Skip to content

Horseburgers: lessons learned?

I was on my way past my friendly, welcoming local Tesco the other day, its wide doorless entrance inviting me in from the cold Scottish March evening (and letting vast amounts of heat out, obviously). Set a couple of metres back, so that you couldn’t miss it as you walked in, or even past, a huge glossy display proclaimed “What we’ve Learned from Burgers,” in big red lettering on a white background, blatant as blood on bandages.

I don’t really like festering sores, but I walked in, grabbed a leaflet, and walked out, accompanied by a comforting blanket of warm air from the space heaters and refrigeration units which, I’m assured, no longer contain any horses.

So, Tesco are changing, in the face of a few unexpected items in the bagging area. Now, personally, I don’t really see the moral difference between eating horses and eating cows, although raising cows might be slightly more unsustainable, and would rather eat beans, but that’s almost beside the point here. Still, Tesco and I do agree on one thing.

“It’s about the whole food industry.”


For those of you who haven’t seen this leaflet, it’s printed in Tesco’s favourite colours, coincidentally the same ones as you find on the Union Jack. It’s laid out like a poem but, if that was their intention, it exhibits none of the talent of William McGonagall.

So, Tesco are changing. It reads like a grovelling abusive partner with a bunch of flowers (and a poem!), promising to be better in future.

Look, Tesco is a corporation. Corporations exist for one reason and one reason only: funnel cash from your pocket into the offshore bank accounts of shareholders. The rest is incidental. If you’re reading my blogs, you probably know this. Now, I’m going to tread carefully here, because Tesco are known for “setting the record” straight through means of libel and malicious falsehood writs, and there has never been legal aid for libel. (The Guardian had to print a front-page retraction on this story, after the malicious falsehood case was thrown out. The company used other companies in the Cayman Islands for perfectly legitimate stamp duty savings purposes. I therefore couldn’t possibly call it tax avoidance.)

But back to the note and flowers on the kitchen table.

It seems to be about meat. A good provider can always put meat on the table. Cows and chickens. Not horses. It doesn’t even mention horses.

The poem comes in a single stanza of 26 lines in a style I don’t recognise. Some of it rhymes:

“And it has made us realise, we really do need to make it better.
We’ve been working on it, but we need to
keep going, go further, move quicker.
We know that our supply chain is too complicated.
So we’re making it simpler.
We know that the more we work with British farmers the better.”

McGonagall would be proud (of his work, not that of Tesco’s PR department).

So far it has about as much substance as one of those “loaves” of “bread” they expect you to make sandwiches out of. You know, a small quantity of overmilled wheat treated with enzymes and flour “improvers” in order to hold as much air and water as possible, because apparently customers have been conditioned to like bread that is soft and fluffy, in keeping with the image of an increasingly international megacorporation.

There are a few specifics.

One is that they’ve already made sure their beef is from the UK and Ireland. Okay. The trouble is, with “food” being shipped around the world because it’s cheaper to process it in a different place to the one it was grown, is what went out as cow going to come back as cow? In any case, that’s still no guarantee that slaughterhouses in the UK are entirely reliable.

During the last fiasco, of course, Romanians got the blame. I leave the fairness of that to the courts. Let’s just say, since nobody has been convicted, I can’t be absolutely sure that some of them aren’t cutting corners, but I’m not too confident that horse won’t again be sold as beef. I smell racism since, as we’ve already noted, this is systemic.

Now, therein lies part of the problem. Most of us demand cheap food. Now, the usual argument is that cheap food means the supermarkets try to force down the prices charged by suppliers, and Tesco has a lot of suppliers. I’ve been told that much of the reason for the rise of the supermarkets is that people like me “chose” to go to the supermarkets rather than paying a bit more for food at local suppliers.

Now, I do actually know greengrocers who can seriously undercut Tesco on a small range of fruits and vegetables. For instance, yesterday I found a dozen blood oranges, sweet and juicy (rather than tasteless or under-ripe), for 49p. I found half a dozen peppers from 99p, far less than what I’d find in the supermarket. I’ve got no idea where they came from, but Italy and Spain respectively are probably safe bets. That range changes and, over time, it’s possible to get a reasonably balanced diet, but I digress. The point remains that the economies of scale achieved by supermarkets, and their ability to produce bulk loss leaders, backed by their ability to virtually dictate bulk prices of some perceived “essentials” such as milk, allow them to mostly undercut the local greengrocer. The artisan baker doesn’t have a hope in Hell.

So, cheap “food” and we “choose” to eat it.

Ah ha. There is some truth to this. Let’s deconstruct it a little. Wages tend to be high when there is full employment. There is a simple reason for this: an employer who pays low wages in a situation of full employment will find his (usually, since males tend to be higher on the kyriarchy pile than females) employees going elsewhere, because it’s simpler to find another job. In situations of high employment this is not the case, and the employer can offer whatever he pleases, knowing full well that most people would much rather work than languish on the dole, with its emotional beatings from the social “security” employees and increasingly dire effects on mental health.

This gives an incentive for the system to have a certain level of unemployment built in to it. There is a nice convenient theory propounded by the advocates of laissez-faire capitalism that low wages encourage employers to employ more people, which then leads to full employment, but this isn’t how we see it working, although it is a useful excuse when you want to slash the social security bill.

The only thing that gives an incentive to employ more people is the lure of greater profits. Full employment presents a problem for the capitalist, as he has to either provide improved pay and conditions for his workers or chain those workers to the shelves, which presents a problem when he wants them to buy goods and services. The individual capitalist wants to pay his workers as little as possible – or, indeed, nothing at all. The system demands that workers be paid in order that they can buy things that the capitalists produce. It’s one of the many contradictions inherent in the system.

Which is why Tesco will promise more no more horse burgers, and will insist they are paying more than the average market price for milk (1.58p a litre more, when they already charge roughly double what they pay for it), which is no more than a distraction from what is presumably their continued tendency to force supplier prices down, encouraging them to cut corners and adulterate the food supply, which is what caused the horsemeat problem in the first place.

What this also means is that the vast majority of people simply can’t afford premium organic produce from the farmer’s markets. It’s not that we choose to go to the supermarket: either you work all the hours available, holding down three part-time jobs, so you don’t have time to shop around, or you don’t have a job or are otherwise on a tiny income, so you live on the cheapest loss-leading processed rubbish that you can find.

The system is engineered to keep the majority with critically low incomes, buying food and clothing from retailers in a race to the bottom on price, supplied by industries paying their workers as little as possible, in appalling conditions, often literally locked in the factory, with inevitable consequences. This choice narrative, much of it coming from perfectly legitimate small food producers, is, at best, flawed. We may be complicit but, for many, it’s a forced complicity. For many. I would suggest that those who are in a position to pay properly for good food and other essentials should do so. This keeps money moving in the economy, instead of transferred to rich shareholders, and may bring prices more within reach of the slightly less affluent, if not the poor.

The smoke-and-mirrors operation continues. They say they want to talk about meat. They say they are going to source all their beef from the UK and Ireland (one of Ireland’s biggest exports is live and dead cow) are going to source all their fresh chickens from the UK.

I hope you spotted that. Fresh chickens. Nothing about the mountains of processed chicken peddled by the chain every year. Tesco insist that they will source chickens from the UK “where practical.” The “fresh” chickens, which they have to label and are predominantly eaten by the affluent, will be traceable. The processed chickens, which they don’t and are consumed by the poor and mixed in with stuff from many different countries, won’t be.

They tell us lesson learned.

But back to that milk. They say they want to talk about meat, and for a while they do. Then they change the subject, to cow-juice. You remember I mentioned that Tesco are going to be paying a whopping 1.58p per litre for milk above the market average (at the time of writing the latest figures were for January, but at 7 gallons of milk per cow per day that comes out at an extremely generous (not) 50p more per cow per day). Now, to be fair, their recent increase (applying to some farmers, but not others) seems to be somewhat above the rate of retail price inflation, and has to do with higher costs, mainly in cattle feed. On the other hand, Farmers for Action thought the whole thing was so misleading they took it to the Advertising Standards Authority.  The price paid might be up, but there is dispute as to whether it’s fair.

Their assurances about working with farmers look like nothing more than waffle. Does this mean working with farmers to cut corners and further drive down standards?

Okay, so the price of cattle feed is going up, at higher than the rate of inflation. This brings us back to the whole problem of the food supply chain. The cows and (some of the) chickens are being raised in the UK. Did you think these were animals happily wandering round on pasture until the day they suddenly aren’t living any more? Think again. Around one third of the world’s grain is fed to livestock. With demand exceeding supply, the price of grain is going up. The cows and chickens might be coming from farmers in the UK and Ireland. The feedstock is another matter: that is part of the supply chain that is conveniently overlooked. There is bluntly no way we can continue to eat this high on the food chain.

In fact, the whole issue of beef production is deeply problematic. Then you have the calf problem. For those of you who drink milk but won’t eat cows, where do you think most of those male calves go? What about the females who have gone past peak milk production (the natural life of a dairy cow is around 15 years; the average life is less than three). There is so little margin in milk that most “dairy” producers stay afloat through byproducts – meat. Most of us, including Tesco, simply are not prepared to examine the consequences of this aspect of food supply.

No, Tesco, I suggest that you have learned nothing. This is no more than a crap poem and a bunch of flowers. You’ve made a few minor tweaks to your supply chain. The rest of your behaviour remains abusive and unsustainable.

Domesticated Abuse: Big Society or Overgrown Bully?

It’s been a while since I did any blogging. I’ve been working on something somewhat longer, but I want to keep up my experience in some of the short forms. I’ve been thinking a great deal about the exigencies of modern capitalism, and I’ve been wondering to what extent we’re stuck in one big abusive relationship.

Now, the last thing I want to do is trivialise the many millions of abusive relationships that people, most of them women, are stuck in around the world. It’s been described as Scotland’s “national shame” (I think we have several of those, but that’s another discussion for another day). A quick internet search on recent news on the subject, probably skewed towards results in the UK, emphasises the severity of the problem in the US (in the face of legislation designed to do something about it that was opposed by several Republicans, most of them white and male: the fact that several women voted with their ideology and against the interests of many women, partly on the basis of an objection to protections for women on reservations, suggests a deeper problem), Northamptonshire (twice), Dorset (twice), New York, Northern Ireland and Manchester. That’s just on the first page.

This is not something to trivialise. It’s something to tackle, head on.

This all emerged from what I’m going to call an effort to tackle my own, we’ll call them insecurities, although that may be being more generous to myself than I deserve. Some of my thinking has left me shocked. It has taken me several days to find the confidence to mark this up and publish it. In some ways I’ve been left with what I hope is a better understanding of both my own situation and that of hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of others.

There is some excellent material available on what constitutes domestic abuse, and why people stay in abusive relationships. Not surprisingly there as been a lot of academic work done on the subject, some of it more impenetrable than the rest. I’m going to concentrate on material that is popularly available, much of it aimed at people themselves living with abuse.

Women’s Aid, the national UK charity dedicated to helping women and children in abusive relationships, has a simple questionnaire dedicated to allowing someone to work out whether or not they are in an abusive relationship. Reading it, I found all sorts of alarm bells going off. Some of those relate to interpersonal relationships. Some of them don’t. Personally, I need to address the first. But there’s also a broader question.

The third question reads: “Does your partner constantly check up on you or follow you?” Now, the world is not short of insecure partners. There is no doubt that this is about enforcing a coercive relationship.

Have you been in a JobCentre lately? Anyone who has faced constant verification of your movements and efforts to “seek gainful employment” will be familiar with someone constantly checking up on them. This article describes how people working in an Amazon warehouse have their productivity constantly monitored and how they have to pass full-body scanners in order to “prevent theft”. That’s nothing compared to the people working in a similar warehouse in the US, worked to exhaustion (complete with paramedics in the car park and a steady stream of replacement parts, sorry, employees, waiting to take their place).

I could go on, but I want to keep this under five thousand words.

Women’s Aid asks, “Does your partner constantly belittle or humiliate you, or regularly criticise or insult you in front of other people?” What about those with the influence in my economic system? I could provide you with some links to the Daily Heil, (and I’m sure I could provide you with links to torture porn were I inclined to go looking for them), but I won’t. Here are some thoughts from The Guardian on the subject.  Here’s The Indy on a similar subject, the reality of strivers and shirkers in the context of unpaid internships, asking what the motive is for employers to pay when labour is now free.

Just how many abused people out here have been accused of laziness by their partner? Demoralised as a result of feeling under-appreciated for hard work, this I understand. I also understand being demoralised through the thankless task of applying for dozens, even hundreds of jobs that prospective employers don’t even have the decency to acknowledge your interest in. Interestingly, the above article also cites an advert for such an internship calling for “unpaid interns to be available for work during all evenings and weekends required and have no other prior personal or professional commitments. Not fulfilling this will end in immediate dismissal.” Women’s Aid also asks “Has your partner tried to keep you from seeing your friends or family?” and “Has your partner prevented you from continuing or starting a college course, or from going to work?” That’s a yes, then.

Just how many abusive relationships are there around here?

“Are you ever afraid of your partner?” Am I afraid of those with the purse strings, who could make me destitute on the basis of an arbitrary decision by a faceless bureaucrat? I live in constant fear of a brown envelope. I’m writing under a pseudonym for a reason. Perhaps more to the point, am I afraid of objecting to the misdeeds of those in power? This is what can happen if you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, never mind actually protesting. Political protest is risky just about anywhere, but some examples of violence are more egregious than others. I’d be even more scared if I lived in some of the countries where hired mercenaries and government troops act in my name.

I’m just giving examples here, of course. I’m going to skip a few characteristics of domestic abuse. I probably shouldn’t, partly because the more people who know what they are the better, and partly because I think the analysis should be complete, and show how we can find examples of just about every characteristic in modern capitalist societies, including the one I live in. That said, people tend to get bored with lengthy exposition.

So we are asked, “Have you ever changed your behaviour because you are afraid of what your partner might do or say to you?” Is it really any secret that the current dominant socio-economic system is backed up by the threat and implementation of violence and embargo? In some cases there is ongoing resistance to this, such as in Cuba. The rest of us tend to conform. I know I’ve changed my behaviour in an effort to simply fit in.

We come to one that is politically current here in the UK. “Has your partner ever kept you short of money so you are unable to buy food and other necessary items for yourself and your children?” Have the capitalists running the country left people without enough money to buy food for themselves and their children? That’s a yesDefinitely.  Much has to do with not complying with conditions based on accusations of being lazy. If someone can’t prove they’ve been looking for work, they and their children end up being punished by having the means to pay for food withheld.

A good many of these people are single parents, often women who have lost (or left, or thrown out, typically for good reasons) a partner. The single parents I know are not lazy: they work themselves into the ground. As for the rest of us, Paul Lazarsfeld and Marie Jahoda showed during the 1930s that unemployment has negative effects on the individual,and that most people would prefer to be working. The fascists, fusing state and corporate power, to paraphrase Mussolini, promptly burned the book. The abusers, of course, would prefer you didn’t know that, for reasons of social control. That’s what the scrounger and shirker narrative is all about.

Then there is the vexed question of the deliberate exploitation of those with irregular immigration status. This link relates to illegal activity, but we have to ask to what extent those being exploited may be being forced into these situations by their underlying economic circumstances. This opens another can of worms, including the sexual exploitation of those without the protection of the state because they happen to have the “wrong”, or no, paperwork. Not all of those lacking the “proper” residency paperwork are trafficked. Not all of those trafficked are sexually exploited, and not all the sexually exploited are trafficked, but the overlap in these groups bears attention in the context of economic abuse and the circumstances that makes people vulnerable to it. As the above link points out, tougher immigration policy makes people more vulnerable to abuse.

This brings us to the question of prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation, and the degree to which those involved are involved from choice or through unavoidable economic or social circumstance.  We have the questions of commodity-money relationships and of adverse socio-economic situations. Only a tiny fraction (less than a quarter of a per cent in the above study) engage in prostitution for their own sexual satisfaction. Delusional males take note. While there are many reasons why women become prostitutes, almost invariably to do with some form of abuse, the cause of prostitution is that some men are willing to buy sex, which is self-evidently also abusive. I’m going to leave the proximate responses to this problem to experts.

I do not accept that there has always been prostitution and that therefore there always will be. This is a logically false premise, legitimising the underlying abusive structures that lead women to a position where they become prostitutes. The notes of Women’s Aid on abusive partners expecting unwanted sexual activity seem reflected and magnified on a societal level. If you remove the proximate causes of poverty and vulnerability, you remove the supply side of the industry. At this point the demand side will be left banging their fists. Ultimately, we need to eradicate the conditions that lead to this form of abuse, and legalisation will not do this any more than legalising the conditions that perpetuate any other forms of abuse will end those – many of those are legal, and are normalised, which is part of my point.

Just who are the abusers, and just how well bonded to others are they? There seems to be a higher incidence of Antisocial Personality Disorder among successful politicians and business leaders. Many more may score more highly on the spectrum than others, simply because of the personal characteristics required to become successful in politics and business. While it may go without saying that this makes many of them antisocial such people show “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others.” DWP employees often feel like grown-up school bullies whose notion of help involves a good emotional kicking, not to mention threats (and implementation) of destitution. They are “just doing their jobs” (the so-called Nuremberg Defence, a simple way of removing any right to engage in moral debate with the rest of us). The fact that they are worried about their jobs gives them no right to take it out on the rest of us, any more than a domestic abuser has any right to take out their situation on a significant other. The requirements of these jobs are based on instructions from politicians that a substantial minority of the population voted for. That doesn’t make it right either.

Meanwhile businesses are lauded for making a profit – whatever the cost to the environment or the rest of us.

I’m of the view that there is an important discussion to be had on the subject of how socio-economic abuse feeds into cycles of domestic abuse, abuse of nonhumans and abuse of the environment and the degree to which it is structural, endemic and even normalised, but this is short-form. There is probably a PhD thesis on the degree to which those who are abused economically become domestic abusers, and whether or not those who abuse through their jobs also abuse at home. I say degree, because finding a control group for direct comparison might be tricky.

None of this, it must be emphasised, excuses or legitimises the actions of abusers, although it might go some way to explaining them. Blaming others, or alcohol, is a common strategy used by abusers to legitimise their behaviour.

To what extent are we all abusers? Domestic abuse is rightly regarded as unacceptable behaviour, although it’s frighteningly common, and certainly under-reported. State and corporate coercion is normalised, and much of that is done in our names, often with our tacit support, with some of the most egregious examples going poorly reported in other countries – often poor ones, often with equally corrupt and abusive governments. In other words, if you are in a position to be reading this, then you are probably colluding with those responsible for the complex chain of resource extraction and manufacture that almost certainly involves abuse somewhere down the line.

So why do we put up with it? At least one of my friends argues that “they” (for which read those in power, both political and economic – a set with a lot of overlap) are keeping enough of us just comfortable enough, backed up by a few promises of the rewards if we work hard enough, that we won’t revolt. I suspect there is at least some truth in this, but Hidden Hurt provides a summary of our current understanding of why abused people stay in such relationships. The parallels are frightening.

The one that turned my head over relates to how victims of abuse end up blaming themselves. According to Hidden Hurt, “we somehow buy into the myth that the abuse is really our fault, that we somehow provoked it, deserved it, or are otherwise responsible for it. Most abusers shift the blame onto their victim.” Yes, and then some.

Even when there are a dozen or more people just on Jobseeker’s Allowance (never mind looking for a second or third part-time job just to make ends meet or who otherwise can’t or won’t claim) for every available job, those of us who can’t find a job still get the blame, buying in to the fantasy that all it takes is hard work and determination: that, after all, is how the people on top of the heap got where they are.

I have a strong suspicion that most of them got there due to pre-existing advantages  (being born into the “right” family helps), a certain amount of luck, and ruthless exploitation of the natural environment and anything else they could get their claws into or kick down on the way up. I leave it to the reader to decide which of their own political and economic leaders got to where they are by hard work, and which got there by dint of their dubious parentage (how did their parents get to the top?), being smarmy, mendacious bastards, and not caring who else got hurt on their way to the top.

I’ve spent many long hours trying not to blame myself. If I hurt someone else – yes, I’m responsible. I’m responsible for my own acts of abuse and have a responsibility to do something about them and, yes, that’s harder than it sounds. The first stage is acknowledging that most of us are abusers to one degree or another. The second is working out what we can do about it.

I’m responsible for the failings of the economic system if I don’t speak out them.

Consider me speaking.

I suspect that the question of blaming oneself may be related to traumatic bonding. One of the beliefs of the established system is that my position is my fault for being incompetent, lazy and so forth. How did I come to believe this in the face of the evidence? In cases where the abuser is also the means for basic means of survival (through social security, or what they persist in calling “welfare” – a deliberately derogatory term – or through a basic wage) the victim may come to identify with the abuser’s worldview. This is traumatic bonding.

Then we come to identify with other aspects of this worldview, about how “growth” and “competition”, even “the market” are inherently good, again in the face of basic reason. These things cannot be good when they lead to our own exploitation, and that of others and the natural environment.

Of course, this financial security is one reason we stay. The opportunities for most of us, beyond those with the right mentality for going into business for ourselves (which may turn us into abusers, especially when we start employing people), for alternative employment, or even access to the resources required for survival outside the abusive system, are extremely limited. In effect, those in control have enclosed the land and the labour market. This is particularly the case for those for those of us with children, or physical or mental health problems.

Meanwhile we are told that “they” are rich because they worked hard and therefore deserve it. The rest of us therefore deserve to be poor. Many of us have internalised this view. No, they are rich because they have bullied and exploited. Being generous, they need help.

We may also have internalised the notion of the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Even New Labour is buying into this, betraying the rest of us. To put it another way, those “deserving” are those who co-operated in their own exploitation, whether in working for minimal wages for an employer or submitting to the ministrations of a DWP bully.

There is an element of shame, too. I know that I have a sense of not wanting to give up. To use an extreme example, even my staying alive, and not doing what I have felt is the “decent” thing to do and jump off a cliff or a bridge (I most recently found myself facing this urge last week) is a desire not to give up. Continuing to live is a matter of spitting in the eye of David Cameron and DWP-ATOS. Even my GP asked if staying alive was not a suitable act of defiance.

Then again, perhaps this is a reflection of abuse. Am I abusing others by expressing a wish to end it all? There is no doubt I want it all to stop, but “threats” of suicide (how can it be a threat when nobody wants you around anyway?) can, it seems, be a form of abusive behaviour. Then again, that level of self-hatred can be a reflection of being on either side of it – or both, since that’s part of the cycle of abuse. Between the feeling of having no place in society, the deserved isolation and the people I’ve hurt, I have plenty of reasons to hate myself. Has my own experience of abuse led me to become a perpetrator? It would fit the data.

The fact that I have got to this point suggests that I have lost most of my hope, but the fact that I haven’t followed it through suggests there is still some there. People in domestic abuse situations often try to persuade themselves that it might get better, knowing rationally that it rarely does.

It’s difficult to work out to what extent addressing the problem of domestic abuse relates to the socio-economic question of abuse. The former mostly seems to have to do with getting out and having the support to stay out.

To what extent, then, can we get out of the current abusive socio-economic system and stay out, and deal with the inevitable attempts at repression?

This may prove to be about hanging together so that we don’t hang separately. I’m dubious of the guy round the corner, the one called socialism. He seems to have a good record on some aspects of social egalitarianism, but he’s also got a record of some other unacceptable behaviour, not to mention a sometimes dubious environmental reputation: Venezuela is its region’s top carbon emitter. A socialist oil man is still an oil man. I care what he did with the proceeds. Mother Nature won’t. This may, to move away from our metaphor, have to do with individual personalities – with Pol Pot or Stalin – more than something inherent to socialism.

I’m not sure I want to take the risk. Those on the top of the crap-heap that is capitalism need to come home to find us, and a rucksack full of our stuff, missing. Going round the corner may not be the best idea either. Plenty of abused people have gone from one abusive relationship to another.

There is no doubt that there needs to be systematic support and refuge for everyone in domestic abuse situations (not just women, although women and children are without doubt the most vulnerable). There also needs to be more help available for abusers to make changes in their perceptions and behaviour. In the UK the one openly available service links to a phone line rather than directly to meaningful support for change, although there is a source of useful information (I find Blain’s work interesting and frightening, because it shows how I’ve been on both sides of the abuse fence, which I suppose is what got me started on this question) and an online course, which I don’t yet know enough about to recommend or otherwise, but is almost certainly better than the alternative (very little). The Alternatives to Violence Project works with around 500 people a year in the UK, many of them in prisons. It’s worth asking for a concession, but it’s a drop in the ocean, and probably does little to combat socio-economic abuse. Locally, there is help for victims, but not for perpetrators who wish to regain control of their unacceptable behaviour. Of course, abuse by the system is culturally normalised. There is almost no recognition that there is even a problem.

This is not enough, especially when support services are being slashed  under an artificial “recession”, being used by the already rich to profit further, and worsen the exploitation of the rest of us. Support for abusers to change has always been, at best, patchy. In short, there may be more than parallels between domestic abuse and socio-economic abuse: there may be links.

Are others safe from me at the moment? Well, I’m single, and there are no prospects for that changing. Am I safe from others? In terms of domestic abuse, probably, for the same reason. There is something else I do find very frightening, however, and this is the fact that there is a very strong instinctive drive for intimate connection with another person. I’m trying to resist that until I can work out my own insecurities, which may not even be possible. I am of the view that it is better for me to die alone than for me to inflict myself on others (or, more pertinently, a significant other). I have a grip on this, trying not to get too close to anyone else. I have no idea what proportion of others might succumb to that urge.

In terms of economic abuse, that’s another matter. I have an (untreated, thanks to the cuts) mental health problem, which means I join the ranks of others in a similar situation in being a target for government-sponsored dehumanisation and forced labour.

Individuals who deal with domestic abuse often stay because they have no other option, because there are no alternatives. That said, there are growing women’s movements around the world showing how they will no longer, collectively, put up with it. There is evidence that declines in domestic violence are linked to the existence of improved services for women and improvements in the socio-economic status of women. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that these are directly related to the existence of active women’s movements. Us blokes might benefit from the same, and we might all benefit from an increased sense of socio-economic security. We won’t get that from the abusers without a fight.

The answer in terms of socio-economic abuse may be similar. We, collectively, need to stand up and say that we will no longer accept the present situation. We need to declare that just because one group who work for minimal pay are being abused does not legitimise the abuse of those for whom there are no jobs or those who cannot work (or will not be employed: let’s be honest here, a declaration by an ATOS “doctor” (they are not doctors: doctors help heal the sick; ATOS employees just declare that they are not sick) that one is “fit for work” is a long way from an employer agreeing with that assertion). We need to declare that all abuse is unacceptable.

The alternatives may lie in systematic development of alternative economic modalities – in fair trade, co-operatives, mutuals and so on. These are not immune to abuse, but abuse is harder to perpetuate in less hierarchical systems. As the results of the study cited in this article show, a guaranteed income removes many of the circumstances that lead to poverty. There was also a drop in hospital visits as a result of domestic abuse during the course of this project. Mental health improved too. There will be those who object that this removes the incentive to work, but the above paper, backed up by the work of Marie Jahoda indicates this view is blatantly counter-factual, if not deliberate manipulation by the exploiting groups. In the (suppressed) Dauphin study, employment levels dropped in two groups. These were new mothers, who preferred to look after the children, and teenagers, who preferred to study. I have a problem with anyone who has an issue with this. This is about living in a mutually supportive community.

There is, then, hope. Victim support services are a vital sticking plaster while we deal with the underlying causes, but they remain a sticking plaster. It is also too simplistic to simply blame the abusers for their behaviour. It’s easier to insist that the abuser is simply inherently mad or bad, but this doesn’t address the problem. Ending the problem of both domestic and socio-economic abuse, two sides of the same coin, will involve radical structural change.

Seven billion rising.











Postcapitalism: A global perspective is needed.

Another revolutionary intellectual in a somewhat different revolution once observed that the true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love. I might disagree with some of El Che’s methods, and I might disagree with some of his ultimate conclusions (in the sense that I do not agree that the solution to our current crisis lies in violent revolution, or in a relatively extreme form of Socialism), but here is what it says about Ernesto Guevara in his biography on Wikipedia:

 “Guevara travel(l)ed throughout Latin America and was radically transformed by the endemic poverty and alienation he witnessed. His experiences and observations during these trips led him to conclude that the region’s ingrained economic inequalities were an intrinsic result of capitalism, monopolism, neocolonialism, and imperialism, with the only remedy being world (my emphasis) revolution.”

Well, aside from the fact that my direct experiences do not come from Latin America, there’s no argument from me. My analysis is not a Marxist-Leninist one, but I do think the native peoples, in particular, of Latin America and elsewhere do have things they can teach us, and this is a subject for later entries.

As those close to me have noted, however, I seem to be motivated more by great feelings of a quite different emotion: anger. The observation is not, I admit, unfair. Anger is not, at least in my society, seen as a particularly positive emotion. On the other hand, I have to ask myself what the origins of that anger might be.

I suggest that the problem lies in that I see acts of injustice against that which I love. This leads to what some friends have described as a “righteous anger”

We tend to love that which we feel some sort of affinity to. Initially, for most of us, that begins with family, including eventually a partner with whom we may or may not have children. That said, there is, if you like, a hierarchy of acceptance. There is a saying, usually attributed to the Bedouin, to the effect of “I against my brother, my brothers and I against my cousins, then my cousins and I against strangers”.

At what point, then, does one cease to be a stranger? The people in the next town? Glaswegians? English? Continental Europeans? Asians? Chimpanzees? Birds? Reptiles? Cockroaches? Slime moulds? Tory politicians? Bankers?

These individuals all grade into degrees of “strangeness”. Please do not think that this hierarchy of difference is a hierarchy of badness. Birds, and of themselves, are not bad, just more different than chimpanzees. The social and political systems of parts of south-east Asia may be “strange” but, where nobody is getting hurt, they’re not bad. I may have more in common with some individual Asians than I do with many born-and-bred Scots. All the above groups (except possibly the last two) have their place in the scheme of things. I may have more in common with a cockroach than a slime mould, (and have more in common with a slime mould than with David Cameron) but I don’t hate slime moulds. I love (in a platonic sense) birds, so how can I hate Asians, or English, or Glaswegians?

In that, I disagree with what appears to be a conflict-driven philosophy among some Bedouin.

This leads to an element of confusion. Some individuals in these groups (and others) are responsible for harming other individuals (and groups) that I love. The problem is to avoid category errors. For instance, one could state that David Cameron is a racist. To then state that David Cameron is English, and that therefore all English are racists (or all racists are English) is to make a category error, not to mention to state a fallacy.

The only way to reconcile this confusion is to strip the categories and bring it down to cases. Now, when I’m angry I’m as prone to making category errors as the next person, and rail against another group the racist may be a member of, when I should be railing against the racists.

My next problem, as one of my previous posts showed, lies in alienation. I like (even love) native forests, but I feel alienated from much of my own species. That’s not to say that I hate all, even most, of them. It simply means I feel alienated from many of them, simply because they harm other beings that I love. I also feel anger towards them.

Can these feelings be made consistent? Alienation from those who harm that which I love, even anger towards them, seems to me to be a natural response, even a driving force behind (hopefully peaceful) revolution. It might even be argued that the greater the feelings of love, the greater the feelings of anger. The problem for the social revolutionary becomes that of ensuring that the hate does not become all consuming, but can be directed towards peaceful change for the benefit of all.

The other problem becomes that of ascertaining how far one can go with one’s acceptance of that which is “other” into that which one loves, even into a recognition of the blurred boundaries between that which is self and that which is other. This must be a matter for the direct experience of the individual. The great thinkers on Nature of the nineteenth century, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, amongst others, recognised the need of the individual to understand his environment as an individual (as did Che, come to that). An expanded awareness that will recognise the value of all life requires that individual spiritual component – not necessarily a religious one, but one based on a personal experience of that-which-is-like-me, or at least that-which-I-can-come-to-love.

Without that change in perception we, as a species, will remain in a position where it is morally acceptable to exploit that-which-is-other. Such a change would, ultimately, become consistent with Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic (“a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”). Leopold’s biotic community would include humans as no more important, or less important, than other parts of that community. A revolutionary movement would then oppose that which tends otherwise (and, let’s face it, the activity of global capitalism inherently tends otherwise!).

This biocentric philosophy is not new. Many better philosophers than I have worked on the problem: people like Arne Næss, Bill Devall and George Sessions are merely among he most prominent examples, but it’s probably the best we’ve got in terms of ensuring not just a future for humanity, and our assumption of sovereignty over the land and the living things that depend upon it. It should not be said, however, that this analysis is one based on pure Deep Ecology. My perspective is not as Malthusian as I sometimes feel, just for a start.

It needs to be noted, for instance, that many of those most disadvantaged by the existing globalised socio-economic system lie outside those countries where the protests are happening – far beyond the reach of any media, often illiterate, and getting on with the day-to-day problems of providing enough food for themselves and their families.

It is not enough, then, for the global Occupy movement to concern itself only with demands on a national basis – for the IMF to get out of Ireland, for the City of London to become more accountable, for laws against the loophole that permits members of the US Congress to pass legislation involving those corporations in which they are investors, or even for a global Tobin Tax on financial transactions. These are necessary steps, but in no way are they sufficient if we are to build a global society where everything in Nature – including all humans – are valued.

There is, to be fair, a recognition of some of this among some individuals in, or supporting, the global Occupy movement. My humble request is for it to be given greater consideration.




A post-capitalist society must be a diverse society

A few days ago I wrote on the subject of neurodiversity. Regrettably I’m still stuck in a position where spending a great deal of time around an Occupy camp is difficult, so I thought I’d use my time to present some more thoughts for others to talk about and thrash out around a camp in the evenings. I’m holed up in one of my favourite coffee shops in Edinburgh, trying to write and not watch the world go by. I’ve been thinking about mimetic diversity, in the face of two semi-conflicting views of how the world should work. I want to show how a set of diverse cultural and social models tied more or less loosely into a global network could work to the advantage of our species and the natural world. This is informed by my understanding of ecology

A couple of days ago, I was reading some news about the latest idiotic racist idea to come out of the Tory government in London. For many years the Indian takeaway (typically a modern fusion of Bangladeshi and Punjabi cuisine and Western Expectations) has been by far the most popular takeaway food in the UK. The racists in the Tory party have come up with the not-so-smart idea of training a few Whites (sic) in the simple art of Indian cuisine and then throwing out all the immigrants. It’s a classic example of tabloid sheepthink: the ongoing drive towards socio-cultural homogeneity on the basis that what you know is what is most comfortable. I have visions of a chain of Pukka Pickles restaurants springing up like a Starbucks infestation. Please tell me I’m wrong, with evidence.

The fact that a 2009 study by the London School of Economics, an institution not known for its radical politics, showed that regularising the status of the irregular residents of London alone would benefit the economy to the tune of around three billion pounds was, naturally, lost on those politicians who write policy on the basis of Hate Mail editorial, but that’s not the point.  Nor is the point that the creation of decent Indian food takes practice and years of experience. The point is the loss of diversity.

I will admit to an element of bias here. I like places where I can spend a fortnight sampling a different cuisine for every meal. I’m also a bit of a culture vulture. I like variety. I despise chains of shops and eateries (few deserve the sobriquet of restaurant), producing the same unimaginative rubbish over and over again. Places where I see the same colour faces and hear the same language over and over again might be interesting to visit, even immerse myself in for weeks or months, but they eventually become as boring as a sitka spruce plantation.

That said, let me draw an analogy. As any biologist or naturalist will tell you, any drop in diversity in a habitat threatens the entire ecosystem. In part, this is because natural ecosystems are comprised of complex webs of interdependent relationships, which I admit is a strained analogy in the utterly unnatural environments that are modern urban areas. In part this is because any loss of diversity reduces resistance to external threats such as disease.

Modern human societies face all kinds of threats, of which disease is only one. Modern consumerism might be likened to a monoculture plantation with occasional patches of semi-isolated semi-natural habitat of individuals and groups who think differently from the “norm” and the kind of independent coffee shop I’m sitting in.

What happens when it becomes clear that there is something wrong in a monoculture? In all likelihood, the whole thing is liable to collapse. Natural succession means that new species will eventually move in and the ecosystem will recover, often in a different form. In conservation management we talk about climax communities – the natural “final” stage of succession where the ecosystem will become more or less stable, assuming there are no external influences. Here in Scotland, that is mostly Scots pine – birch forest, with pine dominating in dryer areas, birch in damper ones, with scatterings of other trees, such as oak, holly, hazel, rowan and alder in the canopy, with shrub and herb layers below, supporting a diverse range of fauna much of which, like the European beaver and the wolf, we have lost to human policies of extermination.

That said, no ecosystem is static. By definition, all ecosystems are dynamic. They change over time, and the life forms change with them. This is one key to evolution. On relatively rare occasions this process accelerates as a result of pressure: many species go extinct, sometimes even the dominant orders, and there is a flowering of new species evolving to fill the empty niches. Perhaps the best known of these periods occurred around 65 million years ago, when a large asteroid struck the Earth just off the coast of what is now Mexico.*

A similar, but less well known, extinction event is the Holocene event, now extending into the Late Anthropocene extinction. I, like others, talk about the Late Anthropocene for the simple reason that if we don’t get our collective act together we may well go the same way as the passenger pigeon and the thousands of other species that we’re responsible for wiping out.**

There is a part of me that would regard human extinction, preferably sooner rather than later, as no bad thing. The part of me that tries to be more optimistic regards conscious human activity to restore ecosystems as a better solution all round, although from the perspective of other life on this planet I find that hard to defend.

More pragmatically, I know that seven billion humans won’t go quietly so, regardless of my opinions, we need another idea.

My position, on that basis, is that the key has to be diversity. This diversity includes diversity of species, diversity among our own species, and diversity of ideas. In such circumstances, racism as practised by the Tory Party is not just morally wrong in that it harms its victims: it’s also incredibly stupid.

I will begin with some observations on species. I doubt many of my readers will need to have it pointed out to them that the healthiest ecosystems tend to be the most diverse ones. The value of a diverse ecosystem, both extrinsically and intrinsically, has been so widely written about that it probably does not require repetition. A background rate of extinction is perfectly normal, as is a background rate of speciation. According to the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium, these processes sometimes accelerate under environmental pressure. If so, we would expect to see increased speciation as a consequence of the pressures causing the current extinction event.

Something does need to be said about anthropocentrism: the view, often unstated, that everything else in the world exists for human needs and purposes. The view is common in some religions (notably but not exclusively Judeo-Christian ones), and is a prima facie assumption of capitalist economic philosophy. If one takes an anthropocentric viewpoint, diversity is valuable on the basis of the resources it can produce and the potential for a fallback position in the face of population collapse or extinction of, for example, economically valuable fish supplies. Given the number of valuable medicines that have already been extracted from living things, mainly plants, loss of biodiversity will almost certainly impact negatively upon our species.

Needless to say, I do not share this anthropocentric philosophy, but I think the point needs to be made in case you, the reader, hold such a view, which I regard as disturbingly common. My own view is that living things, and ecosystems, exist for themselves, and have no purpose beyond their own existence (this also, obviously, applies to humans, which is about the only reason for me not to advocate our extinction). In this I’m unashamedly biocentric, at least philosophically.

Either way, biodiversity is a good thing!

Diversity among our own species is a little more complex. There is an important critique of human activity that suggests that the deliberate or accidental introduction of species from completely different ecosystems creates a tendency towards homogeneity (frequently an impoverished homogeneity as invasive species with no natural pests or predators outcompete domestic ones). In the case of human migration a balance needs to be struck and, at the moment, we’re getting it very, very wrong.

From the time that early humans left Africa, and possibly before, our species has migrated. It has not always been a happy story. The other hominid species are all now extinct, as are many other species that our ancestors came into contact with, many as a result of hunting or habitat change that was a direct result of human activity. I have a t-shirt that depicts several Native Americans with rifles over the slogan “Fighting terrorism since 1492”, exemplifying the activity of invasive colonial cultures.

On the other hand, there is an important difference between invasive activity and migration. Migration is driven by various factors, and invasion is only one of them. I need to mention the ongoing disgrace that is slavery, but I plan to write separately on that subject. Then there is the migratory activity that is caused by scarcity of resources.

Until as late as the middle of the twentieth century, much migration was deliberately colonial. Several European powers built what were openly empires in order to plunder resources, often enslaving both native peoples and others whom they could ship to work in their respective colonies. Even without modern migration, the result would now be an interesting patchwork of cultures. The dominant language of much of South America is now Spanish (and the dominant language of much of the rest of it is Portuguese), along with patches of English, Dutch, French, Hindi, Urdu, Cantonese and assorted other languages from south-east Asia and Africa, along with dozens of odd creole dialects.

Expatriates from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia will often speak Spanish in favour of Quechua or Aymara, even if those are their native languages, simply because the colonial language has higher status. The United States has a high proportion of people of African origin, many the descendants of slaves. Their disproportionate numbers in American jails (and on Death Row) is clear evidence of an ongoing racism problem from the dominant culture, which is primarily composed of descendants of European colonists. The native inhabitants largely live in apartheid conditions on “reservations”.

I could go on, but that would change this from blog to rant, which is always tempting, but not a good idea!

As any progressive understands, colonialism did not end with the collapse of the British Empire. It was reborn under another name: the growth of international market capitalism. It may be unfair to skip over Proxy War (better but more erroneously known as the Cold War), which ended with hegemonic power shared between two, later one, superpowers. This morphed from political dominance to one of transnational corporations,*** as these corporations, some with turnovers greater than the GDP of some sovereign countries, found they could strip resources with quasi-legal backing and, sometimes, the support of state military/police apparatus or mercenary companies such as Blackwater.

What does this have to do with migration?

I’m coming to that.

Following the plundered resources, many people from the places stripped by these companies, or fleeing conflict triggered by these companies, are now seeking somewhere safer, bringing culture and ideas with them, to be faced with xenophobia.

With them, they bring not only genetic diversity, but cultural diversity. The response of the establishment in many wealthy countries follows one, or a combination, of two strands. The first is expulsion. The second is a form of “integration” that involves enforced assimilation, Borg-style, into the dominant culture. Meanwhile, the people of many developing nations feel that in order to be “developed” they need to reproduce the same behaviour seen in “developed” nations. I found this in India, attempting to adopt a western capitalist model, down to American-style malls (complete with branches of American retailers and “restrooms”: I kid you not). Of course, since all westerners smoke, they have to smoke as well. I even ran across the notion that to be more developed, and therefore more western, you have to be more white. Skin bleaching agents are a big industry (this is not helped by pale skin having had higher status in India for some time, but such nasty chemicals are not just sold to Indians). Needless to say, I headed for Aminabad bazaar to practice my Hindi and find some decent food!

The consequence of this is a form of homogenised monoculture, which does nobody any favours. At one level, we lose the cultural distinctiveness that comes from India being India, and Indians here being Indians. Worse, Tory policy is to take the modified “Indian” cuisine (actually more often a combination of Punjabi and Bangladeshi, modified for western palates), train westerners to make it, and sling out the Indians (and Bangladeshis, Punjabis and anyone else whose skin isn’t white enough), thus losing the great cultural diversity they brought with them.

Let me go back to my analogy. In nature, a population is more likely to survive unexpected pressures if it is diverse. Culturally speaking, a population with diverse backgrounds may find it easier to adopt a good idea from one of those cultures if the existing model begins to fail.

Certain groups of humans may also have greater immunity to certain diseases, as the catastrophic consequences of peoples in the Americas coming into contact with diseases such as smallpox, and the similar, (if ultimately less serious) consequences of Europeans coming into contact with yellow fever showed. For many years the West Indian Station provided junior Royal Navy officers with excellent opportunities for promotion, assuming they didn’t wind up in an early grave. A moderate level of exogamy may help buffer populations in the future from emerging diseases.

Some might not unreasonably argue that wiping out a few billion humans might not be too bad an idea, but I’d rather we did that voluntarily, not as a result of plague!

At present the world faces a crisis from the blatant failure of the dominant paradigm to cater for the needs of vast numbers of our own species, at the additional expense of massive damage to natural ecosystems. Other models are desperately needed, which is, of course, part of what the global Occupy movement is all about. One solution may come from individuals able to think creatively. That said, much of my own creativity comes from contacts with other cultures, from people from Kuala Lumpur, to Kanpur, to Prague, to Dublin, to the high Andes. If I can’t live among them, finding them living among us must come a close second.

Such an alternative model could provide the intellectual stimulus we need to halt, even reverse, the catastrophic damage already done by the culturally invasive paradigm that is western capitalism. Our social ecosystems need to change in response to internal threat – namely their own contradictions. Diversity may be key to that change. Monocultural business as usual just won’t cut it.

A point to think about is the notion that a more equitable global society might see less migration, leading to less diverse societies when looked at locally or regionally, although rates of diversity at a global level might start to rise again as cultures regain their confidence to experiment.

Regardless, xenophobia is of benefit, and then only in the short term, to the one per cent. The rest of us cannot afford it. Of course, we might get lucky: a freak disease might wipe out the inbred toffs, their immune systems compromised by overconsumption. We can hope, I suppose.


*The pedant will observe quite properly that the cause-effect relationship of the asteroid impact at the K-T Boundary and the mass extinction event that occurred around the same time remains disputed, and that the ecosystems that supported the non-avian dinosaurs and the other 65% of all species on the planet that went extinct around the same time may have been in trouble before the Chicxulub event. The final phase of extinction may not have occurred until anything up to about 300,000 years later, with possibly a series of asteroid impact events and volcanic activity around the Deccan Traps in what is now India perhaps having a greater influence. The point is that environmental stress caused an extinction event, and the Chicxulub impact event is the best known stressor involved.

** Scientifically, this is not a particularly popular position. Most earth scientist simply grade the Holocene event into one long, ongoing, phase of extinction. In some ways, this makes sense, as the slightly-higher-than-background rate of extinction has been going on for some time. My argument is that the rate of extinction occurring now has accelerated and has additional causes compared to the rest of the Holocene, and therefore requires separate treatment and a distinct definition, although drawing a clear boundary is extremely difficult. I would date it from the point that the rate of extinction began to accelerate as a consequence of human activity, although the date of this is disputed. The whole concept probably makes more sense from the perspective of ecologists than from that of geologists, but is under examination by working groups of various geological societies. In terms of geology, dating the period from the start of the Industrial Revolution might make more sense, but anthropogenic extinctions were taking place well before this time.

*** These had, of course, been around for some time, in the forms of institutions like the Hudson’s Bay Company, the VOIC (Dutch East India Company), the East India Company and the Royal African Company.

Occupy for a more compassionate society

This is my latest contribution to some thoughts on parts of the agenda of the Occupy movement, and some thoughts for how a better socio-economic system might work. This entry was written in relation to an interesting article published in New Scientist magazine.

The link to the relevant article is here:, but it’s about to end up behind a paywall, so I’ll summarise.

The idea, published in the Cambridge Archaeology Journal (Vol 19, p179), is that what our society calls mental illness is the origin of technological development. About 2.6 million years ago, the first stone tools appeared. For most of the time that followed that, we muddled along with primitive scrapers and hand axes. About 100,000 years ago, there was a revolution in tool use – the first spears, throwing sticks, bows and arrows and so on appeared.

The view of archaeologist Penny Spikins (University of York) is that at some point humans developed compassion, and people with alternative, perhaps more creative mindsets, came to be tolerated. For reasons I’ll come to, I don’t fully agree with her, but the consequences are much the same. People with what we call autism, as well as other mental “disorders” were able to become creative in their societies, allowing the members of those societies to out-compete other species, including other hominids.

This may not have been a great thing in the long run – the other hominid species are now all extinct – but the point is that this enabled Homo sapiens to be the successful species it is today.

I differ from Spikins on one point. She is of the view that our species “began to develop very complex emotions such as compassion, gratitude and admiration”. With some hesitancy, I’ll accept the latter two, but I’ve seen too much evidence of some of those same humans wanting to be able to identify autistic genes, for example, in utero, with only one obvious motive.


That’s not what I call compassion. I could go on.

Interestingly, the genes that cause many of these disorders first appeared at the same time that these technological advances began to occur. Of course, anyone who has studied logic will tell you that post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) is a fallacy. That said, these are the same genes that code for the ability to think outside the box, and to be able to reason through a complex problem and keep obsessively tinkering with it until it works.

At the same time we see a burst of artistic creativity. Our ancestors began making beads and creating simple musical instruments. Thirty-five thousand years ago they were working on realistic cave paintings oddly similar to those produced by those autistics with the coordination and demand for precision to create the same forms today.

Modern gatherer-hunter societies have shamans – with what would look like bipolar disorder if they lived anywhere else – creating more abstract art, also seen in cave paintings, and going into trances (and sometimes hearing voices) that seem consistent with what we call schizophrenia. These are the people binding their cultures together.

Of course, in modern societies there is evidence that these disorders are associated with a reduction in reproductive fitness. There are all kinds of problems with dealing with just about anything in the DSM. Part of the definition for many of them includes words to the effect that “the disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

Does that say more about us, or does that say more about our societies?

I would argue it says more about our societies. I present two pieces of evidence. The first is the gene responsible for the serotonin transporter protein, SERT, which is involved in the regulation of mood. Everyone has a pair of these genes, but they can be the short version, or the long one. If you have two copies of the long version, you seem to be immune to extreme low mood. I probably have at least one short copy.

The short version also confers an advantage. It increases emotional responsivity. In a stressful environment, those with one or two copies of this version of the gene tend to end up more vulnerable to depression. In a more nurturing one, we can be highly successful. Here’s something else. There is one other species that shares this trait with the SERT genes: the rhesus monkey. We are both are highly successful species able to exploit a range of ecological niches.

Similarly, you have the gene that codes for the D4 dopamine receptor, DRD4-7R . This gene is linked to high physical energy levels and hyperactivity – which is pathologised in western societies, but very useful in others.

The second piece of evidence is the existence of clusters. The DRD4-7R gene clusters in several indigenous Amazonian cultures (although several have wisely resisted genetic testing, but that’s for another blog). There are clusters of Asperger syndrome. We know of definite clusters around Oxford, Cambridge and Eindhoven: the first two are major intellectual centres; the third a technological hub, and in Silicon Valley in California, where much of the work is done on IT development. These are places where lots of geeks (many of them high-functioning autistics) come to work, and ultimately to meet each other, mate, and have more high-functioning autistic offspring.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point. What we pathologise as mental illness confers a benefit at an individual and species level. These genes became widespread in our societies partly because they are often recessive (or only express in certain circumstances) and partly because they confer a specific evolutionary advantage. It’s all very well competing for a mate among those big thugs with the big spears.

Alternatively, you can mate with the one who worked out that smart new point that makes the spear stay in the animal after it was thrown using the throwing stick he also made. You can mate with the one who is cussed enough to make sure he comes home with food long after the others have given in to a hungry night’s sleep. You can mate with the one who build that really interesting oven thing, and rewards you with the choicest bits that come out of it. He might be quiet, but he’s not a loudmouth round the campfire. He’s probably working out how to get at those berries you couldn’t quite reach. He’s also downright imaginative in, well, anyway…. You wouldn’t believe what he … yes … well….

Or you can mate with the shaman, who knows all about getting rid of those nasty evil spirits that made you sick, and even talks to the Gods….

That, people, is an evolutionary and reproductive advantage.

The latter might be straining things just a little, at least in modern societies, but the point remains. These people have different ways of seeing the world, have different insights, and can be an asset to our species.

So, what do we need?

It’s a bit difficult to answer that question generally, because everyone’s needs are different, but I have, in some ways, already done so. We need a nurturing environment. We get pathological not because we have these genes, but because we are deprived of a nurturing environment when not being able to play with the other children is pathologised. We get pathological when we are told that we aren’t good enough for the job because the other person is a “better team player”.

Depression is, in its broadest sense, a dis-ease. Asperger syndrome is not a disease. Arguably the same can be said for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder – probably vast chunks of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual should go the way of the entry on homosexuality (removed in 1973 after the neurotypicals who wrote it finally realised that it’s a natural expression of sexuality, long after those with decent executive functioning in their frontal cortex had shrugged their shoulders and accepted their gay friends).

Mind you, there must be someone on that team who is a really extreme systematiser. That’s a thousand pages of complexity. That’s no job for a neurotypical, any more than designing a microprocessor or debugging software (or working out the Theory of Gravity, or General Relativity, or Natural Selection).

So, what constitutes a “nurturing environment”. Well, I suppose an end to parents demanding a “cure” might help. When I hear that I get close to having an Eric Lensherr moment (you know, the bit about, “They wish to cure us. But I say to you we are the cure! The cure for that infirm, imperfect condition called Homo sapiens!”). Demanding a “cure” tells us that there is something wrong with us: that we’re not wanted unless we fit your expectations of who we “ought” to be.

So, let’s play nicely, shall we? You have your assets; we have ours. Lots of us are working in science and technology. Some of us are artists. We’re the creative ones, who come up with new ideas, and understand complex systems. Me, I like ecosystems; the more complex the better. I’ve temporarily abjured my birds, bees and butterflies to think about how to build a decent post-capitalist society: one that will not only respect ecosystems but function as one, and I don’t mean the constant march towards a socio-economic monoculture that we see today.

Some of us work really well in universities, or in high-tech industries. Good stuff. I wasn’t so lucky. A knowledge of high technology is not one of my obsessions. I kept applying for jobs, and kept getting rejected, and kept having the Department for Social Insecurity giving me no end of hassle, until I broke down and wound up in the local mental hospital with massive slashes down my wrists.

That is not a nurturing environment: that is institutionalised bullying.

I don’t want to be “cured”, even if I thought it were possible. Yes, there are disadvantages. On the other hand, there are definite benefits. I’ll settle for being different. Now, I despise eugenics, but I recognise that the Hate Mail, the Tories and some of the parent-led groups do not. If you want to be pragmatic about it, crushing neurodiversity is a good way for everyone to lose. If someone were to develop a cure the establishment would be able to say to the rest of us that it would not support us in any way, because it would then be our fault that we are the way we are for not accepting the cure. Such a cure might not be compulsory, but the neurotypicals could, and in my experience would, make it very hard to reject it. Conform or else is a common refrain from governments and societies. Everyone then loses our assets.

If someone develops a way of identifying mental disorders in utero, many parents would opt to abort, rather than having a child who is “different”, with similar consequences.

The way I see it I have two options. I can allow myself to be marginalised and isolated, and try to make my way in a world that really doesn’t understand me (and I don’t really understand it, but what I do think I understand is not very pleasant). Alternatively you, or rather we, as a species, can give everyone the nurturing environment we need to actually achieve something.

In today’s society that would not actually be that difficult. You put us on the basic stipend given to all those who need care and mobility attention (in the UK, that”s what the Disability Living Allowance is all about), and help us to get jobs. That’s help, not victimise if the employers keep demanding team players. We’re crap in teams, and would last a fast three seconds in sales. Deal with it! At present we get negative psychological and life outcomes because we are dumped in your stressful, even hostile, environment.

At the same time, if we come up with a project, however bonkers, you set a fund aside to pay for it. I’m talking about a few hundred quid for any given project (that’s all I need for the one I want to work on after I fix your broken society!). For years people wondered what the point of all this work on electricity was all about. I can see Ugghh and his pals trying to suss out what that stick with the spear is for: it’ll never work (now even my friend’s dog has a throwing stick). Even if one in ten of these bonkers ideas comes up with a useful result, that’s still a much better investment than making us go and stack shelves in a supermarket for benefits, which is what the Hate Mail readers want, or sit rotting in our rooms, which is what nobody wants.

In the UK the National Autistic Society have made important advances in the development of a strategy, even managing to get legislation passed that might even help, but the fact remains that the Benefits Agency retains a culture of penny pinching, bullying and victimisation of anyone who does not fit into one of their boxes. The recent changes to the benefits system, with processes designed to find anyone with a mental health problem to be “fit for work” simply because they have no physical problem are also a long way from creating a nurturing environment. These policies have been implicated in several suicides already.

Funding this kind of thing in a post-capitalist society might actually be harder, but it might be hoped that such a society might be more nurturing. Perhaps it could be done through funds from the profits of the local building society or credit union: a micro-loan that might be paid back if the idea turns out to have an economic value.

My view is that this is something that the Occupy movement needs to address along with everything else. If what we are about is building a fairer society, then that fairness needs to include everyone, with particular attention paid to the more vulnerable in society.

All I’m asking for is a bit of compassion, to be met half way, and not to be expected to jam myself into your world. I tried that. Most of you turned me away. In return, I’ll help you build a more compassionate society.


A Tobin Tax: A good idea?

The most recent demand – or just idea to be considered – coming out of the Occupation movement and others is the notion of a Tobin Tax, sometimes called a Robin Hood Tax, on international financial transactions. The idea is to charge a fee, probably of around 0.5% on international currency transactions, discouraging speculative transactions on foreign currency, which can damage a country economically,: it would also raise funds for more important things. According to some estimates, it could raise ten times the amount of money required to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Is it really a good idea?

I’ve been a quiet supporter of a Tobin Tax for many years. It protects vulnerable, usually developing economies. The Indian Rupee is a closed currency at least partly to protect it from the ravages of speculators, as are the Moroccan Dirham and Tunisian Dinar. It provides useful resources for more important things, like development, disaster aid and ecological protection. It’s a great way of redistributing resources to those who need it most. David Cameron, Boris Johnson and the banks oppose it.

If they don’t like it, as a rule of thumb, it’s probably a good idea!

Actually, they say they oppose it unless it’s adopted globally. If we’re going to introduce a Tobin Tax, that’s fine by me.

A Tobin Tax would go a long way towards imposing stability on international markets, preventing the problems of high interest rates that accompany the capital flight that is a consequence of large-scale financial trading.

Within the framework of the current economic system, I agree a Tobin Tax is desirable.

That’s my problem: “within the framework of the current economic system”. As I observed in my last blog entry, the whole system is not fit for purpose. A Tobin Tax sticks a plaster over the running sore that is our financial system, allowing it to continue to suppurate. To mix metaphors, it’s a red herring!

If our answer is to reform the current system, then a Tobin Tax will help. If our answer is to develop a whole new system, a Tobin Tax may well be irrelevant.

With that, I’m not sure whether to support a Tobin Tax or not. Supporting it provides a partial answer to some of the more obvious problems, providing valuable money for important expenditure (expenditure we should be making already, rather than blowing the money on fighting each other and bailing out private investors). Supporting it also allows some people to go home happy they’ve achieved something, when they’ve actually achieved very little. We’ll be back out on the streets in a couple of years if this happens.

Opposing it means we can move towards more meaningful, long-term answers to the problem. Whether there is a simple long-term solution to a problem in an evolving system is uncertain. Whether a Tobin Tax will be part of that solution remains to be seen.

Time for a new Enlightenment?

It seems I underestimated the Christians. Not only have a number of Christian groups come out openly in favour of the Occupation movement, some have promised to actively non-violently resist any forcible eviction of the protest outside St Paul’s in London. There’s more blood on the carpet as the Dean has fallen on his sword. Rowan Williams has also spoken out – in a wishy-washy sort of way, it’s true, but he has spoken out, advocating the separation of day-to-day banking and speculation, and a Tobin Tax, a tax on speculative transactions, in order to reinvigorate the real economy. He also wants public money to be given to the banks with the condition they use it to invest in real economic activity. The banks, to my mind, cannot be trusted when they are paying their directors far more than they even were last year.

The Ankh-Morpork City Council, sorry, Corporation of London, having lost its ecclesiastical backing, now seem to find themselves a little uncertain if they can have people evicted from cathedral grounds if the cathedral authorities aren’t sure if they actually want them gone. It’s true that the Church of England still isn’t too sure how to reconcile social justice with modern banking practices (hint: it can’t be done!), but I’m a little less pessimistic about the Christians than I was.

As I mentioned, however, they still want to hang on to the old system, which, as we’ll see, is about as irrelevant as their religion.

In the early nineteenth century a few people broke away from the established belief systems of their time and increasingly began to question. Not a little of this work was done a few kilometres from where I’m sitting, just outside Edinburgh in Scotland. Their work led to the way we see our world today.

Their thoughts led to the idea of Deep Time and modern geology and palaeontology, introduced the notions of evolution, bioregionalism and what we now call ecology, they tinkered with ideas about the transmission of disease, starting with germs, leading to modern understandings of viruses, bacteria and moulds. Others tinkered with electricity, and mostly got away with it. Another man, the basis for a more famous fictional detective, laid the groundwork for modern forensic investigation. Someone else, working a little earlier, what’s now a couple of hours away by bus, tried to do the same with economics.

Some people still think that he did a good job of it.

Adam Smith’s big idea was that of the self-regulating market. In his less well-known magnum opus, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith advocated the notion of an “invisible hand”, that, in consequence of the gluttony of the rich having clear bounds, they spend a fortune on servants – an early form of trickle-down economics. This has of course, been proven false: the gluttony of the rich appears boundless, short-term profit being little more than a means of keeping score, with scoreboards, in the form of rich lists, appearing annually in prominent newspapers.

Nevertheless, Smith promoted the idea of the benefits of acting out of self interest, which he saw as at least consistent with acting in the public good. Neo-Classical economists still follow this dictum.

Bear in mind that no modern scientist would go to Darwin for a modern understanding of evolution. Thinkers like Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace put us on the road to a modern understanding, but we’re still having a (mostly) courteous, scientific bicker over the details of notions like punctuated equilibrium and the roles of transposons, based on the work of people who understood something of heredity, but nothing of DNA.

To be fair, Neo-Classical economists have moved on from Smith, but they haven’t moved on from Smith’s mistakes, and the invisible hand was far from Smith’s only mistake. They have also made plenty since. Bizarre notions of the free movement of the means of production persist. This is the basis of the daft idea that anyone can freely move to wherever the jobs are, which itself is behind the justification for a great deal of bullying by the social welfare offices of those countries that have social welfare, and the kind of negative commentary we’ve all come to know from certain tabloid newspapers that I don’t have to name.

Some commentators have observed that Smith wasn’t actually all that original, even tending towards the simplistic, and singularly failed to demonstrate the validity of his assumptions: any modern philosopher trying a stunt like that could not hope to be taken seriously, never mind be published in a reputable journal.

Meanwhile, monetary policy and so on has all been based on similarly unproven, if not downright , assumptions. Some of those assumptions may well be part of what got us into our current mess. There are good reasons for thinking this, but I’m not going into it here: the short version is that you should go and read some of the important work by Joseph Stiglitz and others on this, but keep some coffee handy, since it’s pretty dry, and a good cure for insomnia.

Part of the problem is that the economic models posit rationality. If you are going to posit rationality, you have to posit knowledge (and modern economic systems do tend to posit that all actors in the economy have knowledge of all the factors in it), but if that knowledge is lacking, then you can’t posit rationality. At some point, you’re guessing, not being rational. Stiglitz, to be fair, talks about “information asymmetries”, by which he seems to mean that some actors in an economy know more than others, and might be willing to exploit them by, for example, selling mortgages that the buyer will not be able to pay off, which provides short-term profit, and massive damage to the system in the medium term.

The upshot of all this is that the system is not so much broken, as not fit for purpose to begin with. Some wealthy individuals have used, and built upon, Smith’s mistakes to suit their own purposes (in short, make money, and keep the rest of us in line). The rest of us should be embarrassed that we were fooled for so long (again, to be fair, some of us weren’t, but getting the two-legged sheep to listen proved harder than it should have been for what is supposedly an intelligent species!).

I have a bad habit of dwelling on the past. The point is that we need another enlightenment; another period of people hanging round coffee shops trying to thrash out a system that might actually work. Today, unlike in the late eighteenth century, we have the advantage of the carping criticism of the internet and the process of peer review.

I have no idea where this process is going to lead. There has to be a better way of doing things: an economic system based on observable facts about the world but one run in the interests of everyone, not the wealthy few. So far, all we have is some bright ideas about ethical investment, microfinance, mutual societies, credit unions, co-operatives and so on, but no theoretical foundation based on solid observations to back it up. It might be argued that no theory is better than a disproved theory, but a good theory is probably better than no theory.

I’m not the first person to have suggested this. Joseph Stiglitz who, with others, systematically refuted the notion of the invisible hand, has already come up with the notion, and I’d love to see some suitable output from Stiglitz (or his ilk) on this. Failing that, we need some other minds tackling this problem.

Certain important factors will need to be taken into account. Greed (observable) must be one of them, and measures must be taken to curb it. Here’s an idea that will give some bankers sleepless nights: nobody should be allowed to get too rich; there has to be a point where enough is enough, and the surplus should be redistributed. Rationality in a market where nobody has perfect information is impossible: deal with it.

The whole thing needs to be integrated into a system where natural resources are finite, to reflect a fact in the real world that any ecologist recognises, but most economists conveniently forget.

Perhaps, in short, we need a way of looking at things that integrates modern ecology, with a more realistic view on economy, a recognition of human greed and irrationality, and social policy to bring the impact of the human species down to a sustainable level.

I’ll be the first to admit that a transition to a new socio-economic system is not going to be easy. There will also be vested interests trying to put a stop to it, and those for whom the familiar, however bad, is better than something new that might be better for everyone.

It’s time for a new enlightenment indeed.