If you work for the Daily Mail or the Daily Express, you are going straight to hell

Sawsan Choucair doesn’t know if her family are alive or dead. The Guardian reports:

She stood at the tribute wall at Latymer community church, talking to as many reporters as she can. Choucair said she is “devastated” and is desperate for information from the authorities, which she said has been lacking to non-existent.

She is missing her mother Sirria; her sister Nadir; her brother-in-law Bassem; her 14-year-old niece Mirena; her 11-year-old niece Fatima and her three-year-old niece Zienab.

You might think that in a free and democratic society she could turn to the press to help her find out the truth. There are, of course, reporters of integrity trying to do exactly that. However, the editors and so-called journalists at two leading British newspapers (The Daily Mail and The Daily Express) don’t care about whether her family are alive or dead. If they died in the fire then so be it. The role of those newspapers is not to investigate and publicise facts in the public interest. It is to promote a political agenda based on self-interest by scapegoating the victims of political corruption.

The owners and editors of the Express and the Mail have an intimate relationship with the Conservative Party. They (to use the phrase of the day) ‘rub shoulders’ with those same ministers who refused to countenance the notion that people in the UK should live in houses fit for human habitation. The Prime Minister even met with Paul Dacre, the spectacularly vituperative and staggeringly snobbish editor of the Daily Mail, during the election campaign to receive her instructions directly. His newspaper is a mouthpiece and an attack dog for Conservative Party interests.

The facts as they stand suggest that the fire happened because of cost-cutting in a variety of areas, some of which was not just encouraged but actually mandated by government policy decided by ministers and voted for by MPs who themselves profit directly (as landlords and shareholders) from the atrocious lack of regulation in private and public housing. But as I say, the newspapers, both of which employ hundreds of people who tell themselves and their friends and families that their profession is ‘journalist’, are not remotely interested in facts. What they produce instead is pure propaganda.

The political agenda of this Conservative Party is anti-‘red tape’, pro-Climate Change (as in, against anything that might mitigate it) and anti-EU. If they are given half a chance they will walk away from the Brexit negotiations, plunging not just the country but the entire continent into absolute chaos. They will then use their newspapers to point a burning finger at whoever the most convenient scapegoat may happen to be. Both newspapers also habitually lie to their readers about the most basic facts regarding the climate, repeating verbatim absolute lies and smearing anyone who professes to care about such matters which whatever shit they can muster.

They’ve used today’s front pages to ‘speculate‘ that EU environmental regulations were responsible for the fire. The editors who commissioned the stories and the journalists who wrote it know that it’s not true. They know that it’s an absolute lie told to deflect the huge and absolutely legitimate anger at the causes of the disaster, which (taking as true what has been published and broadcast by serious news outlets) can almost certainly be traced to British Government policy.

I’ve met a few people who worked for the Daily Mail. They were generally genial people who (understandably) enjoyed a drink and felt that what they did for a living didn’t define them as individuals. Like most people in their profession, their personal opinions were to the left of the stance of their employers (how could they not be?). They saw their job as an unfortunate compromise on the path to doing something more worthy (some of them had got stuck along the path. Maybe they had a blister or something). To compare them to concentration camp guards might be a tad unfair. But given the suffering occasioned by their highly-paid work, and the fact that they are not driven by fear for their own lives but by professional ambition, if there is any sort of divine justice at the end of the rainbow, they full deserve to suffer all of its wrath. In the meantime, the frankly satanic political organisation on whose behalf they practise their trade but be kicked as far away from power as soon and as firmly as possible.

The real West London is starting to rise up

When I first visited London I was only 13 or so, and at that impressionable age I half hoped that I’d find Neil Tennant sashaying across the concourse of St Pancras Station with a recalitrant Chris Lowe six paces behind. That video defined my image of London throughout my teenage years, and without my ever reflecting on it, the lyrics to the song firmly established the east-west class divide as the central feature of my mental map of London.

When I moved there properly (at the start of 2006, after a short-lived stint in 1993) I gravitated towards the east. It was cheaper, and in any case the west seemed sort of sloaney. It never occured to me to live there and I tended to look askance at those who did. The west was the land of chinos and jazz funk. Every country has its pijos, fighetti, betinhos or yuppies, and this was their kingdom. The West seemed, in a word, naff.

The more I lived in London the more I sensed that there was much more to the area than my lazy dismissal had acknowledged. Visiting there for any reason always felt like a trip to a slightly exotic foreign country. There was more to West London to yuppies and carnival, and that event itself revealed a working class city in amongst the refurbished portico mansions and lambroghini showrooms. I reflected on the other elements: Nick Roeg’s Powys Square, the emergence of The Clash, and the influence of reggae soundsystems, the riots of 1958 and 1976, the complex interplay of different Afro-Caribbean communities, thw downbeat parades of Bayswater and Queensway which I knew from Martin Amis’ ‘Success’, the extent of the west with all its jealously-guarded class distinctions and postcode markers, from Portobello to Knightsbridge and North Kensington to South Acton.

Last year (2016) I spent a couple of weeks in an affluent part of Shepherd’s Bush and wandering around Goldhawk Road towards Hammersmith and was constantly reminded that gentrification is never total. Even with the eye-wateringly unaffordable housing, there remains a palimpest of communities: Syrian, Lebanese, Irish, Somali, Ethiopian and Sikh. 

Another less noticed feature of West London is the huge working class estates. With possibily even more intensity than other parts of London, they’ve been the site of immense battles in the last few years as new phases of social cleansing set in. As we’ve had cause to hear several times over the last few days, the area around Notting Hill and Kensington is among the most highly-prized territory on earth. The tower blocks which house hundreds of thousands of ordinary Londoners have become outposts of affordable life in a world predicated on aspiration or annihilation, get rich or die trying.

Under what had come to seem like ‘normal’ circumstances, in which your Boris Johnsons and David Camerons were still in the ascendant, the fire could aid the process of hypergentrification, the fate of the victims might be seen as an unfortunate charred blot on a landscape undergoing permanent enhancement. But there’s something about the national mood which will not let that happen. News channels are full of working class people who had been written out of the story of London as a successful global city. As it happens those working class people come from all corners of the globe and have made London their home even as London seems to repel their efforts, their energy and cultural inventiveness welcome only insofar as they serve as enticing images to attract yet more global capital yearning for exponential returns. Those people are West London in its purest form and their resurgence will renew it as a living and breathing place with its own proud history rather than a bland pre-retirement resort for the global elite.

This guy embodies the spirit of the true West London. It’s no accident that behind his righteous invective, honed over years at Speaker’s Corner (a place I’d always dismissed as tourist fodder/a breeding ground for mad mullahs), that he’s also a social historian. He’s spot on on the subject of gentrification and social cleansing, and in this clip is ferocious and trenchant on the role of the media in normalising such deadly inequality and dismissing out of hand the notion that there could ever be an alternative.

Two months ago Iain Sinclair, who has know more Londons than most, declared that this is the final one. I was inclined to agree. The area where he lives and where our flat is is being hollowed out of all historical and cultural content, turned into a computer simulation of the suburbs of Dubai or Shanghai. In what I’d come to think of as an encroachment of the values of West London on the working class East, the role of the yuppies is played by weekend hipsters, just as keen to amass cultural capital by snapping up everything sticking out of the ground, until every rugged feature of the terrain has been smoothed over for international investors. Few places on earth are as bland as the new East London, with its ‘international standard’ apartments and Porsche showrooms. Meanwhile, back west, the furious ashes of the Grenfell Tower contain life; local identity is reasserting itself in an area which I, unfairly, was inclined to dismiss as socially and culturally moribund. If there is hope for London as a living city, it lies in the west.

Interview with Owen Jones on ‘Chavs’ and the London riots

The sea change currently taking place in British politics would be inconceivable without Owen Jones. From his sudden rise to prominence with his book ‘Chavs’, a cogent and concise overview of the changes wrought to working class life by Thatcherism, to his always-compelling Guardian column, he’s been an ever-present positive influence on the Left during one of its most difficult periods in modern history.

In November 2011, in the wake of the success of his book, I interviewed Owen on the subject of that summer’s riots and how it related to the premise of his book. The interview was published in a small monthly left-wing publication and I’d forgotten all about it until the other day. As it’s not available online I thought I’d post it here so it doesn’t entirely disappear into the ether.

RW: First of all I’d like to ask you what kind of reaction you received when you told people what kind of book you were working on.

OJ: When I was writing the book, I struggled to tell people its title – mentioning that you’re writing a book entitled ‘Chavs’ is guaranteed to raise eyebrows. But I think people were interested in the fact I was writing a book on class which – in my view – has been neglected for so long. As much as I’d like to take the credit for the way the book has been received, it has everything to do with the fact that class has crept back on the agenda. If you deny class at a time when the pay of the FTSE 100 chief executives has gone up by 55%, while the average Briton is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s – well, you’re a Flat Earther.

RW: Would you say that the demonisation and dehumanising of he working class encapsulated into the word ‘chav’ is also an international phenomenon? Do you know if there has been an increase in anti-white trash discourse in the US, for example?

OJ: Unequal societies provide fertile ground for demonising those ‘at the bottom’. You see it not just in the US, but also in – for example – Latin American countries, where dehumanising class-ist and racist rhetoric are often intertwined. It’s a way of rationalising inequalities – they become justified on the basis that those at the top and those at the bottom all ‘deserve’ their places.
But it’s also very much the case in both the US and the UK that individuals are expected to get on in life through their own individual efforts. Failing to do so is seen to be the product of personal failure. However, I do think Britain was unique in the nature of the all-out assault on the working-class as a collective political and social group – including the attacks on unions, council housing, industries that sustained entire communities, values like solidarity, and so on. After that, the consensus was that everyone should aspire to be middle-class – and being working-class was no longer something you were encouraged to be proud of, if you like.

RW: I wonder if you are familiar with the work of Owen Hatherley, in his depiction of the physical architecture of the New Labour years is there an affinity with your analysis of the socio-economic climate? And in the light of the increasing profile of Richard Seymour, Mark Fisher and Nina Power is it fair to talk about a new generation of radical and critical thinkers in the UK?

OJ: I’m a huge fan of Owen Hatherley. His work is very powerful because it stands as a damning indictment of New Labour, but with a very unique angle that allows you to understand the politics through the architecture. The likes of Owen Hatherley, Richard Seymour, Mark Fisher and Nina Power are brilliant, powerful left-wing writers, and the movement is very lucky to have them. But I think the emergence of a new generation of young left thinkers has everything to do with the changing political climate, than their undeniable talent. It’s just one manifestation of the radical ideas that are bubbling away among a section of young people. Having grown up in an age of reaction, it’s very heartening to see.

RW: How do the recent riots fit in with the thesis you develop in the book?

OJ: Obviously my book didn’t predict the riots, but I think there are two ways the book and the riots link together. Firstly, the book looks at how skilled, industrial jobs disappeared in a very short space of time and were replaced with fewer service sector jobs that were more insecure, had worse pay, and were less respected. While many young working-class men could leave school at 16 a generation ago and get a relatively well-paid apprenticeship that was a gateway to a long-term job, that’s no longer the case today. The fact that the rioters and looters were overwhelmingly men from poorer working-class communities who were both out of work and education is – I think – hardly surprisingly. Secondly, the book links in with how the post-riot backlash was manipulated. People were understandably and angry and scared in the aftermath of the riots. Right-wing politicians and commentators manipulated it to talk of a “feral underclass” – an escalation of the idea of the undeserving poor: they’re not just undeserving, they’re like animals. David Cameron used the aftermath to attack people on benefits, arguing that one of the solutions was to take on a welfare state that promotes “idleness”. He backed plans by councils to evict rioters and their families (i.e. collective punishment) and to remove benefits from rioters. Talk of taking away benefits is now being extended to all those who break the law. As well as establishing the principle that, if you break the law and you are poor you will be punished twice, it’s also trying to cement the idea of a lawless underclass. ‘Chavs’ tried to take on the idea we’re all middle-class, apart from a problematic rump of the old working-class. That’s a theory that – tragically – has been reinforced in the aftermath of the riots.

RW: Is the politics of aspiration that you refer to sustainable in a recessionary climate?

OJ: Individual aspiration is all about the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, that there is room at the top for those who work hard enough. But at a time of protracted economic and social crisis – when people are experiencing the biggest squeeze of living standards since the 1920s through no fault of their own – that myth becomes far harder to sustain. It becomes almost farcical to argue that where you end up is a reflection of your abilities. With a collective attack on people’s rights, I hope that there is a collective response. The recent teachers’ and civil servants’ strike was a form of collective aspiration – people coming together to defend themselves from a tax on public sector workers that’s being used to pay off the deficit.

RW: And finally, given that you contribute to the Labour List website, what are your predictions and hopes for the future of the left in and outside the Labour Party, especially in the light of the Blue (and now Purple, it seems) Labour projects?

OJ: The left everywhere – in Britain and across the world – has been overwhelmed by a perfect storm since the late 1970s. There was the rise of the New Right (best embodied by Thatcherism and Reaganism, but also the juntas in Latin America); the defeats suffered by the labour movement, particularly in Britain; the capitalist triumphalism unleashed after the collapse of Stalinism – There Is No Alternative and The End of History and so on; and neo-liberal globalisation. It’s in this context that New Labour emerged. The reality is that the left still does not exist as a mass political force in the aftermath of this perfect storm, despite the crisis of capitalism that began four years ago. At the top of the Labour Party, Blairites are still very strong and there’s not a strong enough countervailing pressure coming from the left. If we’re going to have a Labour Party that properly represents the working-class majority, that means the unions using their powers far more effectively within the Party, but also a strong grassroots movement both inside and outside the Party that can drag the leadership (kicking and screaming if needs be) to a progressive position.

The Grenfell disaster should help us reconsider our indifference to homelessness

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The fire is the Grenfell tower block is still burning more than 24 hours later. Dozens have been killed and hundreds left destitute because the ‘market’ decided it was worth the risk.

The outpouring of solidarity and charity shows that pretty much everyone in the country has imagined themselves in such a situation. There’s also rage and revulsion at the economic forces and social structures that the fire lays bare. Those Conservative Party defenders criticising the ‘politicisation’ of the disaster resemble Isis supporters demanding that no one hold it responsible for bombings and beheadings.

Then there’s the slow apocalypse of individual homelessness. Is it wrong to imagine the frustration of people already homeless upon seeing the attention this catastrophe has generated? No wonder destitute people from other parts of London have apparently been turning up at the disaster site looking for food and shelter. Who wouldn’t? In Kensington and Chelsea itself one out of every 29 people is homeless. Those displaced by the disaster might count themselves lucky that their council has not followed the example of neighbouring Westminster in its proposal to make feeding them illegal, or various other boroughs in fining people more than the price of a hotel room for sleeping rough. Everyone in London knows how easy it is to find oneself between flats, stretching the hospitality of friends and family to the point where a night in a park starts to seem like a more comfortable option. It’s fair to say that probably most of London’s population lives in conditions of mild to extreme housing insecurity. It’s a slow-burning, invisible conflagration.

A sudden loss of home like that experienced by the Grenfell residents must be traumatic almost beyond repair. We help others in such situations partly in the hope that if something similar were to happen to us our neighbours would look out for us and give us refuge. The fact that similar things are happening on a global scale might give us pause to reflect on the irony that so many British people, in the wake of the Brexit vote, immediately started looking abroad for other options. Doing so is never a bad idea but our history should teach us that our plight doesn’t make us a priority for resettlement.

Nobody lives a more precarious existence in London than council or former council tenants in areas of high demand. Those out on the streets in West London right now are exactly the kind of people being turfed out of the ‘Golden Postcodes’. There’s an irony in the use of the hashtag #IamLondon in response to terrorist attacks, for only a dwindling minority of locals can afford to live there. Thanks to the hard work of Boris Johnson and central government, the city is becoming almost medievally exclusive. When we rented out our flat in East London the prospective tenants mentioned to the letting agent that it was a shame we didn’t have a better view over the (council) block opposite. Don’t worry, he said, it’ll be gone soon, oblivious to the fact that there are no current plans to get rid of it and the hundreds of people who live there. There’s a deeper logic at work, a bizarre but serendipitous seismic anomaly that only brings down those buildings which ordinary people can afford to live in. As it happens, the company which developed our building and those on adjacent streets did so with the enthusiastic support of one Brandon Lewis, then Housing Minister and proud advocate of Letting The Market Decide. The use of cheap (and apparently inflammable) cladding to cover the Grenfell Tower obeys a similar logic: if you can’t push the poor out through legislation, purposeful neglect or repossession, disguise their very presence. It’s worth the risk.

Just up the road from our flat there’s a Tesco Express with an ATM outside, next to which one or other homeless person is permanently stationed. Talking to them is always a deeply enraging experience. Any of those we step over on the way to work may have been left on the streets by a fire or kicked out by a landlord who refused to carry out essential repairs. As we pass such people, it’s easy (and understandable) to blame the media for cultivating our indifference to their plight. Actually there are ways in which we’re complicit, as the political philosopher Louis CK explains in this clip:

It’s noticeable that those who claim that people begging make thousands of pounds a day never do so themselves. There’s also the sandwich response, those who insist on buying people begging for money food instead, as though becoming homeless were the result of individual failure, rather than the result of a crime on an enormous scale, a crime which goes by the name of the market but is actually much more recognisable as the highly profitable operations of a mafia-style cartel. Complicity also means voting for parties that say that mass homelessness and near-universal levels of housing precarity are an acceptable price to pay for the prosperity of very few, or accepting without question an ideology that says the insatiable appetites of the global ‘market’ must be appeased at all cost. Taking it for granted that the lives and homes of others are worth the risk, little more than plastic chips in a giant, members-only casino where the owners always win. We need an immediate mass movement to join those left out on the street, to confront power and argue that decent, safe and affordable housing is a basic human right, not a prize in a game of Russian roulette.

I don’t understand cricket, and that’s become a problem

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The Bangladeshi guy in the shop under our apartment in Rome is puzzled. He doesn’t understand why I keep pretending that I don’t understand the rules of cricket. My pretence has been going on for months and it’s starting to grate on him. I’ll pop in for another bottle of Bucanero and he’ll joyously proclaim, England are all out and Pakistan are 117 for 2!, to which my only response is, er, so who’s winning?

I’ve explained the social context for my genuine ignorance numerous times to no avail. I think he sees it as something shameful. Maybe it is. I certainly find it a bit embarrassing. As far as he’s concerned, I’m an educated person from the country that invented the sport, so even if I didn’t understand, I surely wouldn’t want to lose face by feigning a lack of knowledge (my evident lack of patriotism is also a source of some bemusement). One issue is that he prefers to speak about cricket in English rather than Italian, and while his command of my language is considerably better than my mastery of his (restricted as it is to a handful of food words that on reflection are probably Hindi anyway), his lack of basic grammar combined with the fact that his cricket vocabulary supercedes mine in any language gets in the way of effective communication.

So I explain again that in the UK only rich people play cricket (‘posh’ is a bugger of a word to explain), that I didn’t go to the kind of school that taught and encouraged an interest in the sport. Cricket isn’t the most popular game in Britain, football is. It’s a political thing. He’s not listening. After all, he spends all day every day around Italians, and he’s not a big fan of Italy. The Italians don’t even play, let alone appreciate, cricket! Whereas in me he has a full-blown, native-born cricket enthusiast to marvel at the game with. He loves talking about cricket with me, even though the only players I can think of are Geoffrey Boycott and Johnny Wilkinson, and I can tell you even that took quite a lot of effort.

Right now there’s a tournament taking place, which as I write has reached the semi-final stage. Pakistan are beating England (I think) and tomorrow India take on Bangladesh. He’s going to close the shop for half a day to follow the game. I’m genuinely excited to see his excitement – I’ve interviewed so many IELTS candidates from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka for whom cricket is the driving force in their lives. But half an hour ago, having endured another failed attempt to explain the contorted relationship between class and sport in British society, I promised to him and to myself that I would go and study the rules. It is, in several senses, absurd that I don’t understand what the numbers mean, how wickets relates to overs and overs to whatever the other one’s called. If there even is another one.

The problem is that I came back up here, cracked open the beer and started writing this. Ever time I think about googling the rules of cricket or opening onto one of the few parts of the Guardian website I’ve never ventured onto before (although shouldn’t I really go for The Telegraph?), I start to feel slightly dozy and more than a little bit chippy. I could not give a flying fuck about cricket. I hope Bangladesh win. I hope they crush England 7,000 runs to love. Christ, imagine what a boost it would give Boris Johnson and Michael ‘fucking’ Gove if the English cricket team were to win the Cricket World whatever-it-is right now. The bloody Daily Mail would probably photoshop a picture of a triumphant-but-dour Theresa May with Will Carling (or whoever) and call her QUEEN OF THE ASHES. So here’s to Shakib Al-Hasan, Mashrafe Mortaza, Tamim Iqbal and even (if it’s not too late) Virat Kohli. Anyone but England. Forza! everyone else.

Ps. According to the Daily Telegraph website my beloved Pakistan have apparently beaten England, I’m off to buy some Pimms :-).

Three people I met in Brazil

Although Brazil is officially my favourite country in the world, I’ve only ever actually spent about three weeks there, which kinda puts me in the same category as that fabled tourist who ‘loves Brazil, but has only seen four square miles of it’. In my defence, I do have a Master’s degree in Brazilian and Portuguese Studies, which she almost certainly doesn’t, but then again, to be scrupulously fair, she does have the unfair advantage of never having existed, so she sort-of wins.

I existed in Brazil in November 2010, but apart from this, and this (and, er, this), I’ve never got round to writing about the country, partly because it’s such a vast, complex and dynamic place that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’m starting at a fairly random point by writing about three people I happened to meet on my holiday, all of whom just so happen to be men and all of whom taught me something remarkable that has stayed with me. That doesn’t mean that these are the only or most extraordinary people I met, but as they almost say in Portuguese, when it comes to both writing and scratching your arse, the difficult thing is getting started.

The first was a middle-aged German who had set down his roots there and who was therefore, annoyingly for me as a self-appointed expert on Brazil, a self-appointed expert on Brazil who actually lived in Brazil. I got talking to him in a tiny bar in the Pelourinho in Salvador de Bahia, where travellers stroll around to the sound of practising Oludum drummers and small children plaintively asking for milk powder which they can then sell to buy crack. In the course of our short conversation the German kept reaching out to touch my arm, just above the elbow, almost falling off his barstool to do so. It suddenly struck me that I’d witnessed Brazilians performing the same gesture thousands of times, to the point where, without realising it, I’d started doing it myself. The fact that he made the gesture in a way which drew attention to it, whereas when I did it I did so without even noticing, gave me some hope that I was managing to fit in (it is my lifelong ambition, along with fathering a child with a perfectly round head (tick!) and winning the Nobel Prize for Blogging, to be mistaken, just once, for a Brazilian). I found it curious that it had taken another foreigner to teach me something so basic. Touch is very important in Braxil – it can be intrusive or seductive, and sometimes both. It’s part of that willingness to connect which I personally find extremely endearing. I once read about a study of how many times friends make physical contact over a coffee in different countries. The statistics were remarkable: for Brazilians it was roughly 100, in the UK about ten, and in Japan (a culture ostensibly very different from Brazil, although I tend to think there are certain unacknowleged points of comparison) zero.

On a beach somewhere to the north of Salvador I met a guy who lived in a house made of plastic bottles. I don’t remember how we got got talking; maybe he asked me for the empty bottle I was holding so he could start to build an extension. He made a living-of-sorts selling handicraft to tourists, of whom on that undeveloped stretch of coast there were few, although there were a couple of fledgling resorts. (Also, in an encouraging sign of an upturn in economic activity, two suspected drug dealers had been shot dead the previous week just next to where the bus stopped on the coast road (or so I was told by the taxi driver who kindly advised me not to walk up to the village but to allow him to let me pay him to transport me instead)). My new friend had taken full advantage of the subsidies that various PT governments had provided. He was extremely enthusiastic about the changes that Lula had wrought in his life and vehemently insisted on taking me to see where he lived. Sadly, partly because it was getting dark and partly due to a near-death experience I’d had in Salvador a few days previously (nothing to do with the German), I declined, although we did drink a bottle of cachaça and I did pay him over the odds for a couple of carancas and various other nicknacks, so we both stumbled away materially replenished and very, very drunk.

In Rio, within a couple of hours of my arrival in the country, overlooking Lapa with a jetlag-relieving drink in my hand, I fell into conversation with the young guy manning the hostel bar. He must have noticed my Portuguese accent, one which to Brazilians sounds distinctly yokelish. Moving on from the icebreaking topic of how unwittingly hilarious Portuguese people are, we got onto the related subject of colonialism. It turned out that one of my favourite Brazilian films (‘Central do Brasil‘) had been the subject of a thesis he had written. It’s the story of an older woman (whose surname is Guimarães, which is significant, as that’s the city where Portugal was ‘born’) living in Rio, where she witnesses the accidental death of the mother of a young boy from the Northeast. She takes it upon herself to rescue the young boy from the dangers of the streets and takes him to track down his father up north. It’s therefore mostly a roadtrip and (my new best friend explained) an exploration of the tangled relationship between the spinsterish colonial power and the orphaned colony, and thus about identity, my very favourite subject. It was a joyous hour or so of intense conversation, a meeting of rapidly addled minds as the Brahma bottles clinked and the maconha fumes fumed. I didn’t know at that point that my nbf was to lose his job the very next day, sacked by the expat owner for spending too much time, er, fraternising with the clientele. At the time, gazing over the undulating contours of what was clearly the friendliest and most picturesque city on earth, I found myself thinking, this is going to be the greatest holiday of my life. It wasn’t, for various reasons, but still.

“Austerity is over” – so what exactly did Daniel Blake die for?

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Conservative Party billboards, 2010

Theresa May has said that austerity is finished. What she didn’t mention – but knows full well – is that it was never necessary in the first place.

After the financial crisis of 2007-8, which was largely caused by deregulation of the financial system on the ideological basis that the market always knows best, the Conservative press started telling a story which wasn’t true. The narrative they came up with was that Labour overspending had caused the country to become mired in unsustainable levels of public debt. The solution was to do what they had always wanted: shrink the British state, selling off the profitable parts of the NHS and reducing the post-war Welfare State to a bare mimimum. It was a clear case of what Naomi Klein had described the previous year as the shock doctrine: the taking advantage of a crisis in order to implement an extreme ideological agenda which in normal circumstances would be roundly rejected. As the neoliberal guru Milton Friedman had said:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

On the basis of the story the Conservatives won two general elections. As a direct result of the ‘savage’ cuts (to quote Nick Clegg’s ill-advised boasts) millions turned to food banks and thousands were killed by benefit sanctions and the removal of their disability benefits. The NHS is now on its last legs, both of which are due to be ripped off at any moment and sold off to speculators, as detailed in the Naylor Review.

How were they able to get away with it? Because the Labour Party never challenged the narrative. They never pointed out with sufficient conviction that it wasn’t government overspending that had caused the crisis. Whenever they tried to articulate their own version of events it was done so unconvincingly that the right-wing press shouted them down and they were cowed.

Now the Labour Party is telling its own story and it happens to be one that coincides with the truth. Austerity was a con, a scam, and a coup and the damage that’s been done to public services and to social cohesion was a result of maliciousness and greed. Now, at long last, after seven bitter and frustrating years, it is finally arguing its case with such conviction that the whole tenor of debates about society and the economy have changed more or less overnight.

The Tories think they can get away with pretending to drop austerity and moving swiftly on. They must not be allowed to do so. The cuts agenda has been the entire basis of government policy at every moment of the last seven years and they knew that it was based on lies. They knew that the economic crisis was nothing to do with government overspending. The scale of the scam that has been pulled is so great that it would take a truth and reconciliation commission to get at the truth. It was not based on a regrettable misunderstanding that has now been resolved. It was based on an immense campaign of lies so that public wealth in all its different forms, both tangible and intangible but all absolutely invaluable, could be monetised, financialised and ultimately stolen. It hasn’t been a marginal aspect of the last two governments’ political programmes but their absolute centrepiece. We have been ruled by a regime of austerity and in order to move on from it in any meaningful way HEADS MUST FUCKING ROLL starting with that of Theresa May, who just a few weeks ago thought she could crush all political opposition for good. If austerity is dead, then so are the careers of all those who, with staggering dishonesty and massive corruption, supported it in the first place. They have ruined millions of lives – and, given that without austerity, Brexit would be inconceivable, set in chain a series of consequences which may end up destroying peace between European nations – on the basis of an absolute lie.

What Donald Trump doesn’t understand about regulation

The above video is simply called ‘Indian traffic’, and was presumably filmed by a tourist from a hotel window. It has ten million views. In it we see rickshaws, trucks, cars, buses, cyclists, motorbikes with up to three passengers, and pedestrians all engaged in a seemingly hazardous but actually innocuous dance. Pretty much everyone at some point looks as though they’re about to crash into another vehicle. It looks like total chaos but, despite the apparent absence of traffic signals, actually runs smoothly. The traffic seems to self-regulate; the experience of watching it has a nicely zen-like quality.

To be fair, it is only two minutes. I’m sure whichever city it is has its fair share of traffic accidents*. I mentioned the video the other day in a conversation with a Dutch friend visiting Rome. At a slightly similar intersection we were traversing he said that he tells his kids (of whom he has several) always to look into the eyes of drivers when crossing the road, to create that human connection. I responded that I often do the same.

Perhaps its by studying how traffic interacts in less ‘developed’ countries that has led some European cities to experiment with reducing the amount of traffic signage. Doing so seems to force people to engage with one another in a less abstracted and therefore more humane manner. It was actually a Dutch engineerHans Monderman, who developed the notion of  “naked streets”. He argued that “traffic was safest when road users were “self-policing” and streets were cleared of controlling clutter. His innovations, now adopted in some 400 towns across Europe, have led to dramatic falls in accidents”. So said Simon Jenkins when writing about the topic in The Guardian. Jenkins, who has long played the role of the newspaper’s neoliberal provocateur, went on to argue (with typical sarcasm) that:

The white line down the middle of the road is a metaphor of the age. It is the guiding hand of a benign government. Its abolition hints at a loss of control, a lurch from authority towards personal responsibility, even towards anarchy. Mankind cannot tolerate too much naked tarmac. No sensible person could want more confusion and uncertainty in life. We need the firm paintbrush of a caring minister.

I don’t know if I’d read Jenkins’ article at the time, but the conversation with my Dutch friend also seemed to lead naturally on to talk of other forms of regulation. If traffic (a word we also use for trade in all its forms) is best left unregulated, what about other forms of social and economic interaction? Does the video of traffic in India support a laissez-faire view of the world?

Well, while of course there are no actual car crashes in the youtube clip, there are less visible hazards. The fact that traffic accidents have an immediate and visible impact makes them dissimilar from other consequences of other forms of human interaction which may be less remote in time and space and thus much more difficult to disentangle, or even (often consciously) hidden, but not for that any less real or damaging. However, it does make it much more difficult to apportion responsibility. An obvious example is Climate Change (how many of those Indian drivers are now proud possessors of “carbon neutral” Volkswagens?), but its by no means the only one. To quote the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu:

It can be shown, for example, that problems seen in the suburban estates of the cities stem from a neoliberal housing policy, implemented in the 1970s…This social separation was brought about by a political measure. [But] who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970?

If we’re looking for the causes of the current rise of far-right parties around the world, ignoring the financial crisis of 2008 would be like tying to enjoy a pleasant hotel breakfast while a woolly mammoth careens around the room shitting all over the toast racks and trays of scrambled eggs. It’s unlikely that Donald Trump has seen ‘Inside Job‘, the excellent documentary which explains succinctly how financial deregulation, and particularly its impact on the housing market, created the catastrophe which has in turn, like a multiple pile-up seen in horrifying slow-motion, done possibly fatal damage to our economies, societies and democratic institutions. As it happens, the President* apparently prefers to watch movies like ‘The Fast and the Furious’ by fast-forwarding to the…car crash scenes.

His total and blissful ignorance of the subject, combined with his evident wish to destroy all traces of the Obama years, is leading him to try to overturn the regulatory legislation put in place in 2010 (too little and too late, but still) to try to clear up the worst of the mess and stop such a disaster taking place again. Now, Trump is unaware that such things as consequences exist, partly because, for him, they don’t and never have. For me, that raises a very interesting question. There’s been lots of speculation as to whether or not the Mango Mussolini knows how to read, or use a computer, or speak English, but I’m starting to wonder, given that he’s been chauffeur-driven since the moment he was born: does Donald Trump even know how to drive? I mean, I don’t, but then a) I live in Rome, so even if I learnt I’d be dead within ten minutes and b) I’m not the one pretending to be US President.

*Apparently it’s New Delhi, where there are loads of accidents. Still, on with the argument.

People Theresa May is now in hock to

Things haven’t gone to plan for the PM. According to the script drawn up by her rather hapless advisors back in April, by this point any remaining dissidents were supposed to have been lying at the bottom of the Irish Sea and she herself was due to be anointed with the Royal Wax of the Imperial Beehive. Instead she’s spending 24 hours a day on the phone to crackpot Ulsterfolk with accents so densely-packed you could use them to blow up a betting shop, while any courtiers who haven’t had their heads chopped off were last heard of making up some absolute f*cking nonsense about goat’s skin. Plus Mr Murdoch’s not at all happy, and he’s not the only one. Here’s a short list of the people she has to appease if she wants to stay in power beyond Tuesday teatime.

1. Rupert Murdoch

When Murdoch summoned May immediately after the election announcement in order to hand her her instructions, he told her in a very loud, grouchy, sort-how-you’d-imagine-an-aging-pedo-to-sound voice GET MICHAEL BLOODY GOVE IN THE BLOODY CABINET. Luckily for her she then screwed up the election, so at this point she can appoint whoever she wants. She might as well make Gerry Adams Minister for Sport or dig up Jimmy Savile and make him Secretary of State for Media and Children’s Hospitals. Whatever she does, she no longer risks attracting opprobrium, simply because there is simply no more opprobrium to be had in the entire country. In fact, given the levels of opprobrium that the British Government is currently attracting from Europe and around the world, global supplies look like running out. Luckily they can be enhanced by another mineral resource, which appears to be infinite: ridicule.

2. Paul Dacre

Imagine the scene. Theresa May, with all her liberal values arraigned alongside her, visits the Labour stronghold of Kensington. She insists that the UK must remain in Single Market and that there must be some measure of free movement, especially for those EU citizens who are settled in the UK. Well, she says that to herself, silently, while nervously sipping her coffee from King Edward VIII chinztware cups. Then the Editor of the Daily Mail turns up, calls her a stupid f*cking c*nt eight times in the first two minutes and orders her to go back to Number 10 and wait for a f*cking email with her f*cking instructions in it.

3. The Saudis

She can’t afford to offend the Saudis, even if they will keep sending their suicide bombers to blow up London. That’s why she continues to (literally) sit on a report which details their plans to do basically just that. In the meantime, as Amber Rudd argues, selling death equipment into the Middle East remains the best guarantee of prosperity and stability for the post-Brexit UK*. Or, you know, not. At least on the next trade mission they’ll be able to send over the DUP as official representatives, and they’re sure to have a huge amount in common with their hosts.

4. The DUP

A lot of commentary on the DUP over the last few days has focussed on how bigoted they are, which is actually in a way unfortunate, because they’re actually more corrupt than they are bigoted. Although, to be fair, they’re also more bigoted than they are corrupt. And vice versa. The initial negotiations over the not-allowed-to-call-it-a-coalition-because-of-the-stupid-bloody-peace-process took precisely as long as it took to say we’llgiveyouwhateveryouwant. There was then a slight delay as everything Arlene Foster said had to be translated from pure hatespeak into something resembling BBC Tory English so that Laura Kuenssberg could try to sell the whole thing to the British public while besmirching, defaming and maligning the opposition, as her contract clearly specifies. They’ve now got as far as establishing that the DUP wants to ban Catholics from public and private office (and transport), hold Orange Marches on Downing Street every Thursday and burn down St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is obviously all fine and dandy. Did you know that Jeremy Corbyn once went to a pub in Belfast where members of Sinn Fein had played darts just three weeks earlier? Oh, you did.

5. The Brexit negotiating teams

“The…what?! Oh, f*ck, I’d forgotten all about that…”

*It’s even more lucrative when you factor in the, er, training that goes into these ‘defence contracts’.