Power and fear

Last week, journalist David Miranda was detained for nine hours under the Terrorism Act. In addition, some hard-drives were (pointlessly!) destroyed at The Guardian’s London offices. Both of these actions were spurred by the fact The Guardian and David Miranda were actively working to investigate and reveal the length to which the USA and UK governments are monitoring… everyone they can get data on.

All of this prompted my friend to ask on Twitter:

To which I responded:

Specifically I was referring to the Tor Project, but there are also other solutions. The article How to keep the NSA out of your computer discusses ‘mesh networks’, essentially an alternative to the internet. One of the most prominent of these is Hyperboria. Use Bitcoin for any financial transactions that you want to keep secret. You can use bitcoins for pretty much anything, including food in some cities.

Unfortunately, there is a ‘tech savvy users only’ gateway to this stuff – because the surveillance techniques are so heavily technical, the solutions are as well. The ‘easy’ internet, comprised of Amazon, Google, ISP’s… this stuff can be used by anyone, but is also monitored.

Josh responded to me:

Now this is a subject close to my heart, because someone I greatly love has been on the wrong side of an airport detention policy. Like many (completely harmless) people, this person was treated outrageously; lied to, kept in miserable conditions, denied food, denied telephone contact with the people worrying about them. They were detained for over 24 hours, and then denied entrance to the country and sent back on the next flight.

I, who had gone to the airport to meet and greet them, was also repeatedly lied to.

It was my first real experience with the power of the state government: and it made me realise that we enjoy our ‘human rights’ only with their permission. You can do everything right, fill out all the paperwork, break no rules, never claim welfare, pay taxes, vote for central parties, be white, middle class and not subscribe to ‘other’ religions – and still get fucked over. Should you do anything ‘wrong’, whether on purpose or by accident, I can only imagine how much worse it is.

And here we see despair and hopelessness. The apparatus of Government is insanely powerful. It manipulates the media, it controls the military, it works in partnership with the corporations that own so much of our lives. Meanwhile, ‘everyone else’ – without full access to the facts, and with many diverse lies that appeal to their emotional needs, and who also need to get on with the hard work of living a normal human life – is pretty much hopelessly unequipped to deal with the Government.

It is a David and Goliath set-up, except that David doesn’t even know what’s he’s fighting or why.

We are not powerless

This is a false set up. It is a popular one, and a beguiling one, but it is not true. The ‘Government’ may have power and wealth and military might, but it is also made up of people. Incompetent people! Read the stories of detainees and you swiftly realise that the airport security personnel are people, way out of their depth, dealing with situations in idiotic ways. Read the stories of big business owners and you quickly realise they are sociopathic, and just as likely to turn one each other. The Government loses briefcases full of important info, gets their secrets leaked by The Guardian, and destroys hard-drives – apparently unaware that data is rarely confined to a single, physical location. They are not some robot brain, committed to a single purpose.

We do make a difference

We may only have human rights with their permission, but they exist only with our collective permission. We do make a difference:

  • Slavery is now illegal in all nations (the last place, Mauritania, made it illegal in 2007)
  • There are now only two countries where women cannot vote: Vatican City and Saudia Arabia. Saudia Arabia plans to change this in 2015.
  • Global poverty is declining – and dire poverty could be eliminated in 20 years
  • Public health measures have brought global life expectancy up to about 67. This is of course unequal, but the level of inequality is dropping around the world. Medical advancements are making access to life saving devices cheap enough for all.
  • We have almost hit ‘peak population’ – since the beginning of time we have been shouting about the dangers of human overpopulation. Now it looks like in 2050 we will peak at around 10 billion, and then population will drop/hold steady. Providing secondary education to girls is the single most effective intervention to reduce population growth; and access to education is improving.
  • ‘Serious’ crime rates have been decreasing.

There are three serious problems that face us:

  1. Climate shift/environmental issues. Basically, we have fucked the planet. Any solutions will come from the the tech & science sector. As an issue, it will probably impact on everything from food prices to environmental refugees to large numbers of people killed in extreme weather incidents. There will be consequences (and already have been) – we’ve gone too far to prevent them – but we can mitigate the severity of those consequences and do our best to adapt and protect.
  2. Inequality. Whilst dire poverty is set to be eliminated, overall inequality is growing. The very rich are, well, getting richer. Oxfam are calling for a new goal;  end extreme wealth. An equal society is a happier, more productive, better educated, and more stable society.
  3. The repercussions of moving into a digital & global age. Every time in human history that there is a major upheaval the ramifications were massive and far-ranging. The fallout from the shift into a digital age is difficult to predict, but will definitely include issues about data protection, the right to privacy, and the difficulty of working, trading and governing in a global economy. Who pays tax and where? Which laws and cultural assumptions come out on top? Is access to internet a human right in the way that access to education is? Who stores the data? Who monitors the internet? What about hacking? What is money, once it’s been reduced to numbers in a computer program? How do we cope with possible pandemics which could easily spread globally in a few hours?

Here’s the thing: none of these problems are insurmountable. We’ve been saying it’s the end of the world almost since we had the capacity to project the future. But despair is not helpful. It is entirely possible that the rich could escape the ravages of climate shift, spying on us at will, whilst the poorer citizens of the world live and die horribly. But it is equally possible that rationality and compassion could win out, that we find a way to use our considerable ingenuity and problem solving skills to adapt to a changing climate whilst still equalising our lifestyles. That we can find a way to celebrate diversity and live together instead of clashing over political and ideological differences.

And if we don’t? Well, at least if we hope and work towards the best outcome we’ll be happier than if we just give up now.

 Make a difference

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The only thing that we can do is make a difference on the micro level. We all have the ability to make a difference on a tiny scale, but those differences all add up to a whopping big change on a global scale. There are lots of ways you can help, and the best thing to do is pick the cause(s) you are most passionate about and do something relating to them.

  • Support a charity that does something you agree with. Run a fundraiser, donate, volunteer some time.
  • Look after your friends and loved ones.
  • Support local, environmentally sustainable farming methods.
  • Stop buying stuff you don’t need.
  • Pass on your skills (blog, teach, make a youtube video, share with your friends).
  • Do the research on internet memes. Don’t just share a picture because you agree with it, check the facts before you hit ‘share’. You are responsible for the spread of misinformation.
  • Go on protest marches.
  • Keep a (wild) garden. Grow veg. Give the veg to your local food bank.
  • Do your research on corporations. Whilst it is probably impossible to avoid buying from companies that have some unethical practices (particularly where IT, clothing, and food are concerned) you can kick up a stink about the worst excesses. Boycotts can work.
  • Dispose of your waste properly. Recycle or reuse it.
  • Stay informed. Use your vote.
  • Fight against welfare cuts; these are people who deserve to live, deserve to relax, deserve to have fun. Compassion is a wonderful thing.
  • Support a living wage.
  • Speak up against discrimination. Accept that you will discriminate. If someone tells you that you are discriminating, apologise and figure out why.
  • Keep an eye out for children. They need the support of everyone in a society, not just parents and teachers.
  • Do the right thing wherever possible.


I’m taking a quick break from the A-Z challenge to write something about Margaret Thatcher, who died (you may have missed the news…) on the 8th April.

First, a disclaimer. I was born in 1984 which means I was not alive when she came to power, nor was I alive during the Falklands war, and I was six years old when she resigned. I did not see closure of the mines, the clashes with those on strike, nor did I really understand the IRA. That she called Mandela a terrorist and was close friends with Pinochet meant nothing to me until much later. The Prime Minister that I remember, at an age when politics was just starting to be something of interest, was John Major, and later, of course, Tony Blair (I remember the great joy when he came to power, and the endless disillusionment that followed).

However: Thatcher cast a long shadow. Partly, this had nothing to do with her policies. She would have been memorable even if she had done and changed nothing, simply by dint of being the first female leader in a modern Western democracy. Even the language of the eulogies is different for a female prime minister – she is ‘matriarch’, a ‘lady’, she is either loved or hated. There is a personal element to the praise and to the attacks that I cannot believe a male politician would draw. All politicians are hated by someone; Osbourne is certainly hated at the moment. But only a female one could be called a witch, only a female politician would have her beauty praised or condemned (Can you imagine us standing around talking of what a ‘great beauty’ David Cameron was in his day?), front pages bent over themselves to include a mention of her gender (count how many started with the phrase “the woman who…”). Thatcher herself traded on her image as a housewife and mother. She shared recipes, and let fall homely old wives sayings.

Sadly, the fact that a woman took on a position of such power, and a role that was so traditionally masculine, meant very little to most women. The pay gap got worse. Child benefit was frozen. Thatcher made only eight women ministers, and only one rose higher than Junior Minister.

In addition to being a woman, Thatcher was also memorable for the fact she was the first Prime Minister to operate in a media-rich world. We have striking iconic images of her, we have footage of the Falklands, and at the time news became more instant, and was shared with each other. As a population, I think, we became invested in the story, in the history, that developed around us and that we were a part of. Politics mattered to everyone in the eighties – or that is the impression I get.

So much for who she was. What about what she did?

She destroyed the unions and devastated the economies of towns built around mining. This is the thing that echoed down the years. Those towns have never recovered. Inequality and poverty rose under Thatcher’s leadership. Unemployment hit record highs and has never recovered – not during the ‘boom time’ of the eighties and not since she left office.

Unemployment is a figure tossed around. When it goes up and down by a few percent it is easy to forget that we are talking about real lives. At around the same time unemployment went up, ‘welfare’ became an issue. The idea that everyone deserved to be helped when they fell on hard times was replaced by inflammatory comments about skivers. Weirdly, this idea – of people that actively sought to avoid working by ‘faking’ disability – has no proof behind it. The amount of money spent on unemployment and disability benefit is absolutely trifling compared to the benefits that go to people that are in work, but don’t get paid enough to live on. And all of it is dwarfed by the amount of money that goes on pensions. (But hey, why let facts get in the way of a good hate session?)

Thatcher espoused neoliberal politics – much like Ronald Reagan. The focus of neoliberalism is complete faith in the free market. As a result, Thatcher privatised many public industries starting with British Telecom, taking in gas, coal, oil and nuclear power and finally the railways – although that final one ended up being implemented by her successor. The results were either wildly successful or a complete disaster, depending on which side of the political spectrum you fall. Generally, it seems to be split along lines of wealth – if you had enough money to take advantage of ‘increased competition’ you found prices dropping, but for ‘small consumers’ prices actually rose. British Gas, after being privatised, almost immediately began a much harsher system of penalising people that couldn’t pay, resulting in many people being cut off.

Another side of privatisation was the selling of almost all the council houses and not buying or building more. The net upshot of that was a crazed housing boom, and more recently the housing crash. Nowadays getting on to the ‘housing ladder’ is extraordinarily difficult for less wealthy young people, and a huge chunk of housing benefit goes straight into the pockets of wealthy landlords. The result is either years of paying outrageously high rents, or returning to the homes of parents – resulting in the ‘boomerang generation’.

The problem, of course, is that privatised companies are only good to those that can afford them. Much of the social apparatus runs at a loss. Housing for those that would otherwise be homeless, social care for the elderly and the ill, money to help the less able live a rich and rewarding lives. These things will never make a profit.

But this, of course, is the legacy of Thatcher. That those who struggle should be left to fall. That poverty is the fault of those who are victims to it. That the economy is everything and happiness is nothing. That the rich should be feted with tax cuts and the easing of regulations, that labour should be cheap and flexible, that the working class is just another resource — and a plentiful one at that. That the lives of people can be reduced to a set of figures: those that contribute and those who take, with no compassion, no nuance and no understanding of what really matters.

A Shire

I will tell you a story about a shire. The terraced houses clustered tutting over the fag ends in the street below. The pubs spewing out crowds who shout at each other in slurred accents that carry the illusion of a memory of wealth. The shrugged shoulders of green hills holding silent traces of a first night, skirts hitched up, eyes filled with stars, a discarded condom anonymous graffiti to a moment in time. The honourable great house, sold now to a Russian to pay for a string of fast cars and a decade or two of dilapidation. The kids sloping through the quiet streets in aimless pale imitation of their urban counterparts.

Pretty little houses standing empty five days in seven, the teenagers not staying in to admire the Aga, but drawn to the council estate where a father cooks up a massive round of bacon sarnies dripping with butter and ketchup and serves it to the group giggling over the hyper-violence of the latest triple-A. Libraries are shed like leaves, curling into ash and swept away by a cold wind from the South. Old men, faces lined with years of regret, stare silently into the frothy pint from a dingy little bar in a side road that few remember. History curdles in the middle of the day, polite words drift against the buildings in sloughed off heaps of pleases and just fine thanks and you?

Fragments of pottery dug up every planting season, a school stuffed to the seams and decked out with sharp-toothed railings. Worried eyes flicking to the BBC news, and pausing every now and then to follow the birds as they swoop ecstatically against the sky and shriek warnings to any who will listen.