Thursday, 29 December 2011

How Not To Use Politics - A Tale of Christmas Jealousy

I felt good during Christmas Eve, when I would normally feel depressed. I made myself a tasty meal and watched The Sound of Music.

And I had a fun time on Christmas Day… I went to a friend’s house and spent the day with nice women…

It wasn’t until I sat down to write the next day that the fish hit the fan. 

Like this
First, I wasn’t even aware that there were troubling feelings lurking around. I just sat down to write.
I must have looked at the broken keys on my keyboard, which always triggers painful emotions. And this made me wish I had a new laptop…

At this point, the feelings started pouring over (not that I was aware of it then). Fresh in my mind was the memory of the nice presents the women exchanged the day before, and the modern gadgets they had.

But it wasn’t about presents or gadgets; these are only “symbols” for something else: a life that is lived. These women were living lives… they have jobs, a home, friends, adventures. They live.
And I don’t have any of these, you see. So my mind associates these “lack” with “not living”.

Shortly after I started exploring these feelings, I found myself landing square into the field of politics. And this is where things get interesting.

I know politics; a lot. I know far more than I let out. This means that I could have easily “made myself feel better” by using politics. Here’s how:

* The women at the Christmas party had x, y and z
* I felt bad about not having x, y and z
* I use political arguments to undermine x, y and z, which has the effect of a) putting those women down and conversely b) pulling myself up.

So to take a completely random example: the old chestnut of “vegetarianism”. Someone has a nice, cushy job that allows them to have a nice, middle class living. I feel bad about not having a nice, cushy job and therefore not having a nice, middle class living.
I could easily pick at their choice of being a “vegetarian” and undermine their nice, cushy job and their nice, middle class life. How?
I could point out how hypocritical it is to care about the exploitation of animals and not the exploitation of humans. I mean, can you name one job in this global economy that does not result in the exploitation of someone? Exactly. I am knowledgeable enough to spot how any job contributes to the emiseration of people.
So I could easily argue: if “dropping out” of meat consumption is supposedly a good thing for animals because it boycotts the meat production industry… then why isn’t “dropping out” of the wage economy a good thing as well? After all, unemployed people do not, by definition, contribute their labour to the growth of an industry that will exploit people and the environment. Unemployed people do not contribute to capitalist production.
When seen under this light, unemployment is a very ethical choice indeed. If everyone was unemployed, we would soon see the capitalist system collapse.


Please feel free to point out where I’m wrong.

But that’s not the point. The point is I shouldn’t be using political arguments to put someone down in order to pull myself up. As my friend says, “that’s not on”.

The problem is not “vegetarianism” or “the economy” or “unemployment”. The problem is not that some people have nice, cushy, middle class jobs.

The real problem is that I felt depressed and that I don’t want to feel depressed. What other people do or don’t do, have or don’t have should not impact on my wellbeing. I should not get depressed because other people have better lives.

If my problem is that I feel like I’m not living, then I should either start feeling like I am living or start living.
Putting other people’s lives down is not going to bring me up. That is just a way for me to not deal with my pain. It’s just an “excuse”.

And if I don’t deal with my pain, if I don’t address my feelings of not living, then these feelings won’t go away.

This does not mean that I can’t question vegetarianism, or the economy, or unemployment, or the middle class. Of course I can. But I shouldn’t do it because I am suffering from jealousy, or anxiety, or insecurity, or anger. I should do it because I believe in what's right

It's not easy to separate the two, and granted I've only just begun. 

If you find yourself using politics in a similar way, know that you are not alone. I have a sneaking suspicion that we all do it, more often than we realise. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

On Consumer Choice... and the Lack of it

“British are more powerful shoppers than ever before, at work they are becoming less independent”.

He describes how the number of choices in a McGonnagal’s menu has gone from a few items in 1984 to some 49 or so dishes today.

But, he argues, the other side of this picture is worker’s loss of autonomy. In other words, today’s workers have less and less choice over what they do.

Aditya is missing a key piece of this puzzle, and without it the picture doesn’t make much sense: : why would the increase of menu options in a McGonnagal’s relate to the decrease in agency for workers?

What Aditya is missing is that this increase in consumer “choice” goes hand in hand with decrease in consumer “choice”. Yes, you read that right.

It is true that McGonnagal’s menu now has a bazillion choices, but the important question is: who many alternatives are there to McGonnagal’s?

I wasn’t in Britain in the 80s but I’m pretty sure that back then there were far more independently owned restaurants, cafes and “chippies”. Keep in mind that one single independently owned business is a “one of a kind”, while yet another McGonnagal’s is another example of the same thing.

If we were to mathematically compute “choice”, then each independent business would count as “one”, while McGonnagal’s as a whole brand would count as “one” as well. McGonnagal’s may have thousands of restaurants, but they all sell exactly the same thing. 

But forget about computing “choice”. The fact that I was having the same meal as Aditya while living in a different continent approximately 9 thousand miles away tells us all we need to know about the presence of “choice”.

The political meaning of “choice” isn’t “how many combinations of McGonnagal’s ingredients are there in the menu” but rather “how many alternatives are there to McGonnagal’s”.(And if you wanna get really political, the question is actually "who owns these businesses").

Incidentally, for a lot of poor people, the answer is increasingly “none”. There aren’t many places in town for the poor to go to relieve their hunger. Ok, I’m exaggerating: there’s always Burger Ming.

Speaking of which, yesterday I passed a coffee shop that is no more. It was open last month, though.
And in entirely unrelated news, another “Costa” has opened its doors, this one next to the Students’ Union. How nice. Now young people can pay their fees while learning the skills they will need for future employment… of barista, that is.

Aditya is right of course when he speaks about the loss of autonomy for workers. People have less and less “choice” or (“voice”) over what they have to do in their workplaces.

But how does that relate to McGonnagal’s menu choices?

Simple. Whereas before you had a McGonnagal’s, and a coffee shop, and a Chinese restaurant, and a chip shop, and a bakery, now you have… just a McGonnagal’s. Oh, and a PlanetsBucks, of course.

And what do those two have in common? They are humongous, global brands with thousands of venues.  

It’s easy to understand why the larger a company is, the less power workers have over what they do.

For instance, if you work for a small Chinese restaurant and you want to change a recipe, all you have to do is talk to the cook and/or owner.

If you work for a McGonnagal’s and you want to change a recipe… well… you can’t. Those decisions are taken thousands of miles away, somewhere in the US, by someone so up the food chain that you would never have access to them.

And it’s not like you could just change a recipe and get away with it. Because brands like McGonnagal’s require that every product is the same everywhere. They call it “brand consistency” and it matters, for some reason, that everywhere in the whole planet people are tasting exactly the same burger as everyone else.

Brands like McGonnagal’s and PlanetsBucks get larger at the expense of smaller businesses; that’s why their menus grow. This can only mean that people are working for them instead of opening their own shops.

And the larger these brands get, the more hierarchical and “top down” workplaces get.

The same story repeats itself on every aspect of the economy, so you can apply the same idea to your area of choice. For example, the number of magazines at the supermarket rack hides the fact that they are all owned by a few companies.

* I know that according to “journalistic” standards I should refer to him by his surname, “Chakrabortty”, but “Aditya” is such a nice name!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

On Women Having to be More Like "Men" to be Seen

By now you have probably run across Kira Cochrane’s most excellent article on CiF about her months-long research on the absence of women in British public life. I wrote a summary for Women’s Views on News if you don’t have time for the 3400-odd word long original piece (yes, it was a tough summary and I’m bragging about it).

The response from the Feminist World has been positive; Cochrane’s statistics have left us asking “how come???”. The answer is “deregulation of the economy”, of course, but I’ve covered that many times already.

Bidisha has written about Cochrane’s piece and about BBC’s Todayprogramme in particular. The “excuse” given by the editor Ceri Thomas for the huge disparity between male and female voices (2:1 at the best of times) is that:

“They are difficult jobs but the skillset that you need to work on the Today programme and the hide that you need, the thickness of that, is something else. It's an incredibly difficult place to work”.

Thomas’ argument picked my interest, because it’s given way too often to explain away “why there aren’t more women”. And it's nonsense.

Thomas is missing the forest for the trees. Because things work precisely backwards from the way he’s thinking them.

If an environment does not have an equal proportion of men and women, then it’s the environment’s fault. Not women’s.

If an environment is too “tough”, too “demanding”, too “difficult”, too “sensitive to female cooties”, then that environment should change. The onus for change is on the sexist environment, not on women to become “tougher”, to wash off their “female cooties”, in short, to be more like men. 

But the problem is not that women are not like men, but rather that society is built under the template “men”. That is not the fault of women.

Women have been told since day one of patriarchy, that the problem is that they are not enough “like men”. (At this point, you are encouraged to remember the song “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”, and keep it playing in the background of your mind). “Oh, if only you women were more like men, then you would fit perfectly in this society we have designed for men”, quoteth Patriarchus.

Well, no. This has never worked and it will never work. And its only purpose is to divide women into “those who can pull off being like men” and those who can’t. And because only a few women will be able to at any given time*, those women rise and are used to shame the rest of us for not succeeding at being more like “men”.   

In short: if the “Today” programme is “too difficult” for women, then they should make it easier. And if that doesn’t work in bringing more women on board, they should try something else. Until there’s equal representation.

Alternatively they could just use quotas, but Thomas doesn’t appear keen on that.

Oh, and I won’t leave without saying this: working for the BBC, for the “Today” programme DIFFICULT??? HA! This is one of the clearest examples of the overblown sense of importance of the “managerial class” I’ve seen in a while. Your job is “too difficult”??? Where do you work? In the ER wing of a hospital? In a war zone? A rape crisis centre?

Always be wary of upper middle class people trying to make their work appear “difficult”. It’s nothing but an attempt to justify their position in the social hierarchy. You and I know that the most difficult jobs in this world are the worst paid. 

 * In order to understand this you have to remember that for patriarchy to work, men and women must be clearly differentiated. So if a lot of women became "more like men" and, for example, grew a thicker skin, then the characteristic "having a tick skin" will stop being exclusively male. And Patriarchus would define its opposite, "having a thin skin" as the male and desirable characteristic and shame women for, you guessed it, "being different to men".