Atrocity in Manchester – the world stops. The same or worse elsewhere in the world – we barely notice, let alone care

an122513141a-police-cordon-

The more I write these things, the more I realise that I’ve only got about four basic articles in me. I just put out variations on the same core arguments again and again – consumer capitalism is destroying the environment, left-wingers have abandoned the global poor, the political establishment is impervious to radical change, and so on. This one is always the most controversial.

The Manchester Arena attack was sickening. Violence against civilians is always wrong. Hurt the innocent, and you’ve immediately lost the argument. Whatever your cause, you’ve irrevocably damaged it.

Killing children is on another level. It’s hard, if not impossible, to try and put the gravity of it into words, so I won’t try.

After Manchester, 22 people are dead, many of them teenagers. The youngest was eight. Hundreds of people will be dealing with the psychological scars for the rest of their lives – the friends and family of the dead, the injured, bystanders, first responders, and many others.

But around in the world, millions of people are in the same position, if not a much worse one. Continue reading “Atrocity in Manchester – the world stops. The same or worse elsewhere in the world – we barely notice, let alone care”

2016 was terrible – but not for the reasons you think

For billions of human beings, Brexit, Trump and dead celebrities are the least of their worries

pay-the-celebs-who-died-in-2016-as-sergeant-peppers-lonely-hearts-club-album-cover
That viral Sgt Pepper’s 2016 picture that’s since had to be updated about twelve times

A year that started with the death of David Bowie and ended with Donald Trump as President Elect was never going to go down well. The ‘curse of 2016’ narrative surfaced early. Famous faces were kicking the bucket by the busload. Fascist-looking right-wing populism was on the rise. By now, as people look back on Trump, Brexit and a frankly surreal procession of celebrity deaths, talk of that ‘curse’ has hardened into a more blunt and straight to the point social media catchphrase — ‘fuck 2016’.

What it proves, more than anything, is our catastrophic insularity — our short-sightedness, our fixation with the trivial, and our profound detachment from suffering elsewhere in the world. Is it a shame some talented people have died? Yes. Is it terrible that far-right rhetoric is winning elections. Yes. Continue reading “2016 was terrible – but not for the reasons you think”

Radical Atheism and Human Suffering

kevin-carter-vulture Further to last month’s introductory bit on Radical Atheism, the rubbish new secular belief system we recently made up – a post on Radical Atheism and human suffering.

There’s probably not a god. Life has no big, grand, capitalise-able ‘Meaning’. It’s just physics and biology. Humans are just sacks of chemical reactions. But there’s still right and wrong. And it’s intimately linked to our millennia-spanning pedigree as social animals.

It’s bad to hurt others. It’s good to help others. And it’s bad not to help others when you can help others. Without those basic moral precepts, humanity wouldn’t have survived anywhere near this long. For prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, hyper-individualism wasn’t an option. You helped each other out, played fairly, shared the spoils equally. Or you died. For 90% of human history, nearly two hundred thousand years, that’s how we lived – millions of years if you count the earlier hominids we evolved from. And it was that social, co-operative lifestyle that the species uniquely adapted to suit. It fundamentally shaped what we are, and what humans need to life emotionally healthy, fulfilling lives.

Radical Atheism is about taking that basic morality – and the implications of atheism more generally – to radical conclusions. If it’s got a central, overriding belief, it’s this: that in an incalculably vast, godless, meaningless universe, the only thing left that really matters is human suffering. Continue reading “Radical Atheism and Human Suffering”

Charlie Hebdo and our erratic internationalism

Charlie Hebdo
Charlie Hebdo

This week, something horrible happened. In Paris, France, three armed men arrived at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – the closest English equivalent would probably be Private Eye – and shot 12 people dead. The perpetrators, one in custody, two still at large (Edit: now dead, shot by police), are apparently French-Algerian Islamic extremists.

There are already reports of firebomb attacks on mosques, as the logically challenged exact ‘revenge’. In fact, as anyone level-headed knows very well, the jihadis are about as representative of mainstream Islam as Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Brievik is of mainstream Christianity. Grimly, given the ever-provocative magazine’s staunchly leftist editorial stance, the only person likely to do well out of all this is Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s neo-Nazi Front National.

But now comes the delicate bit. In the 48 hours since the atrocity was committed, a wave of international solidarity has rolled France-ward. World leaders rightly condemned the terrorists. Social media rightly abounded with Spartacus-style ‘I Am Charlie Hedbo’ hash-tags. And left-wingers shuffled precariously along the moral tightrope, rightly expressing their solidarity with the French, but rightly pointing out that radical Islamism is just a fanatical, ultra-conservative backlash to decades of Western abuse in the Arab world. Continue reading “Charlie Hebdo and our erratic internationalism”

London Isn’t Very Equal (Part Three) – Canary Wharf

The oligarch's den
The oligarch’s den

Click here for Part One.

… and here for Part Two.

Our unexpectedly politicised amble around the capital had been equal parts fascinating and grim, but it was time to go. The rubbery sandwiches on the coach back to Somerset weren’t going to eat themselves.

Despite our rampaging cynicism, The Bemolution is a sucker for a poetic conclusion. And of all the places we could’ve ended our London adventure, a climactically big square surrounded by international banks seemed especially apt considering everything we’d seen, thought and talked about along the way.

It was completely by accident. We thought we’d try and squeeze in a last rendezvous with a third friend – sassy and savage-witted writer type from home, spent two maddening years bombarding the capital with fruitless job applications, finally got hired and is now doing quite well – before making a mad dash across London to catch the last escape pod out of Hammersmith Bus Station. Travelling to meet her in Greenwich, our witless provincial brain almost overloaded trying to work out where the Jubilee Line met the DLR – you have to physically leave one station at Canary Wharf and walk to another, it took us an embarrassingly long time to realise. And as we glided ethereally up the escalator and emerged from the glass Teletubby dome of the station entrance, it suddenly hit us that Canary Wharf was that Canary Wharf. Continue reading “London Isn’t Very Equal (Part Three) – Canary Wharf”

London Isn’t Very Equal (Part Two) – To Tower Hamlets

London remains scandalously unequal
London remains scandalously unequal

Click here for Part One

From London and its most gentrified and fake, we go the city at its poorest and most raw.

Leaving gentrified Bermondsey, we went to visit another friend. We knew Compadre #2 from school days in Somerset, when she was a warm, caring, alternative type who wrote and sang her own songs. She still is warm, caring and alternative, thankfully, but has chucked in the guitar and the lashings of emo-standard black eyeliner for a job in a small music promotions company.

It’s laughable to look back on now – especially given where we’d just come from – but at school we called her ‘posh’. She lived in a slightly nicer part of town and her dad had a reasonably well-paid job. In truth, they were just about middle class, and probably didn’t bring in a whole lot more than the average household income.

Now she lives in Tower Hamlets, one of the most glaringly unequal parts of the country, let alone London. It’s hugely deprived – 42% of its children are impoverished, the highest proportion anywhere in Britain, and its richest inhabitants live about 11 years longer than its poorest ones. But it’s just a few minutes east of the oligarch’s den itself, the City, and the gleaming phalluses of the bank buildings dominate the horizon. A relatively small number of super-rich residents pull the borough’s average income up to £58,000 a year – the second-highest in the country – and its proximity to the biggest financial hub outside Wall Street gives it an economy worth £68bn. Its house prices have gone up a mind-bending 43% since last year. Continue reading “London Isn’t Very Equal (Part Two) – To Tower Hamlets”

London Isn’t Very Equal (Part One)

London and the Shard
London and the Shard

Only right that these should be read listening to mid-’80s Style Council tracks – mingling poppy lounge jazz with blatantly socialist lyrics – on repeat, because it’s what we had stuck in our head while it was being written.

A ramblingly political travelogue taking in the capital at its richest, poorest, and most rampantly neoliberal

The Bemolution recently went to London – big, posh, plutocratic London – which is always morally troubling. It’s quite an easy place to dislike if you don’t happen to live there. Hugely, unaccountably powerful, the capital determines so much about the way the rest of us live – and, funnily enough, seems to wield that power in a way that serves the city and its richest denizens first, everyone else second.

Of course, more than a smidgen of anti-London sentiment can be put down to good old fashioned provincial bigotry. It’s stupid, for example, to blame the largely powerless majority of the city’s eight million citizens for the self-serving political and economic agenda pursued by a tiny minority. Then again, said super-elite wouldn’t have such an easy ride if a sizeable wedge of the capital’s rich-but-not-quite-super-rich didn’t go along with it – especially the conga-line of graduates from wealthy backgrounds that pour into the City year after year, trampling over the poorest Londoners by shunting house prices and living costs up and up and up. Continue reading “London Isn’t Very Equal (Part One)”

Consuming Cornwall: Pasties, poverty, economics beyond growth (Part Two)

Not a sound basis for a sustainable economy
Not a sound basis for a sustainable economy

Click here for Part One.

Unfortunately, orthodox economics doesn’t look in much danger of being radically inverted any time soon. That’s a shame, because it’s what needed if we’re going to ever see an economic settlement that prioritises the needs of the majority, rather than leaving to be half-served as a side-effect of the dash for private profit.

Once the small matter of that kind of spectrum-shifting overhaul was out of the way, though, areas like Cornwall could be comprehensively lifted out of poverty, given stability and security while at the same time achieving something as momentous as it is pulsatingly urgent.

The next hundred years is likely to be the make-or-break century as far as human civilisation is concerned. Growth-obsessed hyper-capitalism has left us wobbling on the brink of environmental disaster. What we do in the next few decades will be crucial to determining how bad that disaster ends up being – it’s far too late to stop it altogether, tragically – and how well we weather it. And Britain needs to gear up to deal with this rapidly approaching new world.

Over decades, if needed, the government could invest in the people and the places that were socially scrap-heaped by Thatcherism, providing skills and training for the low-paid and the un- and erratically employed. Then it could give them stable, decently-paid jobs, building and operating wind and solar farms, constructing flood defences, desperately-needed council houses, new hospitals and new schools, and repairing and expanding transport infrastructure, among other things. It wouldn’t be just construction either – there’d be people in the offices doing the admin, people working in the canteens, people cleaning, plumbers, electricians and maintenance staff.

People will always ask where the money’s supposed to come from. We live in a country where the 1000 richest people, or 0.003% of the population, saw their wealth increase from £99bn to £413bn between 1997 and 2008. The richest 10% of British people have got more than enough money they don’t need to fund this kind of programme twice over.

That would do for the short to medium term. It would lift thousands of people out of poverty – not just because of the wages, but the finally affordable housing and the like too. Longer term, the whole economy will have to become about stability – if we’re going to survive within our environmental limits, we need to have economics without the obsession with economic growth. That means radically cutting down what we consume, and producing as much of what we do as locally as we can.

The kinds of industries have been flogged abroad over the last century – food production, all kinds of manufacturing etc – should be brought back to Britain, creating jobs aplenty. It wouldn’t be the most efficient way of doing things, but that would no longer be the point – economics would be about providing stable livelihoods and locally producing what people need to live comfortable, healthy lives, not massive profits or endless expansion.

Cornish people might wear clothes made in Cornwall, for example, eat food made in Cornwall (what kind of eco-socialism worth the name would be without state-subsidised pasties for all), live in houses build by Cornish builders. People would still come to Cornwall on holiday – even more than now, perhaps, as travellers were discouraged from making fuel-guzzling plane journeys. But the county wouldn’t be held hostage by tourism. It sounds incredibly, implausibly radical in 2014. Pre-industrialisation, people managed it for thousands of years.

In the current political climate it’s hard to think of a situation less likely to come about. But that doesn’t mean it’s not perfectly possible – and that it wouldn’t be the best thing both for the majority of humanity and the environment we depends on for our survival.

Consuming Cornwall: Pasties, poverty, economics beyond growth

cornwall
Lovely Cornwall

Pasties, poverty, economics beyond growth

Cornwall is one of the nicest places in the world. It’s not only often spellbindingly beautiful, friendly, enigmatically Celtic and unusually progressive for provincial England, it invented the greatest pastry product in human history, the meat-and-potato-based colossus that is the Cornish pasty. It’s a culinary legacy that will live on long after the county gets swallowed by the rising Atlantic and its bakeries are only frequented by pilchards and deep-sea divers.

Upsettingly, though, Cornwall is also the poorest place in the UK. When people talk about the North/South divide, it’s fairly insulting to the perennially neglected West Country. The popular perception that there’s nothing but cows, fields and rich shire Tories south-west of Bristol is only almost completely accurate. At Parliamentary and local government level, at least – as if that’s an accurate representation of diverse local opinion under an electoral system as dismal as First Past The Post – it is mostly Blue, although the still-lingering Paddy Ashdown effect means there are patches of Yellow left over from when the then-Lib Dem leader was MP for Yeovil. It is, pretty indisputably, very rural too. But rural doesn’t always have to mean rich and agricultural. Continue reading “Consuming Cornwall: Pasties, poverty, economics beyond growth”

Teach First Isn’t Very Good, And Neither Is Rampant Neoliberalism

The 'Tough Young Teachers', posing ridiculously
The ‘Tough Young Teachers’, posing ridiculously

The Bemolution has largely given up watching TV because most of it’s rubbish, but we’re informed by persevering telly-watchers that there’s a programme on about Teach First.

Teach First is a government initiative designed to encourage ‘high-flying’ university leavers to have a go at teaching before they join one of the more conventional graduate employers. Its stated aims are reasonably well-meaning. ‘Top’ graduates rarely go into education, the logic runs. They’ll go to into banking, PR, marketing and the like, but for some reason consistently dodge anything socially useful. If that excellence could be harnessed and directed at educating some of the most disadvantaged people in the country, perhaps it could strike a resounding blow against social inequality.

Successful applicants are put through six weeks training then sent off to work in a school for two years – almost always one in a heavily deprived part of the country. They get a nominated mentor, a fellow teacher at the school, and various other forms of support from Teach First itself, but in the classroom they’re very much on their own. And it’s here, apparently, that the BBC’s Tough Young Teachers looms in to follow the progress of six new Teach Firsters.

Someone who’s watched it told us that the featured newbies were posh and useless. That’s probably unfair, and/or a massive over-generalisation. And if it isn’t, you can hardly blame rich, socially segregated graduates who aren’t much more than kids themselves for being bad teachers when they’re parachuted into the toughest schools in the country after a month or so of PowerPoint presentations. Continue reading “Teach First Isn’t Very Good, And Neither Is Rampant Neoliberalism”