Tag Archives: socialism

Time to reintroduce national kitchens

Since the outbreak of the CoronaVirus I have been in conversation with many people (via Twitter, email etc) about my research on wartime public feeding.

Many of these brilliant people take a far more active role than me in feeding people / nudging policy, but I’ve been an advocate of a better public feeding system for a while now, and now more than ever this is a priority.

Here’s how we can do it by learning from history:

But hang on, social distancing makes the large communal dining schemes of the war impossible now, right?

Yes, but the public feeding schemes of WW1 and WW2 weren’t exclusively about long-table dining.

They also pioneered the UberEats / deliveroo / meals on wheels type model.

I won’t drone on about the history, but here’s the point:

  • National Kitchens (WW1) and British Restaurants (WW2) are the best example of emergency feeding in recent British history.
  • They ran by central government providing ‘start up’ loans to local councils, who sourced sites and appointed a paid staff and manager for each.
  • Crucially, they offered cheap and healthy food – needed now more than ever in the context of panic buying, black marketeering etc. They had to adhere to a maximum price structure and offer meals that met nutritional standards.
  • This was not some sort of Soviet-style top-down drab dystopian vision. Sure, central government needs to provide the initial cash. But they were more of a national collaborative effort which involved nutritionists, local volunteers, and also much input from the retail trade (forms like Marks and Spencer etc).
  • The communal dining model is impossible now but the other model they used is viable – i.e. food prepared in big kitchens (schools, often) by trained staff (cleanliness and sanitation a priority), then distributed via courier system – vans, trams, and even (in the BLitz) underground trains.
  • The best way to replicate this today would be to utilise school kitchens to produce safe food in a controlled environment, food then transferred to van and motorcycle couriers (like UberEats etc) and delivered to the homes of the most vulnerable people.

Time, now more than ever, for the return of this form of public feeding.

Re-establish the Ministry of Food, and let’s get the ball rolling.

 

 

 

 

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Salvador Allende’s glasses

image.jpegObjects as history. I never really took to this approach.

I, for one, have never much liked those museums displaying ancient flint combs and toothpicks. Object after soporific object, with little by way of accompanying explanation or context.

Some notable exceptions – British and Irish – of histories in ‘100 objects’, defy my scepticism. Yet I have never liked the fetishisation of the single object as an expression of history.

Having said that, I was quite excited by the prospect of Chile’s national history museum, in Santiago, where – so I was told – the final exhibit was the broken glasses of Salvador Allende: Chile’s famous deposed president of the 70s, the world’s first democratically elected Marxist head of state.

Allende was a plump old politician, head of the leftist Unidad Popular coalition which came to power in the country’s general election of 1970. His narrow victory heralded policies of income redistribution and nationalisation (not to mention warm relations with Castro’s Cuba) which pitted the nation’s right, its business interests and – critically – the US, against him.

 

I must confess to a certain attachment to Allende. In 1998 the Blair government, in a fleeting moment of radicalism, acceded to a Spanish judge’s request for the arrest of the man who deposed him – General Augusto Pinochet. Around the same time, in university, I learnt of the ‘first September 11’, in 1973, when Pinochet’s coup overthrew Chile’s government and resulted in Allende’s death – suicide, claimed the new military regime; death in combat with gun in hand, say his supporters. A romantic symbol of democratic socialism he remains.

Pinochet’s awful dictatorship is perhaps best symbolised by the ‘Caravan of Death’, a group of airborne soldiers who travelled from town to town eliminating political opponents in brutal helicopter raids. But his rule still divides opinion in the country, now returned to democracy, where there’s a stubborn rump of respect for the leader of the junta.

So, given this interesting history, I set aside my reservations about the ‘objects as history’ approach in anticipation of seeing Allende’s cracked specs in Chile’s national history museum.

Only to be disappointed.

Allende’s glasses were, so said the sign, ‘in the process of conservation’.

image.jpeg

A sign of the limitation of ‘objects as history’? *Sigh*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On ‘Postcapitalism’ and Recent Events – #Nice, #Turkey

I’ve just finished reading the book Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, and some
recent global events have got me thinking about the book’s arguments.
As America becomes more polarised, We’ve also just had two pretty seismic events unfold: the slaughter in Nice and the coup attempt in Turkey.

Paul Mason commentates regularly on the knock-on economic impacts of such happenings as the economics editor for Britain’s Channel 4 News. His journalistic written style perhaps explains why a book which discusses sometimes arcane economic theory is such a compelling read. 

THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING

His basic argument is that the pace of infotech development over recent years has changed everything. Knowledge is increasingly free, and readily available at our fingertips. For example, the first I heard of the terror attack in Nice was while pootering about on Twitter: the news of the attack was not originally verifiable, but as it shot to the top trending topic it was clear that something very big and very bloody was unfolding in that city. 

Mason sees the free diffusion of knowledge (not just via social media but in the free exchange of ideas and science more broadly) as such a challenge to the privatise-at-all-costs mantra of neoliberalism that it could topple capitalism as we know it. He goes back to Marx’s Grundrisse and the great German philosopher’s meditation on how, if there were ever a machine invented that would never wear out, capitalism would crumble. He then points to the revolutionary potential of zero cost products in an economy based on information.

Mason did not have to convince me of the apocalyptic possibilities of capitalism if it continues as it does presently. Irreversible climate change, environmental destruction, the mass unavailability of lifesaving drugs, a new chasm between the ultra wealthy 1% and the rest of us: capitalism has to be altered, otherwise we, and the succeeding generations, are all heading to hell in a handcart.

But it does not necessarily follow that the revolution in infotech will deliver Postcapitalism, or even a better capitalism. The Apple corporation, for example, constructs a walled garden around free music, literature, ideas and art by forcing people to buy a variety of its products in order to harness them at all. Mason, to give him his due, notes this; more importantly, though, he notes the prospect of governments clamping down on this unprivatised brave new world.

STATE CLAMPDOWNS

Here lies the danger. The spot on the Promenade des Anglais on which the Nice killer fell is now littered with detritus and people assemble to spit on it. The killer’s actions, in the popular mindset, are not now human but monstrous. With the perpetrators of terrorist events commonly dehumanised and dubbed monstrous, the possibility of state crackdown is surely more alive than ever. 

When senior politicians like French President Francois Hollande are booed at commemorations, as happened in Nice last week, the tempting solution for the political establishment is to clamp down harder. Ever harder. Harder on the terrorists, yes, but also harder on the freedoms Mason lauds, and all in the name of security. Think of the Chinese government’s regular, outrageous censorship of the Internet. Think of Turkey’s President Erdogan and his tendency to do the same, only enhanced by the coup attempt in his country at the weekend. Think, too, of British prime minister Theresa May’s support for the UK’s proposed ‘snooper’s charter’. Ironically, Erdogan denounced the coup via FaceTime, the sort of free info / person-to-person platform Mason lauds and the Turkish president loathes.

INTERVENTION
Coming back to Mason, he has been dismissed by some as an unreconstructed Trot, but he does attack many of the old leftist shibboleths. The early twentieth century socialists – Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lenin – were wrong to perceive the imminent collapse of capitalism, he claims. He also doubts the ability of centralised state planning to effect the desired-for transition to Postcapitalism. The people, individuals, and not the omnicompetent state, will deliver Postcapitalism, says Mason. He wants a ‘Wikistate’, run like Wikipedia with just a couple of hundred administrators overseeing a wealth of freedom. 
However, and more broadly, we are actually witnessing the rise of politicians promising more state intervention, not less – Donald Trump is a good example, a cowboy pinup of the aggressive business world like Reagan, but hardly a neoliberal in the classic sense. With Brexit, with the resurgence of the European right, anxiety over uncontrolled immigration etc it seems people are demanding more intervention, not less. The price of greater security, then, may well be the jettisoning of the free anticapitalist ethos that Mason celebrates.
BRAVE NEW WORLD

There are other flaws, to my mind, with Mason’s thesis. But his cry for a different world borne of different thinking – one in which individuals all receive a flat wage and so do not have to perform ‘bullshit work’, in which banks are held to account and responsible and sustainable business practice rewarded – is one which should be embraced and not dismissed haughtily.

And yet. And yet. At times this book, for all its historical sweep, seems trapped in an intellectual cul de sac. Mason’s Postcapitalism, when he gets around to defining it, seems to be a mixture of the free market, the interventionist state, and – lording it above all equals – the techno geek. It all feels a bit faddish, a feeling I first got with Mason last year when reading a Guardian piece by him on how the hipster brewing company ‘Brewdog’ is an example ofPostcapitalism in making its recipes freely available and offering easily accessible share options. Oh please.

As the events in Turkey show, in this fast paced ever changing world, change is often effected in quite traditional ways: helicopters, television pronouncements, angry mobs. Great change in the world is certainly greatly desirable, but it may just arrive via more established means.

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Trying to sanitise the #EasterRising insults people’s intelligence #1916Rising

Take a look at the above front pages. On the left is the original Irish Times cover from April 1916, reporting on the Rising in Dublin. On the right is today’s Irish Times special edition reprint. Can you spot the difference?

It’s this: in today’s reprint, the heading ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion in Ireland’ has been removed.

This has caused something of a Twitter-storm (look it up: it’s similar to a storm in a tea cup).

In the red corner, people are alleging that the Irish Times is censoring its former self for political reasons: the newspaper has a traditionally critical line on today’s Sinn Féin party (Adams, McGuinness et al) and many have seen in this an attempt to stop today’s Sinn Féin capitalising politically by further claiming ownership of this founding moment of the Irish state.

In the blue corner, the paper’s defence is that this is simply a matter of space. It is a reprint, not an exact replica of the historical source, and therefore it is not a carbon copy.

I can see both sides of this argument here. If you look at the original, there is also a fairly prominent advertisements for ‘FURS’ (top left) – now you wouldn’t expect the paper to reproduce that, would you? (Actually, let’s leave furs out of this entirely because that is another kettle of fish entirely and I don’t want to start a twitter-storm involving PETA).

 

On the other hand, you have only to look to the uneasy political situation in the Republic of Ireland to see why the Irish Times might be determined to expunge any mention of Sinn Féin, even historically. While we are still without a government, the Irish Times – which prides itself on its liberal image – is loathe to hand any gains to a party which many on its staff regard as green fascists.

Add to this the fact that Sinn Féin have been fairly shamelessly going about ‘owning’ 1916, the same way they ‘own’ the 1981 Hunger Strikes, and you can see a clear motive for wanting to remove ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ from the headline in today’s edition. If I have to view another nauseating picture of the Sinn Féin party elite posing next to rebel re-enactors in Boer-inspired slouch hats and Sam Brown belts I may actually gag. If you haven’t had enough, there are plenty more to view here.

Trying to sanitise the 1916 Rising, however (or de-SinnFéinise it) is a dangerous game.

The writer Colm Toibín, interviewed last night on Channel 4 News, made a good point about why the Irish state must commemorate this event. To do otherwise, he argued, would hand the initiative to dissident republicans up north determined to take out prison officers or police as a commemorative souvenir, and he raised the spectre of balaclava-clad young men marching past Dublin’s GPO in place of the Irish Army.

That is fair enough. While the fiftieth anniversary (1966) commemoration is now viewed as a tad triumphalist, the Irish state has, this time, tried to strike a balance this time. But only – it should be remembered – after the public and media commentators baulked at the watered down, corporate crap originally offered up along with ill-conceived plans to invite a British royal along for the day.

In fact, the bien pensants in charge of things as Ireland hits its ‘decade of commemorations’ seem determined to push the ‘look how far we’ve come’ narrative by throwing in gratuitous references to British royalty and the Queen’s ‘historic’ visit in 2011 at every turn.

OK, no one can deny the above was a significant moment. But when I hear people who assume leading roles in all this wondering, on a BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast last week

“would James Connolly have thought that the room he spent his last days in, just round the corner, would be where the Queen prepared herself for the big momentous speech she gave here? And would he have believed that she would have opened that speech in the Irish language”

then I am tempted to bark back at the radio just what I think Connolly’s reaction would be:

  • “Unelected heads of state? What a barbarous relic. Have we not got rid of the British royal family yet? I was born in Britain after all!”
  • “Did I die for the sort of wealth inequality and corporation tax rates that make this wonderful country now resemble a banana Republic / tax haven?”
  • “I couldn’t give a feck if she spoke in Irish – please see my oft-quoted remarks about how merely painting post boxes from red to green doth not a revolution make!”

But then, that’s just my opinion.

And that’s the very point: commemorating or remembering 1916, or any historical event for that matter, is all about differing opinions because of course we don’t know ‘what Connolly would have said’ or ‘what Pearse would have done’.

In this era of eclectic media – especially digital media – we do not need the old dead-tree press or the old state broadcaster telling us what to think any more. We’ve moved beyond the idea that people are unthinking dupes beholden to print headlines. Haven’t we?

To give the mainstream media its credit, I think that most coverage of 1916, Irish Times included, has not shied away from the fact that it was a violent ‘terrorist’ act, pretty undemocratic [as we today understand the term], and carried out by a minority of a minority. As usual, and as I write this, it has taken a priest to chip in with an opinion that is pretty ill-judged and harks back to heavily revisionist interpretations of the Rising, but the overall tone – in this writer’s view – has not been disagreeable.

But if The Irish Times did indeed remove the words ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ for political reasons, whoever took the decision needs to take a long hard look at themselves. Not everyone will know that the current Sinn Féin is the latest incarnation of a political brand that has had several different, and separate, existences in Ireland in the twentieth century. But for heaven’s sake, most Irish people realise that the Sinn Féin of today is not the Sinn Féin of Arthur Griffith of one hundred years ago, the small ‘dual monarchy’ party to which the Rising was mis-attributed in the first place.

To assume otherwise is to insult the general public’s intelligence.

And if the 1916 Rising teaches us anything it’s that treating the mass of people as subalterns will, eventually, give rise to unexpected outpourings of anger.

 

 

 

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