States and Nations: Holyrood to Mosul

As the passion and polemic of the Scottish referendum fades, after the impassioned cries over the lost chance for an ‘alternative way’ and a ‘more equitable society’, through to the Braveheart tub-thumping across the pond that claimed the Scots squandered (or were, somehow through a direct democratic vote, were robbed of) their freedom, what have we really witnessed last week?

It seems to me that the ‘Scottish Question’ is a very specific, localised symptom of a global affliction, an ailment that draws a line between global terrorism and local government, racist politics and the supranational organisations. There is very little chance I will do this thought justice in a blog post, but, in the spirit of FailToPlan, I will push on with the thought. I would rather fail to express it adequately than not try to express it at all.

From a UK perspective, the Scottish referendum it seems was asking the wrong question. The Scottish desire to be more in control of their own destiny caused by the political and psychological distance from Westminster may be most keenly felt when mixed in with a head dose of intoxicating nationalist sentiment, but across the UK other regions suffer similarly. Policies that are meant to be national are cooked up in Westminster and seem better suited to dealing with the peculiar problems of the capital rather than those of the country as a whole. When government, civil service, media and the most vocal parts of industry sit within the M25, it’s is no wonder that it starts to feel as though one very unrepresentative part is standing in for the whole. Rather than looking at whether we should be hiving off Scotland, the real question is whether the Scottish desire for independence reflects a broader need for a federal or at least regionally devolved Britain, where the Midlands, the South-West, the North-East and the North-West get a stronger say in they way their share of the tax take is spent and the way in which industry and perhaps even education is shaped. A more successful UK needs to give places other than London the tools they need to thrive. People need to feel confident that if that have a great idea or a game changing business they can start it in Manchester or Newcastle, because they could attract the talent and the connections & conditions. These regions and cities should be allowed to (re)build and encourage their economies, legislate for their peculiarities and set out their global brands. A federal Britian would give them the power and the political space to grow.

So there is a bigger question for Britian as a nation that has been raised by this, but the second, more curious, element of the Scottish devolution question I wish to highlight fits into broader shifts in international, rather than specific problems in national, politics. Who got to vote in last week’s referendum raised all kinds of question around Nationhood. A good friend of mine, Croydon-born, a Londoner and European through, voted in Glasgow, having been there a month, yet die-hard ‘Scots’ were denied because their were living in Birmingham, or Baku. But the problem is, in the fluid, international and highly mobile world we live in, what is a Scot? Or British? Or Burmese for that matter? Which becomes particularly thorny when you are un-uniting a multi-ethnic liberally defined ‘Nation;’ How do you define the voters and going forward, if successful scythed in half, the citizenship? This is a question underlying a disparate bag of rapidly-mainstreaming long-tail weirdness globally. Whether it is Kurds in Iraq and Turkey or the EDL, far right parties in Sweden holding the balance of power or the Front Nationale in France, narrow and exclusive definitions of the nation are once again increasing, in the face of a world that operates ever-more transnationally.

On one hand this can be seen as part of a reaction to the (post-) recessionary environment, where even as GDP recovers, people feel poorer still, but at the same time the rallying round the exclusively defined nation comes at a time of unprecedented diminishing of the Nation-State. There seems to be an inverse correlation between the rhetoric and the reality. As the noise increases, the nation-state becomes ever weaker. Its hands tied by the primacy of multinational companies and transnational networks of capital, not to say bilateral trade agreements, supranational bodies like NATO and global justice entities such as the European Court. As the sound and fury of what constitutes your nations increases, the state may be coming to signify nothing. Even the ‘bad guys; can’t be pinned down- we saw the ‘success’ of trying to declare conventional war on the unconventional ‘state’ of Terror…

This of course is where is starts to get weird… whilst many are arguing increasingly vociferously over the 19th century Nation State, we are facing down the first truly 21st Century one, in the form of ISIS. As my good friend Steve Grant put it, currently in swathes of Syria and Northern Iraq we are facing

“…a salafist version of burning man. Seriously –young people from around the world in a conventionally lawless space, running under its own set of newly instantiated social norms, all brought together by the internet. Fewer drugs, more small arms and beheadings, same spirit. really”

Jacques Attali, in ‘A brief History of the Future’ outlines a 21st Century where Corsairs and Corporations battle over land and resources and the conventional nation state fades into the past while impotently defending its claims to relevance. Suddenly it seems like that imagined future is not so far off. Scotland wants to leave Westminster because that State, nationalizing it’s banks to ‘save’ them (a very anti-market and anti-Captial measure in truth!) as well as propping up private enterprise in rail, road, energy and infrastructure is willingly tying its own hands, becoming little more than steward of the market rather than the leader of a ‘nation’ (whatever the hell that means now) putting us all in hock to the unaccountable. At the same time, a violent and bloody experiment in alternative forms of governance is clearing itself a white space in the Middle East and acquiring the mineral wealth to continue financing their bizarre and brutal thought experiment. All of a sudden you have drawn a rhetorical thread from Alex Salmond to the Islamic State, via the Tea Party and the outliers on the loony left.

We are at an inflection point for the state as we have known it, and there is any number of interest groups, of which Citizens are only one, making demands on its future. The next few decades should be interesting. So far it is the (very) lunatic fringes who are experimenting with alternative forms to redefine the great and irrelevant 19th century conception of what ‘The State’ is. It is time that the political mainstream began having these fundamental discussions rather than propping up a potentially untenable status quo, else ISIS and others will take the global conversation (and potentially many more innocent people) hostage. Hopefully the failure in Scotland will begin to mainstream these conversations in the UK, and frankly, looking around us now, these kind of free and frank discussions can’t happen soon enough.

Is the Guardian making you Stupid?

I was having a cup of tea and re-watching the night before’s Newsnight with an old university friend last week- the rock and roll lifestyle I lead. He’s a Labour party activist and an investment banker, which in itself is an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance to possess (…perhaps for another time), but he is critical of much of the grass roots of his party. Though aims are admirable, what he sees amongst the party rank-and-file is a failure to engage with the public at large. Of course the provision of welfare is important for the most vulnerable in society and should be safeguarded by government, so the party faithful take it as read; despite the reality being that much of the British population do not. Simply put, they fail to explain why an idea that they take for granted, should be taken for granted, or taken at all in fact. His point got me thinking because this phenomenon isn’t just true of leftwing party politics.
Recently I have been struck by the extent to which the debate that I am engaged in, at work, at home, amongst my friends there seem to be a certain set of truths which we hold apparent, beliefs that are seen as universal and doctrinal. But time and again these are proved not to be the case.
Racism is wrong. John Terry and Luis Suarez clearly didn’t get the memo…or the Met…
Capital punishment is bad. Not according to most ‘state-of-the nation’ surveys
Multicultural Britain brings vibrancy to our nation. Bradford Riots, remember those? And all of the EDLs recent marche
And these are just the most obvious ones that spring to mind while I tap away at the keyboard. Just because  #creepingshariah can start trending doesn’t mean there is some kind of triumphant consensus of reason in this country. But so many of us who work in the civil service, or the ‘cultural industries’ those that influence the ‘national agenda‘ believe these things to be set in stone. Even if we look back over our recent history, these have been hard fought and hard won victories for liberalism- with a very small L- (the Equalities Act went on the statute books in….drumroll please… 2010) and as such are, in the big scheme of things, young, fragile and growing saplings, not great-trunked trees in the forest of this country’s uncodified constitution. I don’t want to get into that conversation in detail here- @jacksimsoncaird is the person to get in touch with for matters politico-legal- but the point here is that these new positions need to be challenged and then defended vigorously, nurtured and propagated. If they are not reaffirmed in the face of questioning then they wither. The whole nation is not the 217k-odd people who read the Guardian, who in turn set an agenda that is attuned only to views such as their own.
Simply put, I am consistently exposed to a chorus of general agreement. Abu Qatada has been found to be a criminal, and should be treated as such, but over grilled vegetables or a quick halloumi panini the chatter is one of variations on a theme, rather than actual debate. Its those so-called self-evident truths again. Only once have I heard a topical conversation where someone has cited a paper other than the Guardian or the Observer, and it was the FT. If you are reading this post, when was the last time you picked up a red-top? When was the last time you had a conversation in a pub with someone in a ‘working-class’ job (city-boy turned Plumber doesn’t count)? When was the last time you took yourself outside of that liberal monoculture of cycle-commuting, flat-whites and upcycling that you inhabit and engaged with views totally alien to yours, that start from first principles other than your own? When was the last time you considered that people even start from first principles other than the ones you hold true?
After asking myself this, I decided that enough is enough, to do a job in which I have to understand the relationship between Housewives from Hull and their sandwich spreads, or kids from estates in Camden and their relationship with trainers, I can’t live in that same bubble that is surprised when confronted with a view radically different from theirs, who see discimination as shocking, rather than a sad fact of life that needs to be addressed and changed and who rarely have their own bloviated opinions challenged by testing them in the crucible of real difference. So I am giving up the Guardian, kicking the habit; I breathe in enough second hand hoke anyway.

Consumption and citizenship

Raiding trainer stores, stealing mobile phones, smashing into money stores and pawn shops. As many of the ‘string them up’ lobby has been pointing out online, these people are not stealing to survive. But this is not an audacious raid on Gucci. They have not been forming up in Knightsbridge to try and gain the baubles of the very elite. Nor are they stealing bread to feed their families. What is being stolen are the very middle-class comfortable, quietly aspirational things that we are told now to accept as norms. All the images of life we are bombarded with are of lower middle class to middle class comfort. It is what we should all expect- we are all stakeholders and we are all middle class now, or so we are told. But of course that isn’t the case, and these middle class paradigms of consumption that we are all meant to hold ourselves up to are unfair when actually, we don’t see the Shadow Britain for whom these aspirations aren’t only just out of reach, but a long way.

As marketers, we trade in dissatisfaction- we show people how things can help you self actualise. We actively encourage what Eric Fromm refers to as a ‘having’ mode of existence, rather than a ‘being’ mode. More and more sophisticated marketing encourages individuals to buy, under the assumption that the normative values that, if you want this, you will then have to save, or borrow or work more in order to have. We are in that respect, a pumping circulatory organ of capitalism.

The nature of what these looters have stolen the banal ‘dream small’ nature of stealing phones or non-generic branded tracksuits shows the sucess of our industry. It shows us that advertising has touched these people when society hasn’t. They have the normative values of consumption, without the normative values of what we term civil society. The Pax Accumsan relies on having both these sets of norms- I want those trainers and I will get them through socially and judicially legitimate means. If we all had simply the want impulse, we would be as beasts. Which is the sad thing because ultimately, however much self actualisation we sell, underneath it all is an appeal to the worse side of all our human nature, the selfishness rather than the compassion. But that makes the world go round.

The problem is, that without the societal norms as well as the capitalist/accumulative norms we essentially have South Park’s underpants gnomes, but with bricks and crowbars, and if society can’t reach them, then maybe as responsible marketers we need to be teaching both. A friend of mine commented that ‘The London rioters are teenagers rebelling against the only parent they’ve ever really had: the State.’ Actually I would argue that they are listening to the only guardian or parent they have had, consumption. And unless they engage with society as well as shopping, they only have step one and step three…

Reflecting on the London Riots

Many people have been guilty of a vast misjudgement. This blog has already somewhat missed the point in posts earlier this year that bragged of integration, regeneration and the cultural vibrancy of Britain and the capital in particular. Though an article ten days ago here covered the other side, a warning as to what could happen if the wealth and increase and cultural exchange in London is not inclusive, the post was both prophetic and too late. There is an alternative London, an alternative Britain that co-exists in the same space at the same time, yet is never seen, a shadow nation completely disenfranchised from society. And it is the ignorance of the chattering classes, a complacent and misplaced belief that everything is getting better for everyone that has created this.

Everything has got better for some people, and so relative deprivation has increased. Those who have not been included in the wealth creation that Britian has seen are also those who have no voice, who lack the articulacy to find one and the channels through which to express it. I cannot condone looting, but I think I can understand it. If you can feel so marginalised that society, which we all need to partake in in some capacity for it to function, it in your mind something for other people, then why would you not simply take to the streets in this directionless outcry. It’ll ruin your job prospects- so what? You will go to jail- so what? It’s not the done thing- all my friends think it is! If that is the mindset, then there is nothing left to lose. They have nothing, or rather they feel like they have nothing. Why should they be expected to rally round civil society when they feel that civil society has nothing to offer them. When a job is about nothing but money and has nothing to do with pride or purpose, why would you bother unless your rich or famous in working one. The most eloquent image for that is the girl in the Curry’s uniform outside the Brixton branch where she worked, arrested for looting.

Frankly it shatters so many of my myths about progressive, multicultural, cross class London- if the urban poor are feeling so disconnected, if the trickle down effect is such a lie, then we have serious issues- people are dissatisfied and so inarticulate and angry and disconnected from what we call societies norms that instead, for want of an eloquent way to express themselves, they have taken to the streets stealing from the most obvious symbols of what they believe is fucking them up- the shops and the chain stores and the retailers selling the things they are trained to want and can barely have. It’s very very sad that we have created a situation where this level of opportunistic criminality is acceptable. What kind of level of disenfranchisement, voicelessness, hopelessness and frustration leads people to think that that kind of behaviour is okay. We have a serious problem on our hands and it isn’t one that is going to be fixed by water cannon and a glazers bill….

I was in my local pub in brixton the other day and there was a guy braying that there was no recession in London and it made my blood boil. Go and tell that to the kids on the estates, go and tell that to the almost 20% of under 25s who are unemployed. The criminality is unforgivable and they must take responsibility for their actions But part of the cause was our collective complacency and we all need to face up to what we need to do to stop allowing people to be marginalised.  And stop calling them chavs scum or thugs, if they are this, then we gave them the opportunity and often the title for them to live up to- it is a smug, nonconstructive and over simplistic view. And how do I feel about this as a planner? Just maybe, maybe we have added too much fuel to the fire of consumption and it has reached some kind of flashpoint?

Regeneration and disconnection

Apologies for a very UK-centric post, international readers, please get me on @alouneou to clarify any too-obscure UK references.

I live in Brixton. Prior to this, I lived in Norbury, and before that, from the age of 6 months, (the age I moved over from West Palm Beach FLA – yes I am technically American) I grew up in Streatham. Barring an intervening three years in a second string British city for university, I have spent my entire life in London, a city which completely skews ones view of the British Isles (here), but also one of the most multicultural, amorphous, evolving places in the world. Urban renewal has done London well- the city arguably could have become a donut by the end of the 80s- save for the City of London itself, but investment in the 90s gave London another chance. Inner city areas that were once no-go areas have become desirable places to live. But this economic narrative isn’t what this post is concerned with.

I suppose this is the point where I set out my stall, and possibly make what could be seen as an incredibly awkward conversation. For the record I am of mixed descent (or for our American audience Anglo-Jamaico-scottish-Irish-Puerto-Costa-Arawak-Londonish) so in some ways, and probably wrongly so, it partially absolves me of the the misconstruction that some may build of this.

I was going for lunch one afternoon in Brixton Market, where a previously derelict section has turned into a vibrant, multi-use commercial space, thanks to London’s largest renewal project, initially kickstarted by Spacemakers. Craft shops, artists and photographers and designers studios and a lot of very cheap, very very good restaurants have sprung up, and in the last year, you can see the Saturday afternoon North London ‘tourists’ down to check the place out.

This is undoubtedly a good thing. But a group of three guys, two black and one white came walking through while I was having lunch, and one of them turned round and shouted, part to his friends, part to himself, and part to those of us around ‘Where have all the black people gone- I thought this was Brixton. What the fuck?’ And in fairness, he had a point of sorts…

Brixton was, along with Notting Hill (!) one of the areas in the 50s and 60s that the Black community settled in. In 1981, it was the first place on mainland Britain to have petrolbombs thrown during the riots against police oppression of the community, and it has always been an important touchstone for black Britain. Yet almost all of those dining and milling around were white middle class. My first reply would be that the businesses were run by the local community, of all colours, and in a proportion far more reflective of the community. But why wasn’t this regeneration of the market being used by all the residents, rather than the new influx of those from Mosaic’s ‘Urban Intelligence’ section of the population. It wasn’t cost- It isn’t expensive. To eat at most of these places costs the same as a chicken based meal from a reputable ( or disreputable) outlet. Even if you prefer takeaway, surely you want to try something new?

Apparently not is the answer. And I think of our exasperated individual in the market’s question should have been ‘where are all the less socio-economically well off people?’ There is a serious fallacy in the idea of social mobility if we have a culture where, though the museums are free, it is primarily the middle classes who benefit. Or where you can get a 5 poundtheatre ticket to see world-class actors at the NT, but still, every time I go, the audience is the same combination of 50-somethings and drama-school kids. This is a theatre that sits in Lambeth, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. What are we doing to make sure we don’t just make sure doors are open, but that people want to, and feel they can, walk through? If we don’t, we are going to have an uneasy detente with areas like Brixton, or Hackney, or Shepherds Bush or any other place where we are seeing a migration by young professionals back to these lively, gritty, vibrant urban centres, and one that could flare up as we face a long hard grind out of this recession. We are being told that London is a world-leading cultural hub, I just hope it can be that way for everyone.

Millennials and Thatcher’s legacy

In the name of objectivity, I should probably lay out my stall. I am not a huge fan of Margret Thatcher. Not just for the predictable ‘I work in the creative industries’ so I complain about Third World exploitation and think of myself as enlightened while wearing my Nike owned Chuck Taylors and waiting for my next pay rise for the killer break-out strategy I developed to help flog blood diamonds from the Congo into the burgeoning Chinese luxury market. I hate her on so many other levels. Working in London, and having grown up in south London, (unlike every other ‘Londoner’ I meet’- again, that is another rant for another day…) I saw how horrid this city was in the early nineties.

My memories of walking round the streets of Streatham then was a city that was very grey, very ugly and very unloved- a city where some people had spent the last ten years doing well, and hang the rest.

Now of course, there are many nuanced arguments about Thatcher, and if you want to understand them fully, ( and I promise to offer no more glib faux-analysis today) I would highly recommend the magnificent book written by my late tutor at Magdalen, Ewen Green.

One of the glib accusations that my fictional Chuck be-Taylored colleague may level at the Iron Lady was that she wanted to destroy society- that Bristol, Toxteth and Brixton were all part of her socially divisive agenda. I disagree with this ( I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Brixton riots and Lord Scarman’s report- home office policy and policing has a lot to answer for though), but it is interesting to hear this misinterpretation.

She was quoted in a 1987 ‘Womans Own’ interview as saying that for those who feels that society owes them a certain standard of life, in her conception there is ‘no such thing as society’. In many ways she encouraged family values rather than state nannying and this can be seen again in the up to 50% reduction of the state that the current government expects to cover with the fig leaf of ‘big society’. The point is that Thatcher gets distorted, just like her rubber-faced doppelganger above.

I still hate her, but I will leave that on the shelf for now.

Thatcher’s liberalisation of economic policy and reduction of (at least in ideological terms, the extent to which the state was actually rolled back is debatable) the role of state created the ‘Loadsamoney’ phenomenon, as brilliantly parodied by Harry Enfield. Brash, self-serving, and interested in actualisation through acquisition, they were always going to be destined to be a little rough round the edges as they were the first to experience this seismic shift, let loose in the sweetshop of deregulated capitalism.

A quarter of a century later, it is web generation, those who have always grown up online, those in their late teens and early 20s now who are really fulfilling Thatcher’s dream. The number of 20-somethings who have opened a shop or a gallery, who have built pop-up bars or founded record labels, converted warehouses, lived in artist collectives or squats is huge. They all see themselves as iconoclastic, break-out individuals, but they are really part of a new nation of shop keepers. Growing up online meant that they always took for granted the idea that you could do anything for next to nothing- the start up costs were minimal, and everything became scalable. You could suddenly, though not surprisingly, find yourself running a music or arts festival.

Thatcher didn’t want us to be held ransom by labour (note small ‘l’)- the unions, the mines, the factories, she wanted to see a successful atomisation of what she felt was a needlessly public vision of society that represented barriers to her individual-centric (but not without responsibility) vision for Britain.

If ‘call me Dave’ wants to energise his ‘Big Society’ it is the galleries of Peckham and the club nights of Hackney he should go to to learn how he can get people to take things on for themselves- to become social entrepreneurs.

Personally I think there is still an important role of the state if those who have best managed to heed Thatcher’s call to arms are a bunch of Bethnal Green Ket-Trolls…