Friday, 23 January 2015

Calling Syriza far left hides the extremism of the far centre

From the Guardian to the Financial Times, from the BBC to the Daily Mail, from Reuters to the Daily Telegraph, the mainstream media is united on one point; the likely winner of the Greek elections on Sunday, Syriza, is a ‘far left’ party. In keeping with the extreme image and hotfoot from page 2 of ‘The Book of Journalistic Clichés’, Syriza’s leader, Alex Tsipras, is invariably branded a ‘firebrand’.

But after you have traversed excursions into Syriza’s roots as a radical left coalition, you brush up against an inescapably dissonant fact. That what Syriza is advocating is not ‘far’ or extreme in the slightest, but moderate, humanitarian and sensible.

Here’s is a list of Syriza’s ‘far left’ policies, culled from a Guardian article. The party wants to supply free electricity to people who have been cut off, give health insurance to the uninsured, food stamps to children and homes to the (legions) of homeless. In addition, Syriza is determined to massively reduce Greece’s euro debt of €320 billion and cut interest payments, urging an international conference debt relief conference, akin to the one that slashed West Germany’s war debt in 1953. Syriza wants to decrease the tax burden on ordinary Greeks and increase it on corporations. (Corporate income tax in Greece, it should be noted, was scythed in half, from 40 to 20%, by the ‘centre-left’ Pasok party in 2001, the year the country joined the Eurozone).

“There is nothing radical, much less revolutionary, in these policies,” said Greek economist Costas Lapavitsas in December. “They represent modest common sense and would open a fresh path for other European countries.” Syriza itself claims its policies were “standard fare” during the Golden Age of capitalism in the 1950s and ‘60s. “Instead the leftwingers argue that the centre of gravity in politics has shifted so much to the right since the advent of Thatcherism that the party’s proposals now seem radical,” writes one journalist.

And it hasn’t entirely slipped under the radar that Syriza’s policies are eminently sensible. “At the core of Mr Tsispras’s economic platform is debt relief, an idea so unthinkable that nearly every mainstream economist has advocated it,” noted the Financial Times rather sarcastically earlier this month. The pro-globalisation economist, and former European Commission advisor, Philippe Legrain, has come out in favour of a Syriza victory, lauding such an outcome as a “necessary step toward resolving a crisis that has been festering since 2009”.

But still the epigram ‘far left’ is not given up, and not because of lazy journalistic habit. Mainstream commentators must brand Syriza as far left in order to maintain the fiction that the centre itself is not extreme. It was, after all, the political centre that inflicted the current sadistic penance on Greece, an austerity package that has resulted in GDP contracting by 25%, wages falling by a third, and unemployment of 26% and above. “The human cost has been immeasurable, amounting to a silent humanitarian crisis,” says Lapavitsas. “Many families scrape by on seniors’ slashed pensions. Crowds jostle for handouts at food banks. Some children are reduced to scavenging through rubbish bins for scraps. Hospitals run short of medicines. Malaria has even made a return,” writes the definitively anti-leftist Legrain.

And all this to make sure that Deutsche Bank, and other deserving creditors, receive their interest payments.

But Greek austerity is clearly not the first manifestation of the centre’s extremism. The Iraq War of 2003, prosecuted in part by that denizen of the centre-ground, Tony Blair, resulted in between 185,000 and 700,000 deaths. Through deregulation and liberalisation the mainstream was midwife to the huge economic crisis of 2008, and in response, has inflicted the costs of paying for it on those least responsible, whilst showering corporations with tax cuts, and intervening in the market through Quantitative Easing to ensure share values and wealth of the rich are not depleted. Britain is not Greece but the number of people accessing three days’ worth of emergency provisions through food banks in the UK, has increased nine-fold in a single year and now stands at over 900,000. Internationally, the same political mainstream has aided and abetted off-shoring by corporations at every turn (known euphemistically as globalisation), a process that has sent carbon emissions soaring to their highest ever level, as more and more products are transported across the globe, at precisely the time that emissions must be reduced in order to give civilisation a chance of surviving the next hundred years.

Yet, Syriza is a ‘far left’ party threatening the mainstream with its ‘suicidal’ policies. In an honest world, Angela Merkel’s CDU, David Cameron’s Conservatives and Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party would be labelled the ‘far centre’. Of course, they won’t; that immediately sounds like a non-sequitur. Which is precisely why the use of words is so jealously guarded. Nobody wants to spout nonsense, do they?

Recognising the common sense behind Syriza’s positions does not mean it will have an easy time in government. Besides sabotage by the troika, Syriza will find that saving capitalism from itself will not be an easy task in this financialised era, a far cry from the golden years of capitalism, when economic growth seemed impossible to stop. The same dilemmas will face Spain’s Podemos, newly leading the polls in that country, which likens its policies to mainstream Social Democracy or even Christian Democracy in the post-Second World War era.

But if a person is asphyxiating under a concrete slab, the first priority is to lift up  the slab and let them breathe. That is what Syriza can do.


If you want an example of the 'far centre' in all its bizarre glory look no further than IMF chief Christine Lagarde's tribute to King Abudullah of Saudi Arabia

He did a lot for women 'discreetly'. He had this unfortunate habit of beheading people, but, hey, nobody's perfect!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Should charities take over private, not public, services?

I don’t know about other countries, but in Britain it has long been a mantra of the political class that charities should, alongside private companies, take over the running of public, or state, services. Way back in 2002, under Tony Blair’s Labour government, a Treasury review declared that voluntary and community organisations had “a crucial role to play in the reform of public services”.

Fast forward to December 2014 and the new Conservative minister for charities could be heard calling for billions of pounds of public services to be transferred to the voluntary sector.  Many services have already been put in the hands of charities, from work programme contracts, to probation schemes and even prison services, though they are often playing second fiddle to corporate lead contractors.

But news that a charity, dedicated to providing affordable housing, is to take over the running of the New Era housing estate in London after an American property company, which wanted to hike up rents, caved into pressure and sold it to them, raises an interesting question. Perhaps, and not for the first time, the political establishment in Britain has got everything the wrong way round, and it is in private, not public, services, that charities have a role to play.

Consider the New Era case. An American property development company, Westbrook Partners, wanted to quadruple rents and evict families, bringing rents into line with what the market would charge for properties near to London’s financial district (New Era is in Hoxton, East London). After months of protesting by tenants, the company threw in the towel and sold out to a charity whose philosophy is to “fix rents relative to people’s incomes and not relative to market rents”.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

Because the plight of the New Era tenants is obviously not unique. Britain is in the midst of a housing crisis. 4 million households in England alone rent from a landlord, compared to 1.9 million in 2001. Rents have risen by 21% since 2010. They often comprise 40% of income, and renters fear eviction if they ask for repairs. Terrible conditions, including pest infestations and mould or damp are often the norm.

If ever there was a sector in dire need of reform it’s the private rented sector. And here is where charities, dedicated to setting affordable rents, providing repairs when asked to, and not leaving tenants with the threat of a two month eviction notice hanging over their heads, come in. To use the language of the great unmentionable, use value in housing needs to be reasserted at the expense of exchange value (seeing flats and houses purely as assets to be exploited) which now reigns supreme, the baleful consequences of which are plain for all to see. Housing needs to be taken out the market and charities can help do that.

What has happened in the New Era estate, the transfer of ownership from a property development company to a not for profit charity, should be replicated a thousand times across the country. More than that, public agencies, local councils or charities, should buy existing privately rented homes, and convert them to secure social housing. The £100 million at present set aside for helping charities bid for public services, could be converted to this new purpose.

Boris Johnson et al are hoping what has happened at the New Era estate is a one-off, an unavoidable climb down after a campaign that became too visible to ignore. What it needs to be is the opposite, the spark for a new movement to end the tyranny of landlordism.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

You don't have to believe people are altruistic to be left-wing

The Left is supposed to believe in an essentially benign human nature. Casting a nod to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the noble savage, there is a strain of left-wing thinking that holds that beneath the perversions inflicted by our capitalistic, racist, patriarchal culture, there exists a basically cooperative, peaceable, altruistic human nature. This stance is traditionally invoked in contrast to that of the Right which sees human nature in an irredeemably pessimistic light.

A recent experiment by University College London which found that people were willing to sacrifice money to reduce the pain of others seems to lend credence to this optimistic view.

In the experiment, participants revealed themselves as ‘hyperaltruistic’ - they would give up a monetary reward in order to spare another person the pain of an electric shock. They were happy to take more electric shocks themselves to earn more money, but they were unwilling to raise the number of shocks if someone else was receiving them.

Inevitably, this experiment has been contrasted with the famous 1961 Stanley Milgram one in which participants inflicted what they were thought were painful, possibly lethal, electric shocks on a stranger, when ordered to do so. ‘Man is a wolf to man’, many have interpreted Milgram as demonstrating, while the recent UCL experiment seems to show an altruistic, sacrificial human nature on display. But actually the two experiments have more in common than you’d think.

They actually both demonstrate altruism at work. While the altruism in the UCL experiment is worn on its sleeve, altruism is also, paradoxically, an integral part of Milgram’s set up. What Milgram put on display was obedience, not sadism. Participants did not like giving the electric shocks (it should be pointed out also that a third of participants refused to give them); they sweated, they shook, they laughed hysterically, but they still gave the shocks because they bridled at disobeying the authority figure telling them to do so. Ironically what held them back from disobeying and not carrying out the shocks, was, in part, a strong desire not to undermine the authority figure. “It is a curious thing that a measure of compassion on the part of the subject, an unwillingness to ‘hurt’ the experimenter’s feelings, are part of those binding forces inhibiting disobedience,” wrote Milgram is his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority. Altruism, in fact.

But what both experiments prove, if that is not too strong a word, is not that the vast majority of people are inherently altruistic, but that they are not psychopaths. In the UCL experiment, “those with subclinical psychopathic traits … were more likely to inflict harm on others as well as themselves for a bigger payout.” When Milgram’s experiment was altered, so that people were told it was perfectly ok if they went up to the highest shock level, only a couple of, psychopathic, participants did so. Most delivered shocks below the level where the person they thought they were shocking would feel any discomfort.

I would predict that were you to conduct the UCL and Milgram experiments back to back with the same participants, you would end up with the same people refusing to shock and then agreeing to shock. Which sounds paradoxical, but isn’t.

What that would show is not that people have two sides to their personality but the realisation that non-psychopathic people, are, under certain circumstances, quite capable of acting psychopathically. Altruism and compassion can easily be subverted, overwhelmed, or channelled in specific directions (such as a desire not to hurt the authority figure’s feelings).

The reason why Milgram’s experiment still resonates is that it shows the overwhelming importance of institutions in shaping human behaviour; the power of institutions is such that it overpowers subjective feelings. In the Milgram designed experiment, cruel people did not shock more than kind people. And obedience, according to Milgram humanity’s fatal flaw, has become, if anything, more entrenched since he wrote Obedience to Authority in the early 1970s.

A political outlook rooted in the belief that people are essentially altruistic and decent is doomed to misunderstand the problem that confronts us. It would be futile to replace all the ‘bad’ people at the top with ‘good’ people. Either the good people would swiftly become bad, or they would be replaced by others who didn’t let ethical scruples get in the way. In order to effect real change, you have to address how the system works. You have to change how institutions behave, not the people that make them up.

Looked at another way, it is not psychopaths who are leading our elite corporate and governmental institutions astray. Apparently, 4% of corporate CEOs are psychopaths, four times the rate in the general population. But that still means that 96% of corporate executives are not psychopaths.

The mistake made by the researchers who have interpreted the UCL findings is that they assume that the subjective, altruistic, feelings laid bare will somehow “guide social decision making”. It is naïve in the extreme to assume that in the ‘democracies’ in which we live, our collective, unadulterated voices will determine social decisions. As things stand, the dominant voices belong to corporations and to governments. Most people are mute, except when they echo governing assumptions. Especially now, the views and interests of the 1% and 0.1% have an overwhelming influence, through think-tanks, the media (which they largely own), and the funding of political parties. And ideas, unlike wealth, trickle down through society.

Moreover, what the UCL experiment shows is that people don’t like hurting others face to face. This finding is reminiscent of the John Nash game theory experiments undertaken on Rand Corporation secretaries in the 1960s. They were expected to betray each other, but instead they cooperated. But with the anonymity of distance, dispensing hurt and hostility becomes much more possible. It is quite common for people to like immigrants they know, but hate immigrants in general or believe it’s a disgrace that the disabled person they know is waiting months for their living allowance, while thinking millions of others are faking it. This is why a media that accurately reports what is happening in the world is so crucial.

While altruism is real, human beings can be many other things as well. But our inner nature is not the problem; the giving away of power to amoral institutions is.