Monthly Archives: December 2011

A vision from The Bad Future

The kids come every day clamouring to hear stories from Before. I am something of a novelty to them, one of the few in Containment Area 7b who remembers anything, one of the few who knows we are not kept here for our safety. They sit at my feet in a semi-circle, cross-legged, the LEDs on their ankle tags twinkling in the half light.

“Where’s Bobby?” I ask.

Jenny sighs. “Banged up. Workfare said they’d let him have another fiver if he stayed for another three hours, and his mum needed extra for the leccy bill. Workfare didn’t OK it with Above, his tag lit up like a Christmas tree and he was caught over The Blue Line after hours.”

I am still flabbergasted by how this system works, even after all these years. It feels more like a heavy-handed dystopian metaphor than the reality we inhabit. “What’s going to happen to him?”

Jenny shrugs. “Probably not too bad. Duty solicitor reckons they can get him a good community payback placement in the back room of Tescos. In two years he’ll work it off and be back on the tills.” The kids smile with relief. I shudder.

“It was kind of his fault anyway,” pipes up Tabby, Bobby’s little sister. “Easy for the cops to have mistook him for a rioter. They showed restraint.” Tabby seems full of the joys of spring today, a veritable cannon of misdirected optimism. “Bobby’ll be cool, he always is. Can you please finish telling us the story  about the hospitals and how they were all nice and that?”

“The hospitals? Ah, I remember. Back Before, the hospitals were very different. If you hurt yourself or got ill, you would could go to the hospital and they would treat you…” I pause for dramatic effect. “For free.”

A collective gasp from the children. “Free?” they breathe, their incredulous little brows furrowed.

“Free. For absolutely everyone. Nobody had to pay a penny.”

“That can’t be true,” professes Jack, the eldest of the bunch. “Do you mean it was free for all the Consumers and Wealth Creators? They’d never give things away for free to Scroungers like us.”

“It most certainly was true,” I correct him. “Everyone who needed anything from the hospital got it for free. Rich or poor, black or white, whatever you needed, you’d get it for free.”

“That doesn’t sound very competitive,” Jack scoffs. “Was it funded by the Europeans? I bet loads of people must have died.”

“Not at all,” I said. “We were all healthier because of it, and lived much longer.” These days, kids like these will probably live to fifty at most, and that’s a mercy.

“Weren’t there riots over it? Nobody would want to queue up for operations when they could just pay for it, surely? Is that why it stopped? Did the Scroungers push to the front of the queue?”

“Kids,” I say firmly. “When have any of you ever rioted?”

“Never, silly,” Tabby says, blowing a raspberry. “We’re safe now. But Before, kids like us was always just grabbing anything we could get because we’re feral, innit?” She taps her tag sagely.

I decide this conversation can wait for another day. I do not think this short story needs a tacked-on, saccharine happy ending.

“Anyway, the NHS–that’s what we called the hospitals back then–fell down because people didn’t fight hard enough, and the people wanting to take it down were too powerful. It was a very special thing, the NHS was.”

“Will it ever come back?” Jenny asks quietly. Jenny’s a funny one, more optimistic than most, even though until six months ago her family were Consumers before a dose of bad luck brought them to 7b.

“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t. It seems like a monolithic nemesis, and everyone has absorbed the message wholesale. There is always hope though, always hope. Irrational, perhaps, but it lifts me. Maybe there still is a spark of rebellion and fight in these kids.

“I think everything will get better,” Jack announces, an air of gravitas beyond his young age. “All we need is for all the Consumers to vote Labour in 2015.”

And with that, I know we’re fucked.


On individual responsibility

It’s not your fault if you’re unemployed. There’s no jobs for you to have. It’s not a question of not wanting it enough, of not trying hard enough. There nobody who will take you, and they’ll always find an excuse. You’re underqualified or overqualified, too much experience or too little experience, too radical or too conservative, too aggressive or too placid, or maybe they just don’t like you. It’s all fobbing off, “it’s not you, it’s me”. In truth, there just aren’t many jobs around.

It’s not your fault if you have a job that you hate. There is nothing pathological about dissatisfaction with spending your waking hours in crushing monotony just so you can eat. This daily monotony does not make you a whole, happy person: it is a lie so pervasive we now ask “what do you do” instead of “how do you do”.

It’s not your fault if you don’t feel like you got the education you wanted. The doors are closing, one by one, till none but the rich can learn. They will point at the “underqualified” and close more doors, when what opportunity did you have in the first place? Its all a lie, a deliberate stacking of the deck so that only the privileged few may enjoy education.

It’s not your fault that the planet is fucked. That you forgot to separate the paper from the plastic, the tea bags from the veg, that last drip of milk from inside the carton will hardly melt the polar ice caps and cause the world to burn. While you are told that the entire future rests on you turning out the kitchen light, it is not true: the bulk of the damage comes from the corporations who freely set fire to finite resources and choke the sky. Washing your laundry at thirty degrees will not change their behaviour.

It’s not your fault if you get attacked, raped, abused. It never is. Any blame is due to a system covering its own back, desperately declaring that it is all fair and just. The length of your skirt makes no difference, where you walk makes no difference, what you drink or eat or say to a stranger is of no consequence. It wasn’t your fault.

It’s not your fault when you are denied opportunities for being too young, to old, the wrong colour, the wrong gender, too disabled, too queer. In their eyes, you are wrong; you are navigating the world backwards in heels. You are trying hard enough; harder than most. You want it enough. They just don’t want you to have any power. They want to hoard it.

It’s not your fault if you’re sick of this shit. It’s not your fault if you claw back power by any means necessary, just for a brief taste of what those who hold you down enjoy every day. They will attack you, they will call you a criminal, feral, violent, and pretend you are nought but an aberration. Yet you are not an aberration. You are part of many, one of us.

They see us all as one, those who cling on to their power. They make sure everyone else sees your problems as your own fault. It is a lie fed to hold on to their comfort. We tear each other apart under their narrative.

Remember, none of this is your fault.


When is an attack not an attack?

Today, I found myself in a position I hadn’t been in since early 2010: I agreed with Nick Clegg. On the proposed tax breaks for married couples, Clegg said the following:

“We can all agree that strong relationships between parents are important, but not agree that the state should use the tax system to encourage a particular family form.”

I don’t take this to mean that Clegg has suddenly started talking sense. He has just spotted an open goal and managed to kick the ball in vaguely the right direction in a desperate bid to resuscitate his dead party, the political equivalent of slapping a corpse and screaming “PLEASE DON’T DIE ON ME, I LOVE YOU”.

He does have a very good point, though. The state should have no role in meddling with how a family should look. This suggestion has naturally pissed off some of the usual suspects like Cristina Odone and the bafflingly-still-alive Norman Tebbit. As always, when a socially progressive attitude towards families is expressed, they fall back on the favourite language: the language of being under attack.

It happens all the time. The notion of the family being somehow attacked crops up frequently in discussion of marriage equality, the rhetoric surrounding single-parent families, and more broadly in terms of socially progressive legislation. Put simply, they cry out THOSE SCARY HUMMUS-MUNCHERS ARE COMING FOR OUR CHILDREN. In fact, it is nothing of the kind.

The language of the attack on the family implicitly applies the capitalist narrative of scarcity to families. As with money, their line of reasoning goes, there is a finite amount of love in the world, and we’d better not let those scrounging single mothers or gays have any of it, lest there’s none left for anyone else. By their very existence, non-conventional families threaten the social order by apparently hogging some love which could better go to a family with a mummy, a daddy and 2.4 kiddiwinks.

Of course, this line of reasoning is patent gibberish. Love is infinite, and money is a fiction so the narratives fail to hold up in any way imaginable. I pity those who believe that a family with one parent, or four parents or two parents who happen to be of the same sex are in any way a threat to their wellbeing. They are hiding from an imaginary foe, terrified that the rug will come out from under them when that rug is perfectly secure.

Perhaps the fear is where all of this ends, yet I suspect that using the language of an external threat or attack serves a deeper, murkier function. When one is attacked, one has two options: to fight, or to surrender. While an unprovoked attack is generally frowned upon, few except the most peaceful of pacifists will have an issue with self-defence. Pretending that families are under attack therefore legitimises the genuinely coercive tactics that the state is using to regulate family structure. It stops being outright aggression and starts to look like reasonable defence against the phalanx of queers and single mums who are bogarting all the nice things.

There is no attack on the traditional family. If anything, it is quite the other way round: we are being gradually coerced into living in the way that suits the state. It’s so clear, even a Lib Dem can spot it.


I <3 the contraceptive pill

I have been on the Pill for six years now. It has been a part of my life for so long that I sometimes almost forget that it is there.

It has only really been this month that I have been thinking much about it. When I went to collect my repeat prescription, I went through the standard rigmarole. I was weighed and had my blood pressure taken, as always. The nurse tapped in the necessary information, and BING! the computer decided it didn’t want to prescribe me any more contraceptive pills because I had been taking them for six years.

In the end, it was all right. The doctor authorised the prescription and I went away with my prescription for freedom in my hand. The scare of those five minutes when I thought I couldn’t get any more, though, got me thinking.

I really fucking love the contraceptive pill. I know it doesn’t agree with everyone, but for me it is brilliant. 

To me, the pill goes far beyond a contraceptive. It represents control over my reproductive system. I can choose when I fancy having a period, and if it doesn’t suit me I can completely skip one. I know exactly what to expect with my body and when, because I can regulate it with the pills that I take.

I can worry less if a condom breaks. I still have to go through the awkward ritual of popping to the STI clinic, but I am spared the inconvenience and expense of getting the morning-after pill, or, in a worst-case scenario, an abortion. It’s a little safety net.

It helps my epilepsy. Once upon a time, under a natural cycle, my brain would spike out abnormal electrical activity in sync with hormonal fluctuations. The Pill keeps my hormone levels regular. The seizures I have had since I went on the Pill are almost trivial compared to how it was before.

In the five minutes where I thought I would not get my Pill any more, I was terrified. The tiny little tablets I keep in my purse represent so much to me. They are autonomy, they are liberty. They are my pills, and I love them.


Placebo buttons and the illusion of control

Some things are not what they seem. You perform an action, you get the desired result. You’re in charge. You have power, you have agency.

So you think.

In some cases, it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference what you do. Take, for example, pressing the the button at a road crossing. We are taught to believe that by pressing this button, the lights will know we’re waiting and they will change accordingly. In fact, most of these buttons do absolutely nothing, and the lights will change whenever they are scheduled to change, particularly at busy periods of the day. This is what is known as a “placebo button“, a button which is entirely useless but is there anyway. They are surprisingly prevalent: on many lifts, the “close door” button does absolutely nothing, as do the entirely decorative buttons for opening and closing doors on the Tube. In some office buildings, they will go so far as to fit fake thermostat knobs.

The purpose of a placebo button is to make the user feel in control of their environment. The illusion of control is a well-studied effect. It is an example of the cognitive short cuts our big old brains take to minimise processing power: we like to think we have an ability to influence outcomes. Often, the illusion of control springs up naturally: for example, when playing craps, many people tend to throw the dice harder if they want a high number and softer if they want a low number, despite the probability remaining exactly the same for any kind of throw. If the outcome is the one desired, people will believe they were responsible for it.

According to Self Regulation Theory, a fairly strong model of how thoughts translate into behaviour, the illusion of control is a reaction to stress or uncertainty about outcome. We cope with it by conjuring up a false sense of control over the circumstances and therefore feels as though we have reasserted control over the situation. Interestingly, people with depression are less susceptible to the illusion, having a more realistic view of the level of control they have over an outcome.

The illusion of control is considered to be a “positive illusion”, though it has some less pleasant real-world effects. In one study of stock market traders, it was found that those with the higher belief in their own control were rated as performing less well and tended to make less money in their investments. Their illusion of control could well have contributed to the financial crisis. With placebo buttons, there is some evidence to suggest that our own perception of time is warped. People who pressed the “door close” button on a lift several times believed the lift came on average two seconds faster than those who only pressed the button once. Merely interacting with the placebo button produced poor judgment.

The function of the illusion of control is fairly well-studied on an individual level, though there does not seem to be any research into the motivation for facilitating people for believing they have control. There are some anecdotes from managers and engineers involved in installing fake thermostat buttons in offices, which serves as semi-decent qualitative evidence:

“We had an employee that always complained of being hot,” recalls Greg Perakes, an HVACR instructor in Tennessee. “Our solution was to install a pneumatic thermostat. We ran the main air line to it inside of an enclosed I-beam. Then we just attached a short piece of tubing to the branch outlet (terminating inside the I-beam without being attached to any valves, etc.).”

The worker “could adjust her own temperature whenever she felt the need,” Perakes says, “thus enabling her to work more and complain less. When she heard the hissing air coming from inside the I-beam, she felt in control. We never heard another word about the situation from her again. Case solved.”

“Even though we were sure our system was working as it should and maintaining space temps to within one degree to two degrees, we could never completely satisfy the occupants of the space,” he wrote. “We mounted a ‘dummy stat’ (short for ‘dummy thermostat’) adjacent to the ‘controlling stat’ and gave the floor manager the key to the stat—now the occupants could ‘control’ their space as they desired with the permission of their manager.”

“The dummy stat did nothing except to give the occupants the impression that they had control of the HVAC system and the psychological effect of having control of their work environment,” continued Langless. “Our service calls disappeared, and to my knowledge, that system is still set up and working as it has since 1987.”

Here, it is clear that the motivation is to make people feel like they are in control without actually changing anything. The placebo button is seen to serve its purpose, stopping unrest and people becoming difficult.

On a grander scale, one can compare many of the methods in which we are encouraged to engage with politics. We are encouraged to vote, and told that it is our way of making our voices heard. In fact, under the current system, in most constituencies, your vote is merely a confirmation or rejection of a pre-determined outcome, with prevalent “safe seats” meaning that your vote is about as meaningful as pressing a button which lights up the word “WAIT”.  Even small changes to this system, such as AV, would make little difference to the level of control you would have.

Writing to an MP is about as effective as pressing the “open door” button on a Tube train. Remember that under the current whip system, they are likely to vote whichever way they are told to vote, and your concerns will only be raised in a debate if it cements what the party was planning on doing all along. Likewise, the government e-petition system has been explicitly linked to “making people feel more engaged“: while you may feel more engaged, all you have done is press a button and registered your opinion.

Ultimately, these encouraged methods mean nothing: they are placebo buttons put in place by structures of power which let us feel we have a sense of control, of agency, of involvement in a corrupt system. It is not true.

This realisation of powerlessness is upsetting, and cynically, I find myself wondering if the lack of illusory control is a contributor to depression.

The difference between political engagement and waiting for the traffic lights to change, though, is an important one. If we look beyond the placebo buttons of representative democracy, we can find a wealth of methods for achieving real change through direct action, towards building a direct model of democracy. While the things we are told give us power are meaningless, with creativity and a rejection of placebo, tangible, real results can be achieved.

__

This post was inspired by a lovely conversation with Jed and Wail.


I’ve met the Met

On Wednesday evening, I went to a Q&A session with Met Police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe. I was unimpressed. Find out why by reading my account of the night on OpenDemocracy. Hint: it includes institutional racism, question dodging and worrying insights into the mind of the bloke in charge of those people who smack us with sticks.


Christmas songs that can fuck off.

It has come to the time of year wherein we cannot leave the house without an aural assault of jingle-riddled festive musical tedium. While most are equally intolerable, some merit special mention for the implicit horrors they conceal. These are the Christmas songs that can fuck right off.

Rampant consumerism ahoy!

Capitalism has done a fine job of co-opting Christmas, turning it into a festival of panic-buying and receiving things you don’t really want. It is hardly surprising, then, that one of the most-covered traditional Christmas songs is The Twelve Days of Christmas. In this song, a person is given a series of increasingly ludicrous Christmas presents from a lover, presented through the medium of mind-numbing repetition. The nameless narrator of the song tells us nothing about their lover except that they buy a lot of presents. By the end of the song, the narrator has received 12 drummers drumming, 22 pipers piping, 30 lords a-leaping, 36 ladies dancing, 40 maids a-milking, 46 swans a-swimming, 42 geese a-laying, 35 gold rings, 32 calling birds, 30 French hens, 24 turtle doves and 12 partridges in pear trees. Implicit in this is that there must also be 40 cows to be milked, 46 small lakes for the swans to live in and at least 42 baby geese to soon be hatched. Quite where the narrator is going to keep all of the birds is not explored. Neither is it ever discussed that perhaps sending people as gifts might be slavery, or at the very least prostitution.

It’s immoral, it’s impractical, and it’s a vision of the future the capitalists would like to see. Its bastard lovechild is clearly visible in this godawful Littlewoods advert wherein a choir of children sing about how brilliant their mum is because she bought everyone presents.

Merry Christmas. Buy things. Debt is love.

A woman is left in a horrible, horrible relationship

Fairy Tale Of New York is the Christmas song it’s cool to say you like, because it’s kind of ironic, has a catchy Irish folky riff and Kirsty McColl died tragically early. It features bitter lyrics of a life of hardship and alcoholism, but ultimately, in some sort of Christmas miracle they arguing couple in the song realise that they love each other very much, right? Actually, not quite. Listen to the resolution of the song, at around 2.48. The woman laments that the man “took her dreams”. He replies that he kept them with him, made them his own and can’t possibly live life on his own.

Now, this would be all well and good if he wasn’t consistently portrayed as a complete and utter failure with verbally abusive tendencies. So that woman’s dream-eggs are stuck in a basket of piss, vinegar and toothless uselessness simply because the man won’t let her go. She never gets the chance to point this out, as it immediately becomes a matter of utmost urgency to report on the song choice of the New York Police Department and a bulletin on bell status. After this, we can only assume she overdoses on cocaine as white as Christmas snow, hollow-eyed on the tinsel-strewn rotting corpse of her lover.

Happy holidays!

Let me sing my privilege to the noble savages

Bono is an unmitigated cunt, and when people talk of “the good things he did”, often they refer to his charity work. Bono’s charity work includes the single Do They Know It’s Christmas, and therefore his unmitigated cunt status remains intact. This is a song in which a crowd of mostly white pop stars patronise an entire continent with startling factual inaccuracies.

Africa, as portrayed by the song, is a uniform desert populated entirely by starving people who need Middle England to ride in with their wallets and fix everything. There’s no snow in Africa, not even on top of mountains. There’s no rain, not even in the rich rainforests. There’s no rivers, not even the sodding Nile, the biggest bastard river in the world. The dear little noble savage Africans apparently don’t know it’s Christmas because Africa is such an insufferable shithole, not because many Africans probably couldn’t give two hoots about Christmas what with being Muslims.

It’s a terrible song, with a hefty dollop of misinformation. It may have been done with the best of intentions, but it’s pretty fucking racist, and it seems to have pissed off a few people. Nothing says traditional Christmas spirit like a bit of casual racism with a sing-al0ng chorus.

The date rape song

Baby It’s Cold Outside is another song which can be categorised under “Christmas romance” and tells a tale even more chilling than that recounted in Fairy Tale Of New York.

It’s about rape. Straight-up, it is a song about rape.

A woman tries to leave a man’s house. He gives her a drink. It has some drugs in it. While still compos mentis enough to argue, the woman argues that she cannot stay, says “no” several times, lists people she knows who might be worried about her and again mentions that she cannot leave. We leave her having finally been forced to into sex with coercive tactics and drugs. We’re supposed to find this rape cute because it’s all Christmassy, and who wouldn’t want to be raped by charming crooner Dean Martin? Listen to the lyrics of the song and tell me it is not about that.

As it’s Christmas, I shall conjure up the happiest possible ending for the story. The next morning, the woman goes home. Her family enquire as to why she appears to be shaken and upset. She explains what happened, and her mother, sister and vicious maiden aunt are appalled. These women call round at Dean Martin’s house, just as he is about to pounce upon another trusting, drugged woman and intervene. They then chop off Dean Martin’s raping penis and use it as a Christmas tree ornament. Everyone is very lucky in getting away with this cathartically criminal act, as the police are currently occupied with singing Galway Bay over the frozen husks of a pair of addicts. With support, Dean Martin’s victims find themselves able to move forward from the incident and engage in community activism to try to build a world without rape.

That’s the happiest possible ending, and we still have at least one rape in it. Fills the heart with Christmas cheer, that does.

The song that is surprisingly awesome

I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is a song which is intensely, intensely irritating. In all honesty, I would be happy if I never heard it ever again. The thing is, it has a surprisingly positive poly message hidden deep inside all of the twee faux-childish awe: the kid doesn’t give a shit that Mommy is necking with Father Christmas. In fact, the kid expresses dismay that Daddy can’t see the happy occasion.

Of course, Santa is Daddy, but the kid doesn’t know this. The kid is completely cool with Mommy playing with other people, and seems to think Daddy would be too. It is a glimpse at a non-conventional family set up which, for a twelfth of the year, gets played on loop. May the message one day sink in so we never have to hear that godawful song again.

Those are some of the worst, but let’s be straight here: all Christmas songs can fuck off.


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