Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Surreal Socio-Poitico-Economic World In Three Stages

What Is Left of The Johnnie Walker Whisky Plant
(These were merely random thoughts I had as I observed the everyday and put them all together in one blog. I don't have all the answers, and this is just my way of thinking about things and as always would love to hear from you.)

It has always been assumed that a strong capitalist base will 'naturally' lead to a stronger more robust democratic process. Capitalism, it is also claimed, is the best way of organising and operating the global financial system and the best way of redistributing wealth.

Of course, it is much more complex than that, and there are many socio-politico-economic debates around such crass taken-for-granted assumptions.

To begin with, there is a tendency to assume that there is only one, singular model of capitalism, and, as we all know, there are many different versions. The burgeoning success of China's state category is testimony to that (though I am not advocating that we tear up our democratic processes and construct a new model of state capitalism).

So where does this leave democracy? Once again, we tend to think about democracy as simply an act of voting every four or five years but, of course, it is much, much more than that.
"Democracy is not just about the ballot box," Egyptian activist Sherief Gaber observed in a BBC TV interview on July 2, against a backdrop of street protests demanding the removal of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. "It's about participation and social justice" (BBC News July 2, 2013) - also quoted in the Blog 'We Are All Rabbits'.

Robert Reich called modern trends in capitalism and democracy ‘Supercapitalism’ in his book of the same name.

What Reich perceived was the development of a triumphant free market capitalism which, in its success, enfeebled democracy and rendered elected officials impotent and powerless at the feet of, and in the service of, corporate giants.

It is worth noting that one of the avowed aims of the Occupy movement was to demand that elected politicians represent the interests of those who had voted for them, rather than merely focusing on the narrow agendas of global neo-liberal capitalism.

I witnessed the Robert Reich thesis first hand, when I stood with thousands and listened to the impassioned speeches of a whole array of politicians and trade unionists on a bright sunny day in July 2010. We stood shoulder to shoulder, thousands of us listening to these political wingmen and women and their confident - yet hollow - rhetoric. That day they had vowed to save the Johnnie Walker whisky plant in Kilmarnock, Scotland.

It was hot air on a hot day, Diageo, the giant corporate parent of Johnnie Walker had their mind made up and no matter what was offered or promised to make them stay was ever going to be enough. Democracy failed in the park, regardless of what the people or their representatives wanted the elected were rejected and Diageo had their way.

The Johnnie Walker brand had been a part of Kilmarnoock since 1820 but Diageo had decided to close the plant in the town, give notice to 634 workers and take the business elsewhere.

Before us, that beautiful, sunny day in the park, speaker after speaker cried battle, Diageo would have a fight on their hands. But they all stood embarrassingly impotent in the face of the corporate giant's decision to move the operation out of the west of Scotland town and the plant passed into history with barely a whimper. It closed its doors in March 2012 and the huge factory was erased from the landscape. All that is left, where the great whisky plant once stood, is a huge plot of derelict land scattered with rubble.

It was, therefore, interesting to hear Ed Miliband, the first politician in a long time take a stance against the rampant margin hunting of the multinationals, at this year's Labour party conference. Millions heard Miliband tell the UK electorate that if his party was elected to govern they would freeze energy prices for 20 months. This was in keeping with his avowed aim to reverse the trend of the UK's cost of living crisis.

Of course, the energy companies - the so-called big six - not happy with multi-billion pound margins, almost immediately threatened the people of the UK that if Ed Miliband and the Labour party were elected then the lights might go out all over Britain. ( Is that akin to blackmail?)

Miliband was taking on giant corporate forces who, in the four years up to August 2013, had increased their margins by 74% (a phenomenal return for any company) and well above the 13 per cent inflation recorded over the same period. Here was a political leader putting his career on the line to face down the might of the energy companies.

But think about this. At the same as Miliband was squaring up to these tremendously powerful corporate giants, George Osborne, the coalition's chancellor was scampering off to Brussels to try and prevent bankers having their bonuses capped. In addition, Osborne was more than willing to use taxpayers cash to fund his defence of multi-millionaire bankers by hiring 'top dollar' lawyers and paying as much as £800 per hour for their services.

So, I found myself thinking, that's what austerity means! Cut the welfare of the sick and needy, scythe the budgets of the health service, freeze the wages of ordinary workers and spend as much as you want of public revenues defending the bonuses of the extremely rich?

Now I get it...I think.... ( puzzled frown)

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Beautiful Sky - Let's Keep It That Way

Russian Federation As A Cloud : Grafik Farm 2013
The sky took me by surprise this morning. It was ribbed and streaked with weak sunlight, edging the clouds with a faint mimosa and just a hint of crimson. It was, of course, cumulus or nimbus or stratos and you can tell how ignorant I am about my clouds, because I didn't have a clue which ones they were, to be honest. All I can say is that they were beautiful.

I thought about getting my camera, but waited too long and within a few minutes the clouds had been subsumed, my ribbed sky replaced by bland grey which threatened rain - 'a hard rain,' I thought to myself, 'is gonna fall'

My encounter with beautiful morning clouds followed my attendance on Friday evening at a conference to celebrate World Peace Day, which I never knew previously, is September 21.

As well as music, including a rousing and powerful version of Bob Dylan's 'Blowing In The Wind' by a chap called Willie Sinclair, there were also speakers.

Bruce Kent, former general secretary and an articulate veteran of CND (campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) spoke chillingly about the potential to completely annihilate ourselves. He believed there are those around, and have been those around, willing to do just that in the name of some cause or other.

Kent, a sprightly 84, spoke about the street where he lived in London and of his colourful neighbours who can sometimes become a bit raucous, or play their music too loud on sunny days with their windows wide open. Sometimes, he admits, he can be a bit cross with them. Some neighbours, he told us, often arrive home late at night or even in the early hours of the morning, singing in the street after a few beers.

The street, however, can always resolve these issues with a few sober apologies and if things do get out of hand, there is a local council that can be complained to, or structures through which people can go to get things resolved.

No one, he added, has yet resorted to sitting by their window with a loaded AK47 waiting for their drunken neighbour to return from the pub. No one has taken pot shots at the open window where Bob Marley can be heard singing his heart out as loud as the speakers allow.

He, himself, hasn't, he reminded us, dashed down to B and Q recently and inquired if they sold hand grenades. If he had, he explained, someone would have called the police and he would have been carted off to jail or a mental health institution.

And yet, he told us, as soon as one nation annoys another there are threats thrown back and forth.  Armed to the teeth they seem to want to unleash their worst on each other, with these deadly weapons waiting to be launched. 

It reminded me of the recent troubles in Syria, where our elected leaders went to a vote over using military intervention. Cathy Jamieson M.P., also in attendance, told the audience that M.P's had worked hard to get a 'no' vote on Syria and revealed she could hardly believe that the government had been defeated on this issue, much to the chagrin of messrs Cameron and Hague.  Neither of whom, of course, were arrested or placed in a mental health institution.

Bruce Kent also spoke of a time when, on September 26 1983, the Russians thought they had spotted five nuclear warheads heading toward them. Twice it was reported to the Russian high command that the USA had launched five Minuteman ICBM'S at the Soviet Union. We were seconds from all out nuclear war, averted only when the Russians realised it was something odd about the weather rather than actual warheads heading from the west.  Something in the clouds, I suppose, rather than deadly nuclear warheads.

Just imagine, he asked, what would have happened if the Russians had mistakenly returned fire thinking they were under attack?

The United Kingdom, living through a government imposed winter of austerity, has spent $1.6 trillion on military arms since 2000, an increase of 49% in such spending, Mark Bitel of the Edinburgh Campaign Against the Arms Trade revealed. How many people in the world could be saved from starving if this cash was redirected to food insecurity?

He also told us of David Cameron's visit to the Middle East in 2012, purportedly a 'peace' mission, while he took with him eight representatives of the arms trade.

We left the hall that night, chatting about the gravity of such situations and how little we all knew about the arms trade or the nuances of heading for armageddon otherwise oblivious.

I think I decided a long time ago that simply electing our leaders every five years and leaving the rest to them is not enough, we need people like Bruce Kent and Mark Bitel of the Campaign Against The Arms Trade. But as they also pointed out the world needs people, whether that be you or me, with ideas to come forward and help prevent possible catastrophe. If we all say we want peace, we should all get together and put pressure on our elected representatives to make sure that's what we get!

We all want to be fascinated by a glorious September sky in all its patterns, shapes and colours, not terrified by a mushroom cloud.

Sunday, 15 September 2013


So, you thought Lehman Brothers were dead and buried? Think again.
In the twilight world of finance they are resurrected, moving 'zombie-like' though the global capital world, still operating in the rarified atmosphere of a universe still trying to catch its breath from recession.

Lehman Brothers, mired in debt and leveraged to beyond its neck, filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy five years ago today on September 15, 2008. It was the largest banking bankruptcy in history. Over-leveraged the company had $600 billion (£377 billion) worth of assets when it filed no longer able to pay its creditors.

The dark vultures of Wall Street and The City were soon circling, Barclays bank swooped to purchase Lehman Brothers investment arm for a knockdown £250 million ($396 million) while in the same week Bank of America overpaid for an ailing Merril Lynch.

Close to collapse Merril Lynch were sold to Bank of America for $50 billion (£31.5 billion), though the latter soon became aware of the moribund state of its acquisition. Bank of America did attempt to back off from the deal but found they were legally compelled to complete business, takeover Merril Lynch and its massive debts.

Bank of America, of course, did consider taking over Lehman Brothers in the same period, but unable to get assurances from the US government they took their attentions elsewhere.

It also worth remembering that the British Government of the much maligned Gordon Brown blocked a Barclays Bank bid for the collapsing giant at the last minute.
Most of us were a bit bemused by the events of September 2008, how could anyone with such assets leverage themselves out of business? But, no matter what we thought, we all knew things would never be the same again.

The human cost of that dark day was huge, with around 25,000 people losing their jobs. There were images on the evening news of people carrying boxes out into the street. The end of a banking one commentator put it...has proved a bit premature.

In March 2012 Reuters, among others, reported that Lehman Brothers had exited bankruptcy and that the former mighty banking institution was still operating in Manhattan, albeit with a much reduced staffing compliment of 350.

What is left is a little spark of flame chasing, what they see as, the bank's debtors to try and recoup money for those creditors who were left high and dry at the time of the collapse. Lehman Brothers, in case you didn't know, still has access to billions of dollars worth of assets which it is trying to sell off to make good its debt.

Of course, the question still on everyone's lips and whispered around dark rooms where brandy is poured over wealthy throats - 'should Lehman Brothers been saved?'

Lehman Brothers collapse has long been considered the trigger for a global financial winter. As it toppled it brought with it many US household names before the contagion spread to other shores. American Insurance Group, the aforementioned Merril Lynch, the near collapse of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, and then the Royal Bank of Scotland fiasco, the bailout of HBOS and Lloyd's TSB.

Phenomenol sums of money were plucked from the pockets of unsuspecting taxpayers to shore up the crumbling edifice of one bank or financial institution after another. As Lehman Brothers was left in the desert without water, $186 billion (£117 billion ) was found to save AIG, yet some have suggested that had Lehman Brothers been saved the American taxpayer would have been saved a great deal of financial grief.

Larry McDonald, former Lehman employee and author of New York Times bestseller 'A Colossal Failure of Common Sense' - a book I would highly recommend - told me that Lehman Brothers could ( and should ) have been saved with $30 billion. This is comparable to the $31billion (£20billion) the British government used to save RBS.

I am told that Lehman Brothers will eventually be liquidated, but I am not convinced.

There is a whole book that could be written on this grand old bank and another story in what Larry McDonald told me, or in what his excellent book will tell you if you read it.

And yet there are more stories around those who worked for Lehman Brothers and what happened to them and those associated with that time of banking collapse - many of them are still doing very well thank you, and that is yet another story though many editors seem reticent to run with that one...I wonder why?

Sunday, 8 September 2013


Money#1:Grafik Farm 2013
It came as a surprise to me that fast food strikers were downing tools not only for a better financial deal, but also the right to form worker's collectives without fear of being sacked.

Surprised, because I naively thought that in the 21st century being able to get together with fellow workers to protect your employment terms and conditions was something you could do with impunity?  If we can't, then we have simply returned to the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs (19th century). I am betting the Tolpuddle Martyrs (circa 2013) were not on this week's G20 agenda.

I was shocked that employers, even at this stage in our evolution, could act to prevent their fellow human beings from forming groups designed to provide themselves with decent working conditions and revenue streams. Are we really that fossilised?

Being able to form collectives and join unions, for me, is an integral part of democracy and without this option we might as well re-introduce slavery.

Like many I have been following the fast food strikes in the US. Workers in 50 cities or more downed tools late August and came out on the streets in protest at low pay in the service industry - and because they were threatened with dismissal if they formed collectives.

They claim they are being underpaid by the giant chains like McDonalds, Burger King, Wendys, Taco Bell et al.

Average salary for a US fast food employee is $8.94 (£5.71) per hour and around 89 per cent of fast food employment is centred around front line staffing ( cashiers, cooks and delivery workers). In the American fast food industry a mere 2.2 per cent of jobs fall within the managerial, professional or technical echelon compared with 31.1 per cent of similar level occupations in the US labour market.

But this is not simply, and it never is, a straightforward wrestle being master and servant, employer and employee, there is always a political element to such debates. A willingness or otherwise by elected politicians to represent and help those who invested them with power.

It's a difficult straddle because that might include Mr Fast Food CEO as well as the man in the baseball cap with three stars who serves them their happy meal on a friday evening or the driver from Papa John's who delivers their family-sized pizza on Saturday afternoon.

Barack Obama and other politicians advocated a raise in minimum wage to $9 (£5.75) per hour, but it hardly generated a ripple of interest among the fast food workers who want a starting price tag of $15 (£9.58).

'Let get real B!'
'Okay, how about $9 and one cent?'

The fast food corporates, of course, have a rigid grimace at paying their employees more. Increased wages, they argue, would lead to higher costs and overheads, all of which would have to be passed onto their burger munching customers.

If you are a free market capitalist this would, of course, mean losing margin advantage. McDonald's profits in 2012 hovered around $5.5 billion (£3.5 billion), and the guys who drive the McDonald's corporate entity, of course, have a legal obligation to maximise profit for their shareholders. But, maybe in the cold light of the 21st century this needs to be tempered with providing people with a decent standard of living?

This takes us into all sorts of philosophical areas related to why we here in the first place ; to flip burgers for meagre wages so that we can go home and just about pay the bills while making sure that the shareholders of the company we work for are paid ever increasing dividends?

McDonalds have also been quick to point out that many of their outlets are franchises and that pay regimes are the sole concern of the individual franchisee. Might franchise owners, however, find it difficult to hire staff if employees can earn $15 (£9.58) per hour at traditionally run McDonald's, Papa Johns, Burger King and so on?

And, lets be honest, as one of my old economics lecturers once told us : 'In capitalism Joe Bloggs and Co are not in business to make corn flakes, jeans, au de cologne or whatever, no matter how good you might think they taste, or no matter how good you think the quality is, in capitalism they are in business to make money. Plain and simple capitalism is all about making greater and greater amounts of cash at a quicker and quicker speed.'

The great economic myth, of course, is that people have an integral part to play in capitalism.

So, if we think that all human existence should be about increasing profit margins at ever accelerating rates (the very essence and spirit of capitalism) then so be it, all unions should be banned and anyone who withdraws their labour for a single second should be open to dismissal. If, on the other hand if we think that being human should be a bit more colourful than simply oiling the wheels of a great cash generating machine, then we desperately need to re-think our financial world and how it is organised and operated and how wealth is distributed.

Since the 2008 financial collapse there is a growing sense of injustice and inequality and people are beginning to understand how that impacts all our lives.  There is, in this catastrophe, a wonderful opportunity to start talking about and re-aligning our social, economic and political universe to the benefit of the majority.

In the generation of cash within capitalism there are ALWAYS three major players, employers, governments and the general public and they should be talking to each other going forward on an equal platform.

Working people should be able to have a quality of life that provides them with the comforts of being alive.

Or maybe I have this wrong and working and life is simply about paying the bills in an existentional vacuum where any other considerations are jettisoned so that capitalism can clank ever onward gobbling up ever increasing mountains of money at an ever accelerating rate...

Sunday, 1 September 2013


The Listening Post : Grafik Farm
Stop, before you push that button, have a think.

You might be surfing the net, you might be about to press send and jet an email to a friend, you might be putting a blog together with words like 'terrorism', PRISM, NSA, surveillance in it. Whatever you are about to do you can be sure someone, or some android, is watching you...

Of course, the state has now entered, what many of us previously considered, this most private of arenas.

Former CIA agent Edward Snowden, now exiled in the Russian Federation recently revealed the extent of this surveillance when he blew the whistle on the activities of America's National Security Agency and their collaborative work with the UK's GCHQ. We now know, that working under the roof of a secret surveillance programme called PRISM, Verizon, Google and Facebook have all co-operated with state security organisations by gathering data for them and allowing them access.

What Snowden has revealed must have sent a collective shiver through us all.

In the UK, GCHQ at Cheltenham has been watching the wires that carry global communication packages and sharing this data with the NSA in the USA. In Germany, Angela Merkel came under fire when it was revealed that the US were conducting surveillance on unsuspecting German citizens.

President Obama and Chancellor Merkel spoke in stereo when both explained spying activities as a balancing act between citizen privacy and state security.

It was yet another throwaway political sound-bite, a bland statement, devoid of debate or academic research.  There was no attempt at any kind of analytical reference to who the 'threats' might be, or what the state might actually be looking for, and why all - that is every one of us - must be targetted.

Yes, we can all understand the need for state security but does this mean that those with the badge can act illegally, or have the opportunity to commit criminal acts with impunity.

Let's flip it.  Does this also mean that every citizen in every state is a potential terrorist and, therefore, their private cyber life, through necessity, has to be poured over? Every one of us?

More information as to what these people are doing and trying to achieve in the name of the state needs to be forthcoming. The balancing act between citizen privacy and state security is essential, of course, if we are to catch wrongdoers, but the state services and their governments have engendered wrath and scorn at a time when they need public trust.

But some journalists are out there exposing the overkill.

"A programme called XKeyscore," Ian McWhirter, speaking about internet surveillance, wrote in the Herald (August 22, 2013)."Boasts of having accessed 42 billion records during one month in 2012." (Ian McWhirter : We Should Be Spooked By A Campaign Of Intimidation. The Herald August 22, 2013).

Personally, I shuddered when I read this. How many of us realised the extent to which the state and government apparatus delve into our private lives?

Now, I am not saying that we are now living through an Orwellian, dystopian nightmare, where conjured imaginings about terrorism and financial calamity are part of the machinery that act as the control levers for maintaining inequality, injustice, the economic and political elite...but

So, let's get some perspective on this.

As John Thornhill points out in the Financial Times Weekend, August 24/25, ..."As many people have died from hornet, wasp and bee stings as in terrorist incidents in Britain during this century." (John Thornhill : How Can We Defeat Terrorism If All The Trust Has Gone? Financial Times Agust 24/25 2013)

My worry is that the so-called 'war on terrorism' is being, and will be, misused to hide unrelated secrets.

In co-operation with social media platform providers like Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, and/or mobile phone companies, the organisers and activists of peaceful protests, or legitimate democratic protests could be identified and jailed under some random, hastily constructed and interpreted law.

This way regimes need not worry about being brought to heel by the plebiscite that gave them power in the first place when they act irresponsibly. Instead, they retain their freedom for the duration of their elected period to, if necessary, break promises, to completely reverse the policies they were elected on in the first place, and wage war on whoever displeases them without public interference.

Social media platforms, of course, contain within them the unseen potential to extend democracy. But the corporate entities, who manufacture and provide these facilities, have a legal obligation to their shareholders to increase profit. The state likes this entanglement for the above reasons, and a cyberspace which has so much potential to provide a base for creating a better world is in danger of being neutered.

That the organisation and operation of our security forces is far more sinister than average Joe's and Josephines ever imagined is without question.

This, piece of writing, is like a dove seeking freedom, only the moment it is released some machinery like XKeyscore or PRISM will be locked onto it like a circling buzzard above the little white bird that represents 'peace'?