Purple Prose?

Our present political life is seriously damaged. Many people are now looking for the centre having found that the main parties have migrated away from them to the edges. Life on the edge has damaged our mainstream parties. The Labour Party has become increasingly censorious and illiberal seeing a need for the state to increasingly intervene in the lives of us all. Further, following the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it has developed nasty antisemitic traits in response to the problems in the middle east. The Tories on the right, on the other hand, have seen its perfectly correct support for freedom of speech and individual liberty used as a cover by racists and bigots (people less concerned with the right of free expression than pleased with the opportunity to say hateful and spiteful things under the cover of free speech). Neither of the main parties now are without problems and I am sure that many, like myself, find themselves politically homeless.

You can find the centre by going left from the right-hand side or by heading right from the left-hand side. However, the centre is distinct from both of its containing edges. I am not sure if these movements from the two sides will ever find the middle but it was in the hope that they may that I read the flowing two books over the last month or so. From the Left there is “Blue Labour: Forging a new politics” and on the right we have “Red Tory : How the left and right have broken Britain and how we can fix it“. I read these in that order, Blue then Red, although this is the reverse order in which they were published. There was five years between the books; Red Tory was published 2010 and Blue Labour in 2015 but despite this they tackle largely the same themes.

The similarity of the books is the most striking aspect; large aspects of either book could be transposed into the other with little upset whatsoever. Both are aware that the traditional working class has been abandoned by the main parties and we have a major problem of an large portion of our population in the post-industrial areas feeling alienated and ignored. They both also recognise the increasing disengagement of this group, who feel and behave as disenfranchised, and the danger that this poses to our society through the mechanism of populist parties from both extremes.

Both books see the need to review our approach to nationalism. Both feel patriotism and nationalism can act a valuable bulwark against the problems of globalisation. Both books promote the nation state and internationalism as the antidote to the excesses of global capitalism. On the left by limiting the powers of the state and corporations, and on the right by limiting the excesses of the market when corrupted by monopolies, cartels and state intervention. Both agree – ‘smaller is better’.

The fate of the family is prominent in both books and both are alarmed by the damage that has been done to it. Blue Labour views the family as a basic building block of society which is particularly important to the poor and working as it provides the best support and safety They bemoan the weakening of the family in pursuit of greater economic productivity and also express concerns that the traditions of mutual support and communalism which grew in the working class movements are declining (Trade unions, mutual societies, building societies, friendly societiesare all examples of working class organisations). The Red Tory also worries that these aspects of our society are changing, and fears that welfarism is replacing mutualism with the consequent risks of dependency and loss of autonomy.

Both books see the increasing inequality in our society as a major threat to our future. We are splitting into a society of “haves” and “owes”; the rich are becoming much richer and the poor are increasingly in debt. So even though we have more possessions it is hard to see that we are that much richer. As Red Tory reminded us of Belloc’s view :-

“For to own something on credit I not to own it at all, and since no security of tenure is available by rent, those who seek some primary foundation or asset in the world have little choice but to buy into a form of ownership that converts its possessor into a debtor”

Red Tory pp49

The housing bubble that first burst in 2008 has left most of us in debt and working to serve this. All members of the family now have to work in the market, there is no room or members to stay at home and care for others, and despite this increased work we are not wealthier. The cheap goods that capitalism generates a little but increasing debt wipes this out and adds to the growing inequality. This has worsened since the mid-70’s and the boom years of Thatcher and Blair :-

Little wonder then that the golden age for waged workers in the OECD was not in this recent allegedly great age of prosperity, but between 1945 and 1973, when they gained the greatest percentage share of GDP for their labour and enjoyed greater real purchasing power

Red Tory, pp 49

It is interesting to note that both books have strong religious influences. Blue Labour has a number of essays by prominent Christian thinkers and an introduction by Rowan Williams the prior Archbishop of Canterbury. Red Tory is written by an author who is an Anglican theologian as well as political theorist. There are shades of “distributionism“, in both books, as they try to find a path to more widely distribute assets between us all and steer a way between socialism and capitalism. There are perhaps modern echoes of the “Three Acres and a cow” proposed by G.K. Chesterton.

Both books are worth reading and I hope will have influence on their respective groups. I found the “Red Tory” more readable than “Blue Labour” as it was written by a single author and was consequently more consistent and coherent. But the ideas in both, on the need to curb increasing inequality, to promote society and constrain the state, and to use nations and locality to limit the influence of global capital, are well addressed in both books.

McMindfulness by Ronald E. Purser

I was introduced to the raisin in the last few years of my work. Eating a raisin is often used as an exercise to explain the mechanics and theory of mindfulness. I, along with a group of mental health service providers, were invited to look at the raisin, smell it, examine its contour and texture, hold it in our mouth and examine it with our tongue and taste buds and through this, and some other strategies, learn how to be “in the moment“. We were being introduced to Mindfulness which we were assured was a new revolutionary change in psychotherapeutics; one that was scientifically based, efficacious, and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. It seemed that it would not have been wrong to say we had in our hands a not a raisin but a veritable panacea; a remedy for all ills.

This was not the first time I’d been introduced to the next great revolutionary step forward in psychotherapy. When I started working the physical therapies had just started to lose their lustre and the Freudian classical analysts had fallen rather out of favour. The Kleinians introduced Object Relations Theory which was going to revolutionize analysis and we all studiously learnt this. Around the same time behaviour therapy jostled it as the ‘true way’ before, via a detour through Transactional Analysis, it was relaunched as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT was then touted as scientifically based, efficacious and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. Transcendental Meditation (TM) came and went, somewhere in between, but throughout my working life it seemed that twice a decade a new bright and shiny panacea would surface to replace the older shabby panacea which had become boring.

Mindfulness is this decade’s new, shiny panacea. It is widely promoted and now is applied in many diverse situations, not simply as therapy for mental disorder but also in schools, workplaces, prisons, boardrooms and even for the existential angsts of growing old or facing death. It has spawned a $1.1 billion wellness industry. There are many books promoting mindfulness and inviting readers to follow them on a route to personal salvation through MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). This book, however, is not one of them.

McMindfulness
McMindfulness Book Cover

This book looks at the promotion of mindfulness in our capitalist society. It shows how ‘mindfulness’ has been severed and removed of its religious Buddhist origins to make it both saleable and useful in a market economy. The author clearly shows that there was a deliberate intention to “secularize” mindfulness to remove it of any taint of association with Buddhist practice and ethics to create something “spiritual but not religious” which would be much more acceptable to a western audience. This acceptability was further promoted by giving the endeavour a scientific sheen with a liberal application of neurobabble. There is a good review of the neuroscience behind mindfulness in the book which reveals how little actual empirical evidence there is – there is little more than there was for TM which was quietly dropped after large amounts of public money financed research into the mental health benefits which confirmed relatively minor and questionable benefits.

The book does not question whether the practices of mindfulness or meditation are effective. It agrees that these can have major effects but questions whether in their current form this is a wise way to approach them. Indeed, as an example it recounts how Anders Breivik, the right wing terrorist, used such strategies to assist his focus during his bomb and gun attack when he murdered 77 men, women and children.

Much of the success of mindfulness is touted as its ability to make us cope with our difficult lives. To help us deal with stress, to avoid the distress of disappointment, to feel calm in the stormy waters of uncertainty and threat. This is its major selling point to large organizations like Google, Facebook or the American Military. It can help create a calm unruffled workforce which will perform better. The military hope that mindfulness will improve efficiency with an M16 – ‘on the trigger pull – breathe out!’ This is a major aspect of the problem. It promotes the idea that the stress is all of our making, in our minds, a failure of our ability to cope. But there are many times when the stress is due to uncertainty, injustice or inequity and the emotions that these problems cause is the motive power for people to demand and create change. It is wrong, through mindfulness, to encourage people to tolerate or cope with these situations. Just as Marx warned that religion was an opiate for the masses to soothe their pain and subdue their needs for change, the author issues the warning that mindfulness is the new religion for capitalism with exactly the same problems.

As our society becomes increasingly secular there are still those who yearn for the benefits of religion. Mindfulness seems to promise this. However, shorn from all its Buddhist teachings it will never be able to fill this promise. Religions gave us ethical codes, personal responsibilities, moral duties and a call to action to create a better society. This strategy is to steal the clothes of Buddhism but to ignore its body and soul. You can put the clothes on but you will not suddenly become a Buddhist. Similarly, if one copied the communal singing, weekly meetings, and candle burning of the Christians you won’t suddenly develop a sense of personal duty and awareness of right and wrong. The rituals are the least thing of a religion it is the teachings and ideas which are at its core. These require to be learnt and understood there is no shortcut to them; certainly not through sucking a raisin.


Excerpt

When the book has been considering Congressman Tim Ryan’s conversion to mindfulness after his “mindful moment with a raisin” it continues

“Never mind how the raisin looks, feels, smells and tastes to a privileged congressman, what if Ryan had contemplated the farm where the raisin was grown by Hispanic migrants doing back-breaking work in the San Joaquin valley earning a cent for every two hundred grapes harvested, Reflection on the raisin could call to mind units from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounding up workers like cattle and deporting them. Might Ryan be cognizant of the smog where the raisin was grown? What about the water shortages, or the fossil fuels burnt to transport raisins from Central California to his Catskills retreat ? What about the grocery staff that unloaded, unpacked and stocked raisins on the shelf ? Would Ryan be mindful of the fact that the CEOs who run large agribusiness and grocery chains earn hundreds of times as much as grocery clerks ?

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047. Lionel Shriver

It is difficult to categorise this novel as it crosses many genres. It a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, science fiction story wrapped up in a family saga and present day morality tale, it contains a fair bit of humour, and  there is a fair bit of economic theory and history thrown in for leavening. Surprisingly it is all the better because of this, it is engrossing. The story follows a number of members of the Mandibles clan as they cope with the changes that follow the economic collapse in America.

The discussion about the problems with fiat money, inflation, central banking and the nature of money itself is well written and manages to explain many things, by using the form of a novel, that many economics textbooks fail to clarify. The impact of these problems is made real by the realistic descriptions of life post-collapse. Time will tell if Shriver is going to prove to be prescient, or rather, in which areas her predictions were accurate.

The characters are well drawn, some likeable, others despicable, but all believable. Shriver’s ability to reveal the darker side of our nature is well known. In this story, as the characters try to survive, many facets of human nature are turned over for assessment. We will sometimes see features we recognise in ourselves and sometimes this will not flatter, but shame, us. It is always better to be self aware and to know our faults and, if it has to be done, it is better to do it to the accompaniment of some dark comic humour.

Leaving the last word to Shriver herself :-

Plots set in the future are about what people fear in the present. They’re not about the future at all. The future is just the ultimate monster in the closet, the great unknown.

Survival of the fattest

 

The inscripweb-bloggertion on sculpture “Survival of the Fattest” reads ‘I’m sitting on the back of a man. He is sinking under the burden. I would do anything to help him, except stepping down from his back.’ It is a powerful statement about the growing gulf between the rich and poor.

Today even the poorest in our western societies lead lives that would be considered lives of impossible material luxury by those of a century ago. Light and heat at the flick of a switch, literature and music available to all, telephones you can carry in your pocket. In comparative terms we are materially much richer, and, in the developed West we seem to be living in the post-scarcity world. Our problems now, are rarely those of inadequate supplies of essentials such as food, energy, or shelter. Indeed, many of our problems relate to those of excess, for example the problems of obesity or excessive fuel usage and global warming, and unfair distribution of resources.

This unfairness occurs at home and abroad. At home, we in the developed world, have witnessed increasing inequality with extreme wealth concentrated in a few hands. The gap between rich and poor seems to have grown at an alarming rate. Abroad even greater disparity is apparent. There are still areas of the developing world where the basics for subsistence are missing and problems of famine, drought, hunger and thirst still exist and kill people daily.

What can we do to tackle these problems ? We know that the global expansion of wealth arose from the success of the market economy and voluntary cooperation, with the aid of the ‘hidden hand‘ in developing new  processes and products. However, this is a consequence of ‘free markets‘ where individuals working on their own initiative, and in their own interest, compete to make goods and services which are desirable and useful to others.

The market economy has many intrinsic safeguards. Production of undesirable or unwanted goods  will fail;  providers of better goods and services will prosper at the expense of poorer providers; the system itself (by the influence of supply and demand on the price of a good)  guides development and there is no need for any central planning agency. Further, competition tends to drive profit down. Competition benefits the consumer  and is a spur to the producer. Indeed, it has been said that extreme wealth, or very high profits, are a sign that there is not a free market economy and that something is wrong (1). A recent report by Oxfam clearly suggested that most extreme wealth is not “meritocratic” but rather the consequence of rent-seeking activities an over close relationships between capital and the political class (2).

Free trade should also help the developing world. Were trade free,then these countries which are often wealthy in natural resources would be able to benefit from them. Our history of imperialism, when nation states rejected trade with these countries in favour of subjugation and theft, has left a legacy of poverty. Even today, the European Union acts as a trade group to benefit the farmers and producers within the Union at the expense of those outside its borders.

Everywhere we look, the political class works with business to limit free trade and to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a few. We need to promote the free market to tackle poverty, to encourage trade and competition to drive down profit and excess and be clearly pro-market but not pro-business, to be pro-market but anti-capitalist (3).


(1) Are billionairesfat cats or deserving entrepreneurs ?

(2) Extreme wealth is not merited

(3) Free Market Anti-Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal