Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The lure of compulsory Swedish and the myth of BBC 'objectivity'. Russell Brand on Newsnight

I confess to rather liking Russell Brand. His numerous detractors protest too much about his anti-intellectualism, economic ignorance, mysticism and egomania. What these reactions mask is the nervousness of professional commentators and economists that this self-described ‘autodidact’ is exposing the fact that they know a good deal less than they want us to believe. Last weekend, after his appearance on the BBC's Newsnight programme, Brand was likened to the revolutionary leader in the Woody Allen film, Bananas, who, intoxicated with power, orders everyone to wear underpants on the outside and learn Swedish. I don’t sense that in Brand at all but, in any case, I can think of worse fates than compulsory Swedish, and I don’t have to think very hard.

Brand’s Newsnight interview with Evan Davis supposedly provided prima facie evidence of his evasiveness and shallowness. But what it, in fact, showed was the paucity of the mainstream, ‘official’ narrative of the world; an interpretation of reality that can’t handle being challenged in a way that goes beyond what our two main political parties agree to disagree about.

Here are some examples of Davis’ protestations:

“It might be that your system is better or it might be that you haven’t had the imagination to think about the problems that the other system [capitalism] has”

When it comes to a dearth of imagination, you have to go some to compete with the mainstream appreciation of capitalist problems. When blaming ‘reckless bankers’ became rather passé, they settled on the fiction of out of control public spending and an over-abundance of workers’ rights (structural problems if you want to use technical language) in the Eurozone. John Humphrys, Davies’ former co-presenter on the BBC Today programme, saw the soup kitchens that have marked Greece’s descent into fourth worldism, as a consequence of a ‘failed state’. If in doubt, blame the government. The problems of capitalism remarkably vanish if you do.

But let’s assume we’ve got to plug into our brains and think of some capitalist ‘problems’. Is climate change a capitalist problem? It’s certainly a problem, now, under capitalism, emerged as a problem under capitalism and wasn’t around before capitalism. The environmental blight of capitalism’s historic rival, Communism, was chronic pollution, not global warming. Climate change is intimately related to the need of every capitalist firm to ‘grow or die’, to sell as many products as possible, invent new ones all the time, and expand before the competition does. Thus a major contributor to global warming is the transportation of consumer goods from East Asia (China, Vietnam, Cambodia for example) to western countries. In some cases, like the famed iPod and iPhone, parts are made in west, transported for assembly in Asia, and then transported back again for sale to Western consumers. What lies behind this convoluted and ecologically insane process is the need to hold down labour costs. In technical language, it is known as ‘global labour arbitrage’, a unique development of capitalism and globalisation. Apple, for example, enjoyed a profit margin on iPhones of 64% in 2009. If they were assembled in the US, that profit margin would drop to 50%. So they are assembled in China.

But it isn’t as if many people, capitalists included, have not been aware of the system’s problems and tried to ameliorate them. It’s just that they couldn’t resolve them. Geographer David Harvey says capitalism is constantly oscillating between the need to produce maximum profit at the expense of the consumer demand of employees, against the need to realise that profit through sales which means that the aggregate demand of workers cannot be held down. Our societies have followed the first path over the last 30 years and consumer debt has rocketed in parallel with falling real wages. The end result has been financial crisis and economic stagnation. But in the 1970s, crisis also resulted from incrementally rising wages squeezing profits. Another word for a problem that can’t be resolved is a contradiction. You could overcome this contradiction if there wasn’t an in-built conflict between those who receive profits and those who make them. If, as Brand suggested, people controlled their workplaces. But under capitalism, they don’t.

“You want to take General Motors from its shareholders. Do you know who owns it? The United Autoworkers owns it, the Canadian government owns a chunk of it. If you take it from them, they’re poorer”

It’s interesting that defence of capitalism instantly shifts to how widespread ownership is when, in truth, (to take the US as an example), the richest 5% of households own 70% of all shares and over half of Americans own nothing. But the recent history of General Motors is worth dwelling on. The United Autoworkers union ended up with a large share of stock in both GM and another bailed-out car company, Chrysler, because these companies could no longer afford health care and pension benefits to retirees. But, crucially, these are non-voting shares. They are controlled by an independently-managed trust fund whose influence on company policy is negligible. Management has continued in the same fashion as before.

Revealingly, the non-voting share route is identical to the one taken by the Obama administration when it bailed-out both GM and Chrysler in 2008 and took part ownership of them. According to the economist Ha-Joon Chang, “the US government deliberately took shares that do not have any voting rights – so that it would have not have any say in the management of the company.”

And why would you want any say over the company’s management when it has been so spectacularly successful? I was being ironic there. GM readied itself for bail-out by embracing every available corporate fad such as shareholder value maximisation, taking over other companies and creating a highly lucrative finance arm. And in 2014 alone General Motors has had to recall over 11 million cars in America because of faulty ignition, a safety glitch that has caused 30 confirmed deaths.

GM and the banks illustrate a golden rule of contemporary politics – that large capitalist concerns can engage in any amount of incompetence, debt-fuelled hubris or downright criminality and, although the personnel may change, the basic structure of management will be preserved. In contrast, when the UK Cooperative Bank got into trouble, the elected lay people on its board had to be sacrificed in favour of more experienced professionals. You get the principle.

The question that should be asked is not why GM’s management and ownership should be radically altered but why they should remain as they are. Or as Brand put it to Davis, “why don’t you answer some questions?”

Brand: “Are you suggesting that corporations like Monsanto, Vodafone, Amazon and Pfizer are operating on behalf of us ordinary people?”
Davis: “Sometimes yes, sometimes no”

Always no. Brand is right. There are obvious benefits that accrue to even modestly wealthy people from the activities of corporations. But these benefits are a collateral effect. Amazon does not exist because its owners get a warm feeling from delivering parcels to people. Pfizer does not exist in order to produce living-saving drugs for humanity. If it did, Ebola would not have killed so many people. They exist to make a profit. The benefits are a by-product. The idea that corporations sometimes operate on behalf of ordinary people is simply wrong.

But over and above this immutable feature of capitalism, the activities and products of corporations are a double-edged sword. Apple’s IPhones may be a marvel to use, but some of the people who have to assemble them have found the conditions they endure so awful, they have jumped to their death from first storey windows. The ubiquity of mobile phone and email are in some ways liberating but also mean that many workers in first world countries are never really free of their jobs. You can quite justifiably believe that the benefits of capitalism outweigh its downsides, but you need to recognise both sides of the coin.

Besides, many of the innovations of corporations stem from massive investment by governments (such as aircraft, computers, the internet, pharmaceuticals, iPods etc). This rather inconvenient fact needs to be acknowledged.

“If I gave you a button you could get rid of that down bit at the at very end, but you’d also get rid of a lot of the up bits [after showing Brand a graph illustrating wages going up for about a century but dropping like a stone in recent years]”

Sadly, in the real world, there aren’t any magic buttons. The stalling of wages is not something that affects the UK alone, but has been apparent in the US for a lot longer, and has spread to Canada, Australia and Germany amongst other countries. How you reverse this now well-established trend has been the cause of some serious scratching of beards in the last few years but the solutions, such as pre-distribution, seem lame in the extreme. The much lauded Thomas Piketty has argued that the rise in wages and fall in inequality evident for much of the 20th century was caused by abnormal factors, such as war, strong trade unions, high growth and taxation of the rich. Natural or ‘free market’ capitalism does not automatically let everyone share in the fruits of growing wealth.

In short, you can’t point to the hypothetical effects of some ‘year zero’ revolution on trends that happened in the past, and hope that no-one will notice you have no solutions to the problems of the present.

Brand: “I know you know that capitalism isn’t working”

Davis: “I think it’s got a lot of flaws”

I think I’ve spotted another golden rule of politics – that people who say, defensively, that capitalism is burdened with a many flaws never elaborate what those flaws are. I’d be very interested in hearing what Evan Davis thinks the flaws of capitalism are because I’m not convinced he believes there are many. One glaring flaw of capitalism is that democracy, should it be permitted to exist, is strictly limited to the political sphere, leaving the economic entities in which most people spend a heavy proportion of their lives as autocracies controlled by small elites. But I doubt that Davis would concur. His first book, Public Spending, argued (according to the publisher’s blurb) “that public services could be radically improved by hiring first-rate private service companies to supply them.” He presents the BBC Radio 4 programme The Bottom Line, in which he meets “influential business leaders for a roundtable conversation about the issues that matter to their companies.” There is something exquisitely ideological about the BBC’s former economics editor presenting a programme in which he relates the world-views of ‘business leaders’. So ideological, you have to blink to understand how wonderfully biased it is.

But Davis is most well-known for fronting the BBC TV programme, Dragon’s Den, in which budding entrepreneurs compete to get backing from venture capitalists. You may think this entails an unquestioning celebration of capitalism’s virtues, but it actually rests on a wildly inaccurate impression of what real world capitalism is. The world we inhabit is not populated by enthusiastic inventors scrambling to win finance for their latest innovation, but very large corporations that dominate particular markets. “In the last couple of decades,” says the definitively pro-capitalist economist, Ha-Joon Chang, is his book Economics: The User’s Guide, “through an intense process of cross-border M&A [mergers and acquisitions], virtually all industries have become dominated by a small number of global players”. Through a process known as the cascade effect, “even many of the supplier industries have become concentrated,” he adds.

The trouble with Brand is that writing a book entitled Revolution enables establishment commentators to ignore the manifest problems and flaws of capitalism and concentrate on deriding the absurdity of wiping everything out and starting again with a clean slate. But social change will not work like that. In order to move on, we need a sober assessment of what capitalism is, not just a celebration. But the BBC is incapable of providing such a clear-headed assessment. One BBC journalist, quoted off the record in Owen Jones’ book, The Establishment, describes the broadcaster as “set up to be the transmitter of mainstream ideology.” It has, according to Jones, a “deep-seated commitment to neo-liberal economics, fused with liberal views on issues such as sexuality and gender.”

Russell Brand should not be castigated for having the temerity to notice that the emperor is rather scantily attired.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Mind control or social control

Compassion for those suffering mental health problems is a “great liberal cause” said UK deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, earlier this month. Promising to end the stigma around mental distress, Clegg said he wanted Britain “to be a country where a young dad chatting at school gates will feel as comfortable discussing anxiety, stress, depression, as the mum who is explaining she sprained her ankle.”

We have here all the ingredients for the classic British political debate. In one corner the liberals or centre-left want equality and compassion for people with mental health problems (former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell advocates parity of understanding and services between physical and mental health) while, in the opposite corner, conservatives favour forced treatment and a more punitive approach. Let battle commence.

It is, of course, a phoney battle. What is conspicuously missing from the debate is a sense of curiosity as to why “anxiety, stress, depression” are so widespread. To do so, would diverge from the neo-liberal obsession with wiping away the consequences, and enter into the no go area of root causes.

But what is most revealing is what kind of treatment the mentally distressed would receive should it actually be there.  According to Clegg three-quarters of patients, those who are anxious or depressed, need access to “talking therapies”. This invariably means some form of ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ (CBT) which can take place one-to-one or in a room with 300 others. CBT is now the NHS’s mental health treatment of choice (aside that is from prescribing anti-depressants).

Self-administered mind control

CBT tries to get the patient to change their attitude to the world around them, and in the process, come to understand that the complexities and frustrations it generates are, in fact, produced by themselves, not by other people or the world outside. According to the psychologist, Oliver James, CBT makes the assumption that “unpleasant emotions result from inaccurate thinking”. CBT can be beneficial, says James, because having a sympathetic but independent shoulder to cry on, is helpful in itself. But its effects are often ephemeral and, he believes, it “explicitly discourages patients from considering the childhood origins of their problems, and even worse, [it] actively rejects any analysis of how the person’s society could be making them ill.”

CBT, this society’s response to the epidemic of mental distress, is actually a microcosmic version of its belief about how a healthy person should live their life. Happiness, or its lack, is the personal responsibility of the individual, and can be attained with the right attitude. The outside world is taken as an unchangeable given. If the conventional route of career advancement doesn’t work, or doesn’t supply enough meaning, there are legions of self-help or positive thinking regimens to fill the void. If that doesn’t satisfy, versions of Eastern religion and Buddhism are on hand to provide ancient wisdom. But what all these different disciplines have in common is an unshakeable focus on a person’s internal life, not the world ‘out there’. We are, says the writer Dan Hind, offered various regimes of “self-administered mind control”.

And when the world doesn’t respond as it should, there is no-one to point the finger at but ourselves. The sociologist Richard Sennett has made the disconcerting discovery that in recent years, people who are made unemployed for structural reasons, nevertheless blame themselves for their joblessness. The UK government seeks to change attitudes among unemployed benefit claimants as if that is all that is holding them back. But a go-getting attitude will not make falling real wages rise, turn last-ditch self-employment into an entrepreneurial road to riches, or transform workers into anything other than “labour costs” for those eager to exploit them. Social problems will not be solved by individual solutions.  Moreover, the incessant focus on ourselves has not reduced depression or anxiety. Rather they seem to become more prevalent with each passing year.

Step outside

Perhaps we need to turn the telescope around.

Admittedly this seems counter-intuitive. “An alternative perspective, one that takes into account the social and institutional circumstances of life and seeks to reform their pernicious effects on the self, seems somehow confused,” says Dan Hind in his book, The Return of the Public. “How can I help myself if I don’t concentrate all my energies on myself?”

But in actual fact, turning away from ourselves and instead concentrating on changing the external world may be the route to better mental health. The Second World War in Britain was a time when the country definitively turned away from private concerns to face an external enemy. Yet, contrary to the predictions of psychiatrists, mental distress declined during the war. Physical health also improved and perhaps even more counter-intuitively, life expectancy in Britain during World War 2, rose.

We know that gross inequality feeds mental distress, and that a consumer society that constantly presents images of others enjoying the blessings of a materially superior life, are lethal to feeling  good about yourself, yet vital to a capitalist economy that lives on the profits of selling more and more products. A serious endeavour to “de-marketise” our society, to provide a basic and secure income for all, to return public services to a concern with the experience of the user, not the profit of the investor, to supply the basic necessity of affordable, decent housing, and above all to reduce the sense of being ripped off and exploited at every turn, would, I am sure, result in a quantifiably mentally healthier society. Certainly, a less anxious one.

One of the blights of our time is loneliness, a state which can easily lead to anxiety or depression. Dan Hind, whose chapter in The Return of the Public, entitled ‘Estranged from Ourselves’ is well worth reading, advocates the formation of assemblies in each Parliamentary constituency to debate issues of public concern. Freedom, he says, “requires the opposite of solitude”, and a place to meet other people in conditions of equality, not seeing them as economic rivals or clients, may be the opportunity to turn away from ourselves that we most need. “There are few of us who wouldn’t benefit from some time spent talking in confidence with a qualified professional,” he says. “But all of us would benefit from talking with one another about matters of common concern.”

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The strange comfort of symptoms - Intermittent Explosive Disorder and other pseudo-explanations

A curious combination of excitement and annoyance accompanies hitting upon the succinct description of a phenomenon you were only able to skirt around incoherently. Last year, I wrote an article on capitalism and mental health which laboured to make the point that the pathologisation of mental disorders, such as depression or attention deficit, which conveniently enables pharma companies to sell more drugs, does not mean that the social effects themselves are fictions or are not becoming more acute.

Then comes along Belgian psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe, who says in this latest book What About Me? that, as far as mental distress is concerned, symptoms are being reclassified as diseases. I can see now what I was trying to say. Cheers. Kind of.

Here is Verhaeghe speaking:

One example is attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Because a child is hyperactive and has difficulty concentrating, they obviously have ADHD. A person who periodically explodes in uncontrollable rage suffers from Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). It’s rather like saying that someone who endures painful headaches every other day, has headache disease.

Verhaeghe says we are trapped inside circular arguments and pseudo-explanations. Breaking out involves accepting, in common with the British Psychological Society and the World Health Organization, that mental disorders are primarily caused by social factors.

Contemporary blindness

Every society generates mental illness as well as mental health, says Verhaeghe. The Victorian age, with its strict moral codes and repressive sexual morality, produced hysteria in some women and obsessive-compulsive disorder in some men. Our current society generates “disorders” such as depression and anxiety among adults and ADHD and autism in children. While we are quite able to look back with clarity on the deficiencies of past epochs, says Verhaeghe, “we are blind to what goes on in our own day and age.”

This is compounded by the neo-liberal insistence on the effects of mental distress, never the reasons behind it. “Sociological research has shown a clear link between the current socio-economic system and severe psychological and social problems,” writes Verhaeghe. “The dominant neo-liberal mindset ignores this fact and, instead of tackling the causes, focuses entirely on the consequences: namely, the deviant, disturbed, and dangerous others – psychiatric patients, junkies, young people, the unemployed and ethnic minorities.”

The reason why western politics seems so immovably stuck on this and other issues, is that even enlightened critics who want to change society’s attitude towards mental illness cannot extricate themselves from this “dominant neo-liberal mindset”.

For “better mental health”

Consider the UK charity, Mind, which has as its tagline “for better mental health”. The charity aims to ensure everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets help and support and is a member of Time for Change, a coalition of charities that campaigns against mental health discrimination and stigma.

There is nothing wrong with any of this and Mind does important work trying to make sure people with mental health problems are not unfairly affected by the Work Capability Assessment and other benefit horrors. But if you really want to achieve “better mental health” you have to extend your gaze immeasurably. You have to examine how the current organisation of work generates mental distress rather than mental health, how lack of control over your work is a cause of both mental and physical illness, how inequality generates distress, and how the erratic quality of early childhood relationships incubates mental problems that emerge later in life.

You would have to delve -  as the twentieth century German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm did – into what brings about a ‘sane society’ and what causes its opposite. This would inevitably take you into controversial and difficult issues, such as how success in contemporary society is dependent upon the fostering of certain characteristics, such as (in Verhaehge’s words) “flexibility, speed, efficiency, result-orientedness and articulateness in the sense of being able to sell yourself.” And how the lack of these skills leads to failure and self-blame.

But Mind and other mental health charities wouldn’t dare approach any of these issues. Apart from the fact that they are sternly warned off by politicians (a short-lived UK “minister for civil society” told charities to “stick to their knitting”), to do so would take you away from symptoms, which can always be ameliorated or looked upon in a different way, into the dangerously “political” waters of root causes. But because they are controversial and political is precisely the reason we need to go there.

As Verhaeghe readily admits, “finding evidence for the connection between a particular type of society and mental disorders is no simple matter”. He suggests that the spectacular rise of ADHD is connected to constant exposure to “information nuggets” such as text messages, tweets and keywords. There is no time to practice the art of concentration. This sounds plausible. But accepting this hypothesis then begs the question of why our work and free time is filled with so many distractions, why we are, in the words of David Harvey, “totally absorbed either in the pseudo busy-work of much of contemporary production or in the pursuit of alien consumerism.”

“Always connect”, said the early twentieth century novelist EM Forster. But, exceptions like the Equality Trust and the New Economics Foundation aside, most of the organisations that surround us are myopic when what is required is 20:20 vision. This narrow focus on symptoms is not limited to mental illness. When our political culture can bear to accept the reality of global warming, it becomes fixated on technological fixes that will give a spurt to economic growth. The root cause of the financial crisis becomes lost in attempts to eradicate symptoms such as unemployment or government debt.

Possibly, a compulsive need to always be occupied partly explains the compulsive attention on symptoms, because the symptoms will never go away unless you address the underlying disease. Maybe we want to permanently exhaust ourselves in trying to solve never-ending symptoms. I think Erich Fromm called it the fear of freedom.