Tuesday, 28 August 2012

One small step for mankind

The reports of the death of Neil Armstrong have read at times like an obituary for the United States, or at least a lament for the passing of the "American century". In retrospect, the brief window between the first  moon landing in 1969 and the last in 1972 can be seen as the highpoint of American power, straddling the end of the Bretton Woods post-war economic order in 1971 (when the US ended the convertibility of the dollar to gold) and preceding the oil crisis of 1973. Many of our current woes appear to stem from this point and the consequent neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not mark an inexorable American triumph, driven by free markets, defence spending and Reagan's "morning in America" schtick, so much as the inevitable death rattle of Stalinism. It's already a cliche that China will overtake the USA in GDP as well as Olympic medals within a decade or so.

But the Apollo programme itself should give us pause for thought. The Saturn rockets it relied on were developed under the guidance of Wernher von Braun, who had masterminded Germany's rocket research under the Nazis and the development of the V2 during WW2. One could argue that the 20th was the German century, in terms of that country's pivotal role and impact on others. Had it not been for two calamitous wars, the USA's ascent to hegemony might not have happened.

That may appear an overly Eurocentric view today, but there was no doubting the centrality of Europe in the middle years of the last century, if only because of the psychic focus of the Iron Curtain. Simple geography has always meant that the broad area of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the Pillars of Hercules to the Straits of Hormuz, has been at the centre of world affairs, acting as a hinge between Eurasia and Africa. China and India may be growing powers, but they remain relatively disadvantaged by their peripheral position, and their flanking move to buy up land in Africa won't fundamentally change that.

In time, we may look back on the 20th century and see the dominant story as the growth of the global South, which is perhaps best throught of as everything below the Tropic of Cancer. In 1973, Arno Peters produced a new map of the world that adjusted Mercator's projection to give greater prominence to the southern land masses. Though he also proposed a new meridian, to provide a more symmetrical view, it's notable that this still went through Europe, specifically Florence.

Returning to rockets, it's worth remembering that the Americans didn't just inherit the technology from the Germans, they also inherited an ambition for (extra-)territorial expansion and even colonisation, which lives on today among some politicians. Though the Moon was claimed for "all mankind", it was the Stars and Stripes that was planted in the Sea of Tranquility. There are some who claim that the Apollo mission was primarily about developing better ICBMs and military satellites than the USSR, and that no one seriously envisaged colonisation of a dead rock whose mineral wealth is of dubious value, however the technology of manned spaceflights is so divorced from missiles that this was never any more credible than the whole "it was faked!" theory. The Americans simply thought going to the Moon would be cool. You'd think they might have learnt from Britain's suicidal obsession with planting a flag at the South Pole. The Chinese and Indians now seem determined to make the same chauvinistic mistake.

And that perhaps is why the 20th won't be remembered as the American century. Between 1945 and 1975, they had a glorious window of opportunity to genuinely benefit mankind (and thus themselves), but they blew it on anti-communist paranoia, a stupid and expensive war in Vietnam (which led in part to the convertibility watershed in 1971), and a self-indulgent spectacle that ate billions. Imagine if all that money and talent had been diverted to something really useful, like clean power or public health.

Armstrong's passing has naturally featured his most famous utterance, and the debate about whether he did omit the indefinite article before "man". Perhaps the semantic discussion should focus on whether he actually got the nouns the right way round.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

What would Wonder Woman do?

The news that Wonder Woman will get to do the jiggy-jiggy with Superman has coincided neatly with US senatorial candidate Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" gaffe. While the former is simple plot evolution, driven both by commercial need and social change, the latter has shone a light on the ingrained misogyny of US conservatives and the limits of their philosophy. But there is a connection between the two.

Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling has noted the apparent paradox of the right's championing of self-ownership (I own me, I cannot be enslaved) on the one hand, and their readiness to qualify this when dealing with a crime that directly offends female self-ownership (I have rights over your body if we've previously had sex, you don't own your own foetus). Of course the paradox dissolves once you remember that modern libertarian rights, like the classical liberal rights they derive from, are in practice reserved for white men of a particular class, which is why George Galloway has made such a twat of himself.

The reliably funny Stonekettle Station's Jim Wright (an ex-US military dude in Alaska who isn't a right-wing nut-job) asks if Akin's belief that "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down" is evidence that women have superpowers. This got me to thinking about the whole superhero thing and why it developed in America. I'll come back, like a salmon to its spawning ground, to why this matters in the context of modern politics, but for now, bear with me ...

The classic interpretation is that superheroes evolved during the Great Depression as a form of escapism and vicarious empowerment in a time of great stress. Initially, they weren't so superhuman, being like Dick Tracy (launched 1931), who relied on intelligence and fancy gadgets. During WW2 they became more super, none more so than illegal immigrant Superman who started life in 1938 as the creation of Jews fleeing pogroms and Hitler (excellently fictionalised in Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay). Thereafter the superheroes reflected American geopolitical concerns and social change, from conformity and anti-communism in the 50s, through the questioning of authority (government and family) in the 60s and 70s, to modern concerns about gender and sexuality.

It's a commonplace that the roots of the superhero can be traced via Beowulf to Gilgamesh and Hercules, but what is of more modern provenance is the idea of superheroes as a class or breed apart. The post-war evolution of the superhero "team", from the Justice League of America and the Avengers to the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants, sees a gradual shift from a group of individuals that deliberately pool their resources for the common good (echoing the Allies and the UN) to a group defined (sometimes unwillingly) by their genetic destiny. The Watchmen eventually turns this on its head with a group that has few actual super powers and is considered an antisocial subculture of weirdos who dress in capes. The Incredibles combined both themes to comic effect.

    The explanation for why superheroes did not successfully evolve in Europe often points to democracy and the American dream. The idea that ordinary people can do great things, can reinvent themselves, meant that the acquisition of superpowers was (sort of) credible and aspirational. The "vulgar" exploitation of talent and wealth (Batman and Iron Man) was admired.

In Britain, our heroes were gentlemen of independent (and invisible) means, from the intellectual (Sherlock Holmes), through the jingoistic (Richard Hannay, James Bond) to the downright stolid (Bulldog Drummond, Biggles). Alf Tupper, The Tough of the Track, remains the only notable working-class hero who wasn't an outright joke, and his particular talent was running fast on a diet of fish and chips (he'd never have made Team GB).

The other major influence, which overlaps with democracy and the American dream, is the myth of the West. Natty Bumppo (The Last of the Mohicans) was the archetypal frontiersman, followed by The Virginian and The Lone Ranger. They were built in the heroic mould: brave, nostalgic, ever-questing, supremely skilled, and ultimately alone (Tonto didn't count as a person). This heritage means that the superhero character contains strands of misanthropy, nativism and hyper-individualism, all of which feed the tendency towards the fascist (the unelected vigilante who just knows what's best), which surfaces as far apart as the modern Batman (The Dark Knight) and Ayn Rand's John Galt (Atlas Shrugged). See? I was always going to return to right-wing loopiness eventually.

The idea of self-ownership, which underpins classical liberal thought, largely derives from John Locke's Second Treatise of Government:
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
This combines both the idea of self-ownership, which by definition denies slavery (you cannot cede ownership of yourself to another), together with the idea that when a man mixes his labour with nature, e.g. working the land, the product becomes his property. At one level this is entirely consistent with Marx's notion of labour value, the idea that the worker's own labour-power is hers by right and that the surplus value of her labour should be inalienable. However, Locke cheerfully invested in the Africa-America slave trade and was involved in the drafting of Carolina's essentially feudal and slavery-friendly Constitution; and his theories on property conveniently denied rights to the land to Native Americans, on the erroneous basis that they did not cultivate or enclose it, and thus did not mix their labour, in his narrow definition. What was "common to all men" became the property of a few.

Writing in the late 17th century, his theories on self-ownership assume we're talking about white men only. The "slavery" that he cared about was subjection to an arbitrary (and possibly Catholic) monarchy that trampled on the property and religious rights of Protestant gentlemen. Real existing slavery in the Carolinas, like the dispossession of native Americans, fell outside his philosophical worldview, as, I suspect, would the notion of female self-ownership. An unborn foetus would have been the property of a man who had "mixed his labour" with that "inferior creature", woman.

Despite the ideology of the melting pot, America has always been more concerned with preserving group distinctions than Europe. In the latter, one's origins could (and can) be laundered within a generation, something that Americans heiresses famously took advantage of in the late 19th century (Winston Churchill's mum was one). Money was always more important than breeding or race, despite the claims to the contrary. In the USA, the racial segregation of the Confederacy was just the extreme manifestation of a general belief in rigid community rights; apartheid avant la lettre.

Superheroes are exemplars of the destiny of genetics, of inescapable fate (avenging dead parents etc), of group identities beyond negotiation. They are the antithesis of freely-chosen membership, of democratic practice. When a civilian aspires to don the mask, this either ends in tragedy and/or comedy (e.g. Kick Ass). The evil villain who parodies the superhero's methods and accoutrements is a visible corruption of the ideal, evidence that you cannot cross the line, no matter how talented or rich you are. His fundamental crime is Prometheus's hubris, Lucifer's pride, a refusal to accept the order of the universe. He's uppity.

The mad insistence by many right-wingers in the US that Obama cannot be American is part of this. For some of them, a black president just breaches too many unstated rules.

In Britain, "breeding" does not actually refer to your genetic stock but to your education and upbringing, which is simply a matter of money. David Cameron may well be a misogynist ("calm down, dear" etc), but he isn't crass enough to treat women as a breed apart, any more than he'd claim that blacks have natural rhythm (it's the Notting Hill Carnival this weekend, so there's still time).

In the US, Todd Akin is regarded as a fool and an embarrassment by many, but there seems every chance he will cling on to his candidacy as his views appear to be shared or condoned by many others. By a delicious irony, his opponent in the senatorial race in Missouri is a woman, the pro-choice Claire McCaskill.

C'mon Wonder Woman, save the day!

Friday, 24 August 2012

Distant Voices, Still Lives

A fascinating set of old police mugshots, Newcastle-upon-Tyne criminals of the 1930s, has been published on Flickr by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. I was pointed to this by a centre-spread treatment in the Guardian today. One of the many burglars, William Jones, had a hand-written note across the index card that accompanied the photo: "Dead. Died in action. Benwell Hotel".

This caught my eye as I used to live, between the ages of 9 and 14, on Bentinck Road, just off the Elswick Road. The latter morphs into Adelaide Terrace where the aforementioned pub stood (I believe it's boarded-up today). I used to pass it on the bus to and from my primary school, St. Bede's, out by Denton Burn. I don't recall it being more notorious for its "action" than any other pub, of which there were many on a long road that runs along the top of the north bank of the Tyne, parallel to the Scotswood Road along the river's edge.

I can only speculate on the choice of words. Perhaps an ironic reference to Jones being fatally clobbered by the landlord when he tried to break in, or maybe the police caught him red-handed and he "resisted" (there's a suggestive comment on Flickr to this effect). It might just mean he drank himself insensible and then choked on his vomit. Rock 'n roll. Seen en masse, it's not difficult to imagine that many of those featured in the series might have had a difficult relationship with the booze. Though the photos are arresting, it's the incidental detail on the index cards that is most thought-provoking, such as their average height being around 5'6". The tallest is only just over 5'10" and quite a few were barely over 5 foot. These were mainly men in their 20s and 30s. The comparable cohort today would be 5'10", though I believe the statistical average is 5'9", due to lots of little old men. It's easy to forget the dramatic impact that an improved diet and better housing had on the health of the young from the 40s onwards.

The flat we lived in (from 1969) on Bentinck Road was in an old Victorian house that had been converted, with a housing association office on the ground floor, where we went to pay the rent, and another flat above. It was knocked down and replaced by a BT building in 1974, at which point we were decanted to Washington New Town and the joys of central heating. In the old flat we still had coal fires and one of my occasional jobs on getting in from school was to haul a fresh bucket up from the coal shed in the back yard, which meant clambering up and down a cast-iron fire escape in the rain (it usually rained). The flat above was occupied by a couple who I imagined were as old as the building but were probably in their 50s, with working daughters in their 20s (one got married while we were there and we kids were invited up to look at her trying on the white dress). Both of the parents were tiny, she dark and pinched, like a field vole, he round and gleaming, like a Christmas bauble. I think he liked a drop or two, which also prompted him into lusty renditions of Blaydon Races (yes, Geordies really do sing this at the drop of a hat).

Many of the featured criminals have Irish, Scottish or Welsh names, reflecting the continuing itinerant stream from the periphery to the industrial regions: Gallagher, Lavery, Kelly, Casey, Quinn, Muir, Finlay, Murray, and Jones. There was one exotic, a Jew, James Isadore Epstine (sic), whose trade was recorded as "billiard marker" (the graduate of a misspent youth). Most had their trade recorded as labourer (a casual trade which usually meant unemployed), with a couple of miners and a miscellany of hawkers, carpenters and news vendors. According to the police notes, most thieving was done from pubs, shops and warehouses, with remarkably little house burglary, though this probably just reflects poor pickings in the days before DVD players. Quite a few are marked subsequently as dead. Alexander Murray bears the inscription "RIP London Blitz, 1940". Perhaps he was an innocent bystander, perhaps he'd become a fireman, or perhaps he was still a burglar, employing his favoured method: "enters by means of skylight in roof".

Thursday, 23 August 2012

McEwan's Export

Hard on the heels of China Mieville's challenge to the parochialism of English literary fiction, Ian McEwan, in an interview with Alex Salmond in Edinburgh, has put the case for the defence, claiming loyally that he is an English not a British writer. McEwan sees national identity, at least in the case of writers, as an act of will, a choice of team colours, and believes that such identification is only possible at the provincial level. Thus "when TS Eliot wanted to become poet in these lands, it wasn't as an English poet, it was an Anglian poet he wanted to be" The unintended irony is that the American-born Eliot eventually became an Anglican, a very public form of choosing sides (the quoted sentence is so clumsy, I'm wondering if "Anglian" might be a typo). While no one would doubt the geographical rootedness of Eliot's later work, notably Four Quartets, his earlier work was international in style and scope. No one would call The Wasteland quintessentially English. Many see Eliot's life as the restless search for a satisfactory home, in terms of relationships, culture, spirituality and artistic style. He kept on choosing sides.

Despite his name, McEwan is resolute in his belief that the cultural stock of these islands shall not mix: "It struck me this is where poetry and football coalesce; Olympics apart, we've kept our football traditions separate, too". Not quite. The borders of football have tended to reflect the constraints of physical geography rather than culture or politics. For example, in 1872 Glasgow's Queens Park played in the first (English) FA Challenge Cup. The Scottish FA was subsequently formed to sponsor a separate competition largely because of the prohibitive travel costs. This same logistical imperative explains the regionalisation (North and South) of the English Third Division between 1921 and 1958, and the involvement of relatively accessible Welsh teams, such as Cardiff City and Swansea City, in the English leagues. McEwan confuses the anachronistic oddity of the "home nations" with football generally. Many British football fans happily put club before country because they don't identify with "Ingerlund", or are swayed by loyalty to family heritage (Irish, Scottish, Welsh etc). I don't think Ian is a footy fan himself.

Moving on to an area he knows something about, McEwan emphasises the specificity of great novels in time and space, quoting Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as examples (though not the somewhat less specific War and Peace, which ranges over decades and huge areas). He even insists that James Joyce's Ulysses should be seen in this way: "what could be more local and provincial as it were and specific to a place and time than that, but it's the modernist bible, the central text". Saying that the book is about two blokes wandering around Dublin on the 16th of June, 1904, is monumentally missing the point. Joyce merely uses this solid grounding as the launchpad for a mental journey through time and space. Just as with Eliot, Joyce's writing life traces a clear trajectory. You may not find the ultimate destination congenial (Finnegans's Wake should be sampled sparingly), but the direction of travel is thrilling. In contrast, McEwan has proven a child of his time, a baby-boomer who published a genuinely arresting (even fantastic) collection of short stories and first novel in the late 70s (First Love, Last Rites and The Cement Garden), but then proceeded to carve a niche writing elegant novels about anguished middle-class Southerners.

McEwan's problem is not that he assumes his "parish" alone represents England, but that he doesn't recognise how others, like Salmond, can see Britishness as a component in a multi-layered identity. It is this lack of multiplicity that gives rise to the narrow perspectives of modern English "litfic" writers, in Mieville's estimation. Specificity looks like a search for depth among the shallows.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Me old China

I recently finished reading China Mieville's Embassytown, which roughly coincided with his appearance at the Edinburgh World Writers' conference. His speech on the "future of the novel" (as trite a phrase as "the shock of the new") has been cherry-picked for suitably controversial gobbets, which is the normal way with a PR event whose purpose is to remind people that books still exist. As a marketing exercise, this is fundamentally no different to the recent eye-catching announcement that 50 Shades of Grey has sold more copies than the Highway Code. Given that many buyers appear to view the former as a user manual, this juxtaposition is less surprising than might appear at first sight.

The Mievillian prediction that appears to have done most to epater les bourgeois ecrivains appears to be the suggestion that the future novel may be crowd-sourced, thus finally dethroning the author, some 50 years after Roland Barthes called for his death. T'internet means that anyone can "shove their hands into a book and grub about in its innards, add to and subtract from it, and pass it on". Novelists will be "guerrilla editors", and novels will appears in multiple mixes. This is actually pretty old hat, particularly from an SF writer, and I can't help thinking his use of slightly last-decade terms such as "mashup" is a deliberate pisstake. Mieville's own style has a crowd-sourced feel to it: three adjectives where two would do; a cornucopia of ideas, many leading nowhere; wonderful incidental details and Dickensian characters. Of the two other books of his that I've read (a third of his adult oeuvre), The City and the City is the most completely thought-through. A resonant and engrossing vision of a social multiverse, it deserves comparison with Kafka and Dick. The Kraken, on the other hand, is an enormous McGuffin, a plot (and bland protagonist) that J K Rowling would have found serviceable, sprinkled with hilarious caricatures and farcical scenes that just about make it worthwhile.

In his wide-ranging speech Mielville makes a number of valuable points: that anti-piracy is hypocritical and ineffectual; that crowd-sourcing and the Internet serves translations and out-of-print well; that professional publishing houses output as much crap as self-publishing. His rudeboy challenge is to the parochialism and narrow perspectives of English literary fiction, and the attendant "Olympian simpering at the specialness of writers". The literary novel, and it's natural habitat in fogeyish bookshops, is a defence against modernity. But this charge is hardly new, nor is the underlying materialist critique: that the solitary author is a specific type (a subtype of the romantic artist) who evolved as part of the superstructure of classical liberalism and capitalism between the 17th and 20th centuries. While the superficial commentariat worry about changes in media, Mieville addresses the means of production, predicting a return to older, more collaborative forms of authorship, "the scrivener's edit, the monk's mashup". This has the whiff of steampunk nostalgia about it, as does his preference for estrangement over recognition (fantasy is older than realism), but at least it shows a degree of historical awareness.

Where he weakens his case is in suggesting that writers should get a salary, specifically the wage of a skilled worker, to counter the "de-monetisation" of crowd-sourcing. As proposed, this would be significantly higher than the average writer's income today. The reason this is objectionable is because it perpetuates the idea of specialness. A flowering of literature (i.e. a lot more crap but some more gems) would best be achieved through a guaranteed basic income for all. This would avoid the need for the bureaucracy of deciding who was or was not a valid writer, and would allow writers to write when they wanted to (give them a salary and they'd be obliged to produce quota). It would also help to break down the barriers between "litfic" and genre, which are, in the final analysis, nothing more than marketing categories, the "like that, like this" brutality of commodification.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

And always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse

The suggestion that the NHS brand could be sold overseas is being opportunistically tied to Danny Boyle's Olympics love-fest and the Team GB feelgood factor, but this does not stand up to a moment's scrutiny. Britain is adept at marketing invented heritage abroad, from upper class fashion to Scotch whisky, but the fundamental principle celebrated at the Lea Valley hoe-down is not one that can be monetised let alone exported, namely: free at the point of use. That is the core brand value, after all. Take that away and it's not clear what the NHS brand stands for, beyond a nostalgic longing for carbolic soap, tapioca pudding and Hattie Jaques.

For some, the brand idea is merely another opportunity to call for reform, which we all know ultimately means privatisation. Others claim that the NHS is already in business abroad, through Moorfields and Great Ormond Street clinics in the Middle East, so marketing the NHS brand through some form of franchising is not that radical a departure. In reality, these offshoots are selling the labour of consultants and other specialists (who operate as independent contractors), which can already be accessed privately in the UK. What they're not doing is spending public funds or exporting paid-for resources such as trained nurses or medical equipment.

One parallel that no one seems keen to point to is BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm that generates revenue by selling programmes abroad. In the catechism of the right this is an abomination that gives the subsidised BBC an unfair advantage over purely commercial broadcasters. But selling intellectual property that was developed using public funds is no different to exporting expertise and techniques developed within the NHS. Assuming "NHS International" is a franchise with local "hardware", then this "software" is what you would get for your money, presumably along with higher standards through quality control from HQ. The irony that this latter aspect is usually presented as the achilles heel of the NHS will no doubt be lost on those critics who now see merit in selling the brand.

The real point of the parallel between the NHS and the BBC is that the profits generated by the latter's Worldwide operation are seen as a justification for a cut in the licence fee, rather than as a bonus that the corporation should be entitled to use for investment. The suspicion is that NHS trusts that generate profits from overseas franchises or other tie-ups will be obliged to plough those monies back into general expenditure, thereby helping to keep overall health spending down, rather than to upgrade or expand domestic services for the benefit of UK citizens.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Worst Job I Ever Had

Back in the late 70s, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, adopting their Derek and Clive alter egos, did a sketch called The Worst Job I Ever Had, which concerned retrieving lobsters from Jayne Mansfield's bum. I was reminded of this by the latest plans to get an honest day's work out of the prison population. The idea of running businesses using prisoners, or even siting businesses within prisons, is obviously not a new one, but it is an idea with an uneasy history. This arises because of our confusion between work and punishment.

The modern prison, as a correctional facility (a place to re-engineer morals), could not have evolved without a blurring of the lines between factory and gaol, and more particularly the blurring of two goals: the disciplining of the individual and the production of value. The intersection between the two is often located in Jeremy Bentham's idea of the self-financing Panopticon. This unrealised scheme is famous today partly because of Michel Foucault's use of it as as a metaphor for power relations in his Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. The purpose of the Panopticon was, he wrote: "to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power", and "Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable". In other words, the structure of the building implied constant observation, which removed the need for actual constant observation. Self-repression was all. It is one of the ironies of history that the intended site of the Panopticon, which was eventually used for a more conventional Victorian penitentiary (and staging point for Australian transportees), is now occupied by Tate Modern and Millbank Tower (the 1997 home of New Labour) in Pimlico. Art and politics conquers vice.

Before Bentham, John Bellers' 1695 Proposals for Raising a College of Industry of All Useful Trades and Husbandry introduced the idea of the "big house", but specifically as a means of alleviating the novel condition of pauperism, which had grown over the preceding 150 years following the dissolution of the monasteries (a source of relief) and the growth of itinerant labour in the seventeenth century (the stirrings of the agricultural and industrial revolutions to come). Bellers' idea would influence many social visionaries, including Bentham, Fourier (the Phalanstery) and Robert Owen (New Lanark). In time, the idea was seen to provide the framework not just for the relief of pauperism but for the reparation of the criminal to society, with the tantalising promise that the labour of the criminal might return a profit. In part this was because poverty itself (vagrancy) came to be criminalised, and thus crime was seen as the concomittant of an unwillingness to work. Penal servitude, which had initially been a means to provide indentured labour for the colonies of America and Australia, was replaced by domestic penal (or "hard") labour after 1857, often in the form of oakum picking (unravelling old rope for caulking). Without colonial transportation (out of sight, out of mind), the need to work criminal labour became more pressing.

Early factories in the eighteenth century were largely unmechanised. The concentration of labour in one place, as opposed to the older model of dispersed work in homes, was driven by the concentration of raw materials and the consequent reduction in transportation costs and process inefficiencies. From its earliest days, the factory system was founded on the observation and disciplining of workers, to prevent "soldiering" (i.e. everyone working at the slowest acceptable rate). Mechanisation provided an efficient means of remote-controlling the worker, through the imposed rhythm of the machine and its strict control of time, but rigid ordering of work precedes it. It would have been odd if notionally free men and women were more restrained and invigilated than prisoners, so the practices of the factory were transferred to gaols.

This adoption of factory modes spread beyond prisons. State institutions in the nineteenth century generally adopted the paradigm of production, organising around processes and commodities. A barracks became a warehouse of "uniform" soldiers, a hospital became a production line for the output of healthy bodies, a school squeezed square pegs through round holes to produce a "standard" model. Active inspection (quality control) was paramount, and defect management (AWOLs, patients who die, recalcitrant pupils) was heavily proceduralised. Waiting (or "down time", in the original factory sense of that phrase) meant waste, but it also signified control, the storage of labour pending further use, so excessive waiting became a means of discipline: standing on a parade ground in the rain, waiting hours for an appointment, facing the wall in the corner of a schoolroom.

Over the twentieth century state facilities evolved in line with the work environment, so today they usually look like offices and are increasingly striving to look like the Googleplex. New-built hospitals have expensive reception areas festooned with awards and motivational posters, while wards aspire to the informal cheer of a breakout area or a coffee point. Schools have modular timetables and desk clusters, to support the commitment to projects and teamwork (though the focus on a standard output, measured in exam results, remains). The barracks of the future is already a nondescript office building in suburban America from where drones are remotely operated.

There is therefore a certain inevitability in the proposal to run call centres from within prisons. The job is a highly supervised one, with minimal personal control (you're working through a call-list provided by the system), high stress and a degree of dehumanisation that echoes Victorian factories. It is this very "routine and discipline" that makes the idea palatable to the right. The claims that earning £3 a day will make a difference to their families or build up a "going straight" nest-egg are ridiculous. Ken Clarke was at least honest when he said: "prisoners are simply a wasted resource – thousands of hours of manpower sitting idle". If you can access that resource for a pittance, so much the better.

But it would be naive to think that the exploitation of prisoners is a capitalist plot to undermine labour generally, though it clearly will lead to job losses among the non-criminal. I doubt even the Tories seriously intend to expand the prison population to the level seen in the US (0.7%, compared to 0.15% here), and even that is insufficient to impact on wage rates. Stagnant incomes in both the US and UK are the result of bigger factors than penal exploitation.

What's more worrying is the continued belief that any work is intrinsically virtuous, but that certain types of work are only suitable for certain types of people, and vice versa. David Cameron is quoted as saying: "Prisoners working productively towards their own rehabilitation will contribute to the UK economy and make reparation to society". The contribution to the economy (as opposed to selected companies' profits) will be negligible, and the reparation to society involved in answering irate calls about shoddy service is non-existent. In truth, most people are uncomfortable about prisoners doing good as that robs them of the luxury of contempt. Far better that they should do a shit job (picking oakum before, working in a call centre now) than do something that might indicate they were worthy of acceptance back into society, like social care or building work. Perish the thought that a prisoner should get to do a socially admirable job, regardless of how cheap they are to employ.

Just as the petty refusal to allow prisoners the vote is a way of tarring them, so the choice of work (necessary but unworthy) is a form of punishment. The original treadmill would probably be ruled illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights (or as a "cruel and unusual punishment" in the US), but the modern treadmill of the call centre is acceptable. If it's good enough for the unemployed, it's good enough for criminals.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Filthy Lucre

Politicians and the press have got themselves in a tizzy over the money-laundering charges announced against Standard Chartered Bank, with even a Labour MP crying wolf over the assumed plot to dethrone London as the world capital of funny money. (Tip to John Mann: when you find yourself in agreement with Boris Johnson, you really should pause for reflection). Banking is a supra-national industry, so the idea that London and New York are direct competitors in a zero-sum game is risible, which even the Bank of England's own Bagpuss concedes. Johnson's tub-thumping for London masks the reality that his endeavours in support of banking benefit American firms as much as British ones.

The irony of the "wild west" jibe (which appears to have originated with John Mann) is not merely that this is a metaphor trademarked by the USA, but that the fast and loose attitude was imported from New York to London in the 80s as American banks and brokers moved in following deregulation (they also imported the convention of big bonuses for traders). And while the US has started to re-tighten regulation on their side of the pond, this has been a series of small steps following their own large deregulatory strides in the 90s.

What's really bonkers is the implicit suggestion that greater regulation and more vigorous pursuit of crime in New York will somehow attract business away from London. They're not going to win the Iran account, for starters. This week's revelation of the "fucking Americans" quote is actually an excellent advertisement for the independence of British banks. If you don't want the FBI poking their noses into your affairs, you now know where to go. The claim that this is actually about reputational damage is eyewash. No one who hasn't been hiding in a cave for the last five years is under any illusions about what banks do, and a few thousand individuals dropping Barclays for the Co-op won't change the fundamentals. The adjustment in the Standard Chartered share price reflects the risk of profits lost to fines (usually much bigger in the US than the UK), not the risk of business drying-up.

The charges against Standard Chartered are very serious, though the bank does contest the scale and degree of complicity, and the New York regulator may well be guilty of trying to make a name for himself. However, even if this fizzles out, there is no question that there is something systemically wrong with the banking industry. But the suggestion that this is peculiar to London is absurd. While light-touch regulation went down a storm here, other banking centres are hardly noted for their high ethical standards or diligent regulators. Switzerland did not build a banking industry on transparency, and it has no intention of changing its ways. New York gave us the "giant vampire squid". Banks everywhere are prone to scandals because they deal in money, and a large portion of the world's money has been secured illegally and/or unethically. As the wealth of the world expands, both the quantum and the proportion that is "ill-gotten" increases, the latter because so many nations are (for now) wholly or partly kleptocracies. Even in established democracies, the increase in inequality leads to more funny money as greater amounts are funnelled offshore to dodge tax.

The banking scandals this year can be divided into three types. First, there is common-or-garden incompetence, where greed all the way up the management tree leads to excessive risk-taking (rogue traders etc). Second, there are simple conspiracies to game the system by insiders at the expense of outsiders. LIBOR rate-rigging is the standout example, though an honourable mention should go to Goldman Sach's "muppetgate" (London pointing the finger at New York on that occasion). The other type of scandal concerns dodgy money: the HSBC laundering of drug profits, Standard Chartered's (alleged) laundering of Iranian trade deals, and the wealth-management (i.e. laundering) of funds extracted by "politically exposed persons", the euphemism for dictators, their cronies, and corrupt officials everywhere.

Some dictators are now finding the hosts of their foreign assets less hospitable than before, though this sudden fit of moral opprobrium tends to signal a shift in the political wind, as Mubrarak and Assad have found, rather than any persistent distaste for ill-gotten gains. There is a strong overlap here with tax dodging: blatant evasion will be (occasionally) prosecuted, but avoidance will be treated as morally neutral, so long as you don't attract attention by shitting on the carpet, a la Jimmy Carr. This "pragmatism" is the fundamental problem. Incompetence and greed can be tackled within banking (though nobody seems to be trying too hard), and there are technical means to limit insider-dealing and market-rigging, but the temptation to deal in dodgy money will never go away because the money won't. In fact, the temptation increases because the amount of dodgy money increases. This is simply too big a market for most banks to ignore. It is far easier to redefine "dodgy". A report by the FSA last year, into money-laundering risks faced by UK banks, came to some revealing conclusions in this regard (see page 4, points 7 and 10):

Some banks appeared unwilling to turn away, or exit, very profitable business relationships when there appeared to be an unacceptable risk of handling the proceeds of crime. Around a third of banks, including the private banking arms of some major banking groups, appeared willing to accept very high levels of money-laundering risk if the immediate reputational and regulatory risk was acceptable.

Three quarters of the banks in our sample failed to take adequate measures to establish the legitimacy of the source of wealth and source of funds to be used in the business relationship. This was of concern in particular where the bank was aware of significant adverse information about the customer’s or beneficial owner’s integrity.

As banks have become larger and more global, and as the percentage of ill-gotten gains and money avoiding tax has grown, the likelihood that banks will be managing dodgy money has increased. The days when this blind-eye activity was the preserve of only a few specialist banking centres, such as Zurich and Geneva, are long gone. The attitude of the industry is that money is money and intrinsically blameless. Ethical scruples are an "inefficiency" in market terms. Competition, allied to an operating mentality based on personal enrichment, means that banks cannot and will not be choosy. Mexican drug profits and Iranian sanctions-busting are just business. The only solution to money-laundering is a political decision to enforce transparency, but that means removing the same veil that protects and enables tax avoidance. Unsurprisingly, the political will is lacking.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

There's a Riot Goin' On

"There's a dog in the middle of the courtroom, though it was a different one today. They alternate: there are two of them, a huge German shepherd and a rottweiler. They bark madly whenever anyone raises their voice". This strange image comes from a report on the trial of Pussy Riot in Moscow, written by the husband of one of the defendants. It is chock-full of a particularly Russian eccentricity, where reality and the fantastic blend into one another, usually in an official setting. It could almost be a passage from Gogol's Dead Souls or Bulgakov's The Master and Margherita.

There's more: "A woman who looks after the candles in the church testifies and becomes an immediate star on Twitter. She says she saw the girls' "devilish twitching" and "committing impudences".  And ... "An absolutely crazy witness appeared. He said that the girls had placed themselves in hell. That they'd declared war on God. That "hell is as real as the Moscow subway". The hubby-cum-writer, Pyotr Verzilov, claims: "Usually Russian courts are quite boring, but this week it's been like a scene from an American movie". I don't know what American film he's thinking of, but it's not Twelve Angry Men or Legally Blonde.

It's hard for a foreigner to quite get what is going on in Russia, hence we tend to focus on those elements of the spectacle that we can most easily relate to. Pussy Riot are variously described as "punks" and "riot grrrls", though among their key musical influences appear to be early 80s Oi! bands, who were not exactly noted for their feminism (despite Jimmy Pursey taking up modern dance), while their political analysis was crude when not being hijacked by xenophobic arse-wipes like Gary Bushell. Visually, Pussy Riot owe more to The Residents than Cockney Rejects.

The other trope regularly bandied about is that the women's court appearance is a show trial, echoing the famous Moscow trials of the 1930s. While the bias of the court supports the belief that this is a politically-motivated prosecution (they challenged and insulted Putin, not the Orthodox church), there are differences. The Moscow show trials were distinguished by improbable confessions and tearful odes to the wisdom and mercy of Comrade Stalin, not to mention the subsequent airbrushing of the guilty from history. Pussy Riot continue to be confrontational rather than confessional, and YouTube will preserve their performance for future generations. It's possible that Putin's mercy will be eulogised, as a shorter sentence than the advertised 7 years for "hooliganism" would still be effective in slapping down the opposition.

For all its trappings of modernity (guitars, Twitter, feminism), the Pussy Riot trial seems to hark back to the late nineteenth century, not just in terms of the absurdist legal process but also in terms of the power of the symbolic act. Staging a performance art piece (a "punk prayer") in a cathedral is hardly on a par with assassinating a Tsar, but it appears to have offended the Kremlin mightily. To add to the irony, Madonna, who found flirting with the trappings of religion to be a good career move, is about to perform in  Moscow. There are hopes she may show solidarity, perhaps singing Like a Prayer ("When you call my name, it's like a little prayer"), though that might be a little self-regarding (so odds on, then).

Madonna is respected in Moscow because she is rich and successful. Pussy Riot are the object of official contempt not because of their politics or their art, but because they are unsuccessful and poor. Oligarchs who fall out of favour are charged with corruption; less powerful troublemakers are charged with hooliganism. As Chichikov in Dead Souls discovered, wealth and status are what people care about, and the means by which you achieve them (in his case by buying the title to dead serfs to use as loan collateral) matters little. If this all seems like the weirdness of foreign-land, we should bear in mind the popularity of London among the new, airbrushed elite of Russia, particularly for pursuing offences to their honour in our absurdist libel courts.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

No head for heights

Every ten years, since 1952, the British Film Institute magazine Sight & Sound has published a list of the greatest films of all time, based on a poll of critics and film-makers. Since the second poll in 1962, the number one film has been Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. This year, Rosebud & co have finally given way to a thrusting new kid on the block, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. The steady progress of the latter (7th in 1982, 4th in 1992 and 2nd in 2002) must indicate something, though I'm in two minds as to what it is.

It might appear odd that a Brit publication should have such clout, but the UK (or more precisely London) has a reputation as being even-handed in its treatment of Hollywood and international (i.e. non-English) cinema, so it earns kudos in a way that Roger Ebert or Cahiers du Cinema could not. A failure to show any sort of home bias probably helps as well. Apart from Brief Encounter in 1952, there hasn't been a "proper" British film in the critics' top ten, though 2001: A Space Odyssey (6th this year) counts as a British production and Hitchcock learnt his trade in the UK.

Since 1992, the votes of film directors have constituted a separate poll. This has tended to become more modern in its choices, partly as recent directors are celebrated (so The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver all feature). Conversely, the critics' poll has become ever more antique, so we now have three silent films in the top ten and none more recent than Kubrick's 1968 space epic. I suspect this separation has helped propel Vertigo to the top, as the directors clearly still value a Welles or an Ozu ahead of a Hitch.

I'm not a great fan of Hitchcock as I find his work melodramatic (the McGuffin is, by definition, manipulative), misanthropic and lacking in humour. I think these qualities go together. I'm also jaded by the excess of psychoanalytic tropes, which indicate either cynical exploitation or genuine obsession on Hitchcock's part, probably a bit of both. Vertigo is famously about impotence and the male gaze. The camerawork fetishises the feminine and James Stewart's character (Scottie Ferguson) spends most of the film operating as a voyeur prior to a symbolic sex act. He first fails to ascend to the top of a bell tower due to his debilitating vertigo (i.e. impotence), so contributing (so he thinks) to a woman's death, and then succeeds in angrily dragging Kim Novak all the way to the top before they kiss. Hitchcock's genius, or cruelty, is to spoil the happy ending by having Novak's character then accidentally fall to her death.

Citizen Kane is ostensibly about a by turns charming and bullying megalomaniac, loosely based on William Randolph Hearst (the Rupert Murdoch of his day), who ends up friendless and alone in Xanadu, his palatial country retreat, stacked to the rafters with unopened crates of expensive art. It's formal brilliance is its use of multiple, sometimes conflicting, testimonies to build up a multi-faceted picture of the man. It is essentially a social film, which recognises the ultimate unknowability of anyone (the Rosebud motif) and the vanity of personal ambitions. This last theme links it to Vertigo, which ends with the tolling of a bell that brings to mind John Donne's lines: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

This is ironic as Scottie Ferguson is unquestionably an island unto himself, and all the more troubled for it. His Pygmalion-like determination to mould Novak's character, and his obtuseness in the face of his ex-fiancee (played by Ma Ewing, no less), are reminiscent of the uber-individualist John Galt in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which was published the year before Vertigo was released. Scottie's obsession with Novak's character Madeleine (redolent of the Madonna and Proustian idealisation) is the flip side of his disconnection from society (he has "retired" from the police to pursue the classic loner role, the private eye).

So I have two theories to explain the ascension of Vertigo. The first is the increasing prevalence of psychoanalytical interpretations, both in wider culture and more specifically in cinema criticism, with the highly visual Freudian and Jungian strands to the fore, albeit in debased forms. The second is the neoliberal revanche from the late 50s onwards, which eventually erupted into the political sphere in the 70s and achieved power in the 80s. The success of the film in this year's poll may simply reflect momentum built up before 2008, but it may also indicate that the rule of the angry white dude has some way yet to run. Of course, these two theories are not mutually exclusive. An angry white dude with a castration complex isn't an encouraging thought, mind.

I leave the last word to Citizen Kane's Mister Bernstein, the Leopold Bloom-like mensch. He too had an eye for the ladies, but his obsession (his Rosebud) was grounded in a humane and social context.

One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.