Use, exchange, attachment: the entanglements of value. And stuff.

Value is a key concept in Marxist theory, which distinguishes ‘use value’ from ‘exchange value’.

Use value is the actual utility of a thing: the value of an apple if you are hungry, a blanket if you are cold or a wheelbarrow if you want to transport something by your own effort. These values exist independently of the economic system you live under. It is what induces you to want the thing in the first place.

Exchange value is what you have to pay to acquire the thing. Under capitalism, Marxists argue, this exchange value is made up of several different elements. To simplify, there is the cost of the raw materials, the cost of the labour that went into producing the object in the form of wages to the workers (‘living labour’), the cost of the technology and other components that contributed to this production, based on past labour (‘dead labour’) and the profit that the capitalist makes on top of all these costs: ‘surplus value’.

Rarely mentioned in such analyses is another aspect of value – the way in which it may be entangled with emotion. Insurance companies and claims lawyers have a way of looking at this when, having distinguished between the second-hand value of the goods they are insuring and what it would cost to buy new equivalents (‘replacement value’), they also recognise that there is such a thing as ‘sentimental value’. Auctioneers and art-dealers also attempt to put a price on originality and aesthetic value though ultimately they leave it to the market to decide what a Picasso sketch or an African mask may be worth (for an interesting discussion of how this works, read this).

In the last few weeks I have become acutely aware of this additional, emotional, dimension carried by objects, having been sorting through over half a century’s worth of stuff prior to moving house, some unlooked-at since my father’s death in 1980, some going back even further to my teenage years in the 1960s. Books, papers, preserving jars, unused stationery with defunct letterheads, reuseable files and folders, jewelry, clothes, porcelain (chipped and otherwise), tools, paintings, earthenware dishes that once held yoghurt, shapely bottles that are perfect for holding flowers, plates that can catch the drips from a plant pot… in some ways these were the easiest things to deal with because they were classifiable. Other things triggered surprisingly vivid responses, all the more so because they were often unanticipated. What became abundantly clear, whatever the category, was that what one might call the ‘affective value’ of an object is complex, socially constructed, contextually situated and subject to change in ways that Marxist concepts like ‘commodity fetishim’ are quite inadequate to capture. But nevertheless important.

One element in this emotional tangle is the awareness of the original value of the object. We may remember how it was saved up for, shown off, treasured, polished. ‘It was his pride and joy’, we say, or ‘I will never forget how carefully she looked after it’. This kind of affective value is multiplied if the object was hand-made, or carefully adapted. Added to the value of the labour embedded in its original exchange value is also the labour that went into earning that original purchase price by its buyer and disregarding that labour can be painful. To discard the thing feels like a terrible disrespect to that original owner

This may be further complicated by the memories associated with the object, especially when the number of witnesses to these memories is dwindling. I was made acutely aware of this when helping a cousin sort through the contents of my Welsh grandparents’ house in Anglesey after the death of her mother, my aunt. They had moved there in the 1920s when my grandfather retired from his position as head of a village school, when at least four of their seven children were still living with their parents. One of these, my aunt Cassie, died tragically and unexpectedly of meningitis while training as a teacher away from home. At the back of a drawer was a half-finished pair of home-made kid gloves to which somebody had attached, with a safety pin, a note saying ‘These were the gloves Cassie was making when she died’. Seventy years later, who was left, apart from us, who even knew who Cassie was? Hard though it was, we threw them out (though not without a glancing thought that, had she been famous, they would have had some exchange value).

Another element in the affective value of objects relates to their status as gifts. I suspect this is often misunderstood by those who are quick to dismiss kitsch mass-produced items as mere evidence of bad taste on the part of their owners. Walking into a claustraphobic sitting room with objects gathering dust on every shelf, it is tempting to dismiss them as simple evidence of hoarding. But what if they have been kept because each object, to the owner, is saturated with the memory of the giver: that model of the Eiffel Tower brought back as a gift from somebody’s first visit to Paris, that mug emblazoned with ‘For the World’s Best Mum’ bought with saved-up pocket money. Could it be that the imperative of not hurting the feelings of that now-adult somebody is stronger than any aesthetic motivation? And might that not be admirable?

Yet gifts are also tricky things to unravel emotionally. They are not necessarily imbued with love. They may be bought hastily without any sentiment other than resentment: at the last minute in an airport or the only shop left open on Christmas Eve. They may come with a freight of obligation to be grateful. Bruce Chatwin, writing about Australian Aboriginals in The Songlines, actually described gift-giving as a form of aggression, a concept that resonated strongly with me when I read it in the 80s.

Bequests represent an even more complicated case, sometimes feeling like a guilt-trip transmitted down the generations, sometimes a way of seeding conflict among siblings and sometimes a genuine failure to understand differences of taste. And that’s when the original intention of the deceased is respected. How much more toxic the mix becomes when the distribution of effects is mediated through the resentments and rivalries, conscious or otherwise, of other beneficiaries whose roles as executors may clash with their own covetousness or sense of who deserves what.

The shifting relationship between use value, exchange value and affective value is played out for us every day on our television screens (I wrote about this in 2015 here). In a pattern that can only be described as bulimic, programmes like Cash in the Attic,The Antiques Roadshow and Bargain Hunt point out the (second-hand) value of the objects we possess, closely followed by other programmes like Making Space, Sort your Life out and Tidying up with Marie Kondo which urge us to chuck everything out. The value of these objects is simultaneously positive and negative in a post-modern conundrum from which only those in possession of large amounts of storage space and personal time (unlikely therefore to be poor) can actually benefit.

We are also reminded by the TV antiques experts of changing fashion: how the Georgian and Victorian ‘brown furniture’ and blue-and-white porcelain we were brought up to consider worth cherishing is now worth only a fraction of its value a couple of decades ago. In a particularly perverse twist, fuelled by the hipster aesthetic which (perhaps unwittingly) tells us so much about the contradictory character of contemporary capitalism, the most valuable items nowadays seem to be precisely those outmoded relics of past technologies that previous generations were encouraged to junk: rusted machinery, chipped enamel signs, broken shop fittings and containers bearing defunct logos.

Yet another genre of programmes, such as Money for Nothing, Find it, Fix it, Flog it and Saved and Remade, shows designers spending vast amounts of money and manual labour on ‘upcycling’ such objects, to be sold (if we are to believe the programme-makers) for even vaster amounts of money for their transient value as fashion items. It is difficult to see how most viewers, lacking the time, the skills or the space, could possibly emulate this bizarre form of recommodification, and one is left to conclude that the most likely outcome of all this will be an increase in the sales of various tools and DIY products and, quite possibly, an upsurge in accidents in the home.

That one might be contributing to conserving the resources of the planet by such practices seems vanishingly unlikely. We are probably better off continuing what my generation, brought up during post-war rationing, are so often jeered at by the young for: saving string, jam jars and chipped but still functional pottery, reusing old envelopes, repurposing yoghurt pots. Back where I started!

Hackney Meals

Following the publication of my most recent book Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies, I am often asked to give examples of what alternative locally owned platforms for public good might look like. I still live in the London Borough of Hackney (though not for much longer) so thought I might sketch out an example based on what I think could be done here, to develop a project that might be able to combine improving local services with improving the quality of local jobs, supporting local businesses and helping to build more inclusive and equal local communities, while also contributing to green objectives by helping take motor vehicles off the road and shortening supply chains. I offer it as a goodbye present to the borough that has been my home for the past 12 years.

The context

Hackney is one of the most ethnically and socially diverse boroughs in London and, indeed, the UK (and probably Europe). Its proximity to the City of London has made it a target for gentrification and it has some very affluent residents, who are prepared to spend a lot of money on fine dining and sampling some of the diverse dishes on offer both from hipster establishments offering alternative and ‘ethical’ menus and from the rich array of ethnic cuisines that abound in the borough.

These include, to name but a few, a huge variety of Turkish, Caribbean, South Asian, Vietnamese, Chinese, African, Italian, French and other European restaurants providing food to eat-in or takeaway customers, many of which have been badly hit by the pandemic and may struggle to remain viable in the future.

Hackney also has many people in extremely deprived circumstances, including recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers as well as more established households, some experiencing multigenerational poverty.

Hackney residents include many people requiring social care, hit by recent cuts in welfare spending (including things like meals on wheels and day centres), as well as households whose children are eligible for free school meals. There are also large numbers of homeless people. All these groups have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

The pandemic has also shown that local communities are prepared to come together to support each other. During the first lockdown there were truly impressive efforts to organise, often using local WhatsApp groups or other social media, to help ensure that isolated residents were checked up on and that food and other necessities were delivered to those who needed them.

Finally, Hackney has a high proportion of the workforce working precariously, many in local restaurants, cafes and bars, and many in the so-called ‘gig economy’ including delivering food and ready meals by bike, scooter or van to local residents.Their working conditions are often dire, and have deteriorated still further during the pandemic. For example delivery riders and drivers now face increasing competition and may have to spend hours of unpaid time waiting on the streets for an order, barely earning enough to survive, as well as being deprived of basic rights such as sick pay, social security contributions, paid holidays and the right to a minimum wage. These precarious workers are disproportionately from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, making this an equality issue, as well as one of basic social justice.

The concept: Hackney Meals

The idea is to use the kinds of technologies that provide the business model for online platforms such as Deliveroo or Uber Eats to link up the supply and demand for food services in Hackney. Instead of giving a cut (typically 20-25% of the value of each transaction) to a company that may not even be paying any tax in this country and is certainly contributing little to the local economy, the idea would be to develop a not-for-profit model in which any surplus is reinvested locally, to improve working conditions and the quality and scope of services.

For the time being, I am calling this new putative service Hackney Meals, but I am sure somebody could come up with a better name.

The aim would not be to try to impose a new business model from the top down, in a way that would no doubt alienate many of the existing stakeholders (ranging from local authority trade unions to local businesses that are doing quite well using existing services). Rather, it would be to build from the bottom up, working with local people at every step, and offering the new service as a complement to existing ones, building consensus and consent along the way. Private consumers would be able to choose which food service they want to use from the existing range of options, to which this would be added. However there would also be public customers and here the fact that the local authority is a large consumer of local services could add the weight that helps get the new service off the ground and give it the scale to be viable.

Who would be involved?

At an early stage, it would be important to bring together as many as possible of the key stakeholders involved in the supply and purchase of food services in Hackney.

On the purchasing side, this might include school meals services, care services (including residential care homes and day centres), health services and in-house canteen services and possibly also local hospitals and other institutions (such as emergency services). Local private businesses that provide meals for their staff or residents could also be invited to join the consultation process.

On the supply side, it would be important to involve local businesses already in the hospitality and food supply industry, including microbusinesses. It would also be useful to invite representation from projects involved in job creation in the food sector, for example people trying to set up co-operatives among refugee communities to build businesses using their cooking skills and knowledge of traditional ethnic cuisines.

Technical expertise would also be a vital input. Here it might be possible to recruit people with experience of developing systems for other online platforms, or to link up with a local IT co-op such as Outlandish.

Finally, it would be important to engage with organisations representing workers, including the existing local authority trade unions, trade unions representing workers in the food and hospitality industries, and the App Drivers and Couriers Union representing ‘gig economy’ workers (which was more or less ‘born’ in Hackney where it held its monthly meetings from 2016 to 2020 at the Hackney Chinese Centre).

What would it do?

Reinvention of Meals on Wheels

Hackney Meals could provide a 21st century alternative to the kinds of ‘Meals on Wheels’ services that were delivered to elderly and disabled residents in the past, many of which have been severely cut. These meals were never ideal. Often delivered at the wrong time, often bland and overcooked, rarely catering to the individual tastes of clients or their cultural preferences and often with the wrong portion sizes, they were often judged only as ‘better than nothing’. Hackney Meals could offer the choice people want, when they want it (and only when they want it) allowing users or their carers to order via a simple app.

If paid for using a voucher system, people eligible for free or discounted meals could have exactly the same choices as any private customer ordering a home-delivered meal.

The voucher service could also be extended seamlessly to cover additional groups who could be issued with a given number of vouchers to take care of temporary food needs. These might include people newly released from hospital, people newly released from detention centres or prison, people in temporary accommodation without cooking facilities, young people transitioning out of care and homeless people. Local centres could be set up where homeless people could eat their meals, with staff who could, if need be, help them with the ordering process.

Local employers wanting to feed their staff well at lunchtime could purchase Hackney Meals vouchers for their staff to use on days they are working on site as an alternative to canteens which might no longer be viable in situations where people are combining on-site work with teleworking from home.They could also use the service for catering for meetings and conferences.

Childrens’ meals

A lot of attention has recently been given to the inferior quality of the meals provided for vulnerable children in poor households during school holidays. Hackney Meals could provide an alternative way to give these households more choice as well as access to nutritious cooked food that is appropriate to their dietary needs and cultural heritage.Where local schools do not have their own in-house cooking facilities, it could be used to supply meals in bulk during term times, or as a supplement to locally-prepared food by those having to cater for the needs of children with specific dietary needs.

An alternative to commercial food delivery platforms

Many local restaurants, including small independent restaurants supplying ‘niche’ cuisines, are unhappy with the demands made on them by large commercial food delivery platforms. It is highly likely that they would welcome the appearance on the scene of an alternative platform run by (or in partnership with) the local authority, where they could have some say in the design and management of the service, including such features as being able to advertise their offers to local residents in their own languages.

Hackney Meals would allow them to sell their products simultaneously both to local-authority-supported clients and to the kinds of regular money-paying customers currently supplied by the commercial platforms (although there would be nothing to stop them also registering on these platforms too). Being visible on the Hackney Meals app could give them a local competitive advantage, making it easier to hold their own in the market against the large chains, many of whom are supplying local customers by using ‘dark kitchens’ (typically remote kitchens in shipping containers in desolate surroundings with poor working conditions for the chefs).

Improving working conditions

Hackney Meals could become an important model for demonstrating that the convenience and flexibility offered by digital platforms need not necessarily be translated into precarious working conditions and bad pay for the workforce.

Delivery workers often say that they like being able to choose when and where they work, often because they have to fit work in with other demands on their time such as family commitments, studying or another part-time job. There is no reason why they should not be able to continue working flexibly for a new platform such as Hackney Meals. The larger the platform, the more scope there is for redistributing shifts into an interlocking pattern, giving people the working times that suit them while making sure that there is always emergency cover. There are many traditional services (ranging from paramedics to telecoms engineers to emergency call centres) where workers may be required to be called out at short notice. But it is perfectly possible to design shift systems that take account of this without turning them all into ‘independent contractors’.

The difference would be that people working for Hackey Meals could be paid for the time they are ‘on call’ and could be provided with other things, such as electric vehicles and other equipment, as well as the basic benefits that all dependent workers should be entitled to (minimum wage, pension contributions, insurance, sick pay, paid holidays, the right to be represented by a trade union etc.).

Hackney Meals could also use non-discriminatory recruitment and management practices as well as providing appropriate training.

Boosting local businesses

Finally, Hackney Meals would complement other strategies for boosting local businesses. The local authority is proud of its cultural industries and what was, at least until the pandemic, a thriving night-time economy. Many of these organisations are involved in one way or another in the supply or consumption of food and could use it to complement or grow their businesses. Hackney Meals could provide a welcome addition to this enterprising local portfolio, bring into being yet another initiative that is innovative and progressive and helping to ensure that Hackney remains the very distinctive and special borough that it is.

An anchorite moves on

There have been many changes in my life recently and the time has come to move on. I started this blog in 2010, just after I moved to Dalston, and the blog and my life have evolved in parallel with huge social transformations that have taken place around me. I have been reflecting on the mutual interactions between these developments.

If you are a writer, I suppose all life can be viewed as a form of ethnography, in which your understanding of social reality evolves in a dialogue between your inner narrator and what you observe. In this case, this perspective was all too obvious, as I was literally watching the social, economic and cultural reconfiguring of the area from my windows, which gave me a grandstand view of changing Dalston.

I was, of course, an active participant in these changes, partly in my role as secretary of the local residents association and partly because the research I was carrying out in my paid work covered a lot of the same issues (social exclusion, the economic impacts of the financial crisis on poor households, polarisation in the labour market, gentrification, the increasingly contradictory character of creative work, the rise of the platform economy …).

Part of me felt uncomfortable recording what was going on outside my house. It made me feel like a nosy old lady peering voyeuristically from behind net curtains. So there were many things I did not photograph. But evidence was required to substantiate residents’ testimonies to the local authority and some pictures had to be taken for such purposes. Others I took because I could not resist sharing the experiences with friends. When it came to my own horticultural achievements, of course, there were no such inhibitions and I find I have vast stocks of images of plants. Likewise, innumerable photographs of dramatic skyscapes.

I was already somewhat disabled when I moved in. I had been struggling to get up and down stairs in my last house because of breathlessness due to anaemia. My reason for picking this particular house was that it had scope for installing a lift. Since 2016, when I had the first of two accidents, other incapacities have made me even more housebound. This has meant that I walk about much less than I used to and view the world much more from indoors. And this tendency has, of course, been further exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, I have been feeling more and more like a mediaeval anchorite, walled up in an enclosed space with three openings to the outside world. One of these openings, to the adjacent church, was the one through which the anchorite found out what was going on in wider society and received inspiration. The 21st century equivalent of that, I guess, would be the Internet and one’s digitally intermediated communications with friends, colleagues and family. The second opening was used by a servant to hand in food and take out bodily waste. The modern equivalents of these servants would be the delivery workers, public sector workers and care workers who are currently risking their lives to keep the locked down population going during the pandemic. The third window opened out onto the street, and through this one the anchorite would dispense words of wisdom to passers by. Rather like giving a zoom lecture, or, indeed, writing this blog.

Anyway, on looking through the archives I found that I have quite a lot of visual documentation of the changes I have witnessed over the past eventful decade through my windows and I have assembled some of it here into a short video (around 8 minutes) that reflects on these Dalston years – see below.

WordPress has used some algorithm I cannot fathom to select the image to use to display it. It is not the one I would have chosen but it does, perhaps, sum up the ways in which contradictions are played out when differing social forces collide with each other in particular times and spaces. Sometimes a random selection is the best choice. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

What an epiphany!

January 6th is quite a date. Biblically, it is the Epiphany, the last day of Christmas, when the baby Jesus was presented to the three Magi. In Italy it is the day that Santa Claus’s more ancient, more down-to-earth, female counterpart, La Blefana, brings good children their presents. And in more secular, but still superstitious, Britain the day on which you take down the Christmas tree and decorations – failure to do which will bring bad luck for the rest of the new year.

Perhaps it is just a coincidence that, under the 1887 Electoral Count Act, this is the date set aside under US Federal Law for the formal counting of presidential and vice-presidential ballots by the Congress and Senate, but it is certainly apt. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a day more laden with symbolism than the Epiphany for yesterday’s storming of the Capital by those so enraged, yet so entitled, Trump supporters, watched around the world with who knows what combination of schadenfreude, fear, horror, sadness, bemusement and I-told-you-soism.

Like many others, I suspect, I spent the locked-down day with too many windows open on my PC, toggling between emails, research-related reading, writing in progress, social media and the news. Interested in the outcome of the nail-bitingly close senate election in Georgia (one democrat candidate had been declared; the other was leading the republican by 50.2 to 49.8 – too close to call) I had CNN open in one window, and was checking it periodically, as part of that 21st century way of punctuating the rhythm of work (a substitute for the cigarette breaks I used to take back in the 1970s when I got to the end of a difficult paragraph). Since I last looked, the scene had been transformed. The static image of unchanging numbers and talking heads had given way to an incoherent lurching between shots of crowds in red MAGA hats wielding US flags on the steps of the capitol building, people scaling walls, windows being smashed, masked security guards pointing guns and senators huddled under desks on the floor. In some, men, and a few women, looking like strays from a biker rally, were nonchalantly wandering around among the pompous dark wood trappings of the official rooms, treading the blue carpets with their quite possibly muddy boots.

It is clear that this violation touched a symbolic nerve in the American psyche that has failed to respond to so many other outrages associated with the Trump presidency over the past four years. I was astonished how often the word ‘sacred’ came up in connection with democratic institutions, spoken both by media commentators and the politicians they began to interview as the scale of what was happening became apparent. Not least in Biden’s statesmanlike speech. This, after all, is a man who himself had to preside over a similar congress session as vice president, graciously conceding defeat to Trump, as others, including Gore and Nixon, had done before him and his outrage was apparent. (This being 2021, as I watched his call to Trump to address the nation from the White House to ask his supporters to desist in one window on my PC, I was able to open twitter in another, to see Trumps’ immediate response – a tweet telling his supporters that he agreed with them and loved them but that they should – for the time being, it was implied – ‘remain peaceful’).

This reaction draws attention to the enormous value that is placed on the ceremonial quality of how democratic processes are enacted in the USA. Their legitimacy seems to depend crucially on the very precise following of formal rules, carried out with reverence – so like a religion that the word ‘sacred’ does indeed seem to be the appropriate one.

Early this morning, I watched the now reconvened senators being called, one by one, to declare their acceptance of the votes in their states, answering the ritualistic questions with a ‘yea’ or a ‘nay’. The oral rhythm reminded me irresistibly of one of those litanies of the saints recited in the Catholic churches of my childhood, where all that was required was to utter ‘pray for us’ after the naming of each saint (with an occasional switch to ‘intercede for us’ or ‘have mercy on us’ just to keep you on your toes). Visually too the formality was, on the one hand moving and touching and, on the other, just plain weird, made all the more bizarre by the additional accoutrements of pandemic behavioural norms: the wearing of masks; the use of hand sanitiser before touching a piece of paper. I wondered what future anthropologists will make of it all when they see the videos.

It only takes a suspension of disbelief for any ceremony to become suddenly laughable. Virginia Woolf memorably did this when she showed us the powerful procession of judges, generals, priests and professors as just men wearing silly hats and sometimes frocks. Of course we should be careful not to mock this seriousness. Without these clothes the emperor really is naked. And, in a world where some people have powerful weapons and others have none, we are not equipped to deal with the consequences of such a realisation. These rituals are the best defence we’ve got. An all-too-fragile barrier to the complete breakdown of democracy and gun law on the streets. But neither should we minimise the extent to which this whole event represents a triumph of white supremacy and ruling class entitlement. Black protestors, for example, would not have been allowed within several blocks of the Capitol building. They would most likely have been tear-gassed, intimidated and their leaders arrested, with minimal media coverage. And certainly no equivalent sense of outrage.

But perhaps this moment will nevertheless go down in history as a real turning point. The end not just of a festive season, a year, or, indeed, a presidency, but of a particular conception of democratic institutions and their inviolability. A real Epiphany.

Is the pandemic creating a new centrifugal force in British politics?

Two stories have jumped out at me from this morning’s news. The main headlines report a series of challenges to the government’s decision not to close down schools despite the rapid spread of the Pandemic, coming from local authorities, such as Brighton and Liverpool, speaking in concert with the teachers’ unions, who have taken legal action in an attempt to force the government to disclose the scientific basis for its insistence that they should remain open – the first main story. The second is the report of a survey that suggests that if a UK general election were to be held now, the Tory majority would be wiped out.

Could it be that one of the many unexpected political impacts of the pandemic is a reversal of the tendency, present since the Thatcher Era, to concentrate ever more power in the hands of central government? The manifest failure of the Johnson government to provide effective leadership and its repeated attempts to deflect responsibility for failures in the management of the spread of the virus onto individuals have left a policy vacuum. With a clear crisis in survival for vulnerable citizens, local authorities and voluntary organisations have been sucked in to fill this vacuum, setting up a range of creative initiatives, often building on community solidarity, to provide the essential services that are so desperately needed.

Last year, this led to a change in the tone of the bargaining between central and local authorities, with some, notably Greater Manchester, asserting their demands with a new-found sense of entitlement. Might this new muscle-power, backed by popular support, be a sign that we are entering a new era of local experimentation – a kind of bottom-up building of local initiatives that could be precursors to a more equal post-Covid society?

Looking for a historical parallel took me right back to the middle of the 19th century – in particular the period following two of the most serious cholera epidemics – the 1848-9 epidemic (which caused 53,292 deaths) and that of 1853-54, which caused 20,099. The establishment, by pioneering epidemiologist, John Snow of the link between the spread of cholera and the presence of sewage in drinking water, was one of the triggers for a major programme of sewer-building in London, under the the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, (the other trigger was the ‘great stink’ of 1858, which got right up the noses of the MPs forced to endure it in the Palace of Westminster).

But perhaps more interesting was what happened in Birmingham, where Joseph Chamberlain developed a much more holistic model of municipal management of public health. Having pioneered the provision of public education, co-founding the Birmingham Education Society in 1867, he became mayor of Birmingham in 1873. Under his leadership, the City embarked on a radical reform programme, including in 1875 buying up the existing sewerage companies to form a single municipally-owned sewage system. This followed a similar exercise in which, the previous year, they had consolidated the city’s gas supply, purchasing the existing gas suppliers and merging them under local authority control. This was followed by an early experiment in the provision of public housing as well as the establishment of a public library and a public museum. Although sometimes dubbed ‘municipal socialism’, Chamberlain’s approach was in many ways highly paternalistic, but it does supply a prominent example of the the ways in which public policies were pioneered at a local level in Britain, with similar, if less well-known examples to be found in many other cities – to which many inscriptions on public buildings and statues in public parks still bear testimony.

The cholera epidemics did not just inspire local initiatives in the provision of infrastructure; they also stimulated new forms of social insurance. Take the case of James Gillman, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Lambeth, of whom it is written that (reminding us of some of the heroic NHS workers in our own locked down times) during the cholera epidemic

‘…for three weeks he never returned to his home for fear of carrying the contagion to his family, and during this time he slept on a sofa in the surgery of the parish doctor. His experiences led him to consider the possibility of providing a fund for stricken families on the principle of life insurance. Gillman worked out his scheme with Henry Harben, who was then the secretary of a small and struggling insurance company which was called the Prudential. The new scheme was based on the weekly payment of small sums from one penny upwards, and in 1850 Gillman became the Chairman of the new company. At his death in 1877 the weekly payments amounted to over two million pounds per annum‘.

The latter part of the 19th century was thus a laboratory in which many 20th century developments were trialled, some of which prefigured important elements in the the mid-20th century welfare state, solidified in its institutions. Here we can point not just to municipal advances in the establishment of new utilities, providing such things as gas, water, electricity, telephone networks and transport services but also health and education services. The importance of these local blueprints can be seen in the influence of radical local experiments on the NHS, which was partly inspired by the Workmen’s Medical Aid Society originally set up in 1890 to serve miners and steelworkers in Aneurin Bevan’s home town of Tredegar.

Since that 20th welfare state was founded, its public and universal character has been chipped away at by over four decades of neoliberal policies that have handed more and more of it over to private companies a a source of profit. Indeed, in the current pandemic, the conservative government hasn’t even bothered to pretend that it is following fair procedures in the awarding of contracts, brazenly ignoring tendering rules as it dishes them out to the political cronies of Johnson and Cummings. In the meanwhile, the neoliberal common sense that the most efficient way to run a country is to leave everything to the market has exploded. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that state action is an absolute necessity to keep citizens safe and manage the distribution of goods and services.

Could the government’s manifest failure to deliver these things open up an opportunity for municipalities once again to take the lead in pointing an alternative way forward?

In my book, Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies I argue that the moment has come for precisely such a development. The conditions are now ripe for local authorities to build on the commitment, engagement and creativity of their citizens and, using the new digital technologies, to start developing prefigurative experimental models of a better, more equal and more inclusive society.

Mourning the loss of the great Leo Panitch

The Left Reflects on the Global Pandemic: Leo Panitch

Still raw from the shock of the news, I feel the need to express some thoughts about the devastating loss of Leo Panitch from our midst. He was a man of unbounded generosity, integrity and principle, in his personal as well as his intellectual and political life.

A personification of Gramsci’s ‘pessismism of the intellect; optimism of the will’, he was far too clever and politically astute to imagine that the revolution was around the corner, yet unwaveringly positive in his support for socialism and solidarity with those in struggle.

He is known by some as the intellectual heir of Ralph Miliband, taking over the editorship of the Socialist Register Miliband founded, and editing it, in partnership first with Colin Leys and then with Greg Albo. He participated, from his hospital bed, in the launch of the 2021 Socialist Register by Zoom just three weeks ago (characteristically upbeat, despite the knowledge that he was seriously ill with multiple myeloma, though the COVID infection and pneumonia that were to kill him so quickly had yet to occur). But Socialist Register was only one part of his public life. Indeed he hinted that several times he tried to shed this central role as editor, which took up an large amount of his time and energy, but was so hard to replace that his sense of responsibility kept calling him back. It is indeed hard to imagine anyone else on the planet with such a vast overview. He did not just have a horizon-to-horizon knowledge of the literature but was also personally acquainted with many of the greatest political thinkers of our time. He used to boast about how rarely anyone turned down an invitation to contribute to Socialist Register, attributing that to its history as a non-sectarian source of quality analysis. In fact, I suspect, it was Leo himself they did not want to say no to. The warmth and charisma that he radiated made everyone want to be included in it. And he bore no grudges, often inviting people with whom he might have had serious disagreements on some issues to contribute their ideas if he thought these ideas deserved a hearing.

That characteristic modesty meant that he rarely worked alone. His partnerships with Colin and Greg were paralleled by another very deep intellectual and personal partnership with Sam Gindin. Both hailing from Winnipeg, they had known each other since student days and collaborated closely over many years, including co-authoring the magnum opus The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. I often tried to find the details of the extraordinary joint labour process by which this seamless partnership operated, with no visible joins between the two great brains which seemed to operate as one. I have to put it down to some miracle of chemistry. But such collaborations were not just literary. Leo also invested enormous energy in the building of institutions. First at Carleton University’s Institute of Political Economy, then at York University in Toronto, he created environments where serious political thought could thrive, bringing together leading Marxist thinkers – during periods when Marxism was demonised elsewhere – to create centres of excellence and forward thinking in political economy.

In so doing, he created safe havens where voices could be heard that were silenced in other parts of academia, where the ravages of neoliberalism were taking their toll, using the resources he could raise to sustain networks and support younger scholars. These were spaces that attracted bright young PhD students from across the world and Leo put a huge amount of his energy into supporting them personally as well as intellectually and politically, inviting them into his home as well as patiently commenting on their drafts.

He came into my life in the mid-1990s. I was visiting Toronto for other reasons and Sheila Rowbotham suggested I look him up. I was invited round for brunch, to which he had also invited others he thought I might like to meet and by the end of the day i had already agreed to write an article for Socialist Register – an article that, I afterwards realised, gave me the first chance to write in my own voice since the 1970s, giving me a new public persona. From then on, he gave me unfailing (though not always uncritical) support and I felt sustained and honoured to be part of his life.

In 2015, I happened to be in Toronto at the time of his 70th birthday party. It was an amazing gathering, bringing together family and friends from many parts of his life. Everybody I spoke to seemed to bring a different perspective on Leo but all were loving. At one point, much to my surprise and embarrassment, I was asked by Leo’s friend and colleague from Ottawa days, Donald Swartz, to propose the toast. I am often quite good at improvising such things but this time I made a complete hash of it. I was so angry with myself that I spent the next two or three days writing in my head the speech I should have made. I had arrived arrived fresh from a conference (organised by the UDC) in which many earnest young radical scholars had been discussing the future of work, and of socialism, and what I wish I had said was that in leaving the conference and arriving in the Panitch home I had moved from the abstract discussion of it to the reality of how socialism should be lived. That, in the company of so many people who had known Leo so much better than I did and for so much longer it felt very presumptuous to speak at all. But it was nevertheless a great privilege to be there, embraced in the welcome of the Panitches (including Leo’s wise, brilliant, generous wife Melanie, his wonderful children, Vida and Maxim and grandchildren) in a place where there was not only a generous, unstinting sharing of ideas, but also of love. And much more. Today I do not have adequate words.

How he will be missed.

Seasonal greetings from locked-down Dalston

Another December day dawns, with one part of the population shut up in our homes viewing the world through uncleaned windows or via screens, while another part works out there on the street, risking their lives to save ours and keep essential services going.
Here’s hoping 2021 will bring better things to you all, whichever group you currently belong in.

Who is the corporate person? a psychopath!

We are habituated to companies presenting themselves as people. Organisations such as churches, colleges and municipalities have had the legal status of personhood for centuries – in Europe going back to the days of the Roman empire and in India, where the shreni (associations of merchants and artisans) had such a status, right back to 800 BC. When companies began to be formed, they also acquired the status of being ‘legal persons’ and, in the USA, this was cemented in 2010 by a Supreme Court ruling that even allowed corporations to make political contributions as if they were private citizens.

Outside the courts, in everyday life, we have become increasingly used to being addressed by companies as if they were people. Pret a Manger have been informing us since the 1980s that they are ‘passionate about food’ while Odeon cinemas have been telling us for almost as long that they are ‘fanatical about film’. And we are constantly reproached with guilt-tripping messages about how sorry corporations are that we have chosen to leave them if we terminate a contract, or reminded that ‘it’s a while since we heard from you’ if we have neglected to visit a website. Corporate mission statements are infused with affect – telling us how much the brand-holders care – about our children, animals, the future of the planet or whatever cause they think will tug at our heart-strings. It can be hard, sometimes, to remember that they are not flesh-and-blood entities with eyes that weep and skin that responds to touch.

So let us for a moment suppose that corporations really are people. If so, what sort of people might they be? The answer is actually very creepy; on close examination they turn out to exhibit many of the most toxic pathologies to be found in the 21st century lexicon of personality disorders. Here are a few.


A medical website defines people with Narcissistic personality disorder as having ‘an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of extreme confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.’

This is a pretty accurate description of the typical corporation with its obsession with brand image. Staff are not only issued with minutely detailed instructions on how to present it (or themselves, as its representatives) but it may even be a disciplinary offence to voice any scepticism about its boasts. Such rules also extend to anyone receiving sponsorship, such as athletes, students on scholarships or organisers of cultural events. Press releases trumpet its virtues and lawyers are kept on standby so that critics may be sued if any grounds can be found for doing so. There is a need to be forever in the limelight, with logos and corporate slogans always on show. The more branding, the better. (If you still haven’t got the idea, think of the White House under Trump.)

Coercive control

Here’s a definition of coercive control, from another medical website ‘Coercive control is a strategic form of ongoing oppression and terrorism used to instil fear. The abuser will use tactics, such as limiting access to money or monitoring all communication, as a controlling effort.’ As Women’s Aid explains, ‘This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Sound familiar? Many taken-for-granted management practices follow very similar patterns. Workers are given targets to meet and minutely monitored to make sure that they meet them. Detailed procedures are prescribed, to be followed to the letter. Budgets are laid down with penalties for overspending or deviating from them. Communications may be monitored and movements tracked. Warnings are issued if these commands are not followed precisely, with an escalating scale of warnings, leading to the ultimate sanction of losing the job altogether or being dropped from the online platform. Seeking support from a trade union may be punished savagely.

These forms of control, often administered via online digital interfaces, to which there can be no answering back, are not just applied to workers but also to customers where the corporation has established an ongoing relationship of dependence. Some of the most extreme forms of terror are inflicted on customers who owe money (or are accused of doing so) with the threat (or actual use) of physical force by bailiffs to seize their property. But many organisations, including landlords and suppliers of energy, broadband services, phone contracts, insurance, maintenance contracts on malfunctioning appliances, also routinely generate enormous amounts of misery as they force their customers to spend hours of their time following convoluted procedures and proving that they have met obscure legal requirements in order to access their rights.

Corporate relationships with such clients often follow a pattern that is well-known in abusive relationships, whereby an initial period of ‘love-bombing’ with seductive promises is followed by the creeping introduction of ever-more controlling behaviours.


Closely related to coercive control, bullying can involve a single person being directly targetted by a corporate person or, more insidiously, the encouragement of a culture in the organisation that allows for the spread of collective forms of bullying, especially of vulnerable groups or individuals. There is now such a large literature on bullying and harassment at work that I won’t discuss it further here, other than to point out that the corporate person does not just bully its workers but may also bully people outside the organisation, including competitors (especially small organisations, from whom it might have stolen ideas) and critics, such as journalists or NGOs who point out its imperfections in public or – in the case of large global corporations – even governments who try to stand up to their worst excesses, for instance by trying to extract taxes, protect indigenous industries or minimise environmental damage.


As wikipedia succinctly puts it ‘Stalking is unwanted and/or repeated surveillance by an individual or group toward another person’ and, in this digital age, probably represents the most definitive feature of contemporary corporate behaviour. To paraphrase Churchill, they stalk us on the beaches, they stalk us on the landing grounds, they stalk us in the fields and in the streets, they stalk us in the hills; they never surrender. Tracking our every movement online or offline and incorporating the resulting information into every more precise means to monitor us, control us and target us with their commodities, they are omnipresent.

I could go on. Check out ‘borderline personality disorder’, for example, or ‘obsessive compulsive disorder’. But I hope I have said enough to give you the general picture.

A psychopath

Put all these things together and you have what starts to look very much like the condition, described by wikipedia in these words: ‘Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is traditionally a personality disorder characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits’.

In short, the corporate person is a very nasty one – not somebody you want to share your life with in any intimate way. What part is played, I wonder, by enforced subjection to these abusive and controlling relationships with corporate ‘persons’ in the creation and reinforcement of the epidemic of depression that seems to have swept the world? And to what extent has it generated such behaviours in the population? Abusive parents, we are told by scientists, produce abusive children. And there do seem to be an awful lot of abusive people around these days. Just look at the statistics on femicide, child abuse and racial harassment, to name but a few.

But, as any therapist can tell you, it is the recognition that one is in a relationship with someone with a personality disorder that constitutes the first step to escaping it. Get the self-help books out, comrades! And remember the importance of solidarity.

Hospital transport – a problem in search of a solution?

Today’s announcement that the UK government is planning a massive hike in parking fees for NHS staff who travel to work by car draws attention to a lack of joined-up thinking in public policy – one example among many of a situation that represents the intersection of several different public problems that, when addressed separately, generate new dysfunctionalities with the solution to one problem adding to another.

In my latest book Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies, I argue that if people are brought together at a local level to discuss such problems, new and creative solutions can be found, where necessary using digital platform technologies to develop new kinds of public service that meet environmental and social goals in innovative ways.

Transport to and from hospitals provides a good example of just such a multifaceted situation – perhaps best conceived as a set of overlapping problems – to which publicly managed platforms might provide a solution.

Here are some of the problems:

  • NHS workers need to get to and from their work safely at all hours of the day and night
  • Hospital parking is at a premium and must be controlled carefully to ensure that emergency vehicles are not blocked
  • Ambulance services are expensive to run and there is a need for transport for patients who are not in a critical condition to attend outpatient appointments or taken home on discharge
  • There is also a need for family members, friends and support workers to be able to visit patients, often staying with them for unpredictable hours (for example if they are terminally ill, about to give birth or undergoing a mental health crisis)
  • Many hospitals are some distance away from the nearest major public transport hub
  • Taxi services are unaffordable for many patients and their families and friends
  • Taxi drivers have precarious working conditions and are rarely provided with adequate drop-off, waiting and pick-up arrangements at hospitals, let alone facilities (such as toilets) to use while they are waiting

Here are some of the policy challenges:

  • Maximise use of public transport; minimise use of private cars (for environmental and other reasons)
  • Optimise use of ambulance services
  • Maximise benefits for NHS staff including safe and affordable travel to work
  • Maximise benefits for NHS patients and their families and carers
  • Avoid wasteful use of NHS land
  • Improve working conditions for precarious workers

How about this for a possible solution?

Develop a public, Uber-style, platform for the provision of hospital transport services, using a range of different types of vehicle (suitably adapted for people with disabilities and using fuel from renewable sources), managed by a consortium including representatives from the health authority, the ambulance service, the local public transport provider, the local authority care service, patient representatives and representatives of trade unions.

Drivers could be offered flexible shift patterns to fit their personal circumstances but would receive the basic rights of employees (such as sick pay, holiday pay, minimum wage, pension contributions and the right to trade union representation). They would also be provided with suitable training including, perhaps, the possibility of career development, for example into becoming a paramedic.

Any profits from the platform would be used to improve the quality of its services.

This platform would provide a range of transport services including:

  • 24-hour shuttle services to and from the hospital and the nearest public transport hubs
  • emergency transport to hospital for non-critically-ill patients (referred by GPs or NHS 111)
  • transport to and from outpatients appointments (perhaps provided on a sliding scale of payment – eg people entitled to free prescriptions would be entitled to free transport; others might pay subsidised rates)
  • transport to and from work for NHS staff (perhaps with subsidised rates)
  • transport to and from work for hospital visitors (perhaps with subsidised rates for designated carers)

If the platform were efficient enough, well-enough integrated with local public transport, and its services sufficiently well priced, it could become the normal way for everybody in the area to get to and from hospital. A fleet of suitably adapted ‘green’ vehicles would be available round the clock, discouraging people from using private transport, freeing up hospital land, providing decent employment for drivers and generally making the whole process of attending or visiting a hospital more pleasant and affordable.

In short, it would provide a new kind of 21st century public service.