A Taste of Italy

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The biggest thing that struck me having just returned from a holiday to Rome, Italy was the food. I’ve been eating the best pasta, pizzas and probably far too much ice cream, the ice cream was amazing, so many interesting flavours to try. I’ve also been noticing a completely different cultural attitude to food. I did go to Rome and wanted to see the sights, which meant being in very touristy areas much of the time, yet feel i was still able to have a brief glimpse into a very different world. Italians love food in a way that the British don’t. The difference seems to be finding out where is good, rather than the British attitude of where is okay.

I think there is a  hugely different general mindset at play. The Welsh are sometimes described as people who don’t like to make a fuss, whereas the Italian understands the importance of making a fuss, of not tolerating avoidable crap. Generally, we don’t eat out very often in Wales, when we do it’s either out of the necessity of being away from home or to celebrate a special occasion with friends. We kind of accept that food will often not be that great, but have developed ways to not let this spoil our time. We kind of have the attitude that we are sure the cooks are doing their best, but are just not very good and that we shouldn’t blame them for that. We may even go back to the same establishment if it wasn’t too bad. I don’t think the Italian would do this, they would make it clear that the food was not up to standard and never go back. Essentially in Britain we have fewer ways of maintaining standards of good food.

Even in the supermarkets though the food is good. There are only small sections of crap processed food, whereas in Wales our supermarkets are mainly full of crap and finding the good stuff is more of a challenge.

Coffee is of course a big thing in Italy. It is difficult to find anywhere that does bad coffee. It’s also reasonable priced: 90c for an espresso or €1.50 for a cappuccino, provided you take it at the bar and not pay double for ‘table service’, compared to £1.50 for an espresso and around £2.30 for a cappuccino. Britain is just crazy, yet the interesting thing is the absence of the big international coffee chain cafes in Italy. The reason being that the chains could not compete with the independents or Italian chains.

I think that this is because of a different attitude in the countries. I get the impression that Italians take a pride in providing a service, of providing good food and drink to make their customers happy, rather than purely driven by profit. whereas in Britain there often isn’t this pride and the food sector is viewed purely as financial interactions. So if a business can get away with lower quality and hence reduced costs, then they will.

I love independent shops, they are more interesting and provide greater diversity. However so often in Britain some independents don’t care about service, whilst others do. Local people will support a good independent business, however some people and often seems to be the majority, don’t care about quality and will use poorer local businesses if more convenient. In Britain we seem to prefer convenience to quality. The difficulty for independents is that visitors have no idea which independents are good and which are not. The good independents will generally not be on the main shopping street as they can’t afford the high rents, so struggle. Then when the chain coffee shops came they dominated as the visitors like the chains as they know that the product won’t be too bad (better than a bad independent. Basically we are too tolerant of rubbish and we should be more Italian about food and drink.

When I was in Napoli (Naples), where there were a lot fewer tourists I got a lot more of a taste of the real Italy. Food was cheaper and generally better quality. Perhaps the less demanding tourists allow some drop in quality in the touristy parts of central Rome. It may be partly due to the warm climate, but Italians do seem to enjoy going out and eating out when they can. Instead of eating at home and then going out to drink, Italians go out to eat and drink. There seems to be more cultural mixing in Italy, rather than people settling in into their favoured pub, with a clientele similar to themselves, which is what happens in Wales. In Napoli whole families socialise out in the streets and seem to establish long term relations ships with the establishments they particularly like.

 

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More Democracy

In the UK we have been in a situation where a small minority actually support the government. A larger minority vote for the government of the day, but only do so because they dislike the alternatives more. This isn’t democracy. A lot of people are fed up of it.

The problems of modern capitalism are fairly established as I see it. Western democracies were lucky that over the last century that technology and innovation produced enough economic growth that even those on low incomes quality of life improved. However we are now at the point where economic growth is sluggish at best and there is a decline in living standards.

It often seems as though people are more prepared now for change, to sweep away the failing establishment that has no answers. We have seen a rise in those who aren’t from the traditional political establishment. For example the rise of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote and support for Jeremy Corbyn. These populist causes have drawn support as being agents for a change from the established order.

There seem to be parallels with the 1930s, where political extremist causes both of the right and light of politics rose in prominence, offering the hope of a return to normality. However such extreme visions do not lead back to normality, but further away from it, such as Communism and the Nazis. While these extremes can gain popular support they don’t actually offer real solutions to the ails of populations, but rather offer a short term solution to a perception of the current problems.

The solution is simple better democracy leading to solutions based around the actual political centre of a society, where everyone is part of the system and buys into the system, creating patriots. Patriotism is really nothing more than I’ll help you if you help me or the idiom, I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine, it’s basically society that is necessary for organising ever more efficient use of dwindling resources. This patriotism need not be confined within a nation but extend outwards in looser arrangements.

The difficulty is that such radical centrists advocating more democracy, are often viewed as part of the establishment and not offering the chance of genuine change. I don’t think it has to be simply regime change, replacing one lot with another, but placing accountable politicians in power controlled through the democratic process.

Party politics is too much about winning power and retaining it, rather than exercise of that power for positive transformation of economies. If a politician argues for a policy but it is rejected then that politicians is of as much value as the one whose policy happened to be right or more popular. Democratic discourse should be about ideas and not a battle between movements.

True democracy comes from the bottom-up, so having smaller political bodies increases individuals voting power and forces leaders to live in the communities they govern. In large countries like the UK, the ruling class don’t have to live the life of ordinary people, so have no interest in ensuring the schools are the hospitals work well. It just seems that smaller countries, like Iceland or the Baltic states seem to do much better than the big ones. I don’t see what big states are for anymore. Supporting democracy is not about a desire to be separate, the reality is the reverse to create more accountable democracy that simply by being more accountable will aid economic growth.

Breaking the Silence #MeToo

Sexual harassment has been in the news recently and it is about time that this issue is more widely discussed. I’ve written on here before about how as a straight bloke it is very easy not to notice that sexual harassment is taking place right under our noses. I’m more aware of that now so I knew that there was a high likelihood of friends of mine suffering from sexual harassment. Yet it is a subject that is rarely discussed, or seems not to be with straight blokes.

So I wasn’t surprised to see on my Facebook feed lots of #MeToo postings. This social media campaign was a really good thing because it really brought the issue home when you know the victims personally, it’s no longer a statistical probability, it’s more real. Some of my friends were even brave enough to share details about what had happened to them.

Sexual harassment is perhaps the thick end and everyday sexism is the other. The everyday comments and banter just wears you down as it happens day after day.It’s a shame these things are not discussed more widely so there is greater awareness.

We are all different and sensitive to different things. As an anxious person, I too have suffered from the negative effects of everyday banter, which seems worse because it was nothing to do with my gender, so seems more personally directed.

I get the wearing down of everyday banter because I’m Welsh. When the Six nations rugby tournament is on, the banter of jokes directed between nations is part of the thing. However, being Welsh we get the jokes a lot of the time all through the year and mainly from men: The endless sheep jokes and attacks on our language, maybe be justified as merely ‘banter’ or ‘taking the piss but not meaning anything by it’ are really just tedious, but when we do get fed up of them we can usually find solace with fellow Welsh folk.

Maybe that is partly why women, the vast majority of victims of sexual harassment are women, seek solace with other women, rather than discuss the issue with straight blokes they know. and maybe that is why it is tougher on the anxious as there is no ready made group to seek solace in.

This isn’t saying that banter is wrong, it can be a bit of fun, especially between friends where we know where the limits of taking something too far are and it is established that we really don’t mean it. However men are generally more cautious about such banter with women, when they are not cautious then it is harassment. It is harassment because harassment is defined by the victim, they state when it is harassment, not the behaviour itself. Knowing the limits comes from knowing the people, which is why friends can take the piss out of each other, however when someone ‘wolf whistles’ at a woman in the street, they do not know the woman, so that is just pure harassment.

The issue with sexual harassment is that men generally don’t suffer from it, so men don’t understand it, so men are unable to know where the limits of banter are for women they know a bit from the workplace. In the same way banter affects the anxious because the non-anxious don’t understand anxiety. Really , if there were to be daily comments about how big our penises are, most men would quickly collapse sobbing in states of insecurity.

While being a victim of abuse is horrible, that such harassment is commonplace also affects blokes. To not be an anxious person I decided to be a lot more open about my feelings, which includes being open with women. Often I prefer to talk about my feelings with women as generally they listen more. However sometimes that openness can be misinterpreted as seeking a deeper relationship, or trying to get into their knickers. This troubled me because surely it was obvious from my words and how I expressed them that that wasn’t my intention. However, it took me years to realise that you can accidentally harass someone, when you don’t understand what the daily lived experience of being a woman is like.  The thing is I have been a harasser of women, but the blame for those events lies with the whole widespread commonality of sexual harassment.not anything i did or said specifically.

I’ve always been reluctant to touch women to express empathy and support because it may be inappropriate. Now I know the reason for that , because the woman may not know that I am not trying to take advantage of the situation to cop a feel. Yet straight blokes always desire copping feels, because women’s bodies are ace, yet we learn to restrain ourselves, it’s not something worth doing. Because of this blokes miss out on so much of warmth of human physical contact, to the extent that some men seek ways to slyly cop feels or worse to make up for this missing out. The solution has to be talking more about these issues, for abuse to be recognised, so these men don’t end up raping or otherwise abusing women.

Even today, there still seems to be a reluctance to take on board that everyone is different and jokes about gender, race, sexuality, nationality, mental health, religion, anything and everything else cause a lot of harm and there is too much casual banter.

This doesn’t mean that straight blokes have to somehow try and not be fascinated by women’s bodies, or that we are not allowed to talk to women we are attracted to, even if we do want to get into their knickers. What it means is simply respecting other people and realising that we can easily hurt people without realising it because we don’t know who they are. and who has been harassing them in their personal history.

 

Free Democracy

Having written recently in defence of free markets I have realised that it is as, if not more important to defend the concept of free democracy. Free markets and free democracy work to support and maintain each other. Democracy exists to check and balance the power of ruling elites in the interests of the population as a whole. However establishments have effectively repressed free democracy as much as they have free markets.

Early democracy, from ancient Greece up to the twentieth century was merely a way for various factions of established elites to form systems of laws over larger geographical areas, largely in their own mutual interests. In the UK it wasn’t until 1928 when all women finally got the vote and the UK was emancipated by every adult having a vote. Thus the ideal of a free democracy has existed in Britain for less than a hundred years, which isn’t very long at all and free democracy is still struggling to become established.

Everyone having the right to vote, has only been the start of this process. The UK is still mired by its parliament still being elected through the arcane FPTP (First Past The Post) electoral system, which hasn’t been reformed at all since 1928. The problem has been that the electoral system maintains two large established parties, that each in order to gain political power has to become centralised and advocate one size fits all solutions. Gaining power became the aim of the political parties, rather than advocate best policy.As such it is  not free democracy as each voter either has to vote for one of the big blocks they prefer to the other one or vote for third parties that rarely gain any influence.

Essentially, in 2017 there is still no free democracy in the UK. The problem is that one size fits all doesn’t work very well, especially in Britain where economic power is centralised in the South East of England and influence diminishes the further from London you are.

There should always be a trade off between a one size fits all solutions and local solutions. Having one set of rules for the collective does produce efficiency of scale and ease of trade and economic development. However where there is divergence sometimes the advantages of collectivism are less than those of local or even individual solutions.

For example, in Wales there have been efforts recently to have a standard way of organising high school education. The idea was that generally high schools needed to have over 600 pupils to run effectively and efficiently, to be able to offer a good range of courses and facilities. However in rural areas this doesn’t work, the cost to the individual pupil who has to commute over 40 miles to their ‘local’ school every day outweighs the advantage of having the option to do a specialised subject. Furthermore the monetary cost of the transport soon outweighs the efficiency saving of the school, not to mention the days of schooling lost when transport arrangements occasionally fail through mechanical breakdown or inclement weather. Often the decisions made on how best to organise  urban schools do not apply to rural schools, but urban elites often don’t recognise this until it is too late in the process.

My point is that the rural population, should have their voice heard on what is the most effective way of arranging schooling of it’s children. However in a centralised democracy the urban votes are often enough to get any policy through.

There should be effective ways for local populations to have their needs addressed. The onus is on the centralised bureaucracy to listen and also meet the needs of different areas. To achieve this there needs to be a free democracy where legitimate concerns are accounted for. The centralised state should ensure all its population reap the benefits of collectivism. The best way to achieve this is local democracy or bottom up power. If ever a country or a region starts to have greater costs than benefits of being part of a collective it has the right to self determination and take back the control of education or full autonomy.

Historically the Uk has been poor at caring for their whole realm and Western democracies do not have the democratic arrangements for power to be returned to areas when required. There is currently no arrangements in law for Wales to be able to reclaim autonomy, just as there isn’t in the Kurdish region, in Catalonia or anywhere else.

The reason Western democracies haven’t developed as free democracies is historical. The modern large nation states were formed to create large militaries, to defend themselves against other aggressor states and to extend power and influence in the wider world.

In the last century the UK and the USA have used military force to promote and defend ‘democracy’, whether in Korea, Vietnam or the Middle East. Arguably such wars were falsely under the flag of democracy, but really to gain or retain influence on parts of the world, especially the oil producing areas of the Middle East. The last Iraq war wasn’t even under the false flag of democracy but to remove long range WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) from Iraq, which were subsequently found to not actually exist. In consequence Iraq is in more of mess now than it was under a dictatorship.

Yesterday, Catalonia declared its independence,the Spanish establishment used force to disrupt their referendum on taking back control. The established traditional Western Powers who have been harking on about the greatness of democracy for most of the last century have declined to support democracy in Catalonia.

Seeking autonomy for Catalonia instead of remaining in the Spanish family of nations should always be an option for the people of Catalonia. The onus is on the Spanish state to ensure the regions cultural distinctiveness is respected and feels the benefits from being part of Spain. That the Spanish establishment failed to make it clear that Catalonia was valued and instead sent in police to beat up Catalans carrying out democracy was deeply concerning. Surely democracy should be supported at all levels.

Political power should always be consensual and free, nations should always be looking to cooperate and come together for mutual advantage and help each other to support free markets and yet always be aware of the risk of exploitation and accidental repression. If Catalonia wish to be independent, which the evidence suggests that they do, they have the right to do that. If at some point they wish to rejoin Spain, or cooperate in some areas that should always be an option too. Free democracy works when it is fluid and capable of reacting to change, the world is always changing. Free democracy is about free choice and not slavish worship of political establishments under the banner of nationalism, whether British nationalism, Spanish nationalism or wherever.

In the UK, getting movement to free democracy has always been difficult. Establishing the Welsh government in 1998, the Scottish independence referendum, the Brexit vote. chances of actually voting or expressing a choice on issues is still a very rare occurrence. It is precisely because we rarely get to express a choice is evidence that we do not have free democracy in the UK.

Quite often electorates make odd decisions, like re-electing the Tories again  and again. Democracy is tyranny of the majority, and when you are not in the majority you just have to put up with it. However sometimes, you realise that sometimes the majority comes because of people a long way away and that isn’t right. The question then becomes is it worth the hassle of leaving the union to to get better decisions and sometimes it is.

Really if the UK population had had votes on the EU before, such as on the woeful Lisbon treaty,  then the UK would likely have a very different relationship with the EU and not ended up in this bizarre process of Brexit today. The EU itself only seems to be able to centralise power and never return it to regions, thus it is not a free democracy, which is partly why so many in Wales voted to leave the EU.

Free democracy is the best system we have of ensuring economic development and free markets and preventing powerful minorities corruptly establishing cartels, we should welcome any move to increase the freedom of democracy and thus support the new Catalan state on its move to greater democracy and we may dream of the time that we can all have freer democracies where we live.

cymrucatalonia

Posh Tea

Part of second language learning is re-exploring your first language. Through this re-exploration you come to better understand your first language, in my case English. Furthermore you start to explore how certain words and phrases have a distinctive cultural meaning away from the standard dictionary definition. Sometimes i find it very strange when second language English speakers start to experiment using these cultural expressions, it’s often very funny. I’m sure I am making some very amusing sentences in my Welsh.

A word I commonly use and was a frequent word used within my family when I was growing up was ‘posh’. However i use it slightly differently to the standard definition. My use is widely understood in Wales, but when I travel I have found it isn’t so.

The standard definition is that posh means luxurious, cultured, refined, of the upper class. However my definition is a nuanced version of this definition, with posh as needless, but enjoyable adornment, or affected ostentation.

I was driving a new car last week which had one of those automatic handbrakes, ‘how posh’ I thought. There is no need for an automatic handbrake, when new to using them it is fun to explore how it works, hence posh. Once you have got used to it it is no longer posh [my definition]. However if they remain a feature of ‘luxury cars’, then they become part of posh driving [standard definition].

Perhaps it is better explained with cups. We have a tradition of posh cups which have exquisite patterning and shape to be used with saucers of a Sunday afternoon or when we have guests around for tea. The idea is that these cups are ‘for best’ or to honour special occasions.There is a whole set of rituals involving their use, which is very enjoyable when you enter into the spirit of it. For me it is just wrong to make tea with bags to be put into posh cups. If you are going to the trouble of using the posh cups, you should also make the effort to make the best tea, which involves teapots and loose tea.

I wouldn’t use these cups for everyday as they would lose their special value, they would no longer be posh by my definition, but would remain posh. For me posh is the fun of using a pointless ostentation for the sheer fun of it. for me, the idea of using posh things everyday is just a waste. I regard it as a token of a developing friendship when you can visit someone and not be given the posh cups, but are graced with the everyday, more relaxed cups.

Thinking about it, this posh cultural tradition is dying out, people rarely pop around for tea anymore as friends and family live ever further apart geographically. My parents and grandparents generation were given several posh tea sets when they got married and everyday tea sets by their close friends. They carefully stored these tea sets, away in the attic, but keeping an everyday set and a best/poshest set. As wedding gifts they were highly valued and usually the very best set was stored away, maybe to be got out if the Queen happened to pop around.

A friend of mines mam recently decided to tidy up her attic and got down box after box of tea sets. A tea set being a posh teapot, a posh cake stand, tea plates, cups, saucers and a sugar bowl [though why anyone would befoul tea with sugar is beyond me]. She was minded to get rid of them, however, there are thousands of these tea sets in peoples attics, you can’t even give them away to charity shops for the shops have so many,  they are ‘too good’ [posh] to be thrown away and too posh to use as everyday cups. So she carefully cleaned them, wrapped them up and put them all safely back into boxes and returned them to the attic, ‘you can deal with them when I am gone’ she said. I get this, my fathers attic is also full of various posh tea sets and I remember well how much value was placed on them by my parents and grandparents, they could remember who had bought them each particular tea set even after fifty years. My point is that these posh things have no monetary value, posh is not equivalent to expensive or good quality, as I said, it”s needless adornment for special occasions.

The thing is that people and especially children break tea sets. I have smashed a fair few in my time, this is fine  and they become chipped and worn through use anyway. So when a tea set loses it’s posh value it is thrown away to be replaced by an exciting new tea set from the store of posh tea sets. Some tears are shed for the old tea cups that have faithfully served the family for years. In my family when a tea set was changed it was such an event in the family, to change the vessels of our cups of tea to new colours and new shapes! The trouble is that a posh tea is a rare social even these days, so in the course of life, people get through a lot fewer tea sets.

These traditional Welsh tea ceremonies, with their teisen gri (Welsh cakes), posh tea sets  and unfathomable family tea etiquette are not well known outside my native culture. There have been countless times when I have used the word posh and people haven’t grasped what I was saying. It’s only now, reflecting on my English that I notice such these things.

I haven’t found a standard definition of posh to refer to special occasions. Regular use of posh things, or visiting ‘posh’ places quickly lose their value with over-use and even so, you would miss out on all fun and diversity of everyday things. There are ‘posh people’ who are wealthy enough to use posh things everyday, but they have posher things for their special occasions. There are also those ‘trying to be posh’; who purposely buy and use posh things everyday to create some false mark of class. However these more standard uses are quite removed from my use of posh.

The things have the quality of being posh as a noun, but poshness is relative. When somethign is used on those rare occasions it is posh in use, as a verb. But with overuse, it loses its value as different to the everyday and is no longer posh in use.

It is difficult to understand a language from books. It is through listening to lived experiences of the subtleties and nuances of language that deeper meanings can be appreciated. However, when I looked up the Welsh word for posh in a dictionary, it came out with ‘swanc’ much like the English word ‘swank’.  Swanc just sums up my understanding of posh perfectly. That posh/swanc is a relative term for occasional ostentatious behaviour.

 

Alcohol & Anxiety

Having grown up in a drinking culture, I do enjoy the occasional drink or three. Drinking allows people to weaken the social rules we have for a few hours to lubricate social interactions and have some fun. Drinking is an appealing way of spending time, to celebrate life  rather than spend too much time contemplating the bleakness of existence. It has been society’s way of escaping the sheer craziness of human life on planet Earth.

Drinking is an escape from the social norms, unfortunately it has consequences. Those whom do not have a pleasant existence can overly turn to alcohol as the escape becomes addictive.

When I was a much more anxious person, I did enjoy the escape into drinking as this allowed me to be a normal person, unconstrained by the ties of anxiety. As an anxious person it probably took an additional pint to achieve that state of relaxation, free from inhibition that the non-anxious could do with fewer or even no alcohol. I was fortunate to never rely on alcohol to function, which alcoholics do. However, I quite often needed to drink to actually enjoy social interaction. In Britain this kind of works as much larger social functions generally include availability of alcohol.

Now that I am less anxious, I don’t feel that need to gain the effects of alcohol to enjoy socialising in large groups, though alcohol does increase the enjoyment, it just adds emphasis to enjoying socialising.

I’m sure everyone, whether they suffer from mental illness or not has that nervousness about going across to chat to the pretty girl. Alcohol helps us say ‘Why not, it’s hugely unlikely that they will humiliate me’, which I think is the fear everyone has. Alcohol has been allowing people to get together and form relationships for centuries. The thing about anxiety is that the anxious have this fear with everyone,they fear social interactions with everyone whether they are attractive or not. The normal social rule of anxiety about speaking to attractive women is simply exaggerated to the point where normal social function becomes a huge strain.

Overcoming anxiety is a journey, much like a night in town where the effects of alcohol get to the point of insobriety where we can enjoy ourselves fully, but still function. Such a state has a cost in the morning! The difference is the longer timescale and leading to a more permanent non-anxious state. For me, way back when the only time I felt  happy was when I was drunk. As I overcame anxiety i started to have moments of happiness or just feeling relaxed without drink. Over time the frequency and length of these spells increased. Happiness is never a permanent state, but a state of feeling relaxed within oneself increases in time until it is the majority of the time and eventually becomes the normal state. Eventually you no longer fear waking up in the morning feeling anxious. I used to have the idea that being happy always meant that the depression and anxiety would always be the worse afterwards, much like a hangover. However there does not need to be a hangover, you can just carry on the next day being not anxious. i still go ‘wow’ sometimes/

This state of relaxed normality is still a fairly new concept for me, but one I gather that most people have always had. It is kind of like when getting drunk for the first time and realising you can do this again and again. Gaining more experience of not being anxious is great and so enabling and having a few beers is even more enjoyable. It’s the feeling of being able to escape without a constant desire to escape.

In Defense of Free Markets

Last week there was the Labour party conference and their leaders speech. Jeremy Corbyn spoke about his policies of re-nationalising the railways and capping rents. These are sensible pragmatic policies in my view, which are also popular. The government response was Theresa May stating that free markets are the best way to deliver economic growth, and that she should return to winning arguments for free markets as she thought that her party had already won this argument.

This is an example of what I despise about party politics. The meaningless soundbite triumphing over the deeper truths. It has been argued that this is due to people receiving news via a 144 character tweet or a headline. So, that people don’t read deeper to uncover what is more accurately going on.

I agree with Theresa May on the first point that free markets are the best way of delivering economic growth. However she then muddies this statements that distort the truth. The Tories never won the argument for free markets, instead they created a political bubble for a market fundamentalism, where simply injecting elements of free markets into unfree markets will produce economic growth. This doesn’t work, you either have free markets or unfree ones. Regulating markets to make them more free is a good thing, but arbitrary market elements can make markets less free, which is what Tory governments have implemented. Which is why the UK housing and  railway markets are not free and in crisis.

So what is a free market? There are many definitions and it is a much abused phrase as it means different things to different people. My definition is that a free market is one where there is an interplay between producers and consumers, competition between providers, where forces pushing price up and down achieve balance, where supply and demand achieve a sustainable balance. A free market isn’t influenced by external actors.

For example, baker shops. A baker shop provides a service, making bread and cakes and delivers a profit for the owners of the business sufficient that they are better off continuing to run the business rather than seek easier money elsewhere. The bakers shop has costs: maintenance of the premises, maintenance of equipment, staff costs and ingredient costs. So must work out the price by adding to the cost of making a loaf of bread a sufficient margin to sustain the business. There will be other baker shops they compete. If costs rise too much people either buy less bakery products or make their own bread. If price is too low, then the bakery will go out of business. Thus forces on price achieve a balance. The rival bakeries will differentiate to maintain market share, either by being the cheapest or producing a higher quality product. Such a system allows for innovation, for example investment in new technology enabling costs to be lowered and thus we have economic growth. In this simple free market, every aspect of the market is free to influence the market. There are open dialogues between producers and consumers

This can be contrasted with an unfree markets, the semi-privatised UK railway network. On the Uk rail network , private companies bid to run selected services on the network. So a company will run the train services between A & B. The company has little control over the track, it has limited choice in what train carriages it can use. It has to charge government regulated fares, but is allowed to sell it’s own tickets too which of course have to be lower than the regulated fares. It has no competition as no other company is running a service between A&B. Technically it is competing against alternative forms of transport, such as motor cars, buses and aeroplanes, however the price differential between these forms of transport is massive. The railway company would have to alter fares by large factors to increase or decrease demand. Essentially there is no free market mechanisms in this fairly unfree market. Interaction between provider and consumer is quite limited.

Hence the argument for nationalisation of the railways is that private providers simply take profits away for no benefit to the market. A state railway could run the service more cheaply as it doesn’t have to make a profit.

What bugs me about the market fundamentalist position is that it’s too theory pure and lacks understanding of the real world. In the real world businesses are not interested in promoting or maintaining free markets. Real world businesses are concerned with providing a service and maximising profits, which is fine. Businesses may exploit rules or market position to prevent action of free market forces, particularly monopolies, so there is a role for the state to regulate markets to make them more free.

Railways and indeed housing are key industries as they provide infrastructure to the wider economy. They enable labour to move around the UK and in doing so enable other markets to be more free. For example a business isn’t restricted in it’s activities by the inflated costs of rail travel or housing. Such key industries can be free markets, but they are not close to being so anytime soon. Hence state intervention such as nationalisation or price capping, can help ease some of the problems and free up the wider economy.

We all want to live in an ideal world and that ideal world would consist largely of free markets. However there needs to be more  understanding that the world is not ideal. It would be better to move in the direction of the ideal rather than exacerbate existing problems in unfree markets. The ideal of free markets should not be tarnished by increasing use of the phrase ‘free markets’ to describe unfree markets. This is a problem because politicians use phrases such as ‘ we support free markets’ when it isn’t clear that they are talking about free markets and use the phrase merely to imply that the other lot are against free markets. This phenomena has reached the state where you hear politicians say ‘we want to make things better’ implying that the other lot wish to make them worse. Basically I think we all deserve  our politicians to act more like  grown-ups, rather than a class whom besmirch the ideal of free markets.

Social Feudalism

720px-Flag_of_Powys.svgWhen I was young and started thinking about politics the idea of Social Feudalism appealed to me. The basic premise is to take the  Middle Age system of regional Princes and Kings, such as Gwynedd or Powys, who extracted taxes from those who lived in their domains to live lives of culture and refinement in return for the rule of law and protection from raiders. Such systems was sustained for millennia. My modern twist on the system was to interject democracy into the system, the ruling class were restrained from over exploiting the serfs or imposing rules the populace wouldn’t accept through a democratic system, which I dubbed at the time the ‘Council of the Elders’.

These ancient Kingdoms perhaps had a tendency to expand, and in doing so become more efficient and offered greater protection to more organised bands of raiders. This perhaps led to the idea of establishing supranational entities for beneficial cooperation to be even more efficient, to have a Kingdom of the Britons. What happened was that the English/ Anglo-Saxons established a King of England first, who over, arguably, the more exciting  bits of history (Battles, court intrigue, which religion should we have debates etc) expanded influence to eventually create the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland (the UK), a modern nation state.

Historically the nation state is a fairly recent development in human history and is perhaps one whose time is passing. If the primary purpose is to protect populations from raiders, maintain the rule of law and share the advantages of scale, then it seems the nation state truly is in decline.

Modern raiders, or wars between nation states are now rare, so there is no need for nation states. Indeed the raiders now are the jihadist terrorists, who plot to destabilise nation states and use tactics that nation states struggle to counter but for no financial gain. Indeed the systems nation states established to counter terrorism reduce the freedoms of the subjects that nation states were able to protect.

Law is now global. We live in world of trade agreements and mega corporations who effectively set the rules or lack of them, rather than democratic or aristocratic bodies.

In the Uk the benefits of cooperation are no longer shared, living standards are in decline and the global rich, no longer attached to the land, just keep taking more of the pie.

The establishment, the modern day aristocracy, who have been kept in luxury by the nation state system is under threat: international trade agreements, jihadist terrorism and the end of the era of economic growth as the challenges of climate change and over-population prevent further economic growth, so they just seem to be asset stripping nations all the harder like there is no tomorrow.

Instead of the nation state investing in its poorer regions, such as Wales and ‘Yr Hen Gogledd’ (The Old North / Northern England), to deliver  growth and rise everyones living standards. In the UK, in recent decades we have seen the  UK establishment class asset strip the country for the gain of their group, rather than invest for the future. The nation state of the UK has lost it’s coherence, if it ever truly had it, where wealthier regions subsidise the development of poorer regions. Successful federal nation states, which maintain coherence and identity across the regions through regional governments, such as in Germany or the United States. I get the impression that those people much more comfortably identify as Germans or Americans, whilst we in Britian are more ‘I suppose I am British but…’. The UK has never really done this nation state building, being more obsessed with the development of Empire, power has always been centralised in central London and the regions plundered for their resources, coal, cheap labour and soldiers. Now the coal industry has died nations such as Wales have never received the investment it has needed to grow it’s economy to develop away from the old heavy industries. Wales has lacked the confidence to say, this really isn’t fair, the UK isn’t working for us, we’d be better off managing ourselves.

The answer seems to be more local accountability, to find solutions for local problems locally and not be subservient to protectors who no longer provide protection, rules that work or economic growth that is shared.

I have often encountered critiques of devolution, who argue reductively that eventually everyone is a king of their own tiny private kingdom. This position misses the whole point of bottom up democracy. Deciding where decisions should be made isn’t a case of always smaller, it’s finding the right size. The right size is where there is an optimum balance between the advantages of pooling resources for efficiency and retaining local accountability. An ‘area the size of Wales’ with our population of just over three million people may be the right size, because Wales’ leaders can’t get too removed from the people, it is possible if you want to to speak with members of the Welsh government and make your point and if they don’t listen to reasoned argument you should be able to vote them out of office, but our current electoral system doesn’t quite work. As long as you have democratic systems that allow power to be moved up and down, to and from regions then the best balance will be achieved and those decisions need to be made at a regional level. Statically leaving power at one level is not sustainable. It may be that recreating the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Monmouth is the right level for law making. Democracy should be about a fluidity of decisions that remains accountable to the smallest area. For example: My bit of Wales ( King Squimple I) – my region of Wales – Wales – Britain – Western Europe – Europe – The World government.

It has been a week where I’ve been catching up on Welsh history and reading about the grievous attacks on democracy in Spain. In a world of instability it’s very disturbing that the Spanish government is raising troops to attack democracy in Catalonia. If a region wants autonomy, it should demonstrate it clearly (by holding a monitored referendum or suchlike) and then regain autonomy. So I condemn the Spanish government for its actions to defend the nation state against democracy. The democratic right to self-determination is what allows humanity to be free of tyranny and bad kings /rulers.

Wales also needs independence or something that will deliver democracy, protection and rule of law. So, there are many parallels between Wales and Catalonia, also an ancient Kingdom and has it’s own language and culture. However there seems to be a big difference between Wales and Catalonia. The economic argument doesn’t seem to apply in their case.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain, whilst Wales is one of the poorest in the UK. So the nation-state redistribution of wealth to poorer regions, such as Andalusia  is how things should be, to gain the economic efficiency across what is now Spain. I don’t think the independence movement in Andalusia is very strong, perhaps because it is respected and invested in by the Spanish state. I wouldn’t be advocating independence for Wales if was benefitting from being in the UK and being respected as a nation for our language and culture. I don’t know all that much about the situation in Catalonia, these things are often complex and there will always be many reasons for the people there deciding independence is in their interests, look elsewhere for more information,  maybe they are just being greedy in seeking independence but even so, a heavy handed approach from a central government just sends shivers down my spine. Self determination and democracy are too important to give up upon. The Spanish government should be welcoming democracy and the chance to point out how Catalonia benefits from being in the Spanish family of nations if that is the case. Then again we no longer seem to have mechanisms for making the best solutions clear, we no longer live in the age of reason, but one of petty media barons.

Maybe, maybe, the time is coming for Social Feudalism, for the ancient Kingdoms to rise again, but this time with democracy and accountability to the people who live on their lands.

yescymruEstelada Catalan flag | Catalan flag | Estelada flag ...

 

 

 

The Fall and Rise of Respectability

My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends  that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.

I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.

Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.

I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack  the time to realise why something is valuable.

To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.

The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.

For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.

We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.

Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that  flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.

Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.

The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.

I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.

The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.

Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family  in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.

So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and  is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.

 

Why I am not a Tory

I am a Social Democrat, a centrist, so I both get the idea of conservatism and socialism, yet view the two as both being fundamentally flawed when applied in the extreme. A good economy an da good society is I believe best achieved by taking elements of both creeds and applying a pragmatic analysis of what works where.

So, part of me is conservative and I know many conservatives, yet I kind of feel pity for them because of the Tory party in the UK. The Tories post-Brexit immigration plan leaked this week, it is just so typical of the kind of ill-thought through damaging policy I expect from the Tories, it’s so extreme, which should be an anathema to conservatives.

The issues with the Tory party is that is a party with three competing dogmas struggling for dominance: Firstly, old school conservatism which hasn’t had the chance to develop, and has become the backdrop, or a shared idea between the other two factions:

The market fundamentalists, neo-liberals or whatever label you wish to apply. The belief that markets can solve every problem, that all the world needs is less regulation and less services to be prosperous and healthy. It’s simple and a pure idea, but it just doesn’t work.

Then there are the nationalists, the people who hold that there is an exclusive club of people, of people just like them, or people who are prepared to act like them who deserve all the fruits of labour of society. This British nationalism harks back to the glory of Empire, of Imperialism. People with the idea that they’re lot arer simpler fundamentally better than everyone else for some unstated reason.

The problem for the Tory party is that these two beliefs are incompatible with each other. You can’t have an anarchy of free trade and provide protection for your privileged group, the idea of ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ that we hear mentioned so often these days. What perhaps holds the Tories together is that it was once possible to square this circle, Empire!

The British Empire was essentially a large free trade area, controlled by the British state, which was run by the privileged classes. So there was free trade and protection at the same time. The days of Empire have gone but the Tories get stuck thinking that somethign similar can still be achieved.

This war between the Tory factions has often bubbled over on the issue of the Common Market, The European Community and now the European Union. The Nationalists hate the idea of the UK being subservient to a supranational organisation, yet some of them believe that it is a modern equivalent of the Empire; a large free trade area and protections for the privileged few, provided you are on the top table of the club. The nationalists however really dislike the social side of Europe, the community aspects of the club, the regulations. That the free trade aspect means that EU citizens come to the UK and have successful careers appals them, simply because they are not like them. This group have never liked the EU, because they have never been in enough control of the Eu to satisfy them.

On the other hand the market fundamentalists have mixed views of the EU for different reasons. They like the free trade aspects and want the EU to less regulated and more fundamentalist (these groups loved TTIP and CETA) and also this group hate the social and community side of the EU, not because they hate other people but because a working community rubs against their fundamentalism.

Generally both groups of Tories have, have mixed views of the EU, but have a mistrust of it because they don’t have full control over it, like they do with Westminster government in the UK.

On Brexit, Britain exiting the EU, the two groups are really coming to blows as neither group can get what it really wants, the British Empire back. The market fundamentalists eye up a deregulated Britain that can be the most market fundamentalist state in the world. However they are constrained that Brexit also means losing access to the huge free trade area of the EU. This group want access the the single market and also not have to obey the markets rules. This group could probably get a deal with the remaining EU that would suit their dogma, but the nationalists want somethign else:

The nationalists want very strict immigration controls, hard borders, restrictions to free trade and protectionism and this is the opposite of what the fundamentalists want. Hence we have this internal war within the Tory party, constrained only by the innate conservatism of their membership.

The divisions within the Tories over Brexit and lack of a coherent Brexit plan encapsulate the whole question of the EU. Outside of the Tory party the people of the Uk are also divided. There is the social EU and the market fundamentalist EU. The left object to the market fundamentalism and the right to the social Europe. Traditionally the political centre supports the EU as a mixed bag as it balances these two competing forces, which is what centrists want. However the EU isn’t perfect and even those of the centre have misgivings with it. My support fro remain is the the EU is better placed to provide some balance than the UK is. After all both the EU and the UK are supranational organisations. There can be no good Brexit until the UK has electoral reform and the Tories and Labour are kept out of absolute authority.

The recent EU, post Lisbon treaty has been ‘free’ movement of people within the EU, which is a new concept in economic terms. People have rightly objected to this free movement as it doesn’t deliver economic growth, it perpetuates problems. For example the UK doesn’t train and retain enough doctors and nurses, so the UK imports them rather than make sure it produces enough of them domestically, however the immigrant medical professionals only partially go where they are most needed.

It’s this ideological dogma that causes many problems, there are very few genuine free markets. Trying to impose free market reforms on imperfect markets doesn’t work. Look no further than the UK railways for examples of overpriced poor quality service in comparison to similar states. People may desire Brexit for ideological reasons as the EU is far from perfect, but there is no mechanism at the moment to make markets function better outside of the EU.

I’ve lived under this dreadful Tory party my whole life and I’ve never understood why ordinary conservatives and centrists have kept propping them up in election after election. Partly the FPTP electoral system is fairly rigged to keep the Tories or someone very like them (‘New Labour’) in power. Really the Tory party are the very worst people to be attempting to negotiate a workable Brexit solution.

Hopefully the Tories will collapse, but don’t bet on it, their resilience  is astonishing. Maybe, just maybe, we can but hope and we can forget this whole Brexit business, reform our electoral system, have autonomy for Wales and have decisions about our communities made for the benefit of those communities, to cooperate as widely as possible, to make decisions  that make economic sense; essentially to give democracy a crack!