Jacques on Trump and other pleasantries

It’s fashionable to announce the collapse of western democracy or at least its imminent demise. I guess the current turmoil does illustrate some of the failings of democratic government, in particular how it has become just another tool the powerful can use to protect their own interests but the confidence underlying some authors who think we can somehow avert a descent into another ugly period of human history seems problematic and neglects some basic ideas about power.

The first problem is the notion that somehow democracy was won by the masses some time in the distant past. Often this comes with utterances about the French revolution or the US version or perhaps even some developments in the UK. My problem with this is the narrative doesn’t really hold up. I’m not disputing there were violent upheavals that accompanied certain changes in government in some places, and in fact that is quite an illuminating fact in itself. No, what I dispute is the idea that democracy somehow ushered in a permanent change in power sharing within society, away from inherited wealth and towards a more egalitarian world for example. Certainly and until recently there have been some progress (say in terms of decades or centuries) in the degree and extent of poverty in the west but the current trajectory of wealth distribution is really turning back the clock at a very alarming rate. What seems to be emerging is the extent to which the fledgling democratic ideals were subverted over time by the rich and powerful. The masses may have won temporary battles in the past but their victories were tainted by conditions that permitted the rich and powerful to retreat and bide their time.

A case in point. The rise of communism in Russia was accompanied by an extremely bloody purge of the nobility. It gave birth to an aggressive socialism which had many deficiencies but perhaps the worst problem was how it entrenched even more deeply the power of violence to protect vested interests. Perhaps this validates the ideas of Derrida who once argued that any violent overthrowing of authority (or government) inexorably leads to a re-establishment of power and authority sustained by the capacity to do violence.

Not that Russia is alone. Western governments retain above all else the capacity to engage in violence both towards others and within its own sovereign borders. In other words they keep standing armies to defend the state from external threats and operate a police force to maintain law and order.

The other thread to this yarn is about the threat posed by technology.

I have frequently asserted that technology (or the application of known science) is in a sense socially neutral or even beneficial. Things like elimination of certain diseases or the distribution of electricity. However I think there is also an argument that can be made about how the wonders of technology are subverted by the capitalist model and tend to favour those who are already well off. Sure there are plenty of exceptions but overall the people who can most enjoy and benefit from new tech are the very same people who have always enjoyed the best of the best.

This too is becoming a pressing issue. The collapse in structural employment driven largely by the automation of routine production and the dominant profit motive will only become more extreme as robotics further invades to workplace. The economic optimism of jobs being magically created seems hard to sustain when you look at some of the numbers, such as 3.5 million truck drivers in the US threatened by self driving trucks or the millions of taxi drivers threatened by self driving ubers.

Some people take refuge in the idea of economic growth. Somehow this panacea seems to be the goto answer for every pessimistic critique of the status quo but when the proceeds of economic growth are increasingly winding up in the hands of fewer and fewer, the obvious rebuttal is the treadmill seems to heading in the wrong direction.

The economic problems posed by increasing inequity are compounded by the social problems posed by large scale unemployment. For most people, working is the only way to satisfy their material needs. Work is the way most people get access to the monetary system that controls the necessities of life but it also has a critical role to play in maintaining social order. Culturally the west has invested heavily in the politics of personal identity premised on productive worth. Furthermore there seems to be plenty of evidence supporting the idea that large scale unemployment leads to large scale social unrest. I think it is fair to say social stability is largely underwritten by a social economic contract, however it is not a contract between equals.

The current “crisis” in democracy is far more than just another problem with the various political system and probably represents just the tip of the iceberg. In short the economic growth scenario is floundering largely because it seems to have run its course. Without an overwhelming economic narrative, we are left looking for alternatives but it is grimly ironic that the very success of the west in dominating any viable alternative leaves us with almost no where else to go.

And that anyone can possibly imagine Trump is the answer is really all you need to know about how fucked we are.


The Trump Irony

Reading a couple of stories on Quartz about jobs and Trump on the day Oz votes seems mildly indulgent but political junkies have to get their fix somewhere.

The first one about post recession jobs in the US underlines the the new class boundaries emerging in the neoliberal world order. Essentially, all the new jobs in the US have gone to people with more than a basic education. So-called blue collar jobs have apparently disappeared.

Another piece of anecdotal evidence. apparently those who voted for Brexit were from regions most affected by structural unemployment, and to boot were predominantly older and less educated. Trump’s key demographics.

Trump is very keen to exploit the new class divide, those with jobs and those without. But a deeper irony exists beyond the public political arena. Lisandro Claudio highlights the role of intellectual discourse in the rise of Trump and political nihilism. Specifically, Claudio claims the intellectual elites are indirectly to blame because they have failed to offer a viable alternative to the dominant capitalist paradigm. In turn this has allowed people like Trump to exploit the rising tide of disaffection and anger. The anger is directed towards the so-called elites, the ones who have landed all the post recession jobs. The very people who seemingly have taken to heart the modern motto of personal responsibility.

In case you have missed it, one of the cornerstones of the capitalist model is the idea that it is up to the individual to make the most of their opportunities, the system rewards hard work and values competition in markets, especially the employment market. Yet according to the new politics of Trump and co the failure of the rising tide in capitalist model to lift all boats is because of others, be they elite or foreigners. The new politics avoids the inconvenient idea that the system is not in fact some natural consequence of immutable given laws which effect all equally by giving its supporters someone else to blame. In other words, it’s not your fault you have been made redundant, it’s the fault of others. The fact the system has rewarded them and not you is because they have conspired against you, but wait, the system can be great again. Once we get rid of the those pesky elites and meddling foreigners. All those jobs will suddenly go to the people who deserve them.

If it was a play you might be tempted to savour the irony. Unfortunately, like the politicians who grandly championed the Brexit campaign are discovering, simple minded appeals to populism open the door to some ugly consequences. It’s a pity the lessons of history are easily forgotten.


Only The Libs have a plan?

The Australian Financial Review claims “Malcolm Turnbull is the only leader with a genuine growth agenda” in their editorial. Why? Because of the magic pudding of corporate tax cuts.

Who are they kidding? On what planet does corporate tax cuts automatically ensure economic growth? Where is the evidence?

Corporate tax cuts do however ensure that corporations pay less taxes. Corporations like Crown Casinos and News Corp. Not to mention other perennial favourites like Leightons, BHP, Hancock Prospecting etc etc. Hmm corporate tax cuts must be good for us if it rewards those companies. But the evidence? I can find evidence that high corporate taxation doesn’t necessarily deter economic growth but really the simple bold assertion that giving the big end of town a cut rate on their taxes is suddenly going to fuel prodigious economic growth is at best unsupported by any actual evidence.

And the AFR criticism of Billy Shorten, he has engaged in class warfare. Digging into old school politics of envy. Tax the rich, help the poor, that sort of thing. Shame on you Bill.

So the problem isn’t really a matter of one side of politics has an economic plan and the other doesn’t. That’s bullshit. They both have a plan, but one side would rather work towards improving economic equality because that produces better social outcomes whereas the other side wishes to produce greater economic inequality because inequality is the primary device that drives the capitalist model, a model which has recently resulted in even more spectacular results for the rich.

But I guess at $4 per edition not too many unemployed are reading the AFR these days.


How has it come to this?

It’s a fair question and one a few workers might be asking themselves as news regarding the latest casualties in the Shoppies pay deal comes to light. Specifically, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), has traded off “penalty rates and casual loadings of vulnerable, low paid workers in exchange, in many cases, for barely a handful of coins in extra hourly pay”.

Well why bother joining a union? So you can give them money so they can sell you out to the employers? If unionism was teetering on the edge of an abyss, one union just decided to wander a bit closer to the edge.

But hyperbole aside, the question remains how on earth did this decision by the union get up? It smacks of corruption at some level and gross dishonesty on many others. But mostly it’s more fuel for despair. Where is the outrage? Why is Bill Shorten quietly ignoring this, praying the matter will go away? Every Labor candidate should be held to account, the party supposedly representing organised labour, is politely ignoring the implications of a union deal that screws the most vulnerable workers.

Of course it won’t get much traction as “an issue”. The focus is on “black holes” and “boat people”. What a crock.


The Great Disconnect

“Canberra’s price growth remains strong” boasted the Fairfax media. Over the last year price growth remains strong “rising 5.1 percent”. Add to this a rate cut in the Reserve Bank rate which “will certainly help to retain buyer sentiment (and) should help to keep the local market conditions buoyant”.

Oh buoyant. Not like wages growth. Unlike the self interested Nicola Powell, the Reserve Bank isn’t boasting a strong growth in price growth when it comes to wage growth. In fact “wage growth has declined markedly in Australia over the past few years”.

The reasons according to the Reserve Bank paper are continuing improvements in labour productivity, spare capacity in the labour market, declining inflation and the demands of international competition. In other words, technology is enabling workplace efficiencies, structural unemployment continues to act as a brake on the expectations of the labour market, house prices are not reflected in inflation figures and anyway we still need to compete with child labour overseas.

If these trends continue, wages growth will really become wages decline in the headline sense. In another sense, it already has. Wages are falling behind the growth in house prices, which definitely spells trouble for the idea of owning your own home. Almost anyone can see continued price growth of 5% per annum is greater than a wages growth of 2% and given the ratio of house prices to annual wages, the gap becomes far more pronounced over time.

But for the ones owning a house or with a real estate portfolio nicely negative geared to minimise their tax liability, booming real estate prices are fantastic news. I bet they get cake.


Why Turnbull has to defend Negative Gearing

Crikey call it the ongoing war against young people (it is) and New Matilda identified the aspiring class of one years as winners in the current regime but despite these cogent ideas and well argued articles there remains one rather obvious response to Mr Turnbull’s hasty defence of the existing landed gentry.

Of course you need to realise that government is about governing the majority for the benefit of the few (the 1%). The magic is in not letting the cat out of the bag, hence the portrayal of struggling aspirants capitalists mixed with nuclear family values as virtuous examples of how well the system is working. Never mind analysis from unfriendly think tanks like the Grattan Institute which delivers a pretty bleak view for those who simply want a secure roof over their heads. No nothing to see here.

Hence armed with this realisation then the unspoken truth is that the existing massive tax breaks that favour the investing real estate barons of tomorrow who are the very people with the ear of Mr Turnbull and his bunch of crony neoliberals. How do we know this? Well if negative gearing wasn’t the biggest tax lurk under the Australian sun then Murdoch would be screaming blue murder. The lengths to which the entitled are going to convince the renter class that negative gearing is in THEIR interests is simply the only proof we need that it is in fact exactly the opposite.

But then as the late great Kerry used to say, it is the responsibility of the rich to minimise their tax burden to the full extent of the law (or words to that effect). And if successive sycophantic governments have made taxation for the rich completely optional well that’s just fine and dandy. I’m sure Kerry would agree.


Facebook will not bring you the next revolution

Who remembers the Arab Spring? Do you recall the claim that Facebook and Twitter were an enabling factor in the pro-democracy revolts? Well according to this rather telling piece in the Atlantic, at best “Facebook is what guided the protests, but the true vehicle for change was the protests themselves”.

Indeed. Guided.

Think about it for a millisecond. Ok time’s up.

Facebook is the latest in a rather dubiously long line of (Capitalist) American Success Stories. Zuckerberg at 31 is worth a cool $30 billion US. Bill Gates from the Microsoft is worth about $75 billion. Do you think either of these men want to change the orthodox political economy? The very one that rewards them whilst impoverishing the rest of the world? Or is it more likely that these men simply want to profit from a system that rewards aspiring monopolists regardless of the veneer tacked on the greed.

However, I want to make another point about the inability of Facebook to foster genuine subversion and that is the rather appalling way it facilitates spying by agencies on the unsuspecting. The term Facebook snooping is so common place it hardly seems to be problematic in polite circles, especially in a general environment where we are positively encouraged to share everything about ourselves with the internet god. Personal details, financial details, travel details, friends, political interests, sexual habits, what we look like, our cultural tastes, the list is almost endless.

The data collected by Facebook is just a part of this giant database. It can be used, as Facebook and others claim, to enhance the specificity of advertising which in turn is seen as making advertising more successful. Or it can be used by government agencies as another source of data about the population they are supposed to govern for.

There are lots of reasons Facebook and any internet media wont bring the existing world order to an abrupt halt. As the Chinese did and others are doing, it is possible (albeit technically imperfect) to have a large degree of control over the internet. There are various levels of control, from those masquerading as essential for law and order, others that claim to protect so-called intellectual property, to those not so polite which directly enable government access to internet data. These act as the formal brake on the wild west character of the internet. Then there are the less obvious forms of control built into the internal structures of companies like Facebook and Google who are by their nature financially risk adverse. Sure they want to do things but not if it is going to create a major conflict with the status quo. Critically, innovation is seen as a way to further market share, which means more eyeballs glued to their screen. And then there is the control which rests in the network infrastructure which is increasing becoming more centralised. It is also possible to strategically disable parts of a network, like cell towers or critical routers, should the need arise. And then there is the relatively stable infrastructure that supports the modern net. Major instabilities like unreliable power would certainly impact the web. In other words, Facebook, Google, Apple etc have become functional parts of the status quo.

For the status quo, incremental change is manageable. Radical change is inimical and yet there seems to be growing signs that radical change is what the world needs or is heading towards.


Adani’s Carmichael Mine

Here’s a thing about the mine which I am having some trouble with. Well there’s several, but the main one is this idea of a moral imperative to provide coal powered electricity to the masses in India.

I know that sounds a little patronising, coming from the land of plenty but bear with me for a moment.

Here’s the pro argument by Josh Frydenberg “I think there’s a strong moral case here – I’ve just been at the G20 and at the APEC energy ministers’ meeting and they pointed out that over a billion people around the world don’t have access to electricity,” and he added that such a lack leads to 4.3 million premature deaths each year.

Let’s agree. A lack of electricity is a major impediment to living in the 21st century. In short we would be pretty much screwed without it. But the obvious question is what is the best way to address the method of generating electricity? Is burning coal in a carbon constrained atmosphere facing runaway global warming really the best solution? Seriously?

Another thing. Why is it that when we talk about screwing over future generations, our standard response is, it’s about the jobs and economic prosperity? I’ve seen a claim of 10,000 jobs and billions in taxes to be collected. It sounds a bit like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow because a. no one will ever be able to verify any of the claims and b. if they do and they don’t actually materialise we will have another local environmental disaster to deal with as well as the any damage done to the globe’s rather fragile carbon footprint. Frankly no-one will ever know how many jobs are created and the tax claim is utterly unsubstantiated given the shonky tax evasion schemes employed by multinational corporations to avoid taxes. So I call bullshit.

We need to think smarter about our problems. This is just dumb.


4am a postscript

So after dozing for an hour I decided to get on with it. Get up, do stuff, you know the drill. It was Sunday for fuck’s sake.

I’ve done stuff, eaten and about to do coffee which is questionable given how my body has been reacting to the black god recently. And I’ve caught up on some net. The one about how to live a moderately successful life on The Guardian motivated me to drag out the quill and ink.

So we all know the secrets of highly successful people since there are about 12 zillion web pages devoted to emulating Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Well maybe not.

And now we also know that having a good job, with a few highlights on the side like loving companions and respectable artistic achievements is only moderately successful. Only. Word to Emer, a lot of people would die for even some of that. I suspect an awful lot.

What a load of middle class indulgent bollicking effluence. Eat three meals a day; go tell it to someone in Eritrea or Ethiopa or any of the other 320 countries in the world where the average national GDP per capita is below the worldwide average of about $14,000 US per annun.

As for the rest, well that’s a long way down the list of life’s essentials.

Now I know Emer is writing to a largely well healed middle class living in a first world economy and within those parameters I should extend a grain or two of salt.

So I’ve given the matter about 20 seconds of reflection and decided these are the secrets to living a shitty unsuccessful life spectacularly punctuated by wild ambition and flights of fantasty but ultimately weighed down by certain facts of life.

Be born well off. Most important. Avoid being born in any of the previously mention 320 countries in the world where life is already a struggle. You aren’t helping them or yourself.

Better still be born rich. End of story. Wait for your life to be delivered.

Get educated about how the world is supposed to work but remain ignorant about how the world really works. This is also crucial for those who want to live a bitterly unsuccessful life plagued by unanswerable moral questions and situational paradoxes. Like why if capitalism is so good are there so few really lucky people and a shitload of very unlucky people? And can’t we do better?

Be marginalised. That’s easy for half the population who are born into it. But for bonus points you could also have some distinctive racial characteristics. Skin colour is another easy pathway to a less than stellar life experience.

Listen to people who tell you to work hard and always say please and thankyou. Manners may be considered old fashioned but they certainly let the ruling class know when they are dealing with a suitable polite member of the serving class. And like they always said, the devil finds work for idle hands. So keep yourself busy. Opening doors and putting out the trash. maybe in your spare time you can knit a sweater or fix a door.

Make bad decisions. I can’t stress how important this is. If you really want to die full of regret, anguish and self pity it is important that you get into the habit early and stick with it. A word of warning however. While it’s good practice to get used to making dumb decisions early, like at school when you decide to hang out with the groovy kids instead of doing actual school work what is crucial is the ability to make certain really dumb decisions at crucial point in your life. Like deciding the dropkick dickhead who got you pregnant at 16 really is the only one for you and yes you will devote the best years of your life to bringing up his child. Or maybe you’ve reached the middle years and decide that the last 15 to 20 years was so easy you can smash it all and start again.

And this readers, is the crux. Sometimes shitty things happen because we let them happen, sometimes they happen because other people make them happen and sometimes they just happen. And they happen again. Dodging them is easier for some people who can spot them coming and have the luxury of ability and the resources to avoid them hitting them dead centre but the rest of us just have to clean up as best we can and keep going. To have a really unsuccessful and shitty life, just be in the wrong places at the wrong times for the wrong reasons.

Because if life was fair, we would all be eating cake.