something only ‘hard-working families’ possess and still imagines that our individual hopes and dreams are predominantly economically motivated and, when it says, like the Cons, that it is a ‘One Nation’ party, I feel it probably means conformist; homogenised, rather than nuanced and inclusive.

Too many in the Party still think and speak of ‘wealth creation’ and enterprise as being purely Business and Market led and that wealth and ambition are always about status and financial enrichment. They present as though only the poor old squeezed middle has aspiration and as though to lack it, in a recognisable form, is a failing. They think they didn’t win because they failed to talk about it enough… They think too much like the Conservatives and that is the last thing we need: more imitation. It is neither necessary to copy nor does it flatter the people of the country/countries – whichever the heck we are, now.

Aspiration is like growth, devolution, choice, Big Society and British Values – just another nebulous concept noun for nodding dogs that greases the wheels of policy but translates down into a patronising sop and an overly shepherded reality. Besides, not only do many people not wish to live by such intangible, politically arbitrary terms but aspiration is a disingenuous, deeply patronising hopium in a system that is knowingly manufactured as one big Ponzi scheme.

Sadly, the more some Labour folk try to explain what they think ‘went wrong’ and what it needs to become, the harder it is for me to even imagine being able to identify with the Party. I watched Liz Kendall on Sunday with Andrew Neil and I liked her. She seemed authentic and resonant, enough that I even thought I might want to give her more time of day. Afterwards, I came across a couple of articles that proclaimed her Blairite credentials which I had not recognised at all from her interview. I sighed. Again. She was going to be too far left of Blair’s, Mandelson’s or elder Miliband’s ‘centre’. Oh, they’ll choose Chuka Umunna, I mused. They’ll never let her lead. And I wondered if I would have liked her sufficiently to want her to and if I’d even get the chance to genuinely find out. How cynical…

Owning Democracy

Last week, Callme Dave Cameron raved that “the dream of a property-owning democracy was alive“. This, in spite of the fact that most people these days, are lucky just to be renting someone else’s property, let alone imagining owning some. This, in spite of the fact that, as far as assets go, the Cons seem to prefer that multinational corporations and other countries own chunks of our property than the citizens of the country they so ardently purport to love and serve.

And, too, this week, Callme has been spouting on about Britain being a ‘share-owning democracy’. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday that “being able to own shares in healthy, successful banks is the sort of country we should be building” even though he has done nothing to champion us having a proper, fully publicly owned national bank – one of those people’s mutual thingies.

It’s funny, really: I, too, think that we should be the owners of shares and the holders of stakes. You know, of things like the public assets that successive governments keep selling off; the public services they outsource to the profit-first sector; the infrastructure they fragment into financial packages. But no, Callme wants us to help buy other people’s houses for them and some shares in a crummy old bank with a public/private identity crisis. Twice.

The cognitive dissonance is so stark in its irony. The Cons want us to own private property as private individuals but not to own public property as a national collective. They bang on about the principle of inheritance and proclaim concern about the future we are leaving our children but make a complete mockery of our common inheritance. They want us to have shares in private financial institutions as individuals but not in public infrastructure and services, together. They want us to look after ourselves as proud, independent private citizens or as small, non-threatening groups that they can pass off as being entrepreneurial or beacons of localism – or responsible citizens in that creepy patriotic do-the-right-thing way – but they don’t want those services and resources upon which everyone depends for their common and basic needs to be in the control and interests of the people who need and use them. They don’t want us, as a population, owning assets in common, responsibly pooling our resources for efficiency, uniformity and affordability. No, because we might push for ethics, quality and sustainability; for reliability and ease of access. We might say we want Energy, Water, Railways etc to be monopolies if we can own them, so stuff your silly notions of choice and competition. We might factor in those inconvenient externalities such as the long-term costs of environmental and social impacts into our decisions.

Besides, a property-owning, share-owning democracy requires they not only approve of the existence of the State but also recognise and concede that the State is all of us – We, the People. No, of course they don’t want us to be sharing the ownership of national assets because if that was the property our ‘democracy’ owned shares in, that might look a little too much like actual devolution.

Pah.

It’s taxing

Every time a government goes out of its way to avoid adequate public funding of something vital, it becomes a policy of regression where tiers of access develop that lead to a set of easily foreseeable crises. The deepest impact is always on those already least able to compensate for the absence of or dilution in service. This weakened group then becomes desperate and beholden to organised contempt, pity and guilt. Such policies always end up costing more than they might have because of the subsequent or exacerbation of the physical, emotional and mental deterioration that takes its worst toll on the most vulnerable. And what happens? The taxpayers have to pay the bill anyway, not just for the Government’s make-do-and-mend, second best service provision but also for the ensuing clean-up and salvage operations it led to. Does that hinder a healthy economy or has an unhealthy economy hindered general well-being..? It’s circular, now, isn’t it?

Why don’t we just stop faffing, get real and go straight to the taxpayer bit? We might as well… Ah, but we have assumed a convoluted yet immature attitude to general taxation and what it could and should do for us, haven’t we?

Commonly, a typical objection to raising tax revenue is something like because they waste it on… What the ‘on’ is, of course, is variable and subjective. However, the cowardly or ideologically managerial politics of administrations – that we vote in – shouldn’t be unduly conflated with the principle and purpose of collecting tax, should they?

In these times, when taking back collective ownership and control of transport and energy is a commonly held wish and when the NHS has never been in such danger from ideological fragmentation and when the effect of an education is increasingly a lottery of accumulative socio-economic factors: politicians should surely make the argument for general taxation as a part of the economics of common interest.

They should tell us that some things are simpler, more equitable, readily standardised, more transparent, better regulated and ultimately cheaper when people club together to pay for them. That when those things are essential services and utilities, there is an obvious overlap of personal and common good. That this needn’t preclude other public or private capital injections or investments for, for example, research and development because it’s not actually about shutting out the private sector at all costs nor imagining that we can just depend utterly on taxable revenue. That it’s about a narrative supporting we, the People’s collective investment in, ownership of and control over the services from which we all benefit and on which we all depend. I find it tragic that such an argument is beyond Mainstream’s gaze.

For example, Health and Education are rightly considered as bedrocks of community and progress and yet politicians are terribly fond of saying we can’t afford this and that for one reason or another. While, to be sure, there are enormous modern-world challenges which can produce incredible strains on infrastructure, they cannot be addressed by simply tinkering with what are usually symptoms as though they were isolated or anomalous when their real causes are, in fact, complex and interconnected. So, if we are not to fall further into hit-and-miss lives of fortune and distress and, because we know, deep down, that oversimplified blame or ideological zeal used as justification for curbing costs is not just morally authoritarian but a false economy that divides society by ignorance and arbitrary outrage: how can we possibly afford to not afford them?

We should be concerning ourselves with how to create an economy that works for the society we wish to be but, instead, we have socio-economic dysmorphia and it now seems like forever that we’ve been distorting ourselves to squeeze into an economy that is tethered to stale ideas and blind reliance on the inadequate models and systems they gave rise to.

Any decent government or other political leadership would be trying its utmost to ensure that all its populace lived comfortably, securely and with dignity. It would be reinforcing the merit of tax revenue as an honourable, common sense principle of collective responsibility. It would be creating reforms and policies that enabled and encouraged the tax burden to be spread fairly throughout society, from shifty corporations to those who should be on a living wage that facilitates a contribution. It would not keep setting about creating divisions between regions, institutions, economic classes or generations, merely to tinker so as to avoid the all too willing hysteria of our superficial Media and to save an entropic economic climate that undermines our well-being, even as it dies.

The prevailing mainstream view loves to say that we can’t have good healthcare without a strong economy and this is true – even if ‘strong’ is not a word I’d use – but, actually, it’s not the only, or even best way to frame things, is it, because we can equally state that we can’t have a strong economy without the population that contributes to it and is served by it, being healthy and well-educated. It’s a co-dependency. Always was.

Animal Wisdom

The Isha Upanishad says:
“Of a certainty,
the man who can see
all creatures in himself;
himself in all creatures,
knows no sorrow.”

A lesson humans still resist
but so profound a truth is this,
I thought it fit to feature and
thus borrowed it.

then there’s money

Well, there’s money
then there’s money, Honey –
plentiful
and spent it all –
It’s funny, really, Darling,
how it readily exchanges
where the sun don’t even shine
– and yet it burns away alarming –
Whereas, further down the line,
it’s hard to earn for love or time
but we’ve got coffers full
for cock and bull:
there’s cash to splash on proxy agents,
business trips for entertainment,
decadent engagements
with a myriad of lobbyists.
We’ve subsidies for corporatists
and Public Service hobbyists;
there’s lashings for a futile folly;
empty democratic jollies;
funds for training frenemies
and spying arbitrarily on each
and any citizen.
And war, we can afford,
of course
but, then,
there’s always funds for killing
in the kleptocratic willing
– economic or blood-spilling –
Just there isn’t any money
for the People, any more.

Big Society; Big Business

Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it.” ~ John D Rockefeller

Charity: late Old English (in the sense ‘Christian love of one’s fellows’): from Old French charite (charité), from Latin caritas, from carus ‘dear’ [OED]

Charity is to voluntarily assist that which one holds dear. It is a noble, wonderful concept that demonstrates the caring and generosity of the human spirit. Charity can be international, national or local and be in aid of both collective and individual causes, the most moving, beautiful and appropriate sort being when big, open hearts crowd-fund in the face of sudden large-scale emergencies and small, singular causes. It can begin at home and be brought home and, for the reasons my friend, activist and fellow blogger, Jayne Linney, gives: local charities “are the Ones (most) worth supporting”.

Charity gives: of time and things. It is a service of the heart, whether by true compassion or by there-for-the-grace-of relief and/or guilt.

But Big Charity is big, big business. It creates think tanks, makes financial investments – and reeeeally long advertisements, gets generous tax relief, requires paid staff, is funded by fickleness… It is politicised and corporatised. As such, Poverty is a massive investment opportunity and Charity is a bubble that need not burst.

Personally, I think it’s rather depressing that a ‘developed’ nation still requires so many charities at all and I think it’s appalling that so many are so sorely needed now, just to cover for infrastructural, economic and attitudinal inadequacies.

And yet.. At this moment in time: thank goodness for Charity, whatever its size and form! And for those who donate and those who are volunteering themselves quite ragged, such is the struggle to meet increasing needs. For, under neoliberal socio-economic policies there are now many more holes in the safety net and Charity, in its myriad forms, is indeed the only entity plugging the most desperate and wholly deliberately made gaps. But, as Ekklesia’s wonderful writer, Bernadette Meaden says, “picking up the pieces” is also to risk “letting the government off the hook”. Conservatives see schemes like food banks as supply side economics (the double-thinking nerve of it!) – as a mark of enlightened social and economic success in a civilised people – so the demand they create, through their cruel policies, is spun as evidence that their Victorianesque ‘Big Society’ aspiration is working.

But how ignorant and reckless to purposefully shrink a perfectly reasonable remit of the State and replace it with an outsourced expectation of deeds of guilt and good will. How frighteningly regressive, negligent and patronising is that?! And how shortsighted and complacent is a Society that, rather than lamenting and questioning the political causes of the constant need for Charitable intervention, is, instead, content or resigned to putting its faith in and relying on the philanthropy of the wealthy and powerful – those who also co-create and perpetuate the dependency and help formulate the policies of government. And how terrifying for those demographics compelled to depend upon it in their increasing numbers.

Big Charity is another vehicle by which a government absolves itself of its duties to the State – that’s all of us, remember – and outsources its most ideologically inconvenient socio-economic responsibilities to private organisations. And when Big Charity actually becomes a contracted public service provider, who are its clients: those that provide the funds (which this Government is reducing)  or the intended beneficiaries as per the mission statement? And how pernicious is it that philanthropic organisations should depend upon the perpetuation of the very causes they set themselves up to alleviate and eradicate? It’s a most unpleasant symbiosis that doesn’t look anything like progress and I think we shouldn’t accept it because, while we do, any chance at developing an economy and a more equitable society that truly serves us all is greatly inhibited. What about Society is ‘dear’ to us and what will be the cost if we forsake it..?

What kind of country (or however many countries we are, nowadays) do libertarian proponents think Britain will become as the vast majority of the population is arbitrarily relegated to second-, third- or even no-rate status? Just how long could such a state of affairs actually last? How much country would there be left and who and how many could thrive in it? Or really want to? The trajectory hints at the dystopia of many science fictions.

A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity.” ~ Ralph Nader