Friday, 24 October 2014

Work till you drop?


The other day my wife and I were chatting about work and the enormous impact it has on our lives. Where we live for example. The house we are in now is the first we ever bought without location being dictated by my job.

Going back much further, my family has links with Derby stretching back to the nineteenth century when two of my great grandfathers moved there to work on the railway. One was a teacher from Ireland. Presumably the railways offered better prospects for an educated man.

It isn’t just where we live though, the greater impact is on our lives. Making the best of holidays, scrambling to get things done at the weekend, wondering if a career change would be worthwhile, scraping ice of the car windscreen every winter, office politics, meetings, training courses, job vacancies to fill, presentations to sort out, reports to write.

Even the most routine work must have an endlessly complex and sometimes malign impact on the most productive years of our lives, on who we are and how we react to the outside world. Even our habits of thought. Work uses up our energies and talents, squeezes the best years out of our system into the unimaginably vast pool of things we do for money.

Much of it isn’t malign of course. We all learn about life simply because we learn about people and institutions, the limits of freedom and the need to do something with all those years of productive life.

I have few regrets in spite of my generally negative take on modern bureaucracy. I had it easy though. I’m not one of those destined to work for fifty years or more before a pension becomes payable. Payable to the survivors that is - a number of my erstwhile colleagues wouldn’t have made it.

So where next with the world of work? 

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ever Decreasing Circles

Number 11, 1952

Written by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, Ever Decreasing Circles was a popular BBC situation comedy running through four series from 1984 to 1989.

The main character is Martin Bryce, an obsessive middle class suburban fusspot married to Ann, his loyal stay at home wife. Martin’s orderly existence is continually threatened by Paul Ryman, the witty, charming and effortlessly capable next door neighbour.

To my mind Martin says something about the modern world, but I can’t tell if it is what Esmonde and Larbey intended. He is a figure of fun, a caricature of the domestic control freak nobody ought to like. Yet Martin is also a decent and honourable man, painfully so in many episodes because he is not unaware of his oddities and failures.

So why would anyone set out to make fun of a decent and honourable man, especially as his controlling behaviour is so risible and so often unsuccessful? Martin may be silly, but he is no bully and no threat to anyone.

For example.

In one episode (Jumping to Conclusions) Ann has to write an essay on Jackson Pollock for her Open University course. Martin decides to help her – it’s his contribution to steering her towards a more fulfilling life. True to his character, Martin has a rock solid faith in his wife’s intellectual abilities in spite of his equally firm faith in his capacity to direct those abilities.

After about a second’s consideration, Martin’s contribution is that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. He airily assumes Ann will follow this line in her essay simply because it’s so obvious to him that Jackson Pollock couldn’t paint. Ann, being more modern, is bemused by Martin’s dismissal of Pollock and her bemusement is later shared by neighbour Paul who offers clandestine help in writing the essay.

Martin finds out about the clandestine help and assumes Ann is having a fling with Paul. He packs his bag and leaves her a note saying he has gone for good and hopes she will be happy with Paul. The point here is that true to Martin’s character, he genuinely hopes Ann will be happy. His love for her is essentially selfless and in its bottomless decency probably beyond most of us.

Not only that, but in the grand scheme of things it is by no means obvious that Jackson Pollock’s work was anything more than a series of worthless daubs. Martin has a point, but not one suited to the world of Ann, Paul and presumably those who made the programme.

It’s a fascinating contrast. The unsympathetic yet thoroughly decent Martin isn’t allowed to add a single atom of cultural value to the modern world. He belongs to a narrow, blinkered and culturally impoverished past and it is no surprise that he fails so dismally to see Pollock's artistic merits.

Of course situation comedy characters are two dimensional and bolted together for the laughs so we shouldn’t read too much into their construction. It’s not as if decent characters haven’t been used for their comic potential either. 

Even so, there is a dark side to our willingness to laugh at Martin Bryce.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

You fellows are all doomed

Gustave Doré -The fourth horseman,
Death on the Pale Horse (1865)
From Wikipedia

In this quote from Emile Zola's La Terre, a group of French peasant farmers are arguing about the relative merits of protectionism versus free trade. They are desperately worried about the import of cheap American corn. Suddenly Lequeu, the schoolmaster, joins in. He thinks the farmers are finished:- 
"Nothing can be more certain,” he continued, "if corn con­tinues to be imported from America, in a hundred years from now there won’t be a single peasant left in all France. Do you think that our land can contend with yonder one? Long before we have had time to put these new plans in practice, the foreigners will have inundated us with grain.  I have read a book which tells all about it. You fellows are all doomed."
Emile Zola - La Terre (1887)

Apart from what it might tell us about the origins of the CAP, I'm particularly attracted to the last two sentences. They chime so deliciously with the mores of our modern chattering classes. An updated version might read:-

I read a piece in the Guardian which tells all about it. You fellows are all doomed.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The rise of Homo bureaucraticus

...and the evolution of the precautionary principle.

The rise of the precautionary principle since 1900

The precautionary principle is a defining characteristic of Homo bureaucraticus, a gender-neutral offshoot of Homo sapiens. Along with its symbiotic partner the expert, a species of hominid parrot, Homo bureaucraticus is now common all over the northern hemisphere.

The traditional definition of the precautionary principle is as a post hoc justification of actions and policies already decided, but it works even better as one of the keys to rise of Homo bureaucraticus.

Most of us are acutely sensitive to personal, family and tribal risk. It’s an ingrained feature of our survival antennae, part of our animal nature. Homo bureaucraticus takes this a step further. If it sees a risk, any risk, then bureaucraticus instructs an expert to slap a precautionary principle on it – the favoured one being avoid and blame.

Bankers go a step further and engineer negative risks for themselves and their cronies – ie other bankers, but that's another story.

Risk wasn’t always so amenable to manipulation though. Before Stonehenge was built, when even the most upmarket kitchen utensils were made of flint, risk was a far more serious business than it is today. Although...

What was the risk of not building Stonehenge? Is Homo bureaucraticus an older species than we have hitherto supposed? It’s an open question.

Anyway, among many other disadvantages our technical civilisation has made risk rather less risky. We may get away with stupidities but Homo bureaucraticus always gets away with stupidities. Much like banking in fact, only with bureaucraticus the risk is parked on voters...

Nope on reflection it’s not much like banking, it’s exactly like banking.

Even so the system copes. It may sag a little but on the whole it seems to cope. Not that we’d ever know if it couldn’t cope. Not until afterwards when bureaucraticus claims it’s all our fault for electing idiots. Which admittedly is something we do rather often.

So without the lure of a very substantial gain Homo bureaucraticus isn’t prepared to take risks under any but the most compelling circumstances. If it ain’t worth it don’t do it – that’s the bureaucraticus mantra.

Doing isn’t the whole story though because doing includes thinking and saying and telling. In other words bureaucraticus doesn’t take risks with language either, not even with that covert language trickling through its head as it reads the report it told an expert how to write.

So it is no surprise that the rise of the precautionary principle has seen a parallel and very energetic promotion of risk-free language. Political correctness we call it. As usual the risk of not speaking plainly is bound to fall on the peasants – not on bureaucraticus.

Ironically it could turn out to be a risky business not taking risks. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Glass half full

Who are the puppets and who the puppet masters?

Maybe it’s a matter of perspective, a kind of glass half full or half empty perspective. Optimistic or pessimistic – make your choice and draw your conclusions. Let’s try some optimism for a change.

In spite of what we hear about poverty and social decay, most of us in the UK lead comfortable lives compared to those of our grandparents. The people who manage this satisfactory state of affairs are executives and senior players in a whole range of businesses, institutions and bureaucracies.

They are well rewarded of course, in many cases vastly over-rewarded because a fair number of them are useless parasites. But from a glass half full perspective, perhaps the price is a small one if we consider the advantages.

So if the situation works out to our advantage, who comes out on top? The executive who is owned body and soul by his or her business? The senior bureaucrat who works every weekend just to stay on top of the job? It isn’t always like that of course, but it can be and is it isn’t clear who is jerking the strings. Chicken or egg?

We have reached a stage where enjoying life isn’t wholly a question of money. Not so long ago it was money, but now it isn’t. Okay so only a few of us can afford to swan around in an Aston Martin, but what’s the point of that with speed cameras all over the place?

What’s the point of being even moderately wealthy? What luxury or lifestyle advantage lies beyond the reach of the majority? Again it is a matter of perspective, a kind of glass half empty or half full perspective...

...pauses for a sip of old Madeira...

...right where was I? Oh yes. Taking things a step further, what would the world be like if an unfamiliar social perspective were to emerge? One where the ambitious executive is a menial, deceived into swapping his or her leisure for ludicrously expensive gewgaws and an illusory social status?

Suppose we are in the middle of some gigantic process of discovering the good life? Suppose those who manage it for us are just as much puppets as we are? We jerk their strings just as much as they...

...or is that the Madeira speaking?

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Who in the world am I?

Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle.
Lewis Carroll - Alice in Wonderland

Only the other day I noticed how rarely I describe my own character. Took a while to pick up on that one didn’t it? Over sixty years.

Very occasionally I might think of myself as a bit of a bookworm, but not often and I make sure I moderate the description with words such as a bit of a. Perhaps I don’t want to create too strong an impression on myself. So on the whole I don’t explore the possibilities of defining my own character. Are others equally reticent?

I suppose a verbal description of oneself is bound to solidify something - irrespective of whether it ought to be solidified. It is bound to create verbal channels, habits of thought which are seen as consistent with one’s previously defined character.

It’s not that we don’t do this kind of thing at all, this personal introspection. It must go on in a diffuse, partly non-verbal and somewhat unstructured way. But do we firm it up with unambiguous descriptive sentences? Do we define ourselves, clarify what we are and what we are not?

In my case the answer seems to be mostly no. I prefer observation and the fluidity of possibilities... Oops – is that a verbal description of myself?

Well maybe it is, but does it help to formulate a definitive verbal view of one’s character? I don’t really know because I’ve never done it in a structured way and I’m sure it is too late now.

Friday, 17 October 2014


Suppose many orthodox social and political narratives are either completely false or far more inaccurate than we have hitherto supposed. It’s not much of a supposition, but I’m thinking of narratives based on old-fashioned generalisations about human behaviour.

From similar causes have arisen those notions which are called universal or general, such as man, dog, horse, etc. I mean so many images arise in the human body, e.g., so many images of men are formed at the same time, that they overcome the power of imagining, not altogether indeed, but to such an extent that the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals (eg colour, size etc.) and their fixed number, and only that in which all agree in so far as the body is affected by them is distinctly imagined.
Baruch Spinoza - Ethics (Boyle translation)

We are all familiar with the weaknesses of what Spinoza called universal or general notions. As he says, they are substitutes for a level of individual detail we cannot possibly attain. We have to use generalisations, clambering around their many pitfalls as best we can.

Yet modern search engines and databases have already acquired a level of individual detail about many aspects of our lives and habits. They have moved on from the ancient and intractable situation where the mind cannot imagine the small differences between individuals.

So Spinoza's point is being made obsolete by technology, by huge modern databases which are not constrained by our ancient need to generalise. Not surprisingly their information is valuable enough to be sold to third parties. With safeguards it is said, but who believes that?

So generalisations are no longer necessary for those with deep pockets. We know it of course, but how do we deal with it?

How might we acquire such information ourselves without a government’s ability to twist arms? The short answer is that we can’t. The information isn’t likely to appear in books either because there is too much of it and the financial return would be inadequate. Neither is it likely to appear in academic literature for the same reasons.

So for global corporations and presumably governments, Spinoza’s problem is rapidly becoming outdated. The big hitters don’t need his universal or general notions. They have at their fingertips a colossally detailed corpus of information about human behaviour which lies well beyond the reach of most ordinary folk.

What do they know that we don’t?

How to manipulate our behaviour in order to ensure bovine social and political attitudes? Almost certainly, so the only political answer is smarter voting.

Oh oh – not smarter voting again. Rats.