Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

What Is Palaeolithic Art? by Jean Clottes

Jean Clottes has worked in the field of Palaeolithic art for most of his life, and is an acknowledged expert. In this volume he gives an overview of what he thinks this extraordinary art signifies. First, he gives an overview of older, less sophisticated European interpretations, before giving his own, which chimes in with the work of David Lewis-Williams, who strongly supports the shamanic view of such art. A longer section on ethnographic comparisons follows, and it’s notable that Clottes is very careful to disentangle inappropriate comparisons between modern “primitive” tribal peoples and human beings of 40,000 years ago. However, he does think that useful comparisons can be made, not least in the area of constantly being surprised as to what certain aspects of rock art might mean. A final section ties everything up and gives the man’s credo. This is a fascinating work; thoughtful, sophisticated, and imbued with much experience.


Advertising – The Joseph Goebbels Of Capitalism

To my mind, it is amazing – if you take a longer, wider perspective – that advertising is permitted at all. It deliberately, explicitly and freely hypnotises millions of people into believing the myths of capitalism, which thereupon proceeds to exploit those same people. Propaganda or polemic is easily labelled as such, even by the zombie scions of the capitalist system (“enlightened self-interest” anyone?), yet advertising is viewed as a necessary, and even a fun or clever aspect of the whole system.

One of the ironies of all this is how people think subliminal messages can be sent via advertising – something proven to be false in recent experiments – whereas the actual cloak-and-dagger stuff is that advertisers are allowed to get away with shocking psychological manipulation, which in the political or military sphere would be little short of brainwashing.

For brainwashing is undoubtedly what advertising is in its modern, media-savvy form. Goebbels would admire what technology-fuelled capitalism has done to sculpt the minds of consumers since the 1950s. The television, the cinema, and across the internet – these are the deadly mouthpieces of capitalism.

I am tempted to use the phrase idiot consumers, as, to me at least, the sheer juvenility of television advertising (for instance) is so easy to see through it’s comical. The invention of fake problems, the incessant use of the word new, “celebrity” endorsement, the imaginary and entirely unrealistic lifestyles… surely these should be techniques utilised by more dystopia writers? I’m surprised only a few have used such ideas. Well, Terry Gilliam at least grasped their power in his film Brazil (whose working title was 1984½) if the endless vistas of advert-plastered roads is anything to go by.

Modern media advertising is psychologically acute, in the same way that a torturer is psychologically acute. With great perceptiveness it exploits the natural weaknesses of some people, then adds a whole new set.

Don’t believe the hype.


A Basic Income – Guaranteed

Is the living wage a good idea? Yes…? Well, what about a guaranteed basic income?

Decades ago, far-sighted humanist author Erich Fromm suggested the idea of an unconditional basic income (not the same thing as the living wage) in one of his many outstanding books, but he was not the first. Thomas more in Utopia wrote: “No penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it is their only way of getting food. It would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood.”

The notion of a living wage has recently reappeared in response to the turmoil unleashed by the continuation of capitalism, with all its expected results, such as the increasing gap between rich and poor; but the idea of an unconditional basic income is more radical. In 1795 Thomas Paine wrote in Agrarian Justice: “Agrarian justice, opposed to agrarian law, and to agrarian monopoly. Being a plan for meliorating the conditions of man by creating in every nation, a national fund, to pay to every person, when arriving at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, to enable him or her to begin the world! And also, ten pounds sterling per annum during life to every person now living of the age of fifty years, and to all others when they shall arrive at that age, to enable them to live in old age without wretchedness, and go decently out of the world.” In other words, a basic income was to be given to every person in a society, regardless of their position. It is, Paine said, “… a right, and not a charity, that I am pleading for.” He wanted the funds to come from a ground-rent paid by property owners. This was just because the Earth is “the common property of the human race,” and so everyone deserved a share on which to survive.

Still later, Bertrand Russell wrote in Proposed Roads to Freedom: “… a certain small income, sufficient for necessities, should be secured for all, whether they work or not. A larger income… should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful.”

And there is much more. The idea of a negative income tax was first proposed by Juliet Rhys-Williams, a British public servant and political activist – people who earned less than some set amount would receive money from the government instead of paying taxes to it. Another British guaranteed income advocate was James Meade, who received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics in 1977.

To return then to Erich Fromm, who was one of the most brilliant analysts of the human condition. He wrote: “Aside from the fact that there is already no work for an ever increasing sector of the population, and hence that the question of incentive for these people is irrelevant. … It can be demonstrated that material incentive is by no means the only incentive for work and effort. First of all there are other incentives: pride, social recognition, pleasure in work itself, etc. Secondly, it is a fact that man, by nature, is not lazy, but on the contrary suffers from the results of inactivity. People might prefer not to work for one or two months, but the vast majority would beg to work, even if they were not paid for it.”

This is not to mention Marshall McLuhan, Margaret Mead and Martin Luther King Jr… and many more.

Of course, there is one main obstacle to such common-sense schemes – the self-regarding narcissism of those who exploit in order to aggrandise themselves. Alas, there has not been much movement in lessening their influence on us all during recent centuries.


A Local Currency For Local People

What is the future for local currencies?

A local currency (eg the Totnes Pound or the Lewes Pound) is money that can be spent in particular local establishments. (Usually it acts as a complementary currency, to be used in addition to the national currency). The idea is to encourage spending within a local community, especially with locally owned businesses. This helps to reduce the environmental footprint, amongst many other advantages. Local currencies however aren’t necessarily backed by a national government, and they might not be legal tender in some cases. Local currencies can also raise awareness of the state of the local economy, which is of particular help when it comes to food production.

Can local currencies work in the real world? One of the main supposed problems is security. But the Brixton Pound is as secure as a sterling bank note, with nine features, including holograms, micro-printing and watermarking. Meanwhile, Paybytext is even more secure, using well established, secure and resilient web technology. So far there have been no reported fraudulent transactions.

Meanwhile, in alternative-friendly Lewes, 5p in every pound goes into a community fund. Some have argued that this means traders who sign up are essentially accepting a discount on their goods for the good of the community. Well, the good of the community is the idea – the traders are part of the community after all – but this levy is a tax, not a discount. As for the idea of locality, the whole process means shops in the scheme have a captive customer base – the main point of a local currency.

One of the other advantages of a local currency is how it provides what Manfred Max-Neef called economic invisibility, by which he meant a combination of independence and self-support inside an environment of capitalist exploitation, with that exploitation mostly arriving through national or international corporations. These independent communities, and the individuals in those communities, are free from the perpetual exploitation that is the most significant hallmark of capitalism.

Over in western parts of Britain, the Bristol Pound – backed by a credit union – promises to be even more tech-savvy than its Lewes counterpart, with the possibility of paying by smartphone as well as with real-world notes. Also included is online banking, with deposits backed by the Financial Services Authority (because the currency is backed by the Bristol credit union). This is the first UK scheme where businesses will be able to use the money to pay tax, including business rates – they won’t be stuck with ‘savings’ in currency none of their suppliers accept. Moreover, the mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, as of 2013 takes all his salary in Bristol Pounds, while the chief executive takes ₤5,000 of her salary in local. The city also earns local currency from market traders who use their ₤B earnings to pay their pitch fees.

During the Depression, many British local authorities created their own local currencies to help put people back to work. They were eventually closed down by central banks and central governments – a more obvious deed of exploitation could hardly be dreamed up. But humanist/green policies like local currencies do work today, and their future, albeit in the long term, look positive.

So if you want to do one thing to extricate yourself from the economic disaster of globalisation and continuing capitalism, go local. The only other thing as powerfully effective is to become a vegetarian!


The Growth Illusion

Every Western government, and quite a few elsewhere in the world, base their economic policies on the following paradox. The stated goal of their economies is growth every year. Without growth, there is recession, and possibly depression, with all its associated aspects, of which the most feared is unemployment. Politicians (the zombie servants of economics) hammer this point home week after week after week: “We must have growth.” And yet a glaring paradox exists. We live on a finite planet. The population is expanding, and will continue to expand for a few decades yet, but how can a finite planet sustain perpetual economic growth, even if population increase levels off? Such growth is clearly an impossibility.

Capitalist economics assumes – sometimes explicitly, more often as a hidden assumption – that there is no limit to economic growth. Nature, by contrast, operates in the opposite manner – there is always a limit to natural growth. Sometimes, as in the case of an individual, this is genetically programmed, but elsewhere natural growth, for example amongst a population, is constrained by the rest of the ecosystem. All such populations of species are constrained by the circumstances of their environment. They are not entirely free. Such “freedom” in the human world is an illusion caused by an inability to look further than one’s own nose. We are not entirely free, and that lesson could do with being learned by certain nations of the West.

Economic growth must therefore fail at some point in the future. That is an inevitability. The ecosystems of the planet, on which we survive, and which economists never factor into their calculations, will either fail through breakdown, or because they have vanished through diminishing to the point of being gone forever. Capitalist, growth-driven economics assumes that unsustainable resources are in fact sustainable, which leads economists to factor them out of their calculations, or not even notice them, as though they were effectively invisible.

The obsession with economic growth has pushed the natural environment beyond its capacity to function. It is not just James Lovelock who has warned about the foolishness of taking out swathes of the environment so that the planet’s self-regulating processes can’t continue to operate; there are others, such as Richard Douthewaite. Economic growth at the expense of the planet is literally madness, in the sense of denying the reality of what is happening around us in favour of the blinkered, unreasonable fantasies of capitalism.

It will all end in tears.


How Interesting

Let’s imagine the entire scale of wage earners in Britain, from the very highest to the very lowest. Allowing for local variations, a striking fact emerges. The lowest-earning ten percent of the population pay out more in interest than they receive. The middle eighty percent of the population pay out roughly as much as they receive, while the highest earning ten percent receive more from interest on savings than they pay out elsewhere. Within that top ten percent, the top ten percent likewise “perform” at an even more outrageously exaggerated financial rate.

You would expect this. Since the time of the first residents of Sumerian temples 5,000 years ago, people with more money have lent people with less their funds on the understanding that payment back would include a small percentage extra. In other words, the interest rate mechanism is a way of the rich funnelling money from the poor.

But there is a consequence of this scheme which isn’t so obvious. The almost universal use of the interest rate mechanism means that money is not being used to benefit humanity out in the real world; it is instead being stored, useless and motionless, simply so that a minority of lucky winners or landed gentry can make more off it. What this does is massively restrict the ability of money to do good for the largest number of people. It means a huge chunk of accrued potential to do work in the real world is lost to those who through luck happen to have more than anybody else.

Various ecologically minded thinkers have pointed out that a far more reasonable approach – from the point of view of humanity in general rather than individuals – would be to charge a small rate for people to store their money, should they want to. In other words, there would be a small levy on the act of keeping money out of general circulation.

Of course, with greed and selfishness a major factor in all contemporary life, this suggestion is unlikely to come about in the near future. But still… makes you think. How much money is wasted in this world, inactive like so many dull stones, simply to allow a tiny number of people the ability to funnel more towards themselves?


Who Will Oppose Now?

Are we looking at a clear run in the foreseeable future for the party of the landed gentry, as British politics goes into meltdown and nothing continues to be done about the country’s massive disenfranchisement via first-past-the-post?

If Labour were forged in the nineteenth century expansion of the urban working class, and the Greens were forged in the tumultuous changes of the ‘60s (not to mention a super-blip courtesy the late ‘80s), then what social conditions will be the foundation of the next formal political opposition to the Tories? The Liberal Democrats, despite their long history, are weak and may never rise again, while the Greens are stymied by being ahead of their time and by an electoral system that acts against all minority parties. So it seems everyone except the blue meanies will fail. What social conditions in Britain could make a new opposition?

Of course, the system is set up for a right wing party, or vaguely right wing in the case of New Labour, to succeed. The pomp… the history… the passing centuries… kings and queens… no wonder professional human being Jeremy Corbyn is so out of place. Should we then look to youth? Young voters have made a very favourable impression in recent weeks and months, but – as somebody whose professional life is well within their sphere – I can’t help but worry about the mesmeric, bland, commercialised hypno-rays being broadcast by their millions of smart phones. It’s a cliché to worry about this, maybe; but if so a cliché with more than a kernel of truth. Meanwhile, British education continues to implant some kind of Standard Knowledge into young people without worrying much about the consequences.

I can’t help but wonder if there are no social conditions in the foreseeable future that will galvanise a new political opposition to the Tories. What is different now is globalisation, and its technological adjunct the internet. Is it possible that the monochrome hand of polarisation presently hovering over the Western world is due to the internet? It has after all radically transformed society in the way that, say, Marxism did, or Feminism and the Civil Rights movement, or manufacturing industry. It is everywhere, and nobody could deny that our minds are being changed by it; especially young minds.

The internet allows instant response to everything and it allows everyone an opinion. While this latter is a foundation of democracy and entirely to be welcomed, the former may have the unfortunate side effect of causing polarisation. Immediate yes/no, immediate response, immediate rejection or embracing of opinions, the absence of those periods of time in which all human beings do their thinking, as in normal conversation… because of this, and over the years, the internet perhaps brings about a shift to opposed extremes, with no grey in the middle. I think this social condition may be encouraging political deadlock across the West, sucking away the grey, fostering black and white. A perpetual 50-50.

No obvious, emotionally satisfying, intellectually and ethically rigorous political movement will in my view emerge from this social condition. I don’t foresee a Black & White Party, a Return To Grey, a Party Of Immediate Polls, or an Anti-Instant Response movement. I don’t think the world’s anti-Capitalist movement has much momentum. The positive aspects of the internet are not in the main being translated into society, while its negative aspects frequently are. Although another cliché is to parallel the total lack of control over the internet with the American Wild West, I think this obsession with total internet freedom – a fantasy derived from the particulars of American culture – is responsible for a lot of the malaise the West presently suffers from.

Where, then, to go? How to oppose true blue?


He Doesn’t Feel Like A Leader

“He doesn’t feel like a leader.”

This refrain has been uttered many times during the last few days, but who does it refer to? Cameron? The clown prince Johnson? (a man deemed to be a celebrity if the regular use of just ‘Boris’ when referring to him is anything to go by). Actually the comment is about Jeremy Corbyn, and it has been said countless times in front of media cameras, in vox pops, by commentators and by MPs.

But why doesn’t Jeremy Corbyn feel like a leader? His record of opposition to iniquity is lengthy and outstanding. He goes on demonstrations, he makes passionate speeches, his ethics are about as mature and humane as could be wished for, and many Labour voters and politicians deem him above all “a decent man.” Maybe there is something wrong with him… or, maybe he is fine, but he doesn’t match the role of leader.

What then is generally accepted these days as leadership qualities? A leader must be ‘strong,’ competitive, must support the current economic system without question, because business is very important – growth! growth! growth! – and must be seen by the right wing media as a suitable person. Oh, and a leader must wear the right sort of clothes; absolutely vital, that. Interestingly, this rule appears to apply only to male leaders – the symbolic uniform that is the suit’n’tie.

Jeremy Corbyn’s attributes – compassionate, thoughtful, humane, with a strong sense of injustice – are not welcome, it seems. Perhaps he is decades, even centuries ahead of his time – as was Michael Foot. Perhaps our model of leadership is designed for those who have not yet acquired such attributes as compassion and humanity. The irony of this of course is that those few conviction politicians who go to Westminster to do humanity some good are 99.9% left of centre.

It is not difficult to argue that the present political system was designed by boys for the use of boys. By ‘boy,’ I mean an emotionally stunted standard man, whose ethical outlook matches that of a boy anywhere between the ages of eight and eighteen. You only have to glance at the hierarchical, woman-rejecting, vengeful, self-regarding (‘the Westminster bubble’), dysfunctional system of Parliament to see a group of boys in a schoolyard. I’m sure Douglas Adams wasn’t the first person to observe that those attracted to power in a hierarchical system are those least suited to wielding it. And I think it is highly significant that today Teresa May made a barbed comment, presumably aimed at Boris Johnson, about “government not being a game.”

But boys do think it’s a game. That’s the problem.


PR Now!

I live in the constituency of North Shropshire, where my MP is Owen Paterson, a man who hardly covered himself with glory during his time as Environment Secretary – one colleague describing him as an “industry puppet” (a Tory? quelle surprise), while Paterson himself spent time last year lashing out at Neil Young for daring to criticise Monsanto.

If in the next election I vote Tory, I get Owen Paterson as my MP. If I vote Labour, I get Owen Paterson as my MP. If I vote Liberal Democrat, I get Owen Paterson as my MP. If I vote Green, I get Owen Paterson as my MP. If I vote Monster Raving Loony, I get Owen Paterson as my MP, which seems appropriate actually. If I don’t vote I get Owen Paterson as my MP. If I spoil my vote I get Owen Paterson as my MP. Regardless of what I do, don’t do, or think about doing, I get Owen Paterson as my MP.

North Shropshire is the most secure seat in Britain. It has been in Tory hands since 1835. Yes, you read that right – 1835.

North Shropshire, like around 370 other constituencies according to the Electoral Reform Society – well over half the seats in Parliament – is a safe seat. All voters in safe seats are disenfranchised. Their votes – whether they support the sitting candidate or not – are, in the full sense of the word, meaningless. What then is the point of voting in a safe seat, unless, for reasons of British eccentricity, you just feel an urge to do something really pointless?

I don’t vote in North Shropshire, and I never have in any of the other safe seats I’ve lived in. I just can’t bring myself to support this ludicrous system; and I can’t make myself perform a meaningless act.

Here are some more numbers from the Electoral Reform Society:

  • 368 seats are so safe the Electoral Reform Society can call the result in them before an election.
  • 25.7 million voters live in safe seats.
  • 79.3% of constituencies in North East England are safe seats, with 77.8% in Northern Ireland and 70% in the East of England.
  • 225 constituencies have not changed political hands since before 1950.

Proportional Representation solves this problem and makes a British General Election fair to all. We need this change to drag Britain from the nineteenth century into the twenty first century. Frankly, any of the versions of PR would be better than the ridiculous system we presently have. And perhaps a change to PR would go some way to dealing with the abyss lying between voters and MPs, a gap that threatens only to widen as the years roll by. Perhaps then voters would believe that their vote truly did count, instead of listening, uncaring, to politicians mouthing that platitude.

“But it means coalition governments and lots of deal-making,” whinge the nay-sayers. Yes – compromise, deal making and working together. I’m pretty sure that’s what government in a true democracy is all about.


Has Labour’s expiry date arrived?

In the late 19th century the proto-Labour Party was formed to politically represent the interests of a rapidly expanding, urban working class section of society. A century went by, in which the main Western struggle was between left and right. But those conditions don’t exist any more, and we live in an era of globalisation, free market domination and the internet.

Given that the conditions which gave rise to Labour have utterly changed, is this perhaps the reason for Labour’s decline in recent years, even decades? In order for Blair to be elected he had to turn into a Tory. So to me, the current crisis of hard left versus soft left is more a symptom of the change in fundamental conditions – social mostly, but also economic – in which Labour exists than anything else. Manufacturing is gone or going in most regions, accrued wealth in our nation and an expanding middle class means the nature of the working class has changed beyond recognition, and it is an oft-repeated cliché that there are no more black-and-white certainties any more.

The other political aspect of our society that has changed, which I think has considerable bearing on all this, is the rise of the individual taking over from the collective. In my opinion Thatcherism was a symptom of this change rather than its origin. The inexorable move from trades union block voting to one man one vote was also a symptom of this social change.

There will always need to be an opposition and an alternative to the Tories, who I think still basically represent the landed gentry and associated slackers – they may have taken on the commercial and industrial interests of the original Liberal Party, but essentially they’re still a club for toffs. But I wonder now if the expiry date has arrived for Labour. No more collective responsibility (or hardly any), one man one vote, New Labour, by implication an Old Labour… and above all this the dilemma I mentioned yesterday, that of Labour politicians having to turn into Tories in order to get elected. Definitely no more socialism…

I think the end might be nigh for Labour in decades to come. It tried to turn from a democratic socialist party into a social democratic one, but I see little evidence of that working now. Besides – the brand is the same. The brand is old. That colour remains unchanged. What do we even mean by “labour” in 2016? Yet with a ruined Liberal party, few Greens, and an electoral system, first-past-the-post, which disenfranchises the majority of British voters, what lies in the future? With Scotland going or gone, I see no alternative to save what remains of Britain from a vista of endless blue.

What a shame.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers