I’m rich. You’re poor. Tough shit.

That, in a nutshell, appears to be the political philosophy of Sir Martin Sorrell. Before Sir Martin instructs his doubtless legions of libel lawyers to pursue me, I’d draw his, and their, attention to the word “appears” in the foregoing critique. I may be wrong. Sir Martin may be a model of generous concern for his less fortunate comrades. But it doesn’t seem likely, given his irritated declaration to Evan Davis on the BBC’s Today programme this morning that “whether [he] liked it or not”, his line of questioning on Sir Martin’s and his FTSE 100 director colleagues’ pay was barking up the wrong tree.

Actually, I don’t think it was Evan Davis that was barking, regardless of the tree of his choice. Sir Martin assured him that his (Sir Martin’s, that is) basic pay was “very low”, and he was obliged to cobble together a living wage by all kinds of onerous performance-based inconveniences. I think there might be a small disparity in my use of the term “very low” when applied to wages, and Sir Martin’s. Because it transpired that Sir Martin’s basic pay was a paltry £1.4M. I have rarely felt the milk of human kindness flow from my breast more fulsomely. Not. No, taking one thing with another, I think it’s Sir Martin that is barking.

What had got Sir Martin’s goat was Evan Davis having had the temerity to suggest that perhaps £1.4M was not very low, but in fact rather a lot. No, that was only because Evan (and this listener for one) had got confused about the relative meanings of “very low” and “rather a lot”. Where we’d made our mistake was to compare this piffling £1.4M with other impoverished people like ourselves. That was clearly nonsense. Rather, the proper comparison was with the – apparently – even more well-rewarded executives of other advertising agencies in the world, against whom Sir Martin felt he was not properly competing. And, indeed, it must surely be galling to have to look at one’s tiny £1.4M pay packet in the full knowledge that others have a much bigger one. Who, after all, wants to find that others have a bigger one? Sir Martin surely does not deserve such international humiliation. He also pointed out that even if his fellow British citizens were in general getting steadily poorer, that was irrelevant. Because, Mr Davis, do you know how much of my company’s business is done in the UK? Well, whether Evan knew or not, Sir Martin was leaving nothing to chance. The answer, he assured us, was 10%. So that meant that his wages had no obligation whatever to be seen in the context of British wages generally. Britain is getting poorer. He is not. Tough shit on you, Britain.

I hope you’re all keeping up. This really is very simple. We’re in a recession (well, a period of lacklustre growth.) Big companies are finding it hard to sell us their shit, because we’ve got no money. That means they need to spend much more on advertising, sprucing up their brands and the like, so that whatever crumbs of consumer spending we may have to offer, they can make sure those crumbs go to them. In so doing, they put a lot of business Sir Martin’s way. That makes Sir Martin’s company rich. And in turn, that makes Sir Martin rich. What’s wrong with that? If you’re Sir Martin, the answer is a resounding, “Nothing!”

Now, I might be very wrong about this. But I have the sneaking suspicion that it’s the Sir Martins of this world, and their hard-done-by tales of not being able to keep up with the international Joneses, that are provoking the ire of urban campers and causing cathedrals to shut their doors. But not to worry. The City of London Corporation is about to have those pesky protesters moved on. And then we can all relax and get on with our lives. After all, Sir Martin is. You’re not happy? Well, tough shit.


Tintin, Bolshevism, and the anti-capitalist protests

As Hollywood unleashes its remarkable hybrid cartoon-and-real-life-actors version of Tintin, we learn that the quiffed-up, intrepid and dog-loving Belgian reporter’s first, unpublished, outing was in fact an adventure in Bolshevik Russia. Hergé was apparently worried that he might have characterised post-revolutionary Russia as being too harsh and inhuman. Not so, according to some descendants of the régime’s victims. Tintin’s jaundiced view was “broadly accurate”.

The initial years after 1917 were unremittingly cruel and inhuman. It didn’t exactly get better under Stalin. Collectivisation of the farms alone accounted for millions of deaths. The Bolsheviks were of course themselves replacing an inhuman and cruel system. The revolution didn’t happen because everyone was contented and well looked-after under the Czars. The capitalist system that we are now told has triumphed finally and insuperably since the end of the cold war, has itself been largely built first on the profits accruing from the European enslavement of African peoples, and subsequently on the unremitting exploitation of the labour of Europe’s own working class.

Until this latest crisis, the extraordinary productivity of capitalism has enabled the labour on which it depends to be bought off with steadily increasing living standards, subsidised by the cheaper labour of the developing world. But even this cheap labour pool is being relatively enriched. Despite the appalling consequences both environmentally and in the human price paid by workers, from the victims of Bhopal to poisoned agricultural labourers, it is still possible for the proponents of capitalism to excuse their own obscene riches by pointing to the drips of enrichment that trickle down to the world’s poor. Indeed, not only possible but also enthusiastically undertaken and embraced.

Until this latest crisis? It’s early days of course, but the austerity now being visited on many Europeans, as the contagion of sovereign debt financed by private capital moves seemingly irresistibly from Greece, to Italy, now perhaps to Spain and even France, is creating a radical discontinuity from the course of Western capitalism to this point. As I wrote here recently, so far from capitalism gradually increasing the wealth of the average Greek, it now presides over a sudden halving of their prosperity. It remains to be seen whether such austerity is politically deliverable.

And so, across the developed world, we see the first stuttering glimmers of resistance. The occupiers of Wall Street, the London Stock Exchange, and so many other symbols of capitalism, may be easily ridiculed as having no coherent programme, no manifesto, and obsessed more by the eschewing of leadership and the insistence on deciding everything by a kind of plebiscite than they are by political organisation, but they are beginning to question the hands that have fed them. That is an important matter, and I suspect more important than whether St Paul’s Cathedral has closed its west doors for the first time since the blitz. How we love to alight on the dramatic but irrelevant detail.

But if this is indeed the beginning of something, it will inevitably have, eventually, to progress from cosy protest to political movement, with all the associated challenges of answering the question that’s thus far a very long way from being answered: if not capitalism, what?

Not, Tintin belatedly reminds us, the kind of economic planning that disfigured the communist revolutions of the last century. Markets clearly do not always work in the self-correcting and naturally “intelligent” way that the free marketeers would have us believe, but replacing the markets with a centralised bureaucracy has proven itself to be worse, not better, for the mass of the people. If no markets won’t work, and a radically free market doesn’t work, then some sort of constrained market is the only remaining option. The task of agreeing those constraints, making them democratically accountable, pitching the balance between freedom and constraint in the right place, is both urgent, and mind-blowingly complex and conflicted. But it’s the task that we should be addressing. For all their naivety, and all their fragility, the current protests might yet be where the seeds of a new order are being sown.

To see, or not to see? Gaddafi’s demise, and whether we needed that video clip

The BBC, during their main news programme of the day, has just broadcast the graphic mobile phone footage of Gaddafi being first detained, and then seemingly killed in cold blood. It climaxed with a lingering shot of Gaddafi’s bloodied and lifeless face.

I’m not here concerned with the morality of his killing, beyond observing that there is a difference between the actions of an amateur army made up of those directly at the sharp end of a dictator’s brutality, and the planned summary execution of Bin Laden by trained US marines. So I would hesitate to condemn Gaddafi’s killing in quite the straightforward way that I did Bin Laden’s. Rather, I’m interested here in the reporting, and in particular the broadcasting of that video footage.

There seem to be two fundamental positions. On the one hand, there is the view that showing such graphic and violent imagery dehumanises the viewer as much as the person taking the video. It is unnecessary and merely sensationalist prurience, appealing to all our basest and most primitive instincts. On the other is the claim that we need, indeed have a moral duty, to be exposed to the reality of what’s being done in our name. War is too sanitised, and we too easily forget what it really means, and perhaps too easily acquiesce in its commission. We require our noses to be rubbed in all its violent and disturbing reality.

I genuinely do not know what I think about this. I can see powerful arguments in both directions. I have a strong suspicion that we do too easily protect ourselves from realities we’d rather not face. But I also worry about the thirst we seem to have to see the blood, to treat the world as if it were a horror film or a video game.

I can only leave you to draw your own conclusions, and come to your own rapprochement between these two legitimate positions. But one thing I do know. It is not necessary, nor is it proper or civilised or acceptable to print, as the distasteful and ever-repugnant Sun has done, a full-page photograph of Gaddafi’s half-blown-off face along with the headline, “That’s for Lockerbie”.

Hanging the Greeks out to dry

It’s a rich irony that austerity, that economic medicine now being force-fed to the Greek population, has as its root the Greek word for astringent, or drying. And that’s exactly what’s happening – the Greek people are being hung out to dry. They are not taking their medicine quietly. Running battles with riot police outside the parliament building, along with petrol bomb and stone-throwing have heralded a new and more violent phase of resistance. When you read through the list of measures that the Greek parliament is being urged by the troika (The European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission) to adopt, it’s not hard to see why. When you tot it all up, and throw in the cash consequences of the withdrawal of public services, Greeks are being asked to accept something approaching a 50% cut in their living standards within three years. And that’s on average. For very many individuals and families, the austerity means destitution, pure and simple.

Imposition of impoverishment on this scale is likely to prove simply politically impossible. Be that as it may, it is necessary only in the sense that if Greece is to remain in the European capitalist club, playing by the rules it has foolishly allowed itself to adopt as its entrance ticket, it must repay its creditors or else default. It is claimed that the latter course will be even worse than the current austerity, but that is only true if the default is on terms permitted by the other members of the club. Their terms have nothing to do with Greece’s well-being, and everything to do with their own club membership. A club that in turn is only attractive within the context of globalisation, where the European powers are deluding themselves into thinking that they can play alongside China, India, and the United States as equal global players. If that is really what they intend, it has to be done in the context not of monetary union, but of political union.

The eurozone members of the EU are stumbling haphazardly to that very outcome. If eurobonds are issued, and European debt is pooled, that de facto means that the eurozone countries are in effect a single fiscal and political country. But what then? I do not believe that even a politically and fiscally unified eurozone can ultimately compete with China and India over the next 50 years and more. The old economies, including I suspect the US, have effectively shot their bolt. They no longer have the capacity to compete unless they compete on labour costs. The idea that in some way the old economies will become high value “knowledge” economies whilst the rest of the globalised world supinely accept their role as manufacturers to their intellectual masters is both abhorrent and ridiculous.

The inexorable capitalist logic is unfolding as it must. That does not mean predictably, but it does mean that because capitalism’s growth requires a surfeit of cheap labour, cheap labour must be found. The West no longer has such a surfeit, unless it can make its labour cheap. And that, I believe, is what the Greeks are now experiencing. They are the unwilling vanguards of the cheapening of Western labour. Slashing their citizens’ living standards by 50% is nothing if not a bold step on that road.

The root cause of the current crisis is globalisation itself, no matter that it is still being touted as the cure. By organising the economies of the entire planet into one single financial game, we are ensuring that problems in one place will have consequences everywhere. There are no longer any firebreaks, no way of containing financial crises within one area. Capitalism, having matured in the Western economies, now needs free access to the immature economies to feed its engine, and globalisation is the necessary means. As ever, capitalism enriches the few on the proceeds of the labour of the many. And so, even as the mass of the Greek people are howling in protest at the imposition on them of a poverty designed by the rich and powerful oligarchy of the troika, the logic is clear. Most people are destined to become poorer, as a relative few become ever richer. It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved in a democracy. For how long will the turkeys’ reluctance to vote for Christmas be tolerated? What, in Gavin Hewitt’s pithy phrase, “happens if a eurozone country refuses to take the medicine?”

A fat lot of use

It seems the government’s strategic approach to reducing obesity can be contained in two words; Eat less. Whilst it one sense it’s fantastic to have a government strategy that’s so concise, and which avoids so assiduously all the usual flatulent prose of the average government pronouncement, in every other sense this is hopeless. It’s tantamount to addressing the problem of having a leaking roof in the town hall by telling the staff to bring umbrellas. “Take personal responsibility for keeping dry! Stop blaming us for the problem, and do something positive. Take control. Stop expecting nanny to look after you!”

However admirable it might be to encourage a sense of personal empowerment by locating the solution at an individual level, the fact remains that such an approach is notable more for its convenient letting the food industry off the hook than it is for its having the remotest chance of success. The root of the distortion of our diet is both simple and well known: it is the hugely greater density of calories that our food now contains than it has traditionally done, combining in a devastating synergy with our equally dramatic reduction in physical activity. Eat less is not in fact the right answer at all. The right answer is to eat differently, and to exercise more – either by doing something special labelled “exercise”, or better, by simply having a more active way of life, eschewing lifts, half-mile car journeys, and no longer preferring a remote control to getting up from the sofa.

And here’s the rub. One half of the obesity crisis is calorie dense food. Calorie dense food is food that contains high levels of fat and sugar. Fat and sugar have been commoditised by the food industry, and are now sourced from wherever is cheapest on the day. So what was already cheap is getting relatively cheaper all the time. If you want to maximise your profits, you do not need to consult a rocket scientist to know that the way to do so is to create foods with the cheapest ingredients, but which can nevertheless be sold as expensive, highly “value-added” products. Expensive, that is, in relation to the cost of their ingredients. In absolute terms, many of these products are very cheap indeed.

Inevitably, these cheap foods are overwhelmingly purchased by poorer citizens. I suspect we have two quite distinct kinds of obesity in our society. Fat rich people who do simply eat too much, but are frequently eating too much good food. And fat poor people who may not be eating too much at all, but are eating the wrong things, namely the sugar and fat-stuffed products of a food industry fixated on profit, and not remotely concerned with health or nutrition.

The answer to this, however, is not a “fat tax”. Taxing healthy items such as butter or olive oil is counter-productive. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the reductive thinking of “nutritionism” that attempts to substitute chemistry for a healthy food culture, and which demonises things such as butter, is much more part of the problem than it is the solution. The problem is the industrialisation of food processing. Processed food contains hundreds, thousands indeed, of ingredients that are nothing to do with food, and nothing to do with nutrition. Not in any one product, of course, although ingredients lists can easily run into the tens. These ingredients are the things that are needed to keep together the Frankenstein structures of what now passes for food, and to impart to them such things as “mouth-feel” and taste substitutes to make up for the fact that otherwise they’d taste of nothing but anonymous, generic, fat and modified starches. Emulsifiers, texturisers, nutrients to replace those lost by processing, things to stop the added water from dripping out, and all the other paraphernalia of a chemical industry that makes food-like stuff for us to eat, and which is resolutely based on fat, sugar and standardised starch fragments.

If the government really does want to produce an obesity strategy that can both be summed up in a pithy few words, and which might even work, it would be this: Eat food, and get off your arse. But it wouldn’t stop merely in addressing what individuals should undoubtedly do if they want to avoid obesity for themselves. It would also address the food industry with the startling message that to be properly called a food industry, you really do need to produce food. Not a chemically stabilised and flavoured food substitute. The quickest and simplest way of doing that would be to outlaw any food product that contained more than two or three items which were not themselves foods. Foods, in case you’d forgotten, are things that grow in the ground, or come from the bodies of animals.

It won’t happen though. Because this government (and just about every other government since the war-time coalition) is not at all interested in health. But it is interested in the profits to be made from the adulteration and distortion of our diet, and of our food culture, such that remains of it.

Back to the thorny issue of gay marriage

I’ve cantered over this obstacle-strewn course before, and came out firmly in favour of gay marriage. So you might wonder why I’m not joining in the predictable chorus of “how awful” that’s erupted since Charles Moore’s Telegraph piece on David Cameron’s commitment to enabling gay marriages that he unveiled at the recent Tory party conference.

In part that’s simply because I rarely join in how awful choruses no matter what it is that’s so awful. I have a general distaste for this kind of intellectual collective bargaining, in which one’s condemnation or enthusiasm seems to have more to do with maintaining popularity amongst one’s friends, and proving one’s ideological purity, than it has to do with what one actually thinks, or with an argument one has personally constructed and been convinced by. And, because ideological purity (well, intellectual consistency, anyway), and the admiration of my friends, are no less important to me than to anyone else, I should of course point out that I am no natural soul-mate of Charles Moore. Nor should it be necessary to state that I don’t agree with him.

But rather than simply keep my membership of the liberal, gay-friendly elite intact by a blanket condemnation and general call for Mr Moore to be burnt at the stake as a heretic and enemy of the people, I thought I’d take the quaint and old-fashioned path of actually saying why I disagree with him, and where (I take my life in my hands) I in fact think he’s absolutely right. Those of a delicate constitution might like to take a moment to steady themselves, perhaps to take some deep but slow and calming breaths, as the shock of this last statement seeps in. Shall we proceed?

Charles Moore’s elegant arguments about the long and central history of marriage as between men and women, and civilisation’s dependence on that history for its health, are of course not that simple to make. This is more a projection backwards onto history than it is a derivation from history. But that is mostly an error of hyperbole. It is undoubtedly true that the recent cultural history of our society has made these very assumptions, and that to expand the concept of marriage to gay relationships is indeed a radical departure. In itself that is no argument at all for not making that departure, but it is an argument for thinking the change through with care.

The real problem with Charles Moore’s piece is contained in that very word, “real”. As he builds up his arguments, from history, from coalition politics, from cultural change, it suddenly all goes pear-shaped. The veil of sophistication slips momentarily to reveal the truth: that Charles Moore starts and ends from prejudice. He cunningly connects the gay marriage debate with the furore over the Human Rights Act and the Bolivian cat (actually, I think the cat was English) whose ménage à trois with two men was adjudged to constitute “family life”, or so Theresa May would have had us believe. Charles Moore, in considering this, casually contrasts this cat-based domestic arrangement with “a real family life – marriage, children, that sort of thing”. Ah. I see.

Charles Moore is wrong. But he’s not wrong to point out that what some people want is not a sufficient argument in itself for letting them have it. Society has to make a judgement about what we collectively think is best for our common health. He is right to make the case that sometimes this will mean that some sections of society will not get what they want. I’ve no idea if there is really much Muslim enthusiasm for male polygamy, and if there isn’t, then this was a tendentious argument to deploy. But that doesn’t alter the fact that allowing such polygamy would not be justified merely because some people might want it.

My support for gay marriage is predicated on a clear division between civil marriage and religious matrimony, because religion in a secular society cannot be the template for social relationships. I happen to think that it is religious tradition that is impeding change in this area, and we can cut this Gordian knot by allowing religion and the state to co-exist without forcing the one on the other. Charles Moore is seemingly not yet ready to make that separation, since he manages to bring both Islam and the Anglican Church to bear in his thinking. In disagreeing with him, it is not necessary to claim that he is wicked. By demonising him those who support gay marriage risk being both ungracious and unwilling to engage with those they happen to disagree with.

I owe you all very little except, it seems, an apology

David Cameron was all set to give us a homely piece of quintessentially conservative advice when he addressed the Tories at their recent party conference in what is, in almost all other respects, a Tory-free Manchester. Live within your means, he was going to exhort us, and prove your personal fiscal sobriety by paying off your credit card debt. Until, that is, someone noticed that if we all took him at his word, the country’s GDP would fall by 25% in 6 months. Even if we’re all a bit more dilatory in swallowing this disciplined financial pill, and instead pay our credit cards down to zero between now and the projected end of the Coalition’s tenure in office rather than donning our hair shirts and paying them off before the end of the current financial year, GDP will still take an additional hit of 1.5% per quarter. On top of whatever hit it might take anyway if the current stagnation tips over into actual contraction.

A quick re-write later, and Mr Cameron merely noted our existing tendency to pay down personal debt, patted us rather uncertainly on the back for having done well so far, and discreetly dumped his planned exhortation that we should do so faster and more furiously in future. Leaving aside the political ham-fistedness of having one’s spin doctors and publicists rush around telling all and sundry something that one is obliged to have sudden second thoughts about, this embarrassing episode illustrates a serious dilemma.

As my post title implies, even had Dave pursued his original fiscal homily, it would have been wasted on me. I have already, with shameless selfishness, put my own interests way above my wider social responsibilities. I am obliged to admit that I have no credit card debt to divest myself of anyway. Instead of studiously accumulating loans, credit card balances, store card usury, and general profligate consumption in the interests of all the rest of you, I have indulgently pursued a policy of not spending more than I’ve got. By my blinkered piety, I have been adding to your pain, and throwing half of you into unemployed misery. Why, this very year, when my car reached puberty and consequently became subject to an annual MOT, I callously neglected to replace it and instead continued to drive it notwithstanding the outrageous lack of debt it now attracts. That has done you a great disservice. By “you”, and as a good Europhile, I include the French, since it’s the Citroën workers that I’ve let down by my self-centredness. But even Dave realises that a bankrupt and impoverished France is not going to be much help to a stagnated UK economy. It might irk, but the Tories know that despite their rhetoric we and the French, Germans, Spanish, Italians and what-have-you are all in this together. And it’s nice to know that we’re in something together, even if the something in question clearly isn’t the pain of deficit reduction.

The scales have fallen from Mr Cameron’s eyes, and from mine too. It’s not self-denial we need, it’s self-indulgence. I need to spend, so that you may work. If I continue in this Macawber-ish propriety the whole country will be going to hell in a debt-free handcart. Thus I apologise. It’s the least I can do. Apart from going on a credit-card-fuelled spending spree, of course, which I’ll do as soon as I’ve thought of something I want that I haven’t already got.

Is it just me, though, that wonders if this borrowing-and-therefore-spending-and-therefore-growing mantra is really a sound way to run an economy? Isn’t it this very philosophy that has landed us in the crisis we now face? And I’m thinking here as much of the environmental crisis as of the economic one. Do I really need to buy things I don’t want and don’t need because if I don’t my fellow citizens will be impoverished? Must I buy pre-cooked sterilised rice in a plastic container at perhaps 50 times the cost of cooking it for myself, because if I don’t the manufacturers of plastic trays and microwave cookers will go out of business and fling their workers into unemployment along with the shelf-stackers and delivery drivers that this wild inefficiency requires?

You’ll doubtless call me a naive romantic, desperate to turn the clock back, and oblivious to the realities of the world. Forgive me, but you’re wrong. The realities of the world have to do with growing food, maintaining ecological sanity, and both using and valuing human labour. It’s the chimera of never-ending growth, and creating and then satisfying needs we never had in the first place, which is unreal. Less is truly more.