I’ve had a certain amount of pushback about my last article on the pandemic, so before I post any more on the subject I thought it might be a good time to make my principles absolutely clear:
Nobody could hate the capitalist system more than me: I’ve been arguing for 30 years that we’d all be much better off if we went back to living in an extended family setup on our own patch of land, feeding ourselves and getting plenty of exercise and social interaction. And with the benefits of modern technology (healthcare, education), plus those of creativity (art, music, theatre) provided to us through professionals who would receive a tithe of our produce.
I firmly believe that capitalism is a poison to the Earth and to humanity. It promulgates an attitude of continuous and conspicuous consumption that’s totally counter to anything sustainable. I believe in a single universal wage, draconian measures to prevent/clean up pollution, and that no company should make a profit that isn’t immediately invested in making society better for all of us.
Furthermore, I don’t have a pension, investments or anything else that might suffer from an economic collapse. The two houses of which I’m a joint owner are worth maybe 200k€ in total on a good day. So I have no interest in propping up this system.
I’m perfectly well aware of the risk this virus poses to vulnerable groups: I have a number of close friends/family who are cancer sufferers, asthmatics and/or old enough to be in the high risk group. No, I don’t want them to die because all of you can’t be arsed to stay at home for a few weeks.
I am not suffering whatsoever: I work from home. My life normally consists of doing exactly what I’m doing now. My workload has actually increased since this crisis began. And in any case, I have a chunk of money set aside that I inherited a couple of years ago when my aunt died.
I’m currently in lockdown in rural France. I have a very large house to live in, and although it’s a bit basic (like, pretty much entirely unheated), it’s really not a struggle to be here. I can go out for walks or ride my bike around the country lanes.
And, on the lighter side of things, I’ve had dreadlocks since 1993. I’m not going to come out of this with a self-inflicted bowl haircut.
So… now that I’ve established I’m not a sock puppet for our capitalist masters, let’s move on to the serious stuff…
Our destination, globally, is clear. We are heading for economic – and thereby social – Armageddon.
The warning signs have been there for years. Decades.
But there’s an irony to what’s happening: it isn’t rampant capitalism or environmental collapse that’s endangering our world. Not an asteroid, nor even a nuclear war. No. Instead, it’s incompetent and panic-ridden leadership on an enormous scale.
What we’re doing to our economy – globally – in response to a relatively small threat from a virus is a massive, massive over-reaction. And long after the virus has (hopefully) gone, the much greater costs, even in terms of life, will roll on for years to come.
The economy needs to be restarted. Now. Before it’s too late.
All these shutdowns are the wrong medicine. They’re a panic measure. A flexing of the wrong muscles, too late in the day.
Look at it like this: imagine the roof of your house has a leak. The leak is a nuisance. It’s spoiling your furniture and possessions inside the house. One of the bedrooms is now out of use. The leak needs to be dealt with. Yes.
But would you knock the house down in order to deal with that leak? No. Of course you wouldn’t. You’d work slowly but diligently towards moving things out of the way and accept that there will be some loss, some damage, call it what you will. But you’ll get through the wet days and repair the leak.
And once it’s all done, you may even (hopefully) admit that you were very wrong, for so many years, to not invest in repairs to such vital structures as your own roof.
As things stand, it isn’t too late to prevent decades of damage – and the loss of countless thousands, perhaps even millions of lives – as a result of the current policies of economic suicide. Things can be done to prevent that catastrophe from ever happening. Free money can be given away, for, say, the next 18 months. Governments can reduce their tax takes, generate economic growth with massive stimulus packages and, of course, invest heavily in that most precious of things: healthcare. The staff, the hospitals, the medicines and the equipment.
On the other hand, in order to spare significantly less than 1% of the population a close (and, yes, sometimes fatal) encounter with the Covid virus, we can carry on demolishing the whole damned house. And, once that’s done, and we find ourselves destitute and on the street, we can then try to blame it all on the wet weather.
Yesterday I read this interesting and topical post which, ironically, I found highly offensive. Why? Because of its implication that everybody born before 2001 is some kind of blinkered idiot simply because they don’t belong to Generation Z, and have not, therefore, been endowed with the ‘magic’ powers of that age group.
I don’t care one way or another about gender or race. I’m not interested if you’re Catholic, Muslim or atheist. I don’t give a shit if you’re upper or lower class, providing you’re not an idiot about either. I’m certainly not a rabid feminist. Because, oddly enough, even though I’m a contemporary of the author of the article, I have a really simple view of the world. I think we should all be equal.
I’ve often looked back at my childhood and marvelled at my sheltered, apolitical upbringing. I was born on the Isle of Man in 1968, which meant that as a kid I experienced a kind of Famous Five existence largely denied to my peers growing up on the mainland. Everybody I knew was, by most people’s standards, pretty well off. Now don’t get me wrong – the Isle of Man is a tax haven, but for those of us whose families have come from there for generations this entails nothing positive. There was council housing and unemployment there just like everywhere else. But at the age of 11 or 12 my friends and I would spend our summer holidays travelling around the island by vintage steam train, electric tram, bicycle or foot, visiting medieval castles or scrambling on the cliffs. We could go anywhere safely, and did.
I was 5 when the island had its first murder for 43 years. In many parts of the world this would have been unheard of, even then.
Aged 10, I went home from school one day and asked my mother whether we were Catholic or Protestant, because I had no idea what the distinction meant. 50 miles across the sea to the west, this would have been engraved on my brain from infancy.
In May 1979, when Margaret Thatcher was elected, I thought a female prime minister was a good thing, because I had no idea of the difference in political parties.
Whenever we travelled to the mainland, I was always shocked at the number of burglar alarms, on even the meanest grimy terraced houses. There were, of course, burglars on the Isle of Man – my father was a policeman, and he was at one time part of the Ports Unit, responsible for spotting ne’er do wells on their way on to and off the island. But burglary wasn’t so prevalent that an average homeowner needed an alarm.
I was startled at the age of 14 when I realised that the burnt out buildings and vacant plots littering Liverpool, where the Manx ferry docked, were left over from the, to me, long previous World War II, which the city had never been prosperous enough to rebuild.
But it was at about that age that my innocence came to an end.
I’d already seen through the pitiful instructions for how to survive a nuclear war in “Protect and Survive”, the UK civil defence booklet published in 1980. Living on the Isle of Man, I learned early on what nuclear power was, and what effects it could have in the hands of the unscrupulous and negligent, regardless of what shiny new name you gave the processing plant. And Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” finished off any illusions I had left on that score.
The Falklands War and the miners’ strike taught me very quickly what a Tory was, and how they would do anything to profit from and mislead their fellow humans. News coverage of these events taught me that I couldn’t trust the media, either tabloids, TV or even the ‘serious’ papers. (Interestingly, Wikipedia states that the Falklands War was covered ‘in a neutral fashion’. That’s not how I remember it!)
The Toxteth riots opened my eyes to institutional racism in the police force, so I wasn’t surprised that Stephen Lawrence didn’t get any kind of justice until long afterwards.
I was pretty well acquainted with the history of World War II, so I was horrified to discover that, not only did some people deny its worst atrocities had ever happened, but some others – who really ought to know better – were still fighting over the land they’d been allocated at the end of that conflict, illegally trying to expand its borders. And that the Western world was, for some reason, turning a blind eye to this.
I learned of climate change and animal cruelty, sexism and racism. I learned of pollution and the sickness we were spreading through the natural world by our thoughtlessness.
I realised how quickly people could fall through society’s safety net, no matter how comfortable they’d been before. During my master’s degree, I also discovered how rapidly society could collapse when a country is run by a government whose only real policy is to feather the nests of the rich. When I started my course, in September 1990, I was heading for a career in museums. By September 1991, museums were closing at the rate of several a week, as a result of funding cuts stemming directly from the Conservative government’s poll tax.
And then I left the Isle of Man for good and was immediately swamped by the sea of misery and hopelessness that was Britain in the early 1990s. I lived in inner city Birmingham and learned how the social services treat those in need of their aid. I learned how to make a little bit of MOT go a long way to keep an old car on the road ‘legally’, and how to survive on just a few quid a week. I saw people stealing from each other or turning to prostitution to fund their drug habits.
But I also saw people coming together and creating a new kind of society – a self-proclaimed underclass with new music and new forms of mass entertainment, where barter was self-evident and creativity rife. People living lightly in the landscape, taking their small homes with them as they moved, using minimal resources and causing no harm. That new music, those new forms of entertainment and that new way of living were deliberately targeted in the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.
But I was still pretty well off by many standards, and I soon worked out that it was better to be poor somewhere wealthy like Malvern than somewhere impoverished like Sparkhill.
Then came the Iraq war. I remember sitting in a pub where I was a regular, scoffing at the pictures of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ which so obviously showed earthmoving equipment and minor industrial buildings. The ensuing reaction from everyone in that rural pub other than the four people at my table demonstrated that – despite what they would insist today – they all thought I was naive at best and a traitor at worst.
Eventually I got a job. But I soon saw that I had no chance of ever having a decent house, or even a decent quality of life, in the UK. So I moved to France as soon as I could scratch together a few thousand pounds for a ruin in an impoverished area of the country. I think of myself as a European these days, and I’m proud to do so.
But I haven’t stopped despairing over our collapsing ecosystems or the plastic in our oceans, animals being transported long distances in hideous conditions or bankers being paid bonuses for fucking up the economy of the entire Western world. I haven’t closed my eyes to sweatshop countries producing designer labelled clothing for anorexic idiots to wear once in the pages of Hello! then discard like sweet wrappers. I firmly believe that we’re rapidly heading for man-made disaster of some type – though whether climatic, major inter-continental conflict or simply cheap-flight-induced-pandemic, I wouldn’t like to say.
I’ve done very well for myself. I have a home in Sweden and – if the renovation is ever finished – one in Normandy. I have my own business, which is doing better every year. I have friends all over the planet. I’m in the extremely fortunate position of having been able to get Swedish citizenship, thereby freeing me from the clutches of the ravening Brexiters, whose narrow-minded jingoism and sheer ignorance have the UK on a direct course back to IRA bombings and widespread rationing.
So I’m one of the lucky ones, and I’m grateful for that every day. But that doesn’t make me ignorant. It doesn’t stop me protesting against injustice. It doesn’t make me indifferent to other people’s suffering, or accepting of the greed and stupidity that still others wield to create and excuse it.
Just because I was born half a century ago doesn’t mean I don’t see entrenched attitudes and privilege just as clearly as the kids from Stoneman Douglas school.
So, Mr Tallon, don’t include me in your sweeping generalisations. I may not have grown up in the years since 9/11, but that’s not to say I haven’t been in the trenches. And I haven’t been alone. Maybe you’ve never had any empathy. Maybe being American gives you a different experience of life – let’s face it, everyone outside the USA, adults included, thinks that your attitude to guns is totally fucking insane.
Well, it’s been ten years since you voted to take Britain out of the EU, and I wonder: how do you feel about that choice now?
Because I remember watching the results come in on the night and hearing how “traditional Labour voters just aren’t feeling like the current system is working for them”. And thinking, every time, that that was about the saddest thing I’d ever heard. To me it beggared belief that someone in Sunderland could imagine that their ills had been visited upon them by the EU rather than the consistent and cynical asset stripping of the country by the Conservative party. That people in South Wales – the biggest recipient of EU spending per head in the country – could believe that they’d be better off without that funding was something I simply couldn’t understand. But you presumably could, because you voted to leave.
So, what was it that you understood? Because I pictured a number of pretty dire things happening, and as I watched those results come in I simply felt utter, utter despair.
But presumably you foresaw the unprecedented run on the pound that happened during the first two weeks after the Leave result. And you were sanguine about that because you’d also predicted the apparent economic upturn that then lasted for the remainder of that first year. During that period there was much talk about how much more cash the UK would have for things like the NHS, and that resulted in a small consumer-led boom.
And then the things that all of us on the Remain side could quite clearly see coming did indeed start to become manifest. Negative economic news began to be the norm. Nissan and the other car manufacturers withdrew from the UK. Why would they stay when there was no longer any market advantage to being in the country?
The City of London, which was, after all, a major driver of the UK economy, lost its position as the most important financial market in the world when the Brexit negotiations failed to secure the “passporting” rights it had previously had under the EU, and after about five years Frankfurt had completely taken over, with a concomitant nosedive in the financial sector.
Food became more expensive as EU subsidies were lost and some of the labour to cheaply pick the crops disappeared back across the Channel. Many farmers even went bankrupt in that horrible period before those hideously expensive internal subsidies were set up.
The EU did – as it had made clear it would – penalise the UK in every possible way during those leave negotiations. The single market became a thing of the past, and the markets that had previously been available to small and medium-sized businesses were no longer there. So yet more companies went to the wall, with yet more jobs lost. And yes, some companies managed to negotiate new markets in places like China. But even the Chinese preferred to deal with a larger economic bloc.
Overall, you see, I’d say that things became much worse for the ordinary Brit. The manufacturing industry disappeared completely; the removal of EU labour laws meant still more zero hour contracts and pitifully-remunerated jobs; housing became still more of a luxury, and even today, the UK has higher food prices than anywhere on mainland Europe. And the NHS that you were so worried about? Smashed up and sold off to Tory chums of the Tory government. Now you need expensive private health insurance to give you even minimal cover for hospital visits, and with wages being lower in real terms than they were before the referendum many people simply can’t afford that.
But you couldn’t see that coming, could you?
And one more thing that you apparently couldn’t see coming… the number of refugees and immigrants changed not at all. The immigrants already in the country had to be allowed to stay, and the UK continued to be a Mecca for ill-educated, low-paid foreigners to fill those jobs that no British person could afford to do. The only thing that changed was the ethnic make up of the immigrants; now they’re more likely to come from Thailand than from Poland. Consequently there are far more non-Christian, non-white faces behind hotel reception counters and serving in shops. Of course first there were what became known as the Refugee Wars, in which the French took a very gleeful attitude to simply waving refugees across the Channel – after all, why would they bother to stop them in France, inside the borders of the EU? But I’m not sure I believe that story that the French set up special trains from Nice and Marseille straight to Calais. Or that canny Frogs were doing a roaring trade in leaving old but well-insured boats handily positioned along the north French coast.
But then I’m out here, looking in. Just like I was before the referendum. I thought that the EU was the way to go, and I’ve done what I needed to do to make sure I stayed out here. And from here, the UK looks like even more of a sinkhole of exploitative employment practices and unbelievable gaps between rich and poor.
And yet that’s not quite what you wanted, is it?
If I remember correctly, you kept wittering on about taking the country back.
About making Britain great again.
About a return to the days of the Empire.
Only, after ten years, I’m wondering exactly when you’re going to start on that?
Because at the moment you seem to be struggling just to survive.
The broad black low-ceilinged room is pretty full by the time I get there; pairs and groups of bearded men, mostly, talking in a variety of languages. It’s already quite warm so I shed my outer layers of clothing in the cloakroom and drink my wine – from a glass! A real glass! I can tell I’m in Sweden and not the UK.
Then I wait. There’s a tension in the room. People are talking, but you can tell that they’re also listening for something.
And finally it comes. A rhythmic drone emanates from the soundsystem, and the lights go down. There’s some movement among the spectators – I make my way to the centre, near the back of the crowd – and then we stand there, in the dark, silently with the exception of the various Danes behind me, who tell each other loudly that nothing’s happening. My opinion of that particular race immediately plummets.
Because something is happening. We’ve responded to the noise like a group of Morlocks, obediently moving into position and facing the front of the room. The drone continues, and we stand immobile, hands by our sides, waiting. Waiting for the touch of the sublime that we know is coming. Waiting for something to fill up the empty space within each of us.
Sporadic applause and cheering greet a movement on the cramped stage, and I rise on tip-toe to see what’s happening. Someone, a woman, is standing in the corner of the stage. I know this must be the violinist, but I can’t really see her or the violin. The problem with Scandinavia is that everyone’s so unfeasibly tall. If I was doing this in France I’d be the tallest woman in the room – possibly even the tallest person of either sex. Here I’m looking at the neck of a guy a metre in front of me. The drone is increased by the sounds wrung from the violin. The woman onstage is joined by a man with a double bass, also squeezed into a corner. The screen behind the stage is showing a moving image of some kind of inchoate, black-and-white mass, like thousands of eye floaters.
Gradually more of the band weave their way among the equipment and into their places, but I can’t see much of anyone. It’s not important. By this time the Hope Drone has built to a frenzied wall of noise and the rapture has truly begun.
For the following period – I’m not sure how long exactly, but close to two hours – I stand, rooted to the spot, swaying slightly from the intensity of the sounds being hurled at me. At times my chest vibrates to the bass. At times I want to throw myself around in convulsive movements. At times the crescendos of pure sound make me smile broadly. I see, occasionally, the images being projected onto the screen; images of moving grasses, of electronic stock exchange ticker-tapes, of glaring suns and blank-eyed empty buildings. But mostly – like many others in the congregation, I think – I have my eyes closed, which makes things difficult for the few non-believers in the audience who want to move through us. Near the end of the set I realise that many of the people behind me are no longer there. Presumably for the Danes nothing ever did happen. But for the rest of us, despite the bleak knowledge that the human race is doomed, the vision of pointless waste and environmental disaster, the incoherent rants of Blaise Bailey Finnegan III in the final track… we know that someone understands. We know that humans aren’t entirely without merit. Because the members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, drifting back off the stage as they arrived, twisting dials and leaving us – bereft yet fulfilled – with a dwindling hypnotic drone, have produced something truly divine.
“Capitalism affords economic freedom, consumer choice, and economic growth”, apparently.
Let me prove that this is wrong.
For several months now I’ve been trying to buy a white shirt, to replace one that I bought in 2009 and which has now seen much better days.
It has to fit the following criteria:
Longer than waist length, and with a curved hem
Buttons all down the front
Cotton or linen
Thinnish (this is to wear over a vest top or something in the summer, largely)
With a collar
In other words, a very simple plain white thin long shirt.
“Easy!” I hear you cry. “I could get you a handful from one trip to the shops.”
Oh yeah? Just try it. At least in Sweden, what is on offer are shirts with the following features:
Short and/or with a straight hem
Only three or four buttons
Nasty artificial fabrics
Material so thick you could use it as a duvet
No collar, a plunge neckline, or a bow (a bow! Who am I, Thatcher?)
And to respond to your other suggestions,
No, I’ve not looked at men’s shirts as my days of wearing blokes’ clothing because I can afford nothing else are over. I want something that complements my shape, not something that drowns it in a tent.
Buy clothes off the Internet? Not likely. I’m not a particularly standard size, and given the price charged by the Swedish Post Office for the inevitable returns, it would be cheaper to clothe myself in material made from diamonds.
So my point is this – if I can’t even buy a really simple basic garment like this, despite several months of looking, then what of consumer choice? This consumer wants something slightly different to the latest fashions. It’s not like I’m asking for an adult sized pink bustier with My Little Pony on it.
Why are we continuing with the capitalist system, using up the world’s resources, forcing people to work – and in some cases die – in sweat shops, filling our roads with lorries and our seas with oil and plastic… if we aren’t actually fulfilling the promise of capitalism?