Friday, 12 June 2015

Greece: it's the history, stupid.

Acropolis, c 600 BC
I'm sure you're all so used to the unending 'Greek crisis' you'd be forgiven for never wanting to hear another word about it. I went to Greece last month, having never been before, with the aim of leering at archaeological remains, rather than anything political, so I was surprised when one led me to think about the other quite differently. The first thing that struck me in Greece was the amazing oldness of the place. We all know ancient Greece existed prior to the Roman Empire. What I hadn't understood was that 'ancient' Greece was actually the last flourishing of a culture that really started a couple of millennia before, and was, by the time of the Romans, almost past its sell-by date.

Women drivers, c 1600 BC
Classical Athens was already in decline by the time the Romans arrived (overstretched on foreign wars, apparently), and Athens itself had risen to predominance after Myceanean and Minoan cultures on the Aegean Islands collapsed as a result of volcanic eruptions. At the time of the eruption, in about 1600 BC, Minoan civilisation was in full swing, and had been for some time. At the time we were paddling dugout canoes through the marshes of Britain, Minoa had a large trading fleet, actual hairstyles, towns of 100000 inhabitents, and genuine flushing toilets. I know, I know.

Anyway, once you've got past the Minoans, any museum in Greece then proceeds to confront you with a bewildering list of people who have at some point invaded or attempted to invade. The Persians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Turks, the Venetians, and last and most recently, the Germans. Working one's way up through the local history museum in Heraklion, Crete, one starts with the local, ancient culture, and wades upwards through all these visitors, before you get to the bit about the German occupation in World War Two, which is the most unambiguously angry museum display I have ever seen.

Having overdosed on museums, I decided to head to the beach, and randomly picked somewhere on the South Coast I could get to by bus. It turned out that Sfakia port was the place where the Allies evacuated their forces as the Germans took over Crete in 1940. Lesson one of Greece: there's no getting away from history, anywhere, ever. I walked up the hill and found this: a shrine built around the skulls of villagers who were shot for aiding the escape of Allied stragglers. They are not replicas, or art, but the actual skulls, and you can see where they have been smashed by bullets. The atmosphere in the vicinity was creepy and oppressive: I backed out in a hurry.

Of course, one might say that the Greeks should get over this, like the rest of Europe has got over war, fascism, and communism, etc. In some ways, it has: the town was crawling with German tourists who seemed unbothered by the stacked, smashed bones. Nonetheless, when you see how the time frame of Greece is a bit different to other places, you realise that to the Greeks, with 4000 years of civilisation on your doorstep, something that happened 70 years ago is really very recent, and why it might be a bit well - insensitive - to turn up, after all that sort of thing, and start trying to order people around. 

All this history helped me understand why Alex Tsipras and Syriza think they can see off the EU and its ghastly austerity plans. Although Greece has been taken over by foreign powers dozens of times, they have, in the end, always left. Greece's history has been marked by multiple invasions, multiple collapses, and repeated tragedies. Ancient Greece invented tragedy, and they aren't above playing one. Perhaps Tsipras doesn't think of himself as a modern, managerial type of politician, always finding the neat compromise with an eye to his career, he thinks he's handling some bloody last stand on a hilltop. Perhaps, in a way, he's right.

If you think that this is a fight about debt repayment, or about one or two percent of GDP, you are missing the point. Whether they owe the money or not is a irrelevance, a red herring. This is a fight about autonomy, and maybe about honour. What matters for the Greeks is that they exist as an entity with meaning, a small country with a culture and self-determination, or get subsumed into some larger, faceless thing.

I'm fairly sure that's actually what the EU think it's about as well. The EU and its Austerity-bureaucrats think they're the Romans, subduing a rebellious province. They think they're ensuring the onward march of civilisation, and saving the Empire from ruin. I think the Greeks think a bit like this too: except in their version they are the defenders of civilised society, holding out for democracy, against the Philistines of Rome. 

Library cuts in Athens. If you didn't return your scroll in time, your fine is now 21,850,678 denarii, or enough to clear the entire Greek debt.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Welcome to the depression election

I'm going abroad tomorrow. I'm not running away from the election campaign, but boy am I glad to see the back of all the bitter, depressing turgidness of it all. I had a terrible moment the other night: I was watching TV and the thing I was half-watching finished and the news started and there was David Cameron's puffy, shifty face spouting tosh and I tried to change the channel and the TV decided it didn't like the remote (they have an ongoing, fractious relationship) and then I couldn't get out of the sofa because the sofa is broken and saggy and I had a bowl of hot soup in my lap and there was nothing I could do except yell in horror for the duration of the several minutes it took me extract myself and make it across the room to deliver a good slap to the off-button. I expect the neighbours thought I was being murdered.

Sometimes, watching the election coverage, I've thought I wouldn't mind if I was. This is the most awful, depressing political spectacle I've ever witnessed. It's like a festival of joylessness in which the parties compete to numb the electorate into giving up their votes out of sheer resignation. It's like a competition of bad, in which you're offered various flavours of awful, and you get to decide which you're least unenthusiastic about.

I know this seems startling, but politics used to be about optimism. Political parties would compete to offer voters a better vision of the future. Sometimes the vision was bogus, selfish, unlikely, or unachievable, but the point was you could envisage it and sigh a little bit, picturing it in your mind as you delivered up your x. If you don't believe me, look at this lovely lovely Labour Party poster from the 1920s. (This is not me endorsing the Labour Party by the way, but that is one hell of a poster)

 Politics recently, on the other hand, has mostly been about offering voters, at best, something less shitty than that which they currently endure. As I understand it, the party offerings right now look more or less like this.

UKIP: Less of yer foreign shit
Conservative: Same shit as last year
Liberal Democrats: We like shitting in the Downing St toilet
Labour: Slightly less shit than the Tories
SNP: Keeping the shit in England away from Scotland
Green: Enough of this shit

Even when the parties talk about things you might actually want, they frame it in negative terms. Support the NHS? Sure, most of us do, but the NHS is something you rely on when you're sick. I don't want to be sick, I don't do it for entertainment. Is any party offering anything to help you to be healthy? How about better quality food, more green space, making it easier to walk or cycle? The Lib Dems are keen are to tackle mental health, as well they might, as apparently there's an epidemic of depression. As I understand it, though, they aren't actually offering anything to make Britain less depressing, they're just suggesting more money for medication to dumb the pain.

The weird thing about all the NHS-loving is that when it was set up in the 40s it was done in the context of a massive roll-out of things that would improve people's lives. Stinking, leaking houses would be pulled down; nobody would be hungry; schools would churn out a healthy, educated populace to work in well-regulated, safe, factories and workplaces. Time off from these workplaces would be filled by touring symphony orchestras and trips to the beach and cheap access to books and classes and museums. It might not have all worked out like that but everyone who signed up to this vision understood that the safe workplaces and dry houses and books and daytrips and municipal swimming pools were as much part of it as the free doctors visits. Having come out of a war they understood about morale and people hanging together and that symphony orchestras are as important as aircraft production because humans are humans and need to be inspired. It's just that in the intervening 70 years we forgot all that, the clean dry housing and the parks and all the good bits of the deal, and instead arrived at a situation, culturally and politically, where it's the done thing to beat the crap out of people, and when they fall apart, you send them to the NHS. Because we think that looking after the sick is politically acceptable. Doing all the things that ensure people don't get sick in the first place isn't, apparently.

Please don't misunderstand me, I don't think all these parties are equal or as bad as each other. I just don't understand why the entire thing is being framed in such miserable terms. It's like the epidemic of depression infected the whole body politic. Nobody is allowed to suggest anything that might be slightly desirable without all the other parties and the media leaping on them. It's like 'But how are you going to afford it?' is the slogan for the entire campaign. Well, let's start: we're one of the richest countries in the world. We're going to pay for it out of tax receipts, that's what the tax collected is for, it's for us to do things that we want to. As the government, we get to decide how to spend it. We'd like to spend some money on making people's lives better, rather than dealing with the repercussions of their lives being shit. That's all, thanks.

Can you imagine any politician saying that? No, I don't think so. Because no-one is apparently allowed to mention hope, or joy, or flowerbeds or diving boards or ice-creams or anything ever except the possibility of it might be minutely less shit if we're in charge. Any attempt to mention these things is squashed, ruthlessly, and rolled out as evidence that the person muttering about them is deluded, out-dated or insane. Evidence of personality is also ruthlessly leaped-upon, leaving us with only the anodyne, lying management-speak of speeches written by committee.

The weird thing about all this isn't there isn't exactly a crisis. I say exactly because I'm coming to believe that there's actually two types of crisis, a crisis of movement, in which nothing is able to stand still, and a crisis of stagnation, in which nothing is able to move. It's like we're living through the latter, a slow grinding-down of encroaching shittiness that removes anyone's ability to respond. So in a sense, there is a crisis. It's just not the financial one they're telling you about (endlessly). I think people usually recognise the first kind, it's harder to spot the second, until, perhaps, it's passed.

I've written before about the adoption of horrible as some kind of cultural aspiration, but I do wonder at what point we all voted for this terrible abyss of joylessness. Even when Winston Churchill told the nation that he 'had nothing to offer but blood, sweat, toil and tears' he managed to make it sound a little bit glorious. I'm not sure death and glory is the best of political principles but at least you get to march up the high street with girls throwing flowers before you get to get mown down.

With most of the current offer you won't even get to get off the sofa, and there will be no flowers involved.

The whole thing is so depressing, it makes me think I'd settle for pretty much any offer of any positive thing, rather than an offer of 5% less shit.

To be honest I'd settle for a new sofa. Or an ice-cream, or a flower-bed, even some plastic ones in a vase. Or a postcard with a nice picture that I can look at while I'm voting. Just as long as they all stop screeching 'YES, BUT HOW WILL YOU AFFORD IT' at me, ok?

I'll be back before the election. Unfortunately.

In the meantime, I'll be on the beach.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Economics Is for Everyone: Boom Bust Boom Conference Reviewed

Last week I had a work meeting in Manchester, which gave me an ideal opportunity to catch up with this, the Boom Bust Boom Conference at Manchester University, organised by the Post Crash Economics Society and Rethinking Economics. The Post Crash Economics Society was founded in Manchester in 2012 after a group of economics students got fed up with the fact that the only economics they were learning was the kind that'd led to the crash, and that no-one was questioning - or encouraging them to question - the assumptions behind this.

If a three-day conference discussing economics sounds really dull, it's probably because we've been encouraged to think of economics as technical, dull, mathematical and nerdy, and entirely inaccessible to ordinary people. On the news we've often presented with economic facts as it they arrive by divine intervention, rather than as a result of human actions and interactions. The society and the conference are set up to challenge this.

The conference had attracted some really top-notch speakers including Ha-Joon Chang and Paul Mason, but sadly they were mostly on the first day so I missed them. One of the events I missed was the UK premiere of Boom Bust Boom the movie, a film made by Monty Python star Terry Jones, which attempts to explain how we ended up in this mess.

Happily, as at many events, it's often the people you've never heard of who make the most interesting contributions. 

The most interesting talk I went to was by Devrim Yilmaz, a diminutive Turkish academic who was once on the staff at Manchester. Yilmaz is the only person I've met who was able to explain clearly and simply why the Eurozone is perpetually in crisis, why it will be perpetually in crisis if it continues as it is, and why some people are doing very well from it - in short, that it isn't a crisis at all. Clue: it's all about keeping the weaker economies inside the eurozone, while keeping them weak, so that the value of the Euro stays down, thus making the exports of the richer countries more competitive. Their reward for putting up with this should be capital transfers from rich to poor countries, but now rich countries are getting grumpy about that end of the deal. In short: austerity, it doesn't work, won't work, and he had the graphs to prove it. It was quite fascinating and enlightening. Yilmaz used to be employed at Manchester, and helped the students set up an alternative economics module, after which his contract wasn't renewed. Censorship: it doesn't exist in the UK, or our universities, people. Yilmaz is now at Kingston, and I rather suspect their gain is Manchester's loss.

The other talk I found very interesting was by Karel Williams, who talked about something he called 'foundational economics'. This is the idea that most of the services that we rely on - food, power, healthcare, education - can't simply be bought anywhere or sourced from the lowest bidder as they are geographically located. This means that they are not really subject to the market choice which modern economics claims they should be, and are in effect protected from the open market. Companies which operate in these protected, immovable sectors should be expected to meet a different set of standards - in effect, social standards - than those which operate in a really open market, where, should the consumer not like their offer, they are at liberty to refuse their products. I hope I've understood this right: Dr Williams kindly gave me a copy of the book about all this but I haven't read it yet. He also talked about the resilience of this part of the economy, and how we should base a healthy national economy around things we all need, like food, utilities, healthcare and education, rather than on intangibles or exports. I've met - and I'm sure you all have too - dozens of people setting up their own businesses with some kind of social slant, their hobby/passion for cheese or beer or teadresses or tents mixed with an emphasis on locality and sustainability, but I had never met anyone who was able to provide an intellectual basis and justification for this kind of homegrown social economy. I did ask Dr Williams if the hipsters were going to save us all, and like a politician he dodged the question, but did concede he quite liked craft beer.

I also went to a workshop on feminist economics, which sadly, was very underwhelming. All in all it was a fascinating day and there was quite a wide variety of people attending. One of the things I liked was how little discussion there was of traditional 'left vs right', almost as if for many younger people, the distinction is no longer live. It was refreshing to be in such a boiling pot of ideas, without people lining up along a set of tired old lines.

I really hope that we could have a similar event in Bristol: I am sure there would be a lot of people interested in attending and adding to the discussion.