John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for March, 2012

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Guy Debord predicted our distracted society | John Harris

Friday, March 30th, 2012

The Society of the Spectacle offered in 1967 an eerily accurate portrait of our image-saturated, mediated times

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

With echoes of the most rapier-like prose written by Marx and Engels (eg “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), so begins Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, the treatise on the modern human condition he published in 1967. It quickly came to be seen as the set text of the Parisian événements of the following year, and has long since bled into the culture via no end of people, from the Sex Pistols to the Canadian troublemakers who call themselves Adbusters.

Its title alone is now used as shorthand for the image-saturated, comprehensively mediated way of life that defines all supposedly advanced cultures: relative to what Debord meant by it, the term usually ends up sounding banal, but the frequency with which it’s used still speaks volumes about the power of his insights. Put another way, there are not many copyright-free monographs associated with arcane leftist sects that predicted where western societies would end up at 40 years’ distance, but this one did exactly that.

The Society of the Spectacle maps out some aspects of the 21st century directly: not least, so-called celebrity culture and its portrayal of lives whose freedom and dazzle suggest almost the opposite of life as most of us actually live it. Try this: “As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specialisations that they actually live.” The book’s take on the driving-out of meaning from politics is also pretty much beyond question, as are its warnings about “purely spectacular rebellion” and the fact that at some unspecified point in the recent(ish) past, “dissatisfaction itself became a commodity” (so throw away that Che Guevara T-shirt, and quick).

But there are also very modern phenomena that fit its view of the world: when Debord writes about how “behind the masks of total choice, different forms of the same alienation confront each other”, I now think of social media, and the white noise of most online life. All told, the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume – and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme. Not that Debord ever used the word, but his ideas were essentially pointing to the basis of what we now know as neoliberalism.

Some brief history. Debord was the de facto leader of the Situationist International, a tiny and ever-changing intellectual cell who drew on all kinds of influences, but whose essential worldview combined two elements: an understanding of alienation traceable to the young Marx, and an emphasis on what left politics has never much liked: the kind of desire-driven irrationality celebrated by both the dadaists and surrealists. The ideas in The Society of the Spectacle drew on obvious antecedents – Hegel, Marx, Engels, the Hungarian Marxist George Lukacs – and also pointed to what was soon to come: not least, postmodernism, and the “hyperreality” diagnosed by Jean Baudrillard.

To sum up the book’s substance in a couple of sentences is a nonsense, but here goes: essentially, Debord argues that having recast the idea of “being into having”, what he calls “the present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy” has led to “a generalised sliding from having into appearing, from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.”

Like most of The Society of the Spectacle, you have to read such words slowly, but they hit the spot: he is talking about alienation, the commodification of almost every aspect of life and the profound social sea-change whereby any notion of the authentic becomes almost impossible. Whether their writers knew anything about Debord is probably doubtful, but as unlikely it may sound, one way of opening your mind to the idea of the spectacle is maybe to re-watch two hugely successful movies about exactly the blurring of appearance and reality that he described: The Matrix and The Truman Show.

It’s also an idea to read The Revolution of Everyday Life by Debord’s one-time accomplice Raoul Vaneigem, which works as a companion piece to The Society of the Spectacle. Vaneigem writes more in a more human register than Debord, and is a more straightforward propagandist:

“Inauthenticity is a right of man … Take a 35-year-old man. Each morning he takes his car, drives to the office, pushes papers, has lunch in town, plays pool, pushes more papers, leaves work, has a couple of drinks, goes home, greets his wife, kisses his children, eats his steak in front of the TV, goes to bed, makes love, and falls asleep. Who reduces a man’s life to this pathetic sequence of cliches? A journalist? A cop? A market researcher? A socialist-realist author? Not at all. He does it himself, breaking his day down into a series of poses chosen more or less unconsciously from the range of dominant stereotypes.”

The words point up something very important: that the spectacle is much more than something at which we passively gaze, and it increasingly defines our perception of life itself, and the way we relate to others. As the book puts it: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”

How we confront the spectacle is a subject for another piece: in essence, the Situationists’ contention was that its colonisation of life was not quite complete, and resistance has to begin with finding islands of the authentic, and building on them (though as what some people call late capitalism has developed, such opportunities have inevitably shrunk, a fact captured in the bleak tone of Debord’s 1989 text Comments on the Society of Spectacle, published five years before he killed himself). In truth, the spectacular dominion Debord described is too all-encompassing to suggest any obvious means of overturning it: it’s very easy to succumb to the idea that the spectacle just is, and to suggest any way out of it is absurd (which, in a very reductive sense, was Baudrillard’s basic contention).

What is incontestable, though, is how well the book, and Debord’s ideas, describe the way we live now. The images that stare from magazine racks prove his point. The almost comic contrast between modern economic circumstances and what miraculously arrives to disguise them – the Queen’s Jubilee, the Olympics – confirms almost everything the book contains. My battered copy features a much-reproduced photograph from post-war America: an entranced cinema audience, all wearing 3D glasses. But when I read it now, I always picture the archetypal modern crowd: squeezed up against each other, but all looking intently at the blinking screens they hold in their hands, while their thumbs punch out an imitation of life that surely proves Debord’s point ten thousand times over.

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What are your experiences of credit unions? | John Harris

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

We want to look at whether credit unions offer an alternative to big finance, so please share your knowledge with us

Anywhere But Westminster is now nearly 18 months old. Since late 2010, we’ve tended to focus on two different themes: changes that are adversely affecting thousands of lives, from the cuts, through welfare shakeups, to corporate restructuring; and, a little less often, how people are pointing the way to something better by taking the initiative themselves. The best example is the film and article we did about mutualised football clubs, and the case of Chester FC.

In the same spirit, we now want to shine light on credit unions, and the difference they make to communities up and down the country. In doing so, we’ll look at plenty of associated subjects: the failures of big high street banks, the credit crisis afflicting small businesses, Britain’s burdensome personal debt levels, and the companies who make the problem even worse by offering loans at cut-throat rates of interest. Credit unions offer an admirable alternative – but can they work for entire communities? And if so, is there a model here that might offer an alternative to big finance?

If you know of a credit union that would merit some serious coverage, tell us in the thread below, or email The same applies if you’ve had direct experience of dealing with a credit union, if you work for one, or if you’ve got any informed opinions about this fascinating element of the economy. We’ll be back on the thread throughout the day.

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John Harris’s Open Weekend music quiz

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Here’s a selection of questions from John Harris’s fiendish Open Weekend music quiz. You won’t get them all right

John Harris

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The Tories are no closer to shaking the taint of privilege issue | John Harris

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

The Cruddas fiasco, the budget, and even alcohol pricing show how very hollow are their claims of shared sacrifice

Peter Cruddas’s voice, brazenly offering two Sunday Times journalists “awesome” access in return for big political donations, is a reminder of a part of the Tory tribe who have lately been kept downstairs. It’s all estuary vowels and let’s-not-mess-about brashness – “Hundred grand isn’t premier league … 250 grand is premier league”. He has the kind of backstory that most Conservatives would kill for: a council estate childhood, no formal qualifications and a fortune made via financial spread-betting, a trade given a huge boost by the big bang of 1986. He and David Cameron, it’s fair to say, are from completely different worlds.

Unfortunately, in the face of a story as jaw-dropping as this one, the class nuances of recent Conservative history count for nothing. Two stories have come to the foreground: first, a revived argument about party funding which may well flare into life before once again reaching stalemate. Second, questions bound up with wealth, privilege and a disquiet about Cameron and George Osborne have been building for months, were heightened by the budget and now threaten to turn critical.

One phrase in particular has become a cliche at speed – “retoxification of the Tory brand” – bemoaned even by a former Cameron speechwriter. This is not in terms of the “nasty party” but something the government may not be able to shake off: a deep identification with moneyed arrogance, made worse by all those claims of shared sacrifice being contradicted by just about everything they do. In the public mind the dots implied by the Cruddas story will surely be joined in an instant: “If you are unhappy about something … we’ll listen to you, and we’ll put it into the policy committee at No 10,” he said, which conjures up the image of disaffected 50p payers having a few quiet words and coming away happy.

Though the darker side of political donations eventually hit them (and with good reason), New Labour just about got away with the comparable Bernie Ecclestone affair for two reasons: Tony Blair’s cynical brilliance and the fact that, in 1997, they were still managing to affect being modestly social-democratic. This fiasco fits so snugly into recent political events that it surely represents the perfect Conservative nightmare.

Five days after Osborne delivered the most butterfingered budget in living memory, it’s worth reflecting on its ongoing aftershocks, and how neatly they fuse with the Cruddas affair. The questionable idea that the rich would somehow end up paying five times as much tax as they did pre-budget has vanished. Instead, the cut in the top rate is the prism through which every controversial aspect of the budget is now seen, from the ubiquitous granny tax, through the prospect of an extra 1.3 million paying the 40p rate, to Labour’s under-reported claim that £500m has been taken out of the NHS. Note also the unsolved question of which senior Tory politicians stand to gain from the end of 50p, talked up most frantically by those two renowned wagers of the class war, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.

Since late last week, more of the budget’s failings have come to light, many of them as much cultural as economic. Wiping £30m off the share price of Greggs bakers via the loading of VAT on to hot pies and pasties was not just an attack on a successful and expanding British company, but a clear indication that the government knows nothing of either Greggs’ place on the high street, or its place in millions of lunch breaks. Over the weekend, coverage was also given to a closed loophole that puts VAT on static caravans: the industry concerned employs 6,000 people in the blighted city of Hull, and the change threatens 1,500 jobs. What would Cameron and Osborne know about that?

Tory strategists must be aware that the privilege issue is tainting far too much of their agenda. Minimum alcohol pricing has always struck me as a pretty sensible response to Britain’s problem drinking, backed up by research and legitimised when a trail was blazed by Alex Salmond’s government in Edinburgh. Now, though, the context has changed: the abiding impression is of people acquainted with Chateau Lafite jacking up the price of a twice-weekly bottle of Blossom Hill. Mounting outrage about fuel prices will fit the same template: the struggling haulier or cash-strapped, car-dependent family wondering whether members of the Chelsea tractor set understand their pain. No one seemed to notice the dreadful speech Cameron gave in Scotland last week, but I can do without the prime minister claiming that the welfare system amounts to a “woeful, pitiful, factory of hopelessness” .

Ed Miliband is managing to play the class card via a mixture of indignation and mockery, though Labour remains too trapped in the shadows of its time in office to benefit from Tory problems. It’s more interesting to look at how things are playing inside the Conservative family. Keep your eyes on the self-made David Davis, whose recent thoughts about “crony capitalism” have the ring of prescience. Remember that capable Tory troublemaker Tim Montgomerie has warned that Cameron and Osborne need “a blood-on-the-carpet moment that demonstrates they are on the side of working families”. There’s certainly been a spillage, but it pushes the Tories further away from the “strivers” Montgomerie sees as crucial to any outright win in 2015.

Note also the words of backbencher Nadine Dorries, whose Liverpudlian dad was a bus driver: “The problem is that policy is being run by two public schoolboys who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes. What’s worse, they don’t care, either.” A saga is being played out, bound up with the enduring qualities of the English ruling class, and a mixture of gentry and parvenus (and, in Osborne’s case, people stuck somewhere in between) who are failing power’s most basic tests.

It has all reminded me of the words of brilliant Old Etonian George Orwell, in 1941: “It is important not to misunderstand their motives, or one cannot predict their actions. What is to be expected of them is not treachery, or physical cowardice, but stupidity, unconscious sabotage, an infallible instinct for doing the wrong thing. They are not wicked, or not altogether wicked; they are merely unteachable. Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in.”

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Road privatisation is the latest step in the stripping of Britain’s assets | John Harris

Monday, March 19th, 2012

If you wonder where David Cameron’s plan to sell off our roads will end up, look at how wealth is torn out of the heart of America

Welcome, once again, to the great British garage sale. What with the outsourcing of the police now a serious prospect, and the deeply strange spectacle of Richard Branson bidding for NHS work, today’s announcement from David Cameron about selling off our roads is one of those things which is simultaneously shocking, and no great surprise.

In fact, this particular wheeze has been on the agenda since the time of George Osborne’s last autumn statement, when the chancellor talked up the government’s “national infrastructure plan”: proposals for 500 projects that would be funded by private sources to the tune of £20bn. Pension funds were the focus of most of the resulting news coverage, but there was also a big projected role for sovereign wealth funds, those ever-growing interests that represent one of the 21st century’s strangest quirks: the fact that nationalisation is back with a vengeance, but it tends to involve assets in the supposedly free-market west being bought up by foreign governments.

Cameron’s speech today, then, represents one of those occasions when the government announces something it has actually announced already, as proved by a Financial Times story from November last year. “‘For sale’ sign goes up over UK infrastructure projects” was the headline, and the opening paragraph ran thus: “George Osborne will next week hang a ‘for sale’ sign over British infrastructure projects worth tens of billions of pounds, as he attempts to tempt UK pension funds, oil-rich Gulf states and other sovereign wealth funds to pay for new roads, railways, housing and other projects.” There was a brief flurry of comment (from me, among other people), but the issue duly quietened down, while ministers and civil servants got on with making the plans a reality.

George Osborne has been to China to push the proposals; as the FT piece reported, the treasury minister Lord Sassoon has been to the Gulf, where he discovered a “huge appetite” for investment in British infrastructure. While there, he also underlined the watershed nature of what was being proposed, by harking back to the glory days of the Thatcher and Major years. “As an asset class,” he said, “UK infrastructure is generating about as much interest as there was with the privatisation programme of the 1980s and 1990s.”

I bet it is. Whatever this move represents, it has nothing to do with capitalism: it’s all about trading years-long monopoly contracts for a short-term fillip to the Treasury, with the hope that while extracting a profit, our roads’ new owners will somehow improve and expand them (they might, but surely on terms akin to the eyewatering arrangements of PFI deals). The government claims that tolls will only be charged by roads’ new owners for new capacity, but that sounds distinctly like one of those weedy assurances given by politicians that, once yesterday’s lunacy has become today’s accepted practice, is swiftly forgotten (to these ears, it has a similar ring to all those early New Labour claims about strict limits on private involvement in the NHS, or what the likes of Nick Clegg have said about profit-making schools).

The whole wheeze points in only one direction, as evidenced by a 2007 piece in Time magazine about American road privatisation: “Tolls often skyrocket under private owners, though with the blessing of elected officials, who avoid the political costs of raising tolls or taxes themselves. That’s how privatised roads deliver double-digit returns for investors.”

More generally, all this highlights things that the political class is too sold on neoliberalism to acknowledge. It may be hopelessly old-fashioned to point it out, but there is such a thing as a national economy. In that sense, it’s right to make a distinction between assets and businesses that may suit being traded for speculative purposes, and ones so central to our national wellbeing that they ought to be left well alone (water privatisation is apparently the government’s ideal model – doesn’t that make you feel better?). While we’re here, you might also like to ponder on how you’ll feel about your vehicle excise duty and/or tolls going to some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

Some of the best writing on these issues has come from Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine, whose 2010 book Griftopia contains a sobering section about exactly the kind of plan the prime minister is now proposing, and its history in the US. Taibbi makes mention of no end of infrastructure already flogged off, and the cynical reasons for doing so: “A toll highway in Indiana. The Chicago Skyway. A stretch of highway in Florida. Parking meters in Nashville, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and other cities. A port in Virginia. And a whole bevy of Californian public infrastructure projects, all either already leased or set to be leased for 50 or 75 years or more in exchange for one-off lump sum payments of a few billion bucks at best, usually just to help patch a hole or two in a single budget year.”

But he also zeros in on why all this is bad news for millions of Americans, in a passage that focuses on the Pennsylviana turnpike, almost sold by governor Ed Rendell after a bidding war that included the Spanish corporation Abertis and Goldman Sachs.

Taibbi quotes a friend who worked for a Gulf-region sovereign wealth fund, apparently offered a stake in the turnpike by American investment bankers, and also makes reference to a small Pennsylvanian businessman called Robert Lukens. He points up that the latter’s trade is already declining “thanks to soaring oil prices that have been jacked up by a handful of banks”. He highlights the fact that rising petrol prices mean that even more of Lukens’s money is going into “the pockets of Middle Eastern oil companies”. At the same time, his suffering business means that he’s paying less tax, with the result that cash-strapped state governments are now selling off toll roads, parking meters and ports, often to those self-same oil-rich states.

Taibbi concludes thus: “It’s an almost frictionless machine for stripping wealth out of the heart of the country, one that perfectly encapsulates where we are as a nation.” Here, as in America, it certainly does.

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