Access All Areas – LRB Blog

In January, Transport for London applied for anti-social behaviour orders to be issued against four unnamed young men. Under the terms of the ASBO, they are prohibited from speaking to one another for ten years, carrying equipment that may be used for exploring after dark or blogging about ‘urban exploration’. Their crime: in the early hours of Easter Monday last year, as ever-tightening security encircled London ahead of the royal wedding, the group entered Russell Square tube station, and walked along the deserted train tracks and closed tunnels to the abandoned station at Aldwych.

The four men are members of the London Consolidation Crew (LCC), the most active (and prominent) urban exploring team in the capital. Between 2008 and 2011, LCC climbed, clamoured or blagged their way into places including Heron Tower, Strata Tower, New Court, Eagle House, Temple Court, 100 Middlesex Street and the Shard.

People have been sneaking into places they are not supposed to since time immemorial, but urban exploration – with its emphasis on fresh sites, photographic evidence and blogging – is a more recent phenomenon. The late Jeff Chapman, better known as Ninjalicious, is widely credited with coining the term. In Access All Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration (2005), he defined urban exploration as ‘“infiltrating” or entering into otherwise restricted or off bounds areas or spaces’, including sewers, drains, towers, churches, quarries, disused tunnels, towers, prisons, military sites, asylums, mines, theatres, factories and train stations.

The rest of this blog is available on the London Review of Books blog….

Ireland’s tough road back

It doesn’t feel like a country in the grip of a lost decade, writes Peter Geoghegan, but beyond Dublin’s corporate office blocks and crowded city-centre bars lies another Ireland

Last weekend more than 50,000 people – many of them Scottish rugby fans – packed into the Aviva Stadium in Dublin to watch Ireland triumph over Scotland in the Six Nations. Erected on the site of the homely if rather anachronistic Lansdowne Road ground, the Aviva was built, in part, to show off brash, modern Celtic Tiger Ireland to the world.

Unfortunately, by the time then premier Brian Cowen opened the stadium in May 2010, the economy that bankrolled the Aviva was already on the rocks.

Today, the shining corporate offices of Google and Facebook in Dublin’s Docklands and the busy, bright young things in the Irish Financial Services Centre belie the reality that Ireland has yet to “the turn the corner”, to borrow a recurrent phrase of politicians in the lead-up to the banking crash that led the country to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008.

“The 2008 banking crisis was not caused by an outbreak of moral failure or individual weakness,” Irish historian Conor McCabe writes in the concluding chapter of his book Sins of the Father. It was structural and political forces – not “pockets of immorality” – that led to a bust of global proportions.

Subtitled Tracing the decisions that shaped the Irish economy, McCabe’s is a compelling account of the economic failings that dogged Ireland since independence, from the fateful decision to peg the punt to sterling for more than 50 years (a parable worth revisiting for some Scottish Nationalists) to the state-sponsored boom in construction and financial services that underpinned the Celtic Tiger’s ruinous second decade.

As McCabe avers, the response of Ireland’s political classes to the banking crisis has proved as disastrous as the policies that created it. On 30 September, 2008, the Irish government elected to guarantee almost all the liabilities of the state’s six financial institutions. The effect of this decision – which led indirectly to the €85 billion IMF/EU bail-out in November 2010 – are still being felt across just about every sector of Irish life today.

The scale of Ireland’s recession is worth reiterating. In 2009, GNP contracted by 11.9 per cent. In the same year, Gross Domestic Product shrank by over 7 per cent. That year, unemployment climbed above 10 per cent for the first time since 1997.

The vital signs from Ireland’s economy are more positive than they were when the European troika rolled into Dublin 18 months ago to agree the bail-out. Indeed, walking around the capital, Ireland doesn’t feel much like a country in the grip of a lost decade. The on-going boom in IT, particularly in the corporate sector, has ensured that an affluent, young middle class remains. Exports have grown steadily in recent years (although a new report issued by Ulster Bank warns exports will weaken in 2012 and GDP will increase by a paltry 0.4 per cent).

But beyond the corporate office blocks and the crowded city-centre bars lies another Ireland, one that profited little from the boom years and now finds it’s bearing the brunt of the Irish age of austerity.

A cursory glance at Irish unemployment figures bears this out. From the halycon days of the Celtic Tiger and full employment, official statistics have joblessness running at over 13 per cent for more than two years. Among young people and recent graduates, the numbers are even worse: for those under 25, unemployment stands at well over 25 per cent.

Headline unemployment rates mask the return of another facet of Irish life supposedly banished by the Celtic Tiger: emigration. The Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin estimates that more than 1,000 people are leaving Ireland every week. A report released last year by the National Youth Council of Ireland suggested 70 per cent of young unemployed Irish people believed they would emigrate.

Even the signs of economic life in Ireland are not as positive as they appear at first viewing. The bulk of the growth in Irish exports is attributable to the presence of significant numbers of multinationals who use few if any Irish raw materials.

Attracting large foreign firms to Ireland with a generous tax regime and grants has been, and remains, a mainstay of Irish economic policy. However, the value added by these multinationals to Ireland’s indigenous economy is less clear-cut.

According to McCabe, in 2008, multinationals accounted for a whopping 88 per cent of all Ireland’s merchandise export sales. Yet these same companies provided just 7 per cent of total employment. Despite total sales of almost €110bn, they paid about €2.8bn in corporation tax.

Meanwhile, the detritus of Ireland’s laissez-faire housing policy, encouraged by massive tax breaks from central government during the boom years, is littered across the country’s fabled green fields. The problem is particularly extreme in rural areas in the Midlands: the total number of houses in sparsely populated counties Longford, Cavan, Roscommon and Leitrim increased by 50 per cent between 2002 and 2009. Many of these properties now lie vacant on unfinished estates. According to the 2011 census, 294,000 properties in the state – some 15 per cent of total housing stock – are habitable but vacant.

After three and a half years of austerity budgets, which have cost thousands of jobs, there are signs that the Irish population is growing restive. The €100 “household charge”, introduced in last December’s budget as an interim property tax, has proved unpopular, with very low rates of compliance. A more extensive property tax, due to be introduced in the coming months, could prove even more divisive.

All this is bad news for EU mandarins. Ireland is due to vote in a referendum in May or June on the European Fiscal Compact, designed to stabilise the eurozone by enforcing strict budgetary controls on EU nations. The latest opinon polls, published in the Sunday Business Post, suggest 44 per cent would vote in favour, but 29 per cent remain undecided and support for Sinn Fein, who oppose the treaty, has grown substantially.

Recent opinion polls put the republicans on 25 per cent, behind only Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael. Although coalition partners Fine Gael and Labour still enjoy strong backing – and Mr Kenny is personally very popular – support for opponents of austerity is growing.

Leinster House, where the parliament sits, will hope the EU treaty vote will offer an opportunity to renegotiate with the bail-out lenders. The EU-IMF loan was made at a punitive 5.8 per cent, an interest rate that is crippling growth in the economy. Currently, the Irish government is attempting to reschedule about €31bn of promissory notes for its failed banks.

“What we are looking for is a deal to pay them back over a longer period, possibly at a lesser rate of interest,” deputy finance minister Brian Hayes said yesterday. “I would ask people in fairness to be patient with us on this issue.”

Beyond the corridors of power, the new economic reality has produced some creative responses. Comedian Abie Philbin Bowman – who, fittingly, will be appearing at the Glasgow Comedy Festival this Saturday, St Patrick’s Day – is returning to a tried-and-tested financial model: barter.

“I’m planning a tour of Ireland this summer that runs entirely on barter,” Bowman says. “All my shows are free to the public, and afterwards people are asked to make a donation. If they can’t afford to give money, they can offer me a hot meal or somewhere to stay. In the past, one person offered me juggling lessons, another taught me how to fly-fish. It’s a very different experience and a really interesting way of seeing the country.”

The Aviva isn’t down as a date on the tour, yet.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, March 15

Paul Mason – Kicking Off the Revolution

On a bright Saturday morning early last year, a bleary-eyed Paul Mason sat down to pen a blog for Newsnight, the BBC current affairs programme on which he is economics editor. The previous evening he had delivered a lecture on the 1871 Paris Commune to a collective of free thinkers and radical students in a squat in central London, before retiring to discuss technology, economics, and the revolt spreading across the globe over a few ales in Karl Marx’s old haunt, the Museum Tavern.

Mason’s blog post – entitled ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’ – was a Martin Luther-nailing-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-a-church-in-Wittenberg moment for the Occupy generation. Written in the penumbra of the Arab Spring, at the tail end of a winter of student occupations in the UK, Mason’s perspicacious analysis of the dynamics of the new political mood went viral almost as soon as it was posted. ‘Within 24 hours over 100,000 people had read it, people were retweeting it, posting it on Facebook, commenting on it. It was incredible,’ Mason says in the considered Lancastrian lint that has been a familiar feature of late nights on BBC2 for over a decade.

The Newsnight blog became the catalyst for Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason’s lively, thought-provoking ten-chapter jaunt through a world in tumult. ‘It’s not just a set of musings. It’s more like a series of glimpses into what’s happening around the world.’ Mason remarks of the book, which opens in a garbage collector’s house in Cairo and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our engaging correspondent popping up everywhere from Bakersfield, California to Syntagma Square in Athens in between.
Just as he is in person, on the page Mason is everything you would want from a guide: knowledgeable, measured, garrulous and unflaggingly generous. The long-form format also gives him the opportunity to flex his not inconsiderable intellectual powers, with theoretical and historical expositions on politics, society and, most prominently, economics added to the first-rate reportage that has become the hallmark of his Newsnight packages.

Speaking on the phone from his south London home, Mason says that what is happening today is nothing short of a ‘fundamental change in politics and society’. As he writes in the introduction to the book: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’

Central to this thesis are two factors: the rise of social media and a burgeoning class of jobless graduates. The revolt in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last February is often referred to as ‘the first Facebook revolution’, but Mason, a social media acolyte with over 30,000 followers on Twitter, proffers a more subtle analysis of the power of technology: ‘What social media has done is allowed networks of protest to form. Now protesters can move faster, assemble faster and on a much more minimal basis than ever before.’

While Twitter and Facebook have changed ‘the dynamics of protest’, the protesters are changing too. The rigidities of the old Left – the seemingly endless marches, the inky newspapers – has given way to a new mobile, educated generation disillusioned with a system that offers little prospect of stable employment. These ‘graduates with no future’ – point number one on that seminal Newsnight blog post – occupy a vanguard role in Mason’s analysis: the similarities between the young, secular liberals in Tahrir Square and the occupiers in University College London, he argues, are greater than their differences.

‘This generation was already different – they live in a networked world. Their motto is ‘information wants to be free’. Now they find that their futures have been dashed, the jobs they were taught to expect aren’t there anymore.’ For Mason, the network changes everything: new, decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional structures and ideas in new, unexpected ways. Over time the power of the network will, he says, defeat the sclerotic hierarchies of established politics.

‘Mainstream politics stands in danger of quite rapidly being dissolved by the new political mood.’ A lifelong trade unionist with a passionate commitment to social justice that has defined his career, Mason prophesises the changing of the political guard more in expectation than trepidation. ‘The impact on politics of the networked generation is going to be very interesting. Eventually those on the streets will begin to look to parties and to politics – that’s when we’ll start to see changes.’

There are traces of the autodidact in Mason, who came late to journalism, abandoning a career as a musician because ‘I needed to make some money’. While Kicking Off Everywhere fizzes with the energy of the street, it also brings in healthy doses of critical social theory, from Marx all the way up to influential American sociologist of work Richard Sennett. It is an education in contemporary thought that Mason began while studying for a postgraduate degree in music in the early 1980s: ‘We sat around and read Das Kapital, we read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, at some leisure. Except during the holidays I never did a stroke of paid work.’

From Marx and Smith, Mason moved onto the current generation’s most obvious antecedents – the thinkers that inspired the 1968 student revolts, most notably the doyen of Situationism, Guy Debord, who argued that capitalism has replaced genuine social life with an inauthentic ‘spectacle’. ‘I wish mainstream politicians today had a little more exposure to those sorts of ideas, it might allow them to think a little bit more freely through the problems that they are confronting right now,’ Mason says.With one ear to the street and another to the boardroom, Mason knows better than most the sheer scale of the challenge facing politicians today. On the day the Sunday Herald spoke to the broadcaster, the latest bailout deal for Greece hangs in the balance, with bankers’ bonuses dominating the news headlines. Mason, whose last book Meltdown, was subtitled ‘The end of the age of greed’, is preparing to fly to the United States, which he contends could be the next country ‘kick off’. ‘It will take a lot for the poor of the US to rise up – but if they do they do, hold on to your hat,’ he says with the calm assurance of a man who has become an expert in spotting a storm brewing on the global horizon.

It is a far cry from the obscure trade mags that Mason cut his teeth on in the late 1980s. It was hardly glamorous but Mason quickly discovered he had found the career for him. ‘Journalism was a profession I liked. And it liked me. It used up all my creative energies, at least most of them.’ What was leftover went into fiction, which remained unpublished until the release earlier this year of Rare Earth a racy novel about a washed up TV reporter who stumbles across corruption – and a whole lot more – in Western China.

Mason wrote Rare Earth, which was based in part of his Newsnight investigations of corruption in China, in the back garden of the house he shares with his wife, an NHS nurse. It was the summer of 2009, and Mason ‘couldn’t get on the telly’. ‘The expenses scandal was raging and most people thought the crisis was over’.

As the continuing turmoil in the Eurozone attests, the meltdown began by the collapse of Lehman Brothers shows no signs of abating. Now in his early fifties, a time of life when many prominent BBC phizogs are to found fronting non-threatening documentaries, Mason continues to immerse himself in the white heat of the street, most recently in a series for Newsnight from a conflagration engulfed Athens. Such committed reporting won Mason ‘specialist journalist of the year’ at last month’s RTS television journalism awards.

Mason has no children himself but feels a gnawing obligation towards the next generation. ‘I am acutely aware of this fact: I have a pension, albeit it not a brilliant one. I have 30 years of intermittent work behind me. My education was free. I’m from a working class background. The level of insecurity in the minds of the people I’m observing is so high. I look at them and often wonder if I would have come out like I have today. I don’t know the answer.’

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions is out now, published by Verso, priced £12.99. Paul Mason will be appearing at Aye Write on March 10.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, March 4, 2012.

The Maze and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

If ever a country was defined by a punctuation mark, it’s Northern Ireland and the forward-slash. A history of conflict has produced some awkward semantic contortions: Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, and, of course, Derry/Londonderry, that waggish ‘Stroke City’. Less celebrated, but no less contentious, is another double take, the Maze/Long Kesh.

Last week it was revealed that the European Union had, in December, approved a £18m funding package to establish a ‘peace-building and conflict resolution centre’ at the Maze, where the notorious H-Blocks once stood. What to do with the 360-acre site on the outskirts of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast, has been a recurrent source of political discord since the prison, built on the former RAF Long Kesh base, was closed in September 2000.

In 2002, the Maze Regeneration Unit was created within the devolved Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Three years later, after a lengthy, torturous consultation process, A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh was published. The Maze/Long Kesh: Masterplan and Implementation Strategyreleased in May 2006, consolidated the main proposals for the site, chiefly the construction of a sports stadium and an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The stadium – a 40,000-seat affair to be shared by Northern Ireland’s three main sports, football, rugby and Gaelic Games – was shelved in the face of significant unionist opposition. Comprehensive plans for the site have yet to be released on foot of last week’s news, but are now expected to include a more palatable, at least to unionists, scheme to rehouse the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society at the Maze, alongside the conflict resolution centre and a residential development.

In October, following a testy exchange in the House, the Stormont Assembly passed a motion recognising ‘the potential social and economic benefits which the utilisation of former security sites, such as the site of the Maze prison, can bring to Northern Ireland’. The motion called on First Minister Peter Robinson to progress development at the Maze, including a conflict resolution centre on the site where ten republican hunger strikers died in 1981, a move previously opposed by Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Last week, Jeffrey Donaldson, erstwhile anti-Belfast Agreement Ulster Unionist and now DUP MP for Lagan Valley, gave the planned centre a surprisingly hearty endorsement. ‘Far from it being seen as a shrine, it is about looking to the future. The peace building centre can help us look and focus towards the future,’ he said. However, many unionists, including the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, are opposed to the proposal, which Traditional Unionist Voice’s sole MLA Jim Allister dubbed ‘a Provo victory’.

The Maze conflict resolution centre, as Laura McAtackney has written, is an attempt to replace the site’s ‘negative associations’ with a ‘physical expression of the ongoing transformation from conflict to peace’. In that respect, the recent fracas over the centre reflects the incomplete nature of Northern Ireland’s own post-Troubles transformation. Almost a decade and a half after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Stormont still has no functioning anti-sectarian strategy, despite the country’s well-published, sclerotic divisions. Meanwhile, the threat of prosecution from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team has stymied any prospect of an authoritative account of what took place during the Troubles, as researchers at Boston College recently found out to their peril.

How, or even if, the Northern Ireland’s fractious past is to be acknowledged and commemorated is not just a question for historians and archivists. This year marks the start of a succession of distinctly live centenaries: the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912; the Battle of the Somme; the Easter Rising; the Civil War; and, finally, the partition of Ireland. As Hegel famously observed, ‘the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

Irish Emigration is No Lifestyle Choice

Every St Stephen’s Day I play soccer with a group of school friends in Longford, my hometown. It’s not a pretty sight – 22 over-fed men, their prime fast disappearing over the horizon, huffing and puffing on the local Gaelic pitch – but it’s been a tradition for well over a decade, and old traditions die hard.

In recent years, our annual kickabout has taken on a decidedly international feel. Now we’ve got players jetting in from Dubai and Australia, Brighton and Barcelona (although, sadly, we’re still no closer to Barca-style tiki-taka soccer). There’s incongruous bronze suntans on show in the wan winter light, t-shirts bearing logos from bars half a world away and erstwhile schoolmates asking one another decidedly non-existentialist questions about ‘where are you these days?’

Doubtless my yuletide teammates – university-educated, under 35, upwardly mobile, ostensibly living it up in far-flung places – were the kind of people Michael Noonan had in mind when he waded into the emigration debate last week. ‘There are always young people coming and going from Ireland. Some of them are emigrants in the traditional sense, but simply there are people who want to get off the island,’ the Fine Gael Finance Minister said during a press conference on the Troika review of Ireland’s bailout program.

Noonan, who has been in the Dail since 1981 and earns a hefty six-figure salary for his troubles at Finance, went on suggest that it is wanderlust, not joblessness, that’s behind the rise in emigration: ‘For a lot of people going, it’s not being driven by unemployment at all. It’s being driven by wanting to see another part of the world.’

The most generous reading of Noonan’s remarks – elsewhere Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty described the minister’s comments as ‘deeply insulting’ – is that emigration for Irish people is a lifestyle choice, like changing hair colour or opening a Twitter account. Unfortunately, this establishment trope, echoed in 2010 by then Fianna Fail minister Mary Coughlan’s description of emigration as ‘not a bad thing’, flies in the face of reality. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute, more than 40,000 Irish people emigrated in the year to April 2011. This figure is expected to almost double this year.

With unemployment running at over 14%, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, much less a social scientist, to work out the connection between an economy choked to death by a punitive IMF/EU bailout and a seemingly endless succession of austerity budgets, and the lengthening queues at long haul flight desks at Dublin airport.

And if Irish people are so predisposed to emigration, as Noonan insinuates, why didn’t more leave during the boom? Going back to my annual soccer game (the last time, I promise): five years ago almost every single player lived within the state, most drove down from their homes in Dublin or Galway for the Christmas holidays. They lived and worked in Ireland because that is what the vast majority wanted to do. Based at the time in Belfast, I was probably the closest our game had to an exotic import (and definitely had no tan to show for my travels).

Branding emigration as a ‘lifestyle choice’ isn’t just a crass and out of touch aside from an aloof government minister. It’s part of a wider shift that depoliticizes Irish emigration, reducing it to a personal choice to stay or go that each individual makes, a self-interested decision which Irish state and society has no right to influence. Government, then, is no longer responsible for stemming the tide of emigrants at home, and is able freely to abdicate its responsibility to provide real opportunities for young people beyond ‘here’s a decent education, here’s a plane ticket, good luck’.

Depoliticizing emigration has effects outside Ireland’s geographical borders, too. If the lads playing soccer on St Stephen’s Day are wide-eyed flaneurs, freely choosing to sell their labour around the world in a global economy, any claim to a political voice back home is severely weakened. You chose to leave so why should you have any say in how the country is run now?

It’s a tired argument rehearsed ad nauseam during debates about extending voting rights to Irish emigrants before the 2011 general election. Since then positive noises made by Fine Gael and Labour about emigrant voting on the campaign trail have dissipated somewhat in a climate where government paints emigration as a youthful jaunt around the globe, rather than a difficult, often unwanted relocation.

The appointment by President Michael D Higgins of former Hackney councillor Sally Mulready as emigrant advocate on the Council of State is to be applauded. As is the government’s announcement that the issue of emigrant voting rights in presidential elections is one that will likely be discussed in the Constitutional Convention that is planned for this year.

But as long as emigration is construed as a lifestyle choice, unmoored from the social, political and economic reality at home, calls for meaningful change in Ireland and wider political representation for emigrants abroad will continue to fall on stony ground.

 This piece originally appeared in the Irish Post.

Zizek, Bankers Bonuses and Capitalism after Industry

In 2010, it was politicians’ expenses. More recently public ire was – rather fairly – targeted at tabloid journalists and their nimble telecommunications skills. Now it’s bankers and their egregious bonuses. RBS and Stephen Hestor has dominated the news agenda for the last few days and, given State stakes in a number of high-street lenders and its public popularity, is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Over at Slugger O’Toole, Mick Fealty makes the point that, ‘It’s hard to escape the idea that at their core, the banks have not yet tumbled to the fact that they are living in an unsustainable bubble.’ But what if bankers pay – and indeed pay across boardrooms – is less a bubble and more a shift in capitalism itself? It’s worth noting that real wages have decreased every year in the US since the 1970s and have been on the way down in the UK for a considerable length of time. Given this factoid, sky rocketing executive pay, tied to the rise of managerialism, seems lees an anachronistic outlier and more a shift in how rewards and wages are distributed in post-industrial capitalist economics.

Writing in London Review of Books before Hestor/RBS-gate went off, Slavoj Zizek has some interesting thoughts on why the boom in bankers pay is a function of the creation of an upper-class salariat charged with ‘managing’ the political economy, while the lower-middle classes find their own terms and conditions eroded to ever greater degrees.

If the old capitalism ideally involved an entrepreneur who invested (his own or borrowed) money into production that he organised and ran, and then reaped the profit from it, a new ideal type is emerging today: no longer the entrepreneur who owns his company, but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over by a CEO) who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who don’t own the bank) or dispersed investors. In this new ideal type of capitalism, the old bourgeoisie, rendered non-functional, is refunctionalised as salaried management: the members of the new bourgeoisie get wages, and even if they own part of their company, earn stocks as part of their remuneration (‘bonuses’ for their ‘success’).

This new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus value, but in the (mystified) form of what has been called ‘surplus wage’: they are paid rather more than the proletarian ‘minimum wage’ (an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia), and it is this distinction from common proletarians which determines their status. The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more by virtue of their competence (which is why pseudo-scientific ‘evaluation’ is crucial: it legitimises disparities). Far from being limited to managers, the category of workers earning a surplus wage extends to all sorts of experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists. The surplus takes two forms: more money (for managers etc), but also less work and more free time (for – some – intellectuals, but also for state administrators etc).

The evaluative procedure used to decide which workers receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency.

Student and trade union protests in the UK, in this reading, are a reaction to a reduction (or, for many, ending) of this surplus wage. Hence protesters are more commonly unemployed graduates and teachers, not metal workers or ship builders (the latter, of course, almost impossible to find on these isles). If, as Zizek argues, ‘The proletarianisation of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is matched at the opposite extreme by the irrationally high remuneration of top managers and bankers’ then the wage inflation at the top of the tree (and not just in the banking sector) is likely to become a permanent feature of the economic landscape in post-industrial states.

 

Review: Why It’s All Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason

‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,’ Fredric Jameson, a leading theorist of post-modernism, wrote in 2003. Not anymore it isn’t. If the culmination of Francis Fukuyama’s Whiggish ‘End of History’ was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – scuttling liberal democracy’s claims to historical inevitability – what’s happened since has arguably been more radical still: revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, street protests in the West, social unrest on a scale not seen for generations.

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is a journey, both empirical and analytical, through a world in tumult. Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC’s flagship Newsnight and one of the UK media’s most familiar faces, is essentially an old-fashioned beat reporter, but with a patch that stretches across the globe: the book begins a year ago in an occupation in Bloomsbury, central London and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our correspondent popping up everywhere from Tahrir Square to Bakersfield, California in between.

Mason warns readers ‘don’t file (this book) under ‘social science’: it’s journalism’. The 10 chapters that follow alternate – some more seamlessly than others – between first-class reportage and theoretical and historical expositions on the changing shape of politics, society and, most prominently, economics.

Like any good journalist, Mason doesn’t bury the lead. In the introduction he writes: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’ In short, the global economic system is banjaxed and the web has fundamentally altered the political visions of the next generation, leading to a renewed search for social justice.

Mason – who, with this dulcet Lancastrian tones and background in leftwing politics, often cuts an unlikely figure among the plummy, small ‘c’ conservative BBC voices – comes to praise, not bury, what he terms ‘the new global revolutions’. Changing technology, and particularly social media, is central to his thesis: Facebook and Twitter don’t cause revolutions – as so many over-excited commentators proclaimed as first Ben Ali in Tunisia and then Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell amid popular protest – but they do connect people in new and unexpected ways, sometimes with explosive results.

For Mason, the network is king. Like Howard Beale in the eponymous 1976 movie, millions of (mainly) young people are ‘mad as hell and won’t take it anymore’ – but while Peter Finch’s neutered news anchor’s only recourse is to threaten suicide live on air, now decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional power structures and ideas.

Big claims are made for the power of the network, supported by Marx, Foucault and other theoretical heavyweights. At times, however, this shock of the new feels slightly oversold and the power of diffuse, coordinated networks to defeat static hierarchies of power more often stated that demonstrated. Why It’s All Kicking Off is at its most persuasive, and engaging, when Mason moves away from sociology and onto the street. His terse dissection of the uprising in Egypt combines a coruscating analysis of the ‘neoliberal fiefdom’ built by Hosni’ Mubarak’s son and would be heir, Gamal, with interviews from Tahrir Square and among the zabbaleen, the 65,000 ‘garbage people’ who eke out an existence sifting through Cairo’s rubbish.

A spectre is haunting Europe (and beyond). Unlike 1848, this shadow is not communism; it’s the young, ambitious, connected graduate with a Blackberry in their hand and no prospects of a decent job. By turns inquisitive and informative, Mason is a peerless guide through the rapidly shifting milieu of global protest and revolution. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere provides a timely and highly readable firsthand account of a wave of unrest that shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

Why It’s All Kicking off Everywhere is out now published by Verso. This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 29.

At Edinburgh Sheriff Court

Supporters of Occupy Edinburgh were thin on the ground at the city’s sheriff court on Wednesday, 25 January, Robert Burns Day. Only 15 or so activists went to protest against their eviction from St Andrews Square, outside the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland (whose chief executive has just received a £963,000 bonus). ‘Oh, you’re with that lot,’ the security guard manning the metal detector said when I asked where the Occupy case was being heard. ‘Should have got rid of them months ago.’ After rummaging through my rucksack and confiscating my Dictaphone, he pointed in the direction of Court 13.

The case against Occupy was brought by Essential Edinburgh, a city-centre initiative representing various high-end retailers, including Harvey Nichols, RBS and Virgin Money, with interests in the lucrative and mostly privatised shopping streets around St Andrews Square. The occupation began on 15 October, with considerable popular and (largely opportunistic) party political support. Since then, however, numbers have dwindled amid negative press coverage, most of it focused on anti-social behaviour and alleged anti-semitism as well as concerns about the movement’s direction, or lack of it.

‘We want to present ourselves in the right manner,’ the veteran socialist Willie Black told the sheriff, Katherine Mackie. Unlike Occupy LSX outside St Paul’s in London, the Edinburgh protesters had agreed to vacate their site before the eviction notice was even served. Courtroom drama was in decidedly short supply. There were no Guy Fawkes masks or grandstanding statements, just a mundane exchange as counsel for Essential Edinburgh pressed for an eviction notice from the court. Sheriff Mackie demurred, ruling that the occupiers had the rest of the day to clear St Andrews of all remaining persons – namely the many homeless people who had congregated around the camp in ever greater numbers – and their belongings.

Outside the sheriff court, Jamie, a fourth year journalism student with a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ badge on his jacket, said: ‘This is global, this isn’t the end.’ Chris, a 24-year-old freelance copywriter responsible for Occupy Edinburgh’s Twitter feed, said the movement needs to regroup and refocus but will live to fight another day.

In front of a single TV camera, Black spoke of the need to protect the vulnerable in society, especially Edinburgh’s growing homeless population. ‘You can take our square but you’ll never take our freedom,’ shouted a middle-aged woman with long purple hair. Another protester held up a whiteboard that said, in red marker: ‘It’s coming yet for a’ that.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

A New Dalriada?

My thoughts on what Scottish Independence campaign – and independence itself – might mean for Northern Ireland, from Scotsman January 11.

‘Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?’ Doubtless it’s the kind of phrasing David Cameron had in mind when he demanded a ‘fair, clear and decisive question’ on Scottish independence earlier this week. But the Tory leader would do well to reflect on the last time Westminster ignored nationalist opposition to put such a formulation to the vote in a referendum on the constitutional future of a member of the United Kingdom – in Northern Ireland, in 1973.

The so-called ‘Border Poll’, conducted across Northern Ireland on March 8, 1973, certainly asked a clear question: should the North stay in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. And it produced a decisive result. On a respectable looking 58% turnout, a whopping 98.92% voted to retain the status quo.

But on Cameron’s fairness criteria, the Border Poll was altogether less clear and decisive. That January, as sectarian violence raged across Northern Ireland, the eminently sensible SDLP leader Gerry Fitt called on his (predominantly moderate) supporters ‘to ignore completely the referendum and reject this extremely irresponsible decision by the British Government’. The Catholic/nationalist population boycotted the vote en masse, while the Irish Republican Army vowed to disrupt the ballot. In the end, one soldier was killed in the days leading up to the referendum and a paltry 6,463 supported a united Ireland.

Scotland today is not, thankfully, Northern Ireland four decades ago, but the perils of London interference in a plebiscite on sovereignty should not be lost on Westminster panjandrums. Scottish Nationalists are a long way from issuing a boycott for a referendum many have spent a lifetime campaigning for, but continued dictating of terms by a Conservative prime minister with scant mandate north of the border could change that.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been precious little consideration of what, if any, affect all this talk of independence in Scotland might have across the Irish Sea. Given its strong cultural and historical ties with Ireland, and particularly Ulster and indeed unionism, any move by Scotland away from the United Kingdom could provoke something of an existentialist crisis among Northern Irish unionists, and even nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s constitutional future is, in many respects, still unsettled. The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 is essentially a constitutional holding position, enshrining the aspirations of nationalists and unionists while binding both to the wishes of the majority. With the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger and Northern Ireland’s own economic travails, the future of the Irish wing of the union appears secure – but it is built on relatively soft sands.

The results of last year’s census aren’t expected until the summer, but other indicators suggest that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland is growing more quickly than the Protestant. Conventional wisdom – which, as JK Galbraith recognised, hides a multitude of sins and uncomfortable facts – posits that such a rise will lead to increased support for nationalism and, eventually, Irish reunification.

According to the 2001 census, just over 53% of the Northern Ireland populace hails from a Protestant background, 44% from a Catholic background, with the remainder of a non-religious background, or other Christian and non-Christian faiths. However, figures obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister suggest that these demographics might be shifting. In 2009/10, Queen’s University in Belfast had 8,710 Northern Ireland resident students from a Catholic background compared with 6,740 from a Protestant faith. The contrast was even more extreme in the University of Ulster, which had 11,070 Catholics and 7,020 Protestants spread across its four campuses.

As reported in the Irish Times recently, this trend is equally pronounced in second-level education, where factors such as leaving Northern Ireland to attend university in Britain do not come into play. Data released by Northern Ireland’s Department of Education, showed that, in 2010/11, there were 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics in the North’s schools.

Birth rates are a hoary subject in Northern Ireland. When Republicans dropped their boycott of the census at the end of the Troubles, the question of whether nationalists might breed their way to a united Ireland became a hot topic, replete with tired stereotypes about the size of Catholic families. The run-up to the 2001 census featured a wealth of over-heated headlines: ‘Catholic Boom: Census shows Protestants will be minority in 10 years’; ‘Nationalists ‘will become majority’’; ‘Unionists filled with foreboding at loss of influence.’

Then, when the eventual figures revealed a smaller than envisaged Catholic population, it became a matter of ‘Census blow to republican hopes’ and ‘United Ireland disappointed’. In reality the sectarian headcount has been a less useful heuristic for voting intentions than many assume: significant numbers of Protestants and, more commonly, Catholics have voted for nationalist and unionist parties respectively. The latest findings from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, released last summer, show the latter tendency strengthening. 52% of Catholics polled were in favour of remaining in the UK. Against this only 4% of Protestants supported union with the Republic of Ireland. In total, a large majority, 73%, backed the union with Britain.

Indeed in June, First Minister Peter Robinson – who, back in 1986, was so vehemently opposed to power-sharing with Catholics that he led a group of 500 loyalists over the border to invade the village of Clontibret in the Irish Republic in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement – set out a vision for transforming those erstwhile naysayers the Democratic Unionist Party into a cross-community force. ‘My task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as anyone else,’ Robinson wrote, noting that ‘support for a united Ireland has dropped to an all-time low of some 16%.’

Looked at from Castle Buildings at Stormont the union seems in rude health. Buttressed slightly from the economic ill-winds blowing a gale across the border and reliant on Exchequer support to the tune of some £6bn per annum, Northern Ireland – and many Northern Irish Catholics – have a significant investment in the British state. Meanwhile in the leafy suburbs, middle-class mixing is slowly breaking down many of the old sectarian barriers, disrupting the Orange-Green dichotomy that has dominated mindsets for generations.

It would take a seismic event to alter Northern Ireland’s constitutional status…say, Scottish independence. The independence debate has already put the prospect of a break-up of the UK on the table in a way that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. If Scots were to go it alone, Northern Ireland would find itself culturally and geographically isolated inside a truncated union with a decidedly uncertain future.

Scotland and Ireland will always be close. At its shortest, the distance between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast is only 20km. A pan-Celtic union encompassing independent Scotland and both sides of the Irish border has some form: the ancient Gaelic overkingdom of Dalriada stretched all the way from Skye to Antrim during the 6th and 7th centuries, reaching its apogee at the great monastic settlement of Iona.

A new Dalriada is a highly improbable, even fantastical, prospect but in the event of Scottish independence the status quo in Northern Ireland is unlikely to suffice, for both endogenous and exogenous reasons. It’s hard to imagine an increasingly confident Catholic population retaining long-term support for a union reduced to just England and Wales (and equally difficult to conceive of any huge desire on London’s part to retain control in Belfast).

The result of the 1973 Northern Ireland referendum was a foregone conclusion. Now the clamour for Scottish independence could have unintended consequences for political life on both sides of the Irish Sea. One thing is certain: next time the future of the union is put to a vote, the outcome won’t be anywhere near as clear cut as it was almost 40 years ago.

Zambia's young people want to work

My article on joblessness among young Zambians, which was commissioned for the Guardian development journalism competition 2011.

Dickson Kakoma has been sober for 10 months – ever since the night he almost lost his family, and his life. “I went drinking with a friend. He was driving us home when we started arguing. I grabbed the wheel and we crashed,” the 26-year-old says, shaking his head ruefully. “When I finally got back home, I wanted to burn my house down. Next morning my wife left me.”

That day Kakoma vowed to give up Tujilijili, a highly potent, locally brewed spirit sold for as little as 600 Kwacha (about 8p) for 60ml. In time, his wife and two children returned to their thatched home in rural Muka Lashi, about 30km from Kabwe in central Zambia. But the main reason this articulate man drank six days a week remains unchanged: like so many young Zambians, Kakoma does not have regular, salaried employment.

Forced to leave school prematurely when his parents divorced, Kakoma cultivates okra, kale and watermelon on a narrow, arid strip of land near his home. Farming earns the household barely £260 a year – and occupies just four or five hours of his day. “We used to have a local football league and that helped because it gave us something to do,” he says. But in February the league disbanded due to lack of funds.

Zambia is often held up as a southern African success story. After three decades of stagnation, the economy has grown by an annual average of 6% for the past five years, thanks largely to rising global prices for the country’s main export, copper. Per capita GDP has risen steadily since 2000. But the headline figures mask another reality. According to official statistics, 88% of 18-to 35-year-olds have no reliable source of income. In rural areas, four out of five depend on subsistence agriculture.

Kabwe, a once-prosperous town of 300,000 people about 130km north of the capital, Lusaka, is Zambia in microcosm. The country’s first mine opened here in 1906. Railways, milling, textiles, and impressive mansions on spacious, tree-lined avenues soon followed. But when Zambia’s industries, nationalised after independence from Britain in 1964, collapsed, as copper prices halved in the mid-1970s, Kabwe did too. Mass privatisations, conducted at the behest of the World Bank and the IMF, led to huge job losses. As unemployment rocketed, HIV/Aids spread and alcohol abuse increased.

“Kabwe’s a ghost town now. All those activities that kept the place alive are gone – but there’s probably double the number of people that there was 30 years ago,” says Hendricks Kapila, head of Kabwe Community Youth Mobilisation.

The scene in the town’s central business district on a weekday morning confirms his dismal appraisal. Groups of young men gather on corners hustling for work. Plastic Tujilijili sachets, sucked dry, lie strewn on the dusty streets. Nearby, sentries guard the padlocked gates of the vast Mulungushi-China textiles factory, which once employed 12,000 people but now stands empty.

Samuel Tembo, economic empowerment co-ordinator for children’s charity Plan International, in Zambia, believes affordable startup capital is key to tackling the country’s labour market problems. While the vast majority of the population is not in formal employment, almost everyone over the age of 18 works. From farmers, who supply the bustling markets and roadside stalls, to youths selling phone cards, commerce is ubiquitous. “Young people are energetic, they are establishing small businesses. What they need is initial capital to make their business grow and prosper,” says Tembo.

Village savings and loan schemes have proved successful in other developing-world contexts and, last year, the NGO Plan International, in partnership with Barclays, launched Banking on Change, a community-based microfinance programme in Zambia. The theory is simple: 10 to 12 people save and lend relatively small amounts together at low interest rates, with all decisions taken by the group as a whole. A small annual subscription fee covers administration costs and a “social fund” for unexpected outlays, such as funerals.

Eighteen-year-old Joyce Mushala is one of the scheme’s beneficiaries. Perched on a cow-skin chair under a jacaranda tree in a village in Chibombo, a rural province abutting urban Kabwe, the softly spoken single mother explains how a 100,000 Kwacha (about £13) loan kickstarted a profitable confectionery trade.

“I bought lollipops and hard-boiled sweets and sold them in schools,” says Mushala, cradling one-year-old Catherine in her arms. “My business has changed my life. Before, I used to just grow maize and brew beer and had no income.”

Neighbour Doreen Chali, 34, spent half her 100,000 Kwacha loan on household items, and invested the remainder in fish, which she sells in the village. The profit covers school fees for her 16-year-old daughter, Grenda. “She’s very happy about that,” the mother of five says with a smile.

Barclays estimates that the 675 savings and loans groups initiated so far have involved more than 7,000 people and accrued assets worth more than £680,000. Lucy Mataka, community affairs manager at Barclays’ Lusaka office, says disputes within groups are rare, and are almost always settled amicably.

Nevertheless, in a country of 13 million people, more structured guidance and funding for new businesses is also needed, especially for enterprises incurring large startup costs or that have potential to employ substantial numbers of young people. Such support requires governmental as well as financial muscle.

There are signs that this political will is starting to emerge. Employment was a pivotal issue in September’s elections, with opposition leader Michael Sata winning the presidency on a platform of job creation and social justice. Young Zambians, who formed the bulwark of Sata’s support, are expectant of change.

Back in Kabwe, Jonas Silupumbwe, a youth worker with Restless Development, wants to see the government’s good words on employment translated into deeds. He cites the previous administration’s National Youth Empowerment Plan, which, in 2007, allocated 10bn Kwacha (approximately £1.25m) for new businesses in each of Zambia’s nine provinces. Four years later, “only one project in the whole of Kabwe” has received funding, he says.

“Government have said a lot, they have written a lot, but they have actually done very little. That’s the major problem,” Silupumbwe says.

“Young people have been told there’s money available but they’ve not seen any of it. Some don’t even know it’s there. The youth want to work, but they need to be given the opportunity.”