Bem Bulletin #2: Glittery Festive Special – Austerity, Porn and Gordon Brown

Occupy Christmas
Occupy Christmas

This month: we finally finished a trilogy of bits about our travels in the Czech Republic, Communism as-was and capitalism as-is that we started in 2012; we got angry at how society lionises business and fawns over the richest, as typified by the BBC’s The Apprentice, and how it neglects, belittles and abuses NHS personnel; and we contrasted the way in which modern parents dote almost obsessively on their offspring, while doing, thinking, or, apparently, caring very little about the climate catastrophe that might rob them of a future.

… And, music-wise: funky Nigerian afrobeat from Fela Kuti, and banal ‘50s country and western.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly, it’s Christmas time, and the Bemolution is communicating with you from its fairylit inner sanctum, swimming in tinsel and shovelling grotesque quantities of chocolate log down itself.

We don’t celebrate birthdays (exceptions made for young children or the impressively old), or like ceremony in general, but we officially do quite like Christmas. Not enough to suspend our miserablist current affairs-prodding, of course. But it at least encourages people to squeeze a trickle of festive goodwill to the rest of the species from their neoliberalised granite-hearts, and stop trying to compete each other into the dust long enough to eat their own bodyweight in turkey and Brussels sprouts.

Anyway – to business.

In this month’s Bem Bulletin

1. George Osborne’s Autumn Statement

1 and a bit. … And Sociopaths in power

2. Porn Censorship and the Tyranny of the Vanilla

3. The Life and Times of Gordon Brown

4. Jim Murphy, Neil Findlay, Scottish Labour

5. Obligatory Christmas Commercialisation Whinge

Oxfam's (now banned) take on austerity
Oxfam’s (now banned) take on austerity

1. The Autumn Statement. Early this month, Chancellor George Obsorne delivered his Autumn Statement, a sort of semi-skimmed Budget reporting on the state of the UK’s economy and the government’s plans for it in the months ahead. In this case, it was also the last major event in the Treasury calendar before next year’s General Election.

Obsorne’s didn’t announce much in the way of concrete policy. What little there was demonstrated his now-familiar preoccupation with using the housing market to power his ‘recovery’, along with a fair dollop of tokenistic populism.

He made minor changes to stamp duty, a tax levied on people buying homes over a certain price, ironing out anomalies in the old system that could see someone buying a property worth £250,000 taxed £2,500 but someone buying one worth just £25,000 more taxed £8,250. The new, more sloping bands introduced sound vaguely progressive – but they also mean £800m in tax cuts for rich homebuyers, including ones buying houses worth £900,000.

Low-earners got back all of £100, Osborne raising the amount of money an individual can earn without being taxed from £10,500 to £10,600 a year. Shockingly out of character, the Chancellor was more generous to those nearer the top – from next year, you’ll have to earn £42,385 a year to be taxed at the 40% ‘higher’ rate, up from £41,865, which is lovely for anyone earning over £15k more than the average income.

On the populist front, he unveiled a so-called ‘Google Tax’ on tax-avoiding technology companies, announced that fines levied on banks involved in the Libor scandal would go to charities for injured soldiers, and, soaring to glorious new heights in the history of British compassion, that migrant workers would lose their benefits after six weeks of claiming them.

But while it might not have had much of substance to offer policy-wise, Osborne’s Autumn Statement did a very good job of confirming that another five years of Tory government would basically end society as we know it.

The two-year benefit freeze and public-sector pay cap until 2019 were certainly terrible. But the news that from 2015 an Osborne-helmed Treasury would attempt to cut a further £60bn is fairly catastrophic. About 60% of the planned cuts are still to come, with the Office of Budget Responsibility predicting a loss of another million public sector jobs as a result. If the Tories get in again, by 2020 UK government spending will be the lowest it’s been since the 1930s.

Austerity doesn’t work, the deficit is growing, not shrinking, government debt is growing, not shrinking, and, more to the point, neither are anywhere near as important as mainstream politics and the mainstream media’s obsession with them suggests. If we’re broke now, we’ve been broke for the last 300 years.

But the Tories, the clever, senior ones at least, are fully aware of this, and always have been. They’re also fully aware that an austerity programme that earth-shatteringly huge will throw tens of thousands people on to the streets, see public provision in healthcare and housing collapse, and, in effect, destroy society as we’ve come to understand it since the Second World War, too. And they don’t care.

There are some sentiments that can only be adequately expressed through the medium of loud noises, so here’s some resoundingly un-festive Frank Zappa to convey our feelings about the present government.

Deceptively innocent-looking George Osborne
Deceptively innocent-looking George Osborne

1 and a bit. A Side Thought On Sociopaths In Power. For a long time, it’s a conclusion we’ve shied away from – it always seemed too extreme a thing to say, too mean-spirited and too prejudicial – but after a fair bit of research on the topic, we think it’s true. We’re being governed by sociopaths – or at least a political class filled with plenty of people with sociopathic and narcissistic personality traits.

Now, that’s not us using the word flippantly, as a lazy alternative to “very unpleasant people”. Mental illness always need treating with a degree of sensitivity, and whenever we’ve committed to term to Word Document, we’ve meant it the full, psychological sense of the term.

A sociopath is a person lacking empathy, and who doesn’t care about harming others. They’re unerringly selfish, highly manipulative and excellent at lying, while seeing nothing wrong with their conduct at all. Often they’ll appear very normal, sometimes even charming, but are incapable of feeling emotion at the same level as ordinary people, and learn to fit in by copying and faking emotional reactions they’ve seen in others. The vast majority aren’t violent in any way – but in positions of power, they’re dangerous.

It’s well documented that certain cultures and environments encourage the development of sociopathic traits. Psychotherapist Nick Duffell has examined how elite boarding schools turn out emotionally stunted young empathy-deficients (and rubbish leaders). Our own experiences at Cambridge convinced us that that the kind of ultra-competitive upbringings that produced a lot of our wealthier peers, fixated with an incredibly narrow, materialistic vision of what it was to be ‘successful’, were an excellent way of producing neurotic self-obsessives frighteningly lacking in compassion. Paul Verhaeghe, author of the phenomenal What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-based Society, argues that becoming a ‘successful’ professional in neoliberal society requires exactly the same attributes found in sociopaths, and that professional culture actively encourages them.

And these are exactly the type of people who are drawn to professionalised Westminster politics. We don’t think all politicians are sociopaths – or even that a majority of them are. We’re certainly no psychologist, either, and perhaps there are better, more accurate terms we could be using. What we’ve come to believe fairly unshakably, though, is that your blankly amoral Osbornes and Iain Duncan-Smiths, completely indifferent to the immense suffering their actions have caused, are missing some crucial component of a healthy personality.

A face-sitting protest outside Parliament
A face-sitting protest outside Parliament

2. Porn. An amendment to the 2003 Communications Act regulating what sex acts can be depicted in UK pornography was snuck through parliament earlier this month. The Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014 banned videos featuring a wide array of sexual activities, much of it standardly kinky, night-out-at-Max-Mosley’s fare like spanking, caning, “aggressive” whipping, face-sitting and water sports (which we’ll allow Alan Partridge to explain to the as-yet-unaware).

If you’re a very sheltered and prudish individual, we can half-understand why you might want the whips and chains stuff kept away from innocent young minds. But the new measures also ban the depiction of female ejaculation. Now, this genuinely baffles us, because female ejaculation – squirting or gushing as it’s sometimes labelled in pleasingly juvenile sex parlance – is something that some women just do when they get especially excited. It’s a completely uncontrolled, automatic physiological reaction some individuals have in response to the right kind of stimulation. Thanks to the abysmal standard of British sex education, that may well be something that a lot of people aren’t aware of, of course. But imagine if censors arbitrarily decided to ban the depiction of male ejaculation? Suffice to say, the porn business would be dead in days.

Porn can be deeply problematic. We’ve discussed it before (here) so won’t rattle on about it much now, but mainstream smut is often disturbingly preoccupied with demeaning and even humiliating women, and almost exclusively made with a male audience in mind. It’s also been monopolised by profit-fixated big business, which may be partially to blame.

That said, we believe that there’s fundamentally nothing wrong with the medium itself – human beings have been seeking out images of other human beings in flagrante since we first started painting on cave walls, after all. We also think the flabbergasting diversity of human sexuality should be celebrated. If you have an elbow fetish or like to be whipped or have cold custard poured over you, good on you. If you like to have sex in the most conventional way possible, or don’t like to have sex at all, good on you too. But as a society, we have to resist the tyranny of the vanilla – a minority of influential prudes foisting their arbitrary definition of sexual ‘normality’ on everyone else.

As we established last month, The Bemolution is ever-fascinated by ideology – in short, how millions of people end up with worldviews that aren’t an accurate, objective window on reality, but are actually warped in the interests of the rich and powerful without them knowing it. While this is a very different matter, we think there are some similarities between it and how ideology works.

We could be utterly, utterly wrong. But we think the censors probably thought they were being very liberated and open-minded about sex, in the same way that an Andrew Marr or an Evan Davis probably think they’re scrupulously impartial broadcasters. We don’t think it even occurred to them that quite a few British people regularly and willingly participate in the kind of sex acts they were banning from being videoed, and that the new measures would irk anyone other than a tiny fringe of lunatics – because of course no-one in their right mind wants to watch people urinating on each other.

Trying to work out an individual’s or an organisation’s list of ‘of courses’ – the things they wouldn’t even think to question as not being universally true or something virtually everyone agrees with – is an excellent way of uncovering ideology is at work. We’ll occasionally have someone outlandishly left-wing on Question Time, thinks the BBC Head of Programming – but of course no-one really thinks the banks should be nationalised. We’ll write editorials attacking George Osborne for his dogmatic austerity agenda, says the editor of the New Statesman – but of course there still have to be massive cuts in public spending.

In any case, this whole sorry affair demonstrates yet again that Britain needs to shake off its no-sex-please-we’re-British prudishness and revolutionise sex education (something essayed at length here).

Brown speaking at a No campaign event earlier this year
Brown speaking at a No campaign event earlier this year

3. Gordon Brown. Gordon Brown has stood down as an MP after 32 years. Watching how the news covered the announcement, it’s worth reflecting on the way the press’s approach to him has somersaulted around over the past decade.

We caught a snippet of one of those review-the-papers type segments on News 24, where a pillar of the media establishment is asked in to talk about the headline issues. The guest in question – didn’t catch his name – gave what we might as well call the standard liberal elite line on Brown: that he was a ‘titanic’ Chancellor but a dismal Prime Minister.

Great at the Treasury, abysmal at Number Ten, now venerable elder statesman-cum-Saviour of the Union. That’s the impression you’ll get from the news. But as the media’s portrayal of him has spasmed about like a speed-dating Boggart, Gordon Brown has been fairly consistent, politically at least.

Seething ambition and the pressures of high office had warped him into an explosively stroppy paranoiac by the time he became Prime Minister. But fundamentally, he was (and is, unusually for a modern politico) a decent, dedicated man who entered politics at a time when radical pragmatism was all the rage – when the Labour Party was so desperate to win after losing four successive elections that it took social democracy, subtracted anything that wasn’t compatible with rampant neoliberalism, and ran with what was left. And what was left, we soon learned, was nothing meaningful at all – Thatcherism with the contrast turned down.

He wasn’t a very good Chancellor or a very good Prime Minister, because the elite-pandering consensus he wholeheartedly signed up to would never produce someone that would fit most people’s definition of a ‘good’ leader. He was timid and obsessed with ‘respectability’, which invariably means keeping big business and the banks on-side – ultimately strong against the weak and weak against the strong.

What the mainstream paints as his successes as Chancellor essentially involved deepening the national addiction to consumer debt and unsustainably rising house prices. The economy grew, and the only people that saw any benefit were the already wealthy. For the majority, real wages and living standards stagnated or fell.

Brown’s a good man who went awry in a very bad political culture. His last major political act, the one he’ll probably be remembered for, was intervening to help stop the Scots escaping the neoliberal bully-boys of the Whitehall-Westminster consensus – who, come the end, he’d become virtually indistinguishable from.

Jim Murphy and Neil Findlay
Jim Murphy and Neil Findlay

4. Scottish Labour Party. Continuing the north-of-the-border neoliberalised-ex-social-democracy theme, the Scottish Labour Party voted in a new leader, after the resignation of Johann Lamont.

Offered a substantial change of direction in the form of Lothian MSP Neil Findlay, who ran the most unapologetically left-wing campaign seen since Bennite John McDonnell tried to stand against Gordon Brown in 2007, Scottish Labour went for Jim Murphy instead, Westminster machine-man and leading member of the relentlessly negative, scaremongering Better Together campaign.

It was a depressing reminder of how small and ineffectual the modern-day Labour left is. Figures like Findlay and Katy Clark in Scotland, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn in England, are excellent, and should be supported. But they’re now a tiny minority in a party that clearly isn’t packed with strident socialists any more – and is, in fact, filled with thousands and thousands who joined up in the Blair/Brown years, and were quite happy with Labour’s transformation into the UK branch of the Clinton-era Democratic Party.

Scottish Labour will be deservedly annihilated by the SNP in May. They had a chance to show that New Labour was a blip, and that the party contained something worth salvaging. Instead, they confirmed that in most cases ‘Labour’ is a disingenuous label to dupe the old, nostalgic and ill-informed into continuing to vote for what is now essentially a centre-right party.

Christmas Black Friday

5. Obligatory Commercialisation of Christmas Whinge. This year, the Christmas songs started in late November. The thing that grates the most about the festive season’s autumn-ward creep is that it’s got nothing to do with what ordinary people want. Most people, we’d imagine, would be happy if Christmas fever didn’t kick in until about two weeks beforehand. But the only reason the Christmas songs come on over a month in advance of the day itself, and the cards appear even earlier than that, is because big business wants us whipped into a consumerist frenzy for as long as possible. Get people into Christmas mode earlier, the more stuff they’ll buy, and the bigger corporate profits will be. When you think about it, it’s horrible – we’re being manipulated, subliminally prodded into a more vulnerable, suggestable state so consumer capitalism can consume us. Because we live in laughably skewed societies, we just think this is normal. If you want to have an ethical, radical Christmas, celebrate it exactly how you normally would – but without the presents.

And that’s it. The Bemolution would officially like to thank anyone who took the time to read this far, and anyone who reads anything we put out, for that matter. Wishing you all, and practically everyone else alive, a nice Christmas and a safe, healthy, rewarding New Year.

And now, for the people dying of starvation at the rate of one every three seconds, and of malaria at the rate of one a minute, and the people sleeping under newspapers in alleyways, and having human beings they’re quite fond of blown to bits before their eyes, and everyone else suffering needlessly in a world that can’t be bothered to do anything about it, please be upstanding for the Bemolutionary anthem, on permanent loan from the late Johnny Cash.

(And you can read last month’s Bem Bulletin here)