1. Democracy =/= Capitalism: Christmas, and child labour

    After a year of record political unrest, we are winding down for a bit of “peace” (if you can call it that, maybe not in our house!); a christmas breather. It is going to be a very unusual christmas for me this year, for two reasons: firstly, because I am in the process of losing someone I am very close to to a form of terminal cancer, and secondly, because it comes after a year in which my world view has been “sharpened”, where I struggle to switch the politics off.

    The last year has seen people taking to the streets in record numbers: from the massive TUC demonstration in March, to the summer riots, from the springing up of occupations around the country to the growing crescendo of public sector strikes, the voice of dissent is growing. Add to this that the UK is only a tiny part of a worldwide picture: the dischord is globalised and being felt from continent to continent.

    It has been quite a politically charged year for me too. This time last January I had strong political beliefs but wasn’t particularly active: the mounting evidence of the injustices of the austerity drive has led me to the point of thinking “if not me, who?”, and in the space of a year I have gone from political near inertia to building a 2000 strong petition and taking to the streets with my slutwalk sisters to protest the culture of victim blaming, speaking in front of a few thousand in Birmingham at the June 30th strike ralley, speaking on a panel about activism at the UK Feminista summer school, writing a chapter on the working class right wing for the Labour Left red book, and taking on the role of regional women’s officer for UCU. As a result of this, combined with my vocal social media presence, I have made some great new connections, but I have also put myself in the line of fire for a good deal of negative attention, both from people I know and people I don’t. (Anyone looked at their hidden “other” messages on facebook yet? Wished I hadn’t when I found them the other day). People who know me well and know my character and beliefs know that if there is one thing I hate more than almost anything, it’s conflict. I’m naturally a people pleaser and in most cases would do almost anything rather than disagree. So it is a sign of how bad things really are when I am putting myself through the emotional stress of a year of public disagreement.

    Many people automatically assume I’m a revolutionary. I’m not, I’m a social reformist - I don’t believe in revolution as an effective method for bringing change, unless we are talking non-violent direct democratic revolution rather than bloody insurgence. For some reason (probably the effect of tabloid-think grouping all dissenters from liberals right through to Stalinists into one simple package) some people think I’m a pro-soviet communist! Clearly, I’m not. I have no more support for a handful of State figures holding the majority of the resources than a handful of anyone holding the majority of the resources, that’s why I’m a marxist. I’m a marxist because I believe in the analysis that money is essentially an illusory system whereby consensus about the relative worth of the different roles people fulfil in society inevitably keeping a huge number in poverty. I’m also a liberal.

    I tweeted about this a few weeks ago, saying something along the lines that I was gravely concerned that lots of people (marxists) seemed to believe that we were living through a time in which capitalism was in its last throws, commenting that I believe capitalism is not in crisis, and that it is the checks on capitalism which are actually at risk. I had a brief exchange with Eleonora Belfiore from the University of Warwick, who commented that one of if not the biggest problems is that people lack the imagination to see beyond Soviet communism as an alternative to capitalism. We also agreed that the fundamental problem in terms of conceptualisation is that the majority of the public assume that capitalism and democracy are synonymous rather than separate and often conflicting things. So for most, while they sympathise with criticisms of the excesses of capitalism, they assume that consumer choice is the freedom they must preserve in order to avoid a totalitarian state regime. As long as we have capitalism, we have democracy, and vice versa, therefore we must not complain too much about the obvious inequalities of capitalism because these are the necessary price for freedom.

    Of course, the key issue overlooked in this argument is that it only sees the western consumer as involved in the process of capitalism and democracy. It ignores the key issue that it is only a pocket of civilisation which capitalism is working for; that for millions globally capitalism does not mean a vote, it means sweated labour, child labour, poverty, starvation, epidemics of treatable illnesses, slavery and death. The West does not have its consumer freedom and the benefits of consumer choice in some sort of bubble from the unfortunate goings on in the rest of the world, but as a direct consequence. It is not democratic for a child to go blind before the age of six or lose fingers in machinery to make meaningless disposable items for some other more fortunate child elsewhere, because who ever would possible get a majority vote through for that to happen, and yet it happens, daily, and because of the ability of capitalism to mask these very undemocratic processes under the guise of consumer freedom, we continue to support them just by not trying for change.

    I’ll try to write more about this at a later date, as I really belief that it is only in tackling globally sweated labour that capitalism can properly be regulated and kept in check, but I think the biggest problems in tackling this issue are the following:

    1) Sweated labour is ironically a class issue. There is a cultural expectation to provide your child with a magical (expensive) christmas and while the better off can afford to do this in (not always) more ethical ways, for many at the bottom in UK society struggling to keep up with the demands of a child already being socialised to continually want, the cheap items sweat-shops provide allow for a guilt-free christmas.

    2) Psychologically, the sweat-shop workers who produce so much of the never-ending chain of goods which feed the western lifestyle exist in a place so distant in the western mindset that they might as well be imaginary. When we perceive cultural similarities, we find it easy to think about and imagine ourselves in a place that is geographically very distant (New Zealand, for example), but the mechanisms of capitalism mean that we see a product as a reified thing, separate from any of the processes and more crucially the people involved in its production. 21st century capitalism allows or even encourages us to think that the starting point for a product is the shop floor. To think otherwise is to risk imagining the self as part of an exploitative chain in which ultimately you are benefitting from child/slave/sweated labour, and it’s not a happy place to be.

    3) The biggest issue is a combination of current democratic processes leaving a feeling of impotence, combined with a massive scale version of what social psychologists call the “bystander effect”. The current political system is not fit for purpose, in that it does not allow for direct democracy or empowerment. I’m constantly trying to get people more involved politically but why should they be anything other than apathetic given the lack of ability to influence what is in place? I’ve spent months writing to my MP, Chris Kelly, with barely a couple of e-mails to show for it. People are (in my opinion) basically good but programmed to make the least possible effort; the current system encourages and feeds off a feeling of powerlessness which allows the elite to continue to control the majority of how society works. Add to this that the more people who can do something in any one situation, the weaker the moral obligation felt by the individual to get involved. For example, when social psychologists get someone to collapse in the street and one person is passing, that person will generally help. However if a person collapses in front of a large number of people help is much less likely: diffusion of responsibility has taken place where all present both assume that others will step in and feel vindicated of responsibility should this not be the case. On a much bigger scale, I think exactly the same thing happens with child labour, and I’ve certainly been responsible for ignoring my conscience in favour of this belief in powerlessness and blamelessness over the years.

    So, this year I’m attempting a child/sweated labour free christmas - I’m buying from these organisations/sites, and hoping for a new year where the world wakes up to the clear distinction between capitalism and democracy:

    http://www.oxfam.org.uk/shop/ethical-collection * edit: it has been brought to my attention that oxfam are currently involved in some questionable practices including unpaid internships and participation in workfair. Whilst I would not suggest any boycot because of the numbers of industries relying on oxfam as a buyer I will publish details of any campaigns to address these issues soon.



  2. Breaking down riots: what exactly is smashing up our streets?

    We are on to our third day of riots in the UK, and tonight the violence has come to Birmingham - apparently shops including Primark and Footlocker are being smashed and looted, places are being set alight, and there are rumours that things are kicking off outside of the city centre in Handsworth, Aston and Kings Heath, and possibly Wolverhampton. I’m worrying about my friends and students, and starting to wonder how long the riots will rumble on for.

    So far there are a few explanations of what exactly is causing all the unrest. The original riot in Tottenham came after a police shooting and an unanswered call for information from the community. Coming from the right we have linguistic links to evolutionary arguments, with the rioters outlined using words such as animals, mindless, thugs and yobs. Rioting is viewed as an act of immoral abandon, a choice to bypass civil decency and unleash primitive instincts for violence and greed. The alternative view taking shape is that the riots are a social ill, a violent manifestation of the anger of an underclass trampled by the rise of big society. I’ve been turning things over and over in my mind, piecing together scraps of psychological and cultural theory to try to come to a personal understanding of what exactly is smashing up our streets.

    Starting with the evolutionary argument, I think it is a serious error to consider violence to be a primitive instinct. Certainly it involves biological processes, at least when it takes place on a street level, but my experience raising my son has shown me that the 21st century uk is a place where young boys are fed an ongoing stream of weapons, destruction and rigid distinctions of good and evil - this quite possibly doesn’t lead to straight-forward immitation as social learning theorists believed, but what it does do is reinforce and continue to forge an irrevocable cultural normalisation of violent conflict. Aggression is structured as normal and even useful, so long as it is done by goodies to baddies. The aggression shown by a group of teenagers smashing windows or lighting fires will never be properly understood if it is dismissed as animalistic - it is entirely human, but lies outside of social sanctioning, in a fringe of cultural monstrosity. It is perhaps this confusion, this lack of coherence, which makes the causes of mob behaviour of great interest to social psychologists and social commentators alike - much more so than, for example, study of the mindset which would rationalise dropping a bomb onto a city, or the kind of social thinking which would legitimise torture or execution.

    Traditionally, mob behaviour has been explained by social psychologists such as Zimbardo (him of the Stanford prison study) as deindividuation - a breaking up of the self. It is believed that the frenzied energy of the crowd combined with the anonymity the numbers and rapid movement provide merges the individual into the masses. The crowd feeds off adrenaline and fear, chaos ensues, and there is a breakdown in social order. Individual reflections on responsibility and self regulation are submerged and the individual becomes a part of the group. A parallel  perspective can be seen in the psychodynamic approach, where the atmosphere of the crowd allows the violent selfish id to overrule the restraints of the superego. In more recent research a lack of empirical support has suggested anonymity is not necessarily an important factor. It seems that rather than a total breakdown of the self and morality, individuals take on a social identity, where norms and morals are outlined in the moment by the speech and actions of others. It perhaps links to the evolutionary usefulness of such behaviour in times of uncertainty and ironically could also be understood as a more concentrated version of cognitive “short-cuts” which take place en masse during the distribution and reproduction of hegemonic narratives of primitiveness in the aftermath of riots.

    Before I go on to look at the sociology, it is probably worth noting that various apolitical features which catalyse aggression and/or a loss of inhibition can make riots more likely. These include heat, darkness, and alcohol. Riots generally involve mainly young males. The only riot I’ve ever been close too took place one year at the Leeds festival - I’ve got vague memories of sitting outside our tent watching the distant rampaging slipknot hoodies having taken the decision that if one of the huge poles they were unearthing was going to fall on me I would rather know about it than not.

    So, an explanation of riots as a pure manifestation of political unrest is simplistic, as it ignores the role of immediate situational factors. However, the following two sociological issues are relevant to the context of the riots this summer.

    1) There is historical antagonism between the met police and the black community. A culture of stop-and-search, revelations of institutional racism, incidents where whole busloads of young men are stopped and contained for hours at a time, allegations of water-boarding of cannabis dealers - cuts to both community cohesion programmes, youth work and the police budget (I suspect diversity training won’t be high on the list of necessities) will exacerbate the issue, but this has a long documented history which goes back way further than Cameron. Put simply, we have a situation where individual police officers are cognitively primed by cultural norms to interpret black behaviour as deviant, and where rioters are primed by cultural norms to interpret police officers as adversarial. Watching the coverage of the riots on the first night, I was struck by the way a former met commander dismissed questions from a reporter as to why the police had not come out to engage in dialogue with the community when originally asked (i.e. before the riots started), by stating that this would have been useless as the community were not reasonable people. It is a deeply deeply rooted problem, and not one which can be solved by money alone, but we owe it to society, both the young men born into a world which tells them they can have and be anything, whilst simultaneously excluding and interrogating, but also to the police officers risking their personal safety to protect communities this week. We need radical community and police integration programs, not a stripping away of all current support.

    2. The other crucial aspect to look at is the key feature once the riots spread - the looting. It is the looting which is probably the second detail after the violence which has led to a descriptive account of primitive animalistic behaviour. Once again, I would caution heavily against an interpretation of rampant greed as some sort of distant pre-human impulse, unchecked in only the most immoral and uncivilised. The same issues of early socialisation apply here: anyone who thought consumerism peaked in the 1980s hasn’t spent a christmas with a toddler recently. Surveying the present stash takes on a subtle nightmarish quality as one reflects that the vast majority of the latest influx of plastic is probably made by children for chidren. We are living in an age of extreme capitalism - of course our teenagers start stealing massive tellies when the opportunity arises, when happiness has been projected to them from birth onwards as something available for only £99.99 from all good retailers (rrp only) - why not take it for free when it is right there in front of you? No, they are not stealing bread, but in a society where the gaps between the haves and the have-nots is ever widening, and it is the have-nots who are doing the smashing and grabbing whilst the haves sit and watch the spectacle (tutting optional) on very similar massive tellies, then we need to move beyond the examination of individual morality to ask exactly who we are as a nation.