No Fixed Abode by Charlie Carroll

This odd book is about being a tramp. Decades ago, the experience of being a tramp was not an unusual one. Nowadays, being homeless is unfortunately common, but the tramp era has largely passed in the UK. The confused narrative of Charlie Carroll partly explains why this is the case.

Mr Carroll never felt homeless because he had a home to fall back on. He never felt futile because he had a book to write. Nor did he feel without power. As a result, he was confident enough to speak with Jeremy Paxman, Boris Johnson and the police. While Mr Carroll endured considerable deprivation and fear, his literary experiment remained just that.

The hostility of Mr Carroll to the Occupy Movement is illuminating. As someone who pitched a tent near St Paul’s, he was in a great position to try to engage with the politics of the protest. However, Mr Carroll  is always reluctant to engage in the economics behind increasing homelessness.  So it is no surprise that there is no real attempt to get to grips with important debates about capitalism, austerity and the financial crisis.

The text is an interesting one to read, but Mr Carroll went on an arduous journey that taught him more about survival than it did about life. He wrote down what he saw and heard, but he did not reflect on the biases which shaped his work. As homelessness has mounted across the UK since his publication was released, his book has dated quickly. This is because he looked at broken individuals instead of trying to understand the evolving society which had shaped their awful lives.

Advertisements

No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmby

Katharine Quarmby is a formidable journalist who has worked for The Economist and several newspapers. This text tackles overt discrimination against travelling people in the UK. It highlights examples of political skulduggery by local authorities, while examining how tough life can be for those with a nomadic cultural background.

Quarmby does not simply stress negative experiences like mass evictions. She also pays attention to the rich tapestry of Romany culture. Careful to go beyond the stereotypes perpetuated by the mass media, she gives an insight into the lives of people who have a rich heritage.

Sadly, overt discrimination against the Roma has not been confined to the towns and cities of the UK. The populations of Eastern Europe have sometimes shown little compassion to the ethnic group in question.  The long shadow of the Holocaust also lingers.

At a time when international fascism seems to be on the rise, learning more about the way travelling people are treated is timely. Quarmby may not have composed a particularly theoretical work, but her careful research packs an authentic punch.

Old wine in new bottles? Transport for the North…

During the New Labour era, there was a lot of talk about the Northern Way. The idea was that significant public and private investment could help to bridge some of the massive productivity gap with London. Regional development agencies should collaborate and a better transport infrastructure would facilitate the economic development of the northern regions.

While the discourse of a Northern Powerhouse is louder than the softer noise about a Northern Way, the basic ideas about partnership and governance have not received the upgrade which might have been expected. The focus on city-regions might seem to be innovative, given the abolition of the regional development agencies, but the ineffective lobbying for a modern infrastructure grinds on.

Millions of people in the North of England suffer from an inadequate transport infrastructure. Those who use buses and trains regularly suffer a lot from the legacy of privatisation. Meanwhile, some of the staff on the services have felt obliged to engage in frequent strike action. There does need to be a fresh settlement for passengers and workers in the region.

Changes in the car industry are likely to impact on the way people travel. Electric cars may well have an impact on pollution levels. But there needs to be an upgraded imagining of the northern transport infrastructure which sees beyond money and cost-benefit analysis. As environmental problems mount, new vision will be required to build a sustainable future.

 

The Wolf in the Water by Naomi Alderman

This vivid drama, inspired by Shakespeare, has a claustrophobic quality. It explores the complexities of identity and concealment. At the same time, it questions the social role of money and debt. Whilst the action takes place centuries ago within the Venice ghetto, the themes of persecution and assimilation remain relevant. Naomi Alderman has constructed something which might last.

It was Prime Minister Theresa May who aimed to charm the Conservative Party Conference of 2016 with her troubling assertion that, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” It is one thing to question the logic of economic globalization, it is another to define cosmopolitanism out of existence.

In the modern world, identities may be multiple and fluid. This does not mean that we are unaffected by identity-related awkwardness. But it does mean that there is an escape from the manipulative control of those who want to put us in a box. As individuals we might not manage to get out from the prison of debt, but we can help others to discover that other worlds are possible.

Economics edited by Saugato Datta

This text, subtitled Making Sense of the Modern Economy, is composed of material produced by The Economist. Karl Marx once described the publication as “the European organ of the aristocracy of finance”, but it has changed with the times. Instead of featuring a series of debates among entitled and affluent experts, the focus is on defending and promoting a particular brand of liberal economics to a wider audience.

This 3rd edition is of real interest because it looks at the period after the financial crisis. It also aims to deflect criticism from those economists who may have been partly responsible for the meltdown. Furthermore, it seeks to portray the evolving discipline in a positive way.

Perhaps the aspirations of the writers were too high. Namedropping famous economists and providing plenty of data was never going to restore confidence in a profession that had taken such a battering from reality. Some of the pronouncements lacked any empathy for those impacted by the Great Recession. And a description of studying the economics of prostitution in New Orleans managed to seem uninformative and unpleasant:

“In many respects, the paid-sex industry is much like any other business. Pricing strategies are familiar from other settings. Despite evidence of a myopic attitude towards risk, there have been plenty of examples of that in the finance industry too.”

Reshuffling the Cabinet in the context of heightened ‘power dependency’

Academic Martin J. Smith wanted to explore the reality of the British core executive (1999). He was critical of those who viewed the top of the state in terms of fixed powers. More power does not necessarily flow to the Cabinet when a Prime Minister is weak. Nor does authority automatically pass to civil servants or special advisers if the politicians are in trouble. Power is not a zero-sum game.

Obviously, the complexities of Brexit and the general election result have combined to make Theresa May vulnerable. However, during a reshuffle a prime minister can use their power of patronage to reassert their authority. Nevertheless, changing the composition of a team can lead to a lack of discipline from disgruntled individuals on the backbenches down the track. As May lacks an overall majority without the influence of the DUP, she cannot afford to offend too many delicate egos. Furthermore, a refresh should not be purely symbolic. In a democracy, a government must have a compelling agenda to generate renewed support for its policies.

Due to some of the friendly media, May will probably get some praise for being able to carry out a reshuffle at all. However, this political capital will dissipate if her new team does not do more than simply look the part. Many voters feel utterly disenfranchised. Large sections of the electorate think that the social fabric of the country is being torn up. While the fortunes of the unbalanced economy will prove to be important for the fate of her administration, May must hope that she can learn not to shoot herself in the foot going forward.

 

Socialism and coats- from Marx to Sanders

Basic commodities have been important to socialists for a long time. And the prosaic coat has featured in debates about nineteenth and twenty-first century socialism. When Karl Marx wanted to understand the inner mechanisms of capitalism in 1867, he turned to the coat:

“The coat is a use value that satisfies a particular want. Its existence is the result of a special sort of productive activity, the nature of which is determined by its aim, mode of operation, subject, means, and result.”

He added the slightly underwhelming observation:

“Coats are not exchanged for coats, one use value is not exchanged for another of the same kind.”

In the modern day, populist Bernie Sanders has been accused of wearing an expensive coat. It may have been a slow news week, but the politician does not seem to have committed the crime of the century. His supporters would probably purchase him an even more expensive coat if it would aid the veteran orator. Backers of Sanders will know that it is the contents of a coat that are significant. As long as a coat has a real use value, we should not worry too much about its exchange value.