Theatres of Cruelty; TV Entertainment Normalises the Neoliberal Ethos

For many of our fellow citizens the pursuit of neoliberal economics has resulted in atrocious working conditions, low wages, surveillance and an impermanent job on zero hours contracts at the beck and call of employers who can dismiss them with impunity.  While writing a post a few weeks ago about the talent show Let it Shine it occurred to me that this form of TV normalises the neoliberal position in the name of entertainment.

This issue was highlighted a few years ago  by Nick Couldry of Goldsmiths College in the context of reality programmes such as Big Brother (you can find a copy of his article here). Couldry calls such programmes a secret theatre of Neoliberalism as the structure of such programmes obscure their links to oppressive labour conditions in the guise of playful entertainment. Couldry points to a number of characteristics of such shows including continual surveillance and subservience to an absolute external authority which are both issues of concern at JD Sports and Sports Direct warehouse workers.  Another feature, team conformity in which dissent is arbitrarily punished is clearly seen in the JD Sports situation. One of the problems faced by agency workers is the way in which their situation engenders a  subservient mindset.  While of a different nature the nature of reality TV formats impose similar psychological conditions.

What about the other genre of reality programme, the talent show?  This, by the way includes Trump’s The Apprentice. Again we can see the factors of neoliberalism in play. The projection of manufactured authenticity is a vital component. the entertainment version of the Asda personnel manager’s insistence on a ‘mile of smiles’, where as Couldry mentions, every smile must nonetheless be a ‘real smile’. Likewise, if the contestant does not live up to expectations they are discarded by viewer votes and the competition rolls relentlessly onwards.

In the context of widespread discontent about the neoliberal pursuit of globalisation, Couldrey makes some a telling comment:

There is no basis for challenging the national vote, any more than we can individually challenge a corporate decision to downsize; the consequences must in both cases be borne individually.

Finally, programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing also demonstrate a feature of neoliberalism quite separate from working conditions, namely alienation and cultural exploitation. Artefacts (in this case dance formats) are appropriated, stripped of emotional content and repackage into a standard entertainment industry format.

So when you next sit down to enjoy a reality programmes, think about how the conditions endured by the competitors are shared by minimum wage and zero hours contract workers.  The difference is that the contestants are there by choice and can decide to walk away ay any time.  For many workers in Britain’s warehouses and supermarkets there is no such relief, fully justifying Couldry’s claim of cruelty.

NHS Targets; Another Dodgy Cold War Weapon for Jeremy Hunt To Use

aabdeAlthough Jeremy Hunt can be accused of many things, dissembling, incompetence and duplicity amongst them, it is my opinion that he actually works very hard.  Unfortunately for us the aim of his efforts have not been improving the National Health Service but in managing the news to deflect the justified criticism of his actions and instead place the whole blame on the staff of the NHS or, incredibly, on us the users of the service  Hunt is not looking for solutions to deep seated NHS difficulties, but rather to make HNS itself look unsalvageable. Here is how he is achieving this goal.

Missed targets are nothing new

This winter the NHS, especially its Accident and Emergency Departments are rarely out of the news. The main focus for the media has been the increasing inability to meet the target to treat 95% of A&E patients within 4 hours.  The scale of the problem was leaked to the BBC last month.  As a result Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested that he may consider relaxing the four hour target.

Continue reading “NHS Targets; Another Dodgy Cold War Weapon for Jeremy Hunt To Use”

Resources and Relationships; Of Twitter, Coffee Bars and Mountains

Among the factors which make us free citizens, our rights and responsibilities are of primary importance. There are others of course, but these lie at the heart of citizenship and how it is exercised.  Since Christmas I have been exploring ideas of the Commons and how many of the concepts dovetail with my Republican (European, not GOP!) aims and ideals. I have put the details of some of the books I have been working with on my Books/Articles page if you want to explore further.

Mulling over some of the concepts in a coffee bar last week some ideas prompted by my surroundings sprang to mind  Significantly, the coffee bar seemed to occupy an intermediate position between Twitter and a mountain (OK, if you would be so kind to stick with me!). Secondly, the analogies seemed particularly apt for the situations we find ourselves facing in 2017.  Let me start with Twitter.

The idea of a Commons relies on two features. Firstly a resource or group of resources which all the members of a community can freely access, modify and use. Secondly, a set of relationships between the participants in a Commons which may be overtly or covertly agreed.  Despite outward appearances, considered in these terms Twitter falls way short of a Commons, in fact almost the complete opposite! Firstly the participants of which I am one have no control over the platform. It could be simply closed at the whim of the owners. Secondly we have almost no control over the rules of transaction and Twitter is notorious for simply amending the application to suit their own corporate goals. Finally like many people I have been suspended (for a week) without any means of appeal and no explanation. So much for freely accessible resources. Likewise, there are almost no rules governing the relationship between the participants with the well-documented episodes of threats and abuse an ever present reality. So Twitter is really a public space rather than a Commons. This, as I have discovered, is an important distinction.

What about the coffee bar, my ‘intermediate environment’.  True, the participants do not control the space and it could be closed at the whim of the owner.  But at least getting suspended (barred) is slightly less arbitrary in that I could demand an explanation and lodge some sort of appeal!  What about the relationships? Within the space of the bar people congregate in groups comprising family members, friends or work colleagues.  The rules of the relationship change from group to group but they are there.  Again it’s not perfect as the environment is still at the mercy from ant-social behaviour by external agents. So, again, better but not perfect.

Lastly, the mountain analogy.  I am no mountaineer but was intrigued by an explanation given by Jacques Paysan in an essay entitled My Rocky Road to the Commons (it can be found in the excellent book The Wealth of the Commons, details again on the Books/Articles page).  I grew up in a South Wales valley and mountains (though ones I could walk in!) remain important to me which is why I found Paysan’s idea intriguing. Firstly the mountain is there as a resource for all. No one can be said to ‘own’ Everest or El Capitan in the private sense.  So they exist as a resource freely accessible by climbers (barring wars, etc).  Importantly, in addition to barriers imposed by equipment and ability, the climbers adhere to a common set of rules for using and developing the resource. As Paysan points out, without this community relationship between climbers there is no Commons, merely a very high lump of rock! There are codes of conduct, rules of climbing, taking care of the routes and drawing sketches. Paysan does say there there is occasionally conflict, but that is true of any community and, again, rules need to exist for its resolution..

I am finding new ideas about an old concept a stimulating experience. I have not even begun to think seriously about its relationship to Republicanism but  it is providing me with new perspectives on the idea of citizenship as an expression of the rights and responsibilities necessary for the good management  of an open society.

‘Let It Shine’ – On an Unsavoury World of Grace and Favour

graftFor the past month the focus of the world’s press has been on the new incumbent of the White House.  Understandably, much concern revolves around the firewall which separates Donald Trump the President from Donald Trump the businessman. The gossamer nature of this separation is, of course, worrying to those who value the liberty and dignity of citizens, since through the ages autocratic leaders have effectively facilitated the use of slave labour in private enterprises through tight political control.  But rather than looking  askance at the manipulation of the US institutions for personal gain it is worth considering an example much closer to home. Although in no way approaching the scale of Trump. the recent career of entertainer Gary Barlow provides a model of how a system of autocratic patronage operates and how it serves to subvert the aims and ambitions of an open society.

The murky background to Let It Shine

I am not a fan of Gary Barlow so I am poorly placed to judge whether his new primetime Saturday evening show, Let It Shine is good or otherwise. Undoubtedly he is a popular entertainer with musical talent as his many awards testify, but the quality or ability of Barlow as an artist is not the point of this post.  Rather, it is the place which he occupies in the British establishment and the effect this has on our society. Now, as this article by Hannah Furness in The Telegraph shows, I am certainly not the first to query the wisdom of the BBC in giving Barlow a brand new series. The problem is not wholly to do with Barlow’s tax-dodging past, although that will feature in my argument a little later.  The main issue is that the BBC is once again following a format (for example Any Dream Will Do) of using the production as a talent spotting content for a putative musical show planned by Barlow called The Band. This is semi-autobiographical, telling the story of the rise of boy band Take That, which projected him to wealth and fame.

As far as we can tell the BBC has no commercial stake in the forthcoming musical so our money is being used to provide national advertising for a private production. This issue has been raised before, most pointedly in 2008 by none other than director of the Old Vic Theatre Kevin Spacey who protested at the free promotion being given to Andrew Lloyd Webber (Lord Webber, by the way. one of Barlow’s collaborators) musicals, especially Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Was Spacey justified? Apparently, as Furness points out, he was:

At the time [2008], a study by the Society of London Theatre found theatregoers were 47 per cent more likely to go to shows after seeing the musical television tie-in, dubbing it the “Saturday night TV effect.  

The Band musical is being produced by David Pugh Ltd and as no details have been released on funding or budget profile we are effectively ignorant of the commercial aspects of this enterprise.  We cannot know whether our licence money is directly lining the pockets of the less than socially conscious Barlow. The essential question is whether the BBC itself has any idea since it was they who approached Barlow to make Let It Shine!

A World of Grace and Favour

Should we have concerns about the financial activities of Barlow? I think so. It is less than three years since Barlow, along with two other members of Take That, was found to be putting money into a scheme ruled by the courts to be a tax dodge. The three band members were ordered to pay back  £20 million (!), a sum which they were clearly not keen to refund almost a year later as this report from April 2015 indicates. Bizarrely the BBC themselves highlighted a central issue of the debate which was the question of whether Barlow should be made to relinquish his OBE given to him by Elizabeth Windsor after he organised her ‘Diamond Jubilee’ concert in 2012. I have blogged previously about the iniquities of the honours system but here was a clear example of someone getting a gong for services rendered,  presumably the grotesquely privileged equivalent of mates rates!  Predictably, then Prime Minister David Cameron opposed a suggestion by Margaret Hodge, Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee of removing the honour.

At this point it is worth remembering the citation of the OBE which states it was awarded to Barlow for services to the Entertainment Industry and to Charity. The argument advanced by Cameron and others  was that his tax-dodging antics had nothing to do with his charitable work so the OBE should still stand.  But things are not so clear cut and charities actually receive a lot of funds from the public purse. As Zoe Williams succinctly put it in an article:

In fact, paying tax and giving to charity are connected, and if you avoid the former, you leave a gaping hole in the social fabric that must be darned by the latter. It’s like overlooking all the landmines a person planted, then giving them an MBE for money raised in the service of prosthetic limbs.

Williams goes on to make the point that there were precedents for stripping titles under similar circumstances (e.g. removing Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin’s knighthood) so this action was entirely reasonable.

So its now possible to see just how the system works. Gary Barlow is famous through his membership of the boy band Take That which makes a lot of money partly because of the BBC (just as for most popular UK artists). Barlow’s fame gets him the gig to organise Elizabeth Windsor’s Golden Jubilee concert,  which favour nets him an OBE. As a by-product of all this Barlow is wealthy enough to employ experts and participate in a tax scheme which diverts money legally belonging to the public purse. Barlow is recently approached by a BBC, angry at losing The Voice show to ITV and prepared to overlook Barlow’s misdemeanours in an attempt to chase ratings, despite being told by politicians not to do so. Barlow’s Let It Shine is generating free publicity for his new stage show which will virtually guarantee its success.  The BBC is thus complicit in boosting audiences for a private venture, the funding of which is unknown (possibly even to the BBC).  The continued possession of the OBE effectively justifies the whole putrid arrangement.

What links Gary Barlow to the Windsors and much of the rest of the British establishment is the desire for a grace and favour society in which they choose which social causes receive support (and who should get honours!).  But such a society where resources are allocated on the whim and predilection of the wealthy and privileged  is inimical to an open society where we all decide where resources should go and, in turn, we can all canvas public support for causes which are important to us. As I pointed out at the start, Barlow’s activities are trivial compared with the possibilities which may open up to Trump. But bear in mind that Barlow is merely one example, though a useful one as the facts are in the public domain allowing us to see the mechanism in operation. Grace and favour should have died with the nineteenth century!

Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

Continue reading “Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey”

Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years

fakenewsFake news is often presented to us as being a new development. but in fact the phenomenon has been around for a long time (so false information about fake news!). It is only the source and speed of media dissemination which has altered. So why is it a problem and why should we worry about it now?

A Very old Threat Wearing New Clothes

Looking back in history we can see many of the features of fake news familiar to us today. During the 17th Century printing technology had evolved to the point where news-sheets were published to bring information to an increasingly curious public.  During the English Civil Wars (ECW) of the 1640s fake news was a standard tool of highly partisan pamphlets with both Parliamentarian and Royalist armies employing officials to engage in what we would call today ‘spin doctoring’. Beyond the official sources any number of presses dodged legal restrictions to present the views of a myriad different groups. For example, The Moderate presented news and views from a Leveller perspective and frequently employed writers and editors from their ranks.  Beyond mere interpretation, some facts were simply made up and it was a regular occurrence for Charles Stuart to be pronounced dead by Parliament-biassed sheets. That is, of course, until January 30th 1649 when fake news became factual news! Some of the fake news was the result of poor communications and was published in good faith so should more properly be categorised as misinformation. Some, however, was deliberately fabricated as described in this this excellent article by Andrew Hopper of the University of Leicester.  As Hopper points out, this also included nationalist overtones with one 1643 pamphlet painting Prince Rupert of the Rhine, commander of the Royalist army, as a cruel German barbarian having committed any number of unspeakable atrocities.

The ECW was in reality no different from more recent wars where, as the saying goes, the first casualty is truth.  The fact that official Government sources disseminate fake news, not only during wartime, is generally accepted and it is the reason why a free press is regarded as a central requirement of an open society. But in 2017 fake news can arise out of any number of sources and, as this New York Times article illustrates, can have a complex history from generation to dissemination.

Continue reading “Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years”